These tips can help you get your spring turkey in Pennsylvania.
Many years ago when I was a much younger turkey hunter I met a fellow who then I thought of as an "old-timer." Probably now I would not think of him that way. Nonetheless I still recognize the advice he offered me as sage advice, now even more so than when he gave it to me.
"You have to get into a turkey's head," he said.
As the time he said that it seemed a bit over the top. Get into the head of a critter whose brain is not much bigger than a pencil eraser?
Really that statement went over my head when I first heard it. The truth is that it is difficult to get into the head of a turkey largely because of the vast difference in intelligence between turkey and human. Turkeys probably do not even think in the terms that we would recognize. They react to their environment, and that is what turkey hunters should learn to do.
Much of Pennsylvania had good mast crops last fall. That is very good news for turkey hunters because a lot of nuts on the ground helps the turkeys make it through winter, and enough nuts will provide winter food.
I asked Pennsylvania Game Commission turkey biologist Mary Jo Casalena whether acorns are the most significant mast crop for wild turkeys.
"Acorns for most of the state. Up in north-central area we have a large beech crop, then beech would be significant," Casalena said.
However beech nut crops are no longer reliable.
"It used to be," Casalena said, "but a lot of our beech has been affected from the beech bark disease. So it's becoming less and less reliable throughout the northern parts of Pennsylvania because of that beech bark disease."
Mast crops may continue to supply food through winter. But deep snow can effectively hide acorns or beech nuts. Fortunately, wild turkeys have another major means of finding food.
"Turkeys are really instinctive to scratch during the winter for their food items. They really forage on the ground as much as possible. So deep snows can negatively affect them in terms of their feeding, their foraging. And so when you have deep snows then the turkeys will seek out areas where the snow hasn't really gotten as deep, like under conifer thickets and spring seep areas," Casalena said.
"Mast is important for them during winter, but so are grubs that you find under the leaf litter. Grubs are very important, the second most important food item for them in the winter. They'll forage heavily for grubs and whatnot under the matted needles in conifer stands."
Weather had a huge effect on the wild turkey population. Spring weather patterns affect the mast crops. Heavy winter snow kills many turkeys. Spring rains and cold weather destroy nests and kill chicks. These are factors that spring gobbler hunters should understand before choosing a place to hunt.
After a few years when the wild turkey population dipped slightly, it has risen again, at least according to harvest reports.
"Our spring harvest had dropped down below 40,00 birds back in 2007, and for the last three years the spring harvests have been back above 40,000 again, so we've been growing our population somewhat," Casalena said.
The preliminary count for the spring, 2010 turkey season was 43,200 gobblers.
"But then if you add in the harvest from the second bird tag it was about 44,800. We had almost 1,600 birds harvested with that special tag."
Many hunters expressed concern about the second spring gobbler tags when they were first proposed. However, that concern has been unwarranted. The number of hunters who have filled their second spring gobbler tags has been very low.
"It's been slowly increasing since we introduced it in 2006, but I'm not concerned with it. It's still a pretty minor harvest. It's about 4 percent of the overall harvest," Casalena said.
From 2000 through 2009 spring harvests averaged 40,746 bearded gobblers per year. The spring 2010 harvest was 10 percent above that average. Only three years have been higher: 2003, 2000, and the 2001 record harvest of 49,186 spring gobblers. That also was the first year when the spring harvest exceeded the fall harvest. Since then the spring harvest has been greater than the fall wild turkey harvest every year.
That time frame also saw a shift in the interests of wild turkey hunters. Starting in 2000, and every year since, more hunters have participated in the spring turkey season than in the fall turkey season. The number of spring turkey hunters climbed to a maximum of 247,304 in 2005, but it has declined since then to 216,551 in 2008, the most recent year for which this data is available.
Data which may be most revealing about the quality of our turkey hunting is estimated harvest per 100 hunter-days. In 1990 2.0 bearded gobblers were taken per 100 hunter-hours. Generally that figure has steady improved, with small, brief dips. In 2001 spring gobbler hunters had their best results with a harvest of 4.8 turkeys per 100 hunter-hours. It dipped to 3.1 birds per 100 hunter-hours in 2005, but by 2008 it had climbed back to 4.5 birds per 100 hunter-hours.
These figures typically reflect changes in wild turkey density.
Wild turkey population density around the state has undergone some changes. Not long ago Wildlife Management Unit 5A, notably the Micheaux State Forest, was the most significant problem area in the state. The population was well below carrying capacity. Now, after extensive study and management, the area had improved considerably.
"The population down in the Micheaux and unit 5A, that population has stabilized and we have actually opened the fall season there this year for the first time in seven years," Casalena said. "The population density is still somewhat low, but it's to the point where we believe it can sustain a conservative, short fall season. I guess I wouldn't call it a problem area any more because we are hunting down there in the fall."
WMU 5A does not have the lowest wild turkey population density in the state.
"No, that is not the lowest population density. The lowest population density in the state really would be probably the areas over in the farther southeast."
According to Casalena, "(WMU) 5C is difficult because parts of 5C have a low population density, but the northern part of 5C pretty much is what carries the rest of the unit. But because we manage at a unit basis, then we actually closed the fall hunting season in 5C, as well as 5D this year because most of the area 5C, mainly in the southern part, has a very low population density. We're looking at, I would say, probably the whole southeastern part of the state has the lowest population density."
That part of Pennsylvania also has proportionately the least amount of land open to public hunting. Habitat, though, is similar to the opposite corner if the state where hunting is outstanding.
"Yes, because of the more broken landscape. If we look at the spring harvest density, the number of birds harvested per square mile, then we have the highest average density in 1A, 1B, 2A, but also we have some density at 4C and 4E also being very high," Casalena said.
"If I look at the population density, meaning birds per square mile, 1B, 4C and 4E actually would be the highest density based on wildlife management unit. That's birds per square mile based on that wildlife management unit. So you're looking at about 11 or 12 birds per square mile on 4B, 4E and 1B. 1A is pretty close behind. It's about 10 birds per square mile."
Wildlife Management Unit 1B consists of all of Erie County, western Warren County, most of Crawford County, and the northwest corner of Venango County. This part of the state was scoured by Ice Age glaciers which left behind gently rolling landscape and rich soils. Land use is largely agriculture. Viewed from above it has a patchwork appearance with blocks consisting of cultivated fields, pastures, wood lots, wetlands, and human dwellings. It is the relative size of the wood lots and the proximity of open areas where gobblers like to strut that makes this a good place for hunting €‘€‘ that plus the rich habitat can support a lot of turkeys.
Since wildlife management units vary in size considerably, harvests per unit are not fair comparisons; nonetheless it may be worth noting that WMU 1B has the second-highest average annual spring turkey harvest.
Similar habitat extends southward through WMU 1A, but with denser human population.
In both WMU 1A and WMU 1B public hunting land is relatively scarce. Hunters should look for state parks and Corps of Engineers flood control projects in addition to state game lands. Landowners may allow access to hunters with the right approach.
Many spring gobbler hunters head to the Big Woods that stretch across the north-central part of the state. Most do this mainly out of tradition. Abundant public land and a pleasing wild atmosphere also are attractive.
Spring gobbler hunting can be difficult here, however.
"The Big Woods, that's where you've got much lower population densities because you don't have that diversity of habitat. You're looking at about five birds per square mile, so about half or less," Casalena said.
The Big Woods, as its name implies, is a vast expanse of forest that stretches from Warren County on the west end to Tioga County at the east end, and from U.S. Route 6 on the north, south to I-80, approximately. For decades people from industrial cities in the southwest part of the state have called trips here going to the mountains, but in fact this is the Allegheny Highlands, or more precisely, the Allegheny Plateau. Actual mountains lie to the south.
Although it is a plateau, it is anything but flat (with the exceptions of relatively small areas between watersheds). Terrain is rugged, constantly up and down. Within this area habitat varies, but only slightly. Soils are sterile. Harsh winters make life for turkeys difficult. With only half as many wild turkeys per square mile as the best habitat, this are of the state might be considered among the most difficult to hunt.
Quite a few hunters, however, prefer to think of it as more challenging. One popular approach to locating gobblers is walking the ridges and stopping occasionally to call. Pay special attention to basins, and to fingers off the ridge where calls reach a wide radius. Once gobblers are located, there is a lot of consistency, even from one year to the next. The birds have good reason for preferring one place over another. The choice likely is made by the hens, who need proper places to nest and to raise their broods. Remember that all birds are predators when they are young. Adolescent birds need insects, preferably grasshoppers, to achieve the essential rapid growth. Find open patches in the forest and probably you will find wild turkeys.
Not nearly as many hunters go to the Big Woods now as in the past because turkey hunting has improved so much in the southwestern wildlife management units. Hunter density is now greater in some of those southwest units.
"If you look at 2F and 2G where you have your Big Woods it's about five hunters per square mile. You have in the southwest part of the state, 2A and 2B, it's about four to five hunters per square mile. (Wildlife Management Units) 4A, 4B, 4C, it usually tends to have higher density. We're looking at six to seven hunters per square mile."
Wildlife Management Unit 2B is the Pittsburgh area so take that out of consideration. Local residents may be able to hunt successfully, but it is not a destination for traveling hunters.
Other wildlife management units in the southwest are a different matter. The only drawbacks here are fairly dense human populations and relatively little public land in the extreme southwest corner. However, wild turkey density is very good, if a bit off from peak years.
"It's very high," Casalena said. "In 2A it's about 10 birds per square mile; in (WMU) 2C you're talking a lot of Somerset County, you're talking about a lot of Allegheny Plateau. That population had come down quite a bit back in the early 2000's, so around 2004 we decreased the fall turkey season length, and so we still have about six birds per square mile average population density in 2C. But it has been getting better.
"(Wildlife Management Unit) 2A used to have some of the highest population density, but it's still very high. I was talking to a guy a couple weeks ago and he said "Where are all of our birds in Greene County? There's none left!" I said, well, there's not as many as '99, 2000, 2001, but you still have a really good population density.
"But I guess if we're looking at statewide average, the statewide average population density for the past five years is about seven birds per square mile, so when you're talking about nine, 10 and 11 you're above the statewide average."
This area can be included in Pennsylvania's best turkey hunting.
"Yes, because of the more broken landscape. In terms of harvest density, if we look at the spring harvest density, the number of birds harvested
per square mile, then we have the highest average density in 1A, 1B, 2A, but also we have some density at 4C and 4E also being very high."
Wildlife Management Unit 4C and WMU 4E have habitat very much like the patchwork habitat of the northwest corner.
Appalachian Mountain ridges run through the heart of the state starting in the west-central area then arching to south from the Pocono Plateau. Included in this area is the ridge and valley province, a geographical division where agricultural valleys separate long ridges. Most public land in the mountains is along the ridges. On a state road map these can be seen tracing the lie of the mountains.
"I'm looking at management unit 4A, which is mostly in the ridge and valley province, and the average spring harvest density is less than one bird per square mile, possibly because the public lands are ridges and it's hard to get access to those private farms," Casalena said.
Ridges are mostly forested. Openings are maintained on state game lands, but the birds seem to prefer lower agricultural openings.
"A lot of times during spring your gobblers are going to be going to open areas, and so if you have your forested ridge tops a lot of times they'll be coming down to farm lands to strut and display," Casalena said.
"We do try to manage openings on these forest ridges, but the other thing is that it's warmer down in the valley versus the mountain. The funny thing is like up in the northeast part of the state where you don't have the prevalence of farms, like particularly Pike County where you have a lot of state lands but you don't really have big expanses of farm land, the success on public land is probably higher than it is down here."
Clearly the best destination for Pennsylvania spring gobbler hunters is in western wildlife management units. When compared to other states' turkey hunting opportunities, however, Pennsylvania hunters have it pretty good just about anywhere.