Pennsylvania'™s 2007 Turkey Forecast

Pennsylvania'™s 2007 Turkey Forecast

Keystone State biologists are predicting another banner year for early-season turkey hunters. Here's the lowdown on what to expect as the 2007 spring season unfolds. (May 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

According to Pennsylvania Game Commission calculations, Keystone State hunters took 32,593 gobblers during the 2005 spring season. Preliminary data indicates a harvest of about 44,100 gobblers last spring, a 35-percent increase. But fall turkey harvests fell -- from 31,100 in 2003 to 25,171 in 2005.

The PGC did not conduct a 2004 game-take survey. But those 2005 harvest figures represented a 24-percent decline from the 2003 spring season, while the fall harvest represents a 19-percent decline.

If those harvest declines appear startling, remember that the drop followed a period of record wild turkey harvests in Pennsylvania -- the result of good management and a few years of good spring nesting conditions, followed by productive fall mast crops.

In other words, what appears to be a low 2005 spring gobbler harvest still exceeds pre-1995 totals. Ups and downs in wild turkey harvests over the past several years do not indicate a drop from good to bad -- they indicate great to merely good hunting!

Of more immediate concern, what can hunters look forward to this spring?

The answer is that it should be a basically good season. But harvests will vary between wildlife management units (WMUs). We'll get more specific later. But for now, let's understand what goes into the fortunes of spring gobbler hunting.

A CLOSER LOOK

"What we find is two years after a good hatch we have a good harvest," explained Mary Jo Casalena, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's wild turkey biologist. "Two-year-old birds are very vocal and are more likely to come in to a call."

In any given spring gobbler season, the harvest should be made up mostly of 2-year-old gobblers. The improved 2006 spring gobbler harvest was a result of good 2004 recruitment. Since then, there has not been particularly good recruitment in general.

Across the commonwealth, last year's recruitment was generally less than that of the best years, though later anecdotal observations indicated that estimates could have been low.

Does this mean that hunters should be discouraged, coming into this spring gobbler season?

Not at all! Just because we should not anticipate a record harvest doesn't mean we can expect poor hunting. It does mean, however, that for the best chances of success, you should spend more time seeking out the better areas.

And that means starting with an understanding of Pennsylvania's wild turkey management, which is currently undergoing a transformation.

For the past several years, the 1999 Wild Turkey Management Plan has guided management decisions. This plan has annually assessed population trends, using harvest and summer sightings. A 30-month radio telemetry study in Wildlife Management Unit 5A was used to assess the reasons for low population levels and to develop management strategies to restore the turkey population.

Also, several habitat management demonstration areas were established on state game lands.

How successful was the plan?

"Since the 1999 plan, we have had a record turkey population in Pennsylvania. So I guess we did very well," said Casalena.

During the peak years, Pennsylvania's turkey population was estimated to be well over 400,000 birds. By last year, however -- and following several years with cold, rainy springs and some harsh winters -- the population had dropped to about 270,000 birds.

"Those were the worst conditions for turkeys," Casalena said.

"Harsh winters leave them in very poor condition. If they lose that first clutch, they often don't have the energy to re-nest."

Weather conditions are beyond any manager's control. Such fluctuations are unavoidable, and the plan certainly should not be faulted.

The PGC's substantial accomplishments would not have been possible without partnerships led by the National Wild Turkey Federation along with other conservation organizations, local sportsmen's clubs and government agencies.

Thousands of acres of wild turkey habitat have been maintained and created. The NWTF funded a regional biologist who has worked closely with the Game Commission on research and management on both public lands and private lands.

Since the 1999 plan, there has been a shift in wild turkey-hunting patterns from more fall gobbler hunters to more spring hunters. In 1996, there were 250,377 fall hunters and 241,613 spring hunters. In 2005 there were 203,982 fall hunters and 247,304 spring hunters. From start to finish of this period, the fall wild turkey harvest declined by about 30 percent, compared to the 19-percent drop in the number of hunters, while the spring gobbler harvest was nearly equal, down by just 3 percent.

One major change during the 1999 plan was a shift from managing turkeys using special turkey management areas to using WMUs.

"We're now managing turkeys on a smaller scale," Casalena pointed out.

A new plan will make management goals through 2015 similar to the previous plan. The idea is to achieve optimum wild turkey populations in all available habitat, using strategies that take advantage of what has been learned to date.

Pennsylvania hunters can take pride in the Game Commission's "adaptive resource management plan," as Casalena refers to it. This pro-active management plan has made the commonwealth one of the top destinations for wild turkey hunters across the country. It is doubtful that any state offers better turkey hunting opportunities available to so many hunters -- and some of our best opportunities exist on public land!

There are few major changes in the plan, except that this will be a 10-year plan, whereas the previous one was a five-year plan.

"The previous plan was too aggressive. We couldn't accomplish all its objectives," Casalena admitted.

One change is the use of dogs for fall turkey hunting, which is a common practice in other states.

"I also added a section on the initial comments concerning our turkey management plan," Casalena said.

The most common objection was to the second spring gobbler tag. Casalena anticipates less opposition to the second tag because only 3 percent of the 2006 spring gobbler harvest was from second tags.

Also, questions were frequently asked about spring season dates.

"People are constantly asking us to open the season earlier," Casalena said. "But in Pennsylvania, the season is timed to open after the majority of the breeding has occurred. This is very important in a state with 240,000 spring gobbler hunters."

The timing also makes it less likely that hunters will take hens, mistaking them for gobblers.

"We always remind hunters that we err on the side of the resource, rather than the hunters. There are still plenty of opportunities for hunting."

Hunters ask for earlier dates largely because many of them get out before the season to scout. And while scouting, they do a lot of calling.

Although this does help them locate birds, calling early may be the worst thing they can do.

"Studies have shown that the pressure of calling actually suppresses gobbling. So, you'll always have a dropoff in gobbler response after hunting," Casalena said.

The new plan has the same primary goal: to provide optimum wild turkey numbers in suitable habitats throughout the commonwealth. This will be achieved by completing strategies under six objectives, including population management to sustain healthy wild turkey populations in each WMU at or below social carrying capacity; to optimize life requirements in, and minimize loss of, wild turkey habitat on state game lands and throughout the state; to assess and improve the public knowledge, awareness and understanding of the wild turkey resource and its management; to promote and improve the knowledge, safety, and participation of wild turkey hunters; to improve hunter compliance with laws and regulations regarding wild turkey management; and to maintain and enhance partnerships in all aspects of turkey management.

Pennsylvania is currently cooperating with New York and Ohio on a gobbler-banding study to look into harvest and survival rates. This will run through 2009. Hunters are encouraged to report harvested birds carrying leg bands using a toll-free number marked on the bands.

"After this study is over, I'd like to conduct a hen harvest-rate study," Casalena said.

Wild turkey management includes a close look into harvest rates compared with sighting indices. According to Casalena, present information indicates that turkey hunting looks promising throughout the state for spring 2007 -- and should be as good if not better than 2006, which was an excellent season.

The spring 2006 gobbler harvest density was the fourth-best on record, following 2001, 2000 and 2003, respectively. The 2004 and 2005 harvests dipped below recent averages, due to succeeding years with poor recruitment and poor wintering conditions.

A good mast crop in fall 2005 followed by a mild winter helped the population rebound last spring. Turkey sighting surveys conducted by wildlife conservation officers indicated that recruitment last spring improved over the previous three-year average, although it was still below the record highs recorded from 2000 through 2002.

"However," Casalena added, "with the more restrictive fall seasons the Game Commission has enacted over the past several years, coupled with abundant fall-winter food supplies and easy winters, the turkey population should continue to rebound to previous levels."

Harvest rates in the WMUs varied, from a high of 1.54 birds per square mile in WMU 4E to a low of 0.07 birds per square mile in WMU 5D.

WHERE TO FIND THEM

The best wild turkey hunting in Pennsylvania is generally regarded to be in the western counties between Pittsburgh and Erie, consisting of WMUs 1A, 1B and 2D. This is mostly in the Northwest Region. Harvest rates in each unit last spring were 1.23, 1.43 and 1.30, respectively.

Certainly there is an excellent wild turkey population in this area. But also contributing to the hunter success rate is the nature of the habitat -- a patchwork of farmland, overgrown farmland and woodlots. This is ideal wild turkey habitat and perfect for hunting.

The outlook for WMU 1A is "very good," with good numbers of jakes and 3-year-old birds. For WMU 1B, the outlook is "excellent" compared to the rest of the commonwealth.

Hunting pressure on public lands tends to be moderate to heavy. State Game Lands No. 101, which straddles the Erie County-Crawford County border southwest from Albion, is a good place to start scouting.

This region offers vivid contrasts in habitat. To the east in the Allegheny highlands, WMU 2F's harvest rate is below the state average. But this is partly due to more difficult hunting conditions in the big woods. Some hunters prefer its relative solitude.

Allegheny National Forest, which covers most of southeastern Warren County and a large share of Forest County, provides more of this type of opportunity.

For more information about the region, contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Northwest Region office, P.O. Box 31, Franklin PA 16323. Or call (814) 432-3188.

Hunters can anticipate that the best opportunities for spring gobblers in the Southwest Region will be in WMU 2D. About half of this unit lies in the Southwest Region. The outlook here is above average for the commonwealth, but below average for this unit. The harvest is expected to be similar to last year. Heavy hunting pressure can be anticipated.

State Game Lands No. 105, which is on the northern border of Armstrong County near East Brady, is one of the few public lands here.

For a more relaxed hunt, try Ohiopyle State Park and adjoining State Game Lands No. 51 and State Game Lands No. 111 in Fayette and Somerset counties. This is in WMU 2C, which has a good stock of jakes and 2-year-old birds, plus an increasing wild turkey population thanks to reduced fall seasons.

For more information on this region, contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Southwest Region office, P.O. Box A, Ligonier, PA 15658. Or call (724) 238-9523.

The North-central Region is known primarily as "the big woods," which lies largely in WMU 2G. The outlook in this unit is "fair," with an increasing population but indices still below state averages. Better hunting may be found to the north in WMU 3A, which has an "excellent" outlook for jakes and 2-year-old birds.

Adjoining state game lands Nos. 64 and 208, which straddle the Potter County/Tioga County border just north of U.S. Route 6, provide excellent access to this unit.

For more information on this region, contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission's North-central Region office, 1566 State Route 44 Highway, P.O. Box 5038, Jersey Shore, PA 17740-5038. Or call (570) 398-4744.

The most disappointing turkey hunting has been in the South-central Region -- specifically in WMU 5A including Micheaux State Forest, where researchers are still studying the problem.

Hunters in this region might do well to consider WMU 4A, which has a "very good to excellent" outlook for 2- and 3-year-old birds. One interesting option here is a boat-access hunt around Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County, where gobbles can be heard reverberating across the bays.

Most of the public land in this region lies along the rugged ridges, with birds trading back and forth from farmlands between the ridges.

State Game Lands No. 49 straddles the border between Bedford and Fulton counties and joins with state forestland to the north west of I-79.

For more information about this region, contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission's South-central Region office, P.O. Box 537, Huntingdon, PA 16652. Or phone (814) 643-1831.

In the Northeast Region, the outlook is "excellent" for jakes and 2-year-old birds at WMU 3C. One of the largest public tracts in this unit is State Game Lands No. 219 along the New York border in northeastern Bradford County north of Warren Center. Two smaller tracts make up State Game Lands No. 140 to the east, across the Susquehanna County border along state Route 858.

The outlook is "excellent" for jakes and 2-year-old birds at WMU 4E. State Game Lands No. 226 is more removed from the major population centers of the region. It is in eastern Columbia County northeast from White Hall.

Information about the region may be acquired through the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Northeast Region office, P.O. Box 220, Dallas, PA 18612-0220. Or call (570) 675-1143.

Spring gobbler harvest rates in the Southeast Region have the greatest diversity in the commonwealth, including the greatest and the poorest.

Clearly the place to hunt is in WMU 4C, where the harvest rate of 1.53 birds per square miles leads all units. The outlook for 2007 is "excellent," even though the summer sighting index trend is below the state average.

Most of the public land here is along the mountain ridges, with valleys dominated by farmland and residential areas. A series of connecting state game lands and state forest tracts along the borders of Lebanon, Berks, Lehigh and Schuylkill counties provide plenty of public access. Hunters should also consider state game lands Nos. 80, 110 and 106.

For more information, contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Southeast Region office, 448 Snyder Road, Reading, PA 19605-9254. Or call (610) 926-3136.

Maps of most state game lands are available on the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Web site.

For more information about spring gobbler hunting, contact the PGC, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg PA 17110-9797. Call (717) 787-4250, or visit the agency's Web site at PGC.State.PA.US.

For travel information in the Keystone State, contact the Pennsylvania Office of Tourism, Room 404, Forum Bldg., Harrisburg, PA 17120. Call (717) 232-8880 or 1-800-VISIT-PA.

Find more about Pennsylvania fishing and hunting at: PAgameandfish.com

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