Turkey population has reached a new normal with mixed predictions for the spring harvest

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If fly fishing requires an angler to know more about the animal and master special skills, it's fair to say spring gobbler season is the fly fishing of hunting.

And just as public interest in steelhead began in the Pacific Northwest, turkey-mania was boosted, if not started, by the writings and product lines of former Game Commission biologist, former Pittsburgh Press outdoors editor Roger Latham.

During the May 3-May 31 season, hunters could see higher numbers of year-old jakes as a result of above-average reproduction in 2013. But just south of the Mason-Dixon, West Virginia hunters could see a decreased harvest when that state's season opens tomorrow.

It's unclear what those conflicting harvest forecasts could mean for Pennsylvania turkey hunters in the bordering southwestern counties of Greene, Fayette, Somerset, Bedford and Fulton.

"Since the typical gobbler harvested is usually a two-year-old bird, the [West Virginia] DNR routinely uses the brood reports from two years prior to estimate harvest trends," said Curtis Taylor, head of the Division of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Section, in a written statement.

West Virginia has an estimated 140,000 turkeys. The 2013 spring harvest was 10,974.

"On a statewide level, the brood reports from 2012 were lower than the five-year average, indicating that the statewide harvest may be lower in 2014," said Taylor. "There were regional variations in the data. Hunters in the southern region may not see a decline. Hunters in the mountain and western regions, however, will likely notice fewer birds."

In Pennsylvania, where the turkey population is larger (estimated 191,000) and the 2013 spring harvest was greater (34,158), the forecast is brighter but with a caveat.

"The season that awaits promises to be a memorable one for Pennsylvania's turkey hunters," said Mary Jo Casalena, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's wild turkey biologist, in her annual preseason forecast. "While the statewide turkey population has experienced moderate declines in recent years, Pennsylvania hunters for nearly 20 years have consistently harvested more than 30,000 turkeys in the spring season, which is open to hunting only bearded birds -- typically males. This year, hunters should see higher numbers of year-old males ... as a result of above-average reproduction in 2013. And while many hunters prefer to hold out for the bigger and larger gobblers, the abundance of jakes out there could lead to increased sightings and hunter harvests."

In a wild turkey population trend analysis published in January, Casalena wrote that turkey numbers peaked in 2001 at about 275,000, and by 2009 had dropped to a new normal of around 175,000.

"Eastern wild turkey populations across their range have recently been trending downward and Pennsylvania's wild turkey population is showing the same trend," she wrote. "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 and changing environmental conditions. Our challenge as wildlife managers is to determine what the new sustainable population level should be given current and future socio-environmental conditions. Wild turkey populations have been below average for the last four years."

Outdoor Life magazine's Strut Zone turkey blog, which included Pennsylvania in its recent assessment of "10 big-time turkey states," shared a pragmatic view.

"Brood production in 2013 was below average with some exceptions, but older gobblers are fairly abundant [in Pennsylvania]," wrote turkey correspondent John E. Phillips. "Turkey numbers are down, but there are still plenty of turkeys available. Gobbling activity may be suppressed by the lack of 2-year-old birds."

The report recommended hunting in several State Game Lands and state forests in Eastern Pennsylvania. The only place west of State College mentioned was Allegheny National Forest.

Split season hours continue this season. May 3-17 hunting is permitted 30 minutes before sunrise until noon, May 19-31 the hours are 30 minutes before sunrise until 30 minutes after sunset.

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