Hunters in northeast Washington take 70 percent of the state's birds. (April 2009)
Brandon Sheely, the author's son, packs out an opening-day tom that came to a decoy. Photo by Terry W. Sheely.
I'm stuck. Caught flat-footed in Chewelah. I'm in the open, 20 steep yards downhill and frozen in the black eye of a gobbler that simply materialized out of the brush on the bench above me. It's a good bird, big, mature and in full strut, but all I can see is the head and neck stretched high and looking down the hill straight at me. The bird's iridescent body is hidden behind the lip of the bench, and all that I can see is the wrinkled red neck, blue head and the ivory tips of a large tail fan.
I'm in full camouflage but hunched over, right leg above the left, unbalanced, holding a 12-gauge pump in my left hand that's somewhere around my knees, squinting through the face mask, sweating. The tom cocks its head, and that's when I stop breathing.
I'm hunting on the second day of Washington's spring season, and have been working this tom for an hour with seductive hen mews and purrs. The tom would answer with thunderous gobbles. But he was firmly hung up with hens. If I wanted a crack at him, I knew I'd have to go to him.
Which is how I wound up pinned down in a little clearing between ponderosa pines on a steep hill smack in the heart of the hottest turkey corner in the Northwest, some say the country. I don't know about that, I haven't hunted all of the country. But I do know that in the 50-by-80-mile wedge where Washington pushes against British Columbia on the north and Idaho on the east, a rancher complained when a flock of 350 aggressive birds chased his cattle out of a pasture.
Flower gardens are on a precarious line between landscaping and turkey fodder here. Wheat fields are cropped down to putting-green lengths. Hunter success runs 43 percent in the spring with another opening in the fall. A good hunter could take six turkeys a year, seven if he hits western Washington for an Eastern subspecies. (Continued)
A whopping 58 percent of Washington's turkey population is found in this hot corner of the state, said David Danilson, regional director of the Evergreen State's 23 chapters of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
According to state records for 2006 (the last year counts are available), of the 5,187 turkeys taken in Washington, 3,613 were killed in the northeast corner.
During the long April 15-May 31 spring season, hunters are allowed two turkeys -- either Merriam's or Rio Grande subspecies -- in the northeast corner but are limited to pulling the trigger on birds with visible beards. Fall hunters can put hens in the freezer.
Neither Danilson nor Mick Cope, upland game bird manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, is the least bit worried that the seemingly generous seven-bird annual statewide limit will undercut turkey numbers in WDFW's bird-heavy hunting units 101-124.
"We've got the birds to support it, no doubt about that," Danilson said. "It's being able to hunt them that's the problem."
TOO MANY TURKEYS
According to the regional turkey expert, 26 percent of the hot corner's turkey population grow fat and numerous on private lands, where despite rising landowner complaints, many landowners are reluctant to grant hunting permission.
In the northwest corner of Washington, Merriam's subspecies are the most common, followed by Rios. Photo by Terry W. Sheely.
It's a rare problem of too many turkeys, causing too much damage, for too many ranchers who would like to see the turkey numbers reduced. But, oddly, they are not willing to give hunters permission to hunt problem birds.
It's a strange and convoluted problem of complicated landowner relations and residential peer pressure that both NWTF and WDFW are wrestling to resolve. Convincing more landowners to permit turkey hunting would, of course, be great for turkey hunters.
But it isn't necessary for success, especially if a hunter is willing to scout and hunt on the vast public tracts available in this corner of the state.
In a nutshell, there are a lot of turkeys and a lot of public land in the northeast corner of Washington.
It's a different story for NWTF, though. Getting hunter access to private lands is a critical step to the federation's master plan of improving turkey habitat, Danilson said.
Improving turkey habitat on state and federal land is also complicated, according to WDFW's Cope.
"Wild turkeys are not native to Washington," he said. "Questions arise about the impact that wild turkeys might have on native wildlife and plants."
"Seven out of 10 property owners want us to get rid of or reduce the number of turkeys on their lands," Danilson said, "But still they won't allow hunting."
Danilson said he's got a hundred guys with trailers and time that would be ready to go tomorrow to transplant turkeys.
"We could move 25 turkeys a morning from problem areas to areas that need them, if the state was willing," Danilson said.
The state, Cope confirms, has stopped its transplant program and is relying on turkeys to expand their range naturally. NWTF has recently hired an energetic biologist, Danilson said, who is tackling habitat, transplant and landowner concerns.
"We encourage private landowners to allow hunting, and many of them do," said Cope. "Others are not interested as they are concerned about their farming or ranching operations."
"We're optimistic that we'll be able to move forward now on some of these projects," he said.
But in the meantime, the fertile posted lands have become protected nurseries that support and produce great numbers of wild turkeys, often beyond carrying capacity. Without hunting pressure, Merriam's turkeys are thriving and multiplying in these unintentional turkey reserves and excess birds spread into nearby public hunting areas.
On the downside, it's an incidental system that can crowd public hunting near the borders of pri
vate posted land.
WHERE TO BAG YOUR BIRD
The landownership in Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille counties is a quilt of private and public lands, a mix of valleys and foothills, national forests and state-managed timber and wildlife areas that are open to public hunting.
Cattle and horse pastures meld into grain fields, which follow draws and creeks into scattered wood lots, which morph into forests and the low mountains of the Selkirk Range. It's an ideal mix of turkey habitats, according to the state's upland bird manager.
The biggest chunk of public hunting opportunity is found on the massive 1-million-plus-acre Colville National Forest. It dominates the northern turkey range and most of the hot corner. This federal forest forms a wandering border with the private bottomlands that track the Colville River between Chewelah and Colville and both sides of the Pend Oreille River.
The small towns of Colville and Chewelah are on Highway 395 in the heart of Washington's turkey corner. Both offer motels and full accommodations. North of Chewelah, surrounded by national forest, is WDFW's Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Area. It's a 41,555-acre block of mixed conifer and deciduous forest, lakes, marshes, meadows and wild Merriam's turkeys.
Another popular turkey area is the 7,508-acre Sherman Creek Wildlife Area, five miles west of Kettle Falls.
On the Idaho side of the range, Kaniksu National Forest covers another 119,700 acres, much of it turkey country, between the Pend Oreille River and the Idaho line. Improved and primitive campgrounds are scattered throughout the national forests and state wildlife areas.
The best turkey hunting is almost always found on the southern and eastern sides of the public land, where wild berry fields, low mountains, rolling ranch pastures, brushy creek bottoms and state wildlife areas and national forests fold together.
Success always runs high in this region. This year, following a moist summer and a mild winter, it promises to go right off the chart.
Spring hunters have 46 days to bang two bearded birds with their general license, and can come back in the fall for another two beardless turkeys and one of either sex. Some fall hunters combine whitetail deer and turkey hunts.
In 2008, a hunter could take up to seven birds statewide: three according to spring regulations; two beardless in game management units 105-124 in early fall season; one either-sex in GMUs 101, 127-133 in early fall season; and one in GMUs 101-124 by permit in late fall.
TALK TURKEY TO DEATH
In mid-April, when the season opens, gobblers will be strutting their stuff in rolling pastures and woodland meadows, gobbling infrequently throughout the day. Because less-dominant toms will be ranging far and wide looking for hens and not yet "henned" up, this is a good time to sweet talk a lonesome tom into a pattern of 3-inch, No. 6 turkey shot.
Dominant toms, those with coveted 9-inch-plus beards, may already have a corral of hens in line by the time the season opens and can be a monstrous frustration for callers. Often these big black toms will be holed up in private pastures surrounded by "No Hunting" signs where they stay most of the day bragging, gobbling, pounding wing tips, showing off their fans and riding herd on their harem of hens.
A tactic that I've used for these old birds is to invest the first few days in determining travel routes between the posted land and roosts or feeding areas, which are most likely in the timbered public areas. Build a blind along the route, set out a hen and jake decoy to challenge the old boy's machismo and wait for the birds.
While waiting, I'll occasionally blindly cutt a hen call or jake gobble, a trick that sometimes pulls in outrider toms that have been looking for a chance to sneak into the gobbler's harem.
Early in the season, I've found that big toms fly off the roosts at the first crack of a crow call. Some drop to the ground near the roost, but most glide a fairly long and too often unpredictable distance away before touching down.
I prefer to make my stand on a mid-morning or evening travel route, when I catch the birds marching out of the pastures to feeding areas in the brush and woods or sidling toward roost ridges.
By the second week of the season, gobbling and breeding is usually in full cry, and most mature toms have rounded up hens and are staking out territories.
This is when jakes will collect in flocks of sometimes more than a dozen legal birds. While the mature toms tend to their hens, the gang of jakes travels wide loops through their range prowling for opportunity. If I see a gang of jakes in one area and they disappear, they will almost invariably loop back to that same spot within three days.
BACK IN CHEWELAH . . .
But how I got myself ambushed in the open north of Chewelah is another story.
It took 15 minutes to ghost to the bottom but the gobbler had gone quiet. When he wouldn't answer my soft cluck, I gambled and ripped off an excited cutt with the cedar box call.
He blasted a thundering response, but was above me, on a brushy ledge that I'd missed seeing. I'd snuck past him!
I waited 10 minutes to give the old tom time to settle down before cat-footing up the hillside and into the little clearing just below the ledge. That's when he nailed me, and I froze in place.
A rotten stump was just to the left of the turkey's black eye, and a sapling pine was between us. Slowly the curious tom moved his head and when both eyes went behind the sapling, I raised my gun and held to the tight spot between sapling and stump.
When the red-and-blue head snaked into that spot, I touched the trigger. The turkey disappeared. Jacking out the hull, I scrambled toward the stump, caught a glimpse of a big gobbler and two hens running to my left. I spun around, squared the back of the wrinkled red head in the sight picture and squeezed. The gobbler tumbled and the hens flushed.
It was a beautiful Merriam's gobbler. He had a 9-inch beard, and picture-perfect fan. I tagged the tom, put him over my shoulder and then, almost as an afterthought, before hiking the mile and a half back to camp, I walked over to the rotten stump to see if I could figure out how I missed such a close shot.
And that's where I found the first gobbler, dead behind the stump, just out of sight from where I could see it when the second gobbler had bolted to my left.
Two toms! During the long stalk, it had never occurred to me that I was hearing two mature toms wooing the same two hens.
I slipped my second tag around the leg of the second bird and called it
a spring season -- a very good spring season!