March 01, 2018
By Mike Bleech
At this point in the history of Pennsylvania wild turkey it would take a catastrophe of historic proportions for the prospects for the spring gobbler season to be anything less than good. We should have another Thanksgiving holiday during the spring gobbler season. Certainly there are ups and downs in local wild turkey populations, but these are relatively minor. To a large extent it appears that manipulation of the fall wild turkey season is doing a very good job of stabilizing the statewide population, while making corrections on a wildlife-management-unit basis.
"I would say the harvest in general will be pretty much like last year â€” the same percentage of two-year-old gobblers," said Mary Jo Casalena, Turkey Biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Neither you nor I live in all of Pennsylvania, though. We each live in a relatively small area with which we are very familiar. Spring gobbler hunters, bowhunters and the more serious hunters in general are much more familiar with their home territory than the rest of the human population because of time spent afield.
But no individual can assess the turkey population as well as the collective data compiled by scientific research. This is the reason you read a magazine article like this. You probably also compare notes with other outdoor enthusiasts. Good hunters are continually learning. This is part of the fun and challenge of spring gobbler hunting.
Across the state we can divide the wildlife management units into three categories: increasing wild turkey populations, stable wild turkey populations and declining wild turkey populations. Let's start with a look at those management units with increasing populations.
"In terms of where the harvest may be increasing, it looks like Wildlife Management Unit 2A and Wildlife Management Unit 2B," Casalena said, "Also Wildlife Management Unit 2D, Wildlife Management Unit 3C and Wildlife Management Unit 4B."
WMU 2A and WMU 2B make up the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, including Greene County, most of Washington County, western Fayette County, southwest Beaver County and the western tip of Allegheny County in WMU 2A, and most of Allegheny County, part of eastern Beaver County and parts of Washington County and Westmoreland County in WMU 2B.
WMU 2A was second in the state in summer wild turkey sightings in 2017 with 53.8 per 1,000 miles, compared to a state average of 20.5 wild turkeys per 1,000 miles.
The year before an even greater number â€” the greatest number by a wide margin â€” were spotted: 69.5 wild turkeys per 1,000 miles. In 2015 the count was 40.0 wild turkeys per square mile, a tie for the greatest number in the state. There could hardly be a better indication of a wild turkey population that is thriving.
WMU 2B has the best average harvest density in Pennsylvania over the previous three years, 1.36 gobblers per square mile. This is misleading, though, since actual hunt-able wild turkey habitat is limited. This area is Pittsburgh and suburban areas. There is very little public land. Those relatively few spring gobbler hunters who have land access fare well.
The state three-year average spring gobbler harvest is 0.77 per square mile.
WMU 2D extends this contiguous block of units northward through northern Westmoreland County, western Indiana County, Armstrong County, eastern Butler County and southern parts of Venango County, Clarion County and Jefferson County. WMU 2D is tied with WMU 2A for fourth highest spring gobbler harvest density at 1.14 per square mile.
"It looks to me like the two premium management units will be 2D as well as 3C," Casalena suggested.
Both WMU 2A and WMU 2D have a reasonable amount of public lands open to hunting, especially if hunters look into all of the public lands: Corps of Engineers projects, state parks, state forest and state game lands. And if introductions are done properly, it is easier to get permission to hunt private land than in some other parts of the state.
Terrain varies from gently rolling to some very steep slopes. Habitat is a great mix of wood lots including several large wood lots, land in various agricultural uses and land occupied by people. Plenty of open areas where poults can feed on grasshoppers are scattered around the units.
"(WWU) 2A, I think that'll be up this year above state average. (WMU) 2A and (WMU) 2D, these areas have always had real high harvest density," Casalena said. "The amount of crossbow harvest is phenomenal."
Hunting spring gobblers with a crossbow makes it easier to get permission to hunt private land.
"Grab yourself a crossbow, get a blind, get permission to hunt and have a ball," Casalena suggested.
Only a small percentage of spring gobblers are taken with crossbows. It is noteworthy that a good share of the crossbow harvest takes place in the southwestern counties, and crossbow hunting is opening new lands to spring gobbler hunters. If you are a traveling wild turkey hunter, crossbow hunting here could be an excellent adventure.
WMU 3C lies in the northeast corner of the state and includes Susquehanna County and northern parts of Bradford County, Wyoming County, Lackawanna County and Wayne County. It ranks third among the wildlife management units for three-year average spring gobbler harvest density at 1.21 per square mile.
WMU 3C had the fifth highest summer wild turkey sighting count with 31.05 per 1,000 miles driven. In 2016 the count was 40.3 wild turkeys per 1,000 miles driven, which was second greatest in the state. The 2016 count will be more important to this 2018 spring gobbler season since 2 year-old gobblers make up the majority of the harvest.
The greatest number of wild turkeys per 1,000 miles in the 2017 summer count was 74.0 in WMU 2E. But in 2016 it was less than half of that, 31.2 per square mile.
This area has a good habitat mix that is favorable to wild turkeys, with wood lots, agriculture and public lands. Poults can find areas to catch grasshoppers and other insects which are vital to the fast growth rate necessary for survival. Shayne Hoachlander, who at the time was Land Management Group Supervisor for Warren County and Forest County, once informed me that all birds are predators when they are young. That protein is essential for rapid growth. The faster young turkeys grow, the sooner they are able to fend for themselves, and the more likely they are to survive winters and elude predators.
For the most part this is not the most rugged part of Pennsylvania. Still there are plenty of opportunities to call from hill tops.
WMU 2E and WMU 5A have had low wild turkey populations, but they now appear to be increasing. WMU 2E has a three-year spring gobbler harvest density of 0.87 per square mile, a little above state average. WMU 5A has had a long-time problem with its wild turkey population. Three-year spring gobbler harvest density is just 0.55 per square mile, well below state average.
However, WMU 2E led the state in 2017 for the summer wild turkey count at 74 per 1,000 miles. In 2016 the count was 31.2 per 1,000 square miles. That is a very large increase from 14.3 in the 2013 summer count.
One of the factors that lead to good nesting success is the preference hunters show for mature gobblers. The harvest rate for jakes is 27 percent, but it could be much higher.
"By and large our hunters are selective, and they select older gobblers. The good thing about hunters passing jakes is recruitment," Casalena said.
Wild gobblers have a life span of 3 years to 4 years. The highest mortality on adult gobblers is during spring because they are so focused on breeding. This makes them more vulnerable to hunters and wild predators. Juvenile gobblers, jakes, have much greater survival.
Those jakes that make it through hunting season can breed.
WMU 4B, which lies in the Southcentral Region, includes Perry County and parts of Franklin County, Cumberland County, Huntingdon County, Mifflin County, Juniata County and a slice of Snyder County.
WMU 4B had been declining. It has been one of the few parts of the state where wild turkeys were well below carrying capacity.
"Now I think we'll start to see an increase," Casalena said. "That's a traditional turkey hunting area. And that's a lot of hunting pressure in that area."
Several wildlife management units are going through declines in their wild turkey populations.
Poult recruitment has been down for the past couple of years in WMU 2G and WMU 3A.
"WMU 2G will probably be a better place to be in 2019," Casalena said.
WMU 2G had the second-best summer wild turkey count in 2017 with 57.1 per 1,000 miles driven. That was more than double the 2016 summer count. Generally the best spring gobbler hunting occurs the second year after a good hatch because 2-year-old birds make up the majority of the harvest. These wild turkeys are more talkative than older birds, and easier to attract to a call. A majority of hunters are not interested in taking jakes, the 1-year-old birds. Birds 3 years old and older do not gobble as much. They are more wary and much more difficult to attract to a call.
Wild turkey numbers are declining in WMU 4D, WMU 5B, WMU 5C and WMU 3D. WMU 4C may be down some, but it regularly has fairly good harvest density. The average from 2015 through 2017 was 0.81 gobblers per square mile.
"Those areas I expect the harvest to go down," Casalena said.
We can anticipate that spring gobbler harvests will be similar to 2017 harvests in WMU 2C, WMU 2H, WMU 3B and WMU 4A. WMU 2C usually has a high spring gobbler harvest density. It was down last year and did not have good recruitment. WMU 3B spring gobbler harvests typically are right about on the state average. WMU 4A has harvest densities that are below state average.
You may have noticed that the better spring gobbler harvest densities are in wildlife management units that have mixed habitat that includes woodlots and fields. There are a couple of good reasons for this. One is that this is good habitat for raising poults. The other is that wild turkeys are easier to find because they frequent fields. Gobblers like to strut in open places.
Generally state game lands have the better habitat. While spring gobbler hunting pressure may be high on some state game lands, some are surprisingly lightly hunted.
Casalena also reminded hunters about the Mentored Youth opportunities. This program has been established as one of the more successful efforts of encouraging youth to become more involved in hunting, and in encouraging interest in conservation. April 21 is the date for the 2018 Mentored Youth Spring Gobbler hunt. Check regulations well in advance.
Every year Casalena hears several questions about starting spring gobbler season earlier. Our spring gobbler season is scheduled based on solid research to benefit the wild turkey population.
"We want to protect the resource, we have to protect the hens," Casalena said.
The season opens as late as it does to allow hens to start incubating eggs. Hens are not as likely to abandon their nests once they have started incubating. The management strategy is a matter of not killing the golden goose.
Spring gobbler hunters already are given increased hunting opportunities with the availability of permits for a second gobbler, and by all-day hunting in the latter part of the spring gobbler season.
Above all else, hunt safely.
More information about wild turkey hunting including regulations is available from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797, web site www.pgc,state.pa.us.