When discussing an upcoming season for Rio Grande turkeys, and to a lesser extent the eastern subspecies, it’s always best to base projections on historical data and perspectives, while looking at range conditions that quickly can change, say wildlife biologists.
Jason Hardin, turkey program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said the overall turkey outlook across the state is as good as it has ever been. In good years, notably those with plenty of timely rainfall ahead of nesting and production, it’s not uncommon for the Rio Grande turkey population statewide to top a half-million, according to TPWD biologists.
That being said, there remain multiple hotspots for spring turkey hunting, with the center of the state being the epicenter of gobbler success.
“The Edwards Plateau has always been the hotspot for Rios,” Hardin noted. “The Cross Timbers always has the second highest number of birds harvested. The reasons we have so many Rios in the Edwards Plateau, the Cross Timbers and in the Coastal Sand Plains of South Texas is due to the availability of roosting habitat. The most limiting factor for Rios in most cases is adequate roosting cover. Rios prefer to nest in the biggest and largest grove of trees around. These typically are associated with creeks and rivers. There is no lack of rivers, creeks, and other waterways in the Edwards Plateau and Cross Timbers.
“The Coastal Sand Plains in known for its distribution of large live oaks. These systems provide the Rios with adequate roosting habitat to better utilize the greater landscape. These landscape features provide excellent nesting, brood-rearing and escape cover for adults and young alike.”
Rio Grande turkey hunting seasons in Texas are staggered, with the South Zone framework beginning each year two weeks before those dates in the North Zone. Hardin said that’s done on purpose, to capture peak periods of breeding when birds should be more apt to come to calls.
“Texas is a big and diverse state. This is true if you look east to west where we have a significant rainfall gradient, or if you look south to north where we experience a growing season gradient,” Hardin said. “A lot of hunters insist on hunting the opening weekend. However, this typically is only a good idea if we had a mild winter with adequate rainfall. The condition of the hens will play a large role in when they begin to breed. Mild and wet winters lead to early green vegetation being available earlier in the year, which means hens are ready to breed earlier than in more droughty or colder winters. By allowing for a long season we provide hunters with an opportunity to better capture breeding activity.”
Dave Morrison, small game program leader for TPWD, noted that hunting seasons for turkeys, quail and a host of other critters can ebb and flow with the elements — mostly due to rainfall, or lack thereof — but there’s no reason to expect anything but an average to good outlook.
“You look at what happened last year with such excellent rainfall and moisture levels, quail numbers just shot through the roof. And then we’re looking forward to another extraordinary season this year,” Morrison said. “The benefit of all that rainfall depends where it occurs. You look at the Gulf Coast prairies and in regards to quail it’s an inverse relationship. The more rain you get there, the worse off it is for quail. But when you look at South Texas (for turkey and quail), the Rolling Plains and the Panhandle, that timely rain has them doing well, especially since we’ve had a mild spring. I suspect that in many of the strongholds the birds are going to respond nicely.”
With good rainfall producing excellent nesting cover and abundant forbs and insects, Texas as a whole is set up for good production of all game birds.
“A friend of mine was spring turkey hunting up in the Panhandle (last spring) and he said he couldn’t kill a turkey because the quail wouldn’t be quiet,” Morrison said. “It’s been unbelievable the number of birds they’re seeing in some places like the Rolling Plains and South Texas. What we’re seeing now is just a continued building on what we did last year when it was excellent.
“Nothing can fix problems like a good rain, especially when it comes to ground-nesting birds like turkey and quail.”
Hardin noted that competition is what has actually made turkey hunting more difficult, with access to prime hunting habitat getting tougher.
“We’ve actually seen hunter numbers go down but I don’t think that’s necessarily a function of a decline in turkey population as much as it is an increase in the popularity of turkey hunting,” he said. “Ten years ago you could come to Texas and you could hunt just about anywhere for $300, $500. You come to Texas nowadays it’s hard to find a place to hunt that doesn’t cost you a couple of grand. The majority of Texas is privately owned so there’s not a lot of public land out there for people to hunt, especially public lands that are open throughout the turkey season. I think financially it has become a little more difficult so the opportunity is not there as much as it once was.
“Texas is one of the most popular places to come get your Rio and people will pay top dollar for it.”
While the rise in turkey hunting costs may keep some hunters from enjoying the pursuit, advance scouting always will play a key part in finding hunts that are friendlier on the wallet.
“We have the highest number of Rios, the highest harvest in the nation, and the highest number of hunters, so we are the place to be for Rio Grande turkeys,” Hardin said. “Overall in Texas our population is expanding. Historically that I-35 corridor has been a bit of a barrier but now we have those birds on the east side of I-35 and they’re continuing to expand. If you look at it over the span of decades, you can see that it’s a growing population. And just over the last five years in that area of Bastrop south to Goliad, that population has really grown and they’ve expanded their range, so it’s a good time for Rio Grande turkeys.”
The Pineywoods region of Texas has long been a bastion of wildlife, harboring some of the best deer hunting and duck hunting in the state.
However, one outdoors pursuit that seemingly lags somewhat behind is turkey hunting, specifically for the eastern subspecies of the bird that calls the pine thickets and hardwood bottoms its home. Since 1995, when Texas’ first spring hunting season for eastern turkey was opened in Red River County, biologists and state officials have maintained a mostly conservative approach — a shorter season, mandatory check stations, one gobbler bag limit — to give the birds ample opportunity to establish themselves in new haunts.
Hardin said that wildlife officials continue to monitor the eastern turkey situation carefully, using past data from check stations as “trigger points” in identifying areas of concern — specifically those counties with declining turkey numbers.
“Just because there has been low harvest in some counties (historically speaking) doesn’t necessarily mean those areas don’t have any birds,” Hardin said. “When we went out to our field biologists and landowners in some areas, they indicated there were still plenty of turkeys out there but they were protecting them and not hunting them.”
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, prior to last season’s hunting frameworks, approved closing spring eastern turkey hunting in 11 East Texas counties in 2016, while restructuring the season in two other coastal counties.
Hunting season for eastern turkeys was closed in Angelina, Brazoria, Camp, Fort Bend, Franklin, Harrison, Hopkins, Morris, Titus, Trinity and Wood counties, and on National Forest lands in Jasper County. The closures allow biologists to evaluate the prospects for future eastern turkey restoration compatibility and restocking efforts, according to TPWD. The department’s goal is to reopen hunting should the eastern turkey populations in the affected counties become capable of sustaining harvest.
TPWD also restructured the existing spring turkey season in Wharton and Matagorda counties. The new regulations continued to allow for a 30-day spring-only, one-gobbler season and eliminated mandatory harvest reporting of birds.
Hunters are reminded that all eastern turkeys must be reported to TPWD within 24 hours of harvest via electronic reporting at tpwd.texas.gov/turkey or on the My Texas Hunt Harvest app. Hunters who use the electronic reporting options are issued a confirmation number upon completion of the registration process. Hunters still have to tag harvested birds accordingly.
The harvest reporting app also can be used as a tool for voluntarily reporting and tracking harvests of other resident game species, including Rio Grande turkeys.
TURKEY HISTORY AND STOCKING
Previous efforts have been aimed at improving eastern turkey figures in the Pineywoods, with help from out-of-state transplants from Alabama, Missouri, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. Dozens of those birds were introduced at the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area near Tennessee Colony as part of a “super stocking” program focusing on restoring more adequate numbers of the birds to their traditional range. The most recent stocking included roughly 250 of the birds at the WMA and other sites in East Texas, with a ratio of 3 hens to 1 gobbler in hopes of spurring the birds to breed and ultimately multiply.
The effort came in the wake of other stocking programs in the 1980s and ’90s in more than 50 Texas counties. Those efforts didn’t bear as much fruit as wildlife officials would like, with fewer than 30 counties in all of East Texas open to turkey hunting in the most recent seasons. The initiative was as much a study in overall stocking efforts as it was a scientific barometer in what has led to such a drastic decline in eastern turkey figures.
TPWD actually began releasing wild-trapped eastern turkeys from neighboring states as far back as 1979. By the early 2000s, more than 7,000 wild birds had been “block stocked” in East Texas. Block stocking called for the release of 15 to 20 birds per site with 5 to 10 release sites per county. Those restorations actually were successful in some areas, but many more failed to create sustainable populations.
TEXAS TURKEY HUNTING GUIDE
Here’s your Texas spring turkey hunting checklist, with tips, tactics and regulations for the pursuit.
* Bring a box call, even if you prefer a slate or mouth call, since the box can spit out louder cackles and bring more attention, especially on windy days.
* Camouflage yourself from head to toe, including with gloves and facemask; turkeys have great eyesight.
* Find a wide tree and sit against it to break up your silhouette while you call.
* Hold still if you can see birds, and if you must move to get a shot, wait until a strutting gobbler is looking away.
* Inspect your setup and get rid of vegetation that might hinder a shot, or add cover if you need it.
* Join in on the calling if you’re not alone to give the impression of multiple birds in an area.
* Keep proof of sex (leg with spur, patch of feathers with beard) on your bird until you get home and don’t breast it out until at a final destination.
* Line up your shotgun sights just above the feather line on a turkey’s neck instead of directly at the head.
* Make sure you have a $7 upland game bird stamp (endorsement) on your license.
* Only shoot gobblers or jakes. Hens are off-limits in the spring.
* Pattern your shotgun and get comfortable holding it while sitting.
* Reach for a locator call (owl hooter, crow cackle) if you know birds are in the area but aren’t reacting to your turkey impressions.
* Treat clothes with permethrin, which will kill disease-carrying ticks.
* Watch for snakes, especially during warm afternoons spent in dense cover.