It's hard to believe there was no wild turkey hunting in California until the late 1960s when the first fall season was held. Prior to that time few hunters in this region gave turkey hunting a second thought. Any stories on the subject in outdoor publications centered on the East, and there weren't many of them.
For me, turkey hunting became a reality in April 1971, when the first spring season was held in the Golden State. It lasted only a week and took in all or part of just nine counties. By chance, I was invited to participate in the hunt by a biologist friend who was deeply involved in the turkey introduction program with the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG). To the best of my knowledge, I was the only outdoor writer in the field on opening day and, purely by luck, I killed my first wild gobbler before lunchtime. Turkey hunting has been an important part of my life ever since.
Happily, 2012 was another good year for lots of hunters throughout the state, including me. One of the most memorable hunts I had was with my pal Tom Stone, a retired CDFG biologist who worked in the turkey program in Northern California for 30 years. On the hunt in question, we were in Mendocino County near the small town of Willits, where Stone lived for a couple years as a kid. It was the final week of the 37-day season, and we had permission to hunt on a piece of private land a few miles from town.
Rain the previous night soaked everything, including the turkeys, but the storm was breaking up and the birds were hot when we finally arrived in the hunting area after breakfast. Even though we weren't early, it didn't seem to matter much. After parking Tom's truck, getting out and gathering our gear, I blew my favorite raspy crow call, and got an immediate multi-gobbler response.
"Right there!" I exclaimed, pointing toward a low ridge.
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"I heard them," Stone said with a wide grin. "We need to get closer without being seen, and I know how to get there. Follow me."
In less than five minutes, we were set up beneath the sprawling branches of a large madrone tree with an excellent view of the ridge. Once settled, I dug out a favorite box call and sent a short series of hen yelps into the now-clearing air.
A flurry of gobbles rang out and put us on full alert. One more series of yelps was all I had time for before three wet, bedraggled adult toms strolled into view and came on a beeline toward our position. "Take the one on the right," I hissed, when they were only 25 yards out. "I'll take the one on the left."
With that, our shots rang out simultaneously, and two of the toms fell. The third seemed puzzled for a few seconds before running away. Both of the birds we killed were at least three or four years old. Mine wore a beard 10-1/2 inches long and had sharp, curved 1-1/4 inch spurs. Stone's bird was nearly a twin to mine. Both were fine with us.
The question now is just how are things shaping up for 2013? To get some answers, I posed that question to several folks who have a handle on the current population trends. The lineup includes biologists, hunting guides, avid hunters, and even an outdoor writer or two.
Here, then, is the outlook for various regions throughout the state.
The best turkey hunting in Southern California takes place in San Diego and Kern counties. At one time there was a fair number of turkeys on the San Bernardino National Forest in San Bernardino County, but Jim Matthews, publisher of the wingshooter's newsletter Western Birds, says there aren't many left.
"A while back I talked to a hunter who told me about a few turkeys still existing in a roadless area, but I haven't heard of anyone hunting them," Matthews said.
Meanwhile, in San Diego County, the Cleveland National Forest and some private lands have enough birds for some good hunting. Palomar Ranger District Biologist Jeff Wells said he's seen fair production in the area he covers and the same should hold true for the Descanso Ranger District.
"I'm constantly running into turkeys when I'm in the field," Wells said. "We had mild spring weather and that probably worked in favor of hens and poults. Also, wildfires are a problem sometimes but we haven't had any major burns lately. All things considered, I'd say hunters will have a pretty good chance for success in 2013."
Farther north, in Kern County, most turkey hunting takes place on the sprawling Tejon Ranch, which conducts junior hunts in conjunction with the CDFG and offers guided hunts for others. The birds on the property are Merriam's, which are found in only a few places in California.
"I haven't done a population tally yet," Ranch and Wildlife Supervisor Tony Mattias said, when I called in early fall, "but quail production was very good and I suspect the turkeys faired well last spring, too. Here, we concentrate only on trophy toms, so we always have plenty of carryover from year to year." To inquire about hunting on the Tejon, call (619) 663-4209 or look them up online at www.hunttejon.com.
COAST RANGE TO THE SIERRA NEVADA
For information on this section of Central California, I rely on several different individuals. First in line is my friend and fellow outdoor writer Terry Knight, who has hunted turkeys for decades. Knight, who lives in Lake County, keeps his eyes open for turkeys in his travels, and talks with dozens of local turkey hunters every year. That said, here are his thoughts on the current population of turkeys throughout the region.
"Honestly, I haven't seen as many young turkeys this year as last," Terry said, "but the hatch was still a little better than average. We may not have a turkey behind every bush, but we've got plenty. Weather permitting, I think we'll have another good season next spring."
Knight usually hunts for his birds on the Mendocino National Forest because he likes the challenge of locating them on public land, and he's not interested in filling his freezer. He noted that a large summer wildfires on the Mendocino did not affect much turkey habitat so they will not be a factor in this years hunter success.
Hunters still have several state wildlife areas with turkeys to try in Knight's area and beyond. Among them are the state-owned 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).
"I've been told that the Cache Creek Natural Area produced pretty well for hunters willing to hike," Knight said. "That's 70,000 acres of public land managed by the CDFG and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). It's an incredible resource, really."
For information on this huge area, contact the BLM at (707) 468-4000 or on the web at "http://www.blm.gov"
Knight went on to say he thinks more and more hunters are knocking on doors and getting permission to hunt on private land throughout the region.
"You've got to be responsible," he said, "but landowners are giving permission to hunt more often than they used to. There are lots of vineyards in Lake, Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa counties, and the owners don't like turkeys around their grapes."
Another old time turkey hunter and guide is Eldon Bergman (805-238-5504), who plies his trade in San Luis Obispo County. Last season Bergman guided 20 hunters, only one of whom didn't score. He simply missed, which happens to all of us once in awhile.
"We've got lots of birds around here," Bergman said. "I saw small poults in August for gosh sakes and lots of hens with poults much bigger. We had some wet weather in June, but obviously nothing that bothered the turkeys too much. I'm looking forward to another swell spring season and I see no reason why it won't be."
Doug Roth, of Camp Five Outfitters, had some encouraging words about the ranches he hunts in Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties.
"I don't consider the Monterey ranches to be the best turkey habitat," he said, "but there was a good hatch last year and I expect some good hunting on them. Meanwhile, our San Luis Obispo places are loaded with birds again, and thanks to the carryover from past years, there are lots of longbeards around.
"Actually, last spring was probably our best ever. Every one of our 32 hunters got birds and I expect to do as well again in 2013."
To reach Camp Five for information on their turkey, hog and deer hunts, call (805) 610-0031 or go online to www.camp5outfitters.com.
Aaron Brooks is a turkey-hunting fanatic from the small town of Mt. Aukum in El Dorado County. Brooks works full-time as a housepainter and saves his vacation time for spring turkey season to hunt for himself and call for friends. Winner of at least two calling contests in California, Brooks calls about as well, or better, than most. Last spring, he was present for the taking of 20 longbeard gobblers, including three of his own. Some of the toms were on private land, but several came from public land on the El Dorado National Forest.
"We've got gobs of gobblers this year," Brooks chuckled, when I asked how things looked in his area. "El Dorado, Sacramento and Amador counties should all be loaded with birds. We had some rain last spring, but not enough to mess things up for the birds. I've seen hens with as many as 8 poults and some with only 5 or 6, but that's still better than average.
"Last year's crop, coupled with the carryover from past years, almost guarantees some great hunting this spring."
There are wild turkeys in virtually all of the state's northern counties, but some offer far better hunting than others. Shasta and Tehama counties are at the top of the list, and Siskiyou and Trinity counties do produce for folks in the know. The report I got from southern Trinity County isn't too hot, however. Jim Schaasfma, of Arrow Five Outfitters, lives on a ranch where I love to hunt turkeys, but this year numbers are down on that property. "There were lots of adult birds around in February and March, but I didn't see any little ones last summer," Schaasfma said. "It might have had something to do with the cold, late rain we had here in the mountains. We got 2 1/2 inches at one time in June and another half-inch in July."
By contrast, Rick Gould, a guide with Red Bank Outfitters in Tehama County, had a glowing report about the acreage he hunts.
"The light June rain we had in the valley didn't affect the turkeys much," he said. "We've got lots of carryover birds, and I saw evidence of early and late hatches. "There were lots of grasshoppers everywhere and that's protein for the turkeys, young and old."
Red Bank will host up to 20 turkey hunters in the spring on several thousand acres, and they offer turkey and hog combo hunts for those interested. You can contact Red Bank by phone at (530) 529-9435 or online at www.redbankoutfitters.com.
As for yours truly, I live in Shasta County where I've seen evidence of good production. Recently, I spotted 14 mature toms in a single group and 18 in another flock miles away. Nearly every hen I've seen has several poults in tow as well.
Tom Stone, who lives nearby, agrees with my assessment. He never tires of looking at turkeys and he's always on the lookout in his travels. "We're surrounded," Stone said. "When I was working with Fish and Game, we always said the Rio Grande turkeys we got from Texas never knew they left home when they were released in the foothills, and that still holds true. Some places have more birds than others, but overall I think there are plenty to go around in 2013. When the season starts, we'll see if I'm right."
There you have it. The turkey population in most areas is robust this year and hunter success should be high. As usual, several factors will come into play, including the timing of breeding phases and inclement weather. The turkeys are there and the trick is to persist until you find yourself in the right place at the right time. Good luck with that.
Note: This year the general spring season will run from March 30 to May 5, 2013. In addition to the general season, archery hunters can hunt from May 6 to May 19 and junior hunters can hunt on March 23-24 and from May 6 to May 19. The limit is one bearded turkey per day, three per season.
Arkansas turkey hunting is still on life support, but it's showing remarkable signs of improvement. After a record year in 2003, Arkansas fell to 9,000 birds harvested in 2012 — 11,000 less birds in a 10-year span. The state has responded by cutting back on hunting opportunities, and it feels confident numbers will slowly rise.
For more information about turkey hunting in Arkansas, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
The turkey population in most areas is robust this year and hunter success should be high. As usual, several factors will come into play, including the timing of breeding phases and inclement weather. The turkeys are there and the trick is to persist until you find yourself in the right place at the right time.
For more information about turkey hunting in California, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
With the ability to hunt two species of wild turkey in the same state, Florida hunters definitely have an edge. Although Florida doesn't do statewide turkey assessments, officials believe numbers will be as strong and impressive as last year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Florida, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Turkey populations for 2013 are estimated to be around 335,000, which has remained steady since 2010. The numbers are very solid — even more impressive when you consider they were around 17,000 in 1973. Much like last year, hunters in Georgia can expect a great chance at a turkey again in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Georgia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
It's hard to conceive of a better place to hunt turkeys than the Great Plains region. You can buy multiple permits across states, seasons are liberal in length and you can hunt Rios, Easterns and Merriam's in the same state. It doesn't get much better than that.
In Nebraska, 32,520 permits were issued and 21,419 turkeys were harvested in 2012 — that's a 62 percent success rate, well above the national average (25 percent).
For more information about turkey hunting in the Great Plains region, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast for Kansas , Nebraska
, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Illinois turkey numbers in 2012 grew to 15,121, which was better than an already impressive showing in 2011. Will the same trend prove true in 2013? According to biologists, turkey numbers are still strong, but the state DNR is taking a wait-and-see approach.
Northern Illinois typically provides the best harvest numbers, with 8,935 turkeys taken in 2012. The southern part of the state was still at an impressive 7,006 turkeys harvested. Biologists in Illinois predict that turkey numbers in 2013 will be the same, or slightly improved, from last year, which is great news for hunters.
For more information about turkey hunting in Illinois, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Despite warmer conditions in 2012, hunters killed 12,655 turkeys in Indiana, which made for a solid year. Does that mean 2013 is set up to be a great year? Biologists in Indiana are hesitant to make that bold of a prediction, especially since brood numbers haven't been that great in recent years. This has mainly affected the number of jakes harvested.
Even with some of these concerns, state biologists are optimistic about turkey production in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Indiana, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Turkey harvest numbers were up slightly in 2012 from the year prior — a positive trend for turkey hunters in Iowa. With a robust youth season and strong adult harvest numbers the last couple of years, state officials think 2013 is going to be a strong year as well.
For more information about turkey hunting in Iowa, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
With strong survival and nesting numbers in 2012, officials in Kentucky are predicting another solid year in 2013. Despite two years of odd weather, Kentucky has maintained strong numbers all around. Officials also believe a dry spell actually helped more than it hurt.
For more information about turkey hunting in Kentucky, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
According to biologists, this spring's hunting in Louisiana should be a bit tougher than last year's. In some areas the birds had a hard time in the spring of 2011, resulting in both poor nesting success and adult bird mortality. That doesn't mean the turkey population is in trouble, but it does mean hunters may be in for a couple of years of more challenging hunting.
For more information about turkey hunting in Louisiana, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Michigan has not had a banner turkey hatch in several years, but it looks like 2012 may provide just that. As a result, Joe Robison of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources predicts 2013 will be a fantastic year for turkey hunters.
With an already impressive population of right at 200,000 birds in 2012, Robison predicts that number will increase this year. Also, Michigan has a high success rate — 36 percent — which should make for an exciting turkey hunting season.
For more information about turkey hunting in Michigan, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Minnesota had a great spring for nesting in 2012, something that should bring great turkey hunting this year. While in the past hunters had to traverse to the southern part of the state if they wanted to bag a turkey, numbers have rapidly expanded all across the state.
"I'm thrilled with what turkeys are doing in Minnesota," Tom Glines, National Wild Turkey Federation regional director, said. According to Glines, lottery tags are up 10 percent in many areas, and 20 percent in others. All that means lots of opportunity in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Minnesota, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Mississippi boasts one of the largest wild turkey populations in the country. And with over a quarter million of these birds scattered from the Tennessee line to the Gulf of Mexico, hunters should have no problem finding a gobbler to chase on opening morning.
For more information about turkey hunting in Mississippi, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
The Missouri Department of Conservation estimates the state's current spring turkey population is at around 300,000 birds. Unfortunately, poor production in recent times has caused a decline in the turkey population, due to abnormally wet periods during nesting and hatching periods. However, because the last two years were so good in terms of production, it is likely 2013 will be a high water mark, which is great news for hunters.
For more information about turkey hunting in Missouri, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
There are no two ways about it — New England is stocked full of turkeys, which is great news for hunters in 2013. With an estimated turkey population of 214,000, hunters have great chances to tag a bird. Maine has the highest numbers, while New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts are not far behind.
For more information about turkey hunting in New England, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
While turkey hunting numbers should remain somewhat steady, early data in North Carolina suggests the downward trend of turkey populations may continue into the 2013 season. Almost 20 percent of turkeys harvested in 2012 were jakes, which means less mature turkeys this year. State officials also recommend hunting federal lands, though permits are required for these particular hot spots.
For more information about turkey hunting in North Carolina, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Ohio looks to be in good shape for the 2013 turkey hunting season, with great populations of birds across the state. Officials estimate 2013 and 2014 will both be great years, with harvest rates predicted to be around 18,000 birds.
For more information about turkey hunting in Ohio, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Depending on what happens with the drought, Oklahoma officials predict the 2013 turkey season will be a mirror of what happened last year. The state had solid numbers, despite obviously dry conditions. That said, the drought definitely had a negative impact on overall turkey numbers state wide. Numbers are still strong — 55,747 turkeys in the western region alone — but down 9 percent from last year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Oklahoma, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
States like Oregon and Washington, both in the Pacific Northwest, have an optimistic turkey outlook for 2013. The southwest corner of Oregon is the state's typical hot spot for turkey hunting, and it looks good this year as well. Since 2011, the Melrose unit in southwest Oregon has a 51 percent success rate, which is well above the national average.
Washington figures not to be far behind, with a success rate of 36 percent last year and a harvest of 5,600 birds. The hottest areas are in northeast part of the state.
For more information about turkey hunting in the Pacific Northwest, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Pennsylvania turkey numbers have continued to rise and fall over the last few years, but the good news is results have been consistently stable. According to officials with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, population numbers have dropped off a little, but that was after a roaring boom in the 2000's. They also predict a solid year for turkeys in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Pennsylvania, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
When most sportsmen think of Colorado, Wyoming and much of the Rocky Mountain region, they think of monster mulies and bugling elk. And for good reason. But with a turkey hunting success rate of 25 percent in Colorado — on par with the national average — and 70 percent for non-residents in Wyoming, it's also a great place to track down a turkey.
For those hunters lucky enough to draw a limited tag, there is usually a success rate of 55 percent. Hunting Rio Grandes is a bit tougher, as the tag usually takes about 3 to 4 years to acquire.
For more information about turkey hunting in the Rocky Mountain region, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
After two productive years for wild turkeys, South Carolina looks to be in good shape for the 2013 turkey season. According to state officials, some of the best places to hunt are public land areas like those in the Sumer National Forest. With good production since 2010, these areas are full of 2-year-old gobblers.
For more information about turkey hunting in South Carolina, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Coming off great turkey harvest years in 2010 and 2012 — with 37,000 and 33,789 birds harvested, respectively — things look good again for Tennessee in 2013. Amazingly, Tennessee harvested 30,000 birds every year for the last decade, which says a lot about its ability to produce great turkey hunting year after year.
For more information about turkey hunting in Tennessee, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Virginia state officials believe the state is in the midst of a leveling off period, which means consistent turkey harvest rates statewide. Turkey populations have dropped by about 1.2 percent over the last decade, but harvest numbers have remained strong.
For more information about turkey hunting in Virginia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
In 2012, West Virginia saw a fairly substantial decline in turkey harvest numbers, which was probably affected by low brood numbers dating back to 2009. Likewise, state officials believe a strong hatch in 2011 should translate into much improved harvest numbers for 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in West Virginia, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
Wisconsin has consistently been rising in turkey production each year, and this year it looks like it has reached a place of dynamic stability — turkeys are present everywhere in hearty numbers. In 2012, 42,612 turkeys were harvested — a 6 percent increase over the previous year.
Likewise, a mild winter and early spring appear to have helped turkeys pull off successful broods, according to the state DNR. With 82 percent of broods consisting of toms last year, biologists say hunting should be great in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Wisconsin, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
State officials in Alabama say 2012 was a solid year for turkey hunters across the state. They predict 2013 will be much of the same, with good poult production to show for the last couple of years. As is the case in many states, quality turkey production in Alabama has come as a result of good habitat management.
Private land in Alabama offers some of the best hunting options, though a $16 permit gives you access to Wildlife Management Area lands that are also prime hunting grounds for turkeys.
For more information about turkey hunting in Alabama, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.
According to state officials, there are around 500,000 Rio Grande turkeys living in Texas, meaning there are lots of opportunities for hunters across the state. The state also had above average survival rates, which should make for a great season in 2013.
For more information about turkey hunting in Texas, be sure to check out the 2013 G&F turkey hunting forecast.