Faint gobbling wafted through the thick canopy of trees before being washed out by the prevailing south wind. My outfitter friend, Dale Eagon, had promised our setup spot was golden, so I settled back in my chair and tipped my cap to cover my eyes. With first light still 30 minutes away, I elected to take a power nap inside the confines of my Ameristep pop-up blind, knowing the gobblers wouldn't be courting my decoys for at least another 45 minutes.
Between dozes, I was mesmerized by an increased frequency in gobbling. I mentally counted a dozen different toms gobbling in a chain-reaction chorus. Light dawned in small doses, and I was grateful that my full-body decoys were not spinning in the 20-mph gusts.
In the distance, I watched black shapes materialize from a deep draw separating the turkey roost from a vast food plot. In the midst of chaotic yelping and cackling, seven full-fanned toms stood shoulder to shoulder in a choreographed march that I hoped would lead them to our decoys.
I let out a series of sweet yelps on my box call. The yelps were answered by thundering gobbles 100 yards away. My wife Donna readied her big Mossberg autoloader on her shooting sticks, knowing her 3 1/2-inch, Heavy Metal Magnum Blend loads would be the demise of one of the redheaded barons soon enough.
With several hens homing in on our position, Donna and I pulled our facemasks up and lowered our caps so that we wouldn't be busted by the sharp-eyed scouts arriving before the gobblers. A boss hen began her rattling purr to intimidate the fake turkeys rivaling her for the affections of her male suitors.
Suddenly, four toms appeared from behind a sage-strewn hill, spitting and drumming toward our location. At 50 yards, I knew they would be in shotgun range in seconds. Donna quietly clicked off her safety and when the largest tom stopped 40 yards away her 12 gauge roared, piling up the huge longbeard.
The remaining flock scattered and was gone in seconds, while the boss tom flopped nearby. We walked up to inspect the grand bird and I was amazed to find the magnificent tom sported a double beard. The longest beard was 11 1/4 inches while the second beard measured 6 inches. With nearly 1 1/2-inch spurs and weighing just over 20 pounds, the old tom was probably a 3-year-old.
After collecting a hug and a smooch, I toted my wife's trophy tom back to the truck. There we were joined by Eagon who had been scouting nearby and heard the shot. Truly, Eagon's ranch is a choice spot for turkeys, and now it was my turn to rock a gobbler's world.
Jack Waymire, senior biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, says the eastern part of the state is in a precarious position due to poor spring rains and bad hatches.
"Last summer's brood surveys showed 0.7 poults per hen, with 21.9 percent of hens with poults out of the 162 total broods sighted during the July to August survey period," Waymire said. "These figures are comparable to the 2009 survey of 0.7 poults per hen, where 36.9 percent of the hens had poults out of the 211 total broods sighted. In 2010, there were 1.3 poults per hen or 64.2 percent of the 483 total broods sighted. However, anything less than 3 poults per hen indicates a decrease in the overall population."
Waymire said the trend could be reversed if conditions improve.
"We need a good early hatch to put a lot of birds on the ground, before we will recognize an increase in the turkey population in the southeast region," he said.
Due to declining numbers, turkey season was shortened in the eight southeast counties. The season opens April 23 and runs thru May 6.
Rod Smith quarterbacks the ODWC's southwestern region and expects the season to be good, but cautions the drought has been tough on the wildlife in his area.
"The drought has been extreme here," Smith advises. "I would suspect that the number of jakes in the western region is probably going to be down from normal levels."
Smith said hunters should find good populations of turkeys in areas where they found them last spring. The wildlife professional hopes we have a normal winter with plenty of moisture before spring.
"Barring anything unforeseen, I would expect a fairly good turkey season," he said.
GUIDES AND HUNTERS EXPECT A GOOD SEASON
Outfitter Dale Eagon expects this spring turkey season to be good, but has concerns for next spring. Drought conditions coupled with nearly 100 days of 100-degree temperatures made an impact on the southwestern part of the state.
"I am seeing good numbers of mature toms on my ranch" Eagon said, "but what concerns me is I am not seeing as many poults as usual. Usually by late summer there are several bunches of poults hanging out with the various flocks on my land, but this summer there definitely were not as many. I did see an incredible amount of longbeards though, and knowing we had a good crop of jakes last spring, I feel confident that my hunters will do well."
Landowner Tim Woolery owns a farm in Blaine County in the northwest and says the drought has impacted the turkeys on his property.
"In the past, turkeys were spread out all over my land," Woolery said. "But with water being at a premium now, I am finding the birds are staying closer to the rivers and creeks that still contain water. I know that hunting in the traditional spots on my farm probably won't produce for me, but hunting around the creeks and rivers will."
Longtime Western Oklahoma outfitter Danny Pierce says he believes this turkey season will be good, as most hunters have come to expect them to be in Western Oklahoma.
"We will have quite a few longbeards that carried over from last spring," Pierce said. "There was also a good number of jakes last year, which will be 2-year-old longbeards this spring. We should have excellent hunting, and provided we get good recruitment this spring, the following spring season should be OK."
Scott Sanderford of Croton Creek Adventures in Cheyenne also expects another good spring turkey season. Sanderford hopes the western part of the state will receive a good amount of moisture to help fill up some dry ponds, and help grow some good nesting cover. He reports his hunters had a good spring turkey season last year and expects the same this April.
"Last April, we hosted a hunt with several outdoor writers and sponsors," Sanderford said. "I think we did pretty good; we ended up taking 16 turkeys in 3 1/2 days of hunting."
Hunting guide Steve Purviance operates Mt. Hide Outfitters near Laverne. Purviance says the drought has definitely reduced the nesting cover and resulted in a lack of food in the northwest counties.
"We had an extremely low hatch and low poult survival last spring," Purviance said. "However, due to the nice hatches in 2009 and 2010, we have a nice gobbler population for our 2012 spring hunters. The poor hatch may have decreased the general population, but there are still plenty of turkeys available for hunters to look forward to chasing."
Jerick Henley of the Chain Ranch near Canton says he expects the spring turkey season to be good on his ranches.
"Without some spring rains, nesting cover may be diminished" Henley said, "but this spring should as good, or better, than last spring."
Turkey chaser George Moore hunts all over the state, plus several other states to boot. Like the aforementioned guides and landowners, Moore thinks the drought was costly to several varieties of wildlife, yet he remains optimistic about our upcoming spring turkey season.
"Two things I noticed last summer were a good amount of longbeards everywhere, and an abundance of grasshoppers and crickets," Moore said. "I feel sure the turkeys had all the insects they wanted to eat over the summer months. While we were plagued with a lot of wildfires in the state, it seems they did us a favor by burning off a lot of underbrush, which in turn created some nice green areas, which turkeys love."
Alan Broerse has hunted turkeys for many years and has found success in many areas in the state. Lately, he has been concentrating his efforts in the southeast region. Broerse believes the lack of moisture there has adversely affected the poult survival rate, due to the lack of underbrush for poults to hide in to escape predators.
"Next spring there will probably be fewer jakes and mature toms in the southeast area," Broerse cautioned. "It may be a tough year."
PUBLIC LAND PROSPECTS
Much of Western Oklahoma is privately owned, and so finding hunting opportunities can be tough. Land holding good numbers of deer and turkeys sometimes leases for upwards of $10 an acre. Though some of those lands are premium hunting spots, my budget doesn't allow for such luxury. Fortunately, I've had good success on several public lands.
Most western wildlife management areas offer agricultural fields surrounded by Conservation Reserve Program grasslands and occasional creek bottoms with surrounding woodlots.
Public-land hunting opportunities are available at several wildlife management areas, such as the 30,710-acre Black Kettle WMA near Cheyenne. Others include 14,877-acre Canton WMA near Canton, 4,800-acre Ellis County WMA near Arnett, 5,418-acre Fort Supply WMA near Woodward, and the 15,000-acre Packsaddle WMA, located north of Roll. Those WMAs are known to hold good numbers of turkeys.
Words to the wise: Black Kettle, being one of the largest and best known public hunting areas in the nation, receives an incredible amount of hunting pressure from both in-state and out-of-state hunters. Nevertheless, I have found that hunting on weekdays at Black Kettle and on the other western WMAs offers great opportunity with little competition.
For hunters without private land access, the best bets in the northeast are Kaw WMA near Ponca City in Kay County and Spavinaw WMA, located northeast of Pryor. Kaw WMA spans 16,254 acres and is relatively overlooked by most hunters. The area is highlighted with hardwood bottoms surrounded by ODWC-planted feed fields.
I rate the refuge as a good bet in the northeast, owing to the fact that nearly a third of the county's annual harvest is taken off this one WMA. The WMA surrounds much of Kaw Lake, and hunting pressure is relatively light on most days. Hunters are allowed one tom. Last season hunters on Kaw took 14 turkeys.
Spavinaw WMA is located northeast of Pryor in Delaware and Mayes counties. I've hunted the 14,340-acre WMA, and found it to feature excellent habitat of hardwood draws and ridges with numerous food plots. Turkeys forage on acorns and native grasses, along with the wheat and rye available on area food plots. Hunters took five jakes off this public hunting area last spring.
Another public hunting opportunity located in southern Oklahoma is Hickory Creek WMA. Hickory Creek is nestled in Love County between lakes Murray and Texoma. The ODWC-managed unit consists of 7,363 acres of bottomland forests edged by native grass. And the habitat is improved annually by controlled burns. Hickory Creek runs through the entire length of the property, providing good roosting cover for turkeys. Hunters can take two toms in this county. Last spring the WMA yielded seven toms.
Located just south of Hickory Creek WMA is Love Valley WMA. Love Valley, also in Love County, is located on the western edge of Lake Texoma, and consists of 7,746 acres. The WMAs primarily riparian habitat varies from hardwood bottomlands to sandy river bottom along the Red River. Turkey numbers are good, but hunting pressure can be heavy. Last season three toms were killed there.
Two popular public spots in Southeastern Oklahoma are the Three Rivers and Honobia Creek WMAs. Combined, these units total 325,000 acres, and residents between the ages of 18 and 64 are required to pay a $40 user fee to hunt these areas. Those units combined yielded a whopping 108 turkeys last season.
The hunting on those WMAs was improved when select areas like the Harris Creek area on Honobia Creek WMA, and the Boktuklo Area on the Three Rivers WMA, were gated and access limited to foot traffic. The NWTF cost-shared the project with the ODWC and the result, according to Waymire, is good concentrations of turkeys on both areas.
Another set of WMAs located nearby are the Ouachita LU (Le Flore Unit) and the Ouachita MU (McCurtain Unit). The units combined produced 85 bearded birds last spring.
A good spot near Lake Eufaula is James Collins WMA located near Quinton. That public area has premium eastern turkey habitat and yielded 22 toms last season.
BEST COUNTIES FOR EASTERNS
Our eastern turkeys are one of the Sooner State's most valuable wildlife resources. Sadly, poor hatches and illegal hunting have left the bronze barons of the hardwoods in a precarious position. Their numbers have declined in most counties and last spring's harvest was well below the 5-year average.
Though easterns and hybrids occur in the extreme eastern counties statewide, the bulk of the population is found in nine southeast counties.
Winter flock surveys show a disturbing downward trend. Waymire attributes the downturn to poor reproduction and recruitment.
The extreme southeast region is prone to receiving copious amounts of rain in the spring months that wash out a lot of nesting attempts. Coupled with an increase in nest depredation, the eastern turkeys have been left in a delicate position.
Last spring an estimated 1,494 easterns were taken in the counties of Atoka, Bryan, Choctaw, Coal, Latimer, Le Flore, McCurtain, Pittsburg, and Pushmataha. The top county for harvest was Le Flore with an estimated 313 birds, followed by McCurtain with 269, and Pushmataha with 254.
SEASON DATES & BAG LIMITS
Spring turkey season opens April 6 and runs thru May 6 statewide, except the eight southeast counties of Atoka, Choctaw, Coal, Latimer, Le Flore, McCurtain, Pittsburg and Pushmataha, which open April 23 and run thru May 6, 2012.
A special youth season will open March 31 to April 1, the weekend before the regular season, statewide, except for the southeast region, with a one-tom limit. The youth season in the southeast region is April 21-22 — the weekend before a shortened regular season opens there.
Youth hunters are defined as those 18 years or younger, and are required to have a non-hunting adult with them. The combined limit for both youth seasons is one tom.
Oklahoma has a spring bag limit of three tom turkeys. However, no more than one turkey can be taken from the combined southeast counties of Atoka, Choctaw, Coal, Latimer, Le Flore, McCurtain, Pittsburg, and Pushmataha.
The following counties offer a two tom limit: Adair, Alfalfa, Beckham, Blaine, Caddo, Canadian, Carter, Cherokee, Comanche, Cotton, Craig, Creek, Dewey, Ellis, Garvin, Grady, Grant, Greer, Harmon, Harper, Haskell, Hughes, Jackson, Jefferson, Johnston, Kay, Kingfisher, Lincoln, Logan, Love, Major, McClain, McIntosh, Murray, Muskogee, Nowata, Okfuskee, Okmulgee, Osage, Pawnee, Payne, Pontotoc, Pottawatomie, Roger Mills, Seminole, Sequoyah, Stephens, Tillman, Wagoner, Washington, Washita, Woods, and Woodward.
The following counties offer a one tom limit: Beaver, Bryan, Cimarron, Cleveland, Custer, Delaware, Garfield, Kiowa, Marshall, Mayes, Noble, Oklahoma, Ottawa, Rogers, Texas, and Tulsa.
Thanks to the efforts of safety-conscious turkey hunters, hunting-related accidents are down. Always make safety a paramount concern, and never wear clothing colored red, white, blue or black — the colors of a gobbler.
Pattern your shotgun and know its limitations. Different brands of shells and pellet sizes cause shotguns to vary in performance. Always aim where the turkey's head joins the neck, as body shots will wound and not immediately dispatch a turkey.
With the long-term drought plaguing Oklahoma, the National Wild Turkey Federation has been extremely helpful. The conservation organization works tirelessly to improve wildlife habitat. The NWTF has spent more than $1.3 million dollars in our state to make the hunting better for turkeys and other wildlife species.
Be safe and keep an eye out for morel mushrooms. These tasty delicacies found in the spring forests serve as an excellent side dish to fried turkey breast!