Thousands of Sooner State hunters will soon be donning camouflage and heading for the woods and pastures to fill their turkey tags.
The prolonged drought that reduced turkey numbers in many parts of the state has finally lessened, and turkey flocks seem to be recovering in most counties, especially our Rio Grande birds, which inhabit about 80 percent of the state.
The population of eastern turkeys, which occupies eight or nine southeastern counties, is reported as "somewhat stable," yet significantly reduced from the bountiful years back in the 1970s and early 1980s.
The shorter season and single-bird bag limit will continue in the group of southeastern counties where eastern birds are found, but more liberal rules apply in many other counties populated by Rio Grande birds.
Oklahoma's wild turkey populations were severely depleted throughout the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Lots of restoration efforts by the Wildlife Department — mostly involving trapping and transplanting small groups of Rio Grande turkeys, helped create huntable populations of turkeys in virtually all the state's 77 counties.
I grew up in northwestern Oklahoma in the 1950s and '60s, when turkeys were found mostly in a few small pockets here and there. By the early 1980s, though, the restoration efforts had created many more flocks of turkeys in places where they had been scarce for decades.
I remember reading an historical account of "Sheridan's Roost," an area on the North Canadian River, where General Phillip Sheridan wrote, in the late 1860s, of a turkey roost nearly three miles long.
By the 1920s, though, Rio Grande turkeys were considered virtually extinct in Western Oklahoma. Eastern birds were still found, although not in abundance, in our southeastern counties.
Manmade habitat changes also helped redistribute turkeys, especially the Rio Grandes.
During settlement days, Rio Grande birds were found mostly in river bottoms in western counties. But grain farming, tree planting and other activities after the dust bowl era gave the birds more suitable habitat on higher ground throughout the semi-arid western counties.
Restoration efforts began in the late 1940s with a small group of Rio Grandes trapped and brought in from the Texas Panhandle. By the 1960s and '70s, populations in areas of Harper, Woodward, Ellis and nearby counties had grown enough to enable trapping and transplanting from those flocks so that turkey populations could be expanded elsewhere.
I've not seen anything to rival Sheridan's three-mile-long roost, but I recall sitting at a friend's hunting camp a few years ago and watching more than 200 birds fly to the roost a few hundred yards from his camp a mile or two north of the North Canadian in Ellis County.
It's not unusual to see roosts with dozens of birds on the limbs in several of those northwestern counties. That's much different than, say, McCurtain County, where if you see 10 birds in a single roost it's a red-letter day.
I talked with Jack Waymire, the Wildlife Department's senior biologist in Southeastern Oklahoma. Waymire manages three wildlife management areas and does the "number crunching" on the turkey population surveys. He also represents Oklahoma on the Southeastern Wild Turkey working group, a panel of biologists formed a few years back when eastern turkey populations went into decline in most Southeastern states.
Waymire said eastern numbers are still down in most of those states. Only Missouri, also on the edge of the eastern turkey range, has seen increases recently.
Drought has been a big factor in reducing eastern turkey populations in Southeastern Oklahoma, Waymire said, not just during the recent drought but going back, off and on, for many years.
"We used to get four to six poults per hen back in the heyday," he said, "but 3.2 is the best we've had in recent years.
"The eastern bird numbers crashed back in 1986. It took until 1999 to recover. Then recruitment took another dive as drought conditions returned."
Waymire explained that turkey poults live on a diet that's almost exclusively insects for the first few weeks of life. Drought reduces insect numbers, making food harder to find. So even if a hen successfully hatches several poults, most will starve before they are old enough to start foraging for other foods.
It is doubtful, he said, that bag limits or other rules will be liberalized soon in the Southeastern counties populated by eastern turkeys.
Oklahoma's spring turkey season this year is April 6 through May 6, statewide, except in the southeast. There the season is April 23 through May 6. Hunters can take up to three tom turkeys statewide, but only one can come from the southeast.
Hunters should read the current regulations to see in which counties it is legal to take more than one bird in other parts of Oklahoma.
There is a special Youth Spring Turkey Season that is open to hunters under age 18. The young hunter must be accompanied by an adult 18 or older. In that season, hunters 15 and younger can hunt without a license, but must have a turkey permit. Hunters aged 16 and 17 must have both a license and permit. The Youth Spring Turkey Season dates are March 31to April 1 statewide, and April 21-22 in the southeast region.
The southeast region includes Atoka, Choctaw, Coal, Latimer, LeFlore, McCurtain, Pittsburg and Pushmataha counties.
When I spoke with Waymire, he was still analyzing results from last summer/fall's turkey population surveys and didn't yet have final results for the 2017 recruitment.
The turkey flocks where I hunt out in far Western Oklahoma, and those in western Osage County where I hunt deer, seem to be holding their own, if not improving. I heard early morning gobbling and saw several birds in both areas last fall.
Sooner hunters searching for a new place to hunt turkeys would probably do well to look in the northwest quadrant of the state, the area north of I-40 and west of I-35, and especially those counties out near the Texas Panhandle.
That portion of the state offers good public-land turkey hunting, as well as private-land options.
The Black Kettle National Grasslands near Cheyenne is often one of the best public hunting areas for turkeys. It draws not only many Oklahoma hunters, but also numerous hunters from other states. Black Kettle includes about 100 tracts of mixed size, totaling a little more than 30,000 acres in Oklahoma, plus a few hundred over in Texas. It is interspersed with private holdings, but many birds are killed each year on the public tracts.
The Hal and Fern Cooper Wildlife Management Area at Fort Supply is another good public turkey hunting spot, as are Canton WMA at Canton Lake and Packsaddle WMA south of Arnett.
The public hunting lands that surround many large U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes in other parts of Oklahoma also provide opportunities. Friends and I have bagged public-land turkeys near Keystone Lake, Oologah Lake, Heyburn Lake, McGee Creek and Lake Eufaula.
There are thousands of acres of public and semi-public lands in Southeastern Oklahoma. In addition to the Ouachita National Forest, there are the Three Rivers and Honobia Creek WMAs, which are owned largely by timber companies but hunters can access them with a permit available from the ODWC.
I should also mention that it's possible to bag a Merriam's wild turkey out in the far western end of the Oklahoma Panhandle, mostly in the Cimarron River valley near Black Mesa. Not many are killed, but quite a few Oklahoma hunters have achieved a "grand slam," killing a Merriam's, Rio Grande, and an eastern bird in one spring season. Or maybe it should be called an Oklahoma slam, since there are at least three other subspecies of wild turkeys in North America — but not in Oklahoma.
There is public hunting on national grasslands out in Cimarron County at the tip of the Panhandle, but, as far as I know, there is none in the river valley area where Merriam's birds are usually seen. Land there is mainly in private holdings.
Turkey hunting tactics can vary considerably, depending on where you hunt in Oklahoma. In those densely forested and mountains-and-valleys areas where eastern birds are found, it is sometimes impossible to see turkeys until they are within shotgun range, and so close-quarters hunting is the norm.
But out in more arid, and much flatter, Western Oklahoma, it is possible to see turkeys from long distances, and to study their movements and choose a good spot to call to them or stage an ambush.
For some years I have been hunting turkeys in shin oak country, an area that lies mostly north of I-40 and within 25 miles or so of the Texas Panhandle. The shinnery area has been, for many years, the area with some of the densest turkey populations in the state.
Shinnery oak is a strange plant that grows in clumps. What looks like a grove of tiny oaks is a single tree that sends up dozens and dozens of "trunks." It's rare for shinnery to grow more than chest high, but the dense clumps provide lots of acorns in the fall, and lots of good cover for turkeys and other game the rest of the year.
Rio Grande birds that populate the area like to use the shinnery for midday loafing cover, although they tend to roost in bigger trees like the tall cottonwoods that grow in creek and river bottoms in the area.
My hunting buddies and I try not to disturb the birds during the middle of the day during turkey hunting seasons, but I've flushed quite a few turkeys out of shinnery thickets at other times of the year, either while hunting quail or just walking around.
Packsaddle WMA in southern Ellis County has probably more shinnery than any other public hunting area I know. There is a little shinnery in the Black Kettle National Grasslands, but not as much as a few miles north on the other side of the South Canadian River.
Most hunters like to call turkeys using yelps and gobbles and purrs during the spring season, which is scheduled to coincide with the breeding season.
Turkey response to calling varies considerably throughout the season. Weather does seem to be a factor, but not the only one. In some years, when the season opens, flocks of birds of both sexes are still running together. In other years, the male birds have separated from the hens and are already strutting, gobbling, fighting one another and breeding hens by the time opening day arrives.
It's not unusual for Oklahoma to get a late blizzard and a heavy snow at the end of March or even the first week of April. Sometimes a late dose of winter weather can push back the breeding activity, making the birds less likely to respond to your calling.
My friends and I have seen several seasons when the toms seemed to pretty much ignore calling during the first week or two of the season, but then to respond much more enthusiastically as May approaches.