March 17, 2015
One good thing about turkey hunting in the Golden State is the normally mild weather throughout the spring months. True, there are rain events to deal with occasionally, but I can't remember flooding like I experienced in Missouri in 2013 or the blizzard conditions that stopped all my hunting efforts in New Mexico several years ago.
In California, the weather may keep us inside for a day or two, but most of the time the sun shines brightly on turkey hunters in the spring. That said, it did rain on opening weekend of the spring season in 2014. But it wasn't a gully washer, wasn't steady and didn't blanket the state.
In Shasta County, where I live, it was wet in the morning and dry in the afternoon. After the rain stopped my son-in-law, Robert Feamster, located a willing tom on family property and called him in while his daughter Kasey, 8, watched. The big Rio Grande weighed 22 pounds, had an 11 1/2-inch beard and wore 1 1/8-inch spurs.
The next day I was out early. My hopes were high, but I heard no turkey sounds until mid-morning. That's when a tom gobbled a single time at a noisy flock of Canada geese when they flew over at low elevation.
The tom was on the hillside below the trail I was on, and he wasn't far away. I hastily picked out a place to sit, took a box call out of my vest and sent a few hen yelps his way. There was no answer, but a few minutes later I caught movement from the corner of my eye and spied the tom walking silently through the manzanita brush about 50 yards below where I sat. Traveling from my right to left, he went out of sight, and I wondered if he was gone for good.
When I called again I got the reaction I hoped for. For whatever reason the tom went from silent to here I come baby. He gobbled repeatedly, and got closer with every step. Presently the tom appeared around 18 steps away. I could see only his head clearly, and when I fired my 12 gauge Remington pump he flopped over and rolled down the hill. He weighed 19 pounds, wore a 10 1/2-inch beard and had curved, sharp 1 1/4-inch spurs. I guessed he was four or five years old.
That was the first of three big toms I got in California last season. It doesn't always happen that way, but somehow I was in the right place at the right time several times over. Judging from the reports I got from other hunters, the success rate among those who stuck with the program was fairly high across the board.
Of course, all of that is old news. The focus of this forecast is how things are shaping up for this spring. As usual, to get a handle on the various regions statewide, I talked to several folks who are well aware of what's going on in their respective areas. Included in the mix are biologists, hunting guides, avid turkey hunters and even an outdoor writer or two.
Before getting into their reports, I need to draw attention to the severe drought that caused water shortages throughout California in 2014. It rained a little in the spring, but much less than normal. And, except for cool nights, it seemed like mid-summer in late April.
How the dry weather affected the turkey population isn't known for sure, but I suspect there was some impact on nesting success in certain places because some normally dependable water sources dried up very early.
On that note, here are the reports I got from observers around the state.
Most turkey hunting in southern California takes place in San Diego County. Some hunters have access to private land where the flocks are well established while others head for public land on the Cleveland National Forest. Jeff Wells, Palomar Ranger District biologist, is my main contact on the forest. I asked him about production in 2014 and the turkey population.
"It was drier here last year than I've ever seen it," Wells said. "I've seen quite a few turkeys, but not very many hens with young ones this year. That isn't saying that hunting will be bad. I think it will be about average because there are still plenty of birds around despite the lower hatch."
As usual, hunters will find turkeys in the Palomar and Descanso ranger districts. Also, there is archery-only hunting on the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area. On the bright side, Wells reported seeing an increase in turkey numbers on Palomar Mountain where some habitat work was done recently. For more info give Wells a call at (760) 788-0250 ext. 3342.
At one time there were turkeys in San Bernardino County on the San Bernardino National Forest. For the second year in a row, outdoor writer Jim Matthews, publisher of the newsletter Western Birds, has not heard of any recent turkey sightings on the forest.
"I'm thinking there aren't many turkeys left there," Matthews said.
Also, turkey hunting on the huge Tejon Ranch near Bakersfield has been severely cut back since 2013. Only a few guided hunts will be held this year. Wildlife Supervisor Brian Grant said it's because of a decline in the turkey population, which he blames mainly on nest destruction by an incredible number of wild hogs.
"We're hoping to make a dent in the pig population eventually," Grant said. "It will be interesting to see if it helps the turkeys." Information at (661) 663-4210.
Coast Range to the Sierra Nevada
Regular readers of this annual forecast may recognize the name of Terry Knight. A fellow outdoor writer, Knight started hunting turkeys in California in the dark ages of the 1970s, and he's still at it. He's into turkeys in a big way and when he talks about conditions in his region I believe what he says.
In his opinion, the hatch around his home in Lake County, and in neighboring Napa and Sonoma counties, was down for the second year in a row. Knight thinks it's because it was so dry throughout the region.
"It's hard to put your finger on a single cause," Knight said. "In 2013, I thought production was down, and I don't think it was any better in 2014. I saw several single hens walking around without any poults in June and July. However, that doesn't mean hunting success will drop off anytime soon. There are still lots of turkeys, and recently I saw groups of toms in three different locations while I was driving back roads. The population may not be increasing, but the turkeys are still holding their own."
As usual, Knight rattled off a list of state owned wildlife areas with turkeys including 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). He also mentioned the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area (Butte County) where turkeys have recently established a foothold.
Also, the 70,000-acre Cache Creek Natural Area has turkeys in several spots. The only catch is you'll have to hike to access them, which to some of us is actually appealing. The area is managed jointly by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). For info, contact the Ukiah branch office of the BLM at (707) 468-4000.
Knight offered this nugget to perspective turkey hunters in his region. "There are more birds showing up on the Mendocino National Forest, and hunters can find them if they put in some time scouting. Because it's more challenging, that's where I prefer to hunt. I've been successful several times on the forest, so hunting can be good there."
A bit farther south, long time guide Eldon Bergman said that for the first time in years the hatch seemed to be below average in his part of San Luis Obispo County. "I've seen quite a few turkeys on the places I hunt," he said, "but fewer little ones than usual. That might mean something in a couple years, but right now there's plenty of carryover for a good spring season in 2015. At least that's my opinion." Contact Bergman by calling (805) 238-5504.
Meanwhile Doug Roth, of Paso Robles based Camp 5 Outfitters, observed that the hatch was obviously down in southern Monterey County but was good in northern San Luis Obispo County where Camp 5 runs pig, turkey and deer hunts on 50,000 acres.
"The turkeys are doing OK overall, it's just that production was better in some places than others," Roth said.
Last spring 35 Camp 5 hunters harvested 39 adult toms, and Roth expects good hunting this year as well. Contact Camp 5 by phone at (805) 610-0031.
On the east side of the Sacramento Valley my buddy Aaron Brooks of Mt. Aukum had these observations.
"Here in El Dorado County the only place where I think the turkeys have taken a hit is the El Dorado National Forest above 3,000 feet elevation. I used to hunt there often, but last spring I had trouble even finding signs, not to mention a tom," he said.
"I suspect it wasn't the drought but the late, snowy spring a couple years ago that forced the turkeys down to lower ground. Otherwise, I think things are about normal around here. Last summer I saw several hens with an average of 5 or 6 poults apiece, and I suspect most of them survived because they already had a good start. Turkeys in Amador and Sacramento counties also did well."
I reside in northern California's Shasta County, which is always in the top 10 counties for turkey hunting. Actually, I killed my first Shasta County tom in 1974, one month after I moved to the area from Los Angeles. I still get a bird or two in this county every spring.
As you might suspect, I watch for turkeys constantly, and few days go by when I don't see at least a few. Last summer, I saw turkeys in a variety of locations, including a few hens with as many as six half-grown poults in tow in early September. Most of those turkeys will be survivors. Off hand, I would rate the hatch as fair but not over the top. As for the carryover, in mid-September I drove around a corner on a dirt road and came bumper to beak with at least 20 adult toms in a bunch. That bodes well for this coming spring season.
Tehama County is another top ten location, and I'm pleased to say the hatch there was better than CDFW biologist Scott Hill, himself an avid turkey hunter, expected. "I thought production would be off because of the drought," he said, "And I was surprised that I haven't seen hard evidence of that. I've seen birds in a variety of locations while doing my deer surveys, and I think 2015 is going to be as good as the weather allows." Hill went on to say that he often hunts in Tehama County on public ground that is managed by the BLM.
Retired CDFW biologist Tom Stone, who was heavily involved in the turkey program for more than 30 years, is still an avid turkey hunter. Like most of us who hunt, Stone keeps his eyes peeled for turkeys in nearly all his travels. Here's what he has to say about his sightings in northern California last fall.
"You know, it's really hard to get a handle on what's going on out there in the turkey world because things are always in a state of flux," Stone said. "On my drives I saw a mixed bag of single hens, hens with poults, and bachelor groups of toms. I do not think there were fewer turkeys than usual, and I'm sure there will not be a shortage of gobbling toms this spring in this part of the state. Personally, I can hardly wait for opening day."
This year the general spring season will run from March 28 to May 3, 2015. In addition, archery hunters can hunt from May 4 to May 17 and junior hunters can hunt the weekend of March 21-22 and from May 4 to May 17. The limit is one bearded turkey per day, three per season.
Editor's Note: John Higley's book "Successful Turkey Hunting" covers nearly every aspect of turkey hunting and is based on Higley's 42 years of pursuing wild turkeys in California and other locations. Order: P.O. Box 120, Palo Cedro, CA 96073. Autographed copies $28.95 postage paid.