Different strategies can pay big dividends

Excitement is at a peak in the fields and forests just now. Bucks are in the rut now, chasing does recklessly, squirrels are foraging for acorns restlessly, and finally, yesterday was the opening of fall turkey hunting in our area. Be reminded that seasons are of different lengths in various parts of the state so be sure to check your digest before you travel far to hunt turkeys.

Here’s a capsule of those seasons according to WMU’s: WMU 1B Nov. 2-9, and Nov. 28-30; WMU 2B (shotgun and archery only) Nov. 2-22, and Nov. 28-30; WMUs 1A, 2A, 2D, 2F, 2G and 2H Nov. 2-16, and Nov. 28-30; WMUs 2C, 2E, 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D, 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D and 4E Nov. 2-22, and Nov. 28-30; and WMU 5A Nov. 5-7.

The changes in eight of those WMUs are due to an ongoing study to determine how the length of the fall season affects the female turkey harvest. As with the deer herd, it is the population and overall health of the hens that is the determining factor for sustainable populations.

There was above-average nest success this summer, which produced more young turkeys statewide, Game Commission biologist Mary Jo Casalena said. Additionally, acorn crops are spotty this year, and turkey flocks tend to concentrate around available food sources, she said.

The above-average summer reproduction mainly was due to dry and warm weather conditions during the peak of hatching in early June. Casalena said this nest success was a welcome relief for wild turkey populations, since summer reproduction had been below-average for the previous four years.

Still, summer populations varied considerably by WMU, as is typical for wild turkey reproduction.

Although springtime wild turkey populations were still lower than their record highs in 2001, when the state population was about 280,000 turkeys, this spring’s population of about 186,000 birds was similar to the last two years, rebounding from its low in 2010 of 182,000.

Casalena said locating a flock is only part of the hunt. Properly setting up and bringing a turkey within range is another challenge that makes turkey hunting both tricky and enjoyable.

Overall, Casalena said she anticipates turkey hunters to enjoy success rates similar to or even higher than last year, when 12 percent of fall turkey hunters harvested turkeys. That success rate was a slight improvement from the previous three years, when the success rate was 11 percent.

The final 2012 fall harvest was 14,704, similar to 2011 but 5 percent lower than the previous three-year average.

Hunter success has been as high as 21 percent (2001, a year with excellent recruitment), and as low as 4 percent (1979).

Casalena said spring season harvests (not including harvests from the special turkey license that allows hunters to harvest a second bird) totaled 32,602, slightly down from 33,597 in 2012, but 12 percent lower than the previous 10-year average (37,229). Hunter success, 15 percent, was similar to last year due to a small decrease in the number of spring turkey hunters, and was slightly lower than the previous 10-year average, 16 percent.

Even though spring harvests were down from the record 49,200 in 2001, Pennsylvania hunters have consistently maintained spring harvests above 30,000 bearded turkeys since 1995, exceeding most other states in the nation.

Chasing turkeys in the fall is a totally different way of hunting than it is in the spring. Turkeys are gregarious birds so they flock together. The birds hatched last spring are now as big as their mothers and when a flock is traveling through it can be hard to pick out the young from the hen. Both hens and gobblers are legal, however, so unless you are a diehard gobbler hunter, running into a flock of birds can be n exciting event.

The first priority is to locate the food sources. When you find an area of wild grapes, acorns, beechnuts, wild cherries or barberry , there will be plenty of sign of turkeys if they have found this food. Turkeys have to scratch away the fallen leaves to uncover the nuts or grapes and they do it with gusto.

Turkeys scratch down to the bare earth looking for food. Leaves fly as their powerful legs sweep the leaves away behind them. One look at scratching will tell you in which direction the birds are moving. So the piled leaves are the back of the scratch-patch.

Even a small flock of turkeys feeding through an area will leave it looking like someone worked it over with a lawn rake. If you follow the scratchings after you have determined they are pretty fresh scratchings you may come on to the flock ahead of you. When I am doing this, I stop often to listen, to actually hear the feeding turkeys ahead of me.

The most popular method now is to rush the birds, yelling and moving, which will panic the birds. They will fly or run in whatever direction they were heading. But they don’t go too far away before they stop or light in some trees. After a few minutes, the young birds want just one thing: to find their hen and flockmates.

The fall hunter takes advantage of this situation. Find a place right in the center of the scatter site from which you have a good vantage point. Set up against a tree comfortably, pull on camouflage mask and pop the double-reed mouth call into place. Give the birds 15 or 20 minutes or so to get calmed down and then waft the distress call of a young turkey, called a Kee-Kee run out into the breeze.

Pretty soon there will be answering kee-kees coming from all directions. If you can keep your excitement under control and make a good shot, you’ll have wild turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.

Some hunters bypass the noise and activity of the flocks to hunt for the old gobbler, the longbeard, in the fall. Next week – some tips on hunting the big old boy in the fall. That’s an entirely different strategy.