If you’re the type whose heart races with excitement at the sound of a gobble at daybreak, or the sight of a large fan of feathers in a distant field, you’re just weeks away from an annual rite of spring.
As the mating season for wild turkeys begins to wind down — assuring birds for next season — hunters will be gearing up to take dispensable males as hens turn their attention to nesting duties.
After months of dormant and unvarying conditions, Pennsylvania’s shades of winter white, gray and brown will soon give way to an outburst of green. Spring gobbler hunters dressed for cold weather and calling from forests of leafless trees, will be swatting mosquitoes and glassing birds through heat shimmer in a span of three or four weeks.
As the statewide season begins on May 2 (and mentored youth the prior Saturday), hunters who’ve done their homework will wake well before dawn to begin a game of matching wits with a bird that’s brain is smaller than a walnut — but which is blessed with impeccable eyesight and hearing, and a paranoid demeanor.
The large birds will take hunters on a roller coaster ride of emotions, as turkeys forego their reclusive ways for a chance to mate.
In a brief window of vulnerability, male birds will tease hunters with incessant gobbling and strutting in the open, leading many to believe they’ll soon be filling their tags with ease. But the majority of hunters will return to their vehicles by mid-morning, frustrated and discouraged.
Hopes will be dashed with a simple turn of the head or snap of a twig. Toms with long flowing beards that cause hands to nervously tremble over safeties and triggers, will abruptly turn away in distrust just beyond shotgun range.
Hearts racing with uncontrolled excitement at incoming birds will be quelled with a sudden roar of a shot from another unseen hunter. The enthused, who will fall asleep with confidence in their secret spot, will curse as their headlights reveal that someone has beaten them to it.
For the persistent, bags and dark circles under eyes will soon reveal signs of sleep deprivation. Weight loss, fatigue and blisters from miles of walking will follow. By late May many will secretly be glad that the brief season is finally over.
Some will feel the sting of failure that quite often follows over-confidence; others, the thrill of success after pushing themselves through dispirited hours of inactivity. Like a chess game with a feathered opponent, the season teaches patience, determination and an even-tempered approach.
Spring gobbler hunting is hard.
But those who succeed know that’s why there’s nothing quite as rewarding as slinging a gobbler over their shoulder and triumphantly heading back to whatever world they had put on hold while consumed with the magnificent birds.
Hunters who choose to go afield in the spring get an outdoors experience unlike any other. Contrasted with autumn hunting, the days are long and often warm, but seldom hot. Hunters witness the reawakening of Earth’s northern hemisphere as songbirds return in greater numbers and new ferns sprout from the forest floor. The year’s first crashes of thunder are often heard — and are usually answered by throaty gobbles.
Such was not always the case, as less than a century ago the wild turkey population was estimated to be just 3,000. But due to the efforts of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, and more specifically its turkey management program, that’s all changed.
“The population has definitely increased,” said PGC Wild Turkey Biologist Mary Jo Casalena, “And that was from our trap and transfer, and from habitat being restored.”
Casalena continued: “We started transferring birds into suitable habitat, and there were no turkeys there, so the population was able to explode very rapidly, and very well.”
She said 2001 was the high-water mark for state’s turkey population, which reached 280,000. But she admits that populations can fluctuate greatly, citing a significant drop to 185,000 just four years later, then rebounding to 212,000 by 2019.
“Productivity has been declining a lot,” she said. “About every three years, we would kind of have a boom in reproduction, and I’m just not seeing that much anymore. It’s lower than what I’d like it to be.”
Casalena cited a multitude of reasons for these fluctuations.
“All the habitat kind of got occupied, and so reproduction slowed down and predator populations increased,” she said, “and now habitat quality has been declining, so our populations have been declining.”
Annual reproduction once kept pace with hunter harvest rates. “Now we’re seeing that the annual reproductive rates have declined. We’ve really had to scale back our fall turkey hunting season,” she said.
Hens and breeding
The state spring gobbler season is a significant piece of the total turkey population puzzle, she said.
“We manage our spring turkey hunting season conservatively,” Casalena said, “in the fact that we don’t open the season until about 50 percent of the hens are incubating their nests. And so by doing that, we know that we’re protecting the hens.
“You’ve got to wait for the breeding to occur, if you want to protect your population.”
If the PGC would open the season during the critical egg-laying stage, we could potentially bump a lot of hens,” she said.
During that stage, she said, “they are highly susceptible to abandoning that nest. You could potentially impact your productivity very much if you’re making a lot of hens abandon nests.”
Although spring hunters would have an easier time taking a gobbler at the height of the breeding season in April, Casalena explained why that idea would be very counter productive.
“A lot of state agencies are not conservative like Pennsylvania, especially down south. And they know they’re opening their seasons before incubation is occurring.
“We have to be really careful, because we have a fall season. We’re taking out hens in the fall, and we also have one of the highest number of spring turkey hunters in the country.”
Jakes and toms
The game commission gathers information about turkeys in several ways to best decide how to manage the population. One useful research tool that reveals annual survival rates is the practice of trapping and leg-banding. Hunters are then asked to report the band numbers of turkeys they take.
“The first time we did a gobbler harvest rate study, that was 2006 to 2009,” Casalena said. “That was the biggest harvest rate study ever conducted in the U.S., and that was with us, New York and Ohio.”
The project was funded by each state’s wildlife agency, as well as the National Wild Turkey Federation. The next banding project was conducted in 2014, in conjunction with Penn State University, where successful hunters were again encouraged to report a number stamped on bands, worn by both hens and toms – adult males.
The results were surprising, Casalena said.
“From that banding, I found out that, yes indeed, jakes do have a much lower harvest rate than mature gobblers,” she said. “A lot of hunters let jakes pass.”
The study showed that the adult harvest rate statewide was about 36 percent, and between 18 and 27 percent for jakes – younger male birds.
“It’s really significant. I had no idea how significant it was,” she said. “So the hunters are really helping the population because they allow annual recruitment.”
Casalena also found that jakes have a higher natural survival rate aside from harvest rates.
“So they naturally recruit to be those 2-year-old gobblers that are so much fun to hunt in the spring,” she said. “And so with hunters letting those jakes go, they’re allowing that natural recruitment into the adult population, which is fantastic population management. That’s exactly what you want.”
Seasons and weather
This past January, the PGC banded once again – this time for gobblers only. Instead of calling Penn State, hunters are asked to call a toll-free PGC number. The hope is the results will provide data to help explain the large fluctuations in the overall population.
“We’re trying to get a handle on that and figure out if there’s anything we can do to help reproduction,” said Casalena, who says that she would like the population to increase on a statewide basis. “The population is healthy, but I’d like to see it expand.
“We’re looking at decreasing some of the season length in some areas in the fall and improve habitat on our state game lands, and encourage private land owners to improve the nesting habitat on their property.”
One critical factor she’s discovered in recent years is the changing climate. Not only did a lack of snow cover make for the most difficult trapping and banding experience she’s ever had, but Casalena said climate change is wreaking havoc on reproduction.
“We’re having more numerous and severe weather conditions during the spring – wet, cold weather in the spring when they’re nesting,” she said. “So how do you mitigate that? It’s a really tough challenge.
“If you have a cold, wet spring – if they have good habitat they can get out of the elements and hide from predators. But if they have poor quality, then they’re doomed.”
As if that isn’t bad enough, there are even worse consequences.
“When the poults hatch out, they are voracious insect-eaters because they need that high protein source to grow really quick, so they can put on flight feathers and roost up in the trees at night,” she says. “If you have a cold, wet snap, then you don’t have your insect base for them to grow rapidly.”
Trapping down, predators up
Hens committed to ground-based nests, and new poults not yet able to fly, endure days and nights of terror. Predators such as coyotes, foxes and bobcats easily track the birds on scent-friendly wet ground, while everything from raccoons and skunks to owls, hawks, crows and even snakes sneak off with eggs. An average of 65% of poults die within two weeks.
Since the ratio of males to females is one-to-one, half of them were potential future longbeards or mothers.
The decline in trapping has compounded the problem.
“I’d encourage people to trap and use it as a management tool, and not worry about the fact that they’re not going to get much money for the fur,” Casalena said.
One of the only things the PGC and their biologists can control is hunting seasons – with fall being more critical than spring.
“About 60% of the fall harvest is hens,” Casalena said. “And the fall harvest has been dropping dramatically.
“From a management standpoint, that decreased harvest in the fall in actually fine. We don’t want to take out that many hens in the fall.”
Casalena encourages hunters to try to avoid killing a brood hen that’s with her young, as she teaches them to find food and stay safe.
Mature spring gobblers are more expendable.
“If we’re taking out adults, they’ve already done the breeding,” Casalena said. “Their genes are being passed. So that’s fine.
“And we know the recruitment is occurring with the jakes, so there will be plenty of adult gobblers the next year.”
In fact, the PGC is once again offering hunters a bonus gobbler this spring. Last year the game commission sold 22,500 “bonus” licenses.
“The sale of second licenses has increased every year,” Casalena said. “The last three years, we’ve been harvesting over 4,000 turkeys with that license. I’ve been monitoring that.”
Gobbling and calling
Casalena, who’s also a passionate turkey hunter, offered some insight on filling those spring tags.
All hunters can agree that knowing as much about their quarry’s habits and qualities leads to consistent success; and who better to offer advice than a biologist?
“Your two-year-old birds are going to gobble the most,” Casalena said. “You’re three- and four-year-old birds typically— in Pennsylvania – don’t. Mainly because of the dominance factor.”
She added: “If they are that old, they may likely have a large harem that is roosted nearby and they don’t need to gobble much.”
Casalena said two-year-old toms may not have harems, but are still trying to maintain some dominance over others of the same age. “And your jakes are usually pretty quiet,” she said.
As for calling to gobblers, Casalena reminds hunters that turkeys can indeed distinguish hunter’s calls from those of their girlfriends.
“The adult gobbler creates a harem, and he has the ability to recognize each hen,” she said.
For calls coming from wooden boxes and slate, she said: “He would see that as a new opportunity,” and “it’s good to change your calls, and try and change your tone if you’re working the same bird on different days – especially if he spotted you the first time.”
Master and teacher
Jim Davis of Lilly, who made his first cedar turkey call in high school shop class in the mid-1950s, offers his take on calling: “They’re just like us; they just talk a little different language. The hen will call to the gobbler and the gobbler will answer. You’re trying to reverse nature, because in nature when that gobbler calls, the hens go to the gobbler, and you’re trying to get the gobbler to come to you.”
Davis knows a little something about putting meat on the table, having achieved the diehard hunter’s feat of the heralded “Grand Slam.” That means taking all four species of turkey gobblers in the United States – the Eastern, which inhabit Pennsylvania; the Rio Grande and Merriam’s of the western states; and the Osceola in Florida.
Davis later tacked on a Gould’s species in Mexico’s San Madre Mountains for a Royal Slam, and an Ocellated bird in the Yucatan jungle for a World Slam.
Adding a Rio Grande species south of the border would have earned him the Mexican Slam, but the hunting guide whom he had contacted for his third bird may have kept him from being on the wrong end of the gun.
“He called me back about a week later and said, ‘You’d better think about this Jim. That’s where all the drug cartels are. You might not come out alive.’ So I thought two out of three’s enough,” Davis said.
An unassuming soul, Davis has attained recognition in areas of hunting that far outweigh all of the turkeys he has harvested – teaching hunter safety. He was awarded the 2016 Hunter Education Instructor of the Year by the PGC, which included recognition from State Senator Wayne Langerholc. Davis has also received the commission’s Outstanding Instructor award twice, and garnered two Dedicated Service awards.
“I have a lot of fun teaching the classes,” said Davis, who’s been teaching up to 20 of them a year since 1967.
“There’s just too many people in the woods that don’t know what the hell they’re doing,” Davis said. “I’ve had too many guys sneak up on me in the woods.”
Davis warns new hunters of the dangers that come with making turkey calls while dressed in camouflage.
“I teach the kids: Don’t move! Make sure you holler ‘Stop!’ Because it’s your life!” he said. “Don’t raise your hand, because when you wave it, it almost looks like a turkey head.”
Davis encourages his students to think about the consequences of their actions as well.
“You are responsible for pulling that trigger,” he warns. “God help you if you ever shoot somebody.”
In 2018 the PGC stopped requiring spring gobbler hunters to wear a blaze orange hat while moving. Davis preaches otherwise.
“I’m an avid blaze orange fan,” he said. “They can tell me I don’t have to wear it as long as they want to, but I’ll keep wearing it.”
Once he sits down to work his calls, Davis removes the blaze orange, but always wraps an orange band around a tree next to him, as he’s had too many hunters either sneak in behind him, or try to get between him and a gobbler.
B.J. Kunsman of Gallitzin can relate to that. A veteran spring gobbler hunter of nearly three decades, Kunsman recalled an incident that happened when blaze orange was required of moving hunters.
He and a friend were actively working several gobblers for over a half-hour. The birds were hot, and their gobbles were getting closer and closer. Poised for shot at any moment, Kunsman was shocked at what he saw while looking down the rib of his shotgun barrel.
“Next thing I know, I caught movement – black movement,” he said. “And here, there was a guy. He had on a black hoodie and was trying to sneak in on me.
“I had the bead dead on him. Thank God I realized, because I always look for the head, and I’m not one to just pull the trigger.”
Kunsman believes behavior from some turkey hunters has gotten worse.
“Sportsmanship has really gone down, I think,” he said. “You find a lot of respectful hunters, but I think a lot of times people just get caught up in the moment. They want to kill that bird and they’ll stump-jump you in a heartbeat.”
Since gobblers strut out in the open, and their loud calls can be heard up to a mile away, they quickly attract other hunters. And with everyone dressed in full camouflage, it’s hard to spot another hunter who’s become interested in the same bird that you think you have to yourself.
Kunsman thinks it’s the etiquette of the hunter that makes for a good experience or a bad one in that situation.
“Our philosophy is, we always treat other hunters how we would like to be treated if we were in that spot first,” he said.
Capturing the experience
If there are already a few cars in the game lands parking area where he was planning to hunt, Kunsman simply turns around and goes somewhere else.
In the 2018 season, he and his hunting partner, Tim Fabbri of Lilly, pedaled over three miles on mountain bikes to get back to where they knew two birds had been roosting the week before.
“We got clear back in there, got set up, and at the first crack of light we could hear a guy start tree calling,” he recalled. “We got out of there. He must’ve pedaled back in, too. You know most guys would’ve just sat there and interfered with his hunt, but we picked up and left – after all that pedaling.”
The pair try to avoid Saturday hunting, when more hunters are off work. “You’re going to run into hunters in Pa., there’s just no doubt,” Kunsman said.
Teaming up with a partner has made the spring tradition more enjoyable for both Kunsman and Fabbri, especially when one of them is a professional videographer who documents their hunts.
Fabbri is the producer of “The Journey Outdoors,” a local show available on YouTube. He is planning to begin a semi-live series this spring turkey season.
He worked as a field producer, and also was featured on the 2015 season of the “Standing Dead Outdoors” show on the Sportsman Channel.
Watch video here.
Fabbri says that capturing quality bird footage and audio adds another challenge to the spring hunt, but is well worth the effort.
“It’s definitely a memory bank, is what it is,” he said. “I can always share it with someone else. I can send it to whoever wants to see it – people get a kick out of it. Guys that don’t even hunt enjoy watching it.”
And long after the season is over, Fabbri will return to the spring woods with a few clicks of a mouse.
“I always watch them later,” he said. “Usually two or three times a year, we go through all of our old footage, look at it and reminisce.”
He enjoys texting his partner video clips of gobblers they had hunted months prior. “I’ll text B.J. and say, ‘Hey, remember this one?’ “
Neither man cares who gets to shoot at any given turkey. “There’s no selfishness; we don’t care who pulls the trigger, to be honest,” Kunsman said. “We just like to get out and kill birds.
“And we always find a kid to take out during the youth hunt.”
‘The memories we make’
Kunsman recalled taking his daughter Camryn when she was just eight-years-old. “She had numerous opportunities until she was twelve, and then she finally killed one.”
When the two men aren’t mentoring a youngster, they set their minds to hard-core gobbler hunting, accessing multiple properties on any given day. Whether in the big timber of a local state game lands, private ground open to hunting, or posted ground they’ve gained permission to use, they put on the miles.
“We’re huge run-and-gun hunters,” Kunsman said. “We run-and-gun constantly. We’re on the move. If we don’t have a bird that’s willing to talk, we’re leaving.”
Be it boots or bicycle pedals, they cover up to eight miles per hunt, he said. “We’ll go to three, four, five or six different places in a morning looking for that one bird.”
Kunsman explained the run-and-gun strategy further: “We mainly go about 50 or 80 yards and stop and call. A lot of times, we’ll change calls throughout the day when we’re out walking around, just trying to find that one bird that might want to hear a different type of call.”
And unlike many who throw in the towel by mid-morning, the dedicated duo milk every hour out of a morning’s hunt that they can get.
“We usually don’t quit before 10:30 or 11,” Kunsman said. “Last year, we shot three birds in the first week and every one of them was after 10:15.”
And they aren’t opposed to hunting a spot that others have hunted all morning without success.
Last season they went to a game lands around 10 a.m. and encountered another hunter who was on his way out of the woods and asked him if he had heard anything. He replied, “Not a bird,” Kunsman said.
“We went about another 400 yards and I called, and one gobbled off in the distance,” he said.
“We ended up killing it,” adding, “That’s what I love about turkey hunting – no situation is the same. One day you can go in and not hear a bird talking, and the next day there’s six of them gobbling. That’s why we keep going from spot to spot.
“There’s no predictability to turkey, at all. In my opinion. You might be able to roost one and go in the next morning, but it’s very rare. I don’t think we’ve killed many birds that we have roosted. Every time you think, ‘This is going to be the perfect hunt in the morning,’ something changes.”
Taking those different situations in stride, and sharing both fruitful and foiled experiences with his hunting partner, has meant much to Kunsman.
“Honestly, just the memories we make,” he said. “We always end up high on some hill if we’re not hearing birds, and just sit and listen and talk about the fun times.
“It’s just amazing how you can just sit out in the woods and talk about all the hunts you’ve had in the past.”
Like many veteran spring gobbler hunters, Kunsman has called his share of birds to the barrel and fought off the shakes just long enough to place a clean shot, but along the way he’s soaked up everything that’s made the ritual such a burning passion for him.
“I love the cool, crisp mornings of the spring,” he said. “And I don’t think there’s anything better in the Pa. woods than the sound of a bird gobbling.
“And just the show. Honestly, I could probably just go in and enjoy it without pulling the trigger. I just love to be there watching the strutting, and the spitting and drumming—the whole show that they put on coming in.
“For me it’s not about pulling the trigger – it’s everything up to the time you pull the trigger.”