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Examining the slow death of fall turkey season

West Virginia's fall turkey-hunting season is dying a slow death.

For the past several years, hunters have struggled to kill more than 1,000 birds during the season, which ranges in length from one week in some counties to four weeks in others.

Last fall, hunters bagged 1,172 toms and hens - 4 percent more than in 2010, and only slightly below the past six years' average.

Many of you readers remember the halcyon days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when autumn kills in the 15 so-called "traditional" turkey counties routinely totaled three times as many birds as they do today. And if you do remember, chances are you wonder what the heck happened.

Wildlife-related issues are seldom easy to explain, but I'm going to give it a try. Keep in mind that these are merely my opinions, but they're based on scores of conversations with wildlife officials, field biologists and hunters:

In the late '80s and early '90s, fall turkey hunting was restricted to the traditional counties, and most of those are located in or adjacent to the Monongahela and George Washington national forests. Timber cutting was much more common on national forest land back then.

Logging creates clearings in the forest, and clearings contain the "edge habitat" biologists consider vital for turkey reproduction and growth.

As logging declined and timbered areas grew back, the amount of edge habitat diminished. Turkey populations in many of those areas declined, or at best remained static. Those areas form the nucleus of today's fall-season counties.

Habitat loss was only one factor in the fall season's decline. Other factors involved changes in turkey hunters themselves.

Up until 1965, all turkey hunting in West Virginia was done in the fall. That year, the state held its first spring season. Hunters loved it. Birds were easier to locate and gobblers were easier to call within shooting range. By 1983, the spring kill outstripped the fall kill.

Back then, hunters could take one gobbler in the spring and one turkey of either sex in the fall. Hunters eventually persuaded regulators to allow a two-bird spring limit. Interest in the fall season diminished still more.

While all this was happening, fewer West Virginians were learning the woodcraft necessary to hunt turkeys during the fall. Curtis Taylor, the DNR's wildlife chief, often laments that few of today's hunters can read mast conditions and predict where flocks of turkeys might congregate during the fall season.

"In our generation, most hunters spent their formative years pursuing small game. They learned to identify trees, and they learned how forest conditions affect wildlife movements," Taylor said. "Those are important lessons. Today's hunters don't bother to learn woodcraft. They watch a video or two and think they're turkey hunters."

The most important factor of all, however, doesn't involve turkeys at all. It involves deer.

Bowhunting for whitetails became wildly popular in West Virginia during the mid 1980s. It's just as popular today as it was back then.

Bowhunters quickly learned that the best time to hunt for trophy bucks is during the weeks that lead up to the "rut," or deer mating season. Pre-rut activity begins in late October and increases through mid-November.

Those weeks precisely overlap the fall turkey season.

Hunters who, back in the day, might have spent those weeks scouting for turkey flocks are instead sitting in tree stands and waiting for trophy bucks.

Bowhunting's rise has made fall turkey season an anachronism. It still has a pulse, but sadly that pulse is weak - and not likely to get stronger.


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