Are you looking to take a tom? Your timing couldn't be better. (March 2008).
As darkness gave way to light, the sounds of yelps from above grew more intense. Soon, more than 30 birds pitched out of the trees and scattered in multiple directions. Shortly after, the toms moved in. Before leaving the area, I would arrow a dandy gobbler. And my buddy, Bret Stuart, would have a tag wrapped around the leg of a long-spurred tom.
We were hunting with a good friend who was also one of the state's top turkey guides.
Jody Smith, based out of Elkton, guides hunters from around the country, and what he hears from them will make Oregon turkey hunters stop and appreciate what our great state has to offer.
":All of them are shocked, not only at the number of birds we have, but at the amount of ideal habitat,": said Smith, who operates Jody Smith's Guide Service. He said the density of birds in this area always amazes him.
":It seems that almost every year, the numbers continue to grow, and the range of the birds expands,": he said. ":It just keeps getting better and better each year. And this spring, based on last year's incredible hatch, should be no different.":
When it comes to public-land hunting in western Oregon, the Melrose and Rogue units offer the most opportunity, said Steve Denny, one of the state's leading turkey biologists.
":Here, many private timber lands are open, some to walk-in only, some to motorized vehicles. It depends on the company.":
In the Medford area, BLM lands open more doors for hunters, as do the Umpqua National Forest and BLM land near Roseburg.
Above Shady Cove, in the Lost Creek area, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also has some good hunting available, said Denny.
According to biologist Mark Vargus, the Rogue Unit has lots of public-land options, thanks to the Corps and BLM lands around the Lost Creek Reservoir area.
":Farther to the east and a bit south, Butte Falls has good public land hunting, as do timber company lands who allow access in the area,": said Vargus, who is based in Central Point.
":Heading to the south, there's good BLM land off of Crowfoot Road, which is worth a close look.":
Vargus also highlights Cobleigh Road, a bit southeast of Crowfoot Road, as having good BLM lands that hunters shouldn't overlook.
":To the south of that, Salt Creek Road -- and over to the west, into the Evans Creek Unit, up Long Branch Road -- both have some birds.":
In the Dixon Unit, West Fork Trail Creek, and north of that in the Elk Creek drainage, hold good numbers of birds with good access, he said.
":There are lots of oak and madrone woods here, with a mix of pine. Hunters will want to focus their efforts below the 3,000-foot level,": he added. Turkeys are seen here up to 5,000 feet, but the greater populations stay below that 3,000-foot level.
A BLM map shows all these public access areas within Jackson and Josephine counties. Still, hunters should note that in these areas, most of the birds are on private land. They must obtain permission before attempting to hunt birds on these properties.
There are also some landlocked BLM areas -- that is, public land surrounded by private acreage. To reach these public areas, you must get trespass permission from the proper landowners.
In the Willamette Valley, good bird numbers exist from Lorane up through Eugene, Brownsville, and into the Corvallis and the Salem area. Again, these are almost entirely private-land hunts, and when it comes to securing a place to hunt, knocking on doors well ahead of the season is your best bet. The good part is that due to extensive turkey overpopulation and the problems that follow, many owners are granting access to places hunters couldn't get into before. Be the first one to ask, and you might hit the jackpot.
For hunters seeking a do-it-yourself public-land turkey adventure, head east. Biologist Denny said that lots of the top 10 areas are in the eastern part of the state, where hunters enjoy much more public-land access.
Hunters should note that in eastern Oregon, birds winter at lower elevations and in the spring, move to higher elevations where Forest Service land exists. This creates some great hunting opportunities.
Baker-based Assistant District Biologist Brian Ratliff said that thanks to the mild winters we've been having, turkey populations have increased in Baker County.
":The subalpine habitat, mixed with pine and sage brush, is ideal for turkeys in the South Fork Burnt River area, where birds are doing well,": he said. ":Along the south face of the Wallowa Mountains, namely the Eagle Creek and Pine Creek drainages, birds are doing really well.":
Ratliff advises hunters to spend some serious time in the lands between Halfway all the way to Keating. ":There's also getting to be more and more turkeys along the Elkhorn Mountains, both on the north and south sides,": said Ratliff.
":There are some private lands here, but overall, people are pretty good about granting permission to those who ask. We get lots of people from around the state here -- from Portland, Ontario and from all over the Oregon coast. People just seem to love hunting in this area.":
Over to LaGrande, Jim Cadwell, assistant district biologist for Union County, points to the Sled Springs Unit on Gallatin Timber property, as a place hunters will want to turn.
":This used to be Boise Cascade Timber land,": said Cadwell, ":and the ODFW has continued our agreement with Gallatin Timber to maintain public lands in northeast Oregon.":
Each year, the ODFW pays the Gallatin Timber Company to keep these lands open to the public. The funds come directly from the $2 fee hunters pay through Oregon's Access Habitat Program, said Caldwell.
This is a prime example where thousands of acres that would otherwise be closed are open to the public. The area Cadwell refers to lies north of Lostine and is best accessed through the Promise Road.
":Lots of it is walk-in-only access, which is great for hunting undisturbed birds,": said Cadwell.
On the east side of the Wallowa River, birds are widely distributed throughout both Union and Wallowa counties. On the West side, where the Wallowa and Grande Ronde Rivers join, there is additional land that affords public access around the Palmer Junction area, he said.
This area is just north of Elgin, is a mix of Gallatin and Forest Service land and offers more access for motorized vehicles.
Continuing to the west, you get into the Mount Emily Unit. Turkeys are starting to expand in areas. Birds are more scattered here, but hunter density is lower, so there's a trade-off.
To the south, in the Starkey Unit, most of the birds are located in the southeastern portion of the unit, though according to the biologist there's a good pocket of birds to the north, in the Spring Creek area.
Other places in eastern Oregon that hunters would want to check out include the agricultural lands and rolling hills near the towns of Imnaha, Wallowa, Elgin and Joseph. At lower elevations, private-land access is the norm with most public hunting to be had on the edges of both the Wallowa and Whitman national forests.
From Halfway to Medical Springs, turkeys can be found along the lower edge of the Whitman National Forest. The Umatilla National Forrest continues to be productive. Last season 14,807 turkey hunters set foot in Oregon, for a total of 58,157 days afield. They harvested 4,859 birds. Considering how far Oregon has come since its first statewide general season opened in 1987, and all it has to offer now, it's no wonder why hunters are flocking here from around the country.