Despite a couple of mild storms, spring 2004 was just about perfect for turkey production, leading experts to believe we'll see an increase in turkey numbers going into the 2005 spring turkey season.
It was opening day of spring turkey season 2004, the last Saturday in March, and something was amiss. It was spitting rain, but not enough to get you really wet, and the air was cool but not cold. I’ve seen opening days that were warmer and sunnier, but I’ve also been out in the teeth of a full-fledged storm. Regardless, on the familiar property where I was hunting, there had always been turkeys and even on slow days the toms were almost always vocal enough to keep me interested regardless of whether an old longbeard came to the gun.
At daybreak of the season opener last spring, however, despite the air being filled with the sounds of small birds, quail and distant dogs barking, the morning was completely void of the sounds I wanted most to hear. If early morning turkey vocalization means anything in the spring, and it certainly does, there wasn’t a gobbler anywhere within hearing. I hunted hard all morning, but the only indication that there might be a few turkeys present was one lone set of tracks in a mud puddle.
A week later I did find a few birds in another spot, but all in all it was one of the slowest seasons I can remember. Some of the local hunters I talked to remarked about the absence of jakes (1-year-old gobblers) and the short supply of older toms. What’s more, the symptoms of a here-and-there decline were apparent in several parts of northern California.
Here’s what I think happened. In spring 2003, turkey hunting in some parts of the north state was very difficult. I found a few birds in Shasta County, but as was the case again in 2004, young toms were few and far between. The situation in 2003 developed because of a poor production year in 2002, which I didn’t recognize immediately. Instead, I blamed the apparent lack of turkey activity in 2003 on a prolonged spell of warm weather in March of that year.
My feeling then was that there were still lots of turkeys around, but they were already in their mid-breeding season mode on opening day and most of the subordinate toms were just going about their business quietly. Complicating matters for hunting, the unseasonably warm weather ended after opening weekend, replaced with major storms every few days until the middle of May.
I encountered the same difficult conditions while hunting in Napa County with custom turkey call maker Bruce Wurth. In 2002, we had phenomenal luck on the ranch where he hunts, but overall birds were scarce in 2003. Once again, we blamed it all on the unusual weather. It was a logical theory, but we were wrong. Since the 2004 season wasn’t much better for Bruce than it was for me, we finally came to the conclusion that an overall shortage of birds was the real culprit.
As we’ve seen, late winter 2003 was unusually warm. Many of the turkeys apparently bred early, and it seems logical that some hens started nesting weeks before normal. Then a prolonged period of stormy weather arrived, and it’s likely that many of the year’s young died. Even allowing for second nesting attempts, I now believe that production throughout northern California was below average. And that, along with more unusual weather, could explain the poor success many hunters had hereabouts last spring.
Consider: From March 7 to March 18, 2004, the high temperature in this neck of the woods varied from 80 to 88 degrees. According to a local newspaper, daytime high records were broken in dozens of places in the state during that time. Oak trees in the foothills leafed out three weeks early, and I actually saw newly hatched young turkey poults on the ground on April 29. A hen would have to had been incubating her eggs by April 1 to accomplish that.
Okay, here’s my theory, condensed: Poor production in 2002 and 2003 resulted in fewer gobblers in the woods last spring, and early breeding activity contributed to the silence of many of them. If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s that the rest of spring 2004, despite a couple of mild storms, was just about perfect for turkey production. That should mean an increase in turkey numbers going into the 2005 spring turkey season.
Here’s an overview of issues facing the statewide turkey population, as explained by Sacramento-based Scott Gardner, upland game biologist for the Department of Fish and Game. As most turkey hunters know, nearly all transplanting of wild turkeys came to an end when the DFG was threatened with legal action in 1999. However, even now the department is looking for ways to start the program moving forward once again. So far, one small operation, financed by the National Wild Turkey Federation, was approved and completed last year.
The DFG’s hope is to move nuisance birds from their present locations and release them in other areas where turkeys are already. Even though there won’t be any expansion of turkey range in the state, the relocated birds will offer additional hunting opportunity simply because they’re there. For example, the birds moved by the NWTF, in cooperation with the DFG (numbering less than 100), were freed on the Cache Creek and Spenceville wildlife areas where anyone can hunt. Hunters subsequently took about 30 percent of the toms during the spring season.
According to Gardner, complaints about wild turkeys are stacked on his desk. It’s unfortunate, but some homeowners in outlying areas do not appreciate wild turkeys in their yards. The big birds are messy, and some folks in the agriculture industry view them as a threat to certain crops, such as grapes. However, that view has been proved false by NWTF research but not before the California Legislature moved into action.
Unfortunately, rather than open their gates to sport hunters, some private landowners want to deal with troublesome wild turkeys as they do with problem deer, by obtaining temporary depredation permits and killing them. Such permits were recently approved by the California Legislature and went into effect in January. A permit will be issued only when certain conditions are met and verified by the DFG.
Bear in mind, however, that everything said above involves perhaps 1 percent to 3 percent of the overall population of wild turkeys in the state. So the good news is that things will be status quo for a long time with regard to hunting opportunities.
How are things shaping up for the spring season in 2005? To find out, California Game & Fish contacted turkey hunting guides, expert turkey hunters and DFG regional biologists to ask for their opinions. Here’s what we found out.
Since this is my home region, let me quote from a friend who observed wild turkeys on his property in eastern Shasta County last summer. At the local restaurant one morning, he said, “You should have been there, Higley. I saw 28 turkeys in the meadow below my cabin yesterday, and I’ve never seen that many before. A lot of them were young ones, too.”
Although those birds were on private land, they were at an elevation of 4,000 feet, and the private stuff is surrounded by timberland that’s open for hunting.
Meanwhile, Tom Stone, a retired senior wildlife biologist for the DFG, took the long way home one day from a fishing trip in Shasta County and spied four groups of turkeys along a back road. Stone reports a fine mix of adult hens and young. “My impression is that things are looking better than they have in three or four years,” he said.
Personally, I spotted wild hens in three locations, and while one of them appeared to have only three poults, another hen had at least six young with her. I lost count at eight when yet another hen led her half-grown brood into tall grass.
Meanwhile, Jim Schaafsma of Arrow Five Outfitters in southern Trinity County reports that turkeys in his area seem to be spreading out more than in the past, and he’s seen hens with as many as six half-grown poults. The situation there looks promising.
To sum it all up, if we have decent spring weather for a change in this region, I think we’ll certainly enjoy better success this year than last. I’ve talked a lot about poor production in this report, but according to my diary there have been years of scarcity in the past and years of comparative abundance. In other words, turkey numbers are never static long.
For our purposes here, this region includes everything roughly from the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Range to the coastal mountains. Beginning with the central coast, Doug Roth of Paso Robles-based Camp Five Outfitters said that turkey hunting has been very good in San Luis Obispo and southern Monterey counties, where he also guides for deer and wild pigs.
“We went 26-for-26 last spring,” Roth said, “and nine of the hunters were kids just starting out. Their hunts require a little more work, but it’s real rewarding when they’re actually successful.”
Roth noted that he was seeing lots of hens with five or six half-grown poults apiece, and based on his observations he expects another very good season in 2005.
Longtime guide Eldon Bergman echoes Roth’s sentiments. Bergman says he’s seen lots of turkeys in San Luis Obispo County this year, including a hen that walked through his yard with 10 nearly grown young in tow. Except for one hunter who missed a gobbler, all of Bergman’s clients were successful last spring.
Looking farther north, outdoor writer and avid turkey hunter Terry Knight, who lives in Lake County, says he’s seen plenty of young turkeys around, which should mean another good spring season in his area in 2005.
“I base my prediction for spring on the number of nearly grown poults I see in late summer and fall,” Knight noted. “According to my sightings, and what others have told me, we should be in great shape this spring.”
Obviously things weren’t too bad for Knight last spring. That’s when he and his 18-year-old grandson bagged a pair of gobblers on public land in the Mendocino National Forest.
Last spring, Knight got several favorable reports from hunters who hunted in Yolo, Solano, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties. Hunting in Napa County was spotty —good here and poor there. When asked about public hunting areas, Knight recommended the Cache Creek Wildlife Area in Lake and Colusa counties and the Knoxville Wildlife Area in Napa County. There’s a drawing for the first two days on Cache Creek, after which the area is open to anyone willing to walk. For information on those places, call the Bureau Of Land Management’s Ukiah office at 707-468-4000 or the DFG at 707-944-5500.
Other places that always rise to the top of Knight’s list are the Spenceville Wildlife Area in Nevada and Yuba counties and the Daugherty Hill Wildlife Area in Yuba County. For more information on hunting on those areas, as well as the Oroville Wildlife Area, contact the DFG at 916-358-2839.
Meanwhile, hunting guide Tony Giorgi of Bass and Boars Guide Service reported that hunting was excellent in Sonoma County, where there’s virtually no public land.
“2003 was our worst year because of all the rain,” Giorgi said, “but we made up for it in 2004. Most of my clients got their birds, and last summer I saw plenty of evidence of a good hatch. Basically, I’m seeing turkeys all the time where I never saw them before, so I think they’re still spreading out around here. I’m looking forward to 2005. It should be another winning season.”
Across the Central Valley, in the foothills east of Sacramento, guide Aaron Brooks, who lives in El Dorado County, reported seeing several hens with an average of five to seven poults apiece. Last spring, Brooks hunted 32 days of the 37-day season and saw 19 toms killed by friends and clients.
“I got three big toms,” Brooks said, “and I found birds on the El Dorado National Forest as well as the private land I’m connected with.”
Brooks’ assessment for spring 2005 is that the hunting should be better than average throughout the region.
Randy Botta, associate wildlife biologist for the DFG, had some must-know observations about San Diego County, where most of the wild turkeys in southern California live. For one thing, wildfires in 2002 and 2003 have temporarily impacted turkey flocks and hunting opportunity on private and public lands.
The fires burned through portions of the Pine Hills, Cuyamaca Mountain and upper Pine Valley areas in southeastern San Diego County. Some popular public hunting areas within the Palomar and Descanso ranger districts on the Cleveland National Forest were also burned.
Happily, Botta noted that the picture is not all bleak. Despite the fires, he got reports from several hunters who took multiple birds from those same ranger districts in 2004. Also, his field observations indicate a fair hatch last summer, with some areas supporting higher densities of turkeys than others. He believes that hunting this spring should be on par with the past, although some fluctuations may occur.
For information on the San Diego area, Botta recommends calling the South Coast Region office of the DFG, 858-467-4201.
Up in Kern County, Don Geivet, resources manager for the huge Tejon Ranch, gives thumbs up for the season in 2005. That’s good news, as junior hunts are held on the ranch each spring.
Judging from the regional reports, the potential for turkey hunting this spring is, once again, exciting. There should be plenty of turkeys around, but — and this is always the case — it’s up to you to get a handle on a place to hunt them. You can start by contacting the DFG regional office nearest you (look for addresses and phone numbers online at www.dfg.ca.gov or find them in regulations booklets). You can also get a list of special drawing-only hunts by visiting the special hunts link under the Game Bird Heritage Program or pick up a list at DFG offices.
If you’re new to turkey hunting and do not have a clue about how to hunt them or where to go, a guided hunt may be right for you. The folks who helped with this article are as follows: Doug Roth, Camp Five Outfitters, 805-238-3634 (southern Monterey-San Luis Obispo counties); Eldon Bergman, 805-238-5504 (San Luis Obispo County); Aaron Brooks, 530-626-4273 (El Dorado-Amador counties); Tony Giorgi, 707-857-3752 (Sonoma County); and Jim Schaafsma, Arrow Five Outfitters, 707-923-9633 (southern Trinity County).
To increase your knowledge about turkey hunting, consider joining the National Wild Turkey Federation, which has chapters throughout California. Go online at www.nwtf.org or contact regional director Brian Yerman, 707-432-0369.
The annual spring season opens on the last Saturday in March and runs for 37 days until the first Sunday in May. The limit is one bearded turkey per day, three per season.
(Editor’s Note: Autographed copies of John Higley’s book, Hunting Wild Turkeys In The West, with 75 photos and 154 pages, are available for $16.95 postage paid. Order from John Higley, P.O. Box 120, Palo Cedro, CA 96073.)