Sooner State Turkey Outlook

Oklahoma hunters should find exciting spring hunting ahead -- provided that these predictions for another rewarding season hold true. (March 2006)

For Sooner turkey enthusiasts, another spring season is right around the corner. And with record numbers of turkeys statewide, the 2006 season should be exceptional!

Last season our turkey hunters had a banner year, with most hunters reporting phenomenal numbers of gobblers and many jakes. When you survey this year's crop of birds, combined with the leftover adult toms and jakes from last season, you have the potential for another fantastic spring turkey season.

Opening day found me lounging within the confines of my "double-wide" hunting blind in Roger Mills County. My hunting partner, Harold Fisher, and I were optimistic as we wondered what the gray day held in store. Cloudy skies and intermittent rain seemed to destine us for a miserable day. The wind howled at nearly 30 mph, and I feared our turkey decoys would spin like well-oiled weather vanes.

Setting up my big tent blind in the darkness proved to be a challenge, but somehow I managed to figure out the "system" and gloated upon completion. Fisher set up our decoys close enough to position a gobbler within bow range.

We nestled into our ivory palace, and minutes later a tsunami force wind blew the blind off us. I realized then what those stakes that we found in the tent bag were for. We righted the wrong, and soon turkeys appeared on the distant horizon. I screeched out the highest-pitched yelps my box call would make and noticed the turkey bowed toward me to gobble, even though I heard no sound.

"Those birds are 400 yards away," I told Fisher. "There's no way that they can hear my call over this wind."

Fisher, ever the sarcastic, quipped, "I don't believe they can hear your call, but keep calling nevertheless."

I called again, and two toms with swinging beards broke from the group and honed in on our location -- the edge of a field littered with abundant turkey droppings and gobbler tracks. Soon the wind-blown strutters danced into shotgun range and our autoloaders barked in unison, laying the two toms down.

I wondered what kind of successes other turkey chasers had that day.

What follows is a recap of harvest numbers from last season, and a preview of flock surveys in the different areas in Oklahoma. This information may be just the ammunition you need to take a real "limb hanger" this season. Yes sir, for Okie turkey hunters, the hunting now is as good as it gets.

BIOLOGIST REFLECTIONS

With an estimated 123,000 turkeys statewide -- up 5 per cent from last season's estimated 117,000 birds -- this spring season should be a dandy.

Jack Waymire, eastern wild turkey biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, says emphatically that the turkeys are in good shape statewide, and all indications point to another great spring season. "There were jakes present last season that should have carried over to adulthood," Waymire added. "There should be plenty of longbeards for everyone."

According to the ODWC, the Rio Grande's numbers are growing, with the flocks healthy and expanding their range in the western counties.

Though gobbling activity generally peaks in late April, there should be non-stop turkey talk from opening day until the season closes.

REGIONAL OUTLOOK

Northeast

With a 2005 winter regional estimate of 18,140 turkeys, the northeast part of Oklahoma has fewer turkeys than any other area except the Panhandle. The flocks there slightly increased with a 2.9 percent jump from last year, and according to Waymire, the continued growth is due to the region being the last to be restocked.

The northeast area is heavily wooded and home to Rio Grandes, with some easterns found in the counties bordering Arkansas and Missouri. This area, known as Green Country, is rich in history, with beautiful forests of hardwoods. Turkey abundance varies by county, and hunters there took 2,281 turkeys last season, which represented a 342-bird increase over 2004.

County flock estimates were as follows: Adair, 1,300; Cherokee, 2,200; Craig, 2,250; Delaware, 200; Haskell, 2,500; Mayes, 410; McIntosh, 1,500; Muskogee, 1,700; Nowata, 1,970; Ottawa, 375; Rogers, 720; Sequoyah, 1,600; Tulsa, 200; Wagoner, 670; and Washington, 545.

The total northeast flock estimate of 18,140 birds reflects more than a 94 percent increase from 1999, when estimates placed the number of turkey in the northeast at only 9,340 birds. Washington was the only county with a decrease; flock estimates were down 131 birds from last year.

Gary Purdy, regional director of the National Wild Turkey Federation, said that nearly $18,000 is currently being spent in the northeast counties to improve the area's turkey hunting.

"We are conducting some cooperative projects with the ODWC," Purdy said, "which includes doing controlled burns, creating wildlife openings, and building fire guards to protect the WMAs during controlled burns."

Purdy explained that the controlled burns help remove excess vegetation and promote new growth. These lush green areas serve to attract several species of wildlife that benefit from the improved habitat.

Southeast

The southeast part of the state is comprised of nine counties: Atoka, Bryan, Choctaw, Coal, Latimer, Le Flore, McCurtain, Pittsburg, and Pushmataha. The vistas found in this mountainous region are unique in the state.

Southeast hunters were rewarded with the addition of a second turkey to the bag limit, except for Bryan County, whose limit remains at one bearded turkey.

Hunters harvested 3,515 turkeys last season, slightly up from the harvest of 3,447 in 2004, with nearly 76 percent -- or 2,643 -- being adult toms.

If you have never matched wits with a long-bearded gobbler in the hills and mountains of Southeastern Oklahoma, you're in for an experience. Actually, a better word would be "education." These birds are wary, and due to their heavily wooded surroundings, they respond much differently to hunting than do their western cousins. In fact, they can be downright tough and leave you talking to yourself!

One of my proudest accomplishments as a turkey hunter was tagging my first eastern gobbler near Daisy. The 24-pound boss gobbler sported a thick 11-inch beard and now is enshrined in my

office.

I spoke with my eastern landowner friend recently and he perked my interest by telling me there are now more longbeards on the ranch than there have ever been.

Southeastern flock estimates tally at 4,562 turkeys, and the 2005 harvest is broken down as follows: Atoka, 812; Bryan, 12; Choctaw, 111; Coal, 147; Latimer, 103; Le Flore, 474; McCurtain, 793; Pittsburg, 1,093; and Pushmataha, 1,017.

WESTERN REGION OUTLOOK

The western part of Oklahoma has a longstanding reputation nationwide as being a gold mine for Rio Grandes. Each season, hunters from all over the United States flock to this prairie-type riparian habitat to match wits with a spring tom. Current flock estimates place the number at 60,993 turkeys, 3,033 above last year's estimate of 57,960 -- just over a 5 percent increase.

Since hunters are not required to check their turkeys west of Interstate 35, harvest totals are not known.

The 2005 estimate represents a 59 percent increase from the estimate of 38,251 turkeys recorded in 1999. If this trend continues, Oklahoma gobbler hunters could find more than 80,000 turkeys dotting the prairies and agricultural fields in Western Oklahoma in the next few years.

Woodward County led all other counties in flock estimation numbers, with an estimated 6,585 turkeys. Woodward features premium turkey hunting, but be advised that most of the ground is privately owned and leases are common. Gaining land access can be tough, but not impossible for respectable sportsmen willing to knock on enough doors.

CENTRAL REGION OUTLOOK

Central Oklahoma flock estimates increased to an estimated 38,930 turkeys. That represents a 4,130-bird, or nearly a 12 percent, increase from last season. When compared to 22,560 --the estimated number of turkeys seven years ago -- the 2006 season will reflect nearly a 73 percent increase!

Turkey hunting in the central parts of Oklahoma will be largely on private land, and like the western part of the state, the bulk of this region consists of agricultural areas situated near woodlots and surrounded by tallgrass prairie.

The turkey numbers are growing significantly, but places to hunt are dwindling, partly due to the rising costs of leasing hunting lands. Land access in the central part of our state can be tough, but not impossible. There are other options, like this region's three wildlife management areas, which we'll cover later.

Central Oklahoma turkey-chasers were rewarded last season by taking an estimated 2,988 turkeys, with nearly 43 percent of that number, or 1,276, being jakes. These figures were derived from counties of which at least a part lies east of I -35.

PUBLIC HUNTING SPOTS

West

Much of Western Oklahoma is privately owned, so hunting opportunities can be tough. Land holding both deer and turkeys sometimes leases for upwards of $10 an acre. Though some of these lands are premium-hunting spots, many budgets do not allow for such luxury. I've found that for hunters on a budget, like me, public hunting lands are the way to go hunting in the Sooner State.

Most Western Oklahoma wildlife management areas offer agricultural fields surrounded by Conservation Reserve Program lands, and occasional creek bottoms with surrounding woodlots.

Public-land hunting opportunities are available on several wildlife management areas, including the 30,710-acre Black Kettle WMA located near Cheyenne, the 14,877-acre Canton WMA located near Canton, 4,800-acre Ellis County WMA located near Arnett, 5,418-acre Fort Supply WMA near Woodward, and the 15,000-acre Packsaddle WMA located north of Roll. These WMAs all hold good numbers of turkeys.

Words to the wise: Black Kettle, being one of the largest and most well-known public hunting areas in the nation, receives an incredible amount of hunting pressure from both in-state and out-of-state hunters. Nevertheless, I have found that hunting during the weekdays at Black Kettle and on our other Western WMAs, offers great opportunities with little or no competition.

East

For hunters without private land access, the best bets in the northeast are Kaw WMA located near Ponca City in Kay County, and Spavinaw WMA, northeast of Pryor.

Kaw WMA spans 16,254 acres and is relatively overlooked by many hunters. This area is highlighted with hardwood bottoms surrounded by ODWC-planted feed fields. I rate this refuge as a good bet in the northeast, owing to the fact that nearly half of the county's annual harvest is taken off this one WMA. This public area surrounds much of Kaw Lake, and hunting pressure is relatively light on most days. Hunters are allowed one tom in this area.

Spavinaw WMA is located northeast of Pryor in both Delaware and Mayes counties. I have hunted this sprawling 14,316-acre WMA, and found it to be excellent habitat composed of hardwood draws and ridges interlaced with numerous food plots. Turkeys there forage on acorns and native grasses, along with the wheat and rye available on food plots.

Another public opportunity located in southern Oklahoma is Hickory Creek WMA, nestled in Love County between Lake Murray and Lake Texoma. This ODWC-managed unit consists of 7,363 acres of bottomland forests surrounded by edges of native grass. The habitat is manipulated annually by controlled burns. Hickory Creek runs through the entire length of the property, providing good roosting cover for area turkeys. Hunters can take two toms in this county.

Located just south of Hickory Creek WMA is Love Valley WMA. Love Valley, also in Love County, is located on the western edge of Lake Texoma, and consists of 7,746 acres. The WMAs primarily riparian habitat varies from hardwood bottomlands to sandy river bottom areas along the Red River. Turkey numbers are good, but hunting pressure can be heavy.

The best public spots in Eastern Oklahoma are the Three Rivers and the Honobia Creek WMAs. These units combined total nearly 700,000 acres. Oklahoma residents between the ages of 18 and 64 are required to purchase a $16 user fee annually to hunt these areas. These units combined yielded 572 turkeys last season.

The hunting on these WMAs was improved when select areas, like the Harris Creek area on Honobia Creek WMA and the Boktuklo Area on the Three Rivers WMA, were gated and access limited to foot traffic. The NWTF cost-shared the project with the ODWC, and the result, according to Waymire, is good concentrations of turkeys on both areas

SEASON DATES & BAG LIMITS

Spring turkey season this year opens on April 6 and closes May 6.

There is a spring bag limit of three tom turkeys, but no more than two turkeys may be taken from the combined eight southeast counties of Atoka, Choctaw, Coal, Latimer, Le Flore, McCurtain, Pittsburg, and Pushmataha.

The following counties have a bag limit of one tom: Beaver, Bryan, Cimarron, Clevela

nd, Custer, Delaware, Garfield, Grant, Kiowa, Marshall, Mayes, Noble, Oklahoma, Ottawa, Rogers, Texas, and Tulsa.

The following counties offer a two-tom limit: Adair, Alfalfa, Beckham, Blaine, Caddo, Canadian, Carter, Cherokee, Comanche, Cotton, Craig, Creek, Dewey, Ellis, Garvin, Grady, Greer, Harmon, Harper, Jackson, Jefferson, Johnston, Kay, Kingfisher, Lincoln, Logan, Love, Major, McClain, McIntosh, Murray, Muskogee, Nowata, Okfuskee, Okmulgee, Osage, Pawnee, Payne, Pontotoc, Pottawatomie, Roger Mills, Seminole, Sequoyah, Stephens, Tillman, Wagoner, Washington, Washita, Woods, and Woodward.

Check current regulations because season dates and limits can vary on public hunting areas. All turkeys harvested east of I-35 must be checked at the nearest hunter check station, or with an authorized ODWC employee. Turkeys taken west of I-35 need not be checked.

Upon harvesting a turkey, all annual license holders are required to complete the "Record of Game" section on the back of their license. All persons taking a turkey, including lifetime license holders, are required to immediately attach their name and hunting license number to the carcass.

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