Spring California turkey hunting in 2013 was good for a large number of hunters, including me. In fact, one of my most memorable hunts ever took place on the last Saturday in March, which was opening day of the general season.
At the time, I was with my daughter, Meredith, on a piece of property in Shasta County owned jointly by family members. It isn’t a big spread, but there are turkeys on it, and I know where they are. While sitting in a blind I put up two days earlier, Meredith and I were treated to sporadic outbursts of toms gobbling and hens yelping for a half-hour before the birds thought of leaving their pine tree roosts. It was great fun being in that situation, and we hoped at least one tom would drop down in the meadow where we were waiting, but it didn’t happen. After the birds left the trees, the toms joined the hens and grew closet moth quiet, at least for the time being.
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Somehow my daughter, the mother of four young kids, had never hunted turkeys with me before, and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity. But now, even though we were close to a bunch of birds, my hopes of her taking a tom were fading. I knew we had to do something other than sit, so I decided to cover some ground and try to make something good happen. We couldn’t hear any turkeys at the moment, but I figured they were still closeby and, thankfully, I was right.
“Dad, I hear a hen,” Mere hissed as we poked along.
“Right there,” she said, pointing ahead.
“She’s close!” I said. “Sit against that blue oak over there where there isn’t any poison oak, and I’ll drop back and call and see what happens.”
The turkeys answered my calls sporadically for several minutes, and then a subtle sound put me on high alert. It was a tom strutting and drumming and I could tell he was getting closer. I prayed that Meredith was aware of him too, but I needn’t have worried. The 12-gauge shotgun blast came suddenly as did Mere’s delighted shout, “I did it!”
Yes, she did. The tom was a beauty that weighed 21-1/2 pounds, wore a 9 1/4-inch beard and sharp 3/4-inch spurs. Not bad for her first turkey.
I got a pair of longbeards in Shasta County myself, and based on the reports I got from other turkey hunters, spring hunting in 2013 was good across most areas of the state.
Spring, 2013 is only a memory now, so it’s time for our crystal ball prediction of the conditions hunters can expect throughout the state when the turkey season begins this year. As usual, I consulted with several trusted individuals to get reports from their regions. Included are biologists, hunting guides, avid hunters and even some outdoor writers. All have one thing in common: They know turkeys and observe them throughout the year. Here, then, are the reports on which this forecast is based.
Most turkey hunting in the southernmost part of the state takes place in San Diego County on the Cleveland National Forest and adjacent private land. As usual, the private land offers the best opportunities, but hunters harvest a good number of toms each spring on the national forest. To get an idea of how things are shaping up for the 2014 spring season, I talked to Jeff Wells, Palomar District biologist, and here’s what he observed.
“This year I’ve seen turkeys county-wide and the flocks look like they’re doing okay,” he said. “It was real dry last spring and early summer but apparently that didn’t affect production in this area. In fact, I’ve seen more turkeys on Palomar Mountain since the area was opened up by fire and vegetation work done by landowners and the forest service.
“I don’t hunt turkeys, which is probably a mistake, but I think those that do will have fair to good hunting this spring in the Palomar and Descanso ranger districts. If anyone wants to get more information, have them call me at (760) 788-0250, ext 3342. I’ll be happy to chat with them.”
Just to catch up, in the past there was some turkey hunting on the San Bernardino National Forest in San Bernardino County, but that seems to have dried up completely. Jim Matthews, publisher of the newsletter Western Birds, and a resident of the area, has not talked to anyone who saw or hunted turkeys on the forest in the last two years.
For many years the sprawling 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch in Kern County offered great guided turkey hunting, including hunts for junior hunters in conjunction with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). However, due to a recent decline in the population of turkeys on the place, very few hunts are being scheduled.
“We can’t put our finger on the reason the birds are in the tank but the wild pig population has grown a bunch.” said Ranch Wildlife Supervisor Brian Grant, “Last year we took upwards of 1,200 pigs and we intend to keep the pace up. Hopefully, the pressure on hogs will help the turkeys out. It stands to reason that pigs find and destroy a lot of turkey nests.”
Grant went on to say he hopes the turkeys will bounce back, but he can’t predict it will happen anytime soon. For information on the hunting program on the Tejon, call (661) 663-4210 or go to the website www.hunttejon.com.
COAST RANGE TO THE SIERRA NEVADA
My fellow outdoor writer Terry Knight, of Lake County, is no stranger to these pages. I rely on his insight every year because he’s been an avid turkey hunter for close to 40 years. He talks to dozens of turkey hunters every season, and keeps close tabs on the turkey population through personal observation. Here’s what Knight had to say about turkeys in his region.
“To be honest, I don’t think the hatch was as successful as it usually is around here,” he said. “It was awfully dry in this area and I wonder if that had an effect on their success. This year I’ve seen some hens with young but a lot more singles than usual were walking around without any poults. “However, because of the carryover from previous years of great production, I still think hunting in 2014 should really be good again At least that’s my take on things.”
Knight made an interesting comment about hunting pressure throughout the region. “I hunt turkeys on the Mendocino National Forest a lot,” he said, “and I’m not seeing many other hunters there. I think it’s because so many guys have knocked on doors and gotten permission to hunt on private land. It seems a lot of people in Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma and Napa counties are not big fans of turkeys, especially if they think they’re raiding vineyards.”
As usual, Knight ran down a list of state-owned wildlife areas that offer turkey hunting. Included are the Knoxville Wildlife Area (Napa County), the Spenceville Wildlife Area (Yuba and Nevada counties), the Daugherty Hill Wildlife Area (Yuba County) and the Oroville Wildlife Area (Butte County).
The Cache Creek Natural Area, managed by the CDFW and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is around 70,000 acres of public land that offers turkey hunting for hunters who are willing to hike a bit. For more info, contact the BLM at (707) 468-4000 or look them up online at www.blm.gov/ca/ukiah/cachecreek.html.
I saw my first wild turkeys ever in 1965 while on a wild pig hunt in San Luis Obispo County with guide Eldon Bergman. At the time, neither of us had an inkling as to how turkeys would affect our lives. Bergman went on to guide for turkeys, and despite the decades that have passed, he’s still at it. Naturally, he keeps an eye out for the birds in his area.
“Last spring, hunting was a little tougher than usual,” Bergman said, “but all of my guys did get their toms. I’m still seeing plenty of turkeys around here, so I’m looking forward to another good spring season.”
To contact Bergman, call (805) 238-5504.
Doug Roth, of Paso Robles-based Camp Five Outfitters, had some interesting observations about the ranches in southern Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties where he guides hunts for turkeys.
“Because of unseasonable warm weather in March, some hens started nesting early,” Roth said. “For the first time, I saw little poults in early April, and the hen had to be sitting on her nest for 28 days before that. Even so, I think the hatch, especially in the drier spots, was down from previous years.
“As for hunting, we took 41 toms last spring for 39 hunters — better than 100 percent success. The hunting was toughest near the end of the season, and my guess is most of the birds were at the end of their breeding cycle.”
Roth went on to say he thinks this coming spring will be another winner because of the carry-over from past years of good production.
“There are lots of adult toms around,” he said, “and all the jakes that bugged us last spring will be adults by now. Hunting can’t get much better than it was last spring, but I won’t be surprised if it’s at least as good.”
For info, contact Roth by phone at (805) 610-0031 or go online to www.camp5outfitters.com.
Aaron Brooks, who lives in the small town of Mt. Aukum in El Dorado County, and paints houses for a living, takes his turkey hunting very seriously. Besides his own successful hunts last spring, Brooks was present when more than a dozen longbeards were killed by other hunters. For his own hunting, Brooks often hunts above 4,000-feet elevation on the El Dorado National Forest. Usually he gets one or two of his toms there but not last spring.
“Last spring I didn’t get a tom on the national forest, and I didn’t see much sign of turkeys being there,” Brooks said. “I think the late snow in 2012 resulted in less production than normal. Lower down it was another story altogether. Hunting was great and the hatch, as far as I can tell, was phenomenal in El Dorado, Sacramento and Amador counties. In my travels, I saw a lot of hens with anywhere from four to eight juveniles in mid-summer.
“Because of that, and the carryover from 2013, I expect we’ll have another great spring season this year.”
I reside in Shasta County, around 150 miles north of the state capital of Sacramento, and I can hear wild turkeys from my backyard.
There is a good population of birds on private land and a smaller number on public ground managed by the U.S.D.A. Forest Service and the BLM. All of the north state’s counties have turkeys, including Tehama (lots), Trinity (some), Siskiyou (a few) and Modoc (very few). Year in and year out, Shasta and Tehama are in the top ten turkey counties in the state, and I see no reason why that might change.
In my area I saw a mixed bag of hens with and without poults, and that’s not unusual. My unscientific conclusion is that the hatch was about average last spring throughout this region.
My buddy Tom Stone, a retired CDFW biologist who worked in the turkey program for 30 years, agreed with my assessment. “All they’ve got to do is replace themselves,” he said, “and I think they’ve done way better than that. I think there will be plenty of gobblers around this season.”
The turkey population in southern Trinity County has its ups and downs. When we talked in 2012, Jim Schaafsma, of Arrow Five Outfitters, reported that he saw no evidence of reproduction during what was a cold, wet spring in his area. It was a different story in 2013, probably because the weather was mild from March on.
“I’m happy to say that I saw several hens with poults on and around our place last summer,” Schaafsma said. “I expect we’ll hear a bunch more gobbling this spring than we have the last couple of years.”
The final word goes to CDFW regional biologist Scott Hill, who looks after things in Tehama County. Hill is a turkey hunter, so he naturally keeps an eye out for the birds whenever he’s banging around on the rocky roads.
“I think there was darn good recruitment in this area,” he said. “It was warm and dry, true, but around here that was a good thing. There was plenty of cover to protect the young birds and lots of protein-rich insects for them to eat. I expect the BLM ground I hunt in Tehama County will have plenty of gobblers again this year.”
In closing, there may be some exceptions, but most of the known turkey-hunting areas in this state will have ample birds once again this coming spring season.
The general spring season starts on March 29 and runs through May 4, 2014. Junior hunters can hunt on the weekend of March 22-23, during the regular season, and from May 5 through May 18. Archers can hunt during the general season and from May 5 through May 18. The limit is one bearded turkey per day, three per season.
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