In a time when it seems more turkeys are killed by hunters each spring, 2004 may very well be the best year ever for bagging an Oregon tom.
By Scott Haugen
Sitting at the base of an old oak tree, rain dripping from the bill of my cap, I hadn't heard a bird all morning. Cool nights and wet days had made for a string of empty hunting days, but I knew birds were in the area. No matter what call I pulled out of the pack, no bird responded.
Not only were the birds inactive but the toms were also staying in their roosts well past 10 a.m. Competing against nature was frustrating, but persistence eventually paid off. Before the 2003 Oregon spring turkey season ended, I had filled two tags and had some great-tasting birds to show for my efforts.
What stood out foremost in my mind - along with many turkey hunters throughout Oregon - was what impact the wet spring would have on nesting success. Throughout all of western Oregon, heavy rains and cold nights plagued hunters all season long. East of the Cascades, snow blanketed many hunters' decoys on opening weekend, and well into May. But there is good news.
Preliminary Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife surveys showed strong overall production of birds from last spring, despite the inclement weather. In fact, hatch success appears to be well above average, as the wettest months were in April and May, prior to brooding.
Most turkey mortality occurs during or soon after hatching. Fortunately, by the time the egg incubation period came to an end last spring, temperatures around the state warmed up and rainfall subsided. As a result of the early rains, grasses and other food sources flourished, creating a rich environment for the young turkeys to thrive. Taller, fuller vegetation provided protection from predators during the vulnerable summer months.
Reports from deer and elk hunters around the state last fall only confirmed the fact that Oregon's turkeys faired well, with large numbers of fall flocks being reported. Not only were these birds being seen in traditional turkey hotspots but also in new territory as well. This means the stage is set for what could well be the best spring ever for Oregon turkey hunters.
Author Scott Haugen coaxed this tom into bow range a few miles northeast of Eugene. Photo courtesy of Scott Haugen
WESTERN OREGON Though turkeys are now present in every Oregon county, the western portion of the state still dominates the scene when it comes to prime turkey land. In fact, it's rumored that some parts of western Oregon hold higher bird densities than anywhere west of the Mississippi. While this may be the case, hunters must realize that many of these areas are on private land; but don't let that discourage you just yet.
As bird numbers have become well established, it's no secret they tend to gravitate to many private land settings west of the Cascades. A good percentage of birds are behind locked gates or posted fences. But as bird numbers continue to rise, so to does the level of destruction they impart on private land establishments.
I know of several hunters who, last spring, took to the area between Corvallis and Roseburg, knocking on doors in search of turkey hunting opportunities. Unlike in the past, many of them were greeted with open arms and granted hunting permission. Some of them even filled their bonus tags.
It seems the novelty of having turkeys around the property has worn out some land owners, and given the level of damage a single flock is capable of inflicting, some of these folks are now granting permission to hunters for help managing the situation. Mind you, it's still likely that the majority of answers to serve your hunting requests will be "no," but also keep in mind it only takes one "yes" to turn the entire season around.
Douglas County is still the top-producing turkey spot in the state, with the Golden Triangle (Elkton to Drain to Sutherlin) being about the best you'll find anywhere in the nation. "There is a great deal of private land in this area," offers fourth generation Elkton resident and veteran turkey guide Jody Smith. "But there is some landlocked public land, and hunters seeking permission to access these areas have been finding more success in recent years."
Smith points out that the area around Rice Hill, Red Hill and Yoncalla are also rich in birds, with scattered hunting opportunities available as well. East of this area, Scotts Valley Road, all along London Road, to Cottage Grove is also seeing a large influx of birds.
|DRESSED FOR TOMS|
Proper clothing is essential for hunting in the turkey woods.
Head-to-toe camouflaged clothing is ideal, including gloves and facemask. Avoid wearing bright clothing, especially reds, whites or blues, which resemble a gobbler's head coloration this time of year. This is especially important when hunting on public land.
Above all else, keep movement to a minimum, as turkeys have incredible eyesight. Regardless of your camo, the hunt can go awry if a bird sees you move. If you must move to get positioned for a shot, do so when an approaching tom is displaying with his back to you, or when cover obscures his head.
Mixing camo patterns can be ef-fective; green pants blend with grass, brown-toned tops match tree trunks. Also consider using a camo ground blind. -- Scott Haugen
Looking south of the community of Wilbur, North Bank Road, stretching from Interstate 5 to the town of Glide has held birds for years. This is all private land, some of which is leased by guides, but some hunters have found luck getting permission to chase turkeys along some places here.
Much of the Roseburg area is also rich in turkey numbers, though the once-famed Tiller region is continuing to decline in bird numbers. This is not unusual for regions that have been transplanted with birds. In the case of Tiller, which sits at a bit higher elevation, the lack of l
ogging and the increased predation have taken their toll on bird populations. This cycle can be typical in turkey transplant areas.
Josephine and Jackson counties continue as top-producing bird areas. "This season we plan on operating some hunts out of Ashland," offers Smith. "There are some really good areas down there holding good, long-bearded toms." Smith points out that in the area here, and around his home in Elkton, he's seen more birds in past months than he can ever recall.
Grants Pass on over to Medford and along the Rogue River are also prime lands thriving with turkeys. For those looking for a more coastal bird hunting setting, Gold Beach, in Curry County, is about as good as it gets. While birds can be found in this area, along with a few scattered flocks along the lower Rogue and Coquille rivers, hunters should note most are on private land or surrounded by thick cover which makes for tough hunting conditions. There are a few birds dispersed along the central and northern coast, though not enough to make traveling to this area for a hunt worth the time and effort unless you know a landowner.
In the Willamette Valley, successful relocation efforts have taken place on Weyerhaeuser land near Marcola, Brownsville and Harrisburg. Some birds have moved on to Rosboro Lumber Company land north of Eugene, though written permission is required from the Springfield-based office to get through their gates.
East of Eugene, the Crow area, on down to Lorane and east to Lowell has been growing in popularity among local gobbler hunters. Again, this is largely a private land show, but there seems to be a good percentage of understanding land owners in this area.
Bird numbers on the valley floor between Monroe and Salem are also worth scouting. Concentrate most of your efforts around the smaller, outer towns both east and west of I-5. Farmlands, Christmas tree areas and riparian sections are all becoming turkey hotbeds in this region of the state.
EASTERN OREGON Roseburg-based biologist and turkey specialist Steve Denney confirms that Oregon's turkey transplanting programs continue to be a success throughout the state, but especially so in eastern Oregon.
"Over the past eight years we've been transplanting lots of birds in the northeast portion of the state, and they have responded very well," says Denney. "The Blue Mountains are the up and coming area for turkey hunters in this part of the state, with lots of public access available."
The prime public access areas, by way of Forest Service land, in this region of the state are to be found in the Umatilla National Forest, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, Ochoco National Forest, and Malheur National Forest.
Along the fringes of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, the town of Halfway hosts some of the most stable turkey populations. But as with many places in eastern Oregon, hunter densities can be high here, with folks from Idaho even hopping across the border for a piece of the action. The interesting thing about the birds here are that they weren't planted, but rather moved there naturally. Many of the birds that have taken up residency along Pine Creek and surrounding areas actually migrated from across the Idaho border, and are of the prized Merriam's subspecies. The combination of native food and orchards draw birds here.
Turkeys are highly vocal, and hunters can mimic a variety of their calls during the spring turkey season. Fortunately, most of these vocalizations sound like the word used to describe them.
Most of the turkeys I've called in responded to a simple yelp. This rhythmic, repeated note -- yelp-yelp-yelp-yelp-yelp -- helps turkeys locate one another. The yelp is easily mastered with a slate, box or diaphragm call.
Just before first light, you will hear soft, whispered yelping from above. Hens use tree yelps while still on their roost to let each other -- and any nearby gobbler -- know where they are. This is a great tom locator call.
A series of fast, irregularly paced clucks and yelps -- cluck-cluck-cluck!-yelp-yelp-yelp -- is known as a fly-down cackle. Hens cackle when flying from or to a roost, or over an obstacle. This too is a good locator call. As you cackle, repeatedly slap a hat against your leg to mimic flapping wings.
Purrs are a soft, fluttery sound not unlike a feline's purr that ends in a higher pitch than it begins. Turkeys use it when they feel safe, secure. Purr to coax an incoming tom those final few steps into shooting range. A single-noted cluck is often heard prior to a purr: cluck-purrrrr.
Spitting and drumming -- spit-drum -- resonates from a tom's chest, as it is strutting or walking to attract a hen. This is an advanced call for any turkey hunter. It's highly effective for making a tom believe a competitor is moving in on a receptive hen.
I avoid duplicating three common turkey sounds: gobbles, because another hunter could mistake me for a tom; a putt -- putt! -- is a turkey's alarm call; and the high-pitched kee-kee -- kee-kee -- is an assembly call usually used in the fall. -- Scott Haugen
From Halfway to Medical Springs, turkeys occur in places along the lower edge of the national forest. There are also some birds just getting started around the Elkhorn Mountains, west of Baker City, while the birds put in the Burnt River area are growing slowly.
The Umatilla National Forrest, east of Fossil, has also been seeing growth in bird numbers. A couple of my friends hunted this public land last season and actually called in several birds with a few inches of snow on the ground. Many jakes were reported in the area last spring, so look for these birds to be bulking up this season.
From Spray, through Heppner, on up by Pendleton and all the way to Milton-Freewater, outstanding hatches were reported last spring. Look to this section of the state for some good hunting opportunities.
Down the Columbia Basin, around The Dalles and Hood River, hunter success rates run quite high. This is the most common area in the state for hunters seeking Merriam's turkeys, so pressure runs high, especially early in the season.
The Ochoco and Malheur national forest lands north of Burns h
old scattered flocks of turkeys, and reports of good hatches in this area have local hunters optimistic. Birds were hammered in this area by harsh winters in 1992-93, and have struggled to make a comeback. Hunters will want to cover lots of ground, searching for birds on forest fringes, where good feed and habitat exist. There is also some BLM land in the area that might be worth checking out.
In much of eastern Oregon, where birds have been planted on national forest land, they've pretty much stuck to that area, rather than move to agricultural land in lower elevations. The dry, lowland, sage habitat is not conducive to turkey propagation, thus birds reside where food and cover are more reliable, around forest fringes. This means birds in such regions of the state are spread out, and hunting competition can be intense. If you're looking to escape crowds, you're best off doing some serious preseason scouting west of the Cascades, trying to gain private land access.
Hunters should note that were it not for the more than $11,000 annually donated by the National Wild Turkey Federation for trapping and transplanting operations in the state, Oregon would not be at the forefront of turkey hunting in the nation. This is a super organization to get involved with, and with thousands of new hunters taking up the sport each spring in Oregon alone, it's a valued organization to be a part of.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION For private-land turkey hunting in Oregon, call Jody Smith of Jody Smith Guide Service in Elkton, 541-584-2771. Smith also runs combination trips for turkey and spring chinook on the Umpqua River.
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