Is It Time to Rethink Fall Turkey Hunting?

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With flocks declining in some places, here's what biologists have to say about managing this autumn tradition

“It feels like I’m breaking the law,” my dad used to say of Pennsylvania spring turkey hunting. Though it was legalized in 1968, it still felt unusual to be out there in the woods.

You see, in the north-central mountains where I grew up, the fall turkey tradition ruled. In fact, older guys my age now used to say it was downright shameful to hunt during the spring breeding season when gobblers came to the call easier and were easy marks. How times have changed.

A lifelong fall turkey traditionalist, I love the spring hunt as well — as do 2.5 million others like you, reading this. Like many, I am as interested in the conservation of the wild turkey as I am in continuing my enjoyment of autumn hunting.

Increasingly, officials are looking at the taking of spring gobblers too early, based on established seasons, as it negatively affects the breeding cycle of hens. (© John Hafner photo)

Attitudes and Adjustments

As wildlife management goes, a few states around the country have already adjusted 2020 fall turkey seasons and 2021 spring gobbler limits. In part, this is based not only on increased participation during the season of the pandemic — great news for cash-strapped wildlife agencies — but also on subsequently higher kill numbers for many states, a challenge moving forward.

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Increasingly, officials are looking at the taking of spring gobblers too early, based on established seasons, as it negatively affects the breeding cycle of hens. Some vocal sportsmen, however — those who choose not to hunt fall turkeys — still blame the taking of either-sex turkeys (hens in particular) for declining turkey numbers. Both are right and wrong, depending. Questions remain.

“There are several reasons for the decline: the natural leveling off of the populations following population restoration from trap and transfer, fluctuations due to annual nest success and poult survival, fall harvests, increasing predator populations, possible unknown factors from new/emerging diseases and changing environmental conditions.” — Mary Jo Casalena, PA Turkey Biologist

What are the impacts of the fall turkey harvest on the overall flock? How can both spring and fall turkey seasons coexist in these challenging times? Do these changes do any good, biologically speaking? Or is it a political move for wildlife agencies pressured by the license-buying public that hunts other game instead of fall turkeys? 

It depends on the state, the management philosophy, the mast crop and more.

Maine: Liberal Limit/Longer Season

“The fall wild turkey season opened two weeks earlier in 2019 to expand hunting opportunity and encourage more harvest in Wildlife Management Districts (WMDs) with high wild turkey densities,” says Kelsey Sullivan, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife migratory and upland game bird biologist.

“For the same reason, the bag limits in WMDs 15, 16, 17, and 20 to 25 were increased from two to five birds.” Was the state’s wild turkey flock decimated? Hardly.

“Despite these liberalizations, the total harvest was 1,980,” Sullivan says. That 2019 kill number — 1,982 either-sex turkeys to be exact — was down substantially from the previous year, when hunters took 3,507 fall turkeys.

Go figure. The reason, according to Sullivan? Food sources.

“Fall turkey harvest can be influenced by the abundance of natural foods, such as acorns. In years when acorns are abundant and widely distributed (a high mast crop year), turkeys are widely distributed across the landscape,” he said.

“This makes encountering turkeys in the fall less frequent, and the total season harvest tends to be lower. Fall 2019 was a high acorn mast crop year, decreasing the likelihood of turkey encounters. And as a result, very few wild turkey hunters took a full season bag limit of five birds last fall,” the Maine biologist says.

Here is a look at last year’s numbers:

  • 29 hunters took five wild turkeys each.
  • 42 hunters took four wild turkeys each.
  • 94 hunters took three wild turkeys each.

In short, the above 165 hunters took 595 Maine fall turkeys last year. The rest killed 1,387 birds.

Sullivan’s prediction for this 2020 autumn season? “In low mast years … turkeys are concentrated and more likely to be encountered.” And this is one of those years.

As a result, he predicts the fall harvest will be higher and closer to the 2018 season when 3,507 turkeys were registered, and when low mast crops and successful summer wild turkey reproduction led to high harvest numbers. (This season's fall total as of this writing is 3,364; Nov. 7 is the last day.)

Maine wildlife officials base the fall turkey season on areas of high and low wild turkey densities. Some WMDs allow hunters to take five either-sex birds; some three; some just one turkey; and yes, some none. Hunter participation in the state’s fall turkey hunt — or the lack of — is also a factor.

Pennsylvania: Conservative Limit/Shorter Season

“Eastern wild turkey populations across their range have recently been trending downward, and Pennsylvania's wild turkey population is showing the same trend,” Mary Jo Casalena, the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) turkey biologist, says.

“There are several reasons for the decline: the natural leveling off of the populations following population restoration from trap and transfer, fluctuations due to annual nest success and poult survival, fall harvests, increasing predator populations, possible unknown factors from new/emerging diseases and changing environmental conditions,” Casalena says. “Our challenge as wildlife managers is to determine what the new sustainable population level should be given current and future socio-environmental conditions.”

Some opportunities are expanding. Twenty-nine states, including Pennsylvania and Maine,  currently permit the use of dogs during the fall turkey season — featuring all the enjoyable aspects of other forms of upland bird hunting, with a few twists —to find and scatter flocks for your call-back session; up from just 11 states in the early ’90s. (© Steve Hickoff photo)

What are the impacts of the fall harvest on the overall flock? According to Casalena, the PGC can most effectively manage turkey populations in two ways:

  • Improve turkey habitat for nesting and poult rearing. The more than 1.5 million acres of state game lands are managed specifically for wildlife. However, private landowners can help by maintaining high-quality nesting and brood-rearing habitat.
  • The second, and more direct method, of managing turkey populations is through adjusting the length of the fall hunting season. Results of PGC’s hen turkey study demonstrated that fall hen harvest rates can be increased or decreased through one-week adjustments. On average, 60% of the fall harvest are hens, so minor tweaks to the season length can increase/decrease female survival.

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Maine vs. Pennsylvania

Maine’s turkey population sits at an estimated 70,000 turkeys. The combined annual kill was 8,594 in 2019 (6,612 spring; 1,982 fall), 9,743 in 2018 (6,236 spring; 3,507 fall), and 7,129 in 2017 (5,597 spring; 1,532 fall). According to Sullivan, this has been on a par with a seven-year trend. The state is hitting its management goals for the wild turkey, and even strongly encouraging fall turkey hunting to continue to meet it.

According to the PGC, my native state of Pennsylvania has more spring turkey hunters than most others, 230,000, with more hunting pressure on the roughly 220,000 to 230,000 turkeys that roam there — so management strategies need to adjust to meet long-term strategic goals. In 2017, turkey hunters killed 38,101 spring birds; two years ago, 40,303; and last spring, 37,286. Although the harvest numbers aren’t final yet, a slight decrease for the season of the pandemic is predicted.

The PGC’s position is to manage wild turkey population levels by regulating the fall either-sex kill. In areas being managed for higher turkey populations, the fall season is short or closed altogether. Areas with stable or increasing populations, game managers believe, can withstand longer fall seasons.

And because all licensed Pennsylvania hunters can participate in turkey hunting, they manage fall turkey harvests through regulation of fall hunting season lengths within WMUs.

Declining Participation, Enhanced Options

Overall, fall turkey hunter numbers are in decline, with rising interest in the spring tradition. Still, some states enthusiastically market autumn turkey hunts. Others offer no fall turkey season; Georgia, for instance, manages its statewide population for the spring hunt.

Overall, fall turkey hunter numbers are in decline, with rising interest in the spring tradition. Still, some states enthusiastically market autumn turkey hunts. (© John Hafner photo)

The PGC has measured this trend for the past several decades and reports: “Since 2000, the number of spring turkey hunters has exceeded that of fall turkey hunters in Pennsylvania. This switch is not only the result of fall hunters switching to spring turkey hunting but also an influx of new turkey hunters who hunt only in the spring.” Other states try to be nimble with options, for instance:

  • New Hampshire holds an archery-only season for one fall turkey from Sept. 15 to Dec. 15 (WMUs B-M) coinciding with the deer bow hunt — assuming you didn’t use both turkey tags in the spring. A one-week shotgun season is also slotted in mid-October.
  • Twenty-nine states currently permit the use of dogs during the fall season — featuring all the enjoyable aspects of other forms of upland bird hunting, with a few twists — to find and scatter flocks for your call-back session (up from just 11 states in the early ’90s).
  • And Florida fall and winter turkey hunts include generous opportunities over four zones for two turkeys from Aug. 1 (Zone A, archery/crossbow) to as late as Jan. 17, 2021 (Zone D, gun).

Season-length regulations. Method-of-take variations. Limited or no autumn turkey seasons. Modest kill limits to expanded tag options. Fall turkey seasons around the country are managed in different ways, depending on state management philosophies, often with the growing interest in spring hunting in mind.

Let's face it, though: more than ever before, wildlife management is driven by state politics, customer satisfaction for those who fund state fish and game departments (largely hunters), and increasingly, cultural perspectives from non-hunters sometimes seeded more in emotion than reasonable measures.

In truth, fall turkey hunting should continue as a management tool for wildlife biologists, with appropriate season-to-season conservation measures based on science over sentiment, individual states depending. All parties concerned need to keep an open mind to format adjustments as this goes. This includes recreational users and lobbyists motivated to change regulations for reasons other than conservation.

In the end, even hunters who favor spring gobblers over chasing flocks in autumn — a time when they might prefer sitting on deer or decoying ducks — might reconsider opinions on the so-called other turkey season. If it's not for you, so be it. But consider all the factors first ...

Given the factual evidence and subjective viewpoints, is it time for you to rethink fall turkey hunting?

[Multiple Turkey Harvest, License Sales Records Set in 2020]