The wind swooshed through the towering pines as darkness slowly released its grip on dawn. With temperatures in the low 30s, snow remnants littered the pine straw-carpeted ground. Mornings in the Black Hills can sure be frosty, but are invigorating.
I owl-hooted and was quickly answered by a gobbler high on a ridge nearly 400 yards away. I knew we needed to move much closer if I was going to have any chance of working the roosted baron after he flew down.
After cutting the distance in half, I nestled up against a big pine tree as darkness melted into the anemic first light of dawn. I scratched out some soft, sweet yelps on my box call that were met with a resounding gobble. A second tom gobbled his approval from somewhere higher up on the steep hillside. In moments, I heard the tell-tale cackle as the closer tom flew down from his lofty perch.
The magnificent bird gobbled and then double-gobbled. The tom sounded like he was less than 100 yards from my position, and closing quickly. Figuring this lovelorn longbeard would be a chip shot, I sat my box call down and rested my magnum autoloader on my knee, but things soon changed.
In the distance, a boss hen yelped an excited series of assembly yelps while another hen began cutting. The ensuing drama caused both gobblers to gobble and change their courses, heading for the love fest on the hill. I heard the faint gobble of the two distant toms again, as I headed back for the truck to move to another spot.
Driving a short distance away, my hunting guide — Belle Fourche, South Dakota, archery storeowner Justin Raber — suggested we go to another spot he had scouted. The place was a mixture of Black Hills habitat — tall pines and hills — and prairie surroundings. A large flock historically resided in this area that was now used for a cattle operation.
Accompanying me on the hunt was well-known wildlife photographer John Hafner. Hafner had tagged his limit of Merriam's gobblers during a prairie hunt the day before and was following along to soak in the beautiful surroundings, and hopefully to capture my hunt onto the memory card of his digital camera.
We pulled onto the ranch and spotted a flock of turkeys in a small opening surrounded by a dry creek. Raber suggested that we use the creek to circle around ahead of the feeding flock. We cautiously crept closer to the flock, allowing Raber to crawl up the creek bank and put eyes on the turkeys.
"They are about 50 yards away" Raber whispered, "four big strutters and 25 hens." "I don't think we are going to get any closer. Those hens sure have the gobbler's attention. How far do you feel comfortable shooting?"
Having patterned my 12-gauge Mossberg 935, I knew my Hevi Shot Magnum Blend, 3 1/2-inch loads, were lethal at ranges up to 60 yards. However, striving to be ethical, I prefer shots inside of 40 yards.
I crawled up the creek bank to the edge of the field, careful to elude the sharp-eyed hens. My mouth was cotton as I tried to wet my diaphragm call. I softly clucked and the biggest tom took a few steps towards my position to lay eyes on his newest acquisition. At 45 yards, I pulled the trigger, piling up the beautiful white-tipped South Dakota trophy. The tom had a 10-inch beard, 1-inch broomed-off spurs, and weighed in at 20 pounds.
My hunt was indicative of some of the fine hunting that awaits turkey chasers this spring up and down the Great Plains. For a rundown of some of the top turkey hunting areas, read on and I will give you enough ammo to hopefully fill your tags this spring.
TURKEYS UP AND DOWN THE PLAINS
Three tough winters, and three cool, wet springs have left North Dakota's turkey chasers in a precarious position. According to Stan Kohn, North Dakota's Upland Game Bird biologist, the central and eastern parts of the state should be stable, however, the rest of the state doesn't fare as well.
"My gut feeling is the western part of the state is down in turkey numbers," Kohn opined. "However, we really don't know at this time since our fall season hasn't started yet.
Most of the turkeys in North Dakota are Easterns, although Merriam's are found in two or three southwest counties. Kohn said at one time Rio Grande turkeys were also released. Due to the prevalence of three species, there are a lot of hybrid turkeys, also.
Turkeys aren't required to be checked in, so harvest numbers can only be estimated through hunter surveys. Kohn says last season's estimate of 1,600 turkeys harvested was down from previous years, and indicative of poor spring hatches.
The top counties for turkey densities are also the top counties for turkey harvest — McHenry, Morton, Richland, Sargent and Pembina.
North Dakota residents must apply for tags through a lottery system in which successful applicants are allowed one bearded male turkey.
Kohn said there is ample land available to hunters without a hunting spot. "We have over 1 million acres of private lands open to sportsmen through our PLOTS (Private Land Open To Sportsmen) Program," he said. State law mandates that any property not posted is open for hunting. Hunters concentrating on land surrounding riparian areas, or wooded areas, should find turkeys in the vicinity.
Non-residents are not permitted to hunt turkeys except on Indian lands like the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation located 34 miles south of Mandan. Non-residents or state hunters who didn't draw a turkey tag can buy a $100 tribal license that allows them two bearded male turkeys, with the potential of buying extra tags based on current hunter success rates.
Kohn said the ND Game and Fish Department publishes a booklet with a map of all of the public hunting areas, forested areas and walk-in plots. These handy maps are available at local motels and stores or can be printed off the NDG&F Web site. For more information, log on to www.gf.nd.gov.
Having hunted South Dakota several times, I can honestly say I love this state. The people are warm and friendly and the abounding wildlife and beautiful vistas are breathtaking. In this game-rich state I have taken turkeys, whitetail deer and Canada geese, and photographed scads of bald eagles.
The predominant turkey species found in South Dakota are Merriam's, however, there are pockets of Rio Grandes and Easterns, and hybrid combinations of all three. I actually took a uniquely colored Merriam's hybrid there, with solid black primary feathers lacking any barring.
Assuming South Dakota has a normal winter, hunters hunting the western tier of the state will find the hunting to be similar to last season's. Turkey populations in the western counties, including the Black Hills, are stable to declining, according to Travis Runia, Senior Upland Game biologist with the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks. "The declines have been more severe in the northern most western counties, where the region has been plagued with brutal winters and cold, wet springs," Runia said.
"In the Black Hills, brood counts are similar to last year, which suggests okay recruitment," Runia opined. "We still expect good success and good bird numbers, but hunters can expect to see fewer turkeys than two years ago, when populations were very high."
The Central Region reports turkey numbers are very good now. Hunting in these prairie units was down last season, and attributed to unfavorable weather, not lack of birds. Runia said he expects slightly more tags to be available in this region, granted the previous winter was normal.
Turkey populations in the southeast part of the state are stable to slightly declining. The decline is related to loss of habitat, harsh winters and cool, wet springs. Hunters in this region will find higher concentrations of turkeys along the Missouri River corridor. Tag numbers are expected to be lowered in this region.
The Northeast Region has been adversely affected by the same factors attributing to the turkey decline in the southeast. Wildlife managers have lowered the number of tags available for this region also, in an effort to rebuild the population there. Hunters who draw tags should still see adequate numbers of turkeys.
Another popular option is to hunt on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, located near the town of Rosebud in the South-central Region. I have hunted there many times and enjoyed success. For more information, visit them at www.rstgfp.net.
The state offers hunters abundant acres of land for walk-in use. For additional information, visit them on the Web at www.gfp.sd.gov.
According to Jeff Lusk, Upland Game program manager with the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, this coming spring season should be excellent. Last season, turkey hunters there took an estimated 23,302 birds, slightly down from the estimated 24,000 taken in 2010. Barring a harsh winter, Lusk says the prospects look good for a similar or higher harvest.
"Turkey numbers are at historic highs in Nebraska," Lusk said. "Hunters should expect to see good numbers of turkeys in all the regions. The drought wasn't as bad in most regions of Nebraska as it was in other states."
County flock estimates are not available since wildlife personnel do not conduct winter flock counts. Instead, they rely on rural mail carriers to do so. While these estimates are not scientific, they are representative of turkey indices in the mail carrier's areas. The surveys showed the Southwest Region had the most sightings, followed by the Central and the Sandhills. Lusk emphasized that these numbers are only for comparison. "Not all regions had the same survey effort expended in them," he said.
Lusk says that most of the turkeys in Nebraska are hybrids — at least genetically, if not by plummage. Hunters wanting a crack at a pure Merriam's should concentrate their efforts in the extreme northwestern counties.
The Sandhill's Region is one of the most popular spots for turkey hunters due to the explosive growth in the number of turkeys there. Hunters concentrating on riparian areas, timbered canyons and tree rows should find turkeys.
Nebraska has Indian reservations that offer turkey hunting, too. For more information, visit www.outdoornebraska.ne.gov.
For turkey hunters in the Sunflower State, this coming spring season offers a good news/bad news scenario. The bad news: Owing to drought conditions in most of the state, there are fewer turkeys in central, south-central, and southwestern Kansas. Now, for the good news: There will be good numbers of adult toms in these regions, but fewer jakes due to poor production. Turkey hunting in these areas will be tougher two years from now due to poor production this past summer.
Hunting should be improved in the eastern third of the state due to above-average production. The Northeast Region has the highest harvest due to a higher number of hunters located in that part of the state.
According to Certified Wildlife Biologist Jim Pittman, with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, the top counties in the central and north-central area are Reno, Rice, Ellsworth, Lincoln, Mitchell, Ottawa, Republic, Jewell, Washington and Clay.
Top counties in the northeast are Riley, Pottawatomie, Jackson, Jefferson, Nemaha, Marshall, Lyon and Osage.
Pittman estimates there are 350,000 to 400,000 turkeys in the state.
"Half of those birds are Rio Grandes, one-quarter of the birds are Easterns, and one-quarter are hybrids," Pittman figured. "We do have some Merriam's/Rio Grande hybrids in southwest Kansas and along the Republican River in northwest and north-central Kansas. However, we don't have any pure Merriam's."
Kansas hunters have over 300,000 acres of public hunting area combined with 160,000 acres designated under the WIHA (Walk In Hunting Area) program. According to Pittman, the top public hunting areas are: Ludlow Wildlife Area, Marion Wildlife Area and Webster Wildlife Area.
The KDWP has a printable hunting atlas and maps of other hunting areas at their Web site, www.kdwp.state.ks.us.