Texas fall turkeys can be a bonus to the deer season, but there's more to the hunt than that.
It was weird — really peculiar at first sight. Sitting in a tower stand in early November the Texas terrain before me was relatively flat except for an expansive view to the north.
The landscape dropped into a low valley hidden by trees, only to rise up and over a hill a mile away. Mesquite, cedar and a variety of oaks covered the land in all directions with open, grassy gaps sprinkled throughout.
Something caught my eye. There was nothing but black on the neighboring hillside's uncluttered spaces. As I watched, the ground seemed to undulate, to move. The whole scene appeared downright spooky.
Grabbing binoculars, I soon realized that what I was seeing was a flock of wild turkeys. And a whole lot of them; more than I had ever seen at one time! It was mesmerizing as the ground truly appeared to be heaving, the solid black mass rising and falling in a gentle, graceful movement.
I was astounded.
The enormous band of birds began to disappear in the valley. Thirty minutes had passed when suddenly turkeys, both hens and gobblers, slowly made their way toward my stand and corn feeder.
I lost count at 78 as the large birds spread out — too many for me to keep tally. There was no noise other than a few little clucks and putts here and there. Naturally, the corn we had put out for deer was quickly devoured.
I lost track of time but I know turkeys continued to stream from the valley for another half hour or more. Their range expanded as far as I could see in every direction. Many walked right under my stand!
And no, I did not shoot a single one. Simply overwhelmed, I delighted in this surreal scene, yet bemoaned the fact that I had no camera to document the remarkable event.
Little did I know at the time, but that dream would turn into a nightmare of sorts. Almost every hunt thereafter involved hordes of hungry turkeys arriving ahead of the white-tailed deer we were targeting.
Making noise, even leaving my stand to chase the birds away did little good as the huge turkey flocks would come back in short order. The number of birds was tremendous that next spring's hunting is another story entirely!
More G&F Articles on Turkeys
The black hillside covered in Rio Grande turkeys was the result of back-to-back springs and summers producing good cover for nesting as well as abundant food sources for turkeys of all ages, especially the poults, which in turn related to increased survival rates. Although the sheer number of birds that afternoon seemed unusual, in the right year such scenes can be normal in some areas of the Lone Star State.
"The Edwards Plateau has the highest fall harvest in Texas," said Jason Hardin, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's upland game bird specialist. "During the 2015-2016 fall turkey season 26,000-plus hunters harvested over 10,000 fall birds. That is over twice as many hunters and twice as much harvest as the next closest ecoregion of the Cross Timbers."
Hardin says the Edwards Plateau does well to produce and support so many turkeys. That's due, primarily, to vast amounts of riparian areas, which equates to most of the ecoregion providing useable habitat for wild turkeys.
South Texas and the Rolling Plains offer great fall hunting opportunities, but birds are more restricted across the landscape based on available roosting cover. Where roosting sites are readily available, turkeys can be amazingly abundant. Flocks of 100-plus birds are commonly observed in several prime areas in the Rolling Plains.
"Most fall turkey harvest occurs while deer hunting," says Hardin, "although a few hunters actively chase fall birds."
He offers this advice for true fall turkey seekers, "Focus on feeding areas, not travel corridors. Get to where the birds want to be. If a flock is thoroughly busted, not all went off together; a hunter should take cover and begin calling. Use multiple calls to sound like a flock. Hens often want to get back together quickly, while gobblers may take a while."
There was a time when wild turkey numbers were quite low across our state. Today, the big birds inhabit 223 of Texas' 254 counties. One of the most substantial and oldest winter turkey roosts is in the South Llano River State Park near Junction.
It is a well-known, often-discussed fact that wild turkeys have the keenest vision and hearing of all Texas game animals. Able to catch the slightest movement and pinpoint noise a mile away, it is joked that if only a turkey could smell, none would ever fall to a predator — man or beast.
"Turkeys are usually incidental to hunting deer in the fall and winter, said Ruben Cantu, retired TPWD wildlife biologist and co-owner of Wildlife Consultants, LLC, based in San Angelo. "During the fall, as a result of a good hatch, there are young birds mixed in flocks. These young birds don't know much and are insecure.
"If they wander off or get dispersed by a predator or disturbance, they'll start calling to get the attention of or locate the rest of the flock," stated Cantu. "It is an 'I'm lost, come help me' call, sometimes referred to as a Kee-kee or Kee-kee run call. This call is an attention getter. It can attract hens as well as gobblers.
"I personally don't hunt turkeys in the fall," he said, "as I prefer chasing them in springtime. But some folks want that wild Thanksgiving turkey."
With a deep chuckle, Cantu added, "I prefer a Butterball!"
Experienced West Texas and Central Texas hunting guide Ralph Suarez suggested, "Using clucks and soft purrs, imitating hen turkeys, you should be able to call some birds in."
Like many of the experienced turkey hunters we talked to for this article, Suarez stated he usually relies on turkeys appearing while deer hunting, then selecting the one he wants. He, too, prefers waiting until spring for the challenge of calling in a grand old gobbler.
Suarez noted that when there is a lack of adequately tall trees in which they can roost, he has seen wild turkey perch on the giant iron power transmission towers that crisscross West Texas.
He said it is an interesting sight that takes you off guard a bit when you first realize it is turkeys ascending the tower structures. Buzzards commonly use such structures as well.
But don't think that situation creates a "gimme" shot. In Texas, it is against the law to hunt roosting turkeys at any time and by any means.
There are several important things hunters should know whether they choose to go after fall turkeys or simply wait for one of the birds to stroll by while they are deer hunting.
It is vital to identify hens from gobblers. Ignorance is no excuse to a game warden. In springtime it usually is quite easy to distinguish between the sexes. However, in the fall, especially with young birds or low light conditions such as fog or heavy cloud cover, it may be difficult to tell the difference.
TPWD fall turkey regulations vary among counties and so you must know the rules where you are hunting. And they apply only to Rio Grande turkeys as there is no fall season for our smaller flocks of eastern turkeys. Furthermore, there is no fall turkey season east of I-35 due to lower densities. Only small portions of the Blackland Prairies and Post Oak Savannah have counties with fall seasons.
Some counties allow either sex to be taken while others require hens having beards. Some 10 to 20 percent of hens are capable of growing beards but usually they are not as noticeable or as long as a gobbler's.
Typically, a turkey's beard grows 3 to 5 inches in a year. A bearded hen may sport only a little tuft of a beard. Study hens carefully before pulling the trigger in a bearded hen county.
Like deer, turkeys must be tagged immediately after killing.
The following comes from TPWD regulations: In counties restricted to gobblers and/or bearded hens, a male turkey is required to have one leg, including the spur, attached to the bird; or the bird, accompanied by a patch of skin with breast feathers and beard attached. In counties restricted to bearded hens, all harvested hens must be accompanied by a patch of skin with breast feathers attached.
Turkeys require three things: food, cover and water. Drought adversely affects turkey survival, thus numbers, by reducing all three essentials.
Turkeys have been documented ranging across more than 6,000 acres as well as trekking as far as 10 to 12 miles. During dry times, property that has not been overgrazed (deer feeders are a big plus, too), has multiple water sources, and tall trees nearby for roosting are likely be desirable turkey habitat.
When it comes to hunting, white-tailed deer are the main event across the Lone Star State in the fall, but bagging a wild turkey can be more than an added dividend.
Even when a hunter remains semi-hidden in a blind, being quiet and restricting movement are key elements in tagging that holiday dinner. Expect the unexpected and perhaps a turkey flock will surprise you this fall when you are hunting for whitetails. Good luck on getting that deer season bonus!
UTILIZE THE WHOLE BIRD
The breast of the wild turkey is perhaps the best part. It is easily made into delectable dining such as chicken fried turkey fingers (tenderized strips coated with flour and deep fried) or bacon-wrapped tidbits, grilled or fried.
Save the giblets for making dressing or use as cut bait when fishing.
I save legs, thighs, and wing drumsticks. Debone after boiling with celery, onion, and seasonings, then chop in fine pieces, add meat and noodles to stock for wild turkey noodle soup.
Grind deboned turkey in a food processor, add boiled eggs, celery, mayo, seasonings, and whatever else you desire to make a yummy turkey spread for crackers or sandwiches. That's a favorite around my house.
Or just use deboned turkey in your favorite dish, or use your own imagination to whip up a new dish! There's no need to let a bit of that wild meat go to waste.