G&F Forecast: Pennsylvania Turkey Hunting in 2013
February 20, 2013
Pennsylvania turkey numbers have been up and down over the past several years, but during no recent year has the turkey population dropped to a level that would be called any less than good on a statewide basis. Localized turkey populations may be another matter, however, with some places being low and some high. Such variation leaves hunters with the final determination on where they may find the best hunting in their region.
"The population is generally a little bit lower than it has been. It's definitely decreased from the astronomical highs in the early 2000s," said Mary Jo Casalena, lead turkey biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. "But I think what has happened, it's generally stabilized since we finished the restoration."
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Casalena was quick to add that this is in comparison with years when the turkey population was very high following several years of generally increasing numbers.
"So the population has pretty much stabilized now. The population is doing well through the state," She said.
The Game Commission has been adjusting fall turkey hunting seasons as a means of controlling the population by wildlife management units on the assumption that the fall seasons when hens are harvested probably have a greater influence on the population than spring gobbler hunts. But there is concern about how this actually works.
"We're not really sure how much the fall harvest affects the population. We want to increase the total population again a little bit, but we're not really sure if that level that we had earlier was an artificial level," Casalena said.
Quite often when wildlife populations are increased to fill the available habitat the population will reach a high point, then drop before stabilizing. This may be the case with turkeys.
"So when you ask me 'How's the turkey population?' (I say) it's doing very well. Could it get better? We're not sure. It's kind of stable right now, but we're seeing productivity decline. Summer reproduction has been declining for the past few years," Casalena said.
It has been assumed that wet, cold springs have a bad effect on the success of nesting seasons. However, since turkeys will have another brood if one is lost, just how much spring weather influences annual recruitment is not precisely understood.
It may simply be that there are enough turkeys for the habitat.
"There are questions I don't have answers to," Casalena said.
Looking at the various regions in Pennsylvania, information including summer sightings and nesting surveys are very good indications of how many gobblers we can expect to see this spring. In general, the information we look for is relative numbers of jakes, 2-1/2 year-old gobblers and 3-1/2 year-old gobblers.
Most spring gobbler hunters are not very interested in jakes; however these young birds are quite easy to call in so it can be exciting hunting. Most of the harvest by serious spring gobbler hunters will be 2-1/2 year-old gobblers. These birds are adults, but young enough that they cooperate reasonably well with attempts by hunters to call them. Once gobblers get to be 3-1/2 years-old, calling them in can be very difficult. Even if they are fairly abundant, hunting may be perceived to be poor.
Casalena said that in the northeast the turkey population has generally been declining, but it is still very good. WMU 3D has a lot of public land, but sightings have been down lately.
"The last two years the sightings have decreased dramatically," Casalena said. "There are still a lot of 3-1/2 year-olds out there, but your chances of calling a smart, old, wise 3-year-old are not as high as dumb 2-year-olds."
In the Southeast Region, Casalena called prospects good for WMU 5B. The fall season was closed for WMU 5C because the turkey population had been declining. Now that trend has reversed somewhat.
"Up in the mountains there are pockets of good turkey habitat, and good turkey density," Casalena suggested. "But (WMU) 5C has a lot of fragmented habitat. In 5C the population is still lower than average."
The turkey population is now increasing in WMU 5B.
"In 2012 we had a higher than average density for the first time in a while, so prospects are pretty good in 5B."
In WMU 2F, which includes parts of the Northwest Region and the Northcentral Region, turkey sightings were up last summer.
"I got a report from the ANF (Allegheny National Forest) — their brood survey this past summer was just fantastic. But other parts of Wildlife Management Unit 2F weren't as high, the brood surveys weren't as good," Casalena said.
The ANF makes up the lion's share of WMU 2F.
"Potter County is like a honey hole. There's a bird behind every tree up there practically. That whole northern section, north of Route 6, management unit 3A '‘'‘ there's a very high density of turkeys up there," Casalena said.
Both WMU 3A and WMU 3C have exceptionally high numbers of turkeys even though sightings have dropped the past couple of years. But with lower numbers of jakes and 2-1/2 year-old gobblers, Casalena said she does not expect as much gobbling as in previous years.
In the lower part of the Northcentral Region, in Centre County, there is a lot of public land for turkey hunters to roam freely. Here, there are not good numbers of 2 1/2-year-old gobblers, a below average population. There are many jakes, though, if hunters are willing to shoot these young birds. And, of course, the jakes that survive will be 2 1/2 year olds the following spring.
"In the Southcentral, in 4A, we had really good production three years in a row, 2007, 2008 and 2009, but then the last two years in a row, 2011 and 2012, we've seen a drop in production. There still are a lot of birds in 4A, but I don't expect the harvest to be as massive as it was," Casalena said.
Just east in WMU 4B, sightings were low while 4A sightings were high, but now sightings are up in 4B. A higher than average spring harvest is anticipated, with plenty of jakes and 2 1/2-year-old gobblers in the population.
In the Southwest Region, prospects for this spring are strong in WMU 2A. Sightings were down a little last summer, but the previous summer they were good. That should mean a good population of 2 1/2-year-old gobblers. Turkeys in this age bracket provide the majority of the annual spring gobbler harvests.
"Sightings went down a little bit this year, but overall that population is doing well," Casalena said. "Somerset County and Westmoreland County, that population has been kind of low lately, but the last few years the sightings have been increasing. So I expect a real good harvest."
The Northwest Region, notably WMU 1A and WMU 1B, had the best turkey hunting in the state for a few years, but things have been changing, and not for the better.
"We've seen a declining trend in the summer sightings there in the last two years, in 2011 and 2012, so the prospects for 2-year-old birds are pretty low there. If hunters are willing to try for a 3-year-old bird, there's a good proportion of them," Casalena said.
This means good prospects for serious spring gobbler hunters who are interested in trophy gobblers, maybe even something for the record list. But calling in 3 1/2-year-old gobblers is very difficult. It requires considerable skill, perseverance and patience. And some luck.
Regardless of predictions for regions and wildlife management units, on the more local level there are pockets with high turkey densities and pockets with low turkey densities.
"People just have to scout and they have to figure out where the pockets are with high density birds," Casalena noted.
Casalena, who is a serious turkey hunter, has the advantage of her own experience plus research and opportunities to talk with numerous other turkey hunters as well.
"Keep in mind we have the all-day season the second half of the season. That's additional opportunity. This will only be the third year (for all-day hunting). There's been participation. I've found that just looking at the time of kill, the percentage of the harvest for the afternoon really increases quite a bit after 4 o'clock, after five, like 5 to 7 o'clock we see the highest harvest. So people might as well go home, take a nap after 12:30, and then come out in the late afternoon," Casalena suggested.
There are a lot of banded turkeys and some bearded hens with transmitters attached. Harvesting these turkeys is perfectly legal. Hunters can help Game Commission research, and thus help themselves, by reporting any of these birds that are harvested to the phone number on the band or transmitter, and be ready with the number that's listed on the band.
In 2011 there was increased incidences reported of turkeys with avian pox, which may be mistaken for 'black head'. It was down last year. This pox virus is transmitted by the bite of some mosquitoes, hence lower incidences in 2012 which was generally a very dry summer.
"Last year was an exceptionally wet year. We had that hurricane in the fall and we had a pretty wet summer last year, not 2012, 2011, and the pox virus is transmitted by the bite of a mosquito. So obviously when you have higher populations of mosquitos you have higher transmission rates of avian pox," Casalena said.
Further information about wild turkeys and Pennsylvania turkey hunting in 2013 is available from the Pennsylvania Game Commission.