Many things can influence the wild turkey population in Pennsylvania. Poor mast crops the previous fall might put the birds in poor condition going into winter, or make it difficult for them to find food through winter.
Thick snow cover or crusty snow can make winter feeding difficult. Predation will lower wild turkey numbers to some degree, which might be made worse by winter conditions that favor predators.
Diseases affect the birds as well.
Yet the plain truth is that there really has not been a bad spring gobbler forecast in Pennsylvania in some years.
While it is true that all of the above things affect wild turkeys, none are so important as the annual recruitment — the number of birds hatched and raised to adulthood.
"The summer of 2013 we had above average recruitment. Whenever we have above average recruitment we expect in two years to have above average harvest," said Pennsylvania Game Commission Turkey Biologist Mary Jo Casalena.
That's because typically the lion's share of the toms taken by hunters in the spring are 2-year-old birds. They're adults, but not nearly as hard to kill as older toms. Thus, a strong recruitment year in in 2013 suggests more birds for hunters this year.
That wasn't true for hunters last spring, however. Recruitment had been below average in 2012, the poorest in a while.
"So then (for 2015) there won't be many 3-year-old birds probably, but plenty of 2-year-olds," Casalena said.
As a peek into 2016, recruitment was below average last spring following an unusually harsh, long winter. Mast had been poor over much of the state the previous fall.
"It took them a while to build up that energy," Casalena said.
The result was a lot of late broods, which means these new recruits to the population (jakes this spring) will be smaller than normal going into winter.
Turkey populations fluctuate naturally, because they are, well, turkeys.
"Wild turkeys are a short-lived species and a prey species, so they have a high reproduction rate," Casalena said.
The first clutch of eggs a hen wild turkey lays averages about a dozen. If those eggs fail, the hen needs enough energy to produce more eggs. Subsequent clutches will hold fewer eggs.
So while there should be more 3-year-old birds in 2016, the number of 2-year-old birds will probably be down.
Another look into the future may be drawn from mast production. Fall mast production, most notably acorn production, has a great deal to do with the health of hens going into the nesting season. Acorns are high in fat, so they help wild turkeys maintain body fat through winter.
Last fall, according to Casalena, acorns were spotty. Acorns were plentiful in the southwest and south-central parts of the state. Most of the northeast had a poor crop of acorns. Acorn production in the northwest and north-central parts of the state varied locally.
Another factor affecting recruitment is the weather during spring. Dry and warm weather is good for the new broods. Wet conditions are poor for hatching and growing polts.
Spring's general gobbler hunting season is slated to open on May 2, with a special day of hunting on April 25 for junior hunters and mentored youths.
Opening dates for spring gobbler hunting season are not chosen arbitrarily. It is the date on which about 50 percent of hens are incubating on their nests.
This was confirmed by a recently completed hen study that employed transmitters fitted to hen wild turkeys. Starting spring gobbler season close to May 1 is a good assurance that recruitment will go well. It also is beneficial to hunters. More gobblers are looking for hens because half of the hens are on nests and not interested in coming to the gobblers. This makes calling more effective.
Another interesting, seldom-considered benefit of the chosen starting date for spring gobbler season is that it reduces the number of bearded hens which are harvested. Bearded hens tend to be mature hens which have already nested at least once, making them some of the more important hens in population recruitment.
About 5 percent of the spring gobbler season harvest has been hens, Casalena said. While some wild turkey hunters may consider a bearded hen a trophy, more would prefer to take a gobbler.
Statewide wild turkey information might not mean much to individual hunters. Most spring gobbler hunters hunt close to home, where they are familiar with the habitat, and where they can hunt the maximum amount of time.
Not uncommon exceptions are camp owners and guests who enjoy a week, maybe longer, getting away from home for spring gobbler hunting. In either case, nearly all spring gobbler hunters are only interested in a couple of places.
If you are looking to expand your hunting horizon, though, Wildlife Management Unit 4C, in the east-central part of the state, should be one of the better parts of Pennsylvania for spring gobbler hunting this year.
"We had record summer sightings in 2013, and 2014 would have been a record if we hadn't had so many in 2013," Casalena said.
WMU 4C is characterized by mountain ridges. Some of this area has a land use mix that includes human dwellings, while some tracts are largely forested. Hunters tend to drift toward areas where there are open areas where turkeys can be seen. Hunting can be more relaxing by hunting in forested areas where turkey sightings in open places do not congregate spring hunters. Try calling at the heads of small hollows.
Summer sighting is done by Wildlife Conservation Officers. They report their number of miles driven, the number of wild turkeys seen, the number of gobblers, hens and poults. From this information across the state, an index is made based on 1,000 miles of driving. From the number of hens and the number of poults seen, a productivity rate is determined.
Another way of determining which area has the best spring gobbler hunting can be derived from spring gobbler harvests, specifically at harvest per square mile, over the past few years.
Casalena said that over the past four or five years WMU 2A has had some of the better spring gobbler harvests, at a rate of about 1.25 gobblers harvested per square mile. This is the southwest corner of Pennsylvania. Terrain is rolling to steeper hills. There is agriculture and moderate human population. While there are some state game lands, most are small. Gaining access to private land can improve the prospects of hunting.
WMU 1A is nearly as productive as WMU 2A. WMU 3C has had a harvest rate of 1.15 spring gobblers per square mile. Harvest rates for WMU 2D and WMU 1B are just a little more than 1.0 spring gobblers per square mile. All other wildlife management units, except WMU 2B, have spring gobbler harvest rates of less than one per square mile.
WMU 2B has had a spring gobbler harvest rate of about 1.5 gobblers per square mile of huntable habitat. But this wildlife management unit is basically Pittsburgh and suburbs, meaning hunting results are not directly comparable to most of Pennsylvania.
WMU 1A and WMU 1B include the least rugged landscape in western Pennsylvania. There are several state game lands, but private land access is a big key to finding the better spring gobbler hunting. Much of this area is farmland, but there are many wood lots, wetlands and human dwellings.
Open areas where wild turkeys have been spotted attract hunters. Hunting in wood lots might produce better results, particularly along farm lanes or small openings hidden from roads.
WMU 3C is the northeast corner of Pennsylvania. Terrain is variable, with mountains and relatively flat areas. A few of several state game lands are quite large. Pre-season scouting is important for locating gobblers on the forested state game lands.
WMU 2D is largely rolling to rugged hills. There is a fair amount of farmland and a lot of forested places. Here again, access to private land is key.
The wild turkey population has been declining in some areas, yet populations are at least "okay" just about everywhere in Pennsylvania. "You can find turkeys anywhere," Casalena said.
Decline of the wild turkey population has been a statewide trend lately.
"So we're wondering at this point, we completed our restoration efforts in 2003, has the population maximized itself?" Casalena said.
It is common in nature when a wildlife species expands its range: The population rises to a peak, then levels out somewhere less than that peak. It is unrealistic for hunters to expect that the wild turkey population peak will become the norm.
Though the wild turkey population is not at the peak level, we still have some of the best wild turkey hunting in the country. The only limitations on spring gobbler hunting success are luck and the skills of the hunter.
Three primary things manage, or limit, the wild turkey population. Fall seasons can be manipulated to limit harvests of hens. We have seen this where the fall season has been shortened or lengthened.
Habitat can be manipulated to increase its capacity to support wild turkeys. But the ability to manipulate the habitat is limited even with cooperation from the National Wild Turkey Federation and local sportsmen clubs. And, as mentioned previously, weather affects the wild turkey population beyond human control.
Wild turkey reproduction rates were poor during the years from 2009 through 2012, so we can look at the 2015 spring gobbler season for holding promise of being one of the better spring gobbler seasons over the past several years. This does not mean that there are more gobblers on every square mile of Pennsylvania. In general, though, gobbler hunters can anticipate good hunting this spring.
Hunters should have the ability to recognize the better wild turkey habitat, and they should put in some scouting time. But preseason calling should be limited to avoid causing hens to abandon eggs, and to avoid educating gobblers.
Instead, look for sign and carry binoculars. And keep in mind that sign or sightings of wild turkeys are best when other hunters are unaware. Nothing can ruin a sequence of calling more thoroughly than being cut off by another hunter.
Pennsylvania typically has one of the top three spring gobbler harvests in the country. Harvests from our special junior hunter and mentored youth days are higher than the entire spring gobbler season harvests of other states.
"So we definitely have plenty of turkeys," Casalena said. "We also have more hunters than most states." Pennsylvania now has about 230,000 spring gobbler hunters. Casalena also had a final message for spring gobbler hunters. "Our safety record in the spring has been exceptional the last few years," she said.
Fluorescent orange has played a positive role in spring gobbler hunting safety. Also, hunters have been paying more attention to safety. Use the prescribed hunting method of calling from a stationary position, and wear at least the amount of orange required by regulation while moving between calling locations, or to and from your vehicle. In the past 'mistaken for game' has been the most common cause of spring gobbler hunting accidents.
"So keep in mind whenever you hear a call it may be a hunter," Casalena said.
Understandably, hunters get excited at the sound of turkeys. A gobble call should not be used because it plants the thought of a gobbler in the minds of nearby hunters. But nearly all accidents can be prevented by using restraint. Wait until a turkey gobbler is positively identified before aiming a shotgun. And wear orange while moving. Hunting while walking is not allowed.
Information about Pennsylvania spring gobbler hunting is available from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797, web site pgc.state.pa.us.
If you have not hunted in a while check out the new program, Go Hunt PA, designed specifically for reconnecting with hunters who have not been hunting for one reason or another. Research has shown that 2 million Pennsylvanians consider themselves hunters. That number is about three times the number of hunting licenses sold annually in recent years.