G&F Forecast: Great Plains Turkey Hunting in 2013

G&F Forecast: Great Plains Turkey Hunting in 2013
Photo by John & Vikki Trout

If you're a turkey hunter, I really can't imagine any better place to live than in the Great Plains. Turkey numbers are stable, if not expanding across most of the Great Plains. You can buy multiple permits in most states right over the counter and the seasons are long and liberal. In several states, you can shoot Easterns, Rios and Merriam's in the same state. I can't conceive of more or better opportunities if you're an avid turkey hunter.

Weather can be a limiting factor for turkeys. Though hardier than most other game birds, turkeys can be affected by winter storms. Also, the drought of 2012 may have had some impact on turkey numbers, but for the most part, turkeys are doing extremely well across much of the Great Plains and all indications point to a banner season in 2013.


"The drought of 2012 was not as bad on turkeys as it was on other game birds," offered Nebraska Game & Park Commission Upland Game Bird Specialist Dr. Jeff Lusk. "In fact, reports from our field personnel are that they are seeing more broods than expected. Dry weather actually benefits turkeys, particularly in the spring. We had good nesting conditions. The drought conditions probably didn't have the same affects on turkeys as it did on other game birds. I would suspect because of the drought, there were fewer insects for the poults to feed on, but that's not as important as it is to quail or pheasants. Turkeys are not confined to grasslands, so they can move into woodlands and other habitats to find food."

The NWTF offers a more detailed hunt guide with exclusive, member-only information prepared by NWTF biologists and field staff. To access this information please join the NWTF. Please check with your local wildlife agency to confirm seasonal information before planning your hunt, as information is subject to change.

Nebraska is a destination for many turkey hunters because there are plenty of birds and opportunity. In 2012, hunters purchased 35,520 turkey permits and harvested 21,419 birds for a 63 percent success rate. The highest success rates were in the Panhandle portion of the state, followed by the Southwest.

Turkey numbers have been gradually increasing until recent years when populations have stabilized or dipped slightly. One reason turkey hunters are attracted to Nebraska is that you can harvest three birds in the spring season, one per permit and the chance exists to harvest Easterns, Rios and Merriam's in the same state. You can buy permits over the counter. The turkeys relate to river bottoms, brushy draws and shelterbelts. Agricultural areas and farms are big draws for turkeys, particularly when the weather turns bad. Find woods in close proximity and you have all the makings of a turkey hotspot.

"Nebraska offers a great opportunity for hunters wanting to harvest all three sub-species if they're not concerns about genetics," joked Lusk. Purebred turkeys are about as rare in Nebraska as turkey teeth. "Easterns exist east of Kearney; you have Merriam's and Rios to the west," said Lusk. "The first introduced birds were hybrids, which is good because they are better able to survive. There's a lot of interbreeding that takes place, particularly between Merriam's and Rios."

There is a surprising amount of public land in the form of WMA, CRP/MAPS and lands enrolled in the Open Field and Waters Program that are open to hunting. There are federal lands available, too, particularly in the West.

In the East, check out river valleys along the Platte and Elkhorn river drainages. Good numbers of Eastern turkeys can be found along river bottoms there, especially if they are adjacent to agricultural fields. Look for good public access in Boyd, Keya Paha and northern Rock and Brown counties along the Niobrara River. You may find a hodgepodge of bird types in the river valleys and crop fields near the central part of the state in the Central Loess Hills and the Loup River System.

There's more than 40,000 acres of public lands and in southwest Nebraska and gobblers relate heavily to the public lands found near Harlan, Medicine Creek, Swanson and Red Willow reservoirs. There are lots of WMA's along both the North and South Platte rivers that provide ideal turkey habitat. The Pine Ridge area in northwest Nebraska has rolling hills and pines that remind one of South Dakota's Black Hills. The habitat is perfect for Merriam's and they thrive on the national and state lands found there.

Fort more information on turkey hunting in Nebraska, go to the state's website or call (402) 471-0641.


Kansas is one of the country's premier destinations for those hoping to harvest the Rio Grande subspecies of turkey. Two-thirds of the state is dominated by Rios. You'll find Eastern birds in the eastern one-third of Kansas and a swath where the two intermingle and interbreed. Merriam's exist in the extreme southwest corner of the state so there's the chance to harvest all three subspecies without leaving the state over the course of two seasons.

Kansas spring turkey hunters enjoy a long season that includes an archery-only season that takes place in early April and a firearms season that begins the second week in April and runs until the end of May.

For the spring 2012 season there were four turkey-hunting units in Kansas. An initial turkey permit could be purchased over-the-counter for all units except Unit 4 (southwest Kansas). A second turkey game tag was also available for Units 2 and 3.

The KDWPT estimated there were 39,386 hunters who participated in the 2012 Kansas spring turkey season that harvested 31,239 gobblers. An estimated 63,928 permits were issued. For more information on licensing and season dates, consult the Kansas Dept. of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism website or call their office at 512 SE 25th Ave., Pratt, KS 67124 (620) 672-5911.

When asked about the impact of the drought on Kansas's turkey populations, Upland Game Bird Biologist Dave Dahlgren didn't hesitate. "There are areas where the drought definitely will have an effect. Places like southwest and south-central Kansas will feel the impact."

Dahlgren said on the positive side, a warm, somewhat damp spring was good for turkeys. "Turkeys nested early this spring (2012). We had a decent spring up until about May. It was relatively wet from mid-March through April. The rains produce lots of bugs early and then nothing." Dahlgren said the hatch was pretty good, but survival rates were probably affected. "In eastern Kansas, the Flint Hills and northwest Kansas, if there was a decline, it was only slightly," said Dahlgren. "The southwest is where the drought has really had an impact. The area has bee hurting for a very long time." Expect to find the best turkey hunting in Kansas near river bottoms in the northern Flint Hills region and in the north-central part of the state.

Kansas hunters enjoy one of the highest success rates in the country. In 2012, the average number of hunters taking at least one gobbler was 60 percent. That is a phenomenal success rate! The greatest number of hunters and harvest occurs in the northeast management region where an estimated 14,000 hunters harvested 11,000 turkeys. The number of hunters and harvest has increased every year since 2005 in northwest, north-central and the southwest region of Kansas.

Nearly 30 percent of the hunting effort for turkey in Kansas takes place on Walk-In Hunting Areas. The bulk of these WIHA areas are in northwest and north-central Kansas. Some are managed specifically for turkeys. Consult the Kansas Hunting Atlas for more information. Private lands were utilized by more than 83 percent of turkey hunters. A courteous request with hat in hand might get you on some prime Kansas turkey ground.


"We're in the process of building a model that will help us estimate turkey populations and give us a better handle on turkey numbers," stated Senior Wildlife Biologist Dr. Chad Lehman. Lehman said there is little doubt that South Dakota turkey numbers have suffered in recent years. "We've had three years of poor nesting success and poult survival because of wet springs. A dry spring this year (2012) helped turkey numbers bounce back, especially in the Black Hills where turkeys did very well this spring. In two years, we should have good populations in the Black Hills again.

"On the prairies; not so good. Turkeys are down on the prairies because of the drought and poor habitat. There just weren't any insects for the poults to feed on. There weren't any grasshopper or beetles, which are turkey favorites, and raptors prey heavily on the poults when the habitat is poor." Winter can also impact populations in the northern portions of the Black Hills.

Merriam's turkeys are native to South Dakota and dominate the landscape, especially in the Black Hills. Merriam's are known to hybridize where two of the subspecies exist. Rios Grande and Eastern turkeys are common, but it's the Merriam's that the majority of visiting sportsmen target. Hunters harvested approximately 13,300 spring gobblers in South Dakota in 2012

Hunters looking for the classic western turkey hunting experience will find it in the Black Hills. Residents and non-residents are eligible. Black Hills licenses are available by application only through the GFP License Office in Fort Pierre. There is no application deadline. Applications may be submitted online or via mail through the end of the season. Non-residents may purchase one BH1 license. Residents may have one BH1 license and one BH2 license. Either license may be purchased at any time. South Dakota's Spring Prairie Turkey Season is by drawing only with a deadline in mid-February. The season takes place from mid-April through mid-May. There are restrictions on open areas and season dates so prospective hunters need to consult the application guide. Residents are eligible for all units. Non-residents are eligible for all units west of the Missouri River, and leftover licenses east of the Missouri River remaining after the second drawing. Multiple licenses are available for late-season hunts.

Two other spring turkey seasons provide even more options. Archers have a special spring season that runs from early April to late May. The season is open statewide except for Brookings County west of I-29 and Custer State Park. A special spring hunt for South Dakota residents only takes place within Custer State Park and is available by draw only. The deadline is for an application is mid-February.

"River bottoms are prime habitat for turkeys in the prairies," offered Lehman. "You'll find good numbers of turkeys along the James and Missouri rivers and in the northeast portion of the Prairie Coteau. There's a strong population of Eastern birds in the eastern one-third of the state. Winter isn't much of an issue in the central and southern portions of the state where birds can seek refuge near farmsteads and find waste feed and grain."

West of the Missouri River, Lehman recommended the prime habitat found along the Grand and Cheyenne rivers and along any of the tributaries to the Missouri. "This is excellent habitat for Merriam's," he said. Add to this the vast holding of state and federal lands in the West and you have no trouble finding a place to hunt.

For more information on hunting spring gobblers in South Dakota, contact the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks at www.gfp.sd.gov/hunting/ or call (605) 223-7660.


After several tough years, North Dakota turkeys may have gotten a break in 2012. "The drought was not nearly as severe in North Dakota as it was other places," explained North Dakota Upland Game Biologist Stan Kohn. "The drought might have been a little more severe in the southern tier of counties, but it was nothing like farther to the south in South Dakota and Nebraska. Winter was one of the nicest in four years. It had absolutely no effect on turkeys."

Kohn said that North Dakota residents (there are no non-resident licenses offered) harvested approximately 2,100 gobblers last spring and another 4,200 in the fall. "The spring hunt is ever-improving and there's more and more interest," said Kohn. Last year, Kohn estimated 4,500 to 5,000 hunters were drawn to participate in the spring hunt and were rewarded with about a 45 percent success ratio.

Merriam's dominate in the West and Easterns are more common in eastern North Dakota. Hybrids exist wherever the two populations meet. Hotspots include the southwest corner of the state and from Emmons County north. The Badlands are a stronghold as are the river bottoms found along the Little Missourri River to Dunn County in the west-central portion of the state. Look for flocks of gobblers in the north-central region in McHenry and Towner counties and along the Cheyenne, James and Red river valleys.

For more information on turkey opportunities in North Dakota, visit www.gf.nd.gov.

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