HARRISBURG – This year marks the 41st anniversary of the Keystone State’s spring gobbler hunting season, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission is reporting turkey hunters should expect to find exciting opportunities afield . . .
The general spring gobbler season is April 25 to May 25. Hunters who have purchased a second spring gobbler season license may harvest up to two bearded turkeys.
“For the springs of four decades, wild turkey hunters have had a chance to match wits with gobblers in the fields and forests of Pennsylvania, and to say they have taken a shine to this special season would be an understatement,” explained Carl G. Roe, Game Commission executive director. “Although the season was somewhat controversial when proposed, and we started it conservatively to ensure the resource could handle it, today it is one of our most popular seasons and annually provides recreation for hundreds of thousands of people. In fact, it’s hard for most of us to imagine a time when Pennsylvania didn’t have a spring gobbler season, or what spring would be like if we didn’t have one.”
The first spring gobbler season started on a Monday and ran only six days so biologists could get a pulse on hunter success and the season’s impact on the more than 60,000 wild turkeys inhabiting about half of Pennsylvania’s forestland at the time. It worked! More hunters were afield on the last day of the season – a Saturday – than the opener, and hunters took a total of 1,636 turkeys in the new season.
In 2008, hunters took 40,522 bearded wild turkeys in the spring gobbler seasons (including 1,954 with second spring gobbler licenses) from an estimated statewide spring population of about 335,000. The spring wild turkey population peaked in 2001, when it numbered 410,000. So, it’s fair to say the status of wild turkeys has changed dramatically over the past 40 years.
“Pennsylvania began to establish its well-respected presence in the annals of America’s wild turkey management history back in the '60s through the efforts of two biologists who made their peers stop and look at what was going on here,” said Mary Jo Casalena, Game Commission wild turkey biologist. “Gerald Wunz and Arnie Hayden refined turkey trap-and-transfer techniques and multi-season frameworks to help turkeys reclaim their former range throughout the state."
Today, Pennsylvania manages one of the most prolific wild turkey populations in America. It is an accomplishment that is directly related to both previous and ongoing management practices, the state’s outstanding tapestry of turkey-friendly habitats and the resiliency of Pennsylvania’s wild turkeys.
“The preliminary 2008 spring gobbler harvest was the sixth highest on record,” Casalena said. “It is nine percent above the previous three-year average, and just three percent below the previous 10-year average, which included a period when Pennsylvania logged five consecutive harvests of more than 40,000 gobblers.”
Final spring gobbler harvests, prior to 2008’s preliminary harvest of 40,522, are: 37,880, 2007; 39,297, 2006; 32,593, 2005; 41,017, 2004; and 42,876, 2003. The preliminary fall wild turkey harvest was about 26,500, which is up substantially from the 21,900 in 2007, and 21,500 in '06.
Final 2008 harvest figures will be available later this summer.
In 2008, 1,954 second turkeys were taken by 8,795 hunters who purchased special turkey licenses. That compares with 1,507 turkeys with 7,585 licenses in 2007, and 1,454 turkeys with 8,041 licenses in 2006.
So what can hunters expect this spring? Well, according to Casalena, some spillover of last fall’s success.
“Harvesting a spring gobbler is challenging, there’s no doubt about it!” Casalena reported. “This year, I predict a slightly higher-than-average harvest, based on the slightly above-average summer turkey reproduction two years ago. We know, from preliminary data analyses of three years of our four-year gobbler study, hunters select the older longbeards over juveniles, or jakes, and the two-year-old age class, in particular, are the most vocal, and most readily come to a hunter’s call. The older four- and five-year-old age classes usually are much more wary, and there just aren’t as many in the population. So, because of the slightly above average number of two-year-olds in this year’s flocks, I predict a slightly higher than average harvest.”
PA Wild Turkey Field Reports
WMU 1A – Above the statewide average, but well below average for this WMU. Last year provided the worst reproduction since 1996. With a shortened two-week fall season since 2005, expect 2009 spring harvest to be only slightly lower than last year, even with below-average reproduction the past two years. The population of two-year old gobblers, the age-class most likely to respond to hunters’ calls, is below average, but there still may be a good proportion of three and four-year-olds in the population. But they are the more experienced and wary age-classes. The key here is to scout prior to the season.
WMA 1B – Excellent compared to the statewide average. Slightly below average for the WMU due to the below-average proportion of two-year old males in the population. For those who enjoy calling in the older three-year-olds, there still may be a good proportion in the population. Jakes abound.
WMU 2A – Still well above the statewide average, but well below average for itself. Fall turkey season was shortened from three weeks to two weeks in 2007, which will allow more turkeys to survive to the 2009 spring season, along with more hens. There is an average proportion of two-year-old males in the population, so take advantage of this vocal age class as the older age classes and jakes are below average.
WMU 2B – Variable. This WMU is difficult to predict because of the lack of public land. For hunters who secure access to hunting areas, prospects are above the state average for calling in either a two- or three-year-old gobbler.
WMU 2C – This spring should be as good or better than the last two springs, because of a combination of a shorter fall season length from three to two weeks since 2004, and excellent reproduction in 2006 and 2007, so there are more two- and three-year-olds in the population than the previous five years. Spring harvest densities (harvests per square mile) remain below the statewide average.
WMU 2D – Good compared to the statewide average, but below average for this WMU. Summer reproduction last year was again below average for this WMU for the fifth consecutive year. Although last spring’s harvest increased from the previous three years, expect this spring’s harvest to decrease slightly, as a result of the continued low summer reproductive success.
WMU 2E – Excellent for this WMU for harvesting two- and three-year-olds, but below the statewide average. Due to the below-average reproduction last summer, the harvest of jakes will be low. But because hunters often select the older age classes, the harvest may not be impacted and may be slightly higher than average.
WMU 2F – The population has increased from that of the last several years, because of above-average reproduction last year and the shortened fall season (from 3 weeks to 2 weeks since 2007), which has allowed more turkeys to survive to each successive breeding season. Expect an average proportion of two-year-old males in the population for easy calling and an above-average population of jakes that typically come in quietly to hunters. Harvest density continues to be below the long-term average for this WMU and below the statewide average. However, hunters continue to enjoy hunting the extensive public lands in this WMU.
WMU 2G – Prospects are good for an above-average harvest. Summer reproduction over the last four years has been increasing and the two-year-old population now has rebounded to average for this WMU. The population is rebounding to the long-term average for this WMU, and is now above the state average, but spring harvest densities (harvest per square mile) are still below the state average.
WMU 3A - Prospects look very promising for another above-average harvest. It will be excellent for all age-classes of gobblers, except jakes, as a result of below-average reproduction last year. Summer turkey sightings in 2007 hit a record high, better than the heyday years of 2001 and 2002 so the population of the vocal two-year-old gobblers has never been better.
WMU 3B – Excellent compared to the statewide average and above average for this WMU. This WMU typically maintains relatively steady summer turkey sightings, but for the last two years they were at or above record levels, so expect the spring harvest to be well above average.
WMU 3C – Excellent compared to the statewide and WMU averages. Summer reproduction has been at record levels for the past three years, setting the stage for a record population of jakes and two- and 3-year-old-gobblers for 2009. Expect harvests to be well above the state average and above average for this WMU.
WMU 3D – Above the statewide average, but average compared to itself. This WMU typically maintains harvest densities above the state average, but there are fewer two-year-old gobblers this year than average. Jakes abound so hunters may desire harvesting these.
WMU 4A – Excellent for this WMU, similar to the statewide average. Although harvest densities (harvest per square mile) remain below the statewide average, compared to itself, harvests are expected to be off the charts for two-year-olds because of the record reproduction in 2007. Populations of other age classes also are above the long-term average. The two-week fall season since 2004 may be helping this population to rebound even with the variations in annual reproduction.
WMU 4B – Above the statewide average, but average for this WMU. The populations of two- and three-year-old gobblers are average so expect a good gobbling year. The population of jakes is below average. With the continued two-week fall season, spring harvest densities have been increasing even though this WMU has had tremendous fluctuations in recruitment recently.
WMU 4C – Second best 2008 spring harvest density (harvest per square mile) in the state and hunters should expect a similar harvest this year. This WMU continues to maintain one of the highest spring harvest densities in the state, even though the summer turkey sighting index trend remains below the statewide average. Indications from the above-average jake population and average population of other gobbler age classes, as well as the slightly increasing spring harvest density trend, suggest that hunting prospects again will be excellent.
WMU 4D – Above average for this WMU, below the statewide average. The population of jakes is above average and that of the vocal two-year-old old gobblers is average. Although the summer turkey sighting index and spring harvest density remain below the statewide average, spring harvest densities have been improving for the past three years, partially as a result of the two-week fall season from 2004-2006, which allowed more birds to survive to the spring season.
WMU 4E – Like WMU 4C, another turkey hotspot. Highest spring 2008 harvest density (harvest per square mile) in the state. Also, summer turkey sightings show a record number of jakes, two- and 3-year-old gobblers in the population. Expect this year’s harvest to be even better than last year’s.
WMU 5A – Above average for this WMU; far below the statewide average. Although harvests and summer turkey sightings continue to be some of the lowest in the state, the closed fall turkey season and above-average summer reproduction for the past 2 summers have been factors aiding in population increase. Two-year old gobblers and jakes are plentiful for 2009.
WMU 5B - The data set for this WMU is minimal, but overall, expect an average harvest compared to itself. Harvests and summer turkey sightings are some of the lowest in the state.
WMU 5C – Average to slightly above average for this WMU, below the statewide average. Expect an average to slightly above-average harvest as indicated from an average proportion of two-year and three-year-old gobblers and an above-average proportion of jakes in the population. Harvest density remains below the statewide average.
WMU 5D – Data set is too small to predict harvest.
(Jake Dingel/PGC Photo)
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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.