Oregon is one of the West's best turkey states. But that doesn't mean you don't have to do your homework. Here's a jump-start on the 2009 spring season. (March 2009)
It's longbeards like this that Oregon hunters are seeking this spring. Photo by Scott Haugen.
Last spring, during the opening weeks of Oregon's turkey season, many hunters faced rainstorms, cold winds and even snow in some eastern parts of the state. These challenging hunting situations made for even tougher nesting conditions for many wild turkeys.
The turkeys' spring nesting season is the most important time for the perpetuation of future flocks. The wetter and colder the spring, the fewer fledgling fowl will survive.
Hens will re-nest after they've lost a brood or two. But this doesn't always ensure young populations will survive in healthy numbers. Chicks that hatch too late in the summer again face the possibility of wet, cold conditions in the early fall.
Because spring is such a vital time for turkey survival, knowing how birds fared in certain parts of the state will help you better determine where to hunt them. Here's a look at some of the state's top turkey grounds, based on last year's survival rates.
Some parts of eastern Oregon were hit hard with late heavy snows. Harsh conditions claimed birds in some areas and delayed nesting in other regions. Meanwhile, flocks in some protected valleys did just fine.
Many young birds were reported seen in the fall -- a result of late nesting or a loss of broods, likely due to poor weather conditions. But were these young birds hardy enough to make it through the winter? It was hard to tell.
With that in mind, if you're hunting in the east for longbeards, it's a good idea to first call the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's regional office near the area you intend to hunt. Flock dynamics can quickly change, so it's important to do your homework.
Luckily, there are some bright spots in the northeast section of the state.
Mike Hansen, Enterprise Wildlife Technician, reports that a reasonably good hatch was observed in this area last spring.
"We had quite a bit of snow in the area last winter," he said. "But lots of birds drop into the hayfields around here, which helps them get through the winter."
Hansen points out that ODFW feeding programs enlisting the help of local farmers and ranchers have really helped birds survive in this part of the state. Thanks to these feeding programs, birds tend to congregate on private lands -- which offer the best hunting action.
North of town, the Wallowa-Whit-man National Forest holds some public-land hunting opportunities.
There's also land owned by the Forest Capital Partners.
This private timber company offers 130,000 acres of public access, thanks to arrangements with the ODFW on joint projects.
In the northeast corner of the state, the upper and lower Imnaha are also good places to hunt public grounds.
Hansen points north to the Troy area, around the Grande Ronde River, as a place to look for birds: "Around here, birds that winter in the valleys usually move north into the rolling hills." He urged hunters to seek permission before setting foot on any private land.
Jamie Nelson, a wildlife technician in the Baker City Field Office, reports that last winter, the birds also did well in this area to the south.
"Turkey numbers are still increasing here," she said, "and are actually doing very well. Some birds get through the winter by eating oat bales and cattle grain. We don't really want that, but it shows they'll do what they need to do to survive the winter."
She points out that this influx of birds into farmland is one reason fall tag numbers increased last season.
For public-land hunting opportunities, Nelson suggests you concentrate on the foothill regions and the bases of mountain ranges, where birds thrive in the spring.
"One good spot is above Halfway, on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, in the Baker Ranger District," Nelson said.
The base of the Elkhorn Mountains, just west of Baker City is good, she said, and there are big numbers of birds at the lower-elevation forest properties out of Keating and Medical Springs.
Though it experienced a wet spring last year, the western side of the Cascades is much milder than the eastern side. This means that even though nesting conditions weren't ideal, they were good enough to allow for solid survival rates of hatchlings.
Last April and May, I spent several days in the field from Medford to the southern end of the Willamette Valley, and was pleased with the number of young birds I saw. Wherever on the west side hunters choose to hunt, this season's prospects look good.
The Willamette Valley is a good place for hunters to start. Bird numbers and ranges continue to grow.
Though birds are popping up in some suburban and rural areas south of Portland and around Salem, some of the better hunting -- and better opportunities -- lie around the smaller towns to the south.
Properties around Corvallis, Monroe and Brownsville are seeing more birds, and are good places to start your search. Within these areas, look to foothill habitats for the best bird numbers.
To the south, the valley east of Eugene is very good, with the Crow and Lorane areas seeing many birds.
Foothills to the west of Creswell also hold lots of birds, as do hills to the north and west of Cottage Grove.
Continuing south, the Elkton area down toward Roseburg is what many consider to be the top turkey hunting hotspot in the entire West.
Towns like Glide, Winston, Sutherlin and others hold high numbers of birds and populations that have been expanding for decades.
The Dixon, Melrose and Rogue units offer the most public land for west-side turkey hunters. In the Dixon Unit, check out the Elk Creek drainage and a bit to the south, the West Fork Trail Creek, both of which continue to hold good numbers of birds.
Within the Melrose and Rogue units, check out some of the private timber-company lands, which are usually open to walk-in-only hunting.
Some companies do allow access by vehicle, but because the rules are constantly changing, you'll have to check to see which ones do.
In the Rogue Unit, check out the area around Lost Creek Reservoir and Butte Falls, both of which have birds on public land.
"Thanks to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the BLM, the Rogue Unit has lots of public-land options," said Steve Denny, Roseburg-based biologist and one of the leading authorities on Oregon's turkeys.
The public-land access areas within both Jackson and Josephine counties are all shown on BLM maps.
Hunters should note that there are some landlocked BLM areas here, too. Asking for permission to cross private lands could lead to good public-land hunting.
There are also huntable populations of birds on BLM lands near Medford, and on both the BLM and Umpqua National Forest lands near Roseburg.
Mind you, public-land hunting is a major challenge on the west side of the big hills. Private-land hunting, on the other hand, can hold its own against any place in the country!