It’s almost turkey time, and I don’t mean Thanksgiving.
The flocks have “busted up” in many areas and the hens and gobblers are hanging out in same-sex groups, but as April grows nearer, the gobblers will start fighting one another and acting more territorial and aggressive.
That means it is time to break out the camouflage and tune up the turkey calls. Then grab a bow or a shotgun and head to the woods.
Turkey numbers are still lower in many parts of the state, especially in far Western Oklahoma, than they were for the first 10 or 12 years of this century. A prolonged drought that nearly turned some Western Oklahoma counties into a desert took its toll on turkey populations.
Both the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation biologists and land managers, as well as private landowners and hunters, were seeing hen turkeys with few or no poults following them around in the summer — a time when normally most hens have a brood tagging along.
But for two years now, rainfall has increased a little out west and habitat conditions have improved. No, they’re not back to the good conditions we had five or six years ago, but they’re much better than they were three and four years ago.
I should point out, though, that even in the worst of the drought, some parts of northwestern Oklahoma had more turkeys per square mile than many other places have even when conditions are ideal.
There is an area out in the shinnery-oak country of Woodward, Ellis, Harper and nearby counties that has long held one of the densest and healthiest populations of Rio Grande turkeys in the nation. I hunt now and then on a ranch in Ellis County where my friend Pat Hoggard and his brother Greg have had a hunting camp for going on 40 years. We’ve sat in the camp in the evening and watched upwards of 200 turkeys fly up to the roost in a belt of cottonwoods nearby.
Watching huge numbers of birds silhouetted against the setting sun, jostling for position on the horizontal cottonwood limbs, is a comforting sight.
Of course there have been far fewer birds in the roost the past few seasons, but there are other roosts nearby and birds come from several directions to dine at the Hoggards’ “camp feeder” which spews a little corn twice a day in the yard of their hunting camp.
The bottom line is that prospects have improved, compared to recent years, in northwestern Oklahoma, which produces the lion’s share of turkeys harvested in Oklahoma each year.
There are huntable numbers of turkeys in all but a few of Oklahoma’s 77 counties these days. A few eastern counties — the first tier or two of counties near the Arkansas border — are populated with the eastern subspecies of wild turkeys. Rio Grande birds inhabit most of the rest of the state. And each year a few hunters bag a Merriam’s turkey on the high plains and in the river bottoms of the Panhandle, chiefly in the western half of the Panhandle.
This spring the seasons are pretty much as they have been for the past few years. The statewide season, which applies in 69 counties, runs from April 6 through May 6. The season in eight southeastern counties (populated mostly by eastern birds) opens April 17 and runs through May 6. Those counties are Atoka, Choctaw, Coal, Latimer, Le Flore, McCurtain, Pittsburg and Pushmataha.
Hunters can take up to three tom turkeys during the spring season, but only one can come from the eight-county southeast region. Also, some counties have a two-tom season limit while others have a one-tom limit. Regulations specific to the county or public land tract you wish to hunt can be found online at wildlifedepartment.com or in the 2016-17 Oklahoma Hunting Regulations booklet.
Most spring-season hunters prefer to call toms into shotgun range by imitating turkey hen sounds or sometimes by gobbling. Sometimes a few gentle yelps are all that is needed to draw a gobbler into an ambush.
I recall my first few turkey hunts, in Rio Grande country in Western Oklahoma, when for three seasons in a row I called toms into range with a little bit of yelping on a diaphragm call. I had good beginner’s luck and was beginning to think I was a pretty salty turkey caller. But then I decided it was time to try for an eastern bird. It took me about nine years to kill an eastern gobbler. Hunting easterns in the Ouachita Mountains is a whole different ball game than hunting Rio Grandes on the Western Oklahoma prairies.
Yes, I know several hunters who killed eastern birds on their first tries in Southeastern Oklahoma. My frustrating experiences, though, are not that unusual.
I showed up one morning in McCurtain County to find that a turkey roost we had been scouting before seasons had been clearcut of timber only days before opening day. On another hunt I climbed up to a mountain bench and was trading calls with a gobbler that was approaching, only to have hunters in a pickup truck stop on a road 100 yards or so above me on the ridgeline and play recorded calls loudly and talk loudly, scaring my bird away.
Several more such experiences kept me humble for nearly a decade before I finally killed an eastern jake in the early 1990s.
In Oklahoma, eastern turkeys live mostly in densely forested, hilly terrain. A hunter can be only a few yards from a turkey and not see it because of dense vegetation. North of I-40 there are some eastern turkeys in areas that have more clearings and openings, but in Southeastern Oklahoma it can be challenging to find turkeys in open spots.
In central and Western Oklahoma, though, it’s not uncommon to see both individual birds or flocks of turkeys milling about in wheat fields or on expanses of shortgrass prairie, visible from long distances.
Of course that means that hunters must figure out a way to get close to the birds or to call the birds closer to them. Thankfully, Rio Grandes can be a little more cooperative than easterns, at least sometimes.
No matter whether you hunt eastern birds in the mountains or Rio Grandes out on the prairies, it can be helpful to know where birds are roosting in or near your hunting spot.
Turkeys are creatures of habit, even during the springtime mating season, and will usually roost in the same trees night after night unless something seriously disturbs them.
Watching birds leave the roost in the mornings or return to roost in the evenings can give a hunter an idea which routes the birds take as they head toward their daily feeding and loafing areas.
Knowing which direction and what general paths the birds take enables a hunter to pick a spot somewhere near the travel routes to build a blind or find a hiding spot.
Yes, a hunter can wander at random and call, hoping to get a response from a gobbler, but knowing where the birds travel can improve chances of success significantly.
My friends and I like to use decoys as well as calls. On several occasions we have killed birds that were drawn to and seemed fascinated by decoys. We called two nice toms to a decoy one afternoon and watched them strut and dance around it and even go up and bump it with their breasts. My friend shot the best of the two birds and the other bird continued to interact with the decoy, even stepping over the body of the dead bird as he strutted and danced like he was trying to impress the decoy.
On another hunt my son and I watched a hen turkey attack a hen decoy repeatedly. She would yelp at the decoy and battle with it, then start to wander off. A quick yelp or two would bring her back again. She attacked the decoy several more times over the course of 20 minutes or so.
It’s not absolutely necessary to use decoys, but at times it can be very helpful. I have seen times when a decoy seemed to make a bird more cautious, but more often it seems to bring a tom to a desired spot. Near the Hoggard brothers’ hunting camp there is a big, flat pasture, almost perfectly square, with very little vegetation. I’ve watched turkeys step out of the brush into that pasture, spot a decoy 300 yards away on the far side, and make a beeline directly for the decoy. Sometimes decoys are great assets.
Where are the best spots to hunt turkeys in Oklahoma?
Well, as stated earlier, northwestern Oklahoma offers the densest populations of Rio Grande turkeys. Each spring we see hunters from Texas, Missouri, Arkansas — even from Alabama and Mississippi — hunting on both private and public lands in northwestern counties.
But there are many places in all four quadrants of Oklahoma where turkeys are abundant. No matter where you live in Oklahoma, there are turkeys not far away.
If you want to hunt Western Oklahoma, search near creeks and rivers for turkey roosts. Rio Grande birds out west favor tall cottonwood trees for roost sites, so any watercourse that nurtures streamside cottonwoods can be a likely spot. Cruising the roads with binoculars at first light and in the last few minutes of evening light is one way to find roosting birds. Walking beneath bottomland cottonwoods to look for large amounts of fresh turkey droppings can help hunters find roosts at midday when the birds are away.
There are a number of public land tracts that offer a good chance of bagging a wild turkey in Oklahoma.
One of the best is Black Kettle National Grasslands, near Cheyenne. It is 31,000 acres made up of 100 or so parcels ranging from 40 acres up to several hundred acres. Quite a few hunters fill their turkey tags there each spring.
Not far from Black Kettle, up in Ellis County, is Packsaddle Wildlife Management Area. It lies on the north bank of the South Canadian River and covers about 20,000 acres.
A bit farther north are the Fort Supply and Hal and Fern Cooper WMAs. I’ve killed turkeys on both of those areas at times and both are in the heart of the state’s best turkey country.
The big WMAs in Southeastern Oklahoma — Ouachita Mountains and the Three Rivers areas — are likely spots to harvest an eastern bird.
Spavinaw Hills, Kaw Lake, Keystone Lake and Oologah Lake WMAs and public hunting areas are likely spots to try for a turkey in northeastern Oklahoma.
Turkey season this spring is April 6 through May 6, except in the eight-county southeast region where it is April 17-May 6.
Hunters need a permit for each turkey taken, as well as a current hunting license.
SHOTGUN LOADS FOR SOONER TURKEYS
Wild turkeys are tough birds. They sometimes run or fly away after being rolled in the dust by a shotgun blast, or being center-punched by an arrow from a compound bow.
The secret, most experienced turkey hunters will tell you, is to hit them in the head and neck, not in the big portion of their body. Yes, body shots can kill turkeys too, but headshots are better. So it’s wise to pattern the load you plan to use, to make sure pellet distribution is good at the point of aim.
For the past 20 years or so I’ve used mostly No. 4 steel shot. It maintains a nice, even pellet distribution at 40 to 50 yards and always seems to bring down the bird.
For a good explanation of what are the best turkey loads — based on extensive research — hunters should see wildlife biologist and expert shotgunner Craig Endicott’s article at wildlifedepartment.com/hunting/turkey_loads.htm