By Joe Kosack (excerpted from Pennsylvania Game News May 2019 issue)
At a time when spring turkey hunting is drawing less of a crowd, Pennsylvania offers an almost unimaginable gobbler carryover for its 2019 spring season. Crafty old toms, strutting 2-year-olds and even ambitious jakes are available in above-average numbers to turkey hunters willing to spend time finding and calling for them this spring.
“Low fall harvests in 2017 and 2018 – caused largely by fall food abundance that scattered birds – have positioned Pennsylvania for an exceptional spring turkey season,” explained Mary Jo Casalena, Game Commission turkey biologist. “This isn’t the season to take a rain check. Really. It could be a long time before we see another season like this.”
Weathering Last Season
Despite recent under-achieving fall seasons, the 2018 spring turkey season harvest came in above-average at 40,300 birds, even though extensive, widespread rain and colder-than-normal temperatures plagued hunters. The state tied to produce the lowest average-minimum-temperature for May – 52 degrees – ever recorded in Pennsylvania, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center.
Pennsylvania regions last May with the most rainfall – 6 or more inches –included the Upper Susquehanna, Pocono Mountains, East Central Mountains and Middle Susquehanna. The state’s Southwest and Northwest plateaus, however, were only marginally above normal and consequently served up the state’s best spring turkey harvests by Wildlife Management Unit (WMU). Season-best harvests occurred in western Pennsylvania WMUs 2D, 2B, 2A and 1B. All have had increasing spring turkey populations since 2010.
“Good weather and good turkey populations generally lead to hunter success,” Casalena emphasized. Although the number of participating hunters and days they hunted were down in the 2018 spring season, those hunters who ventured afield set the state’s second-best spring success rate: 21 percent. The best, 21.4 percent, occurred in 2001, when the turkey population hit its high-water mark and spring hunters took 49,200 birds.
Before you read too much into what you might or might not be seeing afield, Casalena cautioned, remember that turkey populations fluctuate naturally. It’s hard to measure turkey abundance without analyzing trends in turkey-harvest, summer-sighting-surveys and turkey-hunter data over time. Seasonal range changes, mast availability and even hunter pressure also temporarily can influence what you see afield.
Finding gobblers is the key to taking a spring bird and weather often dictates where they’ll be. Wintering turkeys always hang with or follow food sources. But once spring breaks and vegetation begins to grow in mid-March, flocks break up and gobblers head to their traditional breeding areas, Casalena said.
Knowing where gobblers usually hang out in spring can be a big advantage, but only if it’s a location that doesn’t draw a lot of hunters. Turkeys often become harder to hunt when they bump into hunters, or they hear a disproportionate amount of turkey chatter.
“The idea is to sort out where gobblers are before hunting pressure and hen activity compel them to change their routine,” Casalena emphasized. “If you learn the general gobbler age structure in an area, become familiar with what trails gobblers take, figure out what direction they enter their strutting places, you’ll be way ahead of everyone else when the season opens.”
Places where you’ve scored before in the spring season are always worth checking. Gobblers typically are predisposed to go where they’ve bred in previous sea-sons, Casalena said. And if a hunter can learn how many gobblers are around and identify them by their gobbling intensity, it’ll be a big help. “An old gobbler won’t gobble as much as a 2-year-old, and if there are several 2-year-olds, they’ll likely gobble intensively,” Casalena said. “Jakes might not gobble at all, assuming the subordinate role they typically do.”
Planning will almost always provide you more places to search for gobblers and more time to hunt. It is the simplest way to get ahead, and yet seemingly the hardest to accomplish for many spring hunters. Some won’t make the time, or can’t be motivated; for others, it’s too cold.
But it’s to your benefit to start earlier, to get your prep work done before season. Then, as everyone else digs out their gear and tries to figure out where to go, you’ll be looking at them in the rearview mirror.
There is no doubt, you can take a spring gobbler without much pre-hunt preparation. It’s happens every year. But being ready, rather than just lucky, is what separates the best from the rest.
So, do the preseason work. Scout. And when it’s time to hunt, be strategic, be still, and drop that gobbler when he comes strutting into range for you!
To view the full forecast article, visit the Pennsylvania Game News page. (Click on the May magazine and click “Not a Subscriber” to view the article for free.)
Joe Kosack is Associate Editor of Pennsylvania Game News and an avid outdoorsman.