There is a good way to measure the success of Washington’s turkey hunting. Look at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Game Harvest Reports.
During the first turkey season in 1984, a total of 64 birds were killed, and hunting was limited to Klickitat, Asotin, Columbia, Lincoln and Stevens counties. Two years ago, on the 20th anniversary of Washington’s first turkey season, Evergreen State hunters killed nearly 5,800 birds during the spring season. They could pursue them from the Pacific Ocean to the Idaho border and from the upper reaches of Columbia River down into the Columbia Gorge.
Along with the increase in bird kills comes hunter interest. Whereas fewer than 1,000 turkey hunters went into the woods pursuing these majestic birds in 1984, more than 28,000 of them purchased a tag to hunt turkeys in 2004. Ah, but don’t let that figure convince you that the woods are overcrowded with turkey hunters! The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that about 50 percent of tag holders didn’t even hunt in 2004, the last year for which harvest records are available.
When you consider that turkeys are not even native to Washington, the progress of these intelligent, tough and tasty birds is impressive — a rare bright note in fish and game management in recent years. No hunting existed for them until 1984. The first turkeys were released in 1960 along the Columbia River Gorge in Klickitat County, and they were followed with plants in northeast Washington, primarily Stevens County, in the early ’60s. They moved along at a fairly slow pace until the mid-1980s, when a more aggressive stocking program was implemented.
Today hunters can choose between three different subspecies of turkeys in Washington, and hunt them in widely diverse settings. Merriam’s, native to the southwestern United States, thrive in the riparian lowlands and foothills in Klickitat, Ferry, Okanogan and Stevens counties. Rio Grand turkeys, which hail from Texas, New Mexico and the western plains, have found the shrubby bottoms and arid slopes of southeast Washington’s Blue Mountains to their liking. The Eastern turkeys, the traditional bird of eastern woodlands, have been released widely in southwest Washington, the Puget Sound region and coastal counties.
Though hunters who want to take a turkey near home can find birds in each of the WDFW’s six regions, the bulk of the harvest occurs in a half-dozen concentrated areas.
In recent years, northeastern Washington has accounted for more than 1,000 birds annually and is Washington’s most productive turkey hunting region. Known by the Washington Department of Fish ad Wildlife as Population Management Unit 10, it yielded 1,319 birds in 2000, more than 10 times the number of any other region that year. Hunters killed more than 3,400 birds in 2002 and another 3,333 in 2003 before last year’s totaled skyrocketed to a record 4,441 birds killed in the spring season, with another 115 shot during the fall.
The Blue Mountains and their foothills turn out several hundred turkeys each spring. The last three years for which records are available show kills of 533, 443 and 471, respectively.
Klickitat County remains a very popular and dependable turkey hunting destination, holding steady from year to year with 300, 329 and 301 birds reported killed in 2002, 2003 and 2004, respectively.
Region 2’s Okanogan County is the most productive area in the north-central part of the state, which has experienced phenomenal growth in turkey numbers and hunters interest. That has resulted in a near-doubling of turkey kills over the past three recorded years. In 2002, hunters in the north-central region killed just 119 turkeys during the spring season. In 2003 that number jumped to 176 birds, and in 2004 in jumped again to 209 gobblers.
Increasing numbers of Yakima County hunters have begun to target its Merriam’s turkeys as well, though the numbers aren’t yet as impressive as in other regions. And you have to work pretty hard to take a turkey west of the Cascades, though the harvest statistics are improving, especially in the northwest. In 2002, hunters killed just seven turkeys there. In 2004 the hunter harvest reached 26 gobblers. If you insist on hunting Western Washington, probably your best chances occur in Thurston, Pacific and Grays Harbor counties.
A SHOT AT A MERRIAM’S
The Merriam’s subspecies of turkey, Meleagris gallopavfo merriami, was named in 1900 for Dr. E. W. Merriam, the first chief of the U. S. Geological Survey. They thrive in moderately arid areas, typically Ponderosa pine foothills.
Merriam’s are about the same size as Eastern turkeys, but have essentially white feathers on the lower back and tail margins. They seem darker at a distance, which gives the impression of their having a white rump.
As noted above, Merriam’s were the first turkeys released in Washington. The original plants were in Klickitat County in 1960, followed by additional releases in northeastern Washington within a few years, primarily in Stevens County. More Merriam’s are killed in Washington than any other turkey subspecies.
Any hunter who wants to play the odds for a Merriam’s should probably focus attention on eastern Ferry and western Stevens counties. During the 2000 season, for example, Stevens County gave up more than 750 birds, and Ferry County kicked out an additional 114. This was roughly half of the total turkey harvest in Washington that year, and turkey populations in the region continue to expand. Unfortunately, the WDFW’s statisticians now compile turkey harvest data by game management unit instead of by county, so comparisons are difficult.
In Ferry County, birds tend to be most abundant along the lower Kettle River Range, while Stevens County turkeys are concentrated along the east shore of the Columbia River’s Franklin Roosevelt Reservoir and the Huckleberrry Range. As in most of eastern Washington, much of the best hunting takes place on private farm and orchard land. The Coulee Dam National Recreation Area provides access to selected areas along the east bank of the Columbia between Kettle Falls and Fruitland. The Sherman Creek Wildlife Area (WA) gives hunters access to more than 7,500 acres west of Kettle Falls.
Washington’s original turkey hotspot, Klickitat County, has been eclipsed in recent years by the northeastern corner of the state. Having said that, Klickitat County continues to turn out as many as 300 birds annually, and hunters who know it don’t have a problem locating birds.
Though turkeys are gradually expanding their range east toward Goldendale, the bulk of the population is centered west of the Klickitat Rive
r. The Klickitat Wildlife Area contains more than 11,000 acres of meadows, oak brush and mixed forest that is ideal turkey habitat, and it is a very popular (read: crowded) destination.
To the north, Okanogan County gives up only a few dozen birds each spring, but you’re much more likely to enjoy solitude and less jittery birds there than in Klickitat.
The Sinlahekin WA and Methow WA both open up, respectively, 13,000 and 14,000 acres of productive, low-elevation riparian areas where birds congregate. The Yakima Canyon and adjacent L. T. Murray Wildlife Area provide access to birds between Ellensburg and Yakima.
RIO GRANDES IN THE BLUES
Rio Grande turkeys were first observed in the western plains, Texas and Mexico, and were especially abundant along river bottoms of the Rio Grande valley. Rio Grandes appear slightly copper-colored, and their subspecies taxonomic name, intermedia, refers to their tail feathers, which are paler than the tail feathers of Eastern birds but darker than Merriam’s tail feathers.
These birds are usually associated with water, particularly brushy riparian areas near pine forests. They tend to move from higher elevation summer ranges down into low-elevation winter haunts where they gather in large flocks.
Washington’s first open hunting season for Rio Grandes occurred in Asotin, Columbia and Garfield counties in 1990, and a season opened in Lincoln County in 1991.
The state’s southeast corner produces Washington’s second-largest turkey harvest, usually between 300 and 500 birds annually. Columbia County tends to be the most productive in the Blue Mountains region, often accounting for more than half of the area’s total harvest.
The W. T. Wooten Wildlife Area and Umatilla National Forest holdings along the Tucannon River furnish access to good bird habitat. Garfield County and Asotin County also contain good turkey populations. The Umatilla National Forest provides the bulk of the access in Garfield County, while Asotin County’s Asotin Creek and Chief Joseph wildlife areas have turkeys and access.
Most hunters who pursue Rio Grandes in Washington tend to automatically think of the Blue Mountains, but north-central Lincoln County usually gives up more birds than any individual southeastern county. Hunters killed 185 turkeys in the spring of 2000 and more than 500 in 2002. Lincoln County is almost entirely private land, however, and those who want to enjoy its 33.8 percent hunter success rate need to make arrangements to go scout the area before the season begins. Fortunately, many landowners appear to be much more receptive to shotgun-wielding turkey hunters than they do rifle-toting deer hunters. You should receive that as a positive sign and take the initiative to spend some time on country roads, shaking hands of landowners before the season rolls around.
EASTERNS IN THE WEST
The large, dark turkey that the Massachusetts Indians shared with the pilgrims, Melagris gallopavo silvestris, is the most abundant and widespread subspecies in the United States. Its natural range extended from the Atlantic Coast to the Iowa prairies and from Canada to Florida. Easterns are the subspecies that the WDFW introduced into the rainy valleys west of the Cascade Mountains.
Their subspecies name, silvestris, means “forest,” and they thrive in the mixed hardwood/conifer forests associated with managed timberlands. Easterns are the largest of the turkeys, with mature toms reaching four feet tall and weighing more than 20 pounds. They are also the darkest, appearing nearly black at a distance, with a metallic bronze sheen.
Washington’s first hunt for this subspecies didn’t occur until 1991, and even then the hunt was restricted to permit holders in parts of Lewis, Thurston, Pacific and Grays Harbor counties.
In recent years, Thurston County has emerged as the state’s most dependable Eastern turkey area. This may come as something of a surprise, as Thurston County is not only home to the state capital, Olympia, but is also highly suburban, with development sprawling rapidly in every direction. However, veteran turkey hunters know that gobblers are similar to white-tailed deer, in that they are intelligent and stealthy, and adapt quite well to human activities.
Access is a problem in developed areas, but the Capital State Forest encompasses thousands of acres of public land, and the Black River offers fantastic riparian bottoms that mimic the birds’ native habitat. Private timberlands south of Olympia also give hunters a chance at Eastern turkeys.
Most seasons, you can count on your fingers the number of turkeys killed in other Western Washington counties. These numbers reflect more a general lack of hunter knowledge and interest than a scarcity of birds in some areas. Often virtually unnoticed, turkey populations are actually increasing in many regions. Along the coast, Grays Harbor and Pacific counties tend to be reasonably productive, and hunters pursue them on bottoms and benches on private timberlands. Cowlitz and Lewis counties also have small populations of turkeys, and you won’t experience much competition from other hunters.