Throughout the state about this time of year, hunters are wondering what the 2016 spring gobbler season holds in store. There is little reason to worry. Pennsylvania has not had a bad spring gobbler season in many years. Certainly there are small rises and dips. This year should be one of the better seasons in recent years.
Our wild turkey population suffered from 2009 through 2011 due to cold, wet springs. Spring wild turkey populations were 234,770 in 2014 and 234,328 in 2015, about 9 percent above the 10-year average, according to Pennsylvania Game Commission turkey biologist Mary Jo Casalena.
"Usually what I do is look at the production from two years prior," Casalena said. "The 2-year-olds are the most vocal and most called-in birds."
This can translate to an increase in 2-year-old gobblers available to hunters this spring. Gobblers of this age make up the majority of the spring gobbler harvest. Mast was in fairly good supply last fall, which also is a good sign for this spring.
In 2013 the spring wild turkey population was just 206,100 birds. This may mean fewer 3-year-old gobblers in the woods this season.
Even though the population is on an increasing trend, it does not come close to the peak population in 2001 of 280,000 wild turkeys. It will take some more good breeding seasons to reach that level again. Still, it is great to have a growing population.
Casalena identified four wildlife management units that should have improved spring gobbler harvests this year: WMU 2D, WMU 2H, WMU 2G and WMU 4C. These put wild turkey hunters in most of Pennsylvania reasonably close to good spring gobbler hunting.
Casalena also identified seven wildlife management units where the spring gobbler harvest probably will decrease this year: WMU 1A, WMU 1B, WMU 2A, WMU 2C, WMU 2F, WMU 4B and WMU 4D.
This, however, does not necessarily mean these wildlife management units will not have good spring gobbler hunting opportunities, just not good relative to the previous year. In fact, WMU 1A, WMU 1B, WMU 2A and WMU 4D typically have some of the better wild turkey hunting in the state.
Some of the best information about wild turkeys comes from Game Commission personnel in the field, which includes Wildlife Conservation Officers, biologists and land management staff. This and their observations of food supplies going into winter will be our primary gages of gobbler hunting prospects on the local level for this spring.
In the Southeast Region, Dauphin and Lebanon counties Land Management Group Supervisor Steven Bernardi reported that he has seen several turkey flocks lately on the game lands and on private lands.
One of the major reasons Pennsylvania is a great spring gobbler hunting destination is the vast amount of land open to public hunting. Generally the Southeast Region is agricultural, with large open crop fields and scattered wood lots. Terrain is relatively mild compared to the rest of the state. However, land access is limited.
Open farmland provides opportunities to see wild turkeys. These birds are tempting. If you hope to gain access to private farmland, start knocking on doors early. But be prepared to be turned down. One option that can be better is checking the Farm Game Program operated by the Game Commission. Get started on the Game Commission web site.
In the Northeast Region, WCO Aaron Morrow reports that summer wild turkey sightings have been high throughout southern Lackawanna County. The number of poults sighted with hens has been a positive sign for the wild turkey population.
Prospects for spring gobbler hunting in the Southcentral Region, however, are not as encouraging. The most productive wildlife management unit in the region, WMU 4D, is one of seven wildlife management units that Casalena expects will have decreases in the spring gobbler harvest. This unit also is partly in the Northcentral Region. WMU 4B is another wildlife management unit where a decrease in the spring gobbler harvest is anticipated.
On a brighter note, last September Huntingdon County WCO Amy Nabozny reported seeing numerous turkey flocks with large numbers of poults.
Northcentral Region spring gobbler hunters have good reason to be excited this year. Two of the wildlife management units where increases in the spring gobbler harvest are anticipated, WMU 2H and WMU 2G, are in the heart of the region. And these wildlife management units typically have good wild turkey hunting, even though large areas are remote and are lightly hunted.
Southwest Region spring gobbler hunters need not worry this year even though two of the wildlife management units where the spring gobbler harvest is expected to decrease, WMU 2A and WMU 2C, include a large part of the region.
The Southwest Region basically wraps around the city of Pittsburgh.
"There's a lot of turkey in the Pittsburgh area," Casalena said.
Indeed so. One of the wildlife management units where the spring gobbler harvest is expected to increase, WMU 2D, covers much of the northern part of the region.
The Northwest Region generally offers some of the finest spring gobbler hunting in Pennsylvania.
"This past year, 1A had the highest harvest density; 1B had the second highest," Casalena said.
So the usual good harvests offset the anticipated smaller gobbler harvests this spring.
One of the wildlife management units where the spring gobbler harvest is expected to increase this year, WMU 2D, includes parts of the Northwest Region.
In large parts of this region, mainly in counties bordering Ohio, farm crops and wintertime manure spreading are significant food sources for wild turkeys. Mast crops carry the burden of supplying wild turkeys with food elsewhere.
Clarion and Jefferson counties LMGS George J. Miller reported last October food sources were variable. Acorns crops were good on chestnut oak and white oak, while the red oak acorn crop was poor. Crabapples were in good supply.
Clarion County WCO Steven J. Ace reported he had been concerned about the wild turkey population in his district because of the lack of poults — until July 3, he had yet to see a poult. However, July 3 and 4 revealed 16 poults. Reports on wild turkeys from hunters kept rolling in.
WCO Steven J. Ace reported a bumper crop of fruits and nuts throughout most of the southern part of Clarion County .
Erie County WCO Larry M. Smith has observed great supplies of soft mast last fall. Although farm crops are significant, good mast fuels the good wild turkey population and helps the birds make it through the snowiest winters in Pennsylvania.
Warren County WCO Eric M. McBride reports that turkey sightings have increased as summer has progressed, and poults seem to be doing well. Mast crops were in good shape going into winter.
Forest County WCO Daniel P. Schmidt reported seeing several nice flocks of wild turkeys at the end of July.
Spring gobbler hunting tactics should adapt to terrain and habitat. It is impossible in a magazine article to get into every localized hunting situation. We can narrow it down to three major types of situations: flat to gently rolling farm country such as is found in the southeast and northwest corners of the state, mountain ridges that run through the central part of the state, and heavily forest hills in the north-central part of the state.
From this point hunters should use imagination and experience to adapt to local situations.
In the farm country, spring gobbler hunters tend to concentrate on gobblers they have seen in open areas. There are a couple of problems associated with this.
Very visible gobblers attract a lot of attention. Sometimes they even attract trespassers onto private land. Sadly, this can lead to even more restrictions on hunting private lands. It can cause conflicts, it gets hunters into trouble and gives hunters in general a bad reputation.
Attempting to call gobblers into an open field can be difficult. One reason is that it calls for calling the bird from behind the hunter. This can lead to a gobbler walking right into a hunter. A better option may be getting into a wood lot where the wild turkeys are thought to be roosting.
Experienced spring gobbler hunters get away from roads on mountain ridges, then attempt to locate gobblers by calling from good looking locations. Call above hollows. Walk out on finger ridges to call.
The vast, rugged forest that extends from the Allegheny National Forest in Warren County eastward to Tioga County and south past Interstate 90 holds a largely unknown number of wild turkeys. Many will never hear a call made by a human hunter. Hunting opportunities are endless.
However, many hunters do not fully recognize differences from one place to another. Many are not confident enough with their abilities to find their way around to get far from roads, Many hunters do not have the ability or ambition to climb to higher elevations. If you do, an opportunity for relatively secluded hunting awaits.
Preseason scouting will go a long way toward getting a gobbler, here as well as elsewhere in the state. In this area, where turkeys are present but whose population density is not high, scouting may be even more important. It will, at least, give a hunter a starting point. But preseason calling can also educate a gobbler so it cannot s easily be called once spring gobbler season opens.
Some experienced hunters try to "put a gobbler to bed," meaning learn where a gobbler is roosting. Then it becomes a much simpler matter to be close to a gobbler when shooting time starts. Often hunters will hear the bird gobbling before sunlight.
Regardless of where you hunt, think about participating in the Youth Mentored Hunt or the Adult Mentored Hunt this year. Introducing someone else to spring gobbler hunting will increase your own sense enjoyment of the hunt.
GEAR FOR SPRING GOBBLER
HUNTING IN PENNSYLVANIA
Spring gobbler hunters may not stalk wild turkeys. The prescribed method of hunting is by calling from a stationary position. This has a lot to do with recommended gear for spring gobbler hunters.
Regulations require that spring gobbler hunters use fine shot no larger than no. 4 lead shot, no. 2 steel shot or no. 4 shot of any other approved nontoxic shot. Longbows, recurve bows, compound bows or crossbows may be used with broadheads that have an outside diameter or width of at least 7/8-inch but with a cutting surface of no more than 3.25 inches in length.
While walking, it is highly recommended that hunters wear fluorescent orange, at least a cap.
Weather is highly variable during the spring gobbler season in Pennsylvania. Temperatures may be anywhere from freezing to hot. Be ready for rain or dry conditions.
Use something to keep the seat of your pants separated from the ground when you sit to call, for insulation against both cold and wetness. At least in your vehicle, carry a rain suit.
Carry at least two choke tubes if your shotgun can use choke tubes. Have one for longer shots, another for closer shots, depending on your set-up.
Carry a few different calls. Each one will sound at least a little different from the other. Just this change from one call to another may be what it takes to bring in a gobbler.
Leave gobble calls at home once spring gobbler season opens. Even though it is not allowed, some hunters will attempt to stalk what they perceive to be a gobbler. This is an accident waiting to happen.
Editor's Note: Information on spring gobbler hunting in Pennsylvania is available from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797; or visit: pgc.state.pa.us.