Golden State Turkey Outlook

Golden State Turkey Outlook

California is sitting pretty for another fantastic spring turkey hunting season. Here are the hotspots you'll want to check out this year.

By John Higley

Opening day of spring turkey season 2003, as usual, found me stumbling along a mountain road well before the sun began brightening the eastern horizon. I was fired up, as I always am when the turkey season opens, but I had my share of misgivings, too. The weather in March was odd, to say the least, and along with no time for pre-hunt scouting, I was more than a little concerned about my prospects for a successful day afield.

Would the turkeys be on the property where I was? If they were, what would their attitude be?

My uncertainty stemmed, mainly, from an incredible stretch of warm late-winter weather in Shasta County during which I actually saw a tom breed a hen on March 7. That's when 11 wild hens, followed by a strutting jake, came into my backyard for a visit and stayed for two days. That incident made me wonder if the birds where I hunt at higher elevation were still grouped in winter flocks on opening day, as they sometimes are, or if I would find them to be in typical midseason mode.

The answer still isn't clear. I managed to find a lonely longbeard around 8 a.m., and after talking to him for a half-hour, he finally came up the ridge into shotgun range. I was delighted with the bird, of course, but I heard only one more tom gobble that day, and I expected a lot more than that.

I realize that nothing is written in stone where turkey hunting is concerned, and I also realize that conditions are not the same everywhere at once. However, looking at the northern portion of the state where I hang out, I've got to say that things were tough in 2003. I can recall opening days, and occasional hunts in midseason, that were affected by everything from rain and dense fog to sweltering heat, but I can't remember a season with so much rain so often as we received last spring. In fact, it rained nearly two inches on April 29 and Redding's total measured rainfall for the month 176 percent of normal!

Author John Higley shot this picturesque tom between rainstorms in the foothills of Shasta County. Photo courtesy of John Higley

Biologists say a specific photoperiod, or the length of time an animal is exposed to light during the day, is the main trigger to turkey breeding activity. Weather also plays a part. In 2003, with good weather early in March and stormy weather (with only a few breaks between squalls) during the season, the turkeys in some areas did not cooperate as well as expected.

For example, one afternoon and evening prior to a midseason hunt, Tom Stone and I went scouting in eastern Shasta County, hoping to find some turkeys in a place with little or no hunting pressure. It took a few hours, but we finally located a flock with at least one vocal Romeo along with two or three others that weren't as vocal as the first. Stone, a retired Department of Fish and Game biologist, who was responsible for most of the turkey releases in nine northern counties for 25 years, simply smiled and said, "I think we know where to be in the morning, Higley. I'll pick you up at 4 a.m."

We were in position well before daylight, waiting eagerly for the first gobble of the day. It never happened. We gave up when the sun was in our eyes. We've debated the situation many times, and the only reason we can come up with for the gobblers' silence is an impending change in the weather. The barometer fell, the wind came up and by afternoon it was raining - again.

I would eventually put more than one turkey in the freezer by season's end, but my experience last year was illustrative of how fickle turkey hunting can be.

What does 2004 hold for us? Nothing short of more excellent turkey hunting!

As most turkey hunters know, the DFG has not been able to move any turkeys within the state since the department was threatened with legal action in 1999. As we reported last year, an environmental document was written and subsequently shelved in favor of a turkey management plan that was undergoing review late last summer. Meanwhile, the DFG appointed a turkey management team that is working to figure out just where the birds exist throughout the state.

One thing is clear: There are lots of wild turkeys around. Some landowners - farmers with crops and some with backyard swimming pools that have become the favored roosting areas of turkeys - would tell you we have too many birds. Surely we can do something to help their appreciation of wild turkeys!

As DFG turkey biologist Scott Gardner told California Game & Fish, "Eventually, we hope to start moving turkeys from problem areas to other places where they'll provide hunting and viewing opportunities. However, there are still legal challenges to overcome, so we're not ready quite yet."

HOW TO GET STARTED


One of the hardest things for a novice turkey hunter to do is find a place to hunt. Here are some ways to help you get started.

 

Turkey biologist Scott Gardner recommends contacting the Department of Fish and Game office nearest to where you want to hunt and ask to talk to someone who follows the turkey situation there. All offices are listed in the hunting regulations booklet or go online to www.dfg.ca.gov.

 

Some state wildlife areas host special turkey hunts, including drawing-only opportunities. For example, a permit is needed to hunt the popular Spenceville WA in Nevada and Yuba counties during the season's first nine days. After that the area opens to all. Check the special hunts link online under the Game Bird Heritage Program, or see the flyer at DFG offices.

 

In no particular order, the counties with the highest annual harvest numbers are Shasta, Mendocino, Amador, Napa, Lake, Tehama, El Dorado, Yuba, Placer and San Luis Obispo, and dozens of gobblers are killed in Butte, Calaveras, Santa Clara, Sonoma, Fresno, Monterey, San Diego and Kern. Turkeys are successfully hunted in 37 of the state's 58 counties.

 

A solid m

ove for any neophyte turkey hunter is to join a chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation and get involved. Contact regional director Brian Yerman, 707-432-0369, or go online to www.nwtf.org.

 

For guided turkey hunts, contact: Aaron Brooks, 530-626-4273, El Dorado County; Eldon Bergman, 805-238-5504, San Luis Obispo County; Doug Roth, Camp 5 Outfitters, 831-386-0727, southern Monterey-San Luis Obispo counties; or Jim Schaafsma, Arrow Five Outfitters, 707-923-9633, southern Trinity-Humboldt counties. A group with access to private land turkey hunting is Wilderness Unlimited; call 510-785-4868 or go online to www.wildernessunlimited.com. -- John Higley

 

Complaints aside, there is still growing interest in turkey hunting in California. Last March there was a large crowd at a turkey day hosted by the DFG in Fair Oaks. Many of the folks in attendance were definitely new to the sport. "Our organization is still expanding statewide," said Brian Yerman, a regional director for the National Wild Turkey Federation. "In fact, our chapter in Bakersfield is the largest in the entire country."

Despite the fact that most of the state's wild turkeys are found on private land, with some notable exceptions, of course, new hunting opportunities continue to develop as the birds turn up in places where they have never before been seen. To get into the sport (see sidebar), some hunters have turned to guides, others have successfully acquired permission to hunt on private land, and still others have joined hunting clubs that have access to ranches with turkey habitat. Last, but not least, of course, are those hunters who have toiled long and hard to find secret turkey spots of their own on public land.

Now comes the fun part - forecasting the conditions turkey hunters will find this spring. Bear in mind that it isn't easy to census turkeys (it's impossible, really) and the DFG doesn't do it on an official basis. So, to get a general overview, California Game & Fish contacted several reliable turkey hunters, biologists, guides and other experts for their best guesstimates about the turkey populations in their areas.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
Forest closures could be the big story for turkey hunters in the south state this spring, a remnant of the huge wildfires that burned last fall. It's always best to call ahead and check with local sources before hunting.

Looking south to San Diego County, DFG unit biologist Randy Botta says the turkey population is stable. Brood sightings on public land this spring and summer averaged from three to seven poults per hen.

Most of the birds in Botta's area are, as is usually the case, on private land, where 60 percent of the harvest takes place. However, there is public land to hunt on the Cleveland National Forest in the Descanso and Palomar ranger districts. Of the two areas, the Descanso is probably the best bet as there are fewer private in holdings to contend with. Botta noted, also, that the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area (Descanso district) is open only to archery hunting as is the Fry Creek Recreation Area (Palomar district).

"Turkey hunting is still attracting a lot of attention in these parts," said Botta. "I've gotten inquiries from the central coast and surrounding counties from folks who would really like to hunt hereabouts."

Unit biologist Jim Davis reported that 2003 production on the San Bernardino National Forest was low and possibly a little better than it was in 2002. The birds are widely scattered and the population has been down since huge wildfires four years ago and a drought that finally abated somewhat last winter. The burned area in the Lake Arrowhead region is of particular concern.

Hunters might find a few birds in the upper Deep Creek drainage, the Willow Creek and Holcomb Creek drainages and the upper Santa Ana River drainage.

Note, too, that eight southern counties were under quarantine last year due to an outbreak of exotic Newcastle's Disease in domestic poultry operations. Hunters were prohibited from transporting wild turkeys out of the area as a hedge against spreading the disease. As of this writing, Botta says the quarantine has been lifted in San Diego County; it might still be in effect in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Imperial and Orange counties by the time the spring season opens.

CENTRAL CALIFORNIA
From the coastal mountains to the southern Sierra Nevada, reports from the middle of the state are rosy. "I think there's a longbeard gobbler behind every bush!" said Doug Roth of Camp Five Outfitters in San Luis Obispo County. "We got 19 toms for 19 hunters last spring, and I hope to do that well this year - but it's hunting, so you never know."

Roth's assessment of production in 2003 is that brood counts are up a bit in southern Monterey County and they're high (as usual) in San Luis Obispo County.

Hunting guide Eldon Bergman, who has lived in the area for more than 60 years, reports seeing lots of turkey hens with poults. Bergman said the hens were averaging more than five nearly grown poults apiece, which is good anywhere.

Farther north, outdoor writer and veteran turkey hunter Terry Knight spoke highly of prospects for the upcoming spring season. "Last year I think 90 percent of the turkey hunters I talked to around here got their gobblers," Knight said. "In 2003 we had another outstanding hatch in Lake and Mendocino counties. I saw lots of hens with seven or eight poults each. Plus, there was a good carryover of jakes and adult toms.

"What's surprising are the reports about turkeys I'm getting from the Fort Bragg area - lots of birds up there now. Sonoma County is just full of birds, too, but virtually all hunting there is on private land."

Tom Stone visited the area around Willits, in Mendocino County, and saw five groups of hens with poults in his travels right from the road. "I counted as best I could," Stone reported, "and I figure there were at least six pheasant-sized poults with each hen. That's better than average."

Knight said that there are public-land hunting opportunities near Fort Bragg on the Jackson State Forest, and other opportunities on the Mendocino National Forest. The Cache Creek Wildlife Area in Colusa and Lake counties and the Knoxville Wildlife Area in Napa County also have birds. For information on the wildlife areas, contact the DFG at 707-944-5500. There's also some Bureau of Land Management land in the region with turkeys. For maps, contact the Ukiah BLM office, 707-468-4000.

Across the valley, El Dorado County hunting guide Aaron Brooks reflected on conditions last spring. "Basically we had a very successful season in 2003," said Brooks, who lives in Diamond Springs. "The weather wasn't great so there wasn't the usual amount of gobbling on the roost, but I found that later in the morning the birds turned on better. I got one of my own gobblers on the El Dorado National Forest, which proves that you can succeed on public land around h

ere if you stick with it."

Aaron's assessment of the 2003 production throughout the region is glowing, "Poult survival was good in Sacramento, Amador and El Dorado counties, and besides young of the year, there's no shortage of carryover longbeards out there right now. Hunting should be fantastic in 2004."

Speaking of public land, Brooks and Knight stress that national forest ground is big and the turkeys aren't just anywhere. Get maps and scout the lower areas by road, and you should locate some birds. It's a fact of turkey hunting life that no one is going to put you in the vicinity of a roost tree. You've got to do your footwork as part of the learning process.

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
We already discussed the weather conditions in northern California last spring, so I won't dwell on the subject much more. However, despite rains through April, turkeys in Shasta County seem to have produced new turkeys at a normal, or perhaps better than normal rate. In early summer one hen showed up with 12 poults at my son's home near Redding and at summer's end she still had eight nearly grown young with her. I watched two mixed flocks along a local highway in late September that, combined, had more than 50 birds, including lots of young of the year and some real beard draggers.

Stone went on a short drive during deer season and saw two groups of birds in the eastern part of the county. One consisted of a hen and nine poults; the other had a hen and five young.

In southern Trinity County, Jim Schaasfma of Arrow Five Outfitters, reports mixed sightings with five or six poults per hen in a couple of places and just two poults per hen in other spots. Jim lives in higher country where production is rarely better than what he saw this year.

The spring season starts March 27 and runs to May 2. The 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 154 pages and 75 photos, are available for $16.95 postage paid. Order from: John Higley, P.O. Box 120, Palo Cedro, CA 96073.)



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