This year, don't miss out on fall turkey hunting, a great Pennsylvania outdoors tradition.
Fall turkey hunting is one of Pennsylvania's great hunting traditions.
Back when I was cutting my hunting teeth, pursuing fall turkeys meant a trip to the state's northern tier, the "big woods" counties, where wild turkey populations still existed, and hunting was permitted.
Decades later, thanks to the highly successful Pennsylvania Game Commission trap-and-transfer program, wild turkeys are found throughout the state. And while some areas remain closed to fall hunting, or have short seasons, one does not need to make a lengthy pilgrimage to enjoy good sport.
To get a handle on the latest status of our state's wild turkey population, and an outlook for the coming season, I spoke with PGC Wildlife Biologist Mary Jo Casalena, who for many years has served as the agency's wild turkey biologist.
2016 FALL TURKEY SEASON RECAP
To set the stage for this year's fall hunt, let's examine how things unfolded during the 2016 fall hunt.
"We don't have the final results yet, but preliminary results show that the harvest was about 15,000 statewide, which compares pretty favorably to 2015," said Casalena. "The previous three-year average was 15,700, so 2016 was just slightly below average."
Casalena noted that the season length was decreased last year in four of the wildlife management units, which likely contributed to the slight decline in harvest numbers. The season's mast crop, which closely ties in with hunter success rates, was also a factor.
"The other thing that was interesting with last year's harvest was that the mast crop was spotty, "explained Casalena. "Some areas we had a really good mast crop, while in others we had mast failure. Mast crop dictates what's going to happen with the fall harvest, along with summer production."
Casalena said that given these two "feast or famine" extremes regarding the level of natural foods such as acorns, turkeys were, in general, hard to find.
"In areas where there was a mast failure, any hunters working those areas were not going to find any turkeys, as the birds would leave those 'normal haunts' and head elsewhere in search of food," she said. "Where there were abundant acorns, that pretty much scattered the flocks, because there was food everywhere. Turkeys didn't have to get down to a routine, didn't have to concentrate in certain spots."
Turkey populations going into last fall's season were like those of recent years. Summer reproduction was about average, she said.
"We don't have those huge brood flocks like we did back in the early 2000s when our growth rates were the highest," she noted. "It's much easier to find a flock of 12 to 25 turkeys, than it is to find one of three to six turkeys."
WILD TURKEY MANAGEMENT
AND THE FALL SEASON
Whereas the turkey season is open statewide in the spring, when hunters are limited to taking bearded birds, the fall season is more tightly regulated. That's because the fall harvest has a much greater potential impact on the overall wild turkey population, something important for hunters to realize.
"The fall season is used to manage the wild turkey population because you can harvest a male or female bird," Casalena noted. "If we increase the harvest, we have the potential to decrease the turkey population. We use season lengths to help us regulate turkey populations within each wildlife management unit. That's why season length is different in various wildlife management units, and why we change season lengths on an annual basis based on recent population trends."
As example, in an area such as WMU 2B, which includes Allegheny County and the greater Pittsburgh area, season lengths remain lengthy. The turkey population is relatively large within this unit, so the longer season is used to maintain turkey population at or below the social carrying capacity — that is, to minimize the number of nuisance complaints. By comparison, WMUs that have only a one-week season, or even a three-day season, have much lower wild turkey populations. The Game Commission's goal in this instance is to increase turkey numbers within those units. And some areas, such as WMU 5C and 5D, have closed seasons.
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2017 FALL TURKEY SEASON OUTLOOK
"Since the fall harvest in 2016 was relatively light, we had more turkeys coming into the spring 2017 season," said Casalena. "Keep in mind that the fall season is 'additive mortality,' which means that if the turkeys are not harvested in the fall, they have a very high probability of making it into the next spring."
Casalena explains that in Pennsylvania, turkeys have a very low winter mortality. They flock up during the winter, which helps them avoid predators and allows them to capitalize on the available food resources, a "safety in numbers" survival strategy.
"The turkeys had an easy winter and an early green-up in spring," she added. "They'll quickly profit from the food source provided by this new growth. So, they were in excellent condition going into the spring reproductive season."
As such, Casalena said both the first-year hens and adult hens would be nesting. Following harsh winters, she said many of the first-year hens will not nest.
Weather plays a key role in the survival rates of young turkeys, particularly that experienced during late May and the first two weeks of June, typically when the peak-of-hatch occurs, and the period immediately following it.
"If we have warm, dry weather during that time, that will really help with our summer reproduction, as we'll have good poult survival," she said. "If we have cold, damp weather, we'll have poor poult survival. So, it's not just nesting, but also when the broods hatch, that dictates what the fall population will be."
Of note is the opening of the fall season in WMU 5B, in the southeastern portion of the state, where a short fall season will be allowed this year.
"That was the last area that we actively restored," Casalena explained. "We finished trap-and-transfer activities there in 2003. The season remained closed to allow the population to increase. This is the first year where we feel the population level is high enough to support a short, three-day season. The days are during mid-week. We'll see how the population responds to the fall harvest."
2017 FALL TURKEY HOTSPOTS
In general, Wildlife Management Units that boast longer season lengths, particularly ones with three-week seasons, harbor greater numbers of wild turkeys and qualify as "best bets."
"Probably the first place I would direct hunters to would be WMU 2D, which includes all of Armstrong County, and portions of Jefferson, Clarion, Venango, Indiana and Butler counties," said Casalena when asked which area might be tops this fall. This region features excellent wild turkey habitat, but fragmented to the extent that it makes locating birds an easier task.
"Hunters love the big woods (referring to the traditional northern tier counties), but population densities are lower in those areas," she said. This includes WMUs 2F, 2H and 2G. "I encourage folks to hunt those areas, but they need to be willing to put on a lot of miles to find the turkeys. In areas like 2D, which is more of a farmland/woodlot setting, it is a lot easier to locate the birds."
Conversely, the season has been shortened to just one week in WMUs 4A and 4B, as well as WMUs 1A and 1B. WMUs 4A and 4B are in the southcentral part of the state, while 1A and 1B are found in the northwest.
"That doesn't mean there aren't turkeys there — that's why we still have a fall hunt," Casalena said of the adjustment. "We just want to increase their numbers there. I might not suggest someone travel to these areas to hunt, but if someone lives there, they might know of specific flocks and spots."
Casalena also reminds hunters that air rifles are not permitted for fall turkey hunting. Certain air rifles were made legal for small game species at the Commission's March meeting. Wild turkeys, however, are classified as a big game species. Consult your current Hunting and Trapping Digest for the particulars regarding legal shotgun and rifle requirements for the fall turkey season.
FALL TURKEY HUNTING TIPS
For the past 31 autumns, turkey hunting enthusiast Joanie Haidle has roamed the woods of Pennsylvania, fully immersed in the challenge of fall turkey hunting. She'll be out there again this fall, using the well-earned tools of patience and persistence to her advantage.
Haidle, who makes "Joanie's Beard Bustin' Turkey Calls" from her western Pennsylvania home, sees impatience as a shortcoming of many fall turkey hunters. Her approach, especially during the early hours of a fall hunt, is more laid-back. Since she hunts with a shotgun, her methods are geared toward getting a bird within range of her 12-gauge Mossberg.
"What I like to do in the fall, the first thing in the morning, is to get into an area that I know turkeys frequent — roosting sites, oak ridges, grape vines — and I simply set up and I'll call," Haidle explained. "I don't necessarily need to locate their exact position, just as long as I feel they are within hearing distance."
Haidle said turkeys are quite vocal in the fall, especially when it comes to a hen keeping track of her young flock. So Haidle is constantly alert for their chatter, because that sound is proof-positive she's in a prime area. And while a classic fall tactic is one of breaking up a turkey flock and then attempting to get a quality shot by calling to the scattered birds as they regroup (and that's a tactic she often employs), Haidle has found she can attract a hen without the busting maneuver.
"I try to get the attention of the hen," Haidle said. "She can't count her poults. So, she'll feel there's one out there that is lost, and will come looking for it. I've done this many times, often calling in the whole flock. But it can take hours. That's where patience and persistence comes in."
When trying to locate a turkey flock in the fall, Haidle often slowly walks the oak ridges, listening not only for their vocalizations, but feeding sounds as well.
"I really like those dry fall days, ones when the leaves are noisy," she noted. "I'll work along a ridge, calling, and really listening. Many times, you'll pick up their scratching through the leaves while the feed on acorns."
When this situation presents itself, Haidle surveys things to determine the direction the flock is heading. Then she circles around ahead of them and begins calling — often starting off with a kee-kee run — a tactic that typically gets a positive response.
Regarding calling strategies, Haidle likes to stay active during fall hunts. While the judicious use of a call in the spring — just enough to keep a gobbler interested — is often appropriate, it's a different circumstance in the fall.
"The turkeys are very talkative in the fall," she observed. "The young poults, during the morning, make a bunch of racket. They are kee-keeing, they're yelping."
Haidle's turkey calling is typically done with one of her mouth calls, a diagram call named the Terminator. It's a three-reed call with a ghost cut, and the one she prefers for making the kee-kee run, the lost whistle made by young turkeys during the fall and winter.
Haidle said her fall strategies are also influenced by the makeup of the turkey groups being hunted, since individual flocks can be made up of hens with poults, grouped-up hens, and gobbler flocks. The latter provides the biggest challenge in the fall. But she's had success bringing in mature gobblers, simply issuing simple gobbler yelps and clucks made with a box call, her favorite being a Ben Lee Gobble Box.
"I like to hunt whatever comes in," Haidle said. "But it's always a plus when a nice gobbler comes in during the fall. I've had a few opportunities, when I was able to harvest a nice adult gobbler, which is a rarity when you're hunting in the fall."