Spring Turkey Outlook

Spring Turkey Outlook

Guides, biologists and hunters predict a great gobbler spring 2007 hunt is around the corner. (March 2007)

Healthy flocks of turkeys have been reported around the state. Barring wild weather, this spring turkey season, which opens March 31, should be a good one.
Photo by John Higley.

I remember my daydreams about opening day for turkey last year. I imagined the last Saturday in March would dawn bright, with just a hint of dew on the meadows, and the air still. Certainly the gobbles would ring throughout the hills of northern California as the tom turkeys announced their presence to the hens. With high expectations, I would rise early, drive the necessary distance and hike one mile before the first rays of sunlight touched the distant eastern ridgeline. Once settled in my favorite spot, I'd wait patiently.

When the nearby roosting toms flew down, I'd call one into shotgun range and be home for lunch.

Well, it didn't happen that way in reality! At 4 a.m. on opening day, I awoke to the sound of steady rainfall on the metal roof of my house. I looked outside, felt the chilly wind from the south, and decided to go back to bed. Waterfowl hunting is one thing, turkey hunting quite another. Oh, and later that morning, 2 inches of hail covered the property I'd intended to hunt. For once, it seems, I made the right decision.

I'd like to say that the storm quickly moved on, allowing me to find a willing gobbler the very next day. But that would be misleading.

The inclement weather did subside somewhat, but only temporarily. And with the barometric pressure wavering, the turkeys were largely silent and inactive. A good friend, who hunted hard on property his family owns, reported hearing no turkey sounds at all where he'd seen a flock of toms a week before.

Unsettled weather is always a big part of spring turkey hunting. It's the transition time of year that separates winter from summer. However, in recent times, the weather gods can't seem to decide when spring really begins. For kicks, let's open my journal to February and see just what was going on in early 2006.

Talk about indecision! Early on there was splendid weather, with record-breaking temperatures as high as 80 degrees. Then on the 17th of the month, the weather pattern downshifted to clouds, wind and spitting rain. On the 18th, it turned to snow!

The following Sunday, it was a cold 28 degrees -- but sunny, and tom turkeys were sounding off all around the valley where I live.

Were the birds in low areas already in their breeding mode? I don't know, but they were certainly active, and most likely a tad confused.

Incredibly, the last week of the month was again quite warm. The neighborhood peach trees were already in bloom, and the roses were popping. I even saw one nearby black oak tree that was leafing out before the first of March -- a month and a half early.

According to my journal, it rained 23 days straight in March, and at least some rain fell the first 10 days in April. And rain continued to fall periodically for the next couple of weeks.

If all this sounds like an overabundance of rain, in some places it certainly was. However, the late storms didn't blanket the entire state at once. So, while every turkey hunter faced his or her share of adversity, there were days scattered here and there in California when hunting was about as good as it gets.

I got a pair of California gobblers eventually. The biggest came on a hunt with my pal Tom Stone, a retired senior biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game. Our hunt took place on a small parcel of private woodland in Mendocino County that's been in Stone's family since the late 1800s.

There weren't any wild turkeys in California back then -- but there sure are now, and we both got longbeard toms at the same time, despite periodic rain showers. Hurrah!

Before getting into the hunting forecast for this coming season, let's look at some of the factors that affect turkey production from year to year.

Of course, habitat is the most important part of the equation. Without a place to live, the turkeys would not have succeeded here to begin with. Happily, the Golden State has millions of acres of oak-belt foothills where turkeys now fill a previously unoccupied niche.

So the birds are here to stay. But though it's hard to tell at times, their numbers do fluctuate up or down depending on a variety of circumstances. For example, weather conditions play a big part in the timing of the breeding cycle. Too much warm weather early on can upset the annual nesting routine -- at least for some of the hens.

Later, too much cold, wet weather can do the same thing. Hens that start nesting too early risk having their nests flooded out. The young that do hatch during inclement weather may succumb if they're exposed to the elements. That's important because hens that lose their poults will not nest again that season. However, hens that lose their unhatched eggs will keep trying until they succeed.

Two past management decisions are now affecting the turkey population in the Golden State:

After special-interest groups threatened the DFG with a lawsuit, all transplants were halted in 1999. That means no more turkeys imported from other states. Consequently, only a few Merriam's turkeys, slated to be planted at higher elevations, were introduced before the ban took place.

The original idea, of course, was to put more turkeys in places where -- if they took hold -- anyone could hunt them.

According to Tom Blankinship, supervisor of the DFG's upland game program, the good news is the official wild turkey management plan includes the option of trapping nuisance turkeys and moving them to areas open to public hunting. The caveat is that wherever nuisance birds are released, wild turkeys must already exist so that no new areas are populated with the birds. With any luck, a few turkeys will already have been moved on an experimental basis by the time you read this.

Before 1998, the fall season was 30 days long and the bag limit was one turkey of either sex per day! Concerned about the number of hens taken in the fall, the DFG cut the fall season back to 16 days and set the limit at one turkey of either sex per season.

Simply put, that means more hens and more production each spring.

LOOKING GOOD

The general spring turkey season begins on March 31 and runs through May 6. Bowhunters get an additional two weeks after that. The spring limit is one bearded turkey per day, and three per season.

So how what can hunters expect this coming spring? Here's what turkey guides, biologists and outdoor writers had to say about the coming season.

Ryan Mathis, California turkey biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation, said he saw plenty of turkeys in his travels throughout the state. His impression is that overall, production was good.

"I saw hens with big poults and hens with small poults, meaning that some poults hatched later than the others," he said. "The bottom line is that there are plenty of birds. I expect 2007 will be pretty darn good."

Mathis said the federation recently developed wildlife-friendly food plots on the Knoxville Wildlife Area and the El Dorado National Forest. Also, a handicapped-access route was built on the Kinsman Flat Wildlife Area in Madera County, providing disabled folks, including hunters, a way to pursue their interests.

To learn more about the federation, visit online at NWTF.com, or contact a state regional director at (707) 443-4720.

Now let's divide the state into three regions and take a closer look at them individually.

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

Recently, driving down a rural road, I had to stop and let a flock of turkeys cross from one pasture to another. I lost count at 50, but there were several adult hens with an assortment of half-grown poults.

That sighting and others around Shasta County recently indicate that production in the area was most likely above average. Lingering spring rainfall means late-hatch poults enjoyed high survival rates and plentiful food, including scads of protein-rich insects, which helped them grow quickly and thrive.

Meanwhile, Brian Riley, who operates an upland-game and hog-hunting operation on his ranch in western Tehama County, told California Game & Fish that the turkey population in his area is impressive.

"We started hunting turkeys seriously on the ranch a couple of years ago, and we have had great success in both spring and fall," said Riley. "Naturally, I keep an eye on the turkeys, and lately I've seen more of them around than ever. I'd say the 2007 spring season will be a winner."

Other northern counties with turkeys include Modoc and Siskiyou, where interest is growing along with the take. According to the latest figures, Trinity County was lowest on the totem pole, which is not unusual in this heavily timbered, mountainous region.

COAST RANGE TO

THE SIERRA NEVADA

The area between the Coast Range and the Sierra Nevada includes such turkey-hunting hotspots as El Dorado, Amador, San Luis Obispo, Mendocino, Napa and Lake counties.

Lake County outdoor writer Terry Knight is one of the most knowledgeable turkey hunters I know. He's been encouraged by what he's been hearing about public-land hunts.

"I was surprised by how many hunters told me they got into turkeys on public land," Knight said. "They all didn't get birds, but they heard them and worked them, and that's half the fun."

Knight said his grandson got a big tom on the Mendocino National Forest near Lake Pillsbury. And a friend got a Merriam's tom somewhere in the Mendocino high country.

Knight said he saw flocks of turkeys in Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma counties, and it looked like another year of high poult survival.

It wasn't unusual to see individual hens with 7 or 8 half grown poults, which is above average, he said.

Knight spoke about some of his favorite public-land hunting spots, including the 70,000-acre Cache Creek Natural Area in Lake and Colusa counties. This is a primitive area with no motor vehicles allowed, managed jointly by the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Fish and Game. There's a drawing to hunt the first two days of the season. After that, anyone can hunt it.

For more information, log on to blm.gov/ca/ukiah/cachecreek.html. You can also call the BLM's Ukiah office at (707) 468-4000, or the DFG at (707) 944-5500.

Other places that get the nod are the Knoxville Wildlife Area in Napa County, the Spenceville Wildlife Area in Yuba and Nevada counties, and the Daugherty Hill Wildlife Area in Yuba County. For information on Knoxville, contact the DFG at the number above. For the others, as well as the Oroville Wildlife Area, contact the DFG at (916) 358-2839.

Meanwhile, in Sonoma County, turkey guide and vineyard manager Tony Giorgi said that he saw hens with average broods -- say, three or four poults apiece, which isn't all that bad. Giorgi also said that during the 2006 season, he saw more jakes than ever. The survivors will add to the pool of adult gobblers now. He takes around 20 hunters each spring and expects good hunting all around.

Meanwhile, Aaron Brooks -- who represents Mad Calls and hunts turkeys with a passion -- said that last spring was slow for him due to stormy weather in the mountains of El Dorado County.

Just the same, he got his gobblers and saw several more toms taken by friends.

"Usually I hunt nearly every day, but last spring, I only hunted 12 days," Brooks said. "Too much rain."

But he also said that production was good if not exceptional in El Dorado, Sacramento, Placer and Amador counties.

"I saw lots of hens in my travels, and they seemed to average around four poults apiece. What surprised me was the hen with tiny poults I saw in late August. She must have lost nests at least two times before she made a go of it. Regardless, 2007 should be good -- weather permitting, of course."

Farther south and west in San Luis Obispo County, Doug Roth, of Camp Five Outfitters had a couple of astute observations.

"There was a great hatch in 2006, perhaps the best I've seen. That means there will be lots of year-old toms around in 2007, but the carry-over of older gobblers should be very good too. I expect we'll have great hunting in 2007."

Also in San Luis Obispo County, old-time guide Eldon Bergman, who started turkey hunting in the 1970s, said there are turkeys all over the area now.

"I've seen lots of poults and hens recently, including a flock of 34 that crossed the road in front of me the other day. I expect most of my hunters will be successful in 2007."

SOUTHERN

CALIFORNIA

Randy Botta, associate wildlife biologist for the DFG, reports fair production in

San Diego County. He observed hens with as few as two poults, and as many as 11.

According to Botta, private land produced the most gobblers in 2006, while overall success on public lands was slightly lower than previous years. However, a few places on the Descanso Ranger District of the Cleveland National Forest showed slight improvement. The Palomar Ranger District also has turkeys, as do some BLM lands in eastern San Diego County. As always, only archery hunting is allowed on the Laguna and Fry Creek recreation areas.

For additional information on the area, call the DFG branch at (858) 467-4201 or (858) 467-4202.

Meanwhile, Don Geivet, resources manager for the sprawling Tejon Ranch in Kern County, reports better-than-average production of turkeys there. The ranch offers a series of DFG-sponsored junior turkey hunts, and Geivet expects to host 50 paying clients during spring 2007.

(Editor's Note: Autographed copies of John Higley's book, Hunting Wild Turkeys in the West, are available for $16.95, postage included, from John Higley, P.O. Box 120, Palo Cedro, CA 96073.) l

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