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Will Elliott’s Outdoors: Big birds tagged during youth hunt

Youth turkey hunt outings rewarded several young hunters with gargantuan gobblers in weather more akin to the late waterfowl season.

The statewide Youth Wild Turkey Hunt was calendared as April 20 and 21, but young hunters aged 12 to 15 faced chill winds, rain and scatterings of snowflakes while trying to put a tag on one bearded wild turkey that might come into shooting range between a half hour before sunrise until noon both days.

Saturday’s start went more like an endurance contest than a bird hunt for kids all around Western New York. Wind-driven cold rains called for heavy, waterproof camo gear wherever parents or legal guardians set up youths trying for a tom turkey.

Nonetheless, Fisher Swartz, 14, of Orchard Park had one proud father, Patrick Swartz, elated early that Saturday morning with a trophy tom dad said, “… any turkey hunter would be proud of.”

Fisher and his father were in the woods near home at 5:45 a.m. and set up by 6 a.m. They saw three other toms and two hens while dad worked a call. Fisher got a shot at 7:06 a.m. that opening day. The pair saw three other toms and two hens as dad worked a Quaker Boy Hurricane box call. Dad later said, “I must have used this Hurricane for about 15 years and it still gets birds.”

This turkey weighed in at 24.02 pounds, sported an 11.5-inch beard and 1.25-inch spurs. Dad estimated this to be about a 5-year-old turkey; he will set up Fisher’s trophy as a fan and beard mount. For Fisher, this was his second turkey. In 2011 he took a 21-pound gobbler that sported a double beard measuring 9.5 and two inches.

Readers may recall the remarkable double-header scored by twins Alex and Michael Handley while hunting with dad, Doug Handley, on Sunday of the 2012 Youth Wild Turkey Hunt. Both boys shot at the same time and each took their first turkey, sizeable jakes, at once that morning.

This year, the foul Saturday weather had dad holding back, but the boys both got birds on the second day; that Sunday hunt involved two townships. Alex, 13, had a shot and took a jake at about 25 yards at 8:45 a.m. where dad had set up and made calls in Marilla. For lack of more activity, dad moved their setup to a spot in Lancaster where Michael took his bird, another jake with four separate beards that totaled 10.125 inches. Connor Cinelli, 13, of Grand Island has developed his skills at downing darting woodcock near home, but dad Chris Cinelli had not gotten Connor close enough for a turkey take until the Sunday hunt this year.

In the woods at 5:30, Connor did not miss at 7 a.m. with a turkey load in his 12-gauge, a 35-yard shot. Dad was happy to see Connor get this big bird and impressed with its size. The beard measured a respectable nine inches, but the exact scale weight was stunning, an impressive 25-pound, 13-ounce reading.

Savannah Baker, 13, of Blasdell endured the weather this year and practiced patience each day out hunting with dad Todd Baker. During her first hunt last year she passed up questionable shots at nice birds that were at a distance. Todd wanted his daughter’s first bird to be a close, clean kill, which did not happen in 2012.

This year, Dad and daughter started hunting early on Saturday morning in East Otto, but bad weather had them moving to Orchard Park to hunt a more sheltered area. Dad uses a custom Mountain Hollows box call to work birds in close. It finally happened at 10 a.m. Savannah took a 22-yard shot and downed a 24 pound, 2 ounce tom with a 10-inch beard and 1.125-inch spurs.

After the hunt Savannah said, “Dad, it was worth waking up early.” No mention was made of the setting up and nasty weather.

Turkey takes

Prospects for the statewide wild turkey opener on Wednesday are mixed — tenuous but somewhat promising.

Patrick Swartz hunts near home and all around Western New York. He has taken 33 toms in 25 years of hunting and sees numbers slightly down but not to a point of panic.

Swartz notes turkey numbers are on a nice rebound in areas of south Allegany County. Doug Handley said, “I’m not encouraged with the number of birds out there.”

Handley heard other birds while calling for his twin boys, but the birds were not calling often and he had to move to get his sons onto turkeys.

Todd Baker, another devoted gobbler getter, depends on good calling skills and staying power for success during the spring turkey season.

Turkey harvests have generally declined in the past decade. Mike Schiavone, DEC wildlife biologist in the Albany office, noted that the overall take began dipping in 2003, falling more steadily since 2007.

“It all depends on where you’re hunting,” Schiavone said. “We get differing reports of kills in areas of a county from hunters working the same [terrain and weather] conditions.” Emilio Rende, DEC wildlife biologist at the Region 9 Allegany office, said. “Our summer 2012 surveys, taken after the spring hunt, showed turkey populations were better but still down.”

Both Schiavone and Rende noted that birds had a mild winter in 2011-2012 and this past year, which could produce a fair crop of bigger jakes and young toms this season.

So much depends on weather patterns, forage and field conditions. A gradually warming early spring should have leaf and brush growth minimal during the start of the spring turkey season.

Set up where birds can be seen for a clean kill, know exactly what and where that bird is before taking aim and a shot, hunt as often as possible, respect others’ presence in the field and forest while enjoying the May 1-31 turkey season.