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Many years ago when I was a much younger turkey hunter I met a fellow who then I thought of as an “old-timer.” Probably now I would not think of him that way. Nonetheless I still recognize the advice he offered me as sage advice, now even more so than when he gave it to me.
“You have to get into a turkey’s head,” he said.
As the time he said that it seemed a bit over the top. Get into the head of a critter whose brain is not much bigger than a pencil eraser?
Really that statement went over my head when I first heard it. The truth is that it is difficult to get into the head of a turkey largely because of the vast difference in intelligence between turkey and human. Turkeys probably do not even think in the terms that we would recognize. They react to their environment, and that is what turkey hunters should learn to do.
Much of Pennsylvania had good mast crops last fall. That is very good news for turkey hunters because a lot of nuts on the ground helps the turkeys make it through winter, and enough nuts will provide winter food.
I asked Pennsylvania Game Commission turkey biologist Mary Jo Casalena whether acorns are the most significant mast crop for wild turkeys.
“Acorns for most of the state. Up in north-central area we have a large beech crop, then beech would be significant,” Casalena said.
However beech nut crops are no longer reliable.
“It used to be,” Casalena said, “but a lot of our beech has been affected from the beech bark disease. So it’s becoming less and less reliable throughout the northern parts of Pennsylvania because of that beech bark disease.”
Mast crops may continue to supply food through winter. But deep snow can effectively hide acorns or beech nuts. Fortunately, wild turkeys have another major means of finding food.
“Turkeys are really instinctive to scratch during the winter for their food items. They really forage on the ground as much as possible. So deep snows can negatively affect them in terms of their feeding, their foraging. And so when you have deep snows then the turkeys will seek out areas where the snow hasn’t really gotten as deep, like under conifer thickets and spring seep areas,” Casalena said.
“Mast is important for them during winter, but so are grubs that you find under the leaf litter. Grubs are very important, the second most important food item for them in the winter. They’ll forage heavily for grubs and whatnot under the matted needles in conifer stands.”
Weather had a huge effect on the wild turkey population. Spring weather patterns affect the mast crops. Heavy winter snow kills many turkeys. Spring rains and cold weather destroy nests and kill chicks. These are factors that spring gobbler hunters should understand before choosing a place to hunt.
After a few years when the wild turkey population dipped slightly, it has risen again, at least according to harvest reports.
“Our spring harvest had dropped down below 40,00 birds back in 2007, and for the last three years the spring harvests have been back above 40,000 again, so we’ve been growing our population somewhat,” Casalena said.
The preliminary count for the spring, 2010 turkey season was 43,200 gobblers.
“But then if you add in the harvest from the second bird tag it was about 44,800. We had almost 1,600 birds harvested with that special tag.”
Many hunters expressed concern about the second spring gobbler tags when they were first proposed. However, that concern has been unwarranted. The number of hunters who have filled their second spring gobbler tags has been very low.
“It’s been slowly increasing since we introduced it in 2006, but I’m not concerned with it. It’s still a pretty minor harvest. It’s about 4 percent of the overall harvest,” Casalena said.
From 2000 through 2009 spring harvests averaged 40,746 bearded gobblers per year. The spring 2010 harvest was 10 percent above that average. Only three years have been higher: 2003, 2000, and the 2001 record harvest of 49,186 spring gobblers. That also was the first year when the spring harvest exceeded the fall harvest. Since then the spring harvest has been greater than the fall wild turkey harvest every year.
That time frame also saw a shift in the interests of wild turkey hunters. Starting in 2000, and every year since, more hunters have participated in the spring turkey season than in the fall turkey season. The number of spring turkey hunters climbed to a maximum of 247,304 in 2005, but it has declined since then to 216,551 in 2008, the most recent year for which this data is available.
Data which may be most revealing about the quality of our turkey hunting is estimated harvest per 100 hunter-days. In 1990 2.0 bearded gobblers were taken per 100 hunter-hours. Generally that figure has steady improved, with small, brief dips. In 2001 spring gobbler hunters had their best results with a harvest of 4.8 turkeys per 100 hunter-hours. It dipped to 3.1 birds per 100 hunter-hours in 2005, but by 2008 it had climbed back to 4.5 birds per 100 hunter-hours.
These figures typically reflect changes in wild turkey density.
Wild turkey population density around the state has undergone some changes. Not long ago Wildlife Management Unit 5A, notably the Micheaux State Forest, was the most significant problem area in the state. The population was well below carrying capacity. Now, after extensive study and management, the area had improved considerably.
“The population down in the Micheaux and unit 5A, that population has stabilized and we have actually opened the fall season there this year for the first time in seven years,” Casalena said. “The population density is still somewhat low, but it’s to the point where we believe it can sustain a conservative, short fall season. I guess I wouldn’t call it a problem area any more because we are hunting down there in the fall.”
Game & Fish Magazine features detailed, local coverage about the best hunting and fishing opportunities broken down by state or region to give you the best local coverage available. www.gameandfishmag.com
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