Nothing's better than being in the woods before daylight and listening to wild turkeys talk. We talked to the turkey biologists in the Great Plains States to learn more about the plains turkey populations, what hunters can expect this season and where to bag a bird.
Kansas is home to primarily three different species of wild turkeys — easterns, Rios and hybrids — with the highest density of Rios in north-central Kansas in counties including Smith and Phillips, along with the counties from the Nebraska border down to I-70.
Jeff Prendergast, acting turkey biologist for Kansas, advised, "Our turkey populations are totally weather dependent," noting that severe drought conditions in recent years were detrimental to turkeys in the western and most southern portions of the Rio Grandes' range. This past spring there was plenty of rain in many areas, he said.
"Where Kansas has its greatest population of eastern wild turkeys in the northeast section had too much rain," the biologist noted. "The southeast part was plagued by very heavy rainfall in 2007 to 2010. Today both these regions are recovering. In 2015, west Kansas had the best poult production."
Kansas also has a hybrid zone in the Flint Hills, with very vocal birds that are eastern/Rio Grande hybrids.
"In one flock, you and your hunting partner may take one gobbler that resembles a Rio Grande turkey and another an eastern wild turkey," Prendergast reported. "Near Hutchinson, some flocks of hybrids also have Merriam's turkeys mixed in with them."
Kansas has some of the highest hunter success rates on turkeys in the nation, with 54 percent of its residents successful.
"Kansas hunters have access to reach gobbling turkeys, especially with the walk-in program on private lands," Prendergast explained. "In the spring of 2015, Kansas had the highest turkey harvest ever — 74,000 birds — and should have a good number of gobbling turkeys in 2016."
Due to the drought and poor production, Prendergast said, more liberal turkey hunting regulations may not happen for several years.
"Our harvest strategy dictates that at least 60 percent of our hunters harvest one bird for two consecutive years before changing the number of birds permitted to be harvested," he noted.
To take a Rio Grande gobbler, hunt the western half of the north-central portion of the state. "The access program is stronger there than in other parts of the state containing Rio Grandes," Prendergast said. "It has pastures with big draws and not much hunting pressure. Kansas WMAs receive intense hunting pressure, but walk-in areas don't get as much."
To scout these walk-in areas, go to ksoutdoors.com, find the hunting atlas and zoom in to see an aerial photo from Google Earth. The state's free hunting regulations booklet contains 60 different maps, but the most up-to-date information will come from the website.
"To hunt an eastern gobbler, I'd look at the walk-in properties on the northeast side of the state," Prendergast noted. "The southeast portion of the state tends to have much more hunting pressure."
The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) keeps records of the top turkeys taken each year. Since 2012, the best-scoring easterns taken in Kansas were harvested in Ellsworth, Nemaha, Bourbon and Anderson counties. The top Rios were taken in Phillips, Greenwood, Jewell and Washington counties. The best Merriam's was taken in Washington County.
Nebraska's harvest of wild turkeys during the 2015 season was up compared to previous seasons. However, field reports tend to indicate that fewer turkeys were seen in the spring and summer of 2015.
"I believe we're seeing fewer turkeys because in the past, our turkey population has been continuously growing," Jeffrey Lusk, state wild turkey biologist for Nebraska Game and Parks, explained. "But turkeys reached the carrying capacity of their habitat in 2015."
All Nebraska turkeys are classified as hybrids, because a large number of turkeys re-stocked were hybrids — a cross between game farm wild turkeys and Rio Grande wild turkeys.
"During re-stocking, there were releases of the Merriam's subspecies in the Nebraska Panhandle, one or two releases of easterns in eastern Nebraska, and quite a few Rio Grande turkeys native to Nebraska," Lusk said. "These pure Rio Grande turkeys didn't multiply and were counted as unsuccessful releases.
An accidental breeding of game farm turkeys with Rio Grande turkeys produced a cross that survived and increased tremendously throughout the state. Today, we've used the Rio-game farm crossed birds to stock throughout the state."
The limit is one turkey per permit with a limit of three permits per person. A turkey hunter can take three turkeys in the spring. Permits can be purchased on the Game and Parks website, www.outdoornebraska.org, or at any of the state's offices.
Although wild turkeys are found throughout the state, the remote northern Panhandle near Fort Robinson State Park contains an abundance of public land that doesn't receive much turkey hunting pressure.
"If I wanted to take a gobbler this spring, I'd hunt there," Lusk reported. "The south-central and southwest have good numbers of turkeys, as does eastern Nebraska. However, the large hunter populations in Omaha and Lincoln put hunting pressure on the eastern Nebraska turkeys."
Many Nebraska WMAs are managed for pheasant and quail, and according to Lusk, "The WMAs with trees will have populations of turkeys. Turkey hunting regulations have been stable for several years, and I don't foresee any changes."
Eastern Nebraska at one time homed plentiful trees and turkeys. When the price of corn increased dramatically, the Nebraska Game and Parks received numerous requests for crop depredation permits. The only difference in the out-of-state permit and the resident permit is the price.
"We also have what we call mobile permits," Lusk reported. "You can buy the permit on your smartphone and store it." Hunters can transfer the information about their bird electronically to Game and Parks offices via cell phone, he noted. Information is available on the department website.
Nebraska hunters in 2015 took about 21,846 turkeys. The NWTF records since 2012 indicate that Keya Paha County had several trophy easterns harvested there, as did Richardson, Sherman and Nemaha counties. Several of the best Rios were taken in Hayes County, with other top Rios taken in Frontier, Custer and Cass counties. Sherman County also was the place where a top scoring Merriam's was taken, with others taken in Knox and Dawes counties.
"Our state has had above normal turkey production during the spring and summer in 2015, because of above normal precipitation," Chad Lehman, state wild turkey biologist for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, said. "The prairie portion of the state should have a good turkey season this spring. But in the Black Hills, with its above normal precipitation in the spring of 2015, the prediction is below average turkey population due to the downturn of nest survival."
South Dakota turkeys west of the Missouri River are primarily Merriam's turkeys, and east of the Missouri River are eastern turkeys. South Dakota has a population of hybrid turkeys in its south-central portion along the Missouri River and in the northeast corner — a mix of Merriam's, Rio Grandes and eastern turkeys.
"The Merriam's turkey is the largest subspecies of wild turkeys in South Dakota, and the population density is much higher for these birds in the western section due to the good habitat there," Lehman explained. "We also have good populations of Merriam's in the Black Hills. This season we're expecting an average to normal spring turkey harvest as in previous years. But we won't see a bumper crop of turkeys harvested like we did in the mid to late 2000s."
The majority of South Dakota is private lands, but there is a program through which the state leases private lands for the public to hunt. A map of hunting areas can be found online at gfp.sd.gov.
"The Black Hills is the biggest public land hunting area but the most remote," Lehman reported. "With no quota on tags for the Black Hills, nonresidents can get tags to hunt turkeys there."
The number of tags in the prairie region is limited by county. On the limited-draw areas, residents have priority. In the Black Hills, the limit is one turkey per nonresident.
"Because I live in the Black Hills, that's where I'll hunt turkeys this spring," Lehman explained. "To go on a fun hunt, I'd hunt some of the public access land in prairie country because the terrain is really open, and you can see the turkeys coming from a long distance."
South Dakota's 2015 turkey harvest was 5,945 birds. The NWTF top counties since 2012 are Davison County, with several nice-scoring easterns taken there, and Deuel County. The top Rio area was Roberts County, with several nice birds harvested there, as well as Todd County. The best Merriam's was harvested in Jackson County.
"In North Dakota, you'll find eastern wild turkeys and hybrids," Stan Kohn, the state's turkey specialist for the Game and Fish Department, reported. "In the 1950s, restocking turkeys in the Great Plains states was so important that not much attention was paid to what race of turkeys was released.
The farther east you travel in South Dakota, the more likely you are to find a pure strain of easterns. North Dakota doesn't have very much turkey habitat, so our turkeys are confined to woodlots, generally along the edges of river drainages — the Missouri, Cheyenne and James rivers."
Kohn advised that North Dakota turkey numbers are probably lower than in the past, due to the last few years' poor turkey production with not many poults and rainy cold weather in the spring. The season bag limit is one gobbler per hunter. North Dakota doesn't offer a spring turkey season for nonresidents, who can apply to hunt turkeys in the fall.
The number of turkeys in North Dakota is totally weather dependent. A warm dry spring and good turkey reproduction means the seasons can be adjusted based on the number of turkeys available.
"Our state is planting winter crops to help turkeys survive through the winter, and the state's National Wild Turkey Federation chapters are planting trees along the river drainages to create more roost sites for wild turkeys," Kohn said. "The only way for residents to hunt wild turkeys in the spring is to apply to the statewide lottery and hope to draw a tag."
Hunters in North Dakota in 2015 harvested 1,983 gobblers. The NWTF records since 2012 said the top eastern turkeys were taken in McLean and Sioux counties. The best-scoring Rio also came from Sioux County, as did the top Merriam's.
To learn more about hunting wild turkeys in North Dakota, you can visit the North Dakota Game and Fish Department website, located at www.gf.nd.gov.
With a little research and preparation, hunters across the Great Plains should have a good shot at a gobbler this season. Now it's time for you to get out in the woods and bag your bird.