California's Turkey Outlook

All systems are a go for another fantastic spring turkey season. See what these experts say about the birds in your area!(March 2006)

Retired senior DFG biologist Tom Stone shot this gobbler during the 2005 season, and there's plenty more where that one came from in Shasta County.
Photo by John Higley

Sometimes you hit it just right. Last year, when I predicted better-than-average turkey hunting during the spring season in 2005, I was pretty close to the mark. In fact, I said good production in 2004 offered assurance that plenty of birds would be around for spring 2005. And what do you know? That was the case.

Despite rain that fell sporadically throughout the season and lasted into June, most of my forays into the field were quite satisfying -- and I have the grip-and-grin photos of three nice toms to prove it. It's always nice to write about successes, but I also realize that a large part of productive hunting can be attributed to luck and timing as well as turkey-hunting savvy. After all, there are years when the turkey population, at least in some areas, is either in decline or unsettled, due to factors over which there's no control. At such times, harvesting a single gobbler in a season can be viewed as a major accomplishment.

For example, turkeys were tough to get in Northern California during the spring of 2003. The main reason was an unusual amount of rain during the season, following very warm weather in early March. Everything was mixed up, including their breeding routine; and while there were some turkeys here and there, it was very difficult to find a willing gobbler.

The most productive hunting I had in California that year was on opening weekend -- which was decent, weather-wise. But from there on, it was all downhill. Heck, in my diary I noted a deluge on April 29! Officially, in April 2003 we experienced rainfall that was 176 percent of normal.

Conditions were slightly better in 2004, but unusually warm weather in March threw things off schedule. However, late-spring weather was mild and everything pointed to good production of turkeys, which was certainly the case. I didn't see any jakes (year-old toms) while hunting during spring 2004, but there were plenty of them around in 2005. And, from what I've seen and heard from others, the spring of 2005 -- though rainy at times -- was ultimately favorable for turkey production. True, many early nests were washed out or otherwise destroyed, but hens that re-nested apparently had above-average success.

At least that's the opinion of Ryan Mathis, a regional biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation, who is based in Northern California. "This year, due to late rainfall, I saw evidence of a lot of re-nesting and good-sized late clutches," Mathis said. "Some of the hens I saw in the foothills had nine or 10 poults, and that's really outstanding."

It's nice to know that Mathis is an avid turkey hunter and that he's on the same page with the rest of us. Last spring, he harvested a couple of nice California toms on hunts in Napa and Mendocino counties, and he hopes to do the same in 2006.

As most turkey hunters know by now, the NWTF has a formidable presence in the Golden State, with 30 chapters and about 5,000 members. Federation members are directly involved in providing funds for local programs that benefit wild turkeys and the promotion of hunting in general. For those who aspire to be turkey hunters, or those who want to be more deeply involved, a good place to start is with membership in the NWTF. You can check the federation out at www.nwtf.org, or call the California regional directors: Brian Yerman, at (707) 432-0369, and Pat McNeil, at (707) 443-4720.

MOVING TURKEYS

Before moving on to the regional forecast for this year, here's a brief look at the overall situation in this state. Some readers will no doubt feel that some things written here are somewhat familiar -- and they're right! As Scott Gardner, turkey biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, said recently, "There's no earth-shattering news to report this year. Everything's about the same as last year, except that we're hoping to get the go-ahead to start moving more nuisance birds from trouble spots to places where they can be hunted."

Some turkey hunters may not realize it, but the DFG turkey relocation program was stopped by the threat of lawsuits in 1999. Even if an agreement is reached to move turkeys on a limited basis, it will be to places that already have turkeys, rather than to new ground. That's too bad, but it's far better than nothing.

Getting back to the situation at hand, we find some subtle differences between spring 2004 and spring 2005. There was a similar period of hot weather in late February and March of both years, and that affected the turkeys' normal breeding pattern. There are turkey flocks among the houses around here, and in 2004, I saw a neighborhood hen being bred on Feb. 29. I thought that was way early until 2005, when I watched another hen mate on Feb. 24!

The warm weather gave way to rain during the spring hunting seasons, and storms kept coming when many of the turkeys were nesting. That wasn't good. In 2004, however, the storms actually abated earlier than they did in 2005, when wet weather carried on through most of June.

Despite the late rains, some hens nested successfully early in 2005, while other hens -- judging from reports of little poults in midsummer -- were finally successful on their second or third try! That should be evident this spring in a large number of late-hatching jakes that have short beards and weigh only 11 or 12 pounds. Meanwhile, earlier jakes may weigh as much as 15 pounds or even more, because they've had time to grow. In a turkey's world, an extra month or two makes a big difference.

Of course, those turkeys produced in 2005 are not the only game in town. All indications are that there was a good carryover of mature toms after the '05 season and those, plus the upcoming 2-year-old adults, should make for interesting hunting in 2006.

As usual, California Game & Fish contacted biologists, guides, and even an outdoor writer or two to compile up-to-date information on various parts of the state. It's difficult, if not impossible, to count turkeys accurately, but the observations of the folks quoted here are about as reliable as you can get.

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

Here in Northern California, one of the reliable sources is -- you guessed it! -- me. I've seen several flocks of turkeys near my home in Shasta County, and most seemed to have a good mix of grown hens and poults. Most recently, I saw a bunch of 40 or 50 bigger birds feeding along a county road, and while I couldn't stop and count

them, I'm sure more than a dozen were adult toms.

Overall, I'd say production was better for hens that re-nested than for those that hatched a few poults during the cold, wet weather of May and early June. My friend Tom Stone, a retired senior DFG biologist, was for years responsible for most turkey transplants in this region. When Tom talks turkey, I take him seriously, and he thinks production, while not exceptional, was still above normal.

"I've traveled around the county a lot looking for turkeys," Stone said, "and I've seen enough of them to predict another good season in 2006. Of course, the weather plays a big part in overall success."

What's said about Shasta County applies also to Tehama, Siskiyou and Modoc counties. Tehama has been a longtime standby; Siskiyou and Modoc are relative newcomers, where more turkeys are being harvested each year.

The only negative report in Northern California came from Jim Schaasfma, of Arrow Five Outfitters near Zenia. Schaasfma has seen a fair number of adult turkeys on the ranch where he lives, and where I've hunted successfully in the past. But he thinks that production in his area last spring was practically nil.

"Up here in the mountains, it was just too wet and cold," Schaasfma said. "I saw only one hen with a good clutch and several with no young ones at all. Most of the hens apparently lost all their young."

CENTRAL CALIFORNIA

Central California, as it's outlined here, reaches from the Coast Range to the Sierra Nevada and includes a passel of counties from Mendocino south to San Luis Obispo and east to El Dorado and Amador counties. Of course, not all counties in this region are known for turkey hunting, so we'll cover the main ones in an effort to determine a trend.

One chap who I've hunted with in El Dorado County is Aaron Brooks of Mt. Aukum, who represents Mad Calls and guides part-time during the season. Aaron knows turkeys and last year, he was on the scene when 22 longbeard gobblers were killed. Three of them were his.

In his travels, Aaron noted hens with anywhere from a single poult to six or eight, and at least a few hens with no young at all. Counting a couple of hens with tennis-ball-sized poults that he saw the first week of August, Aaron feels the survival rate is around four poults per hen. Perhaps that's not exceptional production, but it's not bad either.

"The hatch was at least average," he said. "And there are lots of carryover adult toms and jakes (which will also be adults this year) from last spring. Just last week, I saw a group of 10 longbeards right along the road. Everything indicates that 2006 will be good."

In Aaron's area, the best option for public-land hunting is the El Dorado National Forest where more turkeys are evidently showing up all the time. He recommended the areas east of Georgetown and the Sly Park area southeast of Pollock Pines. The best idea is to get a forest map and -- if possible -- go exploring before the season opens.

Across the valley, in Lake County, outdoor writer Terry Knight was effusive about the wild turkey population: "The population just keeps on growing in Lake County," Terry said. "Like everywhere else, we had some late rainfall, but it didn't hit us as hard as some other areas. I didn't see much evidence of late hatches. However, I do think most of the hens in this area raised six or eight poults each. For 2006 it looks very good around here, and that goes for Napa and Mendocino counties, too."

Knight takes only two gobblers in the spring, and last year he got them both on public land on the Mendocino National Forest. One of the longbeard toms weighed only 11 or 12 pounds, which Terry thinks was because feed was scarce, probably due to late snowy conditions in that area.

Asked to elaborate on turkey hunting areas in his region, Knight mentioned the 60,000-acre Cache Creek Wildlife Area in Lake and Colusa counties. Access to this area is by foot, horse or mountain bike. The Knoxville Wildlife Area in Napa County is also good. For information, contact the Bureau of Land Management's Ukiah office at (707) 468-4000, or the DFG at (707) 944-5500. There's a drawing to hunt on Cache Creek the first two days, after which the area is open for the duration of the season.

Other wildlife areas that Knight recommends include the Spenceville Wildlife Area in Yuba and Nevada counties and the Daugherty Hill Wildlife Area in Yuba County. Note that there's a drawing to hunt for the first nine days on Spenceville and Daugherty Hill, after which you can go hunting when you please. For information on those places, and the Oroville Wildlife Area, contact the DFG at (916) 358-2839.

Turkey hunting is also allowed on the Jackson State Forest near Ft. Bragg; and according to Knight, the population there is growing.

In the wine country of Sonoma County, guide Tony Giorgi reported good reproduction on a couple of places he hunts each spring. On his own property, he saw three hens with 18 poults and nearby, a group of 11 gobblers.

"I expect 2006 to be a good year," Giorgi said. "But there are always extenuating circumstances. Last spring most of my hunters got their toms, but a couple of youngsters missed birds, and two other guys waited for big birds that never came. Of course, that's just the way it goes sometimes."

Guides Doug Roth and Eldon Bergman had good things to say about turkey production in San Luis Obispo County last year. Roth, of Camp 5 Outfitters, reported seeing 15 or 20 gobblers in a group during deer season last fall, in addition to a mess of hens and poults. He also hunts southern Monterey County, mainly for wild pigs, but reports seeing a fair number of turkeys there as well.

Last year, Roth guided 26 turkey hunters to 25 gobblers. One hunter passed up four toms, including a couple of longbeards because he just wanted to watch the gobblers' antics and listen to them sound off.

Meanwhile, Bergman, who showed me my first wild turkeys in the late 1960s, said he saw turkeys here there and everywhere, including a hen with little poults in the middle of August!

"Gosh, there are a lot of turkeys around," Bergman said. "All of my guided hunters scored, and I even killed one myself last year. I fully expect 2006 to be another winner."

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

The two main counties for turkey hunting in this part of the state are San Diego and Kern. As for the former, DFG regional biologist Randy Botta feels that reproduction was fair to good in San Diego County.

"It looks like hens that started with eight or 10 poults are now with anywhere from two to six poults. That's not red-hot, but it's not too bad either. I'd rate the 2005 spring season as good, and there's no reason to think that 2006 won't be about the same."

Botta got reports of turkeys taken by hunters on the Palomar and Descanso districts of the Cleveland Natio

nal Forest. However, private land throughout the area produced most of the take.

Botta thinks hunters will have a fair opportunity on public lands, but birds there will be widely scattered and in low numbers. For more information, contact the DFG at (858) 467-4201 or (858) 467-4202.

Meanwhile, in Kern County, Don Geivet, resources manager for the huge Tejon Ranch, thinks turkey production has improved after a couple of down years. That's good news, as the Tejon will again conduct junior hunts on April 11, 13, 19 and 20, 2006.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

For a list of special turkey hunts, you can visit the DFG's Web site at www.dfg.ca.gov and click on the Game Bird Heritage Special Hunts link.

To get more information on possibilities close to home, contact the nearest branch office of the DFG and ask to talk to someone familiar with turkeys in the area. Phone numbers are in the regulations booklets and on the DFG Web site.

If the option of a guided hunt appeals to you, one or more of the guides who helped with this article may be right for you. They include Doug Roth of Camp Five Outfitters, at (805) 238-3634, Eldon Bergman at (805) 238-5504, Aaron Brooks at (530) 620-4273, Tony Giorgi at (707) 857-3752, and Jim Schaasfma at (707) 923-9633.

The general spring season begins on the last Saturday in March and runs through the first Sunday in May. In 2005, a two-week extension was added for bowhunting only. Check the regulations for exact dates in 2006. The spring limit is one bearded turkey per day, three per season.

(Editor's Note: Autographed copies of John Higley's book, Hunting Wild Turkeys In The West, with 75 photos and 154 pages, are available for $16.95, postage paid. Order from John Higley, P.O. Box 120, Palo Cedro, CA 96073.)

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