Spring turkey season 6 weeks away, but time for hunters to begin preparation is now
Pulling into Masontown off Route 21, it felt like anything but spring.
There wasn't much snow. But nothing on the surrounding landscape was green, either. The naked trees were brown, the fields were a dingy, cornstalk yellow and the sky was a lead-like gray.
But Ed Sutton was ready to talk gobbler hunting.
Again. Still. Always.
“For some people, turkey season ends. Not for me,” he said.
Born in 1946, the Fayette County man has been hunting turkeys since he was 13. He's taken plenty, here and in other states.
This is the time of year when he starts getting ready to do it all over again.
Pennsylvania's spring gobbler season doesn't open until April 27 and doesn't end until May 31. But right now is time for figuring out where the birds are and where they're likely to be.
“Woodsmanship is the big thing,” Sutton said. “You've got to scout. You've got to find out where the birds are roosting. You've got to find out where the hens are.
“I've been out scouting already. This is when guys should be at it.”
Eric Baker of Port Matilda, a pro staffer with Primos Hunting, agreed.
“In 36 years of turkey hunting, I've learned that if the birds are there in March, they're most likely going to be there in April and May,” Baker said.
Flocks generally are at their biggest and most visible right now, he said, with a good bit of gobbling activity going on. Birds will disperse as spring approaches, and the males establish a pecking order.
Until then, though, hunters can do themselves a lot of good by spending the first 30 to 60 minutes after sunrise driving and walking field edges and woods roads listening for birds and looking for signs like droppings, tracks in mud and puddles, scratchings and feathers, said Bob Eriksen, the National Wild Turkey Federation's regional biologist for Pennsylvania and a long-time turkey hunter.
“Use your eyes, use your ears and put some miles either on your feet or your vehicle. That should give you some good options going into opening day,” Eriksen said.
Pay attention to the countryside, too.
“There are two goals to scouting, really: to make sure there are birds in your area, but also to get to know the area itself, so that when you start calling a bird, there's not some obstacle between you and him that's going to cause him to hang up,” Baker said.
“It's a tremendous advantage if you know which way the terrain is naturally likely to direct that bird once it flies down off its roost,” said Eriksen, adding that it's wise to set up on the same level or even uphill of a gobbler if possible.
From there, you've got to call that bird in. The time for sharpening those skills is now, too.
“I start practicing with my calls at least a month before the season,” Sutton said.
You can have a lot of success just by mastering the basics, Baker said. A hunter who can recreate turkey “yelps” with a box call or push-button call — the easiest kind to use — can score pretty regularly, he said.
“I bet 90 of all the turkeys killed are taken by guys who are just yelping,” Baker said.
Sutton likewise labels the yelp — a locator call that tells a gobbler a hen is near and ready for him — the most important to know. After that, the cluck, the whine, the cut and the purr are next important, he said.
You've got to put a little romance into each, though.
Sitting in his kitchen, surrounded by his mix of box calls; slate, glass and crystal pot calls; a push-button call that clips to his shotgun barrel; and mouth calls, Sutton said hunters need to mimic the natural rhythms of birds communicating with one another. Pace and subtlety are key.
“When you call to birds, you've got to put the feeling to it,” Sutton said. “But a lot of guys will start by making some basic turkey calls, and if they don't get a response right away, they go to making more aggressive calls and a lot of them. They put on a calling seminar right there in the woods. And you know who's the first to know? Mr. Gobbler. And then he's gone.”
The good news is that there are lots of turkeys in Pennsylvania, an estimated 190,000 or more. Those who start looking for them now may wind up with a season to remember — albeit at a price.
“It's highly addictive,” Eriksen said. “Once you get the turkey bug, the garden's not going to get tilled and the house isn't going to get painted in spring, that's for sure.”