In the southern part of the region, Mark Ferdinand said, turkey numbers look good, particularly in lower Luzerne, Schuylkill and Carbon counties.
To the north, however, Dale Butler said turkey numbers are down entering the fall season, which opens on Nov. 2.
That all makes sense to Pennsylvania Game Commission wild turkey biologist Mary Jo Casalena, who keeps tabs on turkey numbers throughout the state.
Poor recruitment — a result of extended periods of wet weather in the spring — is what Casalena believes is the reason behind the drop in turkey numbers in the northern part of the region, particularly in Wildlife Management Units 3A, 3B and 3C. The drop doesn’t mean that there still aren’t decent numbers of turkeys in those areas, but the population has been declining to the point where it may require action.
“We are considering asking the board of commissioners for a one-week decrease to the fall season in that area for 2014,” Casalena said. “Recruitment in that area this year was down. It is a real dramatic decline.”
Casalena has the number to back it up. Based on sighting surveys conducted each summer by Wildlife Conservation Officers, the turkey sightings in WMU 3C this summer were the lowest on record — 16 birds per 1,000 miles driven. In 2007, the number of turkey sightings reported by WCOs was 76 per 1,000 miles driven.
Butler, who serves as president for the Red Rock Chapter of the Pennsylvania Wild Turkey Federation, echoed Casalena’s concern about the northern part of the region.
“The numbers are down due to bad weather and poor poult recruitment,” he said. “There’s still plenty of turkeys out there, they will just be in smaller flocks and harder to find.”
To the south, the news is a bit better.
Ferdinand, who is president of the Honey Hole Chapter of the PWTF, said several nice flocks have been spotted, including those with hens and poults and groups of gobblers.
“Initially, in August we weren’t seeing birds, but we are now,” Ferdinand said. “We’ve seen 10 to 12 in a flock, and I’ve seen flocks with 20 to 30 in the White Haven area. They’re out there.”
When it comes to the northeast, Casalena said WMUs 4C and 4E had very good poult recruitment this year. Even WMU 3D, which had been showing a decline in turkey numbers, also had good recruitment this year.
“In 4C and 4E there’s turkeys everywhere,” Casalena said.
Regardless of how many turkeys are in a particular WMU, one thing is certain when it comes to hunting the birds in the fall — find the food.
Casalena said acorn production from red oaks was decent in the northeast and should attract turkeys.
Ferdinand said most of the corn and soybean fields in his area have been harvested, so that means the turkeys will turn to the mast crop.
“Acorns and beech nuts, that’s what I’m looking for,” he said.
In Butler’s area, acorns and beech nuts are decent, as are wild cherries.
“It was a great year for a lot of seeds,” Butler said.
While Casalena is considering a request to cut the 2014 fall season from three weeks to two in WMUs 3A, 3B and 3C, she said such a move, if approved, would be temporary. Casalena and the PGC are in the third year of a four-year study focusing on season length and how it impacts the harvest of hens, and when the work is complete she’ll have a better idea on what works when it comes to managing turkey populations.
The study area consists of WMUs in the northern and southern portions of the state. For the first two years of the study, the northern area had a three-week season while the southern area’s season was two weeks. This year and next, those season lengths will be switched and Casalena will watch for any resulting change in the hen harvest.
“That study is going to be important for the WMUs in the northeast where we’ve seen population declines,” she said. “It will determine how the harvest rates of hens change with that one week change to the season.
“If our data shows that one week change doesn’t matter much, then we need to rethink what’s causing these population shifts.”
Butler expects changes to come if the area doesn’t start seeing better recruitment in the spring. This year, in WMU 3C, the number of poults per each hen recorded in the sighting surveys was 0.5, down from a high of 1.9. In WMU 3B, the poult recruitment ratio was 0.4.
The statewide average was 1.8.
“Those WMUs (3B and 3C) had the two lowest figures in the state,” Casalena said, adding that poor recruitment not only affects fall turkey hunting, but negatively impacts the spring gobbler harvest as well.
Butler hopes the recruitment trend changes for the better very soon.
“In the northeast, the hens and poults were hit hard in the spring with extended periods of rain,” he said. “It’s not cause for alarm yet, but it’s something to pay attention to. There’s definitely less turkeys.”
Regardless of how long or short the fall season is, hunters like Ferdinand and Butler will still make time to hit the turkey woods.
“Fall turkey hunting is more diverse than spring hunting because you have to use more woods sense,” Ferdinand said. “It’s a challenge. You’re looking for food sources, roosting sites, scratchings and then you try to scatter a flock and call them back in.
“You have to do a lot more homework in the fall and if you get a bird, you surely worked for it.”