Sooner State Turkey Outlook

Sooner State Turkey Outlook

Mature gobblers are out there in plenty this year, and ready to talk turkey. So how's the season going to shape up in your part of the state? (March 2007)

The sight of a longbeard like this coming in to calling is what Oklahoma turkey hunters live for. An abundance of mature gobblers should be strutting in the field this season.
Photo by Russell Tinsley

Opening day of last year's spring turkey season dawned to typical weather for a Western Oklahoma morning: bright, sunny and windy — howlingly windy! I strained unsuccessfully to hear any distant turkey sounds. Frustrated at picking up no gobbling from the distant roost, I continued to scratch out hen yelps on my aluminum friction call. In vain: No gobblers responded.

After moving often and calling in hopes of striking a turkey, my hunting partners and I decided to drive to town for lunch. While exiting the property, Justin Plunkett, my brother Ronny and I located two separate flocks heavy with gobblers on a wheat field nearly a mile away. Optimism renewed, we grabbed lunch, made a game plan for that afternoon and, after a quick nap, suited up to redeem the day from that lackluster morning.

We left our motel amazed by the changes awaiting us; wildfires fueled by 50-mph wind gusts now blanketed the county. The sky emanated an eerie red glow painted by the dust and smoke. With visibility limited to a quarter-mile, we drove through the haze to our turkey spot.

Nearly 20 miles away, we drove out of the mire, and though the wind still gusted at gale force, we arrived in a hopeful mood at our turkey spot. Ronny climbed into my Double Bull blind with his compound bow, while Plunkett and I headed toward the last spot we had glassed the turkeys.

I called, and then listened for a response, before walking over some sand hills, eventually making a complete circle and returning to a small rye field near the truck. Suddenly, I spotted movement 80 yards ahead and saw a flock of 20 turkeys feeding in the rye field — and heading our way. I jerked Plunkett to the ground.

We hurriedly pulled up our face masks, trying to blend in with the scant saplings around us. The turkeys sensed something was awry, most of the flock jumping into the air and flying directly over us. Thirty yards away, two mature toms periscoped their heads, intrigued by their airborne cohorts. Plunkett and I settled on a nervous redhead each and, with tandem blasts, leveled the pair. We gathered the toms for photographs and then retired to a distant hill just in time to watch Ronny prepare to arrow a magnum-sized tom strutting just outside of bow range.

The next morning I connected on another nice tom after calling in several others. Although my hunts have admittedly been known to be unorthodox at times, I had taken two-thirds of my three-tom limit in two days. Truly, Oklahoma turkey hunting is about as good as it gets!

BIOLOGISTS' OUTLOOK

With flock numbers increasing in most counties, the state's turkey hunters can expect another excellent spring. Statewide the flock is estimated at 129,284 turkeys — up slightly over 5 percent from last season's estimate of 123,000 birds.

However, according to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's turkey experts, the drought of last summer caused the hatch to be down slightly from previous years. The drought significantly affected much of the state's habitat, causing many species of wildlife to suffer.

The ODWC's Rod Smith oversees the western part of the state and tracks the trends of the widespread Rio Grande turkeys. "Field observations indicate that recruitment may not be too great," Smith said. "It seems the number of poults observed in mid to late summer were fewer than that of the past two to three years. This doesn't necessarily mean we will experience a population decline, as I expect the population to be on par with that observed last year."

In the central part of the state, biologist Russ Horton said the region looks very good and hunters there should see good numbers of birds. "Overall, things continue to look real good," says Horton. "The central region's numbers are up 1,200 to 1,400 birds from last year's estimate. I also expect good numbers of jakes in the spring flocks this season."

In the pine-studded forests in the southeast, the severe drought has made a serious negative impact on the flock, causing regional biologist Jack Waymire to issue mixed predictions. "The drought has taken a toll on turkey reproduction and recruitment in the southeast region," he said. "However, the good news is that if we get a good hatch and survival this next spring, then we should recover pretty well."

Waymire cautioned that hunters in the southeast shouldn't see many jakes this season, but added that a fair number of mature toms should be present. "If the weather is favorable, you should be able to find gobbling birds in the same areas that you encountered them in last year. We will continue to monitor the turkeys in the southeast, and we may have to make some changes in the season length and possibly in the bag limits."

With lackluster reproduction resulting in fewer poults per hen, Okie turkey chasers can relish the fact that our hunting is outstanding with populations at the highest levels since regulated seasons. "On the bright side," Smith said, "if recruitment equaled mortality, we will still have very good turkey numbers this spring."

TURKEY FLOCK SURVEYS

Panhandle

The Panhandle region is home to a diversity of wildlife including antelope, mule deer, white-tailed deer, ring-necked pheasants, and a fair number of turkeys. This unique area comprises three counties: Cimarron, Texas, and Beaver.

Cimarron, the farthest west of the three, is the home of Black Mesa — at 4,973 feet, the highest elevation in the state — and an estimated 185 turkeys, up considerably from last season. Since Merriam's's turkeys are found in New Mexico, it's believed that this mountain strain of turkeys with white-tipped tailfeathers has hybridized with our turkeys. Two friends of mine, Jeff Steele and Paul Newsom, have taken toms in that area remarkably resembling a Merriam's's. They look very much like a Merriam's's I took in New Mexico.

Texas County — the middle county in the Panhandle — is flat. It's home to incredible numbers of pheasants and an estimated 665 turkeys. The best turkey habitat in the entire area is found near Beaver River, which runs through the county and on land surrounding Optima Lake.

Beaver County also has the Beaver River coursing across its b

oundaries and boasts the largest concentration of turkeys in the Panhandle with 900 birds. I've hunted the rolling hills of this sagebrush-strewn landscape, and found the area to be rich with wildlife. Like Texas County, Beaver County is home to turkeys with a penchant for riparian habitat, so it's no surprise that most of the area's roost trees are found near the river.

Western Region

The western part of the state is home to diverse landscapes. One thing's for certain: This is a dandy place to bag a big Rio Grande gobbler. Most counties in the region abound with turkeys. While much of the area is leased, some outstanding public hunting lands are available.

According to Steve Purviance, operator of Mt. Hide Outfitters near Laverne, this spring's turkey season should be outstanding. "We have been seeing good numbers of toms, and since we harvest primarily longbeards on our hunts, I am encouraged. A good number of jakes carried over and should have nice beards this season."

My wife and I have hunted with Purviance and can testify to the numbers of turkeys in the northwest. My hunt ended early when I rocked a nice tom with a long thick beard, while my wife Donna took her first tom on a separate hunt there.

Last season the western region was a favorite spot for many turkey hunters -- no surprise, as an estimated 61,000 turkeys inhabit this prime area. Hunters aren't required to check in turkeys west of Interstate 35, so no harvest figures were available. This year's flock is estimated at 64,500 birds -- representing nearly a 6 percent increase.

The county turkey flock estimates were: Alfalfa, 1,615; Beaver, 900; Beckham, 3,600; Blaine, 3,695; Caddo, 3,455; Cimarron, 185; Comanche, 2,485; Cotton, 3,050; Custer, 330; Dewey, 2,235; Ellis, 2,980; Greer, 4,000; Harmon, 4,000; Harper, 2,401; Jackson, 1,975; Jefferson, 1,282; Kiowa, 1,169; Major, 3,610; Roger Mills, 3,000; Stephens, 1,450; Texas, 665; Tillman, 4,400; Washita, 1,800; Woods, 3,568; and Woodward, 6,725.

Central Region

While hunting near Stillwater with Brandon Risley last season, I tagged a tough tom. The stubborn bird strutted in a meadow and refused to come closer than 75 yards until a pair of jakes threatened to move in on his turf. Risley's smooth calling coaxed the wary longbeard to a range of 53 yards, and I whacked it with a load of Hevi Shot. The battered monarch sported a tail missing a few feathers and a 9-inch beard.

Turkey hunters in the region can expect to find good numbers of turkeys in most counties, with the total estimated at 40,315 turkeys -- up 1,395 birds from last season.

The central counties east of I-35, where turkeys were required to be checked, reported a harvest of 2,815 turkeys -- slightly down from the number harvested in 2005. That number contained 1,653 adult toms, 1,143 jakes, and 19 bearded hens.

County flock estimates run to 40,315 and break down thus: Canadian, 2,000; Carter, 1,200; Cleveland, 650; Creek, 2,000; Garfield, 1,300; Garvin, 800; Grady, 1,200; Grant, 750; Hughes, 2,800; Johnson, 2,750; Kay, 1,515; Kingfisher, 3,200; Lincoln, 300; Logan, 3,000; Love, 1,500; Marshall, 75; McClain, 800; Murray, 2,250; Noble, 725; Okfuskee, 1,000; Oklahoma, 200; Okmulgee, 700; Osage, 2,750; Pawnee, 200; Payne, 1,150; Pontotoc, 1,500; Pottawatomie, 1,000; and Seminole, 3,000.

Northeast Region

The northeast area is home primarily to Rio Grandes, with some easterns found along 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; last season, hunters there took 2,022 birds, which was slightly less than the 2005 harvest with the total taken breaking down to 1,319 adult toms, 688 jakes, and 15 hens.

County flock estimates totaled 18,265 birds -- slightly up from last season, and can be broken down as follows: Adair, 1,350; Cherokee, 2,200; Craig, 2,300; Delaware, 225, Haskell, 2,400; Mayes, 410; McIntosh, 1,500; Muskogee, 1,850; Nowata, 2,000; Ottawa, 385; Rogers, 720; Sequoyah, 1,650; Tulsa, 200; Wagoner, 525; and Washington, 550.

Southeast Region

The mountainous, pine-studded scenery and vistas here are unlike those anywhere else in the state. One of my proudest accomplishments as a turkey hunter was tagging my first eastern longbeard near Daisy -- a 24-pound boss gobbler that sported an 11-inch thick beard.

If you've never matched wits with a long-bearded gobbler in Southeastern Oklahoma, you're in for an experience -- more like an education, actually. These birds are wary, and respond differently than do their western counterparts. In fact, they can be downright tough.

Hunters harvested 2,937 turkeys last season --down from the harvest of 3,515 in 2005 -- with nearly 85 percent, or 2,451, being adult toms. There were 454 jakes and 32 hens.

Southeastern flock estimates combined for a tally of 6,129 turkeys -- up 1,109 birds from last season -- which breaks down as: Atoka, 1,455; Bryan, 53; Choctaw, 23; Coal, 192; Latimer, 173; LeFlore, 422; McCurtain, 1,130; Pittsburg, 1,883; and Pushmataha, 798.

PUBLIC LANDS

West

With the cost of leased lands getting higher every season, some hunters are more comfortable hunting public grounds. And no wonder! There are some exceptional public lands available, provided you heed the advice that follows.

The top spot in the state for tagging a tom is Black Kettle Wildlife Management Area, near Cheyenne. This WMA too is a national grassland, and the hunting pressure there is intense. Last year, I hunted near the Kettle during the first two days of season, and ran into several hunters, most from out of state.

Words to the wise: The turkey hunting usually gets better the week or two after opening day, and the hunting pressure lessens. If you hunt during the week, you generally won't have to compete with as many hunters

Most turkeys at Black Kettle roost near water in the tallest trees available, and since much of Black Kettle is treeless, key in on the management units that have roost sites on them, or in proximity.

A public lands atlas, which includes this WMA and other public lands, is available for purchase by logging on to the Web site WildlifeDepartment.com.

Other public land recommendations are Canton WMA, Ellis County WMA, Fort Cobb WMA and Packsaddle WMA.

East

By far the best public hunting in the east is found at Three Rivers WMA and Honobia Creek WMA, which can be accessed for an annual fee of $16. These huge lands located in the southeast are privately owned by timber companies, but managed by the ODWC and have good densities of turkeys. That doesn't guarantee that you'll tag a wily eastern gobbler there because this timber-loving strain of turkeys can be exceptionally wary and difficult to hu

nt.

Other public possibilities include Atoka WMA, Eufaula WMA, James Collins WMA, Kaw WMA, and Pushmataha WMA.

SEASON DATES AND BAG LIMITS

Spring turkey season opens statewide 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, LeFlore, McCurtain, Pittsburg, and Pushmataha. However, Choctaw has a limit of one tom.

The following counties have a bag limit of one tom: Beaver, Bryan, Cimarron, Cleveland, Custer, Delaware, Garfield, 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, Grant, Greer, Harmon, Harper, Jackson, Jefferson, Johnston, Kay, Kingfisher, Lincoln, Logan, Love, Major, McClain, McIntosh, Murray, Muskogee, Nowata, Okfuskee, Okmulgee, Osage, Pawnee, Payne, Pontotoc, Pottawotomie, Roger Mills, Seminole, Sequoyah, Stephens, Tillman, Wagoner, Washington, Washita, Woods, and Woodward.

Check current regulations because season dates and limits may 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.

After harvesting a turkey, license holders are required to complete the "Record of Game" section on the back of their license. Anyone taking a turkey, including lifetime license holders, are required to immediately affix his or her name and hunting license number to the carcass.

Find more about Oklahoma fishing and hunting at: OklahomaGameandFish.com.

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