Ever been to northeast Washington? Not the north-central part of the state, the land of Banks Lake down to Potholes Reservoir, but the real northeast corner, from Okanogan and Colville over to Metaline Falls and Newport, encompassing the eastern edge of Okanogan County and all of Ferry, Stevens, Pend Oreille, and the north half of Lincoln counties. If you have, you know this is some of the most breathtaking country on which you'll ever lay eyes. It's windswept, vacant of billboards, devoid of freeways, quiet, peaceful and teeming with wildlife of every description. This is heaven fallen to earth for the hardcore woodsman.
Even better, this gorgeous landscape offers some of the finest turkey hunting to be had anywhere. Make no mistake: This is no sissified urban tarn that would have girlymen waxing eloquently. No, sir. This isn't easy country at all. But if you know what you're doing, where to go and where to hunt, you'll have some of the best turkey hunting of your life, in some of the best country you've ever experienced.
Northeast Washington is home to a burgeoning population of Merriam's turkeys -- and that may be an understatement.
"Why is northeast Washington such a good spot for turkey hunters? Because there are so many turkeys there," quips Mick Cope, the upland game section manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. With flocks as big as these, it's easy to find humor in such a situation until the birds become a nuisance.
As with all wild turkeys, Merriam's are easily domesticated. Landowners in some of the region's low-lying areas, such as the Colville Valley, are prone to befriending the first two or three turkeys that show up in their backyards. Two or three birds are a novelty, so landowners ignorantly start feeding them. Before they know it, says Cope, they'll have 200 to 300 birds strutting in their backyards. Things often get ugly when hundreds of turkeys accustomed to getting handouts compete to be first in line anytime a human walks outside.
And it's not just Merriam's, either. While most of the state's Rio Grande birds are concentrated in southeast Washington's Blue Mountains, there's also a remnant population living amongst the Merriam's birds south of the Spokane River in northern Lincoln County.
BIRDS OF THE '60s
Turkeys in this part of the state are naturally occurring now that the WDFW has suspended major planting operations here. Only a small amount of supplemental or augmenting transfers are conducted by the agency these days, mostly in response to nuisance and crop damage complaints from landowners. "We haven't added turkeys as part of any turkey enhancement programs or established new populations since the late 1990s," Cope reports. "We've only done a little augmenting here and there since then."
The birds, however, are not indigenous. They were first planted in northeast Washington back in 1960, with birds from South Dakota and New Mexico.
"They seem to be doing very well," Cope adds. "Merriam's are a hardy strain of bird, and the terrain in that part of the state suits them well."
By terrain, Cope means ponderosa pine forests, which provide year-round cover and forage even during heavy snow years. The turkeys thrive in these rich pine woods, while adjacent valleys, pastures and croplands provide them with even more forage bases. Relatively mild winters over the past few years have also meant no major winterkill.
"Turkeys are associated with ponderosa pine forests for the most part," Cope confirms. "They provide good, year-round habitat, plenty of winter food in most areas where that habitat exists. Plus we'll also have quite a few turkeys get down in the valley bottoms to forage. That's when we tend to have problems with people wanting to feed them."
TOP HARVEST SPOT, BY FAR
Not surprisingly, Northeast Washington, or Turkey Population Management Unit (PMU) 10, is the state's top harvest spot for turkeys by a wide margin. "It's something like 5,095 birds harvested statewide last season," Cope points out, "with 3,333 birds coming from the northeast. It also means a lot of hunters are going there. Roughly three-fifths of all our state's turkey hunters are centered in that area in the spring and fall."
Washington hunters have set records for turkey harvest in the past two consecutive years. Cope says more than 10,000 hunters participated in the spring 2004 turkey season alone.
The sport has never been as popular in the Evergreen State, as evidenced by the 1,632 tags sold, for example, in 1991 and the 27,000 tags sold in 2001. Harvest numbers have also climbed. Compare the 194 birds killed by hunters in 1991 to that 5,095 figure used by Cope to describe success in the 2004 season.
Statistically, the best units last season were Huckleberry (1,035 birds harvested); 49 Degrees North (555 turkeys); Mt. Spokane (396 turkeys); Roosevelt (318 turkeys); Sherman (277 turkeys); Douglas (253 turkeys); Kelly Hill (163 turkeys); and Selkirk (109 turkeys).
WESTERN WASHINGTON TOMS
If Northeast Washington isn't in your plans this spring, Western Washington also offers turkey hunting, albeit with more hunters than birds.
"We've got some turkey hunting on the west side, but the harvest is only about 40 to 60 birds per year," says Mick Cope of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We've had them on the west side for many years, but these birds are hard to hunt. The habitat is thick, and sounds don't carry well. Plus, it's usually quite rainy in the spring."
Ironically, Western Washington's turkeys are made up of the Eastern subspecies. They're generally found below 3,500 feet and typically south of Olympia on both sides of I-5.
So-called hotspots include the Nooksack and Stillaguamish drainages (which produced just five birds last spring); the area around Mossyrock (four birds); the Coweeman Unit (seven); and the Wind River Unit (four).
The Olympic Peninsula has few gobblers. The WDFW introduced Easterns here in the 1990s, and lawless hunters wanting turkeys to pursue made some "midnight biology" plants of their own. The WDFW, however, no longer manages the Peninsula's turkeys, whose habitat needs call for drier conditions and more mast crops than they get here. Still, some turkeys stubbornly hang on, and some are harvested.
Last year 137 hunters bagged four birds in the Skookumchuck Unit, and just one bird fell among 36 hunters in the Satsop. Warren Michaelis, with the WDFW Region 6 office in Montesano, says there are birds south of Shelton and McCleary and in the Willapa Valley south of Raymond. The upper valley near Frances, Lebam, Holcomb and Menlo is rumored to hold turkeys, as is the land west of the Wynoochee River.
But this is big country, and chances are you'll find turkeys ranging anywhere from the valley floors all the way up to 4,200 feet come spring. And, chances are at the higher elevations, you'll probably also encounter some lingering snow. Cope says he's seen snow in this area regularly in the spring, as he's also seen turkeys scattered at all elevations no matter what the weather is doing.
ACCESSING PRIVATE LANDS
"Overall in the state of Washington, 56 percent of our lands are in private ownership. So that leaves 44 percent that's publicly owned, where people can freely go out and hunt," says Cope. "But a lot of the hunters who are successful are hunting on private land. To me, that means doing the legwork necessary to get on private land if you can. And in this part of the state, it may not be as hard as you think so long as you do your work ahead of time."
The wildlife agency has been working hard the past few turkey seasons to improve and enhance programs to assist hunters with accessing private land. There are some little-known programs that are available to help, but they aren't very well publicized, admits Cope. "We've got one program that's been in place since 1948," he says. "It's the Farmer's Sportsman's Program, which was designed for hunting agriculture lands in eastern Washington. It offers three options to help hunters and landowners work together. First, there's the Feel Free To Hunt option, where people can go in on the area without receiving further permission. The next one is a Register To Hunt option, where there's a centralized parking area with a requirement to sign in and sign out. Then there's a Hunt By Written Permission program, where landowners can get signs from WDFW and put them up. Hunters then contact them to get written permission."
Of these, there are some Hunt By Written Permission lands in northeast Washington. But, and it's a big but, the lands are not publicized, there are no maps to them, and WDFW does not actively promote them. To locate these parcels, the only option (at the moment, anyway) is to drive the areas you'd like to hunt, look for these signs, and then contact the appropriate landowners. Such properties do exist, and they can open up some really good hunting country.
"We're really working on this," Cope explains. "We know that hunters want us to improve public access to private lands, and so we want to try to expand some of these existing programs. We also, in particular, want to add new programs of interest to large forestland owners who've traditionally been closing their gates over the last several years due to vandalism and property damage."
Next, Cope says one of the hottest kinds of things to look for where you've got a good chance at finding birds is in valley bottoms adjacent to the turkey's cherished forestlands. You can only do that by driving, hiking and scouting, says Cope, who adds, "and always look for the Feel Free To Hunt or Hunt By Written Permission signs. Drive the areas and look for those signs, do that scouting. That's a big part of being successful."
There's no shortage of decent public forestland in Northeast Washington. You should, however, expect company.
What it actually calls for is hiking or walking farther than your competition, getting into the woods earlier, and staying longer to bag a bird. Keep in mind that the heaviest populations of birds can be found in Stevens County, followed by Ferry County.
This land encompasses the far eastern edge of the Okanogan National Forest, then the main body of the Colville National Forest. Highway 20, heading east out of Tonasket, will get you close. Roads heading north, such as Torodo Creek Road off Highway 20, Highway 21 out of Republic, and Highway 395 just north of Kettle Falls, will put you into some prime national forestlands. Farther east, roads heading north out of Colville, and Highways 20 and 31 out of Ione and Metaline Falls, will also put you in some prime public hunting turkey lands.
Turkey hunting in this part of the state can be excellent near waterways, too. The Columbia River (Lake Roosevelt) can be teeming with them, while public lands adjacent to the Pend Oreille River are also good bets. The land between the two rivers, such as around Deep Lake, is also a solid bet.
In Ferry County, be mindful of the Colville Reservation's boundaries, as hunting by non-tribal members is not permitted there. But elsewhere along this stretch of Lake Roosevelt, it's prime turkey hunting country. And so is the Colville Valley, which extends north and south with the small town of Chewelah roughly in the middle. Waitts, Deer and Loon lakes are all in this area. The national forestland between Chewelah and Newport is also excellent.
Cope offers this advice for turkey hunters who are really pining to bag a bird this year: "My tip for hunters is probably the same thing you've heard before: Do your scouting. It's a lot better to hunt if you know where you're going and what you might see when you get there. If you can, secure permission from private landowners. There are a lot of private landowners in this area who have turkeys, and a lot of times, these folks don't mind people hunting so long as you ask permission.
"I've found turkeys all over the place in the spring, and some of it can be really variable depending on what kind of spring we're having."