The Top State For Gobblers?

Kansas boasts a lot of birds, big birds and a high success rate for its springtime turkey hunters. Does that make Kansas ... (April 2008)

Not only does Kansas rack up a spring harvest of near 34,000 gobblers, but it also boasts healthy populations of both the Rio Grande and eastern species. Eric Johnson scored on this big eastern bird in Greenwood County last spring.
Photo by Marc Murrell.

Kansas is well known as a trophy-deer destination, and it consistently ranks among the top handful of states when it comes to pheasant harvest.

Hunters from all over the country converge on Kansas each fall to pursue these species, and the state's reputation for producing happy nimrods is extensively documented. But one of Kansas' best-kept secrets -- although that secret is apparently getting out -- is that the Sunflower State may very well be a premier destination for those who like to chase spring gobblers.

Home to both the Rio Grande and eastern subspecies of turkeys, Kansas is a turkey hunter's dream. Not only does the state have plenty of birds, but it also has turkey habitat that's conducive to finding and calling birds -- an ideal turkey hunting situation. If one setup doesn't work out, it doesn't generally take long to find another willing participant and get in position for another try.

The success of the Kansas turkey program is monumental. The first season was held in 1974, and turkey hunting opportunities have grown by leaps and bounds since that inaugural opener, when just a handful of permits were issued. The season was nine days long and generated only $4,000 in total revenue. By comparison, the 2007 season was 61 days long and generated more than $1.3 million in total revenue.

Turkey numbers have done well over the years, but recently they've dipped in some parts of the state.

"In the eastern part of the state, we've been on a decline the last three years or so due to below-average production, and I assume that will be the case again this spring due to June and July rain and flooding last summer," said Jim Pitman, small game program coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "In the central and western part of the state, we're stable or slightly increasing, and there are still pretty good bird numbers in the east, although we've seen a decline."

But despite the decline over the last few years, hunter success and harvest figures haven't shown any indication that hunters can't find and kill their spring gobblers.

"We haven't seen a decline yet," Pitman said of success rates that have held steady despite the lower population. "I'm not sure what will happen this year, and it may be two years before this production is noticeable, when there are fewer 2-year-old birds out there. Time will tell if we have enough hunting pressure to have a noticeable impact on success, but so far we haven't seen it."

According to Pitman, Kansas' bird numbers are strong enough, even in off years, to satisfy the demand of hunters. Kansas doesn't have huge numbers of hunters compared to other Great Plains states, but interest seems to be increasing as the state's success rate gets noticed.

"We have about 41,000 active turkey hunters," said Pitman. "We shoot about 34,000 birds total, and that includes harvest with the game tags (a second tag that hunters can purchase in addition to their first tag that's valid in the eastern two-thirds of Kansas)."

Approximately 20,000 hunters buy the second turkey tag, but the success rate drops from about 65 percent on the initial permit to about 50 percent on the second tag among hunters who use it, according to Pitman. "A lot of them just don't use it, and other hunters after they shoot one bird don't go after a second as hard," he said.

Kansas' success rate statewide on spring gobblers is likely the highest among Great Plains states in most years. Hunters in Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota do well, too, and better than other states in the Midwest, but they have far fewer active hunters at 28,581, 16,440 and 5,318, respectively. Wisconsin has roughly 200,000 turkey hunters, while Missouri has more than 155,000 spring turkey hunters, with a success rate of roughly 30 percent or so.

"If you look at success rates in states east of the Mississippi and the eastern United States, they're around 25 or 30 percent, so we have one of the best turkey hunting situations for turkeys in the country," Pitman remarked.

Pitman attributes the success to bird densities in the most popular hunting regions of Kansas and lower hunting pressure than in states to the east. "We've got a lot more birds per hunter," Pitman said.

Another reason cited by some for increased hunter success in Kansas is the state's subspecies of Rio Grande gobblers, as these birds are less wary than their eastern subspecies cousins. And the terrain in Kansas is linearly aligned along riparian corridors -- quite unlike the large block tracts of habitat back East. "Our birds are a little more concentrated, so there are several factors that play into it," Pitman said.

As far as turkey densities go, Pitman speculated, the areas of northeast and north-central Kansas have the highest, particularly considering the recent declines in southeast Kansas. No matter the densities, the Kansas turkey population attracts plenty of attention from non-resident hunters.

"About 20,000 of the 41,000 turkey hunters are non-residents," Pitman said of the state's draw for those beyond Kansas' borders. "The percentage of our total turkey hunters that are non-residents has been increasing every year."

Pitman noted that hunters coming from the East -- from states with some of the lower success rates -- can't believe how good it is in the Sunflower State. "Word spreads quickly," he said.

Residents and non-residents have several options in terms of places to hunt turkeys. Most hunting takes place on private land, and access is still available to those willing to do a little legwork. However, more land is being tied up in leases, primarily for deer, but to a lesser extent for turkeys, too, making it more difficult than it has been in the past.

The KDWP has a program called the Spring Turkey Walk-In Hunting Area (WIHA) Program (check out the details and maps at www.kdwp.state.ks.us). Patterned after the hugely successful fall program that makes hundreds of thousands of acres available for fall hunting opportunities, it easing obtains public access to private land through leasing. The spring turkey WIHA program has grown to

more than 150,000 acres statewide and is a viable option, according to Pitman.

Several changes have been

Implemented for the 2008 Kansas spring turkey season, the first of which involved increasing the permit quota in Unit 4 in southwest Kansas.

"About 15 percent of our spring turkey hunters (both resident and non-resident) hunt in Walk-In turkey hunting areas," Pitman said. "So between our (state-owned) public land and our WIHA areas, we provide opportunities for about 30 percent of our turkey hunters in the spring.

"Our public land and WIHA areas only make up about 350,000 to 400,000 acres in the state, so on that small acreage we're providing a lot of opportunity for folks," he added. "And generally, in just talking to people, I've found that it seems they do real well on both those types of areas."

Kansas had its first-ever archery-only season last spring, and the results were impressive from both an interest angle and a success angle. "It went over real well," Pitman said of the archery harvest during the 2007 first-ever 10-day archery-only season, which opened April 1 last year. "Our harvest taken with a bow last year was more than 2,500, which was up from about 1,450 birds taken with archery equipment in 2006."

* * *

Harvesting a gobbler by bow may be the ultimate challenge. Although I'd done it before, I relished the opportunity to participate in the first official season when it opened last year.

Parking my truck well before sunrise, I loaded up my Ameristep Brickhouse Blind, turkey vest and bow and began the half-mile journey along the edge of the field. After walking only a couple of hundred yards, I heard a pack of coyotes yipping and howling much too close for comfort, sending shivers up my spine. I thought I heard a faint shock gobble but couldn't tell for certain, as all I heard was my heart pounding in my chest and my boots picking up the pace. Another songdog serenade came a few minutes later, and I was really hustling after that.

Setting up my blind on the edge of a plowed field that I knew was frequented by turkeys took only a few minutes. Five months earlier, I'd watched on many nights from a tree stand as anywhere from 50 to 150 turkeys went to roost in the same general area. However, I also knew from past experience that this winter flock often disperses great distances, leaving only a handful of birds behind. I set a hen decoy facing away from me at 12 yards and a jake decoy looking my way at 14 yards. I hoped 13 would be a gobbler's unlucky number as he walked between the two decoys.

Situated in my blind on a short stool, I heard a gobble several hundred yards south. I was relieved to know there was at least one bird in the area and started calling softly with a slate. The gobbler never answered, necessarily, but was quite vocal on the roost. The coyotes cut loose one last time very near his location as daylight was breaking, and the old tom nearly ran out of breath nonstop gobbling.

As it began to get light, I called louder and more frequently. Again, the tom never seemed to answer, and I heard him gobble only two times on the ground. Undaunted by his apparent lack of interest, I kept up my lovesick-hen pleading for another 10 minutes before deciding to scale back and let him come find me if he wanted to. After nearly 20 minutes with no response, I began to lose hope.

But shortly after 7 a.m., I caught a glimpse of something at the edge of the timber on the other side of the field. It looked like a turkey, but I wasn't sure as it disappeared through a gap in the trees. A short time later, the big tom stepped out to the edge of the field and looked my way. A series of hen yelps, and he immediately hit full strut. I watched through binoculars as the boss tom strutted under a dilapidated wooden ladder stand that hadn't seen a hunter in decades. Back and forth he'd go as he occasionally peered my way behind a five-strand barbed-wire fence. After a few minutes, I decided to up the calling ante and started aggressively cutting, yelping and purring. With a thunderous gobble, the old bird ducked under the fence and started my way.

A distance of 125 yards separated us, but it didn't take him long to close the gap. The big bird pivoted and zigzagged, never coming out of full strut. When he was roughly halfway to my position, I picked up my Mathews Switchback XT from its holder and rested it on my boot. The mature bird hit patches of sunlight as he got closer, and the iridescence of his feathers was beautiful. His beard protruded well below his chest, and I could hear his wings dragging the ground and the telltale sound of spitting and drumming.

As I'd drawn it up in a huddle, the big bird circled the jake decoy and walked between it and the hen. He turned to face the year-old plastic intruder, and my bowstring came to its familiar anchor point. A bird in full strut facing away has a built-in bull's-eye at the base of its tail fan where I hoped to send my Magnus Stinger BuzzCut broadhead. My 20-yard pin settled on that, and the arrow was gone in a flash.

I knew I'd hit him as he started to walk off slowly. I reached for another arrow and looked back up in time to see him wobble, take a few more steps and fall over. He traveled less than 20 yards and never twitched after he hit the ground. A quick glance at my watch told me that it was 7:30 a.m. -- my season was off to a fine start!

* * *

Several changes have been implemented for the 2008 Kansas spring turkey season, the first of which involved increasing the permit quota in Unit 4 in southwest Kansas. They'll go from 200 permits to 325 permits. These permits have been available on a draw-type basis (rather than over-the-counter like most of the state), and the demand has almost been met in many years.

"Our bird numbers are increasing in that part of the state, and we're about to meet demand, as we had 286 applicants for those 200 permits last year," Pitman said. "We felt we could up that to 325 to meet demand and still retain some level of control of harvest, and after two or three years if we're still meeting demand and bird numbers are still strong we might try to go over-the-counter like we have everywhere else."

The other major change for this spring is that the archery-only season will run concurrent with the youth/disabled spring turkey hunting season. "Instead of three days like the youth/disabled hunters have had in the past, it will open April 1 and run to the start of the regular season like the archery-only season did last year (and this year)," Pitman noted.

Kansas turkey hunters will once again be able to get one turkey permit (resident $22.15 and non-resident $32.15) and a second game tag (resident $12.15 and non-resident $22.15) valid in the eastern portion of the state. In years past, biologists considered going to a third tag in these areas, but that dialogue has died down.

"It's been discussed a lot, but given the declines in the eastern part of the state and the continuing increase in permit sal

es, I'm not sure right now would be a good time to do that, so we've kind of held off on that at this point," Pitman stated. "I'd like to see our bird numbers stabilize and our hunter numbers stabilize and see what happens for a year or two before we go throwing more pressure at the birds."

Pitman's summary of the state of Kansas turkey hunting opportunities: "We've got a good thing going on here in Kansas."

FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Turkey hunting is one of the safest sports around, and it's getting even safer. The number of turkey hunting incidents nationwide has dropped dramatically from 8.1 per 100,000 hunters in 1991 to 2.95 per 100,000 hunters in 2005. By following one simple rule, hunters can help ensure the safety of themselves and others in the field: Always be sure of your target before you pull the trigger!

Find more about Great Plains fishing and hunting at: GreatPlainsGameandFish.com

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