The spring hunt is right around the corner. Here's the experts' take on what the spring season will be like and where to hunker down for a tom.
For hunting turkeys in the foothills of Northern California, it was a perfect morning. The air was crisp, the meadow grass moist with dew and the sky clear as a bell. My partner Tom Stone and I knew there was a gobbler somewhere on this small parcel of private land in Mendocino County. Soon that tom would be listening to our sweetest hen calls.
Reports from around the state suggest there should be ample numbers of gobblers, as well as jakes, this year. The season starts March 28. Photo by John Higley.
Just as we hoped, about the time we could see the ground around our feet, a haunting gobble rang out from the roost trees only 100 yards away.
I responded with a favorite box call, producing a few subdued hen yelps just to let the turkey know where we were.
The next move would be his.
A few minutes later, we heard wingbeats as the bird launched himself to the ground. Stone sent a flurry of anxious hen yelps in his direction. The feathered Lothario nearly turned himself inside out gobbling back.
Unfortunately, that first tom of 2008's spring season didn't play fair, but we couldn't really blame him. He was obviously interested in our bogus hen calls -- but was even more taken by the feathered beauties that we could now hear heading to him from two different directions.
Happily, though, that wasn't the end of the story. Deciding that any tom with hens was a lost cause -- for the time being, anyway -- Stone and I separated so that we could cover different ground at the same time.
And as luck would have it, I soon had another tom interested. And this time, things went according to plan.
The copper-plated No. 5 shot from my turkey-choke-equipped Remington 12-gauge pump found its mark. The turkey fell over at 40 yards, which is about the limit of my comfort zone with any shotgun.
It was a nice tom of Rio Grande descent with a 9 1/2 inch beard and body weight of 19 pounds. That's a dandy way to start the season!
Though the 2008 season wasn't the best I've ever had, it certainly wasn't the worst either, because I eventually wound up with two hefty California toms in the freezer.
I began hunting turkeys in 1971, when the first-ever spring season took place in only a handful of Golden State counties. Back then, it was exciting simply to find turkey sign, let alone the turkeys themselves. And when I actually heard a gobble, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.
Today, every one of the state's 58 counties is open to turkey hunting.
According to the Department of Fish and Game, the best of them (as of 2007, the latest year for which figures are available), were Tehama, Yolo, El Dorado, Butte, Sonoma, San Diego, Mendocino, Shasta, Amador and Placer.
Other counties that commonly make the Top 10, but didn't make that list in 2007, include Nevada, Lake and Napa.
Yes, there were exceptions. But among the biologists, outdoor writers, hunting guides and others interviewed for this report, the general consensus was that thanks to last spring's mild weather, turkey production was excellent. Early spring did see some rainfall. But during the time when most hens were on their nests, conditions were good almost across the board.
While some predation took place, severe weather was not a factor in poult survival.
That said, let's take a look at the current situation in various regions of the state, from south to north.
One guy with a good handle on the local situation is DFG regional biologist Randy Botta, who is based in San Diego County. On his rounds, Botta has seen at least adequate production throughout much of the region.
But he cautions that in some spots, the number of turkeys may be slightly below average.
"That's because in this area, we've had three dry winters in a row," said Botta. "In some places, there wasn't enough rainfall to grow protective cover or produce nutritious food.
"I'd say the recruitment was better than average inmost areas," said Ryan Mathis, regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation. "It was one of those springs when the environmental conditions were perfect for the turkeys."
"Some of our habitat is marginal at best, and drought doesn't help things. But while the number of birds isn't exactly overwhelming, it's not all that bad, especially in the core areas."
Not surprisingly, Botta said that hunters with permission to hunt private land would have the highest success rate. But those who hunt public areas do have a chance.
"There are still birds on the Cleveland National Forest, mainly the Palomar and Descanso ranger districts. And the Laguna Recreation Area, where only bowhunting is allowed, still produces a few birds each spring."
Though Botta thinks production was down slightly from 2007, he said that plenty of holdover adult turkeys are still around, which is good news for hunters. Last year, he noted that limited numbers of turkeys are now found in western San Diego and Riverside counties. This year, he added Orange County to the list.
For further information on Botta's district, call the DFG branch at (760) 751-4023.
Meanwhile, to the north in Kern County, reports from the sprawling Tejon Ranch are good as usual.
Don Geivet, the ranch's resources manager, said some places suffered from lack of rainfall in 2007 and '08.
"But here in the mountains, we had enough to produce a good crop of birds in 2007," he said, "and we had similar recruitment in 2008.
"No matter what, we always have a good carryover of adult toms, so most of the gobblers our hunters get are three or four years old."
Geivet said he expects great hunting this spring during the ranch's guided hunts and during the 10 DFG-sponsored junior hunts as well.
For information, contact the Tejon Ranch Company at (661) 663-4210, or visit www.hunttejon.com.
Conditions improved in the central part of the state because there was adequate rainfall in the winter of 2007-08, as compared to the near-drought conditions the year before.
Doug Roth, of Camp 5 Outfitters in Paso Robles, is excited about the production he's seen.
"I think there are turkeys behind every bush," he said. "Well, maybe not that many! But San Luis Obispo County, where we hunt the most, should be great. And southern Monterey County should be just about as good. What a difference a little rainfall at the right time makes!"
Last year, Roth thought spring production was down by at least 33 percent, but all of his 29 hunters scored anyway. He thinks that all things considered, this spring's hunting on the ranch's Camp 5 leases has the potential to be that good again.
"Thanks to carry over and production last spring, I think we'll hear plenty of gobbling all season long," he said.
To get information on the turkey hunts offered by Camp 5 Outfitters, call (805) 238-3634.
Meanwhile, Eldon Bergman of Templeton, an independent turkey-hunting guide, had a few similar observations.
"Right around the place, I've been watching a group of at least 50 birds," he said.
"And the neighbors reported seeing turkeys everywhere. In 2008, we had much better breeding conditions and no harsh weather after the little ones hatched. I expect some really good hunting this spring."
Last spring, his hunters got seven toms that weighed more than 20 pounds apiece, including one whopper of 26 pounds. You can contact Bergman at (805) 238-5504.
To the north, outdoor writer Terry Knight, of Lakeport in Lake County, was very positive about the situation in his region.
Knight's been hunting these great birds about as long as I have, so when he talks turkey, I listen.
"I swear," he said, "production around here gets better each year."
Last summer, he saw lots of hens with anywhere from seven to 10 nearly grown poults, which is amazing. He also saw 19 longbeard toms in a group.
"I've never seen that many together before," he said. "I'm looking forward to getting out there among them this spring -- and for good reason!"
Knight got several favorable reports from public-land spots like the Cache Creek Natural Area, the Knoxville Wildlife Area and the Mendocino National Forest.
"A lot of folks have told me they're seeing more turkeys in the Fort Bragg area," he said. "And I know there are some near there on the Jackson State Forest, which is open to hunting."
Knight also mentioned hunting at Spenceville Wildlife Area was a bit slower there in 2008 than 2007.
The Cache Creek Natural Area is a mix of federal and state land, managed by the DFG and the BLM. For online details on this 70,000-acre walk-in property, go to the Web site blm.gov/ca/ukiah/cachecreek.html.
Or you can call the BLM office in Ukiah at (707) 468-4000, or the DFG at (707) 944-5500. At that number, you can also learn about the DFG's Knoxville Wildlife Area.
For information on other public areas with turkeys, such as the Spenceville Wildlife Area in Yuba and Nevada counties, the Daugherty Hill Wildlife Area in Yuba County, and the Oroville Wildlife Area, contact the DFG at (916) 358-2839.
Meanwhile, Aaron Brooks -- a turkey-hunting fanatic who represents Mad Calls -- said that in 2008, he was in on 18 successful trophy gobbler hunts, including three of his own. He expects spring 2009 to be very good in El Dorado, Sacramento, Amador and Placer counties, partly because of holdover turkeys from 2006 and '07.
"Recruitment around here was OK in 2008," Brooks said. "But I think it was a little off from 2007. The hens I saw didn't seem to have as many young with them. But don't get me wrong, there are still plenty of birds. It's just that there may be fewer jakes in the mix, and that might show up in the number of adult toms in 2010."
According to Brooks, more turkeys are showing up all the time in the El Dorado National Forest. He said hunters should try the fringe areas where there's a mixture of oaks, pines and openings.
NORTHERN CALIFORNIAOne of my best contacts in Northern California is, well, me! And from what I've seen in Shasta County and heard from others, I'd say things are definitely looking up around here.
All indications are that production was better in 2008 than in '07. That being the case, turkeys are virtually everywhere in outlying areas.
For example, on a single morning late last summer, I saw flocks of turkeys in three different spots. One group I estimated at around 20 birds, and another with even more than that.
The one flock I counted accurately had five adult hens and 33 half-grown poults. The next day, and several times since, I saw another bunch of 18 feeding with the horses in a roadside pasture.
The point is, last spring the turkeys had an easy time of it, and lots of their young made it to adulthood. That being so, I expect this year's spring season to be about as good as it gets. We'll see.
Meanwhile, Jim Schaasfma, of Arrow Five Outfitters in southern Trinity County, agrees with my observations.
"There are plenty of them around," he said. "One day last summer, I saw three adult hens with 18 foot-high poults. And the next day, near the same place, I counted 12 little guys from a late hatch with a single hen."
Schaasfma said that last fall, he also saw nine longbeard gobblers together. That's definitely an improvement over years past.
Last fall, similar reports came from Tehama County -- including this observation from Matt Mitchell, of Multiple Use Managers on the Dye Creek Preserve, which is known for hogs, deer and now turkeys.
"For several years, we didn't conduct turkey hunts," he said. "But their numbers have recently grown enough to warrant some effort."
Last year, all of Mitchell's hunters were successful, and he expects them to do as well this season.
"Based on the number of birds we've seen hanging around, it certainly ought to be," he
You can get details on MUM turkey hunts at 1-800-557-7087, or go to www.mumwildlife.com.
Ryan Mathis, regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation, said he's seen good production around Northern California.
"I'd say the recruitment was better than average in most areas," said Mathis. "It was one of those springs when the environmental conditions were perfect for the turkeys."
He said that there was not enough rain to affect their survival rate, but just enough to make the soils moist and start the insects, which provide necessary protein for little turkeys.
"It doesn't get much better than that," he added.
The NWTF's Northern California regional director Pat McNeil, himself an avid turkey hunter, said he too saw lots of birds in his travels.
"My conclusion is that production was great this year," he said. "I even saw a hen with little poults during the spring season last year -- and that's way early." McNeil also said that throughout California, interest in turkey hunting is growing by leaps and bounds.
Forty NWTF chapters are up and running. One of the best ways for newcomers to get in on the action is to join the federation. If you're interested, you can call McNeil at (707) 443-4720, or visit www.nwtf.org.
Meanwhile, Tom Blankinship of the DFG, a senior biologist with the upland game program, said that hunters could contact the DFG regional office nearest to the area they want to hunt for advice on places to hunt on public lands. Visit their Web site at www.dfg.ca.gov.
All things considered, it looks like the spring 2009 turkey-hunting season has great potential. I don't know about you, but I intend to try and fulfill that prophecy!