Oregon's Turkey Hotspots

Last spring more than 14,000 turkey hunters headed to the field in search of Oregon toms; they harvested more than 4,000 birds. While both figures are records, 2005 is expected to be even better.

Author Scott Haugen killed this late-season gobbler during a western Oregon hunt last spring. (Photo courtesy of Scott Haugen)

Opening day of last year's western Oregon spring turkey season was less than ideal. Dark skies and heavy rain stripped the glamour of this highly anticipated morning, but it didn't stop avid hunters from heading into the turkey woods.

Before sunrise, my wife, Tiffany, and I cinched up our turkey vests and set out for the morning hunt. Driving rain early on kept us from hearing any birds, but shortly into the day we got our break, and a bachelor group answered our calls. In no time the birds made their way into our decoys, and Tiffany was soon admiring her first Oregon gobbler.

By season's end Tiff would bag another longbeard, this one with a Thompson Center 12-gauge muzzleloader. I'd end the season with three nice toms taken from various parts of the state, all by way of differing methods. It was a banner year for many Beaver State turkey hunters, and this season is shaping up to be even better.

A record number of hunters took a record number of birds in Oregon last spring. Nearly 36,000 hunters purchased turkey tags, generating $412,000 for the state, and yet slightly less than 40 percent of those folks actually headed into the turkey woods to hunt during the season. It's estimated that Oregon's spring turkey hunters generated some $11 million toward the state's economy, which includes sales of guns, ammunition, camouflage clothing and other turkey-hunting tools as well as motel accommodations, gasoline and restaurant meals among other expenses. That's some serious clout!

Successful and widespread transplanting efforts combined with good hunting results led the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to implement a statewide turkey management plan last August. "The recently adopted turkey plan will better allow us to guide and manage our turkeys for the next 10 years, and we're very excited about it," said Dave Budeau, the state's upland bird coordinator. "These birds have been fairly controversial in the past due to the fact they are causing such nuisance and monetary damage, plus the fact they are not native to Oregon, but now we can get on to properly managing them."

Hunters can rest assured that under the new management program Oregon is on the way to putting itself on the map as a premier destination for avid turkey hunters. If you're new to turkey hunting, a veteran or a nonresident, here's where to look in Oregon for prime hunting opportunities this spring.

THE NESTING OUTLOOK

Though last spring started out rather wet, by the time most turkey broods began running around, the weather turned out nice and survival rates excelled. But there were many sightings last fall in certain parts of the state of undersized broods. By the end of September most turkey clutches are half-grown or larger. But last fall, reports of birds only a few days old were not uncommon.

"These undersized broods are the result of hens that have attempted to nest several times throughout the spring and summer, and for various reasons did not have a successful hatch until late," shares noted turkey authority and state biologist Steve Denny of Roseburg. "They are not double broods, just ones that have finally survived the hatch."

Once they are feathered out, the chances of chick survival are good as long as predators don't find them. Last fall's massive acorn crops throughout prime turkey habitat regions, along with numerous grasshoppers, will likely boost turkey survival rates, even among those late-developing broods.

EAST OF THE CASCADES

In 1961 Merriam's turkeys were among the first to be introduced in the state. Though they didn't take off quite as planned, the best place for hunters to score on a Merriam's subspecies of turkey existed in the White River Game Management Area. Hunters should note that as a result of crossbreeding with Rio Grande turkeys, the characteristic white tips on the tail and tail coverts may not be as prominent as they are on birds found in the Rocky Mountain states.

Nonetheless, hunter success rates are quite good here, though the hunting pressure is heavy. A state-high 1,628 hunters spent time in the White River Unit, coming away with 204 birds, making it the fourth best unit in the state, overall.

An upcoming spot for Merriam's enthusiasts is projected to be along Pine Creek, north of Halfway. Here, near the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, the town of Halfway hosts some of the most stable turkey populations around. Interestingly, the Merriam's that have made their way into the area are not products of transplant projects, rather are natural migrants that have crossed the border from Idaho to reside. It's believed the rich food sources and abundance of orchards have attracted the birds.

For the past several years, northeastern Oregon has been coming on as a turkey hotspot, and the Blue Mountains could well be the best of the best. Here, a great deal of publicly accessible land exists, and hunters willing to put in the legwork should be rewarded.

Some of the best hunting in this area can be found between the Keating and Mount Emily units. To the north, the Sled Springs Unit is also a prime turkey destination.

In all of these units, spend time searching draws and forestland fringes, where ideal turkey habitat abounds. These are some of the least-pressured units in the state, and birds are not as call shy as in other areas. Incidentally, last season, the Keating Unit had the highest percentage of hunter success in the state, just shy of 60 percent.

In the extreme northeast corner of the state, the Chesnimnus and Imnaha units are becoming turkey strongholds. Here, turkeys are establishing themselves near the agricultural lands and rolling hills of the towns of Imnaha, Wallowa, Elgin and Joseph. Private land access is the norm at lower elevations, with most public hunting to be had on the edges of both the Wallowa and Whitman national forests.

From Halfway to Medical Springs, turkeys can be found along the lower edge of the Whitman National Forest. Birds are also establishing themselves in the Elkhorn Mountains, west of Baker City, and are worth spending time on if in the area.

Looking east of Fossil, the Umatilla National Forrest continues to see growth in bird numbers. The last two springs have seen excellent brood survival, and hunters in this area can expect to see some mature toms strutting around this spring.

From Milton-Freewater, through Pendleton, Heppner and down to Spray, turkeys continue doing well. Focusing on creek and river drainages, around neighboring farmland and amid valued food sources is where hunters will find the most success in these areas.

The Ochoco and Malheur national forest lands north of Burns hold some birds, with increased sightings reported in the Silvies Unit. There are some scattered birds in the timber, but finding them can be hit-and-miss. The same holds true for the region around Lakeview, where birds were introduced but failed to take off as hoped.

In the central portion of the state, hunters may want to spend time hunting the Grizzly Unit. Here, look to the lands along the northern boundary of the Ochoco National Forest, where bird numbers continue to rise. The southern half of the Ochoco Unit is also good, especially in the areas between the Ochoco Ranger Station and South Fork John Day River. The south, east and northern fringes of Forest Service land in the Maury Unit is also worth hunting, as prime habit and good bird numbers exist in transition zones between conifers and sagebrush. The Green Ridge area, just east of Black Butte, also holds some central state hunting opportunities.

Because birds throughout eastern Oregon already occupy most of the prime turkey habitat, look for bird densities to increase rather than spread out into new regions. There is some great hunting to be had east of the Cascades, but putting in the scouting time or knowing someone in the area who can direct you to birds is critical for success.

WEST OF THE CASCADES

When it comes to turkey hunting western Oregon, simply put, there are no secret spots. Anyone who has hunted turkeys over the years knows where the birds are, and if you are new to the sport, it's easy to find them. They key on this side of the hills is finding permission to hunt on private property.

It's worth noting that if any one aspect of the sport gives turkey hunters a bad name, ruining the chances of fellow hunters gaining legal access to private lands, it's trespassing. While hunting with guide Jody Smith last spring, we found a bloodied arrow near his driveway, two other missed arrows, and we ran off several "hunters" with guns hanging out their windows driving on his clearly marked private land, even through his farm fields. Granted, a high percentage of western Oregon birds gravitate to and thrive on private land, but that does not give hunters the right to trespass and poach.

Not only is this happening to Smith, but to numerous landowners throughout the southwestern corner of the state. The sad thing is that this is ruining the chance for legal hunting, and given the noted rise in bird damage reports, there is actually an increase in landowners who are willing to let hunters access their land, simply to help keep bird numbers in check. Ask permission and obey the laws.

That said, the Melrose Unit continues to be the top turkey hotspot in the state, with 1,334 hunters coming away with 746 toms last spring. "We just keep seeing more and more turkeys every year," notes Elkton area guide Jody Smith of Jody Smith's Guide Service (541-643-6258). My wife and I had the good fortune to hunt with Smith last season, and were amazed at the number of quality toms we saw each day. We came away with three longbeards from his area by season's end.

Having personally hunted deer and elk around the Elkton area much of last fall, I can honestly say I've never seen so many birds, anywhere in the west. Seeing 300 or more birds a day was the norm, and the great thing is these birds don't travel far with the changing seasons.

Amid Douglas County, the land between Elkton, Drain and Sutherlin continue to offer what many turkey aficionados consider to be some of the best hunting in the nation. While private lands dominate this region, there is some landlocked public land and more and more landowners seem to be granting access to it. Having a map in hand when knocking on doors can pay off here.

"Some of the most overlooked turkey hunting options are these landlocked, public grounds," shares Smith. "There is excellent bird hunting at some of the higher elevations, up in the timbered meadows between Drain and Elkton, on down to Sutherlin. Some of the land is public access; other areas can be reached through private land permission. The point is, the birds are thriving at these elevations, and since they receive very little pressure, respond well to the call."

Along Scotts Valley Road, near Rice Hill, the land over to Red Hill and the area around Yoncalla had good hatches last spring, with an increasing number of birds continuing to thrive in that zone. Though surrounded by a lot of private land, the fringes around London Road to Cottage Grove continues seeing a rise in bird numbers.

The Evens Creek and Rogue units round out the top three bird-producing units in the state, and the Applegate Unit is always a stronghold. These units harbor many higher elevation habitats that go overlooked by hunters, mostly due to the large amount of private land opportunities at lower elevation, where hunters know birds abound. Get above the poison oak and concentrate efforts on logging roads above the riparian zones to get into birds. Dive into those coniferous areas and you might fill your tag early. There is always the option of knocking on doors on the valley floor, too, but start the search early -- before the season.

A large portion of land between Medford and Grants Pass thrives with birds, with the banks of the Rogue River also being home to some impressive longbeards. To the south, along the I-5 corridor, turkeys abound all the way down to Ashland. Again, private lands dominate, but with birds in just about every little drainage, finding permission to hunt could just be a matter of time and persistence.

In the Willamette Valley, hunters from Eugene to Salem have been having solid success in recent years. The Brownsville area has seen a good number of birds take root, with most hunting concentrated on river bottom lands. There is some landlocked public land holding birds in this area, and exploring them is worth the effort of seeking access permission. The farmland regions of Harrisburg and Creswell also hold some fair turkey populations, though the birds have a tendency to move around in this flatland habitat. As you work toward the Coburg Hills north of Eugene, bird densities increase, but gaining hunter access is next to impossible.

Working your way east of Eugene, the Crow area on down to Lorane and east to Lowell continues to yield good numbers of birds, thanks to favorable habitat and mild weather conditions. Much of this land is private, but it seems each year more and more hunters are granted permission to hunt by disgruntled landowners eager to thin pesky flocks.

While the coast does hold some birds -- the products of early transplanting efforts -- hunters should know where they are going prior to heading out. It's tough gaining permission on private coastal lands, and given the birds don't thrive in great numbers, they receive little pressure. The Gold Beach and Brookings areas of the south coast hold some birds, as do the eastern slopes of the Coast Range in portions of Douglas, Lane, Benton, Po

lk and Yamhill counties. All of this area requires time to track down landowners and gain proper permission. Wherever you hunt on the coast, look for suitable habitat in the form of a hardwood and coniferous mix, along with open ground.

With the ever-growing number of turkey hunters in the state, rest assured there are no secluded honey-holes when it comes to finding birds. The key is getting out early, scouting the areas and taking time to gain landowner permission on private lands you may wish to hunt. The rewards of hard work and persistence will pay off, and soon you'll discover why Oregon is rapidly establishing itself as one of the country's top turkey destinations.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

To inquire about one of the best private land turkey hunting opportunities in Oregon, call guide Jody Smith of Jody Smith Guide Service in Elkton at (541) 643-6258. Smith also runs combination trips for turkey and spring chinook on the Umpqua River.

(Editor's Note: To order author Scott Haugen's most recent books, log on to www.scotthaugen.com.)

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