The Changing Face of Fall Turkey Hunting

THEN AND NOW

The NWTF’s conservation efforts to trap, transfer and restore wild turkey populations throughout the country began in 1973. Then, fall turkey hunting ruled.

I first turkey hunted my native Pennsylvania in the early 1970s. Spring hunting was fairly new (1968 in Pennsylvania). Some turkey hunters who mentored me viewed the spring season with skepticism, claiming it was too easy because hunters made good on a gobbler’s intense breeding desire.

My late father, a longtime fall turkey hunter, used to joke, “I like spring turkey hunting now that we can, but it feels like I’m breaking the law.”

He wasn’t. Times have changed. Now many people spring turkey hunt.

Younger or newer turkey hunters who now enjoy the NWTF’s steady, continuing effort to maintain wild turkey populations might think spring is the longtime tradition, and that’s true in some ways, but just for much of the late 20th century and early 21st century.

Despite the trending spring turkey tradition, fall and winter turkey hunting opportunities have increased in some states. In others, wildlife officials unapologetically manage for spring turkey hunting and offer no “second seasons.”

MANAGEMENT FACTORS

Turkey hunting management is based on many factors. Wildlife managers consider overall turkey kill data for spring and fall and much more, including public opinion, seasonal hunter participation and pressure to use resources differently. Whether we like it, fall turkey hunting management can be a political topic, too, with varying viewpoints.

Regulations for fall turkey hunting opportunities include season date expansion or reduction. Wildlife managers enact seasons based on kill data from spring and fall and varying geographical opportunities based on zones and regions. They also use method-of-take laws for archery and firearms.

Fall turkey hunting management approaches vary nationwide. Iowa fall turkey hunts are limited to residents, for example. New York implements sunrise-to-sunset shooting hours with roosted turkeys in mind rather than the half-hour-before-sunrise/half-hour-after-sunset rule.

STATES THAT DO

True, some states have increased fall and winter turkey hunting opportunities during the past 10 years. In fact, 42 states and even some Canadian provinces will hold fall seasons in 2017.

Maine, for example, offers a lengthy fall turkey season from early October to early November, and a two-bird limit. The latter phase of this opportunity even coincides with the firearms deer firearms season — a debatable topic.

Nebraska and Kansas, where it’s common to see huge winter flocks in the hundreds, offer fall and winter turkey seasons from early autumn to the end of January. Both states, obviously, should be on your spring destination list, too.

And yes, things have changed in my native Pennsylvania since I was a teenager.

In their report, Pennsylvania Turkey Hunting, Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist Mary Joe Casalena and NWTF Conservation Field Supervisor Bob Eriksen wrote: “We are privileged to be able to enjoy both spring and fall hunting in this state. To continue to have the outstanding hunting we have come to expect, fall harvests are carefully monitored, and trends in spring harvests are watched.”

That’s true in many states.

Wisconsin, as in spring, offers a lengthy and generous fall turkey season based on zones and a permit system.

New Hampshire has a longtime archery fall turkey season that runs concurrently with the deer archery deal (from mid-September to mid-December, ending a week sooner in Wildlife Management Unit A). Some opportunists there take a bird while sitting in a tree stand or pop-up blind for deer.

Places, such as Virginia and Pennsylvania, even offer fall turkey hunting on Thanksgiving, an American tradition.

Kentucky might have the most diverse fall and winter turkey seasons. A range of shotgun, archery and even crossbow opportunities are included in the mix.

STATES THAT DON’T

Georgia manages for spring turkey hunting and offers no fall season. This is also true for South Carolina, home of the NWTF.

New York, which once offered a generous statewide fall turkey season, recently cut back on season days and the bag limit.

According to Doug Little, NWTF conservation field supervisor for the Northeast, the decline in New York’s wild turkey numbers has been largely attributed to poor weather during the nesting and brood-rearing seasons during the past 10-plus years. 

“Habitat has been lost to a host of land-use changes,” he said. “The remaining habitat is also maturing and becoming less than ideal from a landscape-level perspective. We have realized significant declines in young forest habitat in the Northeast, which may be negatively impacting hen nesting success.”

Alaska is the only state without a wild turkey population, so no turkey hunting opportunities exist there.

VARIATIONS

Other states are ambivalent on the deal, letting licensed hunters choose, offering one turkey per calendar year (Arizona, fall or spring) or tipped deliberately toward gobblers or bearded turkeys only (Florida, fall and spring).

Others — and this is fairly common ­— offer either-sex fall turkey limits.

As always, study your state regulations closely for any year-to-year changes in turkey hunting laws.

TURKEY DOGGING

The rise of the modern turkey dogging tradition increased with the NWTF’s trap-and-transfer turkey restoration efforts, along with those of state wildlife agencies and like-minded volunteers. We now have more turkeys to hunt.

In the early 1990s, only 11 states offered fall turkey dogging seasons. Now it’s legal in nearly 30. As biologist Doug Blodgett of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department has always said, it was legalized as “a byproduct of other upland bird hunting in fall.”

In traditional turkey dogging states, such as Virginia, Gary Norman, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries turkey project leader, has steadily worked to preserve that option.

Some states now see reduced turkey populations and more limited opportunities. Our wildlife conservation work is never done.

Also, hardcore members of the turkey dogging tradition have lobbied to increase and legalize this in Northern states from Wisconsin to Maine.

The Future

Spring turkey hunting has taken over. In some cases, it’s a beards-in-spring, antlers-in-fall hunting tradition these days. Then again, many hardcore fall and winter turkey hunters, including me, enjoy it in multiple states and during the course of seasonal options, with dogs.

In the end, it depends where you’re hunting.

As reported by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, “Since 2000, the number of spring turkey hunters has exceeded that of fall turkey hunters in Pennsylvania. This switch is not only the result of fall hunters switching to spring turkey hunting but also an influx of new turkey hunters who hunt only in the spring.”

The truth is, fall and spring hunting traditions are for folks who enjoy wild turkey hunting as much as possible. Check your current state regulations for opportunities, or travel to a neighboring state if it offers a season.

Turkey hunting is turkey hunting, period, no matter the season. Try it in the fall. You might love it.

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