A Kansas Double

A Kansas Double

Springtime in the Sunflower State offers gobbler chasers a chance at two different turkeys -- easterns and Rio Grandes. Here's where to find both. (April 2006)

Kansas is well known for its trophy deer hunting, with many bucks of monstrous proportions being entered into the record books each year. Its pheasant hunting harvest often trails only a state or two, and the quail population usually attracts plenty of attention.

But one other species, the wild turkey, can offer hunters the best of both worlds, and a chance to fill half their grand slam in one state with a Rio Grande and an eastern.

Wild turkeys, like other now-common species such as whitetails and Canada geese, weren't always familiar features to the Kansas landscape. Virtually absent at the turn of the century in many states, the wild turkey has made a remarkable recovery in Kansas and elsewhere, thanks primarily to the efforts of conservation organizations and state natural resource agencies.

The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks jumped on the turkey restoration bandwagon in the 1960s when they acquired Rio Grande turkeys from the King Ranch in Texas. Releases made in suitable habitat throughout the state saw these turkeys flourish. Rio Grande turkeys typically inhabit stream and river corridors and prefer wide-open spaces rather than dense timber. The Rios can be distinguished by tail and rump feathers edged in buff or off-white.

The eastern is the most widely distributed, abundant and most hunted turkey in the United States. When obtained in trade from Missouri and released into the easternmost reaches of Kansas, these birds prospered as well, and now are commonly found in dense, timbered regions. They're generally darker in overall appearance than are Rios, with tail and rump feathers edged in bronze or chestnut brown. The gobblers can easily reach weights greater than 20 pounds.

The first Kansas turkey season was held in 1974, and our hunters have been chasing them ever since. The 2006 season opens April 12 and runs through the end of May. A special youth season open to hunters 16 and younger runs April 7-9.

The Rio Grande population stronghold is in the western three-fourths of the state, while the eastern subspecies haunts the eastern quarter. An interesting mix of both species, as well as a hybrid cross of the two, is found in the central third of our state.

Since the two species are often difficult to distinguish, and as their ranges overlap considerably, Kansas doesn't differentiate between them as far as hunting is concerned. The state is divided into several turkey units, but hunters can buy permits at any KDWP regional or state park office, or online at www.kdwp.state.ks.us. A Kansas resident can buy a spring turkey permit for $22.15 and a second turkey tag for $12.15. A non-resident will pay $32.15 for the spring permit and $22.15 for a second turkey tag. These permits and tags are good for one bearded bird each; no hunter can get more than two in the spring (the additional turkey tag is valid in the eastern half of the state, roughly).

Most turkey hunting takes place on private land. However, in response to the popularity of Kansas' Fall Walk-In Hunting Area program, a spring version for turkey hunters is now in effect. As the program leases private land for public use, access doesn't cost the hunter anything in addition to the expense of acquiring a valid Kansas hunting license and a turkey permit or tag. Most of the tracts enrolled lie in the eastern third of Kansas. Individual maps of each county are available via an atlas from regional or park offices of the KDWP, or online at www.kdwp.state.ks.us.

Most hunters contend that eastern turkeys are a bit tougher to kill than are Rio Grandes; I've hunted the former in the Sunflower State, and I'm inclined to agree with that assessment. Much of the difficulty, I believe, stems from in the habitat they occupy. Dense stands of timber typically don't afford the long-distance visual security offered by the terrain that Rio Grandes prefer. As a result, easterns are prone to be more cautious.

A Rio Grande gobbler, on the other hand, tends to gobble more, making it easier for a hunter to keep track of the bird's location and direction. Rios will gobble at almost any loud noise: owls, herons, ducks, car doors, and so forth. I once used the telltale braying sounds of several donkeys in a nearby pasture as the perfect locator call: Every time one of the donkeys would sound off, the gobblers would hammer back in response. I was able to sneak into perfect position and kill a nice tom.

As far as tactics for killing one species or the other in Kansas go, they don't differ much. Apart from preferences in the terrain in which they're found, and other distinctions already noted, both species exhibit the same general tendencies, for the most part, and both will fall for the usual tricks. My 2005 spring turkey season was the perfect example of this.

Both eastern and Merriam's birds exhibit the same general tendencies, for the most part, and both will fall for the usual tricks.

I decided to open the season at a spot west of my Newton home; I'd killed several nice toms there, and my now-12-year-old daughter killed her first bird in the area a couple of years ago. Situated on the Arkansas River, it provides the perfect blend of roosting, loafing and feeding areas, and it was generally a good bet to produce close encounters of the longbeard kind.

Although I'd opened a couple of decades' worth of turkey seasons, I was excited as I'd been on the first one when I walked toward a known roost that morning. I propped the decoys, a hen and a jake, on their stakes and blended into the underbrush. It wasn't long before birds were hammering from the roost. I called softly on my slate; the birds answered. Content to know they knew I was there, I just kicked back and waited for fly-down.

The birds hit the ground -- and no matter how seductive I sounded, the gobblers seemed satisfied with sticking with the hens. All of a sudden, the entire flock started putting, and some birds rocketed back up to the roost. I assume a predator caused the commotion, although I never saw it. I'd like to thank it, though, because it busted the flock up, sending it in many different directions -- which would soon prove to my benefit.

After a short wait, I started calling again, and got an immediate answer. Several more yelps got the same results, and I readied my gun. The big Rio tom appeared in gun range on an old farm road and saw the decoys. In full strut, he butted up to the jake and smacked it once, pausing to judge its reaction. He certainly got a reaction from me: I pulled the trigger to send a load of No. 6s his way at 11

yards. My 2005 season, only minutes old, was off to a fine start.

Just two days later, I accepted an invitation from a good friend, Eric Johnson, to head east. He had some prime turkey spots that often yielded plenty of action -- and that day was to prove no exception to the trend.

After a nice, long walk into an area in which Eric had done well in the past, we found the birds already gobbling as approached; it sounded as if no fewer than 15 toms were in the general vicinity. Our pace quickened. We got to within 150 yards of the nearest, loudest bird and propped against two trees.

Within a few minutes of shooting time, the big eastern was in full strut in front of Eric, looking for the hen he'd heard. Sensing that something wasn't quite right, the bird folded up, but paused for one last look -- which proved fatal: Eric sent him over backwards at 39 steps. Other birds gobbled at the shot.

We briefly admired Eric's bird and took off after one for me. We called in several jakes along the way but couldn't get any big boys to close the gap. We finally got on the right ground with a group and eased into position.

The quartet of huge gobblers would gobble like crazy at Eric's calls, but wouldn't budge from the ravine they were in; a short stalk got me into position. The birds were still gobbling as I eased over the ridge and saw them standing at less than 20 yards. The closest one lost the race out of there.

Eric and I marveled at our good fortune that morning, as it had truly been a hunt to remember. Play your cards just right this month, and you may find yourself thinking the same thing!

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