Hunting Rio Grande gobblers in Western Oklahoma is one of my greatest passions, and this year could be one of my best yet.
That’s saying a lot considering some of the epic hunts I’ve had in Roger Mills and Beckham counties over the years. I truly love pursuing eastern gobblers in Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi, but hunting Rios in the Sooner State is a borderline religious experience for me.
Lord, where do I start? How about the Oil Drum Gobbler of 2010? I was hunting with my friend Glenn Clark a few miles east of Sweetwater, and we blew an opportunity to double up on a pair of longbeards in the morning.
At about 11 a.m., we decided we would hunt a brushy creek bottom situated between two big alfalfa fields. There was a blue, 55-gallon barrel at the bottom of the hollow in a place that provided a good view of both hillsides.
“I’m going to sit against this magic barrel and make a gobbler appear,” I said. “Abra-cadabra, doodly-doo, I’m gonna call up a gobbler or two.”
Clark shook his head disdainfully and sat at the edge of one of the fields. Within 15 minutes, I’d called up two hefty longbeards. The lead bird surveyed the situation and walked almost into my lap. It left the hollow draped across my back.
Later that afternoon, I tagged a second bird at a different spot while sitting with Clark in a popup blind. I called in a pair of 2-year-old birds. I told Clark that on the count of three, he should shoot the bird on the right. I’d take the one on the left. Clark, whose hearing has suffered from too many nights in blues clubs around the country, didn’t hear me whisper the countdown. I killed my bird; he didn’t shoot.
He killed a nice bird the following morning before we hit the road.
Or, how about the “Searcher?” That 2012 gobbler is my all-time favorite.
Again, Clark and I blew a couple of chances early, including one involving a massive gobbler we called in off the roost. We hunted at the edge of a field in a different part of the county later in the morning. We used every call we had, but we got no response.
We ate lunch as our guns lay across our packs, well out of reach.
“I expected a gobbler to loop around us in that field behind us the whole time,” Clark said.
“Well, you were right, because there he is,” I said.
A mature bird stood erect watching us about 35 yards away. As soon as we made eye contact, it ran away.
We split up after lunch, and I went to a different field that had three osage orange windrows, and several big shinnery oak motts. Turkeys crossed the field beyond the windrows. They seemed to be using the shinnery motts as waypoints.
I walked to the nearest shinnery “island.” I crept around an edge and peered down the hill to a shady bottom through which a small road passed. A gobbler rested in the shade facing away at a slight angle. I ducked behind the shinnery and blew a short series of yelps on my diaphragm. I peered back around and saw that the gobbler was on its feet trying to locate the source of the call.
I yelped again and peered back around the edge of the shinnery. The gobbler was walking toward me, but I didn’t know from which side of the mott he would appear. I watched him through the branches, and he was coming right to me. I saw that big white head and red wattles get closer and closer until he stepped clear, no more than 10 feet away. To say his expression looked troubled when he saw me would be a gross understatement.
“Surprise!” I yelled. I shot. And missed.
The bird galloped away, but I killed him with a second shot at about 20 yards. At that distance the pattern from the extra-full-choke tube opened up a little.
I bagged another big gobbler that evening in Beckham County, hunting again from a popup blind.
One of the great things about Oklahoma — besides the fact that the birds are abundant and the hunting is always exciting — is that you can hunt four different genetic strains of turkeys. The Rio Grande is our dominant and most widely distributed subspecies, but we have huntable populations of easterns in southeast Oklahoma. There’s a special season for easterns in eight southeastern counties (Atoka, Choctaw, Coal, Latimer, LeFlore, McCurtain, Pitsburg and Pushmataha), but it’s also possible to kill easterns during the regular statewide season in northeast Oklahoma.
Rod Smith, who has been the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s Rio Grande turkey biologist for 30 years, said you can also find Rio/Merriam’s hybrids in the western Panhandle. In Eastern Oklahoma, you’ll often find eastern/Rio hybrids.
Many hunters believe Merriam’s turkeys have colonized areas in the western counties south of the Panhandle because some gobblers have feather tips that are white, or almost white. I’ve killed a couple of those turkeys. They are prized trophies, but Smith said they are Rios, not Merriam’s.
“We don’t have pure Merriam’s,” Smith said. “I think Rio Grandes are highly variable in how light some of them are. I think their fan varies from almost white to fairly dark.”
You can find easterns east of Tulsa, but they are managed under statewide regulations. Smith said Rios and easterns overlap from Durant to Muskogee, roughly following State Highway 59. All of that combines to make turkey hunting in Oklahoma unique, but the Rio Grande turkey is our bread and butter.
Traditionally, hunters were not required to check turkeys they killed west of I-35. This year, however, the ODWC will require all birds to be checked.
While our turkeys are plentiful in Oklahoma, they have been in a down cycle for several years due to prolonged drought conditions in some of the western regions. Drought has diminished the habitat quality and reduced recruitment of young turkeys into the population, Smith said.
Willard Gilley, a turkey outfitter in Sayre, said that in the summers of 2011-12, the summers were so hot and dry that untold numbers of turkey poults fell into stock tanks and drowned while trying to get water.
“Reproduction has been affected by the extended drought in western Oklahoma for a four- or five-year period, but things looked a little better this past spring,” Smith said. “We’re back on a little upward swing, and we’re expecting a pretty good season.”
Smith said the 2013 hatch was good, and added that hunters might see a “decent number” of 2-year-old gobblers. However, they will probably also notice fewer 3-year-old gobblers.
“Good” might not be good enough to some hunters, though. Phenomenal nesting and brood-rearing conditions contributed to abnormally large hatches from about 2004-09. Hunters got spoiled by such a high abundance of turkeys, but that might have been a lifetime event, Smith said, adding that we might never see such large numbers of turkeys again.
“It was probably an unsustainable anomaly,” Smith said. “What people might expect from six to nine years ago is probably an unrealistic expectation to sustain. I don’t expect to get back to where we were then unless we have some really unusual circumstances.
“We had decent reproduction the last two years, and with another good year of reproduction, we’ll be right back at what I consider to be a normal population.”
Perceptions can change, of course, from one piece of property to another. Acreage with good habitat and limited hunting pressure will have more turkeys than a neighboring farm with inferior habitat and/or high hunting pressure. A hunter on that farm might believe turkeys are scarce when a hunter on the better farm might be awash in birds. If you’re in birds, life is good. If you’re not in them, it’s not so good.
Jack Waymire, the ODWC’s eastern wild turkey project leader, said reproduction of eastern birds was good in 2014, and that he hopes it will be even better in 2015. However, reproduction was sub-par for the previous eight years so there’ll be limited opportunities to hunt 3-year-old and older birds.
“Hunters should encounter more 2-year-old birds,” Waymire said. “I anticipate we should hear more gobbling. There’s still just pockets of birds, but there will be more birds in the pockets.”
Waymire said that he estimates there are about 17,000 eastern turkeys in southeast Oklahoma. The biggest numbers are in Atoka County around McGee Creek Reservoir.
“The best advice I can give is to always go back to where you found turkeys the year before,” Waymire said. “That’s a good place to start.”
Waymire said he’s been involved in a research project in conjunction with the National Wild Turkey Federation that examines the effects of prescribed fire on large landscapes. He said he’s eager to see the report.
“It’s better to burn than not to burn,” Waymire said. “Just knowing how large blocks to burn and how it impacts turkeys as far as nest size and reproduction is what we’d like to refine.”
Prospects look good for Rios in northwestern Oklahoma, Smith reported. The reproduction and recruitment of young birds was excellent in 2012-13, and so 2- and 3-year-old birds should be plentiful.
“That region contains several counties with the highest number of turkeys,” Smith said. North of I-40, he named Woods, Woodward and Ellis counties. “The west fourth is the best fourth,” Smith said.
The drought has been most severe and most persistent in southwest Oklahoma. All wildlife (and fish) have suffered. Entire fisheries have collapsed in some waters, and Smith said there was zero deer reproduction for at least two years.
“I know that in 2011 and some in 2010, we produced almost no deer fawns,” Smith said. “They would be born, but they died during the summer.”
The same was true in northwest Oklahoma, but Smith said slight interruptions in an abundant resource are not necessarily bad.
“We had years of strong growth in deer herds,” Smith said. “A little check isn’t a bad thing if it doesn’t last too long.”
Conditions improved in 2012-13, though. Turkeys responded by producing two strong year-classes, but because conditions in that part of the state were so severe, Smith said it might take turkeys in that region a little longer to return to levels that hunters want.
“There are going to be good turkey numbers, but I don’t think the upward swing there is as dynamic,” Smith said.
Turkeys typically are not as numerous in central Oklahoma because of the wide-scale habitat loss to Oklahoma City and its suburbs. This is traditionally Rio Grande country, and Smith said the industrial, commercial and residential development affects Rios more than it does easterns because Rios cover more territory.
“In the Oklahoma City and Tulsa areas, turkey numbers are real low because habitat is fragmented, and a lot of it is not high quality,” Smith said. “Rios roam a lot more than eastern birds, but they seem to adapt to urban areas, as do easterns.”
After 30 years managing turkeys, Smith has the best seat in the stadium in terms of historical perspective. He said the hard work of restoring turkeys is finished, and management is now a process of maximizing the carrying capacity of the habitat. Of course, that is weather dependent, and Oklahoma is notorious for severe weather, and wide variances in weather trends. Turkeys have been a timeless part of the landscape, and so they adapt.
“The biggest change over 30 years was probably when we were no longer working with restoration, and restoration was complete,” Smith said. “That was a big transition with what we do in the turkey world. Our future challenge is that drought really killed a lot of trees in Western Oklahoma. It will be interesting to see the long-term effects of drought.”
As for right now, Smith said, it’s a good time to be a turkey hunter in Oklahoma.
“I would tell people that Rio Grande turkey populations are in good shape,” Smith said. “It’s a good time to go if you haven’t done it before. I am encouraged by what we’ve seen this (past) summer.”
The best turkey hunting is always on private land, but gaining access to property if you do not know the landowner can be difficult.
The ODWC holds controlled permit-only turkey hunts on selected wildlife management areas. The largest, most accessible area is the Black Kettle National Grassland, but it is heavily pressured. Finding a spot to yourself on this large, sprawling area requires spending some time with a good map and some extensive legwork.
Turkeys are abundant along the shorelines of major reservoirs. Some hunters scout by water and successfully hunt remote sections of big lakes.