Fall hunting is looking up for turkey hunters
HARRISBURG –Two consecutive light fall wild turkey harvests and a substantial statewide turkey population of 212,000 birds should provide plenty of action in the upcoming fall turkey hunting season, which opens Saturday, Nov. 2 in most Wildlife Management Units.
The most significant change in the coming fall turkey season is that a regulatory change now eliminates the requirement for fall turkey hunters to wear fluorescent orange material. It also applies to archery deer hunters throughout their six-week season.
The Game Commission still strongly encourages turkey hunters and deer bowhunters in November to wear orange, but it remains a hunter-choice issue.
“Time has shown that fluorescent orange makes hunters more visible and saves lives,” noted Meagan Thorpe, the agency’s hunter-education administrator. “But a lot of hunters have asked to hunt without it, and the number of fall turkey hunters is down. So, we’re reminding hunters that conditions afield this fall have changed and they need to be aware of those changes.”
Another significant change is the elimination of fall turkey hunting on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The short, holiday-based season now ends a half-hour after sunset on the Friday immediately after Thanksgiving. In recent years, the season closed on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which is now the opening of the statewide firearms deer season.
Shorter fall seasons and declining numbers of fall turkey hunters have conspired to chip away at recent Pennsylvania fall turkey harvests. But Mary Jo Casalena, agency wild turkey biologist, assures hunters there are plenty of birds afield.
“Pennsylvania remains one of the best states in the nation to hunt fall turkeys,” she emphasized.
Hunter participation in the 2018 fall season was slightly over 100,000. As recently as 2014, it exceeded 203,000 hunters. Casalena believes the legalization of crossbows for all deer bowhunters in the fall archery deer season has extended the careers of retired bowhunters and drawn new hunters to that season.
“It was a big change that restored or provided new opportunities to a lot of hunters,” Casalena noted. “But if you’re a fall turkey hunter, you’re probably not complaining. Fewer turkey hunters limits competition, keeps birds on typical feeding patterns and offers more flexibility on choosing where to hunt.”
The Game Commission’s recent paring of fall turkey seasons has been tied to several cold, wet springs that limited turkey reproduction in many areas across the state.
SPARE THOSE HENS
Unlike the spring turkey season, in which hunters are permitted to harvest only bearded birds, any turkey can be harvested in the fall season. But research has proven that overharvesting hen turkeys in the fall can impact the population. So, fall season lengths are adjusted by WMU, based on available population data, Casalena explained.
“Young male turkeys, also called jakes, are difficult to distinguish from females,” Casalena said. “Our research shows females, both juvenile and adult, comprise a larger portion of the fall harvest than males, and our management and research also have shown that we shouldn’t overharvest females, so we shorten the fall season length when turkey populations decline to allow them to rebound.
“If you can distinguish a jake from a hen, please consider taking the jake,” Casalena recommended. “Every time a fall hunter passes on a hen, there’s a greater chance for improved recruitment in the following year’s statewide population.”
An estimated 102,429 hunters spent an average of 3¢ days hunting turkeys last fall. They took 9,219 turkeys from the state’s fields and forests.
The number of participating hunters and their season harvest are the lowest posted by fall turkey hunters since the agency began keeping Game-Take Survey statistics in the early 1980s. But the record-low 2018 fall harvest is only 47 birds shy of 2017’s total.
But the harvest data from the 2019 spring turkey season is comparable to those posted in recent years.
Preliminary harvest statistics estimate 36,000 to 37,000 turkeys were taken in the 2019 spring season, but those numbers will be refined through further analysis. The early estimate compares to the 2016-2018 average spring harvest of 38,123. In comparison, the 2018 spring harvest was exceptional at 40,303 birds – the highest spring take since 2014, when 41,260 gobblers were shot. Pennsylvania’s record high spring harvest was estimated at 49,186 in 2001.
Fall turkey hunter success in 2018 increased to 9 percent from a record low of 7.6 percent in 2017.
But Casalena said over 60 percent of the fall harvest is typically female turkeys. The upcoming shortened Thanksgiving season is hoped to provide hens some relief. But Casalena also is asking hunters to lend a hand.
“If fall hunters have a chance, then select a smaller bird when picking one out of a flock, which would go a long way to helping turkeys locally and statewide,” explained Casalena. “Lots of hunters select the largest bird that comes in after breaking up a brood flock, but that’s usually an adult female. I’m asking you to let her go, if possible. She’s the one with the most experience to help the flock survive through winter. If you can, take a young male or female; they have the lowest survival and breeding success.
“Jakes usually don’t get a chance to breed hens and first-year hens have lower nesting rates and lower nest and brood success than adult females.”
On any landscape, the distribution of hunters and birds often will influence hunter success. Run into too many hunters afield and you’ll feel crowded; find too few birds and maybe wish you were somewhere else, Casalena noted.
So, avoid areas where there’s other hunters, or even hikers. Find the food, look for turkey sign and find the flock.
“A wild turkey’s daylight hours are reserved for feeding,” Casalena advised. “So, if you can’t find fresh turkey sign where you’re hunting, you’re in the wrong place.”
Turkeys make a mess of things in the search for food in leaf litter. If the exposed soil is dry where turkeys have scratched, the birds are gone. Consider revisiting the area later if mast remains available.
Field reports vary on mast production for this fall. The annual crop of white and chestnut oak acorns is spotty to below-average. The biennial crop of red oak acorns seems to be doing better in a lot of places, as are beechnuts. Wild grape production is off, but apples and crabapples had a great growing season.
Hunters finding fresh scratches while scouting should expect the birds to be near. Following the scratches while using cover to hide might be the best way to close in. Hunters closing on a feeding flock should expect birds are watching for trouble in almost every direction. A hunter’s goal is to bust up the flock and call one back to harvest. It’s always a better strategy than taking a long shot, unless, of course, you’re hunting with a rifle.
Successful hunters are reminded reporting your turkey harvest is mandatory. There are three easy options: on line at www.pgc.pa.gov (go to Report a Harvest on the Home Screen); by phone, toll-free at 1-855-PAHUNT1 or 1-855-724-8681; or by mail using the postage-paid harvest report card found with 2019-2020 Hunting and Trapping Digest issued free with each hunting license.
Casalena also reminds hunters to report any leg-banded turkeys they harvest or find.
Leg bands are stamped with a toll-free number to call. Although the agency’s research project is completed, and rewards are no longer valid, the information provided is still beneficial and hunters can learn the history of the bird.
Pennsylvania’s fall turkey season is among those open to Mentored Youth and Mentored Adult hunters. During the fall turkey season, a mentor may transfer his or her fall turkey tag to a Mentored Youth or Mentored Adult hunter.
The Mentored Youth Hunting Program sets out to introduce those under the age of 12 to hunting. Mentored Youth must obtain a $2.90 permit and must always be accompanied by a licensed mentor 21 years or older.
The Mentored Adult Hunting Program seeks to remove obstacles for adults who have an interest in hunting and the opportunity to go hunting with a licensed mentor. The cost of a resident Mentored Adult permit is $20.90 – the same as the cost of a resident hunting license.
Mentored Youth and Mentored Adults can participate in only approved hunting seasons, and the seasons that have been approved for Mentored Youth are different from those for Mentored Adults. Different sets of regulations apply to Mentored Youth and Mentored Adults, as well. Both are defined in the 2019-2020 Hunting and Trapping Digest, issued free with each hunting license.