Below us was a creek and beyond that, barbed wire. We crossed the stream and set up at the fenceline. My friend, fellow writer and turkey enthusiast Troy Rodakowski, pointed up the hill at the spot where he figured the turkey was.
Troy putted and purred with his call and the turkey fired off, just above us behind a ridge of lava, a rolling gobble-obble-obble that rattled the branches. When next we heard him, he was on the ridge going away.
We followed our ridge downhill, crossed two more creeks and stopped to check the tom’s temperature with hen talk from time to time. There were two gobblers and they were on the move. After 45 minutes of cat and mouse, we found ourselves just in front of them. I slid in next to a pine and Troy set up behind me.
A little hen talk fired up the closest gobbler again and that was when we heard the female, berating him.
If momma isn’t happy, no one is happy. She squawked and Troy purred and putted, coy and alluring.
I saw the gobbler’s white head crest the top of the hill. He ran toward us, gobbling all the way, then turned to strut as if to say, “Ain’t I the pretty one?” In range, he strutted again and gobbled. My heart rate up, I had to pull my facemask off my nose to get a breath.
Focused now on that white/blue head and the red of his wattles, my Tru-Glo fiber-optic front sight covered him when he stepped into an opening.
We paced it off later at 23 yards. The gobbler’s spurs would have measured an inch if they hadn’t been rounded by running the lava. He weighed in at 16.1 pounds and his broomed-off beard measured 7.5 inches.
When the sun comes up on opening day of turkey season, you want to be in the woods, your back against a tree, shotgun across your knees. With turkey populations at all-time highs in many areas, today’s turkey hunter has more options than ever before. But where does a hunter start when he’s planning? What units and what counties offer the chance to look at a lot of birds and call one in to the decoys?
You have come to the right place. While you were getting ready for deer and elk seasons, Washington-Oregon Game and Fish magazine was talking turkey with the experts in both states.
Going by the numbers, Oregon’s best turkey habitat is in the southwest corner of the state in the Melrose, Rogue, Applegate and Evans Creek units.
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The Melrose Unit is regarded as Oregon’s turkey capital and that is not likely to change anytime soon. The good news is that turkeys can be found in every county in the state of Oregon. District Wildlife Biologist Tod Lum reported that in years past the Department of Fish and Wildlife used to trap and transplant turkeys to other areas of the state. Those requests have dried up, Lum said, which means that people are satisfied with turkey numbers elsewhere and Oregon’s turkey nursery is likely to be well stocked in years to come.
According to the harvest information from the 2011 spring season (the last year for which the data was available), the Melrose Unit produced 563 turkeys for 1,108 hunters with a success rate of .51 birds per hunter. In a unit that is comprised of agricultural land and private timber holdings and 16 percent public land, it is easy to guess that most of those birds were taken on private ground. For those with access or the boldness to knock on doors and follow up leads on the phone, the Melrose Unit is the best bet to tie a tag on a spring bird.
Public lands hunters should take heart, though. In third place for the highest turkey harvest is the Rogue Unit in Jackson County, which turned out 260 birds for 1,030 hunters in the 2011 season.
For the hunter that wants to get away from the crowds, but still have a chance at seeing a lot of birds, the Applegate (57 percent public lands), the Evans Creek (43 percent public lands) and the Dixon (77 percent public lands) units get less pressure, but still turn out enough birds to put them in Oregon’s top 10 units. Three other standouts in the turkey harvest numbers are the Alsea, Siuslaw and Willamette units.
Dave Budeau, Oregon’s upland bird coordinator, described his department’s turkey population surveys as “opportunistic,” made in conjunction with quail and chukar surveys.
“It does look like production was improved in 2012 compared to 2010 and 2011,” Budeau said. “We have not had significant winter mortality in the last two years.” This could point to a higher number of jakes in the population in the 2013 season.
Over on the dry side, the White River, Ukiah, Murderer’s Creek, Wenaha, Mt. Emily and Sled Springs units produce the most gobblers.
In the 2011 season, 1,870 shotgunners and archers hunted the White River Unit and tagged 381 toms; hunter success ran .2 birds per camo-clad hunter. With 43 percent public lands, the White River Unit has ample room for a hunter to ply his or her calls.
A better bet than hunting in Oregon’s most popular turkey unit might be to explore the Ukiah (35 percent public), Murderer’s Creek (65 percent public), Wenaha (70 percent public), Mt. Emily (44 percent public) or Sled Springs (21 percent public) units. Of these, the Ukiah, Wenaha and Murderer’s Creek units are the top three.
A look at the ODFW website harvest statistics gives a hunter a good idea on turkey distribution, but more insight can be gained by closer study. Some of the smaller units that fall at the bottom of the list, like the Imnaha, Trask and Powers units, produced a small number of birds for a small number of hunters with an average of fewer days in the field for the turkeys harvested.
Budeau recommends that public lands hunters give northeast Oregon a try.
“Access can be a little easier because of the larger amount of public land in the Wallowa Whitman Forest and Umatilla National Forest.”
In the Heppner and Fossil units, District Wildlife Biologist Steve Cherry noted that turkey numbers are down as a result of the cold winters and wet springs of 2010 and 2011.
“In the spring, they are going to be in the foothills, primarily on the north slopes and then also on the south slopes where the snow has abated. Basically, they follow the snowline as it recedes back into the forest and the green forbs start to pop out of the ground.”
According to Cherry, concentrations of birds can be found in the northern portions of the Fossil Unit.
“In Heppner they are scattered through the forested portion clear from Monument to the North Fork John Day and all along the northern portions of the forest,” Cherry said.
Oregon’s turkey hunt begins April 15 and runs through the end of May. The daily bag limit is one bearded turkey. Hunters are allowed two turkeys for the season, except that a third may be taken in some westside counties. A separate tag is required for each turkey. See the 2012-2013 Oregon Game Bird Regulations for details.
Each season, more than 14,500 turkey hunters go afield in the state of Washington for a harvest of more than 5,600 birds. In the 2010 season (the last year for which data was available), hunters reported a success rate of 39 percent.
While most of Oregon’s turkeys are of the Rio Grande variety, Washington has Rio Grandes in the Blue Mountains, Merriam’s in the northeast and in the Klickitat and Eastern birds in the southwest. Hunters learn to adapt to hunt the birds in various habitats.
The Northeast produced the most birds with a total harvest of 3,197 gobblers for 8,303 hunters. This corner of the state has enough turkeys that the department has added a number of fall hunts to keep the numbers down. Some of the biggest concentrations of birds are found in Pend Oreille, Ferry and Stevens counties.
To the south, Lincoln, Whitman and Spokane counties turn out their share of gobblers each season.
Mike Atamian, an assistant district biologist in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife office in Spokane, recommends hunters look at the Mica Peak Unit and also, north of Spokane, in the Mount Spokane Unit.
In southeast Washington, the Dayton and Blue Creek units produce the highest numbers, while the Prescott, Tucannon, Couse and Mayview units are also consistent.
Another turkey-hunting hotspot in the Evergreen state is the Klickitat region, which turned out the highest success rate with 863 birds for 1,869 hunters for a 46.2 percent harvest. These are mainly of the Merriam’s variety with more white in their primary and secondary feathers than the Rio Grande.
Tracy Zoller watches turkeys throughout the year, even from the seat of his drift boat on his favorite river, the Klickitat.
“In the valley here, sometimes you will see 200 birds in one spot in the winter. But in the spring, they spread out.” That is when Zoller and his sons set out to find the roosts.
“We spend massive amounts of time finding roost locations.” The more roosts a hunter has in his back pocket, the more options he has on opening day.
Zoller prefers the first two weeks of the season to the warmer weather in May. “Birds are harder to call later on than they are earlier in the season. Sometimes the second week can be better than the first week.”
To accommodate his hunters, he builds ground blinds out of logs and brush and burlap wrap.
“How we place the decoys is really important. You do not want to put the decoy in close to the blind. You want the decoy out where you are shooting.”
To add more realism to his setups, Zoller employs real turkey fans on his full-body tom decoys.
“I zip-tie the wings to the sides. Around the head I put a piece of fishing line. You give that head just a little bit of movement and sometimes you don’t have to use the call.”
Like a lot of experienced turkey hunters, Zoller believes that less is more.
“The biggest thing people make a mistake on is over-calling. I mainly just use purrs and clucks.”
Just like everywhere else, some landowners like the turkeys and some do not. Turkeys, not native to the Evergreen State, have made themselves right at home and a lot of people think they are a nuisance.
“There are some landowners that are very welcoming to hunters,” Zoller said.
West of the Cascades is where a hunter can find the Eastern subspecies. This may be the hardest of Washington’s three subspecies to bag. Habitat is the key to a turkey’s success and with more people in Western Washington than on the east side of the state, there is less room for a turkey to make a living. Still, there are birds to be found in and around agricultural lands in southwest Washington. Hunter success runs highest in the Wind River, Skookumchuck, Lincoln and Winston units.
With three subspecies, Washington hunters have a chance to try to take the Washington turkey slam all in the same season.
Washington’s statewide turkey hunt begins April 15 and runs through May 31. The combined spring season limit is three birds. Only two turkeys may be killed in Eastern Washington, except only one may be killed in Chelan, Kittitas or Yakima counties. One turkey may be killed per year in Western Washington outside of Klickitat County. Two turkeys may be killed in Klickitat County. See Washington’s 2013 Big Game Regulations for the state’s Youth Only season.
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