How are spring gobbler prospects looking for these states? Read on
Seasons here start a bit later than in the rest of the country, and they’re among the last to conclude. That alone is an upside.
Pennsylvania, known for its strong turkey hunting tradition, is also home to many an award-winning call maker. Both New York and New Jersey hunters also enjoy some decent spring gobbler opportunities annually. Maryland and Delaware, fringe states on a turkey hunter’s radar – and known more for their coastal waterfowling traditions – also have spring turkey seasons.
Please check out all our other 2020 turkey hunting forecasts at the end of this post.
A quick digression, if only because it’s breaking news for all PA hunters.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) just held its first virtual meeting due to COVID-19 concerns. “The board approved Pennsylvania’s 2020-21 hunting and trapping seasons,” said executive director Bryan Burhans, “and hunters can start making their plans for the year ahead.”
For now, let’s look at the 2020 spring turkey hunt.
Where to Go
Want to get away from it all? Northcentral Pennsylvania counties – and the vast state game lands found there – draw Keystone State hunters. This region is one of the truly wild places left in the northeastern United States. Allegheny National Forest (517,000 acres) usually has birds to work. WMU 4D (central PA) puts up high kill numbers, too. Wildlife Management Units in western/southwestern PA are also good bets. These include 1A, 2A, 2B and 2D.
I was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and it’s where I learned to turkey hunt. Full disclosure: hunting pressure can affect your experience, as it’s hard to rival spring gobbler enthusiasm here, especially on public land. As a result, coupled with these challenging days of “social distancing,” hunters might do better to concentrate on state game lands far from crowded parking areas.
My best spring turkey hunting in Pennsylvania has come the week after Mother’s Day, well into the season.
Mary Jo Casalena, the state’s longtime turkey biologist, said: “Eastern wild turkey populations across their range have recently been trending downward and Pennsylvania's wild turkey population is showing the same trend. Wild turkey populations have been below average for the last four years.” The state’s official estimated number is 212,175 birds.
Some would suggest New York spring gobbler hunting isn't what it was a decade or two ago. And there’s some truth to that. Back then, roughly a quarter-of-a-million turkeys roamed the state. I can personally attest to this decline, having turkey hunted New York since the early 1990s. Yet there are still some decent opportunities to be found, all things considered, including current COVID-19 challenges (this state is a “hotspot,” with 138,773 cases reported as of April 9).
Where to Go
Northeastern hunters know New York offers good spring gobbler opportunities, with vast public lands, Wildlife Management Areas, state forests and landowners willing to offer access (18.6 million forested acres).
While the media depicts challenges to our lifestyle by urban New York lawmakers, rural state residents and landowners are often hunters and gun owners.
In short, the news isn’t good.
The official New York State Department of Environmental Conservation word is: “After reaching their peak around 2001, wild turkey populations declined gradually over the next decade, followed by a more severe decline since 2009. There are several reasons for this, including a natural population contraction as turkey populations settled down to levels more in line with local environmental conditions, and other factors such as density dependence, poor production, and changing habitats and predator communities.”
As of this writing, some 180,000 turkeys roost here.
New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country (1,185 residents per square mile). That said, as with neighboring New York state, it's also currently a COVID-19 hotspot. On the upside, as wild turkeys go, officials suggest last year's poult numbers were good.
Where to Go
Reliable public lands include the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, the Pine Barrens Region, Wharton State Forest, Belle Plain State Forest, and Peaslee Wildlife Management Area.
While many states allow for the legal taking of "bearded birds" (including hens), the Garden State does not. Only male turkeys may be tagged (adult toms and jakes). Legal tactics are calling or stand hunting only.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection reports, “There is now an abundance of wild turkeys throughout the state with turkeys found wherever there is suitable habitat. In South Jersey, where wild turkeys had been struggling just a few years ago, intensive restoration efforts have improved population numbers significantly. The statewide population is now estimated at 20,000-25,000 turkeys, with an annual harvest of approximately 3,000 birds.”
From the state’s western mountains to the Eastern shore’s marshes – both locations of which hold Maryland's strongest turkey numbers – spring hunters here will find plenty of habitat diversity.
Where to Go
Public land open to hunting is available here, with the state agency holding title to 111,000 acres spread throughout 47 Wildlife Management Areas and state forests.
Some options include: Billmeyer-Belle Grove WMA, Cunningham Swamp WMA, Dan’s Mountain WMA, Earlville WMA, Grove Farm WMA, Indian Springs WMA, Old Bohemia WMA, Sideling Hill WMA and Warrior Mountain WMA.
While this spring of the coronavirus pandemic is impacting travel, I've known a few of my turkey hunting buds in the past to visit Maryland due to its proximity to the neighboring states of Pennsylvania and Virginia. They’ve had good turkey hunts, with minimal to no pressure from other hunters.
Official word says 40,000 turkeys roam here. The highest concentrations are in the west and east (as mentioned earlier), but also including the northern region near the Pennsylvania line. Populations in the central part of the state are said to be “stable,” while the southern third of Maryland is seeing varied, but overall increased production.
In 1984, wild turkeys were first released in Delaware, with 34 Easterns trucked in from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Vermont. Subsequent stockings throughout the 1990s – along with 33 additional birds in 2002 from South Carolina and Virginia – have helped increase the state’s overall population. A limited spring hunting season was first offered in 1991.
Hunting public land in Delaware is strictly regulated. Read the laws closely. In truth, it’s not always easy finding a place to work a turkey, insiders tell me. Public land access is limited. Then again, if you live in Delaware and can access private land, that’s the angle to take.
Hunters should also note that days open for hunting some species on public lands may vary from the general hunting season. Hunters should closely check the current laws for each public area they plan to hunt, including COVID-19 updates.
Turkey hunting is only available through a preseason lottery. Also, for those who like to put a real turkey fan on a staked fake, the Delaware rule reads: “Decoys may have no parts from a formerly live turkey.”
Some 6,000 turkeys roam here, state officials say. This number has remained stable for the last several years.
Steve Hickoff is Realtree.com's editorial director and turkey hunting editor. He’s been beaten by more birds than he can remember. Still he kills enough to eat well, and fool with beards, spurs and fans until the next season. Pennsylvania born and raised, Maine is his home base now. A full-time outdoor communicator with a couple university writing degrees, he chases spring gobblers and fall flocks around the country.