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Do Fall Turkey Seasons Make Sense?

— by James Earl Kennamer, Ph.D., NWTF Chief Conservation Officer

Fall turkey hunting was the rule in the early to middle 20th century. Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and even South Carolina had fall seasons, as did a number of Western and Midwestern states. Legions of hunters took to the woods each fall in pursuit of a wild turkey for their Thanksgiving dinner.

Spring gobbler seasons actually were unheard of in the North and mid-Atlantic region until the 1960s.

The heyday of fall turkey hunting lasted until the 1990s. At that time, interest in fall turkey hunting started to wane. By the early 2000s, spring gobbler hunters outnumbered fall turkey hunters, even in the states with a tradition of fall hunting.

The overall decline in fall turkey hunter numbers is a bit of a mystery. While fall hunter numbers were declining, opportunity for fall turkey hunting was increasing. States with restored turkey flocks offered new fall seasons, and states where fall hunting was steeped in tradition continued to offer opportunities. Younger turkey hunters who cut their hunting teeth on spring gobblers seemed less interested in pursuing fall turkeys than older hunters. Some even questioned the wisdom of having fall seasons. Should turkeys be hunted in the fall? Should hens be legal game? Can we have both a good spring gobbler season and a fall season? Can the turkey population support both?

Fortunately, the answer to all the questions is a resounding "yes."

Turkeys can and should be hunted in the fall — with the approval of the state wildlife agency biologists who manage wild turkey populations, of course.

Establishing Seasons

Most wildlife populations have a harvestable surplus, a portion of the population that may be taken without serious consequences. Setting a fall harvest around this surplus requires accurate information for biologists to recommend seasons, permits and limits that do not hurt the overall health of turkey populations.

Most fall turkey hunting states have guidelines for decisions on opening, closing, lengthening and shortening fall seasons. Often, the guidelines are based on the spring gobbler harvest. The spring harvest provides a good indication of turkey population trends. Fall harvest is managed by setting bag limits, season length, limiting hunting implements and, in some cases, limiting permit or license availability. Increases in spring harvest trends suggest that fall seasons might be liberalized, while declines in spring harvest result in more restrictive seasons or even closure.

Biologists use the data available to them for planning fall seasons and guarding against over-harvest. This juggling act can be tricky and is complicated by weather, annual brood production, habitat changes and mast crop availability. So, many state wildlife agencies have developed season structures that are conservative, erring on the side of the wild turkey resource to avoid serious population impacts.

When Fall Hunting Hurts

Studies in Missouri, Iowa, Virginia and West Virginia indicate that when the fall harvest is limited to 5 to 10 percent of the fall population, turkey numbers will continue to grow. When the fall harvest exceeds 10 percent of the population, turkey numbers will decline. In addition, when fall harvest equals or exceeds the spring harvest, populations tend to decline.

Biologists must carefully monitor population trends and develop seasons that will provide recreational opportunities, and assure that over-harvest will not occur in years of poor recruitment or when mast (food) is scarce.

Timing of fall seasons is also a factor. Late seasons, when snow is more likely to cover the ground, can drastically increase hunter success. Holidays and overlapping deer or small game seasons can also affect fall turkey harvests. Knowledge of harvest numbers is essential for biologists to allow hunting without jeopardizing turkey flocks.

Wild turkey population research has shown repeatedly that the factors having the greatest effect on long-term turkey population growth are nest success, along with hen and poult survival rates. Fall turkey seasons can affect hen survival, especially in years of poor nesting success, when there are fewer young turkeys to be harvested. The same is true when mast crops are poor and fall flocks concentrate on available food sources, making them more vulnerable to harvest.

Hens that survive the fall hunting season and winter are essential to future generations of wild turkeys. They are the source of productive nests and successful broods, which is why wildlife agencies do not allow hunters to take hens in spring.

Give It a Try

Hunters who have never experienced fall hunting are missing a chance to learn more about wild turkey behavior. Fall hunters encounter the full range of vocalization by brood flocks and flocks of older birds. Calling up a wary brood hen with her jakes and jennies or attempting to coax an old gobbler into range is truly a challenge.



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