Lone Star Turkey Outlook For 2006

Lone Star Turkey Outlook For 2006

Texas turkey hunters could get spoiled by great turkey hunting such as they've enjoyed for the past two seasons. And this year looks like another winner! (March 2006)

One thing that most Texas turkey hunters have in common is that when they're looking forward to the upcoming spring's gobbler-only season, they can't help remembering last year's season -- and just how exciting it was.

That's because Texas' spring season has rarely been a bust for most serious turkey hunters, who often return to the same hunting leases, commercial outfitters or public hunting areas that led to their bagging a gobbler or two a year ago, and plan accordingly for the curtain about to rise on still another season.

Recently, while I was chalking my box call for a little practice session on my front porch, memories of a cool, damp April morning on a Stephens County ranch west of Fort Worth last year brought me soothing thoughts -- and sparked great expectations.

You never know from one day to the next what to expect with the Texas weather, so I brought along more calls that morning than I usually carry in my belt's bag of tricks: two standard paddle-type box calls that have become my favorites, a pair of slate calls that I sometimes use for softly teasing stubborn gobblers that have hung up out of shotgun range, and three different types of diaphragm calls for those rainy or damp days that often play havoc with box and slate calls.

As I do before all spring turkey seasons, I'd done a lot of scouting and a lot of questioning of landowners, oil well pumpers and state wildlife biologists prior to the season opener. If you really want to feel goose bumps when the first gobble-gobble-gobble thunders down from a nearby turkey roost at daybreak on opening morning, just prime your mind before the season opens with stories of gobblers with 11-inch-plus beards from folks who are in the woods every day. It doesn't matter whether they're telling the truth or not; the fact is that before you give your first hen yelp, you're all ready for the greatest spring turkey opener ever.

At morning's first light, held back by a curtain of dark clouds and lightly misting rain, a gobbler sounded off from a couple of hundred yards across a large wheat field. I listened to him for at least 30 minutes before I could tell from the direction out of which the gobbling had come that he had left the roost and was moving southward, to my right.

I gave a few yelps with the diaphragm call; the gobbler responded immediately. Another yelp brought another response, and so I held back and waited.

The ol' tom gobbled three more times before I yelped again; he immediately gobbled back. I let him gobble several more times without answering before finally yelping to him again. I could tell by the distance of his gobbling that I had him on a string. He finally approached the fence bordering the wheat field and followed the brush on the inside of the fence to within 20 yards of the camouflage netting I was hiding behind.

Seconds later I was looking down at one of the largest gobblers I've ever taken in Texas -- a Rio Grande with an 11-inch beard and spurs almost 1 1/2 inches long!

Today, as I chalk my calls and ready my decoys and other gear for the spring opener, I can't help expecting this one to be just as good as, or maybe even better than, the one in spring of 2005.

That's because everything that fits into a turkey hunting forecast -- reports from landowners, oil well pumpers, state wildlife biologists and anyone else interested in turkeys --all point to another great season for the approximately 55,000 Texas hunters who'll head into the woods this spring. And when you consider that approximately 40 percent of those can be expected to take at least one gobbler this season (some will take more, as most Texas counties have a liberal four-bird-per-license yearly bag limit for Rio Grandes), the odds of success are high.

And that's just for Rio Grandes. Eastern turkeys also are now hunted in 43 counties, up one county from last year, thanks to the ongoing success of a continuing eastern turkey restoration program initiated in the 1970s. Easterns were stocked in only one county in the program's initial year, but have since been stocked throughout their former range. The program has been so successful that Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials now report established populations of eastern turkeys in virtually every county with suitable habitat.

The Rio Grande turkey seasons will run from April 1 to May 14 in 153 Texas counties with a four-bird bag limit, and from April 1-30 in 11 counties that have a one-bird bag limit. The East Texas season for easterns runs from April 1-30 with a one-gobbler bag limit.

Just where are your best chances for bagging a gobbler to be found this season? My answer: anywhere you can hunt that has a population of birds. But if you want to go by statistics alone, the answer would have to be the Edwards Plateau or Cross Timbers ecological regions, which draw approximately 75 percent of Texas' spring turkey hunters.

Region-to-region comparisons indicate that the Edwards Plateau has had the highest annual hunter success ratio since spring turkey hunting was first allowed, with around 7,500 gobblers per year being taken there. Second behind the Edwards Plateau is the Cross Timbers area, which stretches from Fort Worth north and westward to Wichita Falls and Brownwood.

Although South Texas doesn't draw as many hunters as do the Edwards Plateau and Cross Timbers, the Brush Country does have the highest hunter success rate. Approximately 75 percent of all hunters who go to South Texas bring home a bird.

Hurricane Rita struck the lower Pineywoods area last year, and the biggest question mark that still exists in some areas of southeast Texas relates to the effect that the storm may have had on bird populations. Rita roared ashore in late summer, and so didn't affect nesting efforts, but it may have made some impact on bird populations in the hardest-hit areas. Nevertheless, overall prospects for the 2006 season remain excellent, especially for areas in which high turkey populations have historically existed. Here's how things shape up from one region to the next.

CROSS TIMBERS

Excellent nesting efforts and poult survival have been a standard for this area west of Fort Worth for several years. That's owing primarily to timely spring and early-summer rains that have provided the birds with adequate moisture for egg hatching, good ground cover, and a plentiful supply of grasshoppers and the other insects so important for the nutrition of the young of the year.

The extreme southeastern areas are a little uncertain, owing to the possible loss of birds and

their habitat caused by the high winds and flooding brought by Hurricane Rita.

In some areas such as Brownwood, Coleman, Breckenridge and Albany, improvements in range conditions and nesting success have been evidenced by increased populations of both turkeys and quail. It's often the case that if one of these birds does well, so does the other.

In addition to lots of seed-producing weeds and a plentiful supply of small insects, the turkeys also have had an abundance of acorns to feast on for the past two years. Although acorns are a short-term food source, they do help jump-start the turkeys into healthy physical shape before winter arrives and puts the birds on short rations.

Two years ago, many hunters returned from the field with reports of having seen mostly jakes. Their disappointment then suggests positive possibilities for this season, however, as those young birds now are 3 years or more old and will be sporting longer beards and spurs.

Look for some of the best hunting to be in the longstanding hotspot areas that include just about anywhere along the Clear Fork of the Brazos River and the main arm of the Brazos west and northwest of Palo Pinto. Some of the top counties will be Palo Pinto, Stephens, Shackelford, Haskell, Callahan, Young, and Throckmorton; Jack, Jones, Eastland and Parker are apt to yield up many gobblers as well. Don't pass up a hunt in any of these areas.

EDWARDS PLATEAU

Hunters who thought that 2005 was a great year in this region should expect the same or even better success this spring! Last year was great because of excellent hatches in 2001 -- said to be the best since 1997 -- and then again in 2002; these put many large birds in the fields in 2005. Good hatches for the past three years have kept the pace toward large adult birds going for each of the spring seasons.

Some portions of the extreme western Edwards Plateau, especially around the Concho River, remained dry during crucial nesting periods last year, but the overall region has had adequate rain, and turkey populations remain high. The action's expected to be especially fine around Menard, Junction, Lampasas, Hamilton, San Saba, and Bandera, and all the way southward to the high mountains and running creeks and rivers north of Uvalde.

Even though the region harbors a large number of big gobblers, a lot of hunters in that region don't seem to mind taking many of the younger birds instead of waiting for a longbeard. Perhaps that's one reason for the high hunter success in the Edwards Plateau.

But if you're after a trophy gobbler, patience could pay off this year. You should have a lot of gobblers to choose from, and waiting for that 3- or 4-year-old bird could add a lot more enjoyment to your spring hunting experiences.

SOUTH TEXAS

Things look much brighter this spring than they did at this time a year ago, when landowners, hunters and wildlife biologists were concerned about relatively low production of birds in 2003 and 2004. Those two years' merely so-so reproductive success was blamed on dry spring weather conditions. On the other hand, those two years' unusually wet summers aided in keeping the habitat conditions above average, helping those birds that were hatched to achieve a high survival rate.

In 2004, the spring rains came -- and they didn't stop. Much of South Texas experienced above-average amounts of rainfall from spring throughout the summer months. Mild temperatures also were the norm that year, and turkey populations not only increased in the generally recognized hotspot areas but also expanded their numbers in places that long had contained only marginal populations of birds. Solid reproduction in 2004 resulted in a lot of jakes for last year's hunters, and hold promise for there being a lot more of the larger gobblers for this season.

Expect South Texas turkey hunting to be the best in years in many areas, including the historical hotspot counties through which the Nueces River runs from south of San Antonio to around Choke Canyon Reservoir, and all the way to the Texas Gulf Coast.

PANHANDLE PLAINS

Many hunters think that relatively few turkeys strut across the wide-open plains region of the Texas Panhandle. They're mistaken: Turkey numbers may be spotty, but wherever appropriate habitat can be found along the major rivers such as the Canadian, plenty of birds -- and lots of big gobblers -- are present too.

I hunted near the town of Canadian along a tributary of the Canadian River last spring and had one of my most enjoyable hunts ever. The rolling, low brush and weeds that follow the otherwise heavily-timbered river gave me and my hunting companions one thing that's often critical to bagging a wary gobbler, or one that's already taken up with a hen: good concealment, which is absolutely necessary when you're trying to steal up on the birds.

Myriad ditches run from the surrounding roller-coaster-like landscape, making it relatively easy to make a move from behind turkeys that were heading away. The idea is to get in front of them, and then to entice them to the call -- appealing as much to their general curiosity as to their mating drives, I suppose. It was just such a maneuver that helped me bag a gobbler with a 10 1/2-inch beard and 1 1/2-inch spurs in late April.

Another good thing about turkey hunting in the southeastern Panhandle is its relatively novelty to landowners. They've known for years that they've got turkeys, but as that's not been widely known by very many hunters, spring hunting pressure has been light.

EAST TEXAS

For the second season in a row, hunters after eastern gobblers will have a 30-day season, and it looks like it's going to be another great year. The extreme southeastern areas are a little uncertain, owing to the possible loss of birds and their habitat caused by the high winds and flooding brought by Hurricane Rita.

Eastern turkeys once occupied many areas of East Texas but were virtually eliminated by commercial and illegal hunting and other factors by the turn of the last century. TPWD officials accordingly deserve a big pat on the back for their restoration efforts, which began in the early 1970s with stockings of birds obtained from Mississippi and other states.

The first eastern turkey spring season was held in Red River County in 1995. Yearly stockings of the birds throughout the region have been so successful that 43 counties now have a spring season.

Only in the East Texas region are turkey hunters required to check their gobblers in at TPWD check stations, at which around 150 birds have been checked in each of the past two years. Too, this is the only region in which shotguns must be used to hunt spring turkeys.

Because of the continuing stocking of turkeys in many of the counties, hunters should be on the lookout for banded birds. Wildlife officials report that only a few bands have been recovered in recent years, thus indicating that most of the turkeys harvested were raised in the wild.

* * *

With

prospects this bright for another banner season, it'd be a shame for any Texas turkey hunter to miss it. Grab your shotgun, your favorite turkey calls and turkey loads and head for the woods. I'm betting that you'll be glad that you did!

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