The short version of this story goes like this: Get ready to enjoy another great season of Oklahoma spring turkey hunting! The long version follows. (March 2010)
George Moore is addicted to turkey hunting and enjoys chasing the birds in several states each year. He says he has never found any hunting to rival that in Oklahoma, where he killed this big Rio Grande.
–ª Photo courtesy of George Moore.
After hunting them for more than 30 years, I fondly admit that I love hunting turkeys. I've scored on turkeys all over the United States, but I enjoy chasing Sooner toms most of all! The challenge of matching wits with a boss gobbler is an event I anticipate each spring.
Just as our deer hunting seems to get better each year, our turkey hunting does too. With three species of turkeys -- Rio Grandes, Easterns, and Merriam's -- and huntable populations of one kind or another in all 77 counties -- Sooner turkey chasers can find action close to home most of the time.
Last spring, my wife, Donna, tagged a dandy Rio Grande, her biggest ever, while hunting with Dale and Michael Eagon near Carter. Eagon's Hi-Point Ranch, (580) 729-1009, is one of the finest hunting camps I have hunted, with incredible numbers of big, mature, long-bearded gobblers.
The night before our hunt, we watched 75 gobblers go to roost, silhouetted in the tall cottonwoods and illuminated by the rising moon. We were serenaded that cool evening by the restless cacophony of lovelorn gobbles. Knowing we would be hunting that flock, a mere 400 yards from our cabin, caused a night restless with anticipation.
Just before sunrise, we set up an ambush where the roosted toms would fly down to an alfalfa field to feed and strut. Soon, distant gobbling peaked in intensity, signaling the amorous toms would soon be on the ground and headed our way. As darkness turned gray, I spied a dozen toms just out of range in full strut. My wife chided me not to scare the strutters off. Donna soon got to handpick her gobbler from 20 yards.
At Michael Eagon's urging, Donna passed on several respectable gobblers before a fat, thick-bearded trophy walked by. I clucked to stop the curious longbeard, giving Donna time to dispatch the old tom with a well-placed load of 3 1/2-inch magnum load of No. 6s. The monarch carried a 10 1/2-inch beard and weighed 22 pounds.
While my wife ate breakfast back at camp, Michael and I headed a few miles down the road to try for another tom. Less than a half-hour later, I called in and shot a 2-year-old tom with a 9-inch beard. My wife and I scored on nice toms early and headed home.
Talking to other turkey hunters last spring, I heard similar stories about successful hunts. You can bet this spring will play out much like past springs -- with lots of gobblers, and a month to hunt them!
BIOLOGISTS EXPECT A GOOD SEASON
Population surveys place the numbers of Rio Grande turkeys -- the predominant species found in nearly two-thirds of the state -- at an estimated 113,917 birds, reflecting an approximate .9 percent decrease from last season. However, don't let those numbers cause you to fret. In the western region -- home to the highest numbers of Rio Grandes -- there was an estimated 3.4 percent increase, while central populations had an estimated 4.4 percent decline, and northeast populations registered a 10.4 percent decline.
In 2006, the Rio Grande population was estimated to be 123,155 -- the highest number ever recorded -- reflecting a 126 percent increase from the 54,460 surveyed in 1990.
Biologists attributed the decline in Rio Grande numbers in the central and northeast regions to drought conditions in 2006 and 2007, and then wet conditions during nesting in 2008 and 2009. With the western part of the state not receiving the large spring rains that occurred elsewhere, turkey numbers there were relatively unaffected. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's Southwest Supervisor Rod Smith explained why. "Some Rio Grande turkeys nest in riparian areas, which are areas beside creeks," he said. "When abundant rains come, creeks flood and wash out nests, causing hens to abandon nesting sites. But when hens get wet they emit a stronger scent, which lures predators to their nesting locations, and their eggs get eaten."
It was also noted that 10 counties in the central and northeast regions reported fewer than 500 Rio Grandes inhabiting their boundaries. That's a trend biologists are monitoring but are not overly concerned about.
Smith says that hunters headed to the western parts of the state should find good numbers of turkeys in all the traditional areas.
"Turkey numbers in the west have been pretty stable, and are stable at a relatively high level," Smith observed. "It is noteworthy also that populations in three or four northwest counties are the highest."
Jack Waymire, the ODWC's southeast region supervisor, believes the season should be fair this spring. "Our 2009 winter flock surveys indicate we have a number of birds available for reproduction, but we have not had an early hatch since 2004, and our birds have been declining," he said. "If we could get an early hatch, then we could expect to see population densities increase. We have only observed replacement numbers since 2004. We need at least two good early hatches, with a ratio of three to four poults per hen (surviving) to get an increase in population density. Currently, we are averaging 2.4 poults per hen."
The bulk of Oklahoma's turkey harvest is made up of Rio Grandes, which inhabit a large chunk of real estate. Their historical range covers all of the state except the extreme eastern edge and the eight southeastern counties.
Western Oklahoma has a reputation for being a "sleeper" area for Rio Grande turkey hunters. Just drive by the B&H Motel in Cheyenne and you will likely see more out-of-state license plates on vehicles in that parking lot than state plates. The longstanding reputation of Black Kettle National Grasslands -- one of the nation's premier public-hunting spots for turkeys -- holds an allure for many turkey fanatics!
Current flock estimates place the number of western turkeys at 65,204 up 2,153 from last year's estimate of 63,051 -- reflecting a 3.4 percent increase. Since the 2010 estimate represents a 28.5 percent increase from the estimate of 50,735 turkeys recorded in 2003, the western part of our state continues to be a popular destination for turkey hunters.
Outfitter Danny Pierce, who operates Rush Creek Guide Service (806) 323-3030 in both western Oklahoma and Texas, believes this spring should be exceptional.
"Last season we had a tremendous number of jakes, which will all be longbeards this season," Pierce stated. "We also carried over a good amount of 2-year-old longbeards, which should have even longer beards this spring."
Our western counties flock estimates can be broken down as follows: Alfalfa, 1,580; Beaver, 900; Beckham, 3,600; Blaine, 3,623; Cimarron, 200; Comanche, 2,485; Cotton, 3,000; Custer, 380; Dewey, 2,630; Ellis, 2,800; Greer, 4,100; Harmon, 4,100; Harper, 2,243; Jackson, 3,800; Jefferson, 1,250; Kiowa, 1,170; Major, 3,768; Roger Mills, 2,900; Stephens, 1,440; Texas, 500; Tillman, 4,620; Washita, 2,000 and Woods, 3,185. Woodward County led them all with an estimated 5,475 turkeys.
Like the western part of the state, the bulk of central Oklahoma consists of agricultural areas near wood lots surrounded by tallgrass prairie. Turkey hunting in central Oklahoma largely will be on private land.
Central Oklahoma flock numbers have decreased slightly from an estimated 35,835 to 34,263, representing a 1,572 bird or a 4.38 percent decrease from last season. When compared with 32,155 -- the estimated number of turkeys six years ago -- the 2010 season will reflect a 6.6 percent increase!
In central Oklahoma, in areas east of I-35 where birds were required to be checked in, turkey chasers were rewarded last season by taking an estimated 1,460 toms, with 45.0 percent of that number, or 657, being jakes compared with 803 adult toms.
County flock estimates for 2010 are: Canadian, 1,950; Carter, 1,500; Cleveland, 600; Creek, 3,000; Garfield, 1,200; Garvin, 700; Grady, 1,400; Grant, 775; Hughes, 1,600; Johnson, 1,500; Kay, 900; Kingfisher, 3,000; Lincoln, 1,050; Logan, 2,500; Love, 1,200; Marshall, 98; McClain, 700; Murray, 800; Noble, 880; Okfuskee, 1,200; Oklahoma, 150; Okmulgee, 600; Osage, 1,300; Pawnee, 800; Payne, 950; Pontotoc, 750; Pottawatomie, 1,160; and Seminole, 2,000.
The northeast area is heavily wooded and home to Rio Grandes, with some Eastern turkeys found along the counties bordering Arkansas and Missouri. Known as Green County, this area rich in history with beautiful hardwood forests sadly has fewer turkeys than any other area of the state and flock counts continue to decrease. Spring rains and poor hatches have left the area with less-than-hoped-for turkey populations. With an estimated total of 14,450 turkeys, this number has decreased from the 2003 estimate of 16,010.
Last season, hunters took 1,039 turkeys, with just over half the harvest -- 56.2 percent or 584 being adult toms, and 43.8 percent or 455 being jakes.
County flock estimates were as follows: Adair, 800; Cherokee, 1,500; Craig, 2,000; Delaware, 200; Haskell, 1,635; Mayes, 410; McIntosh, 1,335; Muskogee, 1,800; Nowata, 1,000; Ottawa, 330; Rogers, 540; Sequoyah, 1,800; Tulsa, 150; Wagoner, 500; and Washington, 450.
The southeast part of the state holds eight counties: Coal, Atoka, Choctaw, Pushmataha, Le Flore, Latimer, McCurtain and Pittsburg. The scenery and vistas in this mountainous region are truly breathtaking, unlike any other part of the state. Hunters there harvested 1,448 turkeys last season, with a whopping 74.7 percent of them adult toms.
If you have never matched wits with a long-bearded gobbler in the hills and mountains of Southeastern Oklahoma, you are in for a treat. Actually, a better word might be "education." These birds are wary, and respond much differently to calls and hunting than do their western counterparts.
Southeastern flock estimates are as follows: Atoka, 1,652; Bryan, 89; Choctaw, 167; Coal, 550; Latimer, 268; Le Flore, 598; McCurtain, 1,200; Pittsburg, 569; and Pushmataha, 2,333. Some of these flock counts have had variances from previous counts. Waymire explained why.
"During past surveys when gasoline prices were high, there wasn't the same efforts made to collect data," he said. "Now that gasoline prices have stabilized, we have more cooperators willing to help us get the turkey counts -- the U.S. Forest Service, NRCS, ODWC personnel, Farm Services, NWTF members, U.S. Postal Service personnel and some other private landowners."
PUBLIC HUNTING OPPORTUNITIES
For hunters without private land access, the best bets in the northeast are Kaw WMA, located near Ponca City in Kay County, and Spavinaw WMA, located northeast of Pryor. Kaw WMA spans 16,254 acres but is relatively overlooked by turkey hunters. The area is highlighted with hardwood bottoms surrounded by ODWC-planted feed fields.
I rate the WMA as a good bet in the northeast, owing to the fact that nearly a third of the county's annual harvest is taken off this one WMA. This public area surrounds much of Kaw Lake; hunting pressure is relatively light on most days. Though Kay County allows two toms, hunters are only allowed one at Kaw WMA.
Spavinaw WMA is located in both Delaware and Mayes counties. I've hunted this 14,340-acre WMA and found it to feature excellent habitat of hardwood draws and ridges with numerous food plots. Turkeys forage on acorns and native grasses along with the wheat and rye in food plots.
Another public opportunity in southeast Oklahoma is Hickory Creek WMA. Hickory Creek is nestled in Love County between Lake Murray and Lake Texoma. This ODWC-managed unit consists of 7,363 acres of bottomland forests surrounded by edges of native grass. The habitat is improved annually by controlled burns. Hickory Creek runs through the entire length of the property, providing good roosting cover. Hunters can take two toms in this county.
Located just south of Hickory Creek WMA and on the western edge of Lake Texoma is Love Valley WMA, consisting of 7,746 acres. The WMA's riparian habitat varies from hardwood bottomlands to sandy river bottom areas along the Red River. Turkey numbers are good, but hunting pressure can be heavy.
The best public spots in eastern Oklahoma are the Three Rivers and Honobia Creek WMAs. Combined, these units total 326,000 acres where residents 18 to 64 are required to pay a $40 annual user fee to hunt. They yielded 181 turkeys last season.
The hunting on these WMAs was improved when select areas like the Harris Creek area on Honobia Creek WMA and the Boktuklo Area on the Three Rivers WMA were gated and access limited to foot traffic. The NWTF cost-shared the project with the ODWC and the result, according to Waymire, is good concentrations of turkeys on both areas.
Much of Western Oklahoma is privately owned, and so finding hunting opportunities for less than $10 an acre can be tough. However, I've had good success on several public lands.
Most western WMAs offer agricultural fields surrounded by Conservation Reserve Program grasslands and occasional creek bottoms with neighboring wood lots.
Public-land hunting opportunities are available at several wildlife management areas, including the following: 30,710-acre Black Kettle WMA, located near Cheyenne; 14,877-acre Canton WMA, located near Canton; 4,800-acre Ellis County WMA, loc
ated near Arnett; 5,418-acre Fort Supply WMA, located near Woodward; and the 15,000-acre Packsaddle WMA north of Roll.
SEASON DATES & BAG LIMITS
Spring turkey season opens April 6 and runs through May 6, 2010. A special youth season will open April 3-4, with a one-tom limit.
There is a spring bag limit of three toms. However, no more than two turkeys can be taken from the combined southeast counties of Atoka, Choctaw, Coal, Latimer, Le Flore, McCurtain, Pittsburg and Pushmataha.
The following counties offer a two-tom limit: Adair, Alfalfa, Beckham, Blaine, Caddo, Canadian, Carter, Cherokee, Comanche, Cotton, Craig, Creek, Dewey, Ellis, Garvin, Grady, Grant, Greer, Harmon, Harper, Haskell, Hughes, Jackson, Jefferson, Johnston, Kay, Kingfisher, Lincoln, Logan, Love, Major, McClain, McIntosh, Murray, Muskogee, Nowata, Okfuskee, Okmulgee, Osage, Pawnee, Payne, Pontotoc, Pottawatomie, Roger Mills, Seminole, Sequoyah, Stephens, Tillman, Wagoner, Washington, Washita, Woods and Woodward. The following counties offer a one-tom limit: Beaver, Bryan, Cimarron, Cleveland, Custer, Delaware, Garfield, Kiowa, Marshall, Mayes, Noble, Oklahoma, Ottawa, Rogers, Texas and Tulsa.
All turkeys east of I-35 must be checked at a check station, or online at www.wildlifedepartment.com. Remember that all hunters are required to put their tags or lifetime license numbers and information on their toms immediately after harvest.
Good concealment and sitting still is critical when hunting turkeys, especially Easterns. If you've never tried hunting from a ground blind (like a Double Bull), give it a try this spring. Never wear the colors red, white or blue -- the colors of a gobbler's head.
Public lands maps are available free of charge at the ODWC's Web site at www.wildlifedepartment.com.
Hunt safe, be sure of your target, and good luck!