Texas Turkey Outlook

Another turkey season will be upon us soon. Here's how the 2004 spring season is shaping up in your area.

By Burl A. Dallas

The spring 2004 turkey season promises to be the best you have ever seen, and perhaps ever will see. "God smiled on turkeys this year," said John Burk, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's chief turkey biologist.

But actually, the last three years have seen strong turkey hatches and survival in almost every part of the state - and that rarely happens.

With the exception of South Texas, the Lone Star State saw 2001 produce a bumper crop of turkey poults, perhaps the fourth-best hatch on record. Toms from that spring will be fully mature this year, and your chances of meeting one over the barrel of a shotgun are excellent.

"Realistically, because production has been so good for the last three years, hunting prospects should be good everywhere in Texas for the next two years," Burk predicted. "We'll be living off the fat of those good hatches."

Weather has everything to do with turkeys. For a good hatch, and for poults to thrive into adulthood, turkeys need rain at just the right times. Fall rains provide deep soil moisture that leads to an early greenup. In order for hens to prepare their bodies for laying, they must have a diet high in protein before the breeding season begins. If they get the necessary nutrients, the hens will come into season and breed; if not, their reproductive systems will short-circuit and shut down before the season starts, or shortly into it. When hens become nonresponsive, gobblers shut down, too, and the spring season is over almost before it begins.

"Our season is timed so birds are most vulnerable during the fat years," Burk explained. "If we have a dry winter and hens don't get enough protein, they won't make eggs. In such times, toms gobble in February and March and are done by the time the (hunting) season opens. I've always been a proponent of 'Later is better.' No matter where I've been, the later in the season you go hunting, the better off you are - except during those dry years."

Photo by Mike Lambeth

Texas is primarily Rio Grande turkey country, and those birds require less moisture than do the eastern subspecies birds that inhabit the state roughly from Interstate 45 to the Sabine and Red rivers.

"With the exception of the Panhandle, this year as you went north and west in Texas, it got drier," Burk noted. "Production in the western and upper Hill Country was not very good - there was basically a hole in the northwestern portion of Rio Grande range where production this year was poor - but 2001 was really good. When you get two excellent years out of three, that's probably the best you can expect.

"We've been in about a 10-year decline, but I think the last couple of hatches can turn that around. We've had habitat fragmentation and some declines in habitat quality, but production has been so good the last three years, we should reverse that trend."

Anyone who's watched a tom gobble his head off while making a beeline for the caller and then veer off at the last minute because of a fence, a creek or a passing hen - or for no apparent reason at all - knows that turkeys are very picky. It should come as no surprise, then, that eastern and Rio Grande turkeys have opposite ideas about whether rain during the nesting season is a good thing.

As Rio Grande hens live where spring weather can turn quite hot and very dry, they rarely nest more than a quarter-mile from water. Periodically during the day, a hen will dip her wing and breast feathers in water before continuing to brood her eggs. This keeps the eggs within the narrow range of temperature and humidity necessary for the chick to survive.

Eastern turkeys, on the other hand, live where rainfall is normally plentiful and the shady woods are cooler. Predators are a bigger problem during the nesting season than is drought. Rain may in fact be the worst thing that can happen to an eastern turkey during nesting.

"Some research associates rainfall in May with decreased production," Burk explained. "It's called the 'wet hen theory.' If you have a wet year, you have increased predation, because the predators can smell the wet hen on the nest. The last two years, we had low rainfall in May in East Texas, and this year we had no rainfall at all in May; we set production records those first two years. But in the data I have for 2003, the trend is inconsistent.

"The poults-per-hen observations are about 2.9; in the two prior years it was about 4. I expected a tremendous hatch, but we may not have had it. Turkeys are habitat-sensitive, and a lot of land-use practices in East Texas are not turkey-friendly. People who manage for turkeys generally do better."

Turkeys' fortunes rise and fall with the state of their habitat, so don't expect to find the birds where they can't make a living. Thanks to an aggressive restocking program by the TPWD, eastern turkeys, which were virtually extinct in Texas, can now be hunted in 41 counties from the Red River almost to the Gulf Coast. But not all turkey habitat in East Texas is equal. Easterns prefer an open understory, and about the only way to achieve that in East Texas is through prescribed burning. Unfortunately for turkeys, however, burns are often not possible in thickly settled parts of East Texas. And that has a big impact on where you can expect to find turkeys in the region.

Eastern turkey populations have sharply increased in northeastern Texas, especially along the Red River in Lamar and Red River counties. In Walker, San Jacinto and Polk counties, turkey numbers are going down, but numbers are higher in parts of the Angelina and Sabine national forests. The reason might surprise you: woodpeckers!

"You have to burn to have turkeys in East Texas," Burk remarked. "Southern Angelina and southern Sabine national forests are still the best public lands for easterns, because they are red-cockaded woodpecker country where the Forest Service burns - and what is good for woodpeckers is good for turkeys."

Better still, all you'll need to hunt the turkeys in the wildlife management areas there will be a hunting license and annual public hunting permit.

While turkey populations are on the rise in parts of East Texas, declines in other areas mean that the population is roughly stable on average. However, the birds are increasing their range - expanding into suitable habitat when and where they can find it. Burk reports that some turkeys have traveled up to 70 miles to co

lonize new areas.

The excellent hatches in 2001 and 2002 mean that, for the next couple of years, more mature gobblers will haunt the woods in East Texas than have been seen there in more than a century. You'll still have to hunt hard to bag a big eastern tom, but you can take consolation from the fact that the hunting's better now than it was in your grandfather's day.

"The Blackland and Oak Savannah prairies have low turkey densities," Burk pointed out. "This is the transition zone between Rio Grandes and easterns as you go north to south. It's also where all the row-crop agriculture is along with a lot of small ranches where native grasses were converted to Coastal Bermuda, so the habitat is not very good. We have had good production the past couple of years where there is good habitat. Large, intensively managed ranches are doing OK, but you either have a bunch of turkeys or none at all."

TPWD biologist Billy Lambert adds that Rio Grandes can be found along the western edge of the district, with scattered populations of easterns throughout the region - which makes for a peculiar situation in Grayson County. The birds on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land around Lake Texoma are Rio Grandes, but are hunted under the regulations for easterns: one gobbler only during the spring season. But don't let the restrictions put you off.

"It's so close to Dallas/Fort Worth that there are lots of people hunting them," Burk said, "but I've had hunters tell me of hearing 30 gobblers."

"Look at this area in thirds," Burk proposed. "In extreme South Texas, south of Corpus Christi, you have the same scenario as in the South Texas Brush Country. Good rains resulted in a bumper hatch, so there are a lot of young birds. North of Corpus it got drier, probably resulting in low production. In the East Texas part of that area, we should have had pretty good production."

As in the Post Oak Savannah, pockets of turkey habitat here will be interspersed with agricultural and urban areas. Hunting can be an exciting proposition wherever you find a concentration of birds.

Mother Nature has not been kind to South Texas the last several years. Flooding fall rains have been followed by almost totally dry winters, springs and summers - until this year. "This year, range conditions are probably as good as you could hope for," said Burk, "but they haven't had a good hatch since 1997."

The bumper crop of jakes in 2003 will lead to hunters pursuing a limited number of mature toms - and having to adjust their tactics in order to succeed.

"2004 will be frustrating because there are not many adult gobblers," Burk observed, "and the number of jakes will be high. What happens is, bunches of jakes gang up on mature gobblers and beat them up, and make them go silent. The strategy to use when you have a lot of jakes is to get as close as you can to a mature gobbler before you do anything. If you get a response, don't call any more; let him come. The more you call, the more likely you will be to have jakes come in. The old bird you're after won't move far, either, because he does not want to run into jakes."

Remember one thing more when hunting gobblers that go silent: You must be very still and be constantly looking for an approaching bird. You won't have his gobbling to help you track him as he moves, so you have to be ready for him to pop up anywhere, anytime. One move on your part at the wrong time can spoil the game.

Texas has more Rio Grande turkeys than any does other state, and the Edwards Plateau has the lion's share of those. "The Hill Country always leads the pack with two-thirds of the harvest," Burk pointed out. Good hatches in 2001 and 2002 promise an abundance of mature gobblers this season, and the poor hatch in the northern and western parts of the Edwards Plateau - say, north and west from Brady - means that fewer pesky jakes will be getting in hunters' way.

Hunting is somewhat easier in the eastern and southern sections of the Edwards Plateau, because the hilly and more thickly vegetated terrain makes it easier to move in on gobblers and get close. However, while gobblers find it easier to spot hunters in the drier, more-open country to the west, fewer big trees are available for roosting, making birds somewhat easier to pattern.

Key on drainages whether they have running water in them or not. Birds will likely roost in the larger trees along drainages and spread out over surrounding mesquite flats during the day to feed, often following the same travel lanes to and from roosts.

Find turkey tracks and droppings along pasture roads or in sandy creek bottoms, and locate a workable hiding spot in which you can get comfortable for several hours. Call sparingly and stay alert; a gobbler will come find you when he runs out of willing hens.

Be prepared to stay out all day; take a lunch. As one veteran Hill Country turkey hunter told me, "If I can get a turkey to gobble at me in the afternoon, I can kill him."

So can you.

"Much of the district has experienced good turkey reproduction for the past two years," reported TPWD district biologist Kevin Mote, "and this year is shaping up to be another good one. Populations could be the highest in five years, with a healthy percentage of the population being mature birds."

John Burk is less reserved in his prediction. "The Rolling Plains had another bumper hatch," he said, "the third or fourth in a row. There should be worlds of adult gobblers out there. I can't imagine having better turkey hunting anywhere else."

"Hunting prospects for Rio Grande turkeys in the eastern Panhandle are expected to be good to excellent," said TPWD district biologist Danny Swepston. "Good reproduction during the last two years has resulted in an abundance of young toms, particularly in the northeastern counties."

"The last four or five years the Panhandle has gotten just enough rain at the right time for turkeys," added Burk. "We have had above-average production and are probably above carrying capacity in the High Plains."

"I believe the Trans-Pecos did get rain at a good time, so they should be in reasonably good shape," Burk offered. "They had their first hatch in a long time last season, so it's probably about as good as you can expect it to be." Turkeys in arid West Texas will basically be in the riparian corridors, and therefore will be easy to find, but ra

nches are huge, and landowners control hunting tightly. Turkey harvest in the Trans-Pecos is essentially nonexistent.

Turkeys - both Rio Grandes and easterns - could well be the poster children for modern wildlife management. Research has shown what the birds need to thrive, and public and private landowners have gotten very adept at providing turkey habitat. Hunters have funded the entire endeavor through purchases of leases, hunting equipment, licenses and stamps.

Turkey hunting right now is the best it's ever been, thanks to you. Enjoy your reward. You've certainly earned it!

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