Some of the finest turkey hunting in the U.S. covers the Great Plains, and for the savvy hunter who doesn’t mind a little travel during the spring, three-quarters of your grand slam can be accomplished. In fact, there are circumstances where three subspecies exist in the same state. For the most part, Merriam’s to the west; Rios to the south; and big, boisterous Easterns to the east can all be harvested within easy driving distance from any of the Great Plains states.
The coveted wild turkey Grand Slam is one of the most popular hunting adventures within this great nation of ours; only a select few states can claim three of these subspecies inside their borders. Tags are readily available to residents and non-residents alike with generous bag limits making the perfect situation for the adventuring spring turkey hunter
The key to any successful hunt is scouting. Luck can certainly play a major role but, personally, I’d rather be good than lucky. I can’t over emphasize the value of knowing where you are hunting and being well aware of the wily old longbeard’s daily routine before you head out. If you can get a pattern nailed down, your chances of success increase exponentially.
When hunting a new property I like to take a day or two positioning myself on a high point and spend some time glassing. It’s a good idea to have a few locations lined up to check on a regular basis, and then move in when the time is right. Running a "milkroute" and checking it a few times daily will increase the confidence you have in locating other birds, especially if a hunt didn’t go as planned.
If there are good numbers of birds with a lot of fighting taking place, a strutter decoy matched with some aggressive calling could be a deadly combination. However, if the birds are scattered, an ambush set-up with a couple hen dekes and a more subtle approach might be the ticket. Or even vice versa.
Each state is vastly different, including regulations, bag limits and land access. It is nice to know exactly what you are getting into before you begin planning your spring hunt.
We are going to take a close look at each state and hear from their biologists in regard to how they feel the 2011 season will shape up when compared to the years prior.
Despite a recent downturn, North Dakota’s wild turkey populations have exploded, offering residents opportunities they didn’t used to have. The state does not offer a non-resident spring turkey hunting tag, however, the non-resident still looking to harvest a NoDak turkey can do so through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. (www.gameandfish.standingrock.org)
"The past couple winters were long and hard, and the weather did take a toll on the quality of the hatch," says North Dakota Upland Game Biologist Stan Kohn. "In addition to rough winters, the ’08 and ’09 springs were wet and cool, which hindered poult recruitment during the peak of hatch. We didn’t see as many young birds during 2009 summer as we have in the past, but the weather was better during the 2010 nesting period, thus leading us believe 2011 will be an improvement.
"Our turkey numbers are not where we would like to see them. Habitat and recruitment being the primary factors for the decline," he continues. "With that, however, we still anticipate our spring harvest rates to be near our average and hunters across the state will still be able to find quality spring turkey hunting. The overall number of sightings and encounters might decrease, but there are still plenty of birds to be hunted."
"Over the past three years we have been averaging about 2,300 spring gobblers being harvested," Kohn explains. "We expect 2011′s harvest rates to compare to the three-year average, but there may be pockets where hunters don’t see as many birds as they have in years past and, in turn, pockets that might be on the average or even on the increase."
Resident turkey hunters are restricted to one bird and the tags are distributed through a lottery system. Public land access is immense; state law allows property that is not posted to be open for public hunting access. This allows hunters statewide to find ample opportunities to hunt turkeys. Most of the birds can be located along rivers and the coulees and drainages leading to rivers. If there is a bunch of trees together, there is a good chance turkeys are nearby!
There are healthy populations of Merriam’s turkeys in across the state, especially in the western portion of North Dakota. There are Easterns and hybrids mixed in, allowing hunters an opportunity at two subspecies. At the time this article was authored, the official spring turkey hunting dates were yet to be announced. For the 2011 spring turkey season dates and any additional information, please visit www.gf.nd.gov.
South Dakota is a sportsman’s paradise with opportunities at Merriam’s, Easterns and there are even pockets where Rios exist in huntable numbers. The jewel of South Dakota’s turkey hunting rests in the Black Hills, as that offers the traveling hunter the whole western Merriam’s turkey hunting experience. Non-resident tags with liberal bag limits are available, allowing plenty of chances to enjoy spring turkey hunting success.
"Our wild turkey numbers are on the rise, even in spite of coming off a rough winter and spring," says Communications Specialist with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Chris Hull. "All indications across South Dakota are showing us to be on track for another banner spring of turkey hunting. Some of our spring snows in the Black Hills and prairie regions did cause some mortality on gobblers, but our hen/poult ratios are still within our 10-year average and we look to be in good shape for the 2011 season.
"Merriam’s turkeys are well distributed across South Dakota, including hybrids where two of the sub-species have integrated," Hull explains. "There are a few select locations where all three subspecies can be found and harvested on a regular basis. The Rios and Easterns are transplants, but the majority of the Merriam’s, which is the primary target for traveling hunters, are native to the region.
"The favored portion of the state is in the western South Dakota in and around the Black Hills. The habitat is ideal for quality wild turkey production and allows for high hunt
er success," he says. "The 2011 spring turkey archery hunting dates for the Black Hills and the single-season prairie units open April 9 and run through May 22nd. The split-season early prairie unit opens April 9 and goes through April 30. The split-season prairie and Black Hills late season opens May 1 and ends May 22."
Hunters can harvest numerous birds in South Dakota, but that depends on the units and quotas set before the season begins. On average, hunters are allowed two birds, but a hunter willing to travel can legally take up to five birds depending on standing quotas and what each unit will allow.
There is a "walk-in" program where the state leases hunting rights from landowners across South Dakota allowing for tremendous public access, not to mention the state forests in western South Dakota. (*Please visit www.gfp.sd.gov to confirm season dates and access any additional information).
Nebraska is one of the nation’s most popular wild turkey hunting destinations, and for good reason. The harvest numbers have been increasing every year for some time, indicating a healthy and growing wild turkey population, which will continue to keep Nebraska on the map as far as the traveling wild turkey hunters are concerned.
"In 2007, 18,000 turkeys harvested, 2008 had 20,000 birds harvested, in 2009 there was 22,000 birds harvested, and near 24,000 in 2010," says Kit Hams, Big Game Program manager with Nebraska Game and Parks. "Every year since 1993, wild turkey harvests have increased. We have been experiencing modest to mild winters and quality nesting conditions for several years back to back allowing the wild turkey populations to expand greatly."
"Nebraska’s turkey populations are up 500 percent since 2002, the Sand Hills are up nearly 800 percent during the same time frame," he continues. "The summer survey data in 2009 was at a record high and 2010 was 30 percent above that. The warmer and dryer climate has allowed for a population boost, and relatively low coyote populations certainly attributes to lower predation rates."
"In 2000, we asked rural mail carriers to count turkeys and that is how we have established a grasp on how our turkey population currently sits," Hams continues. "This has been an extremely effective method as these folks are on the rural roads on a daily basis and have extensive opportunities to document what they are seeing. This information matched with our annual harvest data provides us with opportunities to better manage our turkeys and make them available for both residents and non-residents alike."
There is a liberal 3-bird limit; one per permit and all can be harvested the same day. With the excellent population of turkeys across the state, they can consistently be found in river bottoms, wooded draws, and even shelterbelts. Hams recommends hunters consider the Pine Ridge National Forest near Chadron, in the Northwest corner of Nebraska, especially if they are seeking Merriam’s.
In the southwest corner, Medicine Creek Reservoir near Cambridge, Nebraska would be worth some serious investigation. There is over 5,600 acres of public hunting in a turkey-rich environment that hunters have access to. Just about every public area in the state that is not a waterfowl production area will hold turkeys. For more information, please visit www.outdoornebraska.ne.gov.
Kansas is one of the nation’s premier Rio Grande wild turkey destinations. With a relatively mild and dry climate, wild turkeys have ample opportunity to sustain maximum population densities. The majority of the birds in Kansas are Rios, but along the eastern edge of the state Easterns can be found in healthy numbers as well. There will also be hybrids occurring in locations where the two species reside together.
"Central Kansas into western Kansas has tremendous numbers of Rios for the Grand Slam-seeking longbeard chaser," says Jim Pitman, who is the small game coordinator with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "In 2010 we sold 66,000 permits to about 42,000 people in Kansas. Among those hunters, around 35,000 birds were harvested. The bulk of the harvest came from the northeast and north central portion of Kansas, with the birds coming from the north central primarily being Rios.
"Kansas boasts one of the very best harvest success rates in the nation," Pitman explains. "Fifty percent of Kansas hunters fill their tag, and the hunters who only hunt for one bird produced a 60 percent success rate during eight of the last nine years. The harvest rates are a fine indicator to the quality of the populations and the habitat they live in."
"We have had two solid years of production in the western two-thirds of the state," he continues. "The eastern part of Kansas has been wetter than average, but we are still seeing numerous broods and consistent nesting conditions. The 2011 spring season is looking really bright across the state, and the next few years should be outstanding as well!"
"The one change we will be seeing in 2011 is an increased allocation of permits in southwest Kansas, which is resident hunting-only, from 325-500 permits," Pitman says. "Youth/disabled and archery runs April 1st through April 12. The regular firearm season begins April 13 and ends May 31.
There are 300,000 acres of public access and the state also leases 160,000 acres of private land under a walk-in program. Pitman recommends the following locations across the state where public hunting is allowed and quality turkey hunting can be found: Ludlow Wildlife Area, Marion Wildlife Area, and Webster Wildlife Area, (Unit 1). The walk-in areas are mostly in north central Kansas. There is an atlas that comes out each year showing the walk-in properties across the state, signs mark the boundaries and offer hunters ample access to outstanding Rio hunting.
For more information, please visit www.kdwp.state.ks.us.
The amount of turkeys that exist in the Great Plains states can be attributed to the efforts of conservation groups like the NWTF and other like-minded organizations. If not for the passion of many wild turkey hunters across the nation, opportunities like what exist in North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, the amount of quality turkey hunting that is available would not be possible.
I recommend joining forces with the NWTF and support those that support you and your passions. Get out there and get your piece of a three-quarter Grand Slam in the beautiful Plains states this year.