HARRISBURG According to Pennsylvania Game Commission wild turkey biologist Mary Jo Casalena, hunters are expected to encounter a sizeable wild turkey population when they head afield for the fall turkey season, which opens Saturday, Oct. 29.
Closing dates for the first part of the split season, however, vary by Wildlife Management Units, so hunters should review the dates for the WMU they plan to hunt, as date structures have changed from previous years. Seasons are outlined on Page 35 of the "2011-12 Hunting and Trapping Digest," which is provided with each general hunting license.
For the second consecutive year, most WMUs will have a three-day second season beginning Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, Nov. 24, and continuing through Saturday, Nov. 26. This Thanksgiving holiday season is designed to provide additional hunting opportunities for youth and families when schools and many businesses are closed and, hopefully, to reverse the declining trend in fall turkey hunters.
This year, hunters will have a three-day season, Monday-Wednesday, Nov. 1-3, in WMU 5A after seven years of a closed fall season that was implemented to allow the population to increase. Success in managing the WMU 5A turkey population is shown in re-opening the traditional fall turkey hunt, and the conservative three-day season is structured to provide recreation without reversing the now expanding population.
Casalena went so far as to say in her report to the PGC board of game commissioners that the fall turkey population is excellent. Even though early spring weather was cool and wet, it moderated quickly enough for most hens to successfully hatch broods.
Fall flock sizes are slightly smaller than average, but there are plenty of flocks afield, so the challenge hunters face will be to locate the turkey's food source due to the lack of a good acorn crop in many areas. Turkeys will seek out and concentrate in areas where food is available, and hunters who find these food sources also will find the flocks.
"Statewide, the turkey population this past spring prior to nesting was similar to the 10-year average, about 340,000 birds, and a 25-percent increase from its low, in 2005, of 272,000, so there's a bountiful population of turkeys," Casalena said. "This resurgence is due to several years of average to above-average reproduction coupled with generally conservative fall season lengths, which minimizes the overharvest of hens."
Locating a flock is only part of the hunt, as properly setting up and calling a turkey within range is another challenge. It is what makes turkey hunting simultaneously tricky and enjoyable, and this challenge is revealed with a look at hunter success rates, which ranged from 12–16 percent during the last five years.
"Overall, I expect turkey hunters to enjoy higher success rates than last year when only 10 percent of fall turkey hunters harvested turkeys because of abundant mast crops, which dispersed flocks making them difficult to locate," Casalena said. "Success this fall is expected to be much higher, at about 15 percent, similar to the previous five-year average, but hunter success has been as high as 21 percent in 2001, which was a year with excellent recruitment, and as low as four percent in 1979."
"Please remember to report any leg-banded and/or radio-transmitter turkeys harvested or found. Leg bands and transmitters are stamped with a toll-free number to call, and provide important information for the research project being conducted in partnership with the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Penn State University, with funding from the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Pennsylvania Chapter of NWTF.
"These turkeys are legal to harvest and the information provided will help determine turkey survival and harvest rates. Rewards for reporting marked turkeys are made possible by donations from the national and state chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation and a portion of the state's share of the federal Pittman-Robertson program."
Last fall's overall turkey harvest was below-average, 15,884, which is 34 percent less than the previous five-year average of 24,049. Fall harvests have been declining steadily for the last nine years, mainly due to a decrease in the number of fall turkey hunters and shorter fall season lengths.
To view maps of turkey harvest by WMU, go to the PGC website at www.pgc.state.pa.us  , select "Hunt/Trap," click on "Hunting" in the drop-down menu listing and select "Harvest Data and Maps" in the "Big Game" section.