A Guide To Gobblers

A Guide To Gobblers

Here's a look at what's in store for Pennsylvania turkey hunters this spring. (May 2010)

Wild turkeys are big birds that require plenty of forage and the proper habitat to thrive. For several years, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has been acquiring public lands for habitat improvement and working with private landowners on creating better turkey habitat.

A gobbler's home range can cover more than 2,000 acres and must include good nesting habitat, open fields (which provide cover and small insects for hungry poults), a reliable winter food source and stands of mature trees that provide safe roosting sites as well as hard mast that these big birds rely on.

Not many landowners possess 2,000 or more acres, but any landowner can provide some pieces of the wild turkey habitat puzzle. Options include planting more seed trees or fruiting shrubs, or mow a couple of fields. Or, provide late summer, fall and winter food sources to help the birds survive the winter, which should mean a better spring wild turkey hunting season.

2009 RECAP

"We had a cold, wet spring in 2009 and some of that weather hit right in the peak of the hatch," said Mary Jo Casalena, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's wild turkey biologist. "Our brood surveys indicate that, overall, numbers of broods were down. The number of hens that had broods was down, but of the hens that had young, the size of broods wasn't down too much -- three to four poults per brood. To maintain a stable population we should have a little over three poults per brood, so our overall poult-to-hen ratio for hens that had broods wasn't down too much."

Despite last spring's difficulties, Pennsylvania's turkey numbers are in a general upswing.

"We had the highest numbers of birds in 2001 and 2002, but then those numbers dropped after three consecutive years of cold, wet springs," Casalena said. "In 2007 and 2008 we had pretty good reproduction. Also, as a management strategy, the PGC backed off on our fall season."

Casalena said that lessons were learned from those leaner brooding seasons, and now wildlife managers have tightened up fall regulations to offset recent smaller broods and protect hens for next year's breeding season.

"When we have a poor reproductive year, the majority of the fall harvest is going to be adult birds that would have a higher survival rate through the winter and higher nesting success next spring," Casalena noted. "When you have a large fall harvest during a poor reproduction year you are essentially thinning out that adult age class."

The fall season length is not set until April each year, so the 2010 fall dates were not available at press time. In April, Casalena noted, biologists still have no idea what the spring brood season will bring or what the spring harvest will be so they try to be conservative about setting the fall season.

NEW STUDIES UNDERWAY

The PGC is beginning a turkey hen harvest rate and survival rate study in 2010 that should shed some light on hen mortality and survival.

"We have a fall turkey hunting season, so the way we regulate is through season length," Casalena said. "With this study, we are going to be manipulating season lengths to see how harvest rates change.

"Our ultimate goal is to determine the importance of season length and how it affects harvest rates. We have 22 wildlife management units and 20 of them are open to fall turkey hunting," Casalena continued. "We've been under the assumption that changing the fall season length has been important for increasing or decreasing survival rates, but we've never tested it. The hen harvest rate is the most important because they are the ones that are going to be raising young the next year. The literature says we can sustain a total 10 percent fall harvest rate without impacting numbers, so it will be something below that for hens.

"Females typically make up more of the fall harvest than males," Casalena continued. "During fall, young of the year birds are indistinguishable for a lot of hunters. It's difficult to tell a young jake from a young jenny in the fall. Another problem is during fall the hens are typically together with other hens that have broods. The gobblers are off in their own bachelor flocks, and it's harder to call in a flock of gobblers than it is a flock of hens.

In fall, one strategy is to pretend you're a lost turkey. A gobbler flock doesn't care, but if there's a hen flock around, they think one of their own is missing and will come to investigate.

"I anticipate the 2010 spring harvest to be statistically the same as 2008 and 2009," she continued. "The 2009 spring harvest was very good -- about 43,700 gobblers. The 2008 spring harvest was about 42,500. We typically have had spring harvests of 30,000 to 40,000 since 1995, the first year it went above 30,000. Our previous 10-year average spring harvest was about 38,500 birds."

Casalena said the lower reproduction over spring 2009 would not be felt much by hunters this spring.

"I'm sure the majority of the harvest will be 2-year-old birds, or birds hatched in 2008," she said. "We have about 230,000 spring turkey hunters, which is a heck of a lot We're looking at between 38,000 and 42,000 birds harvested, and that's hunting only half a day.

Our season closes at noon and we don't have Sunday hunting, so we have higher hunter densities than most other states."

While southern reaches of the state remain good turkey-hunting territory, another hotspot this year will be the Northeast Region, according to Casalena.

"We increased the fall season length a little bit too quickly down in the Southwest Region," she said. "Harvest densities are still very high, in Management Unit 2A, for example. There's not as much public land, but there's a lot of coal mining property where you can get permission to hunt."

Public land is more plentiful in the northeast.

"In the Northeast Region there's plenty of land for hunters to have a great time," Casalena said. "Wildlife Management units 3A, 3B, in the our whole northeastern part of the state, has had excellent turkey reproduction. It's kind of a honey hole area for the spring gobbler hunter with plenty of habitat in that area.

"You can't really go wrong with spring turkey hunting anywhere in Pennsylvania," she continued. "The biggest problem people have is running into other hunters. If someone was coming in from out of state, I would suggest the second half of the season because hunting pressure is so much lower. The birds may be a little bi

t more aware of hunter's calls, but typically the third week of the season gobbling activity increases again, mainly due to lower pressure.

"I like being in the woods and being challenged by a gobbler better than getting bumped off a gobbler by some other hunter," Casalena noted. "I prefer having a great day talking with a gobbler with nobody else around."

One successful late-season skill is simple patience.

"Don't call too much," Casalena advised. "Play hard to get and wait the gobbler out. Ambush is another strategy. If you have seen a gobbler come into a field on specific road or woods trail, set up on that trail and try to intercept him. Try to get him as he's going out to his strutting area, because sometimes a gobbler is not going to respond to a call," the biologist noted.

NORTHEAST REGION

Kevin Wenner, wildlife management supervisor for the Northeast Region, confirmed that there is no shortage of birds in his neck of the woods.

"We did have a wet nesting season which may have affected production," Wenner said. "We seemed to have a high brood count based on brood reports, so it doesn't appear that we've really been affected."

There have been a few reports of avian pox in the region, most likely due to the wet spring and heightened mosquito activity, Wenner said. He noted that while the disease has the potential to kills a few birds, the PGC is not expecting anything catastrophic.

"Based on our trends, the 2010 spring season should be another banner year for turkey hunters," he said. Wenner predicted that the fall 2009 harvest would have a minimal impact on this spring's potential.

"We have a lot of hunters in the Northeast Region that hunt fall birds with rifles. A lot will settle for either sex," he said. "I would assume only the most serious fall turkey hunters are gobbler specific.

"Spring hunting is just for bearded birds. We are going into our third year with a two-bird limit. Hunters can apply for a second permit. That has boosted our harvest numbers but still isn't creating a negative trend."

Wenner said his region offers tremendous opportunities on numerous state game lands and state forestlands open to the public.

"A big one is State Game Lands No. 57 in Wyoming and Luzerne counties," he said. "There's also SGL 219 in Bradford County and SGL 289; SGLs 70 and 140 in Susquehanna County and SGL 180 in Pike County.

"There are also plentiful hunting opportunities on private lands with landowner permission. Habitat is fairly diverse with some big woods areas interspersed with agriculture."

State Game Lands No. 57 in Noxen offers wild turkey hunters 44,493 acres of prime gobbler habitat. Access is off state Highway 29.

Check DeLorme's Pennsylvania Atlas and Gazetteer, Map 52 for area details.SGL 219 in Warren Center spans 5,619 acres. Access is off Warren Center Road. Check DeLorme's PAG, Map 38.

SGL No. 289 in Burlington offers an additional 1,547 acres in Bradford County. Access is off U.S. Route 6. Check DeLorme's PAG, Map 37, for details.

In Susquehanna County, hunters can head for the 6,363-acre SGL No. 70 in Stevens Point or the 1,244-acre SGL No. 140 in Friendsville.

Access to SGL No. 70 is off state Highway 171. Access to SGL No. 140 is off state Highway 858.

Check DeLorme's PAG, maps 39 and 38. SGL No.180 in Greeley offers hunters a whopping 11,372 acres of turkey hunting grounds. Access is off state Highway 434. Check DeLorme's PAG, Map 54, for area details.

SOUTHEAST REGION

John Morgan, wildlife management supervisor in the Southeast Region, said there is no reason to believe that there won't be an excellent harvest this year.

"In the Southeast Region our better WMUs for turkey hunting are along Blue Mountain and the more northern ridges in Schuylkill and Dauphin counties," Morgan said. "One land manager I heard from mentioned that he has done a considerable amount of turkey work on SGL No. 326 near Frackville. They've created some openings and the NWTF has been planting and liming them. I know we've done the same on SGLs No. 217 and No. 168 in Lehigh and Northampton counties."

SGL No. 326 in Schuylkill County can be accessed off state Highway 61 just southeast of Frackville.

Public lands in the vicinity of Blue Mountain include SGLs No. 106, 110 and 286. Check DeLorme's PAG, Map 66 for area details and access information on any of these areas.SGL No. 217 spans 6,173 acres in Slatedale. Access is off state Highway 248.

Check DeLorme's PAG, map 67 for area details.

SGL No. 168 in Katellen offers hunters 5,644 acres of wild turkey habitat to explore.

Access is off state Highway 512. Check DeLorme's PAG, map 68.

The 2010 Pennsylvania Youth Hunt is scheduled for April 24. The regular spring season runs from May 1-31.

For details on Pennsylvania's wildlife management units, state game lands maps and general wild turkey hunting information, visit the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Web site at www.pgc.state.pa.us.

More information may also be obtained by calling (717) 787-4250, or any of the regional numbers listed on the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Web site.

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