Sunday, April 27, 2014

Plenty of turkeys available if hunters know where to look

By Bob Frye

A hunter sets up decoys in a field hoping to attract a turkey.
Turkey season opens Saturday, May 4, 2014, in Pennsylvania.
Forget about it.

If it's solitude you seek, rest assured you're not going to have the woods to yourself over the next month.

Pennsylvania's spring gobbler season, which kicks off Saturday, has grown in popularity to become the second-biggest hunt on the calendar. It drew nearly 207,000 hunters in 2013, according to Pennsylvania Game Commission statistics. Only the firearms deer season attracts more participants.

That's a lot of camo-clad, call-totin', gun-bearin' folks.

But there are a lot of turkeys out there, too. Pennsylvania is home to an estimated 186,000, said Mary Jo Casalena, the commission's turkey biologist and a gobbler hunter. If that's less than the state had when populations peaked in 2001, it's still enough that hunters kill an average of 34,000 gobblers annually, she said.

No other Northeastern state comes close to matching that.

“I want to reiterate: We've still got a lot of turkeys. There's just not a turkey behind every tree like we had in 2001,” Casalena said.

Many hunters undoubtedly will look for birds on public land. And make no mistake. That kind of crowd will change how turkeys behave.

“We have a lot of turkey hunters, so turkeys become pretty wary shortly after the season begins,” Casalena said. “They have a pea-sized brain, so I wouldn't call them smart, but they are wary. They learn very quickly.”

But there's some good hunting to be had on public land, especially if you seek out areas with certain habitat features.

Turkeys like open spaces, Casalena said. Hens congregate there to feed on bugs, and gobblers follow to strut where they can be seen.

In mountainous terrain, like the ridge-top country that makes up game land 42 in eastern Westmoreland County and game land 228 in Somerset, gated access roads provide that kind of habitat, said Travis Anderson, the commission's land management group supervisor in Westmoreland, Somerset and part of Cambria. Hunters can find birds by setting up along roads, he said.

“Basically they're like food plots running across the mountains,” Anderson said. “A lot of times, when we're out early in the morning, we'll see turkeys on those roads. The hens are bugging, and the gobblers are strutting.”

Some access roads are especially good. On game land 296 in Westmoreland County and game land 51 in Fayette, for example, the commission is doing border cuts along some roads. The intent is to create brushy habitat, providing a buffer of new growth between the road and the mature forest, said Steve Leiendecker, a land management group supervisor in Fayette and Greene counties.

“Wildlife likes messes. They don't like really neat things,” he said. “By creating edge habitat, you attract a lot of wildlife, including turkeys.”

Hunters also would be wise to walk some of those roads to find “secret” hot spots.

The game commission always has developed food plots on its game lands. It's been able to ramp up that work over the last two years or so thanks to funding from the National Wild Turkey Federation and record levels of federal excise tax dollars, Anderson said.

“In the past, the emphasis was always on maintaining what we had as opposed to creating new plots,” Anderson said. “Now with some extra resources, we've been able to create some new stuff.”

Some of those forest openings — one- to two-acre fields of clover and legumes — are so new that they're not on maps yet. All are off access roads, though, so hunters willing to walk and do a little scouting can find “unmarked” turkey magnets to hunt, Anderson said.

Hunters also can find public land gobblers by looking for Marcellus Shale drilling activity.
Well pads, pipelines and rights-of-way can look ugly when under construction, and some hunters have been upset to see one-time hunting spots disappear, said Doug Dunkerly, a land management group supervisor in Washington, Beaver and Greene counties. But when reclaimed with clover, sunflowers, timothy, orchard grass and such, those disturbed areas draw turkeys as well as deer and other species.

Hunters are learning they can hunt those reclaimed well pads and openings with success, Dunkerly said.

“If you're talking about a privately owned hay field or corn field that's been cut, and there's just stubble left in it, I'd like to think that some of our reclaimed areas are a little richer,” Leiendecker said. “Some of these places, they have alfalfa that's ankle deep.”

Don't give up if you find other hunters on or near your chosen public land stand, Casalena said. Turkeys move more than some people think — four to five miles is not uncommon — and hunting pressure drops as the season goes along.

Hunters who stick it out, even on public land, can do well late into the season.

“You can't not hunt the first weekend, especially if the weather is good. But what I really like is the third week of the season,” Casalena said. “The pressure is off. The gobblers have started getting back to their normal routine. And they start gobbling again.

“So if you can't find a good place to hunt early in the season, all is not lost. The season is a whole month long.”

Turkey season details

The spring gobbler season runs May 3-31. It again will feature a mix of half-day and all-day hunting.

During the first two weeks of the season, hunting begins a half-hour before sunrise and ends at noon. Hunters are asked to be out of the woods by 1 p.m. to minimize disturbance of nesting hens.

During the season's last two weeks, when hunting pressure is lower and hens are less likely to abandon nests, hunting is from a half-hour before sunrise until a half-hour after sunset.

Hunters should expect to see higher numbers of year-old males, commonly called “jakes,” this year as a result of above-average reproduction in 2013, said Pennsylvania Game Commission turkey biologist Mary Jo Casalena.

Those aren't necessarily the birds hunters look for, she said. About 80 percent of the annual spring harvest typically is made up of adult birds 2 years old and older, as hunters “hunt the gobble” and pursue longbeards.

But the jakes should offer lots of turkey sightings, additional harvest opportunities and more birds down the line, she added.

Some of the best hunting around will occur close to home, too. According to 2012 spring turkey harvest statistics, wildlife management unit 2G gave up more spring gobblers than any other, with unit 3C in the Poconos ranking second. But units 1A, 2D, 2C and 2A in Western Pennsylvania ranked fourth through sixth. 

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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