Time for tricks, treats and wild turkey
In a coincidence splashed with serendipity, Pennsylvania’s fall turkey hunting season corresponds perfectly with the fall holiday season, essentially stretching from just before Halloween to Thanksgiving day in many of the state’s Wildlife Management Units (WMUs). It should come as no surprise that diehard Keystone State turkey hunters can be expected to forsake those supermarket Butterballs, preferring instead to grace their Thanksgiving Day tables with wild, free-ranging hens, gobblers, and Jakes.
To that end, Pennsylvania’s wild turkey season began this Saturday, Oct. 27, in most parts of the state, but the duration of the season is determined by Wildlife Management Unit, although, in fact, fall-turkey hunting is closed in some areas (like ours). The fall season is closed in WMUs 5C and 5D, an area which encompasses all of Delaware, Bucks, and Montgomery Counties here in our southeastern neck of Penn’s Woods. This also includes almost all of Chester County and most of Berks County. Those portions of Chester and Berks County that fall within the borders of WMU 5B offers a very abbreviated fall turkey season running from Oct. 30 through Nov. 1. The three-day, Tuesdaythrough-Thursday season in WMU 5B marks the second straight year the WMU has been opened to fall-turkey hunting, a result of sufficient rebound in population trends, according to Pennsylvania Game Commission wild turkey biologist Mary Jo Casalena.
The seasons for the remaining WMUs are as follows: WMU 1B – Oct. 27Nov. 3; WMU 2B (Shotgun and archery gear only) – Oct. 27-Nov. 16 and Nov. 22-24; WMUs 1A, 2A (Shotgun and archery gear only in Allegheny County), 4A and 4B, – Oct. 27-Nov. 3 and Nov. 22-24; WMUs 2D, 2E, 2F, 2G, 2H, 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D, 4C, 4D and 4E – Oct. 27-Nov. 10 and Nov. 22-24; WMU 2C – Oct. 27-Nov. 16 and Nov. 22-24; WMU 5A – Nov. 1-3; The three-day Thursdaythrough-Saturday season remains intact in WMU 5A to provide greater opportunity for hunters whose schedules do not allow for a weekday hunt.
Unlike the spring turkey season in which hunters are permitted to harvest only bearded birds, any turkey can be harvested in the fall season. And since research shows that overharvesting hen turkeys can impact the population, fall season lengths are adjusted by WMU based on available population data.
“Young male turkeys, also known as 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.”
Last year’s fall harvest of 9,266 was down from 10,844 in 2016 and was 37 percent below the previous three-year average of 14,718, likely due to a combination of a decrease in fall hunting participation, possibly due to our aging hunter population, or hunters switching to archery deer and bear hunting, shorter fall season lengths in many WMUs, below average turkey reproduction (translating to smaller sized turkey flocks) and abundant acorn crops in much of the state, which tended to scatter flocks making them more difficult to locate, Casalena said.
“Turkey reproduction this summer varied across the state with above average recruitment in some Wildlife Management Units, but below average in neighboring WMUs, so it’s best to get out and see for yourself what the reproduction was like in your area,” Casalena said.
Casalena noted that acorn, beech and cherry production also varied across the state, with most areas having average to below-average hard mast production. However, a lack of these food items tends to keep flocks congregated where the food exists and, therefore easier for hunters to find, thus increasing fall turkey harvest, she said. Keep in mind you may be searching for miles in the big woods before locating a flock, so a hunting dog is very helpful for fall turkey and may increase hunter success. Hunters who enjoy hunting other species with a dog know how rewarding it is to share the experience and excitement with their dog, and the same is true for fall turkey hunting.
According to Casalena, the fall season is a great time to introduce a novice turkey hunter to the sport. “It’s not only a great time to be in the woods, but novice turkey callers can be just as successful as a pro when mimicking a lost turkey poult,” she said. “And once a flock is located, I remind hunters that turkeys are tipped off more by movement and a hunter’s outline than fluorescent orange.”
The Thanksgiving threeday season provides additional opportunities for participation, and is also a very successful season with about 20 percent of the harvest during those three days.
Last year’s fall hunter success rate of 9 percent was similar to the previous four-year average. Fall hunter success varies considerably depending on summer reproduction, food availability, weather during the season, and hunter participation. Hunter success was as high as 21 percent in 2001, a year with excellent recruitment, and as low as 4 percent in 1979.
Hopefully hunter success isn’t measured only by whether a turkey is harvested. Enjoying time afield with family, friends, a hunting dog, and/or mentoring a hunter also qualifies a hunt as successful.
For the record, we do have wild turkeys here in the southeast corner of the state, just not too many. In a somewhat ironic twist, on Saturday’s opening day I spotted a small flock of about half a dozen turkeys feeding in a field just south of West Chester. Although hunting for spring gobblers is permitted here, we don’t yet have a healthy enough turkey population to permit hunting in the fall, and these unconcerned birds seemed to know it. Maybe someday.
The annual whitetail rut, aka the deer herd’s breeding season, is ramping up. What may be good news for bowhunters is bad news for motorists. Rutting bucks will be chasing does all over the countryside while clueless yearlings are often abandoned and end up playing in traffic with deadly results. Beware of deer on our roadways, especially at dusk and dawn. Don’t be one of those unfortunate, inattentive motorists who puts the “BAM” in Bambi.