Our Spring Turkey Outlook

Whether a boss gobbler answers their call this spring or ignores it, it's a sure bet that Oklahoma's turkey chasers will answer the call to hit the woods. And this what they'll find there. (March 2008).

Photo by Bob Bledsoe.

It's spring, the season that many hunters' wives dread.

Not only will their husbands be disappearing for days at a time, but also, when they're home, they're making an annoying racket practicing their yelping and kee-kee runs with their turkey calls.

But spring turkey season is like an oasis in the desert for many of us hunters. Last fall's deer, duck, quail, rabbit, squirrel, dove and all those other seasons are ancient history at this point in the year, and for quite a while before spring turkey season opens on April 6, not much is available in the way of hunting opportunity.

Not all states have a spring turkey season -- and some states that have one might as well not. That's because turkey populations are so sparse in those parts of the country that only a handful of birds will be harvested in the whole state.

Oklahoma abounds with turkey hunting possibilities, however. You can find turkeys in any or all of our 77 counties. And there are areas in northwestern Oklahoma where counties hold thousands of birds.

I've seen as many as 300-plus birds in a single roost adjoining a large public hunting area, and roosts with 100 or more birds aren't that uncommon in Woodward, Harper, Ellis, Dewey, Roger Mills and adjacent counties.

In the jumbled forested hills of Eastern Oklahoma, the eastern wild turkey reigns supreme. South of Interstate 40, and especially in the Ouachita Mountains and foothills of McCurtain, LeFlore, Pushmataha and Choctaw counties, the range of the eastern subspecies stretches even farther west.

In the remainder of the state, the Rio Grande subspecies is the dominant turkey. In fact, when you get farther than 50 or 60 miles from the Arkansas border you'll be hard-pressed to find anything but Rio Grandes in Oklahoma.

There is one tiny exception. That is, way out in the tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle, where the Rita Blanca National Grasslands are scattered around the countryside, and where Black Mesa, that volcanic highland that is the state's highest point, presides over the Cimarron River Valley. There you may find a few Merriam's wild turkeys running about. There aren't many of them and their range is limited, but there are enough that a few Oklahoma hunters are able to achieve the coveted "grand slam" of Oklahoma turkeys and bag one of all three subspecies.

Oklahoma is just the opposite from the nation as a whole when it comes to turkey populations. Nationwide, there are four or five times more eastern birds than Rio Grandes, but in Oklahoma, Rio Grandes far outnumber easterns.

Both subspecies were hunted down to low numbers during the early 20th century, but thanks to the trapping and transplanting efforts of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation -- and, more recently, to habitat improvement programs by groups like the National Wild Turkey Federation -- Rio Grandes have expanded both their range and their populations significantly in the last 40 years.

Easterns have had a tougher time in Oklahoma and neighboring states. Although the easterns have bounced back pretty well in the past few years, there was a period in the 1990s when their populations took a sharp nosedive and our seasons and limits were pared back in those areas where eastern turkeys live.

Now the big question: Where should I go to kill a turkey in Oklahoma this spring?

I'll give the same advice that Horace Greeley once penned: "Go west, young man, go west!"

As I said earlier, there are huntable numbers of turkeys in every county in Oklahoma. But in many counties, access to the lands where the turkeys live is darned tough to get.

If you're fortunate enough to have access to lands in Eastern or central Oklahoma where turkeys can be found, I'd recommend exploiting that resource.

And, yes, it's possible to kill turkeys on public lands in those regions. There are numerous wildlife management areas where turkeys can be found. Some of those are only open to draw-in hunts on selected dates, but some are open pretty much the same dates as the statewide season. You can check the regulations for any WMA you may wish to hunt by either picking up a copy of the current Oklahoma Hunting Regulations booklets from license vendors, or you can go to the Web site www.wildlifedepartment.com to view the general regulations and the site-specific regulations.

Let's look at a few of the areas east of Interstate 35 where you might bag a turkey on public land.

In the northeast, wild turkeys can be found at both Kaw and Keystone WMA in the bottomlands along the Arkansas River. Both the public and controlled portions of Spavinaw WMA have good numbers of turkeys. I've also seen flocks of turkeys at Hulah, Birch, Oologah, Fort Gibson, Cookson, Eufaula and Cherokee County WMAs, and on the Rock Creek portion of the Osage County WMAs. The upper end of the Oologah WMA has an abundant turkey population, although they often spend a lot of time on adjacent private lands.

There are turkeys, too, on the Deep Fork WMA and the Deep Fork National Wildlife Refuge, and at the Sequoyah NWR at Kerr Lake. The Heyburn Lake WMA in western Creek County produces a few birds almost every year, although it's another of those areas where the birds seem to spend most of their time on adjacent private lands where they're fed regularly by the landowners or leaseholders.

South of I-40, those lands around Eufaula and Kerr Reservoir are good in spots. Farther south, the lands around Hugo Lake and Pine Creek Lake can be good. And around Broken Bow Lake there is some of the best public-land hunting available for eastern birds.

It's not uncommon for people to take a shotgun in their boats with them while fishing Broken Bow for crappie, bass or walleyes, during spring turkey season, for you never know when a strutting gobbler might present itself on a nearby shoreline.

I recall an April crappie fishing trip to Broken Bow several years ago on which I did not bring a shotgun. We heard a tom gobble up on a hill on the eastern shore of the lake early in the morning. About midmorning we saw what I believe was the same bird strutting and gobbling near the shoreline. He pretty much ignored us completely, even thoug

h we were within easy shotgun range. I had spent the previous two mornings trying to kill an eastern bird, but my gun was cased and stuck behind the seat of my pickup back at the ramp.

Cherokee and Adair counties in Eastern Oklahoma are among the best places for hunting eastern wild turkeys in Oklahoma. There are several tracts of public land that hold birds and there are many areas where birds are pretty plentiful on private properties.

I've seen turkeys on many occasions on the Tenkiller Wildlife Management Area on both sides of the lake. And the adjacent Cherokee Game Management Area on the west side of the lake has an abundant population of eastern birds.

The Cookson Hills WMA southeast of Tahlequah also has a big turkey population, but it is usually open only to hunters who apply for and get a permit through the annual controlled hunt drawings.

Those drawings will be coming up soon for the 2009 hunts. Hunters apply in the spring for the autumn deer hunts and for the following year's spring turkey hunts on the more tightly controlled wildlife management areas. Usually the application period is open in late March and April and the deadline is sometime in early to mid-May. Hunters who want a chance at a permit for next spring should apply soon. Booklets describing the hunts and containing application forms can be found at wildlife department offices and at many hunting license vendors. Applications can also be completed online by going to the department's Web site, www. wildlifedepartment.com, and clicking on the "controlled hunts" link. Hunters must have a current hunting license when applying and must pay a $5 fee. One $5 fee entitles the applicant to enter all hunt categories (deer, elk, antelope, turkey, and more.) if desired.

There are many states that have huntable populations of wild turkeys. And, as I said earlier, every Oklahoma county has turkeys. But if you want to see some of the biggest flocks of turkeys and densest populations of turkeys of anywhere in the nation, go to far western and northwestern Oklahoma. Those counties lying west of I-35 and north of I-40 are nearly all good hunting areas.

The really awesome areas are in Harper, Woods, Woodward, Ellis, Dewey, Custer and Roger Mills counties.

In Eastern Oklahoma, a big turkey roost might have two or three dozen birds in it. In that cluster of northwestern counties, it's not out of the question to see a roost with 100, 200 or 300 birds.

The first time I saw a roost with more than 100 turkeys perched in the cottonwoods, I thought I had seen the biggest roost in the state. It was on a place managed by professional hunting guide and outfitter Milton Rose in Woodward. But since then I've seen some that were much bigger. I've been lucky enough to be invited several times in recent years to hunt a ranch that has a roost where I've seen as many as 300-plus turkeys nestled in the treetops at dusk. Many of the birds from that roost fly down each morning and walk right off of that private property and onto a large tract of public hunting land.

My friend who invites me there to hunt told me on several occasions that a couple of hundred or more turkeys roosted near his camp. I took it with a grain of salt, thinking that his "couple hundred" description was akin to those "2-pound crappie" and "5-pound bass" that actually turn out to weigh about 1 1/4 pounds or 3 1/2 pounds.

So my jaw dropped on my first evening in his camp, when I sat for more than an hour watching turkeys come from every direction to fill the trees. Settled in our camp chairs, my son and I counted the birds until it grew too dark to distinguish through our binoculars the latecomers that were still arriving.

The roost doesn't always contain that many birds. At different seasons they may spread out and roost in smaller groups. Last spring a tornado tore the tops out or completely uprooted many of the large trees in that roost, so the numbers probably won't be nearly as high this spring.

There are several well-known public-hunting spots in northwestern Oklahoma that produce lots of springtime turkey action for Oklahomans and visiting hunters.

The Black Kettle National Grasslands/WMA out near the Texas Panhandle on Oklahoma's western edge contains more than 30,000 acres of land in about 100 scattered tracts ranging from around 20 acres up to a couple of thousand. It is perhaps the most productive public tract in the state or region when it comes to turkeys.

The Packsaddle WMA, just a few miles north of Black Kettle, has 17,000 acres along the north bank of the South Canadian River and is also a good spot.

The 16,000-acre Hal and Fern Cooper WMA near Fort Supply, the 17,700-acre Beaver River WMA, and the 16,775-acre Canton are three other excellent areas to set up camp and hunt turkeys.

There are many smaller public-hunting areas out there as well. Descriptions of the public tracts are available on-line at the Wildlife Department's Web site. Hunters can purchase an atlas from the department that contains maps and descriptions of all public tracts open for hunting and managed by the department.

So no matter where you live in Oklahoma, turkey hunting opportunities are available. You can get virtually a guaranteed hunt by engaging one of the professional guides or commercial hunting operations in northwest Oklahoma. You can find your own lease or private tract. Or, you can hunt public lands.

If you're a public land hunter, you may want to consider waiting until the season is well under way before making your trip. At Black Kettle and at Packsaddle and some of the other more popular WMAs, the first weekend or two of the season draws a virtual army of camo-clad hunters afield. But often by the third weekend or so the number of hunters has dwindled considerably and the toms are even more aggressive than they were the first few days of the season.

It can also be helpful to plan a trip on weekdays instead of weekends. That doesn't guarantee you a spot all to yourself, but I've seen days during the week when you couldn't find another hunter on some of the larger northwestern Oklahoma WMAs.

No matter whether you're hunting on private or public lands, use caution. Dressing in camouflage and imitating the sounds of the prey you're after is almost an invitation to an accident. If there is any chance that other hunters will be hunting near you, make sure they don't mistake you for a wild turkey and send a swarm of shotgun pellets in your direction.

If you hunt much, you'll see how unobservant and oblivious some hunters can be.

A couple of seasons back, I had already killed a nice gobbler and was sitting in my pickup truck, watching through binoculars as my son, backed up into a tiny clump of shinnery oak on a WMA with his compound bow, waited to ambush a flock of turkeys that sometimes walked a nearby path.

Two shotgun-t

oting hunters laden with hunting stools and a turkey decoy and other gear came walking down the trail and stood right by my son -- within 6 feet of him -- for several minutes, then strolled up over a ridge and disappeared.

Later I asked my son what the hunters were talking to him about.

"Nothing," he said. "They weren't talking to me. They were just looking for turkeys. They didn't even know I was there."

The statewide dates for spring turkey season are April 6 through May 6, 2008. But because there are many variations in bag limits, open dates, means of taking, etc., from one county to the next and from one public-land tract to the next, it's always a good idea to pick up a current copy of the Oklahoma Hunting Regulations booklet, or to go on line to check the specific regulations that apply to the county or area you will be hunting.

Resident hunters need a current hunting license and a $10 turkey permit for each bird harvested. Hunters visiting from outside of Oklahoma must purchase an annual non-resident hunting license ($137), as well as a $10 turkey permit for each bird taken. (The short-term small-game hunting license available to non-residents at a lower price isn't valid for turkey hunting.)

Find more about Oklahoma

fishing and hunting at:

But spring turkey season is like an oasis in the desert for many of us hunters. Last fall's deer, duck, quail, rabbit, squirrel, dove and all those other seasons are ancient history at this point in the year, and for quite a while before spring turkey season opens on April 6, not much is available in the way of hunting opportunity.

Not all states have a spring turkey season -- and some states that have one might as well not. That's because turkey populations are so sparse in those parts of the country that only a handful of birds will be harvested in the whole state.

Oklahoma abounds with turkey hunting possibilities, however. You can find turkeys in any or all of our 77 counties. And there are areas in northwestern Oklahoma where counties hold thousands of birds.

I've seen as many as 300-plus birds in a single roost adjoining a large public hunting area, and roosts with 100 or more birds aren't that uncommon in Woodward, Harper, Ellis, Dewey, Roger Mills and adjacent counties.

In the jumbled forested hills of Eastern Oklahoma, the eastern wild turkey reigns supreme. South of Interstate 40, and especially in the Ouachita Mountains and foothills of McCurtain, LeFlore, Pushmataha and Choctaw counties, the range of the eastern subspecies stretches even farther west.

In the remainder of the state, the Rio Grande subspecies is the dominant turkey. In fact, when you get farther than 50 or 60 miles from the Arkansas border you'll be hard-pressed to find anything but Rio Grandes in Oklahoma.

There is one tiny exception. That is, way out in the tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle, where the Rita Blanca National Grasslands are scattered around the countryside, and where Black Mesa, that volcanic highland that is the state's highest point, presides over the Cimarron River Valley. There you may find a few Merriam's wild turkeys running about. There aren't many of them and their range is limited, but there are enough that a few Oklahoma hunters are able to achieve the coveted "grand slam" of Oklahoma turkeys and bag one of all three subspecies.

Oklahoma is just the opposite from the nation as a whole when it comes to turkey populations. Nationwide, there are four or five times more eastern birds than Rio Grandes, but in Oklahoma, Rio Grandes far outnumber easterns.

Both subspecies were hunted down to low numbers during the early 20th century, but thanks to the trapping and transplanting efforts of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation -- and, more recently, to habitat improvement programs by groups like the National Wild Turkey Federation -- Rio Grandes have expanded both their range and their populations significantly in the last 40 years.

Easterns have had a tougher time in Oklahoma and neighboring states. Although the easterns have bounced back pretty well in the past few years, there was a period in the 1990s when their populations took a sharp nosedive and our seasons and limits were pared back in those areas where eastern turkeys live. (Continued)

Now the big question: Where should I go to kill a turkey in Oklahoma this spring?

I'll give the same advice that Horace Greeley once penned: "Go west, young man, go west!"

As I said earlier, there are huntable numbers of turkeys in every county in Oklahoma. But in many counties, access to the lands where the turkeys live is darned tough to get.

If you're fortunate enough to have access to lands in Eastern or central Oklahoma where turkeys can be found, I'd recommend exploiting that resource.

And, yes, it's possible to kill turkeys on public lands in those regions. There are numerous wildlife management areas where turkeys can be found. Some of those are only open to draw-in hunts on selected dates, but some are open pretty much the same dates as the statewide season. You can check the regulations for any WMA you may wish to hunt by either picking up a copy of the current Oklahoma Hunting Regulations booklets from license vendors, or you can go to the Web site www.wildlifedepartment.com to view the general regulations and the site-specific regulations.

Let's look at a few of the areas east of Interstate 35 where you might bag a turkey on public land.

In the northeast, wild turkeys can be found at both Kaw and Keystone WMA in the bottomlands along the Arkansas River. Both the public and controlled portions of Spavinaw WMA have good numbers of turkeys. I've also seen flocks of turkeys at Hulah, Birch, Oologah, Fort Gibson, Cookson, Eufaula and Cherokee County WMAs, and on the Rock Creek portion of the Osage County WMAs. The upper end of the Oologah WMA has an abundant turkey population, although they often spend a lot of time on adjacent private lands.

There are turkeys, too, on the Deep Fork WMA and the Deep Fork National Wildlife Refuge, and at the Sequoyah NWR at Kerr Lake. The Heyburn Lake WMA in western Creek County produces a few birds almost every year, although it's another of those areas where the birds seem to spend most of their time on adjacent private lands where they're fed regularly by the landowners or leaseholders.

South of I-40, those lands around Eufaula and Kerr Reservoir are good in spots. Farther south, the lands around Hugo Lake and Pine Creek Lake can be good. And around Broken Bow Lake there is some of the best public-land hunting available for eastern birds.

It's not uncommon for people to take a shotgun in their boats with them while fishing Broken Bow for crappie, bass or walleyes

, during spring turkey season, for you never know when a strutting gobbler might present itself on a nearby shoreline.

I recall an April crappie fishing trip to Broken Bow several years ago on which I did not bring a shotgun. We heard a tom gobble up on a hill on the eastern shore of the lake early in the morning. About midmorning we saw what I believe was the same bird strutting and gobbling near the shoreline. He pretty much ignored us completely, even though we were within easy shotgun range. I had spent the previous two mornings trying to kill an eastern bird, but my gun was cased and stuck behind the seat of my pickup back at the ramp.

Cherokee and Adair counties in Eastern Oklahoma are among the best places for hunting eastern wild turkeys in Oklahoma. There are several tracts of public land that hold birds and there are many areas where birds are pretty plentiful on private properties.

I've seen turkeys on many occasions on the Tenkiller Wildlife Management Area on both sides of the lake. And the adjacent Cherokee Game Management Area on the west side of the lake has an abundant population of eastern birds.

The Cookson Hills WMA southeast of Tahlequah also has a big turkey population, but it is usually open only to hunters who apply for and get a permit through the annual controlled hunt drawings.

Those drawings will be coming up soon for the 2009 hunts. Hunters apply in the spring for the autumn deer hunts and for the following year's spring turkey hunts on the more tightly controlled wildlife management areas. Usually the application period is open in late March and April and the deadline is sometime in early to mid-May. Hunters who want a chance at a permit for next spring should apply soon. Booklets describing the hunts and containing application forms can be found at wildlife department offices and at many hunting license vendors. Applications can also be completed online by going to the department's Web site, www.wildlifedepartment.com and clicking on the "controlled hunts" link. Hunters must have a current hunting license when applying and must pay a $5 fee. One $5 fee entitles the applicant to enter all hunt categories (deer, elk, antelope, turkey, and more.) if desired.

There are many states that have huntable populations of wild turkeys. And, as I said earlier, every Oklahoma county has turkeys. But if you want to see some of the biggest flocks of turkeys and densest populations of turkeys of anywhere in the nation, go to far western and northwestern Oklahoma. Those counties lying west of I-35 and north of I-40 are nearly all good hunting areas.

The really awesome areas are in Harper, Woods, Woodward, Ellis, Dewey, Custer and Roger Mills counties.

In Eastern Oklahoma, a big turkey roost might have two or three dozen birds in it. In that cluster of northwestern counties, it's not out of the question to see a roost with 100, 200 or 300 birds.

The first time I saw a roost with more than 100 turkeys perched in the cottonwoods, I thought I had seen the biggest roost in the state. It was on a place managed by professional hunting guide and outfitter Milton Rose in Woodward. But since then I've seen some that were much bigger. I've been lucky enough to be invited several times in recent years to hunt a ranch that has a roost where I've seen as many as 300-plus turkeys nestled in the treetops at dusk. Many of the birds from that roost fly down each morning and walk right off of that private property and onto a large tract of public hunting land.

My friend who invites me there to hunt told me on several occasions that a couple of hundred or more turkeys roosted near his camp. I took it with a grain of salt, thinking that his "couple hundred" description was akin to those "2-pound crappie" and "5-pound bass" that actually turn out to weigh about 1 1/4 pounds or 3 1/2 pounds.

So my jaw dropped on my first evening in his camp, when I sat for more than an hour watching turkeys come from every direction to fill the trees. Settled in our camp chairs, my son and I counted the birds until it grew too dark to distinguish through our binoculars the latecomers that were still arriving.

The roost doesn't always contain that many birds. At different seasons they may spread out and roost in smaller groups. Last spring a tornado tore the tops out or completely uprooted many of the large trees in that roost, so the numbers probably won't be nearly as high this spring.

There are several well-known public-hunting spots in northwestern Oklahoma that produce lots of springtime turkey action for Oklahomans and visiting hunters.

The Black Kettle National Grasslands/WMA out near the Texas Panhandle on Oklahoma's western edge contains more than 30,000 acres of land in about 100 scattered tracts ranging from around 20 acres up to a couple of thousand. It is perhaps the most productive public tract in the state or region when it comes to turkeys.

The Packsaddle WMA, just a few miles north of Black Kettle, has 17,000 acres along the north bank of the South Canadian River and is also a good spot.

The 16,000-acre Hal and Fern Cooper WMA near Fort Supply, the 17,700-acre Beaver River WMA, and the 16,775-acre Canton are three other excellent areas to set up camp and hunt turkeys.

There are many smaller public-hunting areas out there as well. Descriptions of the public tracts are available on-line at the Wildlife Department's Web site. Hunters can purchase an atlas from the department that contains maps and descriptions of all public tracts open for hunting and managed by the department.

So no matter where you live in Oklahoma, turkey hunting opportunities are available. You can get virtually a guaranteed hunt by engaging one of the professional guides or commercial hunting operations in northwest Oklahoma. You can find your own lease or private tract. Or, you can hunt public lands.

If you're a public land hunter, you may want to consider waiting until the season is well under way before making your trip. At Black Kettle and at Packsaddle and some of the other more popular WMAs, the first weekend or two of the season draws a virtual army of camo-clad hunters afield. But often by the third weekend or so the number of hunters has dwindled considerably and the toms are even more aggressive than they were the first few days of the season.

It can also be helpful to plan a trip on weekdays instead of weekends. That doesn't guarantee you a spot all to yourself, but I've seen days during the week when you couldn't find another hunter on some of the larger northwestern Oklahoma WMAs.

No matter whether you're hunting on private or public lands, use caution. Dressing in camouflage and imitating the sounds of the prey you're after is almost an invitation to an accident. If there is any chance that other hunters will be hunting near you, make sure they don't mistake you for a wild turkey and send a swarm of shotgun pellets in your direction.

If you hunt much,

you'll see how unobservant and oblivious some hunters can be.

A couple of seasons back, I had already killed a nice gobbler and was sitting in my pickup truck, watching through binoculars as my son, backed up into a tiny clump of shinnery oak on a WMA with his compound bow, waited to ambush a flock of turkeys that sometimes walked a nearby path.

Two shotgun-toting hunters laden with hunting stools and a turkey decoy and other gear came walking down the trail and stood right by my son -- within 6 feet of him -- for several minutes, then strolled up over a ridge and disappeared.

Later I asked my son what the hunters were talking to him about.

"Nothing," he said. "They weren't talking to me. They were just looking for turkeys. They didn't even know I was there."

The statewide dates for spring turkey season are April 6 through May 6, 2008. But because there are many variations in bag limits, open dates, means of taking, etc., from one county to the next and from one public-land tract to the next, it's always a good idea to pick up a current copy of the Oklahoma Hunting Regulations booklet, or to go on line to check the specific regulations that apply to the county or area you will be hunting.

Resident hunters need a current hunting license and a $10 turkey permit for each bird harvested. Hunters visiting from outside of Oklahoma must purchase an annual non-resident hunting license ($137), as well as a $10 turkey permit for each bird taken. (The short-term small-game hunting license available to non-residents at a lower price isn't valid for turkey hunting.)

Find more about Oklahoma

fishing and hunting at:

OklahomaGameandFish.com

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