Texas'™ 2007 Spring Turkey Outlook

Texas'™ 2007 Spring Turkey Outlook

Plenty of mature toms are out there, and ready to talk turkey. How's the coming spring season shaping up around our state? (March 2007)

In the Hill Country last spring, the author shot this longbeard after it came to a box call. It dropped just 20 yards from the muzzle of Brandon's .410!
Photo by Brandon Ray

Nothing gets me more excited about an upcoming spring turkey season than reflection on the best memories of the last one.


In 2006 I shared some great hunts with friends and family in Central Texas and the Panhandle. In early April I watched my wife, Amy Ray, get off a round from her single-shot 20-gauge to tag a huge tom. Later in the season, I witnessed a few buddies armed with bows and 12-gauges tagging 10-inch longbeards. And along the way, even I managed to tag out on Texas toms -- two downed by means of archery tackle, two others blown away by a .410 shotgun.

Where else but in Texas can a hunter achieve such success?


One of the more memorable birds from last year was a gobbler with jumbo-sized spurs that I arrowed near the town of San Angelo. The hunt was memorable, but painful at the same time.


TOM GREEN COUNTY, APRIL 9, 2006

It started in the dark. I heard what sounded like three different gobblers sounding off only 150 yards away. Like a slow yawn, the thorny landscape started to come to life with a hint of daylight. When I finally spotted a turkey silhouette in a distant oak tree, I also heard the sounds of wings beating the air. The turkeys were coming out of the trees like falling acorns.

Then, for what seemed like an eternity, all was silent. Finally, I spied a few hens headed my way, weaving through the cedar bushes on a dusty cow trail. Behind them was a strutting gobbler as big as a washing machine. His black beard stuck straight out of his inflated chest maybe 8 inches. He seemed to be showing it off, like the winner of a race proudly wearing a blue ribbon.

For more than 30 minutes the harem of dust-colored hens wandered around me. Some came within hand-shaking distance of the front window of my ground blind. The big tom, however, stayed hidden behind a screen of bright green mesquites 50 yards away, never getting out of his strut. I had the best bait in the world -- live female turkeys -- at arm's length, but wondered if he would ever come close enough.

A lifetime later, that bird started a slow-motion shuffle in my direction. When he went behind a bushy cedar tree I drew my bow. He reappeared at 18 yards, facing me in a full strut. I was testing a new, aggressive broadhead, its 4-inch cutting width designed specifically for head and neck shots at turkeys, so when I had a clear look at my target's colorful neck, I dropped the string, and stiff carbon arrow met turkey neck dead center with a loud thwack.

The tom stumbled and fluttered around like a fish out of water. In a rush to claim my prize, I exploded out of the blind and pounced on him like a cat. When I hefted the flapping bird by one leg, his opposite leg kicked me, jabbing its needle-sharp 1 1/2-inch-long spur into my left hand like an icepick.

I dropped the flopping Rio as warm, dark-red blood oozed out of a gash by my thumb. A few moments later the old bird was as dead as a stone -- but I suppose he got the last laugh: I still wear a nasty scar on my left hand from that ornery gobbler.

SPRING TURKEY SEASON IN TEXAS

I'm not sure which I enjoy more, reflecting on great turkey hunts from years past or the anticipation of a new season.

Like fine wine, tales of hunts from years gone by tend to get better with age. In stories of 9-inch toms that got away, the escapees suddenly become 12-inchers when the tale's retold among friends.

In such reveries I tend to forget the clouds of mosquitoes, the hot, sultry afternoons and the buzzing of a rattlesnake encountered in the dark. Instead, I remember the good things: the mornings full of numerous longbeards gobbling their heads off from a roost tree in the gray gloom of first light; the drumming of a strutting tom, and the sound of his stiffly bent wings dragging across the rocky ground as he danced ever closer. Fond memories like those call me back to the turkey woods every spring.

Of course, we all know that the outcome of hunts in years gone by can't be changed -- but the prospects for a new season are endless, and promising. What will be the story to tell after this next season?

DROUGHT YEAR TURKEYS

In the spring and summer of 2006, some parts of Texas experienced a terrible drought. How does that lack of rainfall affect turkeys? I asked my friend Ty Bartoskewitz, a wildlife biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in South Texas, for his thoughts.

"Drought is particularly hard on turkeys because the lack of rainfall creates poor nesting conditions due to lack of cover," he told me. "That lack of cover increases the risk of predation, but it also decreases the body condition of the hen as she goes into the egg-laying season because of a shortage of food, particularly insects at this time, which aid in the elements used for egg production.

"And the poults, if they do hatch, need small greens and insects to make it the first few weeks of their life cycles, which are usually absent without a little moisture. Fall and spring moisture are extremely important in setting up prime conditions that will benefit turkeys."

Here's a closer look at what to expect across Texas this spring.

CROSS TIMBERS

My friend Ronnie Parsons hunts a sprawling ranch at the western edge of the Cross Timbers region. He spends lots of time on the ranch in the spring and summer. Most years he sees lots of turkeys, but in spring and summer 2006 his report was grim.

"I have seen zero turkey poults this year," he said. "I think the drought conditions that existed all summer on our ranch caused the turkey hatch to be essentially zero. In the months of June, July and August 2006, we only had .04 inches of rain. I would estimate that the existing turkey population is down about 15 percent from last year. The 2007 spring season will be down from last year because of die-off and predation."

Blake Hortenstine, a wildlife manager who oversees more than 20,000 acres in Shackelford and Stephens counties, also shared his thoughts on the 2006 turkey crop. "On the large ranch I manage in Shackelford County, I don't remember seeing any poults this past summer," he reported. "It was very dry. That ranch still has a la

rge population of adult birds, so spring hunting should still be good in 2007, but there won't be much recruitment of young birds. On the Stephens County property we saw just a few poults, but it was also very dry during the nesting period."

Judging from those two experts' observations, the prospects for young turkeys is poor, but there should be enough 2- and 3-year-old gobblers to keep things interesting. Some of my best-ever spring hunts have taken place in counties in the western half of this region like Shackelford, Tom Green and Irion.

SPRING TURKEY SEASON IN TEXAS

I'm not sure which I enjoy more, reflecting on great turkey hunts from years past or the anticipation of a new season.

Like fine wine, tales of hunts from years gone by tend to get better with age. In stories of 9-inch toms that got away, the escapees suddenly become 12-inchers when the tale's retold among friends.

In such reveries I tend to forget the clouds of mosquitoes, the hot, sultry afternoons and the buzzing of a rattlesnake encountered in the dark. Instead, I remember the good things: the mornings full of numerous longbeards gobbling their heads off from a roost tree in the gray gloom of first light; the drumming of a strutting tom, and the sound of his stiffly bent wings dragging across the rocky ground as he danced ever closer. Fond memories like those call me back to the turkey woods every spring.

Of course, we all know that the outcome of hunts in years gone by can't be changed -- but the prospects for a new season are endless, and promising. What will be the story to tell after this next season?

DROUGHT YEAR TURKEYS

In the spring and summer of 2006, some parts of Texas experienced a terrible drought. How does that lack of rainfall affect turkeys? I asked my friend Ty Bartoskewitz, a wildlife biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in South Texas, for his thoughts.

"Drought is particularly hard on turkeys because the lack of rainfall creates poor nesting conditions due to lack of cover," he told me. "That lack of cover increases the risk of predation, but it also decreases the body condition of the hen as she goes into the egg-laying season because of a shortage of food, particularly insects at this time, which aid in the elements used for egg production.

"And the poults, if they do hatch, need small greens and insects to make it the first few weeks of their life cycles, which are usually absent without a little moisture. Fall and spring moisture are extremely important in setting up prime conditions that will benefit turkeys."

Here's a closer look at what to expect across Texas this spring.

CROSS TIMBERS

My friend Ronnie Parsons hunts a sprawling ranch at the western edge of the Cross Timbers region. He spends lots of time on the ranch in the spring and summer. Most years he sees lots of turkeys, but in spring and summer 2006 his report was grim.

"I have seen zero turkey poults this year," he said. "I think the drought conditions that existed all summer on our ranch caused the turkey hatch to be essentially zero. In the months of June, July and August 2006, we only had .04 inches of rain. I would estimate that the existing turkey population is down about 15 percent from last year. The 2007 spring season will be down from last year because of die-off and predation."

Blake Hortenstine, a wildlife manager who oversees more than 20,000 acres in Shackelford and Stephens counties, also shared his thoughts on the 2006 turkey crop. "On the large ranch I manage in Shackelford County, I don't remember seeing any poults this past summer," he reported. "It was very dry. That ranch still has a large population of adult birds, so spring hunting should still be good in 2007, but there won't be much recruitment of young birds. On the Stephens County property we saw just a few poults, but it was also very dry during the nesting period."

Judging from those two experts' observations, the prospects for young turkeys is poor, but there should be enough 2- and 3-year-old gobblers to keep things interesting. Some of my best-ever spring hunts have taken place in counties in the western half of this region like Shackelford, Tom Green and Irion.

EDWARDS PLATEAU

The year was 1986. Early in the morning, I sat armed with a scoped rifle in a tower blind, taking on the role of a sniper, and, from that elevated vantage point, downed a gobbler strutting in the distance. It wasn't quite the close encounter with longbeards bagged at bow or shotgun range that I've come to crave these days, but that McCulloch County tom will always be memorable -- because he was my first.

Twenty-plus years have elapsed since that hunt took place, and this region of the state is still a hotspot for great turkey hunting. Year after year, the Edwards Plateau region of Texas is home to thousands of turkeys and, combined with the Cross Timbers region, it's home to the majority of spring turkey hunters. I asked Max Traweek, TPWD biologist in Kerrville, for his thoughts on the upcoming spring season.

"Due to the 2006 drought, very few turkey poults were raised in most of the Hill Country this past summer. There should be adequate brood stock available in all areas, though, and turkey populations have the potential to bounce back dramatically given good range conditions during future years. Although hunting could be tough during the 2007 spring season due to a lack of yearling birds, the traditional winter roost areas and those tracts nearby should have plenty of turkey action this coming spring.

The 2007 spring season should be OK for birds 3 and older, thanks to timely rains from 2002 through 2004. Fewer jakes will be in the mix, and that could make hunting a bit tougher, as you'll have to out- smart older birds.

"All areas suffered noticeably from the drought conditions in 2006, but things were especially tough in the eastern two-thirds of the Hill Country. Our counties with the higher turkey populations generally see the highest harvest during the spring season -- Edwards, Kimble, Sutton and Menard."

SOUTH TEXAS

South Texas is best-known in hunting circles for its jumbo-sized whitetails, but the southern tip of Texas has some outstanding turkey hunting as well. I can vividly remember a nilgai hunt in the month of March from several years ago along the sandy oak mottes of the coast. The strutting turkeys were so numerous and so chatty in the morning sunrise that it was tough to stay focused on hunting blue bulls. The TPWD's Ty Bartoskewitz, who spends lots of time on various properties in this region, shared his thoughts on the South Texas spring turkey outlook.

"Spring and summer 2005 and 2006 have brought extremely dry and unseasonably warm conditions over most of South Texas. Reports of turkey poults in 2006 have been few to none. Conditions resulted in much the same for 2005, although at least a few landowners reported seeing poults. The lack of rain the last two years has put a damper o

n insect production, residual herbaceous vegetation needed for screening and nesting cover, and seed production."

What all this means is that the 2007 spring season should be OK for birds 3 and older, thanks to timely rains from 2002 through 2004. Fewer jakes will be in the mix, and that could make hunting a bit tougher, as you'll have to outsmart older birds -- at least, you will in South Texas.

Several counties in South Texas are considered hotspots for turkeys: Brooks, Kenedy, Frio, Uvalde, Atascosa, La Salle, and Dimmit. These counties generally have the larger watersheds and tributaries of the Frio and Nueces rivers. The coastal influence and vast acreages of oaks support good populations in Brooks and Kenedy counties.

PANHANDLE PLAINS

North Texas is one of my favorite places to hunt Rio Grande turkeys. The rolling terrain and steep bluffs overlooking river systems and creeks lends itself to my favorite way to scout and hunt turkeys. I watch from a distance with a spotting scope and binoculars, monitoring how turkeys travel up and down the waterways, judging turkey flock numbers and size of gobblers, then planning ambush points based on the birds' daily travel routine.

On opening weekend last April, my wife and I doubled on mature gobblers along a cottonwood-lined creek on the floor of a red-rock canyon. I'd scouted before the season and I knew approximately when and where the birds traveled. Amy fired first with her 20-gauge, dropping a big tom with a huge tail fan and an 8-inch beard, then a few seconds later I folded a near twin with my .410 when he stopped to stare at his compadre flopping in the dirt.

Focus your hunting efforts on creeks and river systems in the Panhandle to find birds. Get a height advantage, and then use your optics to find potential targets. From a distance, strutting gobblers are easy to find. Through binoculars they look like black beach balls against the light green vegetation. Once you find a target, use the terrain to get close and set up to call. Some creeks have only a couple of dozen birds; others are loaded, sometimes containing hundreds.

Compared to those in other parts of the state, Panhandle gobblers feel light hunting pressure. Again, the open prairie country can be deceiving. Look at properties in this region with winding creek bottoms, maybe some agriculture like wheat fields nearby and tall roost trees, such as cottonwoods, and you should find birds. I've had good hunting on ranches near towns such as Aspermont, Estelline, Shamrock, Amarillo and Canadian.

Most of the Panhandle region was in a drought during the 2006 nesting season, so numbers of young turkeys likely will be low. The northeastern counties also were ravaged by wildfires. I saw a few poults on the ranch I hunted near Amarillo, but other ranchers I've talked with say they didn't see any.

EAST TEXAS

TPWD biologist Sean Willis in Lufkin shared some background on the eastern turkeys found in certain East Texas counties. "The stocking of wild-trapped eastern birds in East Texas" -- an area as large as many Eastern states -- "began in earnest in 1987 using what has been referred to as the 'block stocking' approach," he said. "This effort was completed in 1999.

"The status of the population is greatly dependent on the habitat of the particular counties. In some counties the population is stable, in others it is increasing, and in some it may be decreasing due to habitat degradation and/or changes in land-use practices."

The season for eastern turkeys first opened in 1995 in just one county, Red River, but today the season is open in 43 counties in the Pineywoods and Post Oak Savannah. The total 2005 eastern harvest was 392 birds (first year for a 30-day season. Prior to that year, the season was 2 weeks.) The total 2006 eastern harvest was 299.

Only in East Texas is it mandatory to check your gobbler at a TPWD check station within 24 hours of the kill. Hunting here is by archery gear or shotgun only, and there is no hunting allowed over bait. The limit is one gobbler.

Sean Willis shared more details on East Texas turkeys. "A few of the consistently best counties for hunting easterns in Texas are those counties along the Red River in the northeastern corner of the state," he reported. "Counties such as Lamar and Fannin are consistently good, but Red River County has by far the highest harvest. However, they have very little public land. The best public land counties are Jasper, Angelina, Sabine and San Augustine. The main public opportunity here is on the national forests.

"Based on the dry conditions during the nesting period, I would expect that nesting success was at least average in 2006."

CONCLUSION

Overall, the drought of spring and summer 2006 definitely had an impact on turkey numbers across the state. Fewer poults were hatched in the counties most affected by drought; thus, fewer young birds were recruited to the population. But most regions had lots of adult birds prior to the 2006 nesting season, so even considering a loss of some adults from drought conditions and predation, there should be plenty of adult gobblers statewide for spring 2007.

As many have said before, even in an average year, turkey hunting in Texas is still better than most places. I know I'll be hunting long-bearded toms somewhere in Texas come April. What about you?

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

The spring Rio Grande turkey season runs from March 31 to May 13 in 153 counties. Those counties allow a bag limit of four gobblers. Spring hunting is for gobblers only. There is also an April 1-30 spring season in 11 counties with a bag limit of one turkey. A special youth season is open from March 24-25 and May 19-20 in all counties that have an open season. Eastern turkeys can be hunted in 43 counties from April 1-30 with a bag limit of one.

Check the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's Outdoor Annual booklet, available at sporting goods stores statewide, for specific details on the county you plan to hunt.

Find more about Texas fishing and hunting at: TexasSportsmanMag.com.

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