Spring gobbler season remains popular

Pennsylvania’s turkey population isn’t what it once was. But plenty of birds remain and hunters still enjoy pursuing them. (Pixabay)Pennsylvania’s turkey population isn’t what it once was. But plenty of birds remain and hunters still enjoy pursuing them. (Pixabay)

Pennsylvania’s most avid spring turkey hunters are going all in.

With the 2018 season fast approaching – the youth only spring gobbler hunt is April 21, the regular season April 28 to May 31 – expect more than a few to buy a second turkey tag.

That’s been the trend.

Mary Jo Casalena, the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s turkey biologist, said sales of a second gobbler tag have increased every year they’ve been available. Last year the commission sold 20,529.

“And that is another record year. It just keeps going up each year,” Casalena said.

That’s true even though harvests overall have been good, but not historic.

Pennsylvania’s record spring gobbler kill came in 2001, when hunters took 49,186. The highest take on record in the last decade was in 2009, when they got 42,478, according to commission figures.

In 2017, by comparison, they killed 38,101.

“This is pretty similar to the previous 10-year average,” Casalena said. “But it was below the previous three-year average of about 39,500.”Turkeys have had it tough the last two years. Wet springs have really hurt survival of poults, Casalena said.

Still, last fall was marked by abundant food, namely acorns. And the winter was, for the most part, a mild winter from a turkey perspective.

So given all that, she’s expecting a harvest of 36,000 to 38,000.

Only a relatively small percentage will fall to those hunters looking to fill their second tag.

Last spring, 5,049 – or about one in four – punched that ticket.

That’s below average compared to first tags, Casalena said.

None of that has impacted participation, though.

“The number of spring turkey hunters has remained relatively stable since 1983, at just under a quarter million,” Casalena said.

There were roughly 215,000 spring turkey hunters in Pennsylvania in 2016. That dropped in 2017, but she believes that was a one year “anomaly.”

Better days might be ahead for those who stick with the sport, too.

Back in 2001, Pennsylvania was home to an estimated 280,000 turkeys, Casalena said. That started dropping in 2010.

“Basically we had a double whammy with our turkey population. We had an unexpected spring decline, doubled with, in 2010, we established the three-day Thanksgiving fall turkey season,” she said.

That three-day season, time has shown, is equivalent to adding an entire week to the fall seasons. And fall seasons, Casalena said, impact populations because hunters kill hens.

The good news is that the turkey population is again climbing since, if ever so slightly, Casalena said.

And changes to fall seasons – mainly contractions in some wildlife management units – should allow that to continue, she added.

The 2016 population was estimated at 216,800 birds. It’s between 210,000 and 220,000 now, Casalena estimated.

The commission’s goal is to get the population to about 240,000 birds, Casalena said.

Habitat will be the key, it seems.

The agency’s 10-year turkey management plan is currently undergoing a scheduled revision. Casalena said it will focus largely on carrying capacity, both biological and social.

“Our emphasis going forward in the next 10 years is really landscape level habitat management,” she noted.

That means creating and managing places where the birds can thrive, she added.

The plan is to undergo review both within the agency and by National Wild Turkey Federation partners. When a final draft is ready, it will be presented to Game Commissioners for approval.

Spring versus fall turkey hunting

Call it a case of everything being relative.

While spring turkey hunter numbers remain stable across Pennsylvania, the number of fall turkey hunters is declining. In fact, they’ve dropped by 51 percent since 1983, said Mary Jo Casalena, turkey biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Part of that, she said, is that hunter numbers – in Pennsylvania as across most of the country – have declined in general.

But there’s likely another reason, she said. It’s the same one that’s caused a decline in small game hunters.

“We believe some of these hunters are switching over to archery deer hunting,” Casalena said.

Still, overall, fall turkey hunting remains more popular in Pennsylvania than most places.

In 2013, the state had just shy of 200,000 fall turkey hunters. By comparison, the next closest states, meaning Texas, Wisconsin and West Virginia, had just more than 50,000 each.

“So basically, we still have a very strong tradition of fall turkey hunting in Pennsylvania,” Casalena said.
That points out the need to be conservative in setting fall seasons, she added.

In spring turkey hunting, hunters are limited to taking bearded birds only. That means males, essentially.

But in fall, they can take gobblers or hens. And research shows that when hen harvests exceed 5 to 10 percent of the population, turkey numbers decline.

That’s why fall seasons have been shortened in most of the state, Casalena said.

Continued, smaller harvests will likely be the result.

In 2007, hunters killed 25,000 fall turkeys in Pennsylvania. That was the high for the last decade. The low came in 2016, when they took 10,800.

Last year, according to preliminary figures, the kill was 11,781.

Bob Frye is the Everybody Adventures editor. Reach him at (412) 216-0193 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.