Looking back on spring turkey hunting in 2015, I've got to think that the drought that has been plaguing California for several years had a detrimental effect on the harvest. I say that because warm, dry weather settled in during late winter, creating spring-like conditions much earlier than usual. In Northern California, deciduous oak trees in the foothills were growing new leaves in late March, and that's almost a month early. Where I hunt, the annual break up of winter flocks was complete by the last weekend of March when the general season opened.
For me, all of the ingredients for a successful hunt came together more than once. In the dark on opening morning, I climbed into a pop-up blind that I set up the previous day overlooking the edge of a grassy meadow. It was situated below a cluster of hillside roost trees that I knew from scouting were occupied that night by several hens and toms. My hope was that some of the birds would pitch down to the meadow when they left the trees, and that a tom or two would heed my calls and come looking for what they thought was the hen of their dreams.
I could draw out this tale, but suffice it to say that my plan actually worked. Shortly after flying down, three toms came strutting into view, and one of them was given a ride home with me. Later in the season, another big tom thrilled me with his antics as he crossed a wide pasture in midmorning and came 250 yards to where I sat calling. I took him home, too.
The interesting thing to me is that most of the successful hunters I talked to killed adult toms. A few jakes were seen here and there, but there weren't very many. Taking recent production and carryover from past years into account will give us a clue as to what kind of hunting can we expect in spring 2016.
Turkey-hunting opportunities are limited in the southern part of the state. For several years there was some good guided turkey hunting on the sprawling Tejon Ranch in Kern County, but that dried up as the turkey population declined during the last few years. The jury is still out as to exactly why, but the hope is the turkeys will eventually increase in number again.
That leaves San Diego County as the remaining bright spot. There's still fair to good hunting in the Descanso and Palomar ranger districts on the Cleveland National Forest and on private land for those with permission.
My contact for the Cleveland is biologist Jeff Wells, who, while not a turkey hunter himself, keeps tabs on the birds he sees in his travels. This year, based on the number of turkeys he's seen, he expects things to be about the same as last year when it comes to hunting.
"I saw a few hens with poults," he noted. "But none of them had very many. Off hand, I'd say the birds are just holding their own. There's always some carryover so adult toms, while not exactly behind every bush, are still out there waiting to challenge someone with a turkey call."
Wells noted that it was another dry year, except for some short-lived relief due to summer storms. But no habitat-altering wildfires occurred on the forest, and that's a good thing. Also, he is seeing more turkeys on Palomar Mountain, which adds to the opportunities for unattached hunters.
For further information about turkey hunting on the Cleveland National Forest you can give Wells a call at (858) 674-2943.
COAST RANGE TO SIERRA NEVADAS
As usual, I'll begin this report with the observations of fellow outdoor writer Terry Knight, who has been hunting turkeys in the Golden State almost as long as I have. Knight is well aware of the trends in this region, and here's what he thinks about the situation in Lake, Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties.
"The hatch hasn't been gangbusters anywhere recently, but for whatever reason I think it was better last spring than it was in 2014," Knight said. "I've seen hens scattered around, and recently a flock of 24 hens and poults was in my back yard. Everything considered, I think, hunting will be up to par around here in 2016."
Knight noted that fewer hunters seem to be hunting on public land, while more of them are knocking on doors and getting permission to hunt on private holdings. It's important, he advised, to be polite and to follow up with thanks after being allowed to hunt.
Throughout this region there are state wildlife areas worth looking into for turkey hunting, 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). The Gray Lodge Wildlife Area (also in Butte County) now has turkeys as well.
"I talked with a few hunters who got turkeys on the Cache Creek Natural Area, and a couple others who scored on the Mendocino National Forest, so the possibilities for hunting on public land are there," Knight noted.
The Cache Creek area, which consists of 70,000 acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, is a walk-in proposition as there's no vehicle access. For more information, contact the Ukiah branch office of the BLM at (707) 468-4000.
In the mid 1960s, I saw my first wild turkeys ever during a wild pig hunt in San Luis Obispo County with guide Eldon Bergman. He started guiding turkey hunts during the first spring season, which took place in 1971. Bergman still guides a few turkey hunters each spring, so he's well aware of the population in his area.
"Last spring all the toms we took were sharp-spurred adults," he said. "I think the hatch has been off some, probably due in some way to the drought. I see turkeys about every day but not as many young ones as I'd like. Just the same, we should have some decent hunting this spring because I'm still seeing a good number of adult toms on all the places where I hunt."
Doug Roth of Camp Five Outfitters takes around 35 turkey hunters out each spring. Based in Paso Robles, Camp Five offers hog, deer, turkey and elk hunts on roughly 50,000 acres of private land in San Luis Obispo and southern Monterey counties. Roth keeps an eye on the turkey population much like Eldon Bergman does.
"We've been hunting older age class toms for the last couple of years, and it shows," Roth said. "The turkeys are getting more challenging as they get older, but our hunters are still having nearly 100 percent success, and that's what we want."
I asked Roth if he noticed anything different about the hatch last spring as compared to 2014.
"For whatever reason, I think its a little better," he said. "There are more jakes around, so that's a good sign. I honestly think we'll have some good hunting come spring as long as the weather cooperates."
Years ago, I hunted in El Dorado County with Aaron Brooks of Mount Aukum, and we've been friends ever since. Brooks, a house painter by trade, is something of a fanatic when it comes to turkey hunting. He's always on the lookout for them in his part of the world, which includes Amador, Sacramento and El Dorado counties.
Brooks does not know if the drought had any noticeable effect on turkey numbers, but he does think production last spring was slightly lower than average.
"I've seen hens here and there," he said, "but very few of them had large broods. The other day I saw three hens, one with six poults and the others with only three each. That's an average of four, which isn't great but isn't terrible either."
Brooks hunts a lot on the El Dorado National Forest, but he admits it isn't the same as it was before the drought.
"A few years ago there were lots of turkeys on the forest, but lately I've only found a few of them above 3,000 feet elevation," he said. "I think most of the birds moved down from the forest a few years ago when there was heavy snow all through spring. And now, because of the water shortage, I think they're staying close to dependable water sources on private land below the forest boundary."
Brooks did call in two jakes on the national forest last spring after several days of hunting, but he let them go.
I moved to this part of the state in 1974, partly for the hunting and fishing opportunities I would find only a few miles away from home. I was especially interested in turkey hunting, and it wasn't long before I found a few places to hunt on public land. I've been deeply involved in turkey hunting ever since and, as you might expect, I keep an eye out for them wherever I'm in a place that might have them.
My own impression, after seeing turkeys in several locations in Shasta County, where I live, is that the hatch varied widely from flock to flock. Last fall in eastern Shasta County a rancher saw a hen with 10 nearly grown poults, and that's outstanding. She also saw another hen with several but couldn't get a final number. On top of that, she counted nine adult toms in a group, so things are looking good in that location. In my travels, most of the successful hens I saw had from two to four young ones with them.
Parrey Cremeans, a local outfitter and guide, takes turkey hunters out each spring. He enjoys nearly 100 percent success.
"I expect we'll have some good hunting this spring because we have some great places to hunt," he noted. "But, even so, I don't think the population is as big as it was before the drought. It's not bad mind you, but it could be better."
And so it goes. My friend Jim Schaafsma, of Arrow Five Outfitters in southern Trinity County, told me he recently saw a mixed flock of more than 20 hens and poults in one of his food plots. That's good news, because it represents a bigger number of turkeys than he's seen in one place at the same time for several years.
"Our spring weather is usually very wet here on the ranch," he said. "But with the drought we've had less rain during the time when turkeys are on their nests. In our area a little less water than usual may have been a good thing."
Meanwhile, Scott Hill, regional biologist for the CDFW in Tehama County, offered these thoughts.
"The department doesn't count turkeys officially, but since I hunt them I do keep an eye out for them when I'm roaming around," he noted. "It's hard to say, but from what I've seen, I don't believe there's any shortage around here. I was surprised to see a flock at 4,000 feet elevation in an area where we were capturing deer and putting radio collars on them. Seems to me the turkeys are more than holding their own throughout this region."
Hill, who hunts on BLM land, the Lassen National Forest and on family property, expects turkey hunting to be about the same as always.
"Those hunters who find some birds and approach hunting them in an orderly, persistent manner will, as always, have the best chance for success," he said.
The 2016 general spring season will run from March 26 to May 1. In addition, archery hunters can hunt from May 2 to May 15, and junior hunters can hunt the weekend of March 19-20 and from May 2 to May 15. The limit is one bearded turkey per day, three per season.
As of July 1, 2015, non-lead ammunition is required where hunting is allowed on all CDFW wildlife areas and ecological reserves. A statewide ban on lead ammo for all hunting will take place in 2019.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A new book by John Higley with contributions from JJ Reich is available. Successful Turkey Hunting covers nearly every aspect of turkey hunting and is based on Higley's 42 years of pursuing wild turkeys in California as well as other locations as far East as Alabama and south to Mexico. Order from John Higley at P.O. Box 120, Palo Cedro, CA 96073. Autographed copies are $28.95 each, postage paid.