Looking for a real longbeard to wear your Texas turkey tag? Then we've got just the information to help in that quest -- and it starts right here. (March 2009)
It was a total surprise to step out of my deer camp trailer to discover a heavy frost covering the ground. It was April, for crying out loud! The outdoor thermometer showed 34 degrees. Typical: The forecast of a "cool" front was off by about 20 degrees. As I prepared to go forth in search of a South Texas spring longbeard, I was ecstatic that my insulated coveralls hadn't made it home.
The author bagged this spring gobbler on a ranch near Brady after her husband John called it in. The big bird sported a 10 1/2-inch beard. Photo by John Jurek.
Backed into a thick stand of mesquite, brush and cacti, I sat in my RTV, planning to wait until it was light enough to see without using a flashlight before heading down to my brush stand in the dense riverbottom. Well before the eastern sky even thought about lightening up, however, turkey hens could be heard calling. Cackling, putting and yelping came from three different directions -- but the calling was coming from other hunters on neighboring ranches, not live birds.
As an experienced spring turkey hunter, I could tell the difference, especially as, time after time, the calling came from the same direction with almost the exact tone, strength and pitch, with scratches, grating noises, burps and bleats thrown in, all that errant noise ringing out clearly on this crisp, still morning. Worst of all, no responding gobbles were to be heard.
I quickly realized that I was wasting my time. Besides, I was really cold -- so I decided to take a stroll to warm up. With so many callers within hearing range, and no gobblers replying, I figured, what the heck: Walk around a little and enjoy the breathtaking sunrise and frosty-white landscape; perhaps I'd glimpse deer or hogs. The sun was cresting the treeline when I realized I was almost a mile from my parking site.
The warmth that could now be felt from the sun was welcome indeed. Resting my shotgun against a mighty mesquite, I stood in the ranch road. Heavy brush was to my right; to the left was open but growing-up pasture on the left.
Listening intently to the constant yelping of the three nonexistent hens, I gave thanks for the full sunshine. After stretching from side to side, I placed my cold hands against my sun-warmed back while stomping my feet on the dirt road to improve my circulation. Abruptly I stopped, sensing a presence.
Looking up, I saw that an unassuming turkey hen had emerged from the thick brush, its putt barely audible. My eyes widened as a huge gobbler stepped out 20 yards from me. Its long beard almost touched the ground; the red and blue of its head was quite vivid. I couldn't move, hesitant to even breathe.
While I stood statue-still, the big tom responded to the hen's putting by stretching out in a full gobble. So close, seeming almost to make the ground shudder, the shrillness of it hurt my ears. All grace and dignity, the huge gobbler began the courtship waltz of the wild turkey, strutting, strumming and fanning, slowly whirling, wingtips dragging the ground -- trying hard to woo the hen before it.
Softly the female turkey murmured again, quite taken with the handsome display. Once more the majestic longbeard bellowed out another deafening gobble, and, almost instantly, the distant hunters ratcheted the calling level up. But the big bird had a lovely lady within view, and so paid no heed to any other sounds.
My shotgun was at least 6 feet away -- a lot of good that was doing me! And I knew that if I moved a muscle, both birds would flee. So I chose to hold my position, motionless as a rock, feeling privileged to be up close and personal with the amorous pair before me.
The dance of romance began again, and I was content, under the circumstances, just to watch; having a front row seat to one of nature's finest productions was priceless. The sun caught the brilliant radiance of the gobbler's feathers as it twirled within feet of me, never noticing the human in camouflage.
The most interesting thing about the encounter was that the grand gobbler never answered any of the calling going on in the distance. After the ear-splitting gobbles, the hunters nearby really turned the dial up on their make-believe hens' desire signals, but the gobbler, enamored of the charming companion that it was escorting and paying close attention to the hen's every move, was happy with its choice and in no way interested in any weird gals hollering out in the brush.
All too soon, and as silently as it had appeared, the hen quietly slipped back into the brush; the gobbler followed only a few feet behind. The turkeys never gave an indication of noticing me standing in plain sight in the middle of a dirt road on a brisk spring morning as white frost melted away. It was an awesome experience, and one I wouldn't trade for even the biggest gobbler with the longest beard.
BASICS OF SPRING TURKEY HUNTING
Hunters have their preferences for a particular game species. Stalking a monster buck, following ducks and geese, and chasing wild hogs with dogs are just a few of the many grand adventures of hunting. But the experience of hearing a thundering gobble and trying to coax a wily old tom turkey into shotgun range is entirely magnificent all on its own. Many hunters switch favorites once they've tried spring turkey hunting, saying that no greater rush exists than watching a big tom puff up in the springtime.
Hunting turkeys while deer hunting in the fall has a long history; turkey hunting in the spring is a concept that took a few years to catch on. Once it did, however, the sport grew quickly, being among the most challenging and popular types of hunting to be had today. Participation has increased dramatically in the last two decades as hunters have discovered the fun it provides and developed the skills necessary for success.
Spring turkey hunting can be enjoyed by anyone of any age. Some type of turkey call and a knowledge of hunting in general are the basics required to begin. It's also good to be possessed of a modicum of patience, as patience is indeed a virtue when you're trying to bring in a wily old gobbler. Technique and skill come with experience.
While spring turkey hunting isn't really a group event -- several people can't easily gather behind a single clump of bushes or in a small blind -- two or three hunters can smoothly pursue turkeys together if they are quiet and stealthy. Turkeys have extremely sharp hearing and sight, so staying quiet and restricting movement are of utmost importance.
WHAT'S IN THE WINGS FOR SPRING 2009
According to many experts in the large-fowl departments of various organizations, the spring and summer drought of 2006 was hard on turkeys, leading to very poor reproduction and survival rates that year. In addition, adult turkeys had trouble staying alive because of lack of food sources and cover.
The result is that truly mature birds, 3- to 4-year-olds, may be down in numbers currently ("may be," because no statistics were available at press time). But, naturally, some areas of the Lone Star State have better ratios of mature to immature birds than do others.
On a positive note, the exceptional spring and summer rains of 2007 across most of Texas produced an abundance of turkey poults across the state -- north, south, east, west and central. Survival was great because of plentiful insects, seeds and, of course, protective cover. Herds of jakes (also known as "yearling" or "teenage" toms) thundered across almost all of Texas in the spring of 2008. Mature longbeards were difficult to locate in many areas because of so many young jakes coming to calls.
"South Texas did not fare as well this year (2008) as other parts of the state," said Jason Hardin, turkey program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "The early dry weather was not ideal for nesting and poult production. However, a few broods were seen." He went on to say that the Rolling Plains and Panhandle regions ended up having better production than expected.
"I have not heard back from folks in the Hill Country, but I would expect comments of a good hatch in 2008, with this next spring turkey season being better than expected," Hardin continued. "There will be a lot of 2-year-old birds, a handful of old gobblers, and a handful of jakes in the population for the spring season. All the 2-year-old birds should make for aesthetically pleasing hunts during the spring '09 season."
Spring gobblers are similar to bucks in rut: The older, wiser, more mature gobblers are often harder to bag, while the youngsters are doing the majority of running and chasing. However, when the time is right, even the old birds can't resist temptation and will make mistakes.
North And West Texas Regions
According to Chip Ruthven, TPWD project leader for the Panhandle wildlife management areas, "The 2009 spring season ought to be great. While we didn't have tremendous reproduction this year like in 2007, there will a lot of 2-year-old birds, providing good hunting opportunities." Ruthven is over the Matador and Gene Howe WMAs, both of which have turkeys.
Another source backed Ruthven up. "Hunting for Rios in West Texas and especially the Panhandle should be exciting in the spring of 2009," said Ross Huffman, the National Wild Turkey Federation's regional biologist for West Texas and Oklahoma. "Nesting in 2008 seemed to be a mixed bag but about average overall. The Rio turkey populations are doing well in Texas." He predicted that hunters will have plenty of 2-year-old birds to chase around without too many jakes being in the way.
East Texas And The Pineywoods
Reported Scotty Parsons, the NWTF's East Texas biologist, "Like much of the state, East Texas and the Pineywoods will hold lots of 2-year-old turkeys, both easterns and Rio Grandes, this coming spring. This last spring season (2008), hunters had trouble getting mature toms because of all the young jakes everywhere."
Some public hunting areas may not be open in East Texas because of damage from Hurricane Ike in September 2008. Check with the TPWD and the National Forestry Service before making a trip. Parsons' advice to spring turkey hunters: "The turkeys are there -- be still; be patient." Good advice wherever you hunt!
Lone Star Central
"This spring (2009) will be dominated by 2-year-old turkeys, as we're starting to run out of older toms," stated Greg Simons, wildlife biologist and owner of San Angelo-based Wildlife Systems Inc., which has over 600,000 acres under management. "Surprisingly, we haven't seen too many poults, especially in South Texas. Hatch conditions in many areas appeared to be good, but having a dry spell from November through February can mean the reproduction fitness of both hens and gobblers wasn't that good." Turkeys don't keep trying to reproduce as long as do some other species such as quail, he added.
"It will be a good year for spring turkey hunting, so start planning now to take advantage of it," Simons advised.
Larry Hodge, an information specialist at the TPWD's Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, is a diehard spring turkey hunting addict who's traversed the state in his quest for longbeards. "Some of my favorite places to hunt are the James Daughtery WMA on Choke Canyon, the Panhandle's Gene Howe WMA and the Hill Country's Kerr WMA," he said. "The Angelina National Forest is great in East Texas. West of the Pecos holds a few turkeys but is tougher hunting.
"This year there will be lots of 2-year-old birds, which translates to semistupid ones. The spring of 2008 was tough, with so many herds of jakes running around beating up on mature birds, so there wasn't much gobbling going on. I expect the woods this spring will be full of talkative toms. Plenty of them should make mistakes and wind up looking down a shotgun barrel. I hope a couple end up as mine!"
Gobbling In South Texas
On the other end of the state, David Synatzke, the TPWD's project leader for the South Texas ecosystem, covers the famed Chaparral WMA and James E. Daughtery WMA. He too is well aware of numbers, environmental situations and the overall health and wellbeing of various wildlife species all over South Texas.
"The James Daughtery WMA had a later than normal hatch this year," Synatzke stated. "Rains have been spotty across South Texas, and of course some areas were, and are currently, in better shape than others. Overall, I think it will be pretty good this spring because of the number of 2-year-old birds in the population.
"West of Highway 83 had some good early rains in 2008. The areas that received some April and May moisture also had good survival rates because of all the insects and cover. Like a lot of hunting, sometimes success simply depends on being in the right place at the right time and knowing how to hunt a particular species."
LADY LUCK'S GAME HAND
It was spring turkey season in Mason County. Two novice turkey hunters arrived at camp in their blue jeans, white shirts, boots and cowboy hats. With newly purchased turkey calls, they were ready for action. More-experienced hunters were good-naturedly chiding the newcomers about their attire and gear when, suddenly, a formidable gobble resounded from a dry creek bed in the vicinity.
Grabbing shotguns and calls, the two cowboys ran headlong to a clump of brush halfway between the camp and creek that was too low to hide bright white shirts and 10-gallon headgear. Presently, the most pitiful sound, like fingernails scratching a chalkboard, began emanating from their hide -- and, to the dismay of the veteran gobbler chasers watching at camp, the seemingly inept plea for romance received an instantaneous gobble in reply.
The older hunters continued laughing scornfully and making sarcastic remarks about the novices' abilities -- until they were taken aback by the blast of a shotgun. The two gangly cowboys began jumping up and down; their detractors stood with mouths wide agape: The seemingly hapless newcomers had gotten the last laugh by bringing in a mature tom with long spurs and an 11-inch beard. Beginner's luck is always better than no luck at all!
Of course, things don't always work out so well. One savvy old turkey hunter summed it up neatly: "Spring turkey hunting is not just being a bump on a log; it is like a military battle plan, with much strategizing as well as scouting, location and setup. On the other hand, it's a humbling experience when a bird with a brain the size of an acorn outsmarts you!"
Good luck! Enjoy the outdoors -- and, above all, have fun with your spring turkey hunting!