If you're expecting a good year in the turkey woods, you're probably right! Here's how things are shaping up for turkey chasers around the Lone Star State. (March 2008).
Photo by Burt Carey
All these years later, I still don't know for sure how it happened -- but the experience haunts me yet.
A friend invited me to join him for a spring turkey hunt in Mason County, the veritable bull's-eye of the best turkey territory in Texas. After a comfortable night in an old two-story ranch house, German-built and made of rock, that had been converted into a bed and breakfast, we moved quietly in the dark early morning down a sandy two-rut road toward the Llano River.
Clad in camo head to boot, we positioned ourselves with our backs to a couple of big live oaks and waited for what proved to be a glorious April dawn. Before long we heard the distant gobble of a newly risen tom looking for love in all the wrong places. A turkey's gobble will carry a mile, but this one sounded closer.
Larry raised his call and started talking turkey. When the gobbler answered one of his lovelorn putt-putts and plaintive yelps, we knew we had the tom's attention. Over the next 10 minutes or so, sitting as quiet and still as I could, I eavesdropped on an intimate conversation between a polygamous gobbler and a too-good-to-be-true hen. The self-taught Larry seemed to be able to talk the talk of a feathered flirt.
Firmly griping my old reliable .22 Magnum pump, I listened as the gobbles got louder and louder, the decibel level growing to match the sound it felt like my pounding heart must be making. The gobbler's heart must have been racing as well, but for different reasons. He thought he was about to make a new friend. I, on the other hand, realized I had a healthy gobbler strutting straight toward my place of concealment.
And then he came into view, bronze feathers fanned and scaled feet dancing at the prospect of love in the time of bluebonnets. The sun bounced off his finery (for trivia buffs, some 5,000 feathers) as he came a-courtin'. When I threw up my gun, he filled the lens of my scope. Delaying only a moment to marvel at his nice beard, I laid the crosshairs squarely on his chest and pulled the trigger.
It was a shot I couldn't miss and I didn't. He rolled over in a spray of dust, his vision of romance shattered by the crack of a high-speed bullet. But when I stood up to go get my turkey, he got up as well, electing for an immediate change of scenery. Before I could shoot again, he had disappeared in the river bottom.
It hurts too much to finish the story. Suffice it to say I didn't get that gobbler. As best we could figure, my bullet made a neat hole in his breast muscle, missing anything important, and slammed hard if harmlessly against a breastbone that on this morning acted like a built-in piece of body armor.
Not long after, I traded off the gun, blaming the rifle for my overconfidence. Of course, a .22 Magnum has plenty enough punch to take down a big gobbler. As close as he was, I realize now that I should have raised my aim and zeroed in on his neck. Alas, a lesson learned.
The only solace I can take is that I am not alone in having gotten an education from a prideful Tom.
Zavala County rancher John Kingsbery, a World War II veteran, former rodeo rider and accomplished taleteller, had another sad story to relate.
"I had a hunter last year who called up the biggest gobbler he'd ever seen," Kingsbery said. "He had set out a decoy and that old gobbler headed straight for it, his heart full of love."
The hunter, admiring the big boy's long beard, eased the safety off his gun and put his finger on the trigger.
At that moment, Kingsbery said, a gust of wind toppled the lovely rubber hen. Startled and frustrated to boot, the gobbler wheeled around and disappeared back into the brush before the hunter could get off a shot.
These two cases, as any savvy sportsman will tell you, demonstrate why they call it spring turkey hunting and not spring turkey shooting.
Even so, statistics collected by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife officials show a high hunter success rate when it comes to spring gobblers. Is this so because a substantial number of spring hunters are very experienced? Or is it just a matter of Texas harboring a lot of turkeys? Either way, it's academic.
The point is that chasing spring turkeys can prove to be some of the most exciting hunting you'll ever engage in. An estimated 60,000 hunters harvested more than 25,000 gobblers last spring. While that's a lot of white meat and drumsticks, the state's estimated population is some 600,000 birds.
The spring season for Rio Grande turkeys, Texas' dominant subspecies, gets under way in the 101 North Zone counties on March 29 and continues through May 11. (Special youth seasons are March 22-23 and May 17-18.) In the South Zone, which includes 54 counties, the season runs March 15 to April 27, with youth hunts set for March 8-9 and May 3-4. The season in both zones runs for 44 days.
Those who like to track the state's ongoing success with turkey management will note that Rio Grande turkeys may be hunted in a total of 155 counties this spring, two more counties than in 2007.
In 43 East Texas counties, hunting for the eastern subspecies extends from April 1-30. That includes one new county not huntable for turkeys last year. If you intend to hunt in any of the national forests in that part of the state, most of them require a Parks and Wildlife annual public hunting permit at a cost of $48. The permit also is needed for several thousand acres of public hunting areas in East Texas. Be prepared to show your tagged eastern at a mandatory check station within 24 hours of taking it. Call 1-800-792-112 or check the Parks and Wildlife Web site for locations.
Hunters may only take one eastern gobbler, with weapon choices restricted to one of the following: shotgun, lawful archery equipment or crossbow.
Rios can be taken with scattergun, rifle, pistol, legal bow and arrow and crossbow, though landowners have the final say-so on the type of weapon they will allow for turkeys on their property. Wildlife management areas also may restrict certain weapons.
No matter what you use to bring down a long-bearded gobbler, the general bag limit is four turkeys per license year. Obviously, that means if you took some turkeys in the fall, you have only the tags remaining on your license to use this spring.
Since some counties have slightly different regulations or bag limits, it's always smart to check the Parks and Wildlife Department's Web site or the 2007-08 Outdoor Annual to make sure you hunt legally.
Though some form of spring turkey hunting is legal in 195 of the state's 254 counties, even a quick look at the latest available turkey harvest numbers shows that in spring 2006 most of the hunters (25,265) killed the most gobblers (10,609) in the Edwards Plateau region -- better known to many of us as the Hill Country. Hunters took about half as many gobblers (5,275) both in the Cross Timbers (the woody counties west of Fort Worth) and the Rolling Plains of West Texas. The only other region with a four-digit spring gobbler harvest was the South Texas Plains, where an estimated 3,971 turkeys were tagged during the spring hunt.
The harvest numbers explain why the TPWD has kept Dr. T. Wayne Schwertner stationed in Mason, right in the middle of Texas' top turkey country. He has spent several years as the agency's turkey program leader, though last fall, the department hired a new biologist to take on that job. Schwertner will now be focusing on the white wing dove resource.
"It's the same story over most of Texas," he said in assessing the prospects for this year's spring season. "The state got lots of rain in the spring and summer of 2007. When that happens, it makes wildlife biologists look like geniuses."
Heavy rains in the "Big Three" turkey regions, the Edward Plateau, the Rolling Plains and South Texas, have resulted in good production of Rio poults.
"There are going to be a lot of jakes, but it won't be a great year for a lot of gobblers," Schwertner said. "There will be a lot of birds, but not many older gobblers with long beards and spurs."
Though some years the Lone Star State's varying weather patterns make the prospect different across the state, this year, as Schwertner said, the crystal ball is exceptionally clear from region to region.
"Wherever the Rio Grande occurs," he continued, "it's going to be a good year."
Even up in the Panhandle, where only 119 gobblers were taken in 2006, the outlook for this spring is favorable, Schwertner said. Because much of the Panhandle is agricultural land, the turkeys are concentrated in the drainages, particularly in the Canadian River breaks. But in those rough draws, the hunting will be good.
The only downside when it comes to the robustness of Rios is the continuing urbanization along the Interstate 35 corridor.
"Every acre under concrete or a golf course is one less acre of turkey habitat," Schwertner said. When enough rural acreage disappears, an area is obviously going to have fewer birds.
"If they experience enough disturbance, even if they still have some small pockets of habitat, turkeys will leave an area where urbanization has occurred," he said.
But there is some indication that turkeys may be able to adapt to urbanization just like deer have done.
"Last spring, they saw some gobblers strutting behind the Parks and Wildlife headquarters in Austin," Schwertner said. "The headquarters complex is not far from McKinney Falls State Park, but so far as I know, that's a first to see wild turkeys around headquarters. That's pretty close to the city now."
He said the agency is working with the University of North Texas on a study focusing on an area near Lake Lewisville in Denton County. The researchers are trying to determine the minimum area required to support Rio Grande turkeys, as well as the minimum number of birds that need to be stocked to rejuvenate a population.
In January 2006, Parks and Wildlife biologists trapped 15 gobblers and 34 hens off private property in Jack County and released them on 2,000 acres of undeveloped land south of the Lake Lewisville dam. Most of the birds seemed to have survived and are doing well.
On the other side of the state, the introduction in the mid-1980s of eastern subspecies turkeys in the Pineywoods of East Texas has succeeded in reestablishing the bird in an area where it formerly roamed. With money generated through hunting license and turkey stamp sales, and with assistance from the National Wild Turkey Federation, more than 7,000 eastern turkeys were trapped in other states and released in the tall timber country.
Additional releases have continued over the years, though they have been of varying success. The TPWD has partnered with Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches to use radiotelemetry devices to track the movement of eastern turkeys. The goal is to learn more about their preferred habitat and management practices.
In recent years, the annual spring harvest has been some 500 eastern gobblers. This spring may not be the best of springs for this subspecies in Texas, but at least there is a season. While the hunting is not likely to be spectacular, the season will be far from disastrous, Schwertner said.
For one thing, prescribed burning on forest land -- made possible by the settlement of long-pending litigation -- has helped to produce better habitat, and that will help the hunting in the long run.
But the drought-busting rains over most of the state didn't have much impact on normally rainy East Texas. "The easterns don't respond as readily to high rain," Schwertner said. "And if it's too wet, there can be some suppression of production."
In South Texas, Circle T Ranch biologist Darrell White reported, hunters harvested seven gobblers in the spring of '07.
"If a hunter's experienced, we just assign him a pasture," White said. "If they are new to turkey hunting, I'll take them out and do the calling."
According to White, who prefers using a box call, the good thing about his part of Texas is that it doesn't get much hunting pressure. That's not to say it doesn't have birds, but hunters tend to flock toward the "birdier" central corridor of the state.
No matter the satisfaction felt by seven spring turkey hunters on the ranch he helps manage, White did not consider last year a very good turkey season in his part of the state.
That's because of a persistent drought, which did not start to break until about turkey season last year.
"In a drought cycle, you don't have high success rate with the poults," he said. "It really takes two years to recover. The first year after, you get jakes. The second year you start getting some good gobblers."
Because of the wet spring, he continued, his part of Texas enjoyed a good May-July hatch last year. This spring should be a good one for jakes, the spring of '09 a good year for mature gobblers.
Indeed, Schwertner said, Texas will be set up for several more years of good turkey hunting if the state sees another wet spring this year.
"Of course," he concluded with a chuckle, "even an average year in Texas is a really good year for turkeys."
Mark your calendar.