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Safety matters in upcoming spring gobbler seasons

The extension of cabin-fever brought on by the coronavirus blues has hunters across Pennsylvania looking forward to the start of spring turkey season.

Hunting turkeys in Penn’s Woods will be different this year because of COVID-19, particularly during the youth spring turkey hunt on April 25. But Gov. Tom Wolf’s travel restrictions allow for turkey hunting as outdoor recreation.

That clearance doesn’t relinquish our obligation to families, friends and all Pennsylvanians to follow the social-distancing and stop-the-spread protocols that are helping the Commonwealth reverse -COVID-19’s hold on the Keystone State.

Some simple rules can make all turkey hunting safer. One of the easiest to follow is: If you live together you can hunt together. When you live in the same home as someone, there’s relatively no risk of spreading COVID-19, so long as no one in the home has it. If someone does, everyone in the home is expected to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Consider carefully whether you should mentor any hunter this spring turkey season. If Pennsylvanians are lucky, the state will be coming off COVID-19’s apex. But stopping the spread remains as important as ever. No turkey hunt is worth the risk of contracting COVID-19.

If you’re going, think of the problems that must be resolved to hunt turkeys safely while mentoring a friend or mentee. Hunting in a blind is out; it doesn’t meet social-distancing requirement to be at least 6 feet apart. So is sharing a vehicle to reach your hunting location.

If you can hunt close to home, here are precautions all mentor and mentee turkey hunters should follow. Follow social-distancing rules and wear gloves at all times. Use a camouflaged bandana or gaiter to cover your nose and mouth. Any equipment passed from one hunter to another should have been cleaned thoroughly before starting the hunt. Carry hand sanitizer for cleanups afield. Coordinate with pre-arranged hand signals.

“There’s no doubt turkey hunting will be tough on hunters used to hunting with friends and at camp,” noted Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “The same applies to hunters who usually mentor young hunters interested in gobbler hunting. But COVID-19 is bigger than spring gobbler hunting, and we all must do our part to ensure this pandemic stops haunting all Pennsylvanians. I’m not asking anyone to stop hunting this spring. On the contrary, I’m hoping you’ll get afield and make the most of the spring season without taking COVID-19 risks.”

The statewide spring gobbler season runs from May 2 to May 30 and it’s shaping up to be a season that has something for every spring gobbler hunter. The statewide flock, expected to mirror 2019’s estimated spring population of 212,170 turkeys, has been aided by good reproduction last year, declining participation in fall seasons, and a mild winter with abundant natural foods.

“A strong base of old toms is strutting in our forests and fields in their annual quest for companionship followed by a healthy population of high-spirited jakes,” said Mary Jo Casalena, Game Commission turkey biologist. “There’s also a good supply of 2-year-olds roaming in some Wildlife Management Units (WMUs).

“So, if you’re willing to invest some time pursuing spring gobblers, you surely have a chance to bring home one – maybe even two – of these cabin-fever-chasing birds for you grill or dinner table.”

Last spring, hunters took 37,300 turkeys, which was down from 2018’s 40,300. The harvest generated a spring hunter first-turkey success rate of 19 percent and has ranged 19 to 21 percent for the past three years.

A record number of hunters again bought second gobbler tags – 22,517 – marking the third consecutive year second-tag sales topped 20,000. Those second tags led to 4,811 harvests, making for a 21 percent success rate for those who purchased a second tag. Interestingly, only 13 percent of spring-turkey hunters bought a second tag.

Youth Hunt

All participants in the youth hunt must be accompanied by adults as required by law. A complete list of regulations applying to mentored youth and junior hunters can be found in the 2019-20 Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest, which is provided with a hunting license and is available online at www.pgc.pa.gov.

Hunting Hours

Hunting hours during the youth hunt end at noon. Junior hunters and mentored youth also may participate in the statewide spring gobbler season.

Hunting hours begin one-half hour before sunrise and end at noon for the first two weeks of the statewide season (May 2 through May 16). Hunters are asked to be out of the woods by 1 p.m. when hunting hours end at noon. This is to minimize disturbance of nesting hens.

From May 18 through May 30, hunting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise until one-half hour after sunset. The all-day season allows more opportunity at the point in the season when hunting pressure is lower and nesting hens are less likely to abandon nests.

Licensing and other regulations

During the spring gobbler season, hunters may use manually operated or semiautomatic shotguns limited to a three-shell capacity in the chamber and magazine combined. Muzzleloading shotguns, crossbows and long, recurve and compound bows also are permitted. For a complete list of regulations, consult the Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest, available on the agency’s website.

Only bearded birds may be harvested during the spring season, and hunting is permitted by calling only. Hunters should refrain from knowingly harvesting bearded hens because they do nest and raise broods. The stalking of turkeys is unlawful and unsafe.

There is no requirement for hunters to wear fluorescent orange during the spring turkey season, though it is recommended that orange be worn while moving.

Blinds used while turkey hunting must be manufactured with manmade materials of sufficient density to block movement within the blind from an observer outside the blind. Blinds must completely enclose the hunter on all four sides and from above. It is unlawful to hunt turkeys from blinds made of natural materials such as logs, tree branches and piled rocks.

Blinds that represent the fanned tail of a gobbler do not hide all hunter movement, and therefore are unlawful to use in Pennsylvania.

It is unlawful, as well as unsafe, to stalk turkeys or turkey sounds. All hunters need to wait patiently and identify their targets properly prior to pulling the trigger. When in a stationary position, a hunter should sit with his or her back against a large tree, rock or other barrier that shields movement and offers protection from others who might approach from the rear.

Turkey hunters should not wear clothing that contains black, like the color found on a turkey’s body, or red, white or blue, like those on a turkey’s head.

Pennsylvania hunters again this year can purchase a license to harvest a second gobbler in the spring season, but only one gobbler may be taken per day. This license must be purchased no later than May 1 – before the statewide season begins.

The $21.90 license ($41.90 for nonresidents) may be purchased online, but cannot be printed at home. Therefore, if a hunter expects to need the license early in the season, purchasing it directly from an issuing agent might be better. The same goes for general hunting licenses. General hunting licenses purchased online also are sent by mail, and shipping charges apply.

Reporting harvests

Successful turkey hunters must immediately and properly tag the bird before moving it from the harvest site, and are required by law to report the harvest to the Game Commission.

For most hunters, harvests must be reported within 10 days. Mentored youth and mentored adult hunters must report harvests within five days.

Reporting harvests enables the Game Commission to more accurately estimate harvest and population totals, and is important to effective management.

There are three ways harvests can be reported. The preferred reporting methods are for successful hunters to visit www.pgc.pa.gov, click the blue “Report a Harvest” button along the right side of the home page, then fill out a form and submit, or to report by telephone at 1-855-PAHUNT1 (1-855-724-8681). Alternately, hunters can fill out and mail in the harvest report cards given to hunters at the time they purchase their licenses.

In all cases, it is helpful when reporting to have your license in front of you, as well as the tag you used in the field after harvesting the bird.

There also are a number of leg-banded turkeys running around in Penn’s Woods that the Game Commission is seeking information about, should you shoot one, or find it dead.

“This past winter the Game Commission leg-banded over 300 turkeys statewide,” Casalena said.

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