February 26, 2018
By Judy Bishop Jurek
Gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble! Hear that?
If it's close enough to make your ears ring, then your heart is most likely thumping like crazy as you know a tom turkey is within your immediate vicinity. If a gobble far off, you realize it is time to start working your call a bit more to try and lure him closer. In between, perhaps he is headed your way in hopes of engaging the hen he keeps hearing.
Or maybe he has a live mate and may not move an inch.
It is springtime in Texas and the annual mating ritual of wild turkeys is under way. If you are fortunate enough to be in the woods, brush, a river or creek bottom, or wherever, then you are in the right spot. Success should not depend on tagging a turkey but rather on simply being able to enjoy an outdoor adventure.
But what are your chances for success during the spring of 2018 in the Lone Star State?
That, of course, depends on several factors. The main influence will be Mother Nature — the weather. Be prepared for anything from frost and possible freeze, to damp humidity and fighting insects while trying to keep still and quiet. Conditions where you hunt may be wet and soggy with plenty of bugs, or droughty where birds visit deer feeders consistently.
As to numbers of birds, well, once again it depends on where you hunt, but overall this spring looks really good for a chance at successfully putting a turkey tag on a Rio Grande. Eastern turkey hunters will face more of a challenge as only a handful of counties allow a spring turkey harvest. Restoration efforts from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and private landowners continue to make strides.
"As far as eastern wild turkeys, the best I can say is if you had turkeys last year, then you should have them again this year," said Jason Hardin, TPWD Upland Game Bird specialist. "TPWD is actively restoring the eastern subspecies in Texas. Since 2014 TPWD staff has released just over 600 wild turkeys in East Texas. We have plans to release another 160 turkeys this coming winter in Camp and Henderson counties.
"We've had two good to great years of production and recruitment in 2015 and 2016," Hardin stated with enthusiasm. "That means this spring there will be a ton of 2- and 3-year-old gobblers across most of the Rio Grande turkey range. Yet despite favorable weather, we have had only an average recruitment this past spring (2017).
"However, that means fewer jennies out there to distract the big toms this spring. That should set us up for a great spring turkey season with lots of responsive gobblers. Of course, much depends on the weather this spring but all the variables are currently in line for a great season."
Hardin concluded that Mother Nature and habitat conditions will determine success rates.
"If you had eastern turkeys last year you will most likely have them again this year," said Annie Farrell, the district biologist of East Texas for the NWTF. Her words echoed those of TPWD's Hardin. "Our restoration efforts continue across much of East Texas. We've had good success in Anderson County, just to name one."
Farrell studied wild turkeys in college while also becoming involved with NWTF. She was hired as project manager but recently moved into the role of district biologist. "I cover Rio Grande turkeys, too, but they are much more plentiful and easier to hunt than eastern birds. If a spring turkey hunter diligently scouts an area known for turkeys, the prospects for a successful hunt are good."
I live outside Brady which calls itself "The Heart of Texas." The actual geographical center of the Lone Star state is only two miles away. Last spring there was lots of breeding activity in these parts and many successful turkey hunters. Rio Grande turkeys are plentiful, yet in early summer when eggs should hatch and hens group their clutches into flocks, few were seen.
Disappointment reigned whenever groups of hens ventured into my yard, were caught on game cams, or were seen when traveling around. It was a sure sign female turkeys were not nesting or raising young. Many friends, neighbors, and hunters in the area reported much the same. We had some rain (nothing too severe), habitat, seeds, bugs. There seemed no good reason not to have a good hatch, but apparently Mother Nature said otherwise.
Avid hunter and outdoorsman Ruben Cantu oversees thousands of acres through his own private wildlife consultation company, Habitat Advantage LLC. The retired TPWD wildlife biologist resides in San Angelo where in his spare time he does taxidermy work. Cantu's heart and soul rests in the western part of the state. And this man knows turkeys!
"It depends, of course, on the property you're hunting," said Cantu. "As with good deer management, habitat improvements benefit all wildlife. Turkeys need good roosting trees and predator control. Many ranches practice control for hogs, coyotes and bobcats. However, skunks, opossums, and raccoons are highly destructive for ground-nesting birds like turkeys and quail.
"Like a lot of places this spring (2017) did not experience an exceptional hatch." Cantu said, "There was no wet winter, spring had some moisture, but it was dry in early summer.
"What is going to help is the last two years, 2015 and 2016, were so good. The carryover is strong with not too many jakes. This spring should be good for turkey hunters."
Summing it up, Cantu added this bit of advice. "Get your camo on and get out there. Good luck!"
Kayla Esperanza's family owns a nice piece of South Texas Brush Country near Freer. "We have turkeys all over our ranch," she said. "They are everywhere when we ride around, although I didn't see many babies this past spring. Our game cams are loaded with photos of turkey groups as well as single longbeards and hens.
"It's funny how often we see them until spring. It's like a memo goes out telling them to beware, hunters are after you." Esperanza quipped, "I think they are hard to hunt. Perhaps we haven't perfected our calling or spring hunting techniques although we're working on them."
She added this bit of advice. "In South Texas you have to be aware of rattlesnakes, ticks, spiders, thorns and stickers all year, but in springtime everything is sort of waking up so you have to be extra careful. Maybe I'm watching out for too many of those instead of concentrating on gobblers. Many hunters are successful. I just need more practice."
Texas' spring turkey hunting is uniquely different than other types of hunting. Depending on your preference, and/or guide, you can be out in the brush, woods or fields before the crack of dawn. Or you can sleep in a bit, venturing out at your leisure. Some hunters choose to sit in their deer blinds. Others camouflage themselves from head to toe and sit at the base of a tree or in low brush hoping to lure in a longbeard.
A common technique is to walk and stalk while calling. This can be either profitable or ill advised. If no response, the hunter quietly moves to a new location to sit still again before simulating the lusty calling of a lovelorn hen. Often a hunter moves too soon, spooking a crafty longbeard sneaking in without ever gobbling, even once, instead seeking a peek from afar at the lovely lady calling out to it.
Multiple factors play a critical role in hunting Mr. Spring Longbeard. Lady Luck is high on the list. It also helps to have turkeys in the area you're hunting. Believe it or not, there are hunters looking for turkeys in all the wrong places! Population and habitat with good roosting trees directly equates to high success rates.
Much of it greatly depends on the timing of the turkey breeding season. Our great Texas Parks and Wildlife Department does its best at estimating when hens will turn it on for amorous toms. However, weather and range conditions play crucial roles as winter turns into spring. Things may not happen according to the calendar.
Too much or too little rainfall as well as too many or not enough food sources directly affect the big birds. Drought can seriously hamper hens from cycling into their breeding season. The wild turkey waltz may take place slightly before or after, rather than during, the legal hunting dates in your area of the state.
Windy conditions aren't conductive to sending out your imitation hen calls, or for hearing responding gobbles. Abundant moisture in the form of stalled fronts and spring thunderstorms can prevent hunters from venturing out, wondering if they're wasting their time. Or perhaps expressing no desire to get stuck in the mud.
The only way to be a victorious spring gobbler hunter is to get outdoors and pursue the longbeards. As Cantu expressed, "Get your camo on!"
Spray down with insecticide, watch for snakes, have your calling skills tuned up, and go forth! Even if you are not successful in tagging a gobbler, enjoy being with Mother Nature as spring turns the Texas earth green. Good luck!