Harvest for fall turkeys is 'pretty good'
Two years into a four-year study, Game Commission biologists want to learn how hunting season lengths impact wild turkey populations.
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In the fall, it's a whole new bird.
Mature gobblers hang together without exhibiting predictable mating behaviors and wary of calls or completely ignoring them. Immature males flock with hens, and free of the harem mentality, the jakes are less inclined to regroup when a flock is busted. Both sexes are more mobile than in spring, roaming the woodlands and field edges in search of acorns and other hard mast.
Fall turkey hunting is a whole new hunt. It can be more physically demanding of hunters who cover more acreage to find and bust a flock. It can be easier in the sense that gobblers and hens may be harvested, and calling is generally reduced to a couple of key phrases.
Last year in Pennsylvania, about 145,000 hunters sought turkeys in the fall, while 206,000 hunted for spring gobblers. Some of that may be explained by fewer hunting opportunities in the spring and multiple overlapping seasons in the fall, but specifics of the fall hunt make it exciting for many.
"Fall turkey hunting is great -- I love it," said state Game Commission turkey specialist Mary Jo Casalena. "It's a completely different kind of hunt than in the spring."
The forecast for autumn turkeys is "pretty good," she said, following a successful hatch and a dry, warm spring that increased the poult survival rate. Weak acorn production in Somerset County and perhaps other parts of southwestern Pennsylvania is a gift to turkey hunters, who will find the birds near productive oak stands. In southcentral and northeastern wildlife management units, where mast production was more abundant, turkeys will roam and find acorns everywhere.
"A good acorn crop tends to disperse turkeys throughout the woods and they're sometimes harder to find," Casalena said. "Preseason scouting is important."
The fall hunt opens Saturday in most WMUs, and season lengths generally vary from two to three weeks. That's not a management strategy. Embedded in the commission's 2006-15 wild turkey management plan, a harvest rate study now in its second year, is an experiment designed to help biologists learn more about the ways that season length can impact turkey populations. The study proposes that in 2013-14, WMUs that now have two-week seasons will get a three-week hunt, and those with three-week seasons will be shortened to two.
"Regulating the fall season is where we can have the most impact on the turkey population," Casalena said. [With the study] we'll be able to see how changing fall seasons affects the harvest rate. It will show us if changing fall seasons really helps us to manage the turkey population. ... We hope hunters will understand that [intention] next year when we ask the board of commissioners to change the three-week seasons to two weeks."
Since 1968, when Pennsylvania initiated its spring gobbler season, a hunting culture has grown that favors calling them close into shotgun range. (Archery and muzzleloading equipment also are legal.)
But in the fall, hunters have another option. Manually operated rifles and handguns, including rimfires, are legal for wild turkey in most areas, greatly increasing the kill zone. Casalena said the regulation is designed, at least in part, to give autumn hunters targeting other game species permission to take a turkey when the opportunity arises. Game Commission research shows that about 20 percent of fall turkey hunters use rifles.
"With rifle hunting there are two techniques," said Bob Eriksen of Phillipsburg, N.J., a regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation. "The main technique is still-hunting, where you're at a post and call them in, but you shoot from what might be considered just outside shotgun range -- 50 to 60 yards, or farther. The other [technique] is to keep moving and keep your ear to the ground, listening for scratching or turkey talk. When you see or hear turkeys approaching, you sit tight and pick and choose your shot."
The range advantage, however, might be offset by the target dimensions and need for an extremely precise shot.
Big game rifles, commonly .30 caliber or larger, are generally considered unsuitable for turkey hunting -- bullets made to kill a deer or bear tear up a lot of turkey meat. (Some reloaders pack .30 caliber casings, with the lightest loads available, for turkeys.) But lighter, flatter trajectory rifles, including the .243 or .22 Hornet, are better turkey guns. Rimfire rifles require a precise head shot, which is extremely difficult.
"The problem with rifles [for turkeys] is you have to damage both shoulders or the vertebrae or the turkey will fly off," Eriksen said. "It's a very difficult shot, it has to be placed very precisely."
Safety is always a concern, particularly when stationary hunters are camouflaged. Rifle hunters should be particularly cautious.
First Published October 21, 2012 12:00 am