Thinking about the opening morning of the spring Pennsylvania turkey hunting season is the only thing keeping some hunters’ toes warm by the time that day draws near. If any day in Pennsylvania rivals the opening day of firearms deer season, or the opening day of trout season, it is the opening day of spring gobbler season. That it happens at a beautiful time of the year just adds to the pleasure.
While springtime weather is awakening our minds, many of us are wondering about the Pennsylvania wild turkey situation. It has taken extensive management with strong support from hunters to bring our turkey population to where it is today. Not so long ago, wild turkeys were an unusual sight in many parts of the state.
Now the Pennsylvania wild turkey program has matured. The birds have expanded their range, either by natural means or through the trap-and-transfer program, until now they inhabit virtually all suitable habitat. The population reached a peak. Soon after the peak, it has leveled off below that peak.
“We hit the plateau right around 2001, but we were still transferring birds into the southeastern part of the state up until 2003. So 2003 was pretty much the end of our trap-and-transfer,” said Mary Jo Casalena, turkey biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
“We transferred birds over in 5B, and we saw an initial increase in the population, but now the population has pretty much stabilized, and we haven’t been able to open up the fall turkey hunting for 5B. We just don’t have a dense enough population down there.”
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Having wild turkeys in all available habitat does not mean the population is spread uniformly throughout the state. Various factors combine to different areas to have differing holding capacities.
This year, Pennsylvania Game Commission field personnel from many parts of the state reported seeing numerous broods of young turkeys. Asked if that is an accurate characterization of our current turkey population, Casalena responded, “Yes. For most of the state.
“The turkey population varies substantially from year to year basically due to the hatch and to mortality. This year most of the state had real good hatches.”
Of course there were exceptions, as usual. Wildlife management units in the northeast corner of the state are not doing as well as most other places.
Turkey harvests in Pennsylvania averaged 17,419 birds in spring gobbler seasons for the three years beginning in 1990, then by the three-year period starting in 2000, the average spring harvest was 44,716 turkeys. Spring gobbler harvests began declining after the 2003 season. The three most recent spring gobbler harvests, from 2010 to 2012, averaged just 34,761 birds. This is 9,955 fewer per year than the 2000-02 period.
But this is looking at recent spring gobbler harvests in the worst way. A more accurate way to measure recent harvests is comparing recent harvests to all-time harvests. The spring gobbler harvests from 2000 through 2003, and the 2008 and 2009 are the only spring gobbler harvests to exceed 40,000 birds.
The number of spring gobbler hunters has not changed enough to notice since 1994, while since 2000 the number of spring gobblers has exceeded the number of fall turkey hunters, which has dropped nearly in half since the 1995 season.
So the number of spring gobblers harvested has been reasonably stable since 1994, and during almost the same period the number of spring gobbler hunters has been quite stable.
“For 2012 the hatch was below average,” Casalena said.
Hatches had been about the same in 2011 and 2012 .
“So I would suggest a harvest comparable to last year. The overall harvest was still good; it was still 35,000.
“Overall, the hatch was real good in most of the state. But particularly for spring turkey hunters, the hatch comes into play two years down the line, when those birds reach two years old. Two- and 3-year-old gobblers have the highest harvest rates. Basically people are hunting gobblers, they’re hunting the adult birds and letting the jakes go,” Casalena said. “So this good hatch that we had in 2013, we’ll see that (reflected in the harvest in 2015) because those birds will be mature then. So for 2014 we’re looking at last year’s hatch, which was a little below average.”
Only a few wildlife management units are expected to have poor harvests next spring. A cluster in the northeast portion of the state and stretching west into McKean County are among them.
“This year’s productivity, according to our turkey surveys, was way down. Those are management units 3A in the northern tier, 3B and 3C,” Casalena said. “Now, 3B, that population has been declining; however, that area had a good hatch.”
On the brighter side, some areas should have better spring seasons than most of the state.
“I think probably management units 2C and 2B over in the southwestern-western portions of the state, those are looking pretty good. Also Wildlife Management Unit 4G, that’s in central PA, 2G and 2E are looking pretty good. Those would be two areas that I would say are some of the best,” Casalena said.
This is a change from a few years ago when the better prospects for spring gobbler season were in the northwestern wildlife management units, which are on gently rolling agricultural land. All of these wildlife management units with the best prospects now, even WMU 2B, which includes Pittsburgh, are on rugged terrain, as is another wildlife management unit Casalena pointed out.
“People always like the northern tier, like the Allegheny National Forest, 2F, (and) we’ve been seeing an increase in the turkey population there,” Casalena said. “The hatch in 2012 was above average over there in 2F, so we should see a lot of mature birds there. There’ll be plenty of 2-year-old birds up there.”
WMU 2F is an ideal place for a low cost spring gobbler season destination. Hunting can be difficult in this forested area. You will not see many in open fields. But there are enough gobblers that any hunter with the ambition to walk along some of the ridges to locate then has a good chance of success.
Most important, there is a lot of public land open to hunting on the Allegheny National Forest, which comprises most of WMU 2F. Dispersed camping is allowed, but be sure to consult the regulations for details.
Spring gobbler hunter success rates on WMU 2F have been a modest amount above average for the past two spring hunting seasons. The WMU 2F hunter success rate in 2012 was 16.0 percent, compared to the 15.5 state average.
Hunters considering wild turkey prospects in Pennsylvania must look farther than the next spring hunting season. Ongoing research is helping to manage wild turkeys in a manner which will help to keep the population close to the ideal plateau.
We have seen substantial changes in spring gobbler hunting regulations, and in fall hunting regulations. More changes seem likely in the near future resulting from what is commonly called ‘the Hen Study’.
“The turkey population has been trending downward lately, and we’re trying to figure out where the plateau is. That’s one reason why we have this fall harvest rate study,” Casalena said.
The Hen Study, which looks into fall harvest information, is in its third year.
“That study is real important because we’re trying to figure out how fall harvests really play in the population control and population management.”
Only a very small portion of the turkeys harvested in the fall season are gobblers. The number of hens taken in the fall season, and winter mortality, determine how many hens will be available in the spring for breeding.
“The important aspect during the fall harvest is the hen harvest,” Casalena said.
The goal for fall harvests is keeping fewer than 10 percent of the hens harvested. One year came very close, 9 percent. This is where the Hen Study comes into play.
The objectives of the Hen Study, officially named ‘Fall Harvest Rates and Annual Survival of Female Wild Turkeys in Pennsylvania’, are as follows:
1) Estimate fall female wild turkey harvest and survival rates by age class and fall season length. This employs wild turkeys which have been trapped and banded. Hunters who harvest hens with leg bands are asked to phone the ‘800’ number which is stamped on the tag, and provide the number of the tag. Though there are tag rewards, hunters who harvest tagged wild turkeys should want to participate in a study which will probably enhance wild turkey management.
Some hens will also be fitted with radio transmitters which ride on their backs and remain with them for life. The harvest of lag-banded hens and hens with transmitters provides an estimate of the harvest rate for hen wild turkeys.
2) Determine if one-week changes to fall season length affects harvest rates of hen wild turkeys. Length of the fall season will be exchanged between the two areas after two years.
3) Determine fall hunter participation, satisfaction and retention, and whether the Thanksgiving seasons recruits new hunters. After each fall hunting season, surveys are mailed to 10,000 hunters. Surveys are brief so more hunters will respond.
4) Use the information gained to more effectively establish fall hunting seasons.
Two areas are involved in this study. Area 1 is WMU 2C, WMU 2E, WMU 4A, WMU 4B AND WMU4D, areas which are sensitive to long fall seasons. Area 2 is WMU 2F, WMU 2G and WMU 2H, the northern section, where long seasons are traditional but turkey densities are lower than state average.
A gobbler study was done previously in cooperation with New York and Ohio. This involved banding 900 wild turkeys, 300 from each state.
Some changes in management have been prompted by hunters, but often they can not be accommodated.
“People are always asking if we’d open the spring season earlier,” Casalena said. “Our biological answer is no because we want the breeding to occur before we open up the spring season. We have about 230,000 turkey hunters, so we really want to make sure the gobblers have bred the hens, and most importantly, the hens are actually incubating their nests. And then we can open up the season. And because of populations decreasing lately, and the fact that we still harvest birds in the fall, we have to maintain a spring season opener around the first of May.”
This spring in particular this issue has been brought up more due to one almost comedic reason, Casalena explained.
“And as a matter of fact, the 2014 season does open later than last year, but it’s only because of the calendar shift. Our rule of thumb is, we open the season the Saturday closest to May 1st, and so this coming season the closest Saturday happens to be after May 1st . Last year it was before May 1st .”
So worry not; spring gobbler season will happen as usual, by the same rules, which do not specify a date.
As popular as spring gobbler hunting has become, relatively few hunters have been taking advantage of the all-day hunting hours allowed in the second half of the spring season.
“The all-day season, (in) the second half,” said Casalena, “it seems like we still don’t have that much participation or harvest. The majority of the harvest still is during morning hours. The afternoon harvest is 5 percent to 6 percent of the reported harvest.”
The later half of spring gobbler season is a great time to be in the woods. Weather tends to be moderate. Hunting pressure, obviously, is very light.
“Of course the majority of your success is going to be when the birds come off the roosts in the mornings, but I’ve had a lot of good responses from people who have hunted in the afternoon hours. They’ve had excellent hunts,” Casalena said. “Some people have had gobblers gobbling, and a lot of hunters say their gobblers come in quietly, but if you don’t want to get up in the morning, or if you want to take a kid out, and they go to school in the morning, then it’s a great opportunity.”
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