As Pennsylvania’s 50th spring turkey season draws near, sportsmen across the Commonwealth are gearing up to match wits with one of the most challenging game species in Penn’s Woods. The 2018 season gets underway with the youth day this Sat., April 21, followed by the statewide spring gobbler season, which runs April 28-May 31.
“Pennsylvania’s turkey population will provide plenty of excitement for those who choose to head afield for the Commonwealth’s golden anniversary spring turkey hunt,” says PGC Wild Turkey Biologist Mary Jo Casalena. “Make no mistake, Pennsylvania remains one of America’s premier turkey-hunting destinations.”
The PGC predicts the 2018 gobbler season should be similar to last year, when sportsmen harvested 38,101 birds. The population, which is estimated to be between 210,000 and 220,000 birds, has slowly been on the increase in recent years.
For most turkey hunting aficionados, one of the big draws is the challenge involved in the sport, with no two turkey hunts ever the same. Veteran gobbler hunters know that prepping for the season begins well before opening day, with pre-season scouting, practicing with calls, and checking gear and equipment all important to success in the field.
Bob Schwalm of Fountain Hill, who has hunted 26 states and harvests an average of four birds a year in different states, says patterning the shotgun is a big component of preparing for the season, but also one that many guys overlook.
“It is best to always take some shots with a bench rest and also with your back against an object [to imitate sitting against a tree],” says Schwalm, who in 2006 took the Turkey Grand Slam – harvesting Eastern, Rio Grande, Osceola and Merriman’s birds – in less than four weeks. “Shoot from 30 yards at a target simulating the size of a turkey’s head and neck area, then count the amount of pellets in the head and neck. It should be no less than 6-8 for a clean kill.”
In the field, Schwalm aims for the major caruncle, the large, red fleshy area at the bottom of the neck that meets the turkey’s breast feathers.
“By using this area for my point of aim it assures that I will not shoot over the bird’s head, especially at close shots when my super tight choke pattern is at its smallest spread,” he says.
Northampton’s Brian Vandergrift, who does most of his turkey hunting on public land, says scouting and knowing the terrain you’re hunting are crucial to success.“Try to roost a bird the evening before your hunt,” he says. “If you find one, try and sneak in close to where you think he is roosted the next morning before daylight.”
Bucks County resident Shawn Secrest, who’s hunted birds from Kansas and Texas to New York and Alabama, says sportsmen who want to consistently harvest turkeys should focus on keeping their movement to a minimum, especially when they know a bird is closing in on the call. Turkeys have excellent eyesight that’s three times better than humans, which makes even the slightest movement a red flag that will send a bird scurrying back into the undergrowth and out of sight.
“I don’t think people realize that they are just pure survival,” Secrest says. “They have no curiously like a deer has…You can’t twitch, you can’t adjust your gun. The gun has to be pointing where you’re going to pull that trigger way before that turkey comes into sight.”
Veteran turkey hunters always carry an assortment of calls in their vest or backpack so they are prepared for almost any situation they encounter while afield. In fact, sometimes it’s switching between calls to imitate different hens and hen sounds that makes the difference between an all-too-quiet morning and enticing a call-shy gobbler into the open.
“[It’s important to] learn the different sounds of the wild turkey and practice these,” Vandergrift says.
One of the most challenging situations a sportsman can find himself in is when a tom starts coming to the call but then gets hung up, whether due to being with hens or encountering an obstacle in the terrain. It’s the hunter’s job to dig into his arsenal in an effort to try and draw the bird closer.
Secrest, who makes his own box and friction calls as part of Aggressive Game Calls, often varies his calling tactics including changing the pitch and volume; alternating between mouth, box and friction/striker calls; or even turning his head while calling to mimic the sound of a hen that’s leaving the area.
“You have to think what the turkey’s thinking,” he says. “You have to try to get inside that turkey’s head and think to yourself, ‘What is he thinking right now? What does he think is going on and why should he come to you?’
“It’s a chess match every time you’re out there. Every single turkey is different, and every turkey wants something different.”
Vandergrift, who makes his own box calls and has earned several top-three finishes in state call making competitions with them, agrees that offering the bird something different is key. Sometimes, it may even include going with the silent treatment after initially calling regularly.
“I will try and cluck and scratch the leaves as if a turkey was doing that while feeding,” he says. “If he still hangs up, [I’ll] stop calling and sit quietly like the hen is ignoring him.”
While all three hunters have harvested numerous gobblers over the years, it’s actually been the unsuccessful outings from which they may have learned the most. From spooking birds due to movement, to being too aggressive with their calls, each has made several mistakes, especially early in their careers, that have helped make them better turkey hunters over time.“Anyone can turkey hunt,” Seacrest says, “but not a whole lot of people can [consistently] kill a turkey.”
Schwalm recommends individuals who want to develop into serious, successful turkey hunters learn as much as they can from seminars, books, television shows and other hunters.
“Most importantly,” he says,” learn from the turkey. He’ll teach you everything that you need to know.”
Mark Demko is a freelance writer. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @markdemko1.