Fall turkey forecast calls for fewer birds scattered over wider areas
Be warned: This year’s fall turkey hunting might be tough.
The season opened Saturday in most parts of the state and continues through Nov. 8, 15 or 21, depending on wildlife management unit. It comes back in Nov. 27-29 across Western Pennsylvania, too.
A veritable ton of hunters — by recent standards, anyway — pursued turkeys last fall. Pennsylvania Game Commission estimates put the figure at about 199,000. That’s a far cry from the almost 500,000 fall turkey hunters the state had at its peak in 1980, but it’s significantly higher than the record low of 129,000 in 2012 and even the most recent three-year average of almost 146,000.
Maybe the extra-good hunting drew them out.
Thanks to a strong nesting season, there were a lot of birds in the woods last year, said Mary Jo Casalena, turkey biologist for the commission. Food supplies, meanwhile, were scarce and scattered.
That combination made flocks relatively easy to pin down, she said. Hunters who found one of the few places with acorns also found birds.
Almost 17,000 hunters — 16,755, to be exact — filled their tag. That was about a 10 percent jump in harvest over the recent average.
Things may be more difficult this time around.
Many hens entered spring drained by the long, bitter winter, Casalena said. They nested late, if at all, and broods were small. That will translate into fewer juvenile turkeys than usual, she said.
At the same time, it’s been a banner year for acorns — the turkey’s favorite fall food — across much of Pennsylvania.
The result will be smaller flocks spread over a larger part of the landscape.
“They’re just kind of out there wandering around the woods more than last year, so I think hunters are going to have to put more time into moving around and searching around for flocks,” Casalena said.
“I don’t want to discourage people or suggest they not go hunting. But I know myself I expect to put a lot more miles on my boots looking for turkeys this year than usual.”
To find birds, hunters should use their eyes and ears, said Steve Hickoff, a Pennsylvania native living in Maine who serves as Realtree’s turkey hunting editor and wrote the book, “Fall and Winter Turkey Hunter’s Handbook.”
“You’ve got to spend time in the woods listening and looking. If you’re not hearing them on the roost — and they do talk a lot on the roost in the fall — then look for all of the things we associate with turkeys such as scratchings, tracks in the mud, dropping and especially in the fall, molted feathers,” Hickoff said.
From there, the technique for hunting them is pretty standard. The advice offered by the Missouri Department of Conservation, for example, is the same put forward across the eastern turkey’s range.
“The basic strategy for fall turkey hunting is to find and break up a flock, scattering them in all directions. Then locate yourself as near as possible to the spot where you broke up the flock and wait 15 minutes” before calling, the department suggests.
How a hunter calls depends on the specific birds he’s scattered, though, Hickoff said.
“In the fall, you want to get a good idea of what kind of flock you’re dealing with,” Hickoff said. “You want to call like the birds you’re hunting.”
If the flock is a family group, assembly hen yelps and kee-kee runs are the way to go, he said. A flock of barren hens might respond to higher-pitched clucks and yelps, he said, while one made up of gobblers often will respond to raspier yelps, fighting purrs and even gobbles.
Hickoff doesn’t think hunters can call too much in the fall — turkeys are more likely to be “pressure shy” than call shy — but some patience may be in order.
“When you scatter a family flock, they start regrouping almost immediately. Within 45 minutes to an hour, they start getting back together,” Hickoff said.
Gobbler flocks are different. On a recent hunt in New York, it took two hours to call in one gobbler and two hours more to kill another, he added.
“Which is nothing to a whitetail hunter. But I think a lot of turkey hunters, unless they have confidence in their scatter, aren’t willing to sit that long,” Hickoff said.
Of course, hunters can do everything seemingly right and still not kill a turkey. That’s just part of the game, Hickoff said.
“They’re still a great mystery to me, even though I hunt them a lot,” he said. “But that’s the cool part of it.”