Autumn provides many potential adventures for the outdoors-person. In the Keystone State, the pursuit of wild turkeys is at the top of the list for many. Pennsylvania hunters should enjoy another productive fall turkey season, based on the best information available prior to the season.
To get a breakdown of how last season went, and what hunters can expect this fall, I spoke with Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife/wild turkey biologist Mary Jo Casalena.
“The preliminary harvest looks like it will be around 11,700, based on the report cards. It compares favorably with the 2016 harvest, though that was the lowest fall take we’ve had on record,” Casalena said.
The downward trend of fall harvests is not necessarily an indication of lower numbers of birds. Casalena said other factors play a significant role. “First and foremost, we have been decreasing the fall season length in most of our wildlife management units,” she explained. “If you go back the last six to ten years, we’ve shortened the fall seasons in all but four management units.”
The only management units that still have three-week seasons are WMU 2C, which includes Somerset, Fayette and part of Westmoreland counties, and WMU 2B, with includes the Pittsburgh suburban area.
“There are so many turkeys around the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, they’ve basically exceeded the ‘human carrying capacity,’” she noted. “Hunter success is high in that area, if you can get access to private land.” Casalena said the other major factor in declining fall turkey harvests is a parallel decline in hunter participation.
“Hunter participation for all species has been declining across the board,” she noted. “Also, archery deer hunting kind of rules the roost in terms of fall hunting.” Casalena said the agency has tried to accommodate hunters as much as possible, as the resource allows. There’s the regular fall season, prior to bear season, and then the three-day Thanksgiving season (in WMUs that have at least a one-week regular season).
Surveys indicate that those that participate in the three-day late season also hunt the regular season. When harvest results showed too many hens were being taken with the addition of the three-day Thanksgiving season, the agency cut back regular season lengths.
2018 FALL SEASON OUTLOOK
The winter of 2017-18 was a cold one in Pennsylvania, and one that loosened its grip reluctantly as the calendar flipped to spring. Based on what she saw during the early spring period, though, Casalena wasn’t too concerned about extraordinary impact.
“It was unseasonably cold, but the snow cover that we had last winter really did not impact turkeys’ ability to forage,” she said. “In the snow belt including Erie County they did get some periods of extended snow, but it wasn’t the whole winter. And then we had a huge warm up in February that opened things up.”
Using archery equipment for fall turkeys can be very challenging, as setting up and drawing on a bird undetected is difficult. However, it is rewarding when executed well.
Casalena also noted that last fall’s mast crop was excellent in most of the state, and turkeys had access to that food. “We had average recruitment last year, which means we have an average number of one-year old hens this year,” she noted. “Overall, I think we were in pretty good shape.”
Our discussion took place before the conclusion of spring nesting season, so no prediction could be made as to the number of young birds that might be available this fall. Warm, dry weather during late May and early June plays in favor of high survival rates of poults.
Most hunters consider themselves as conservationists, and rightfully so. Hunting is the most effective means of managing wildlife populations. Within this vein, Casalena said hunters can positively impact turkey numbers in their areas by avoiding the harvest of adult hens. “If given the opportunity, try to take a male turkey, such as a young jake, or a young hen,” she explained. “Try not to shoot the brood hen. She has all the experience to help them survive over the winter. And she’s the one that’s going to be most productive the following breeding season.”
WILD TURKEY HABITAT
Quality of habitat has much to do with its ability to support wildlife populations — wild turkey included. High quality, varied habitat provides wild turkeys with numerous food sources, and cover from predators and the elements.
“Part of the reason of declining population trends in some of our Wildlife Management Units is because of a corresponding decline in habitat,” Casalena noted. “We have 1.5 million acres of state game lands where we proactively manage the conditions for wildlife. On most of our wooded game lands one of our management goals is for better wild turkey habitat.”
Casalena continued, “We’ve been really pushing more prescribed fires as a management tool. It gives us the most bang for our buck. It can affect the largest amount of acreage with our limited personnel and our limited budget. And it gives us the most benefit for nearly all wildlife species, not just wild turkeys.”
Concealment often dictates the difference between success and failure.
According to Casalena, prescribed, controlled fires in wooded areas kill back species that are fire-sensitive, ones that don’t have much value to wildlife. Ones like red maple, striped maple and yellow birch. Killing off those species allows beneficial species like the oaks to flourish.
“Fires also scar the soils, in a good way, enriching the soils with carbon and other nutrients,” she added. “That allows a rapid and lush regeneration or grasses and other herbaceous species. If we do a burn during the growing season we experience an exceptionally lush undergrowth nearly immediately. It’s great for turkeys. We have turkeys nesting in areas that have been burned, in nearby areas places are still smoldering.”
In addition to wooded areas, Casalena said the agency also does prescribed burns in grasslands. Fires in such areas get rid of thatch, that thick stuff that grabs your feet. The same thick growth that trips you up makes it nearly impossible for a tiny turkey poult to navigate.
“We’ve learned over the years that these huge grasslands are like deserts in terms of many wildlife species,” she stated. “When we burn back those grasslands it allows the regrowth of a much higher diversity of herbaceous species, which is to the benefit of wild turkeys.”
FALL TURKEY HUNTING TIPS
Casalena offered up a few tips for Pennsylvania fall turkey hunters. As implied earlier, finding the food is essential in locating birds at this time. And be prepared to walk.
“You have to be prepared to walk a few miles,” she said. “Don’t rely on what you learned previous years. Definitely do lots of scouting. Keep walking until you find turkey sign, scratching’s, droppings, tracks, feathers. It’s a matter of strapping on your boots and taking nice long walks before the season opens. During the season, you don’t need to be a great turkey hunter to call in a bird during the fall. If you know the kee-kee run then you can fall turkey hunt.”
FALL HUNTING PICKS
Though turkey density differs from area to area, as does hunter success rates, odds favor the hard-working hunter that picks an area close to home. Here are some suggestions.
State Game Lands 100 serves as a good example of what the area has to offer in terms of public hunting areas. The main tract of this game lands lies in both Centre and northern Clearfield County. Found along the southern side of the Susquehanna River valley (West Branch), the area is laced with smaller secondary hollows — such as Holt Hollow, Buckshot Hollow and Wrigley Hollow that feed the main river corridor. The area is heavily forested. Access roads that lead to the interior can be found just off of Ridge Road in Burnside Township (Centre County). This game lands also borders the vast acreage of Sproul State Forest.
Other Centre County game lands worth investigating for fall turkeys include 92, 103, 33 and 176. In southern Clinton County Game Lands 295 is a good spot.
Available game lands within this area include the parcels provided by Columbia County’s Game Lands 55 and 56 and Montour County’s SGL 226.
One of the more impressive public areas is Columbia County’s SGL 226. It’s located in northern Columbia County, just south of the Lycoming County line. Game Lands 226 features a variety of habitats. While mostly forested, it is interspersed with several food plots. Some of the tract has fairly rugged terrain, while the hills are more rolling in others.
Access is very good, with several township roads bisecting the area, from which interior trails sprout out from. Ants Hill Road runs north to south through the game lands western end. Ridge Road runs from east to west through the northern portion of 226. Dodson Hills Road and Spruce Run Road provide access to the eastern end of the area. Numerous walk-in access roads can be picked up off of these roads to get away from hunting pressure. State Route 44 passes by just south of Game Lands 226.
JEFFERSON AND CLARION COUNTIES
There are a lot of Mill Creeks in Pennsylvania. This one happens to flow through State Game Lands 74. State Game Lands 74 boasts several thousand acres of the watershed that contains Mill Creek as it flows on its way to the Clarion River. In general, the public lands lies within the Mill Creek valley, though there are some areas where the property lines extend further away. Most of SGL 74 is found in Clarion County, with the eastern end being in Jefferson.
Game Lands 74 has a mix of growth. Though there are vast stands of hemlock, there is also significant coverage in the form of oak, hickory and maple. Since the area lies just to the north of Interstate 80 (use either the Corsica or Clarion exits) access is good from the “big picture” perspective. To get to the interior of the tract, in Clarion County, go in near the Fish and Boat Commission’s Clarion River access, at the mouth of Mill Creek, or off of the Fisher/Strattanville Road. In Jefferson County use Frozen Toe Road, just east of Fisher.
There’s no denying the outdoor pursuits available near our state’s capitol. This includes the quest for wild turkeys. Hunters looking for a great public area in Dauphin County should consider the opportunities provided by SGL 211, which lies to the east of the Susquehanna River and the town of Dauphin.
Game Lands 211 contains several lengthy ridges that extend laterally from the river valley. Ones such as Second Mountain, Third Mountain and Peters Mountain. State Route 443 passes just south of the tract; State Route 325 runs along the northern portion of Game Lands 211. Trails such as Horseshoe Trail provide a means of navigating the interior of the public hunting area.
Pittsburgh-area sportsmen don’t have to travel far to reach vast public lands with good wild turkey populations, some of the best in the state. Consider Forbes State Forest, located within the high elevations of the Laurel Ridge.
Forbes State Forest contains over 20 separate tracts of state forest land in Fayette, Somerset, and Westmoreland Counties. The total acreage is over 50,000 acres. Six state parks are found within this state forest. Ones such as Ohiopyle, Kooser and Laurel Hill provide campgrounds of various levels. Linn Run State Park has rustic cabins for rent.Route 30 crosses the Laurel Ridge along its southern end. The same can be said of Route 711 to the north. State Game Lands 42, which borders the forest land, adds more public hunting area.