2010 Nebraska Turkey Outlook

Turkey numbers are up 40 percent statewide, according to surveys. That's on top of a record population! Nebraska hunters have a lot to look forward to in 2010.

Nebraska turkey hunters may be seeing the best of times this spring.

New this year: Young hunters -- Nebraska residents or out-of-state visitors -- can buy $5 permits to take toms.
Photo by John A. Pennoyer.

Kit Hams, big-game project manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, said surveys show a record population and good hatch in 2009.

The count for summer was up 40 percent statewide, and 11 percent for spring, according to the annual rural mail carrier survey.

This is on top of populations already considered to be at record levels.

Turkey numbers are hard to estimate, but Nebraska officials rely on two proven indicators.

  • The carrier survey compiles postal employee observations while they drive more than 200,000 miles of county roads. Compared yearly, turkey trends are apparent to biologists.
  • Commission employees also get a fair handle of overall "herd size" entering the spring by taking the spring harvest number (22,000) and multiplying by five. That figure is doubled for an approximate fall flock size. Staff members estimate a statewide flock of 110,000 entering the spring of 2009, and nearly a quarter-million birds last fall.

These numbers, coupled with increasingly liberal season and permit offerings, mean Nebraska is a go-to destination.

In fact, the state just cleared legislative hurdles in order to make youth turkey permits just $5 in 2010, good for resident youth accompanied by a licensed adult. Non-resident youth will still need a $20 habitat stamp.

SEASONS
Residents and visitors alike also flock to Nebraska for the three-tag limit, and long season dates with no unit boundaries.

Spring turkey permits allow hunters to use bows or shotguns on the same tag, as long as the weapon is legal for that part of the season. Bow season traditionally opens March 25, with shotguns entering the mix on the Saturday closest to April 15 (April 17 in 2010).

Youths can use shotguns a week earlier, beginning on April 10.

All seasons were extended in 2009 to May 31 and those extra days will again be allowed in 2010.

You'll find that Cornhusker State hunters differ in their favorite times of that long season.

Scottsbluff veteran Dave Micheels points toward the middle of the season.

"I like April 15 to May 12 because it seems calling is more effective," said Micheels, a big fan of the classic blind-and-decoy setup, one that has allowed him to take 79 turkeys with a bow.

He hunts primarily in Morrill, Sioux, Dawes and Scotts Bluff counties of the western Panhandle.

Eric Eshbach, the Rifle Shop Manager for the Scheels All Sports store in Omaha, leans toward either end of the season.

"It depends on where I'm hunting. I have a property in Merrick County (east-central Nebraska) that is hunted pretty heavily. With pressured birds, I will take late season after they are broken up," Eshbach said. "For unpressured birds (in Furnas and Harlan counties in the southwest), give me the early season."

Grand Island math teacher Greg Kush further noted how one person's opinion varies from others'. He said he hears all the time that calling in birds when the season opens is very tough and that you usually can't call them in until a few weeks later.

"But that's not been my experience at all," he said. "I probably have my best luck calling in toms during the first 10 days of bow season. But then again, I'm not hunting the huge flocks like some guys along the big river bottoms are. There might only be 15 turkeys or so in my spots, making it easier to call in a tom early."

SETUPS
Jason Lambley (brother of author Bryce Lambley) is working with those huge flocks in the early season as he guides in classic turkey country in Keya Paha and Brown counties in north-central Nebraska. Originally from Morse Bluff, but now operating Hunts From the Heart based out of Manitoba, Canada, he relies on pre-season scouting to have him in the right place between roost sites and feeding areas in the early season.

"I rely on all-day hunting, patience, and well thought-out setups," said Lambley.

Each season, it seems the only thing preventing all his hunters from bagging their three-bird limit is the occasional episode of poor shooting.

In 2009, 22 of 25 tags were filled after a 25-for-30 showing the season prior. All his clients are bowhunters making those numbers even more impressive. Caution is a big part of his strategy.

"One of the biggest problems is chasing or pushing birds when they don't come to a setup. I can keep birds on the same property day after day by not chasing them and by not leaving blinds too early in the evening," he said.

Hunter Brent Kneifl accomplished the rare feat of harvesting two mature toms on videotape with a single Magnus Bullhead-tipped arrow last season. He also relies on solid scouting and caution.

"I will only set up where I can get my blind out without being seen by roosting birds," Kneifl said.

Micheels, the Scottsbluff hunter, said he accomplishes this by not hunting close to the roost in the morning or evening.

"I set up 100 yards at the closest," said Micheels, a big fan of the mid-day hunt. "I never hunt past about 6 p.m. to let the birds settle down."

And while the often-maligned Nebraska weather can be a crapshoot, Kneifl said, with the number of birds we have here, and the way they are increasing, "I don't think there is a wrong time to come."

LAND ACCESS
The Open Fields and Waters program has opened up some prime turkey country to the general public in Cedar and Dixon counties, Kneifl said. "I truly think this would be a great time for non-resident or out-of-the-area hunters to travel to northeast Nebraska and harvest a turkey."

Most non-residents trek to the Pine Ridge areas of

northwest Nebraska, or the southwest and northeast corners of the state. Meanwhile, the entire southern tier of counties has good populations. They are underutilized the farther east you go.

The new Open Fields program has had some early success in opening up previously posted areas. Parcels enrolled in that plan, as well as the Conservation Reserve Program, the Management Access Program, and the state's wildlife management areas, can be found at the NGPC Web site, www.ngpc.state.ne.us. From the home page, there are quick links to the CRP-MAP lands and the NGPC Map Server/Land Atlas. Both are shortcuts to finding public-land opportunities.

While commission staff did not feel comfortable making public recommendations of specific WMAs that might be underutilized, Hams noted he harvests nearly all his turkeys on public land where the birds are at least somewhat educated.

"My experience on public land for turkeys is very good," said Hams. "There are diamonds in the rough in probably half our 93 counties."

And there are 20,000 new acres of public land available in the southern panhandle alone.

The biggest limiting factor may be the unpredictable nature of spring weather.

"If you're traveling very far, having three to five days to hunt will likely get you past any nasty days and into at least one or two good days. By having some good weather days, you might quadruple your odds," said Hams.

If foul weather rears its head, Jason Lambley said he finds that turkeys "actually prefer to stand out in the open when it rains."

In his preferred habitat of the Niobrara River valley and nearby areas, that means the tops or open areas of a canyon. "I can almost always find them visually on those days."

Hams also noted that hunting pressure steadily declines after opening weekend of shotgun season.

But the last days of the season can still be very good, he said. He also recommended that prospective hunters access the most recent turkey hunter online survey results on the NGPC Web site. It has a wealth of information. From the home page, click on "Big Game," then "Turkey," and then the most recent spring turkey e-mail survey results.

FIRST-TIMERS
Eshbach of Omaha especially enjoys helping others get their toms.

"We ended up with nine birds total for the guys I brought out," he said. "Year before that, it was 14. I am much more interested in taking out others, and the past two seasons, eight different people took their first-ever birds with me."

The "guys" have included his wife, Stacy, who used a shotgun to take a big longbeard from his Matrix blind.

Greg Kush of Grand Island likes the spring season in general.

"It just seems easier to give a young kid a positive first hunting experience instead of them freezing their fingers and toes to where they're in pain, which sometimes happens in other seasons," he said.

And with the token price for youth permits, combined with the three-tag option for everyone, a lot of folks will continue to plan a Nebraska hunt.

GREAT OPPORTUNITIES
Why does Jason Lambley keep coming back to the Cornhusker State each spring, especially when he guides hunters to moose, black bears and timber wolves in Canada?

"I love the time of year. There are waterfowl in full color all over the place, and everything is coming back to life in early spring. And I still find it exciting every time the turkeys come in," he said. "The people of Nebraska are just awesome, and I look forward to that hospitality each year."

It's apparently the same for thousands of others who trek to Nebraska as well. There's a bunch of longbeards awaiting your arrival.

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