As turkey numbers climb, so do turkey harvest and hunter success rates. If you're still looking for gobblers, here are the hotspots for Washington's spring season.
By Doug Rose
Evergreen State hunters who are starving for good news don't have to look any further than the 2004 spring turkey season.
"Harvest has increased 671 percent since 1996," said Mick Cope, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's upland bird section chief. Moreover, Cope says that turkey hunting is one of the few hunting sports that has had an increase in both harvest and hunter participation on an annual basis. "People who take the time to learn how to do it successfully and safely are having a great time."
Ironically, wild turkeys are not native to any portion of the Evergreen State, and no hunting existed for them until 1984. The first turkeys were released in 1960 along the Columbia River Gorge in Klickitat County, and they were followed with plants in northeast Washington, primarily Stevens County, in the early '60s. "They moved along at a fairly slow pace until the mid-1980s, when a more aggressive stocking program was implemented," Cope said.
The Stevens County population of the Merriam's subspecies turned out to not be particularly prolific and was augmented. In addition, Rio Grande and Eastern turkeys were released, respectively, in southeast Washington's Blue Mountains and the forests west of the Cascade Mountains.
Since then, both the numbers of turkeys and the numbers of hunters pursuing them have increased dramatically. From a statewide harvest of only 77 birds in 1984, the numbers grew to more than 5,000 in 2002, and the handful of hunters in the early 1980s has expanded to more 27,000. Today, hunters stalk turkeys in the arid breaks along the Snake River, in the Ponderosa pines above Okanogan County lakes, in the brushy draws in the Colockum and in rain forest openings only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean.
Photo by Ken Archer
During the early years of turkey hunting, Klickitat County was the center of the sport in Washington, and it typically accounted for three-fourths of the state total. As turkey releases occurred throughout the state, however, seasons opened in Chelan, Kittitas and Yakima counties in the late 1980s. Spring turkey seasons began in Asotin, Columbia, Garfield and Okanogan counties in 1990, along with the first western Washington permit hunts in 1991. Currently, the most productive turkey hunting takes place in the northeast corner of the state. Known by the WDFW as Population Management Unit 10, it yielded 1,319 birds in 2000, more than 10 times the number of any other region, and hunters killed more than 3,400 birds in 2002.
"We've got turkeys coming out of our ears," said Madona Leurs, WDFW Region 1 public information officer. "It took a while for them to become established, but we've got lots of turkeys now."
The tremendous growth in turkey hunting has been aided by an active Washington Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Since 1985, the organization has spent more than $382,000 in Washington, including more than $74,000 to fund turkey trap and transfers that expand Evergreen State populations. The Washington chapter has also undertaken habitat restoration projects, conducted education programs for young hunters, created a program for women hunters and organized fundraisers such as auctions that benefit wild turkeys.
NORTHEASTERN MERRIAM'S Washington hunters kill more Merriam's turkeys than any other subspecies. They are available in the Columbia Basin's Klickitat, Skamania, Chelan, Kittitas, Yakima and Okanogan counties, and northeast Washington's Ferry, Pend Oreille, Stevens and Spokane counties.
Merriam's are native to the ponderosa pine foothills of the southern Rocky Mountains in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. They thrive in areas of modest rainfall, typically between 15 and 23 inches annually, and they are especially susceptible to habitat-degrading activities such as timber harvest, overgrazing and development. Their name honors C. Hart Merriam, the first chief of the U.S. Biological Survey. Nearly the size of eastern turkeys, Merriam's can be identified by the white feathers on their lower back and tail feather margins.
Merriam's turkey hunters who want to play the odds will point their vehicles toward the extreme northeast corner of the state. During the 2000 spring season, Stevens County turned out 761 toms, while Ferry County kicked in an additional 114 birds. To put that in perspective, Stevens County produced more than four times as many turkeys as the second-most-productive county, and when you add the Ferry County numbers into the mix, they account for more than one-half of the birds harvested in Washington.
Even better, the northeast turkey population continues to grow, and last year the WDFW increased the number of fall turkey permits in the region's Roosevelt, Huckleberry, 49 Degrees North, Aladdin, Kelly Hill and Sherman units. Indeed, there have been reports that the fall hunts, which have been permit-only, may change to open entry in the near future.
The core area of this region, where turkeys are most concentrated, encompasses the eastern half of Ferry County and the western one-third of Stevens County. On the west side of the Kettle River, which is the boundary between the two counties, this includes the foothills and creeks that drain the Kettle River Range north of the Colville Reservation. Within Stevens County, the densest turkey numbers occur in the lower elevation reaches along the Columbia River and the western flanks of the Huckleberry Mountains. As is the case throughout eastern Washington, much of the most productive turkey habitat tends to be located at low elevation areas that are privately held.
"People need to do their preseason scouting to find the areas whey they can hunt," said Leurs. "The turkeys are usually in riparian areas. There is a fair amount of public land but some of the most productive is private land. One of the best areas is between Kettle Falls and Fruitland, along the reservoir (Franklin Roosevelt Reservoir), and it is mostly private land." However, Leurs says that access to farms and ranches may be easier to obtain during the spring turkey season than fall pheasant or deer seasons. "There's a fair number of landowners who have more turkeys than they like."
The Sherman Creek Wildlife Area opens up more than 7,500 acres of good turkey habitat west of Kettle Falls, and the Coulee Dam National Recreation Area, which sprawls over more than 10,000 acres along the upper Columbia River, contains areas that are also open to hunting.
|PLAYING BY THE NUMBERS|
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife harvest reports illustrate the explosion in turkey numbers and turkey hunters in some parts of the state.
Northeast Washington accounts for most of the turkeys killed by hunters each spring, and its productivity continues to climb. From 1,176 turkeys recorded in 2,000, harvest has increased to 3,418 in 2002. Year-in year-out, Region 1's Huckleberry and 49 Degrees North GMUs yield nearly half of the region's total.
Thirty-two percent of hunters here are successful, which is not significantly higher than neighboring GMUs. For example, 35 percent of Three Forks Unit hunters were successful in 2002, while 32 percent of Kelly Hill Unit hunters filled their tags. Perhaps the most telling statistic is Kelly Hill's 11.5 "days-to-kill" number, which is the second lowest in the region.
Although access is difficult, Lincoln County hunters kills more than 300 birds each year, and hunter success and days-to-harvest numbers are among the region's best.
Southeast Washington, which is typically the second-most productive area of the state, saw the spring harvest increase from 214 turkeys in 2,000 to 376 in 2001 to 533 in 2002. Its success rate in 2002 was 30 percent.
Klickitat County remains Central Washington's most productive destination. Harvest there grew from 133 birds in 2000 to 300 in 2002, and the success rate nearly doubled, from 11.8 percent to 19.6 percent.
The relatively small numbers of turkeys in Washington's north-central (primarily Okanogan County) and south-central areas (Kittitas, Chelan, Yakima) have also become more productive, with harvest growing from, respectively, 32 to 119 and 10 to 105.
Southwest Washington harvest remains stable at about 50 birds each spring, while harvest in Northwest Washington increased from one bird in 2000 to seven in 2002. -- Doug Rose
BLUE MOUNTAINS RIO GRANDES The Blue Mountain foothills and upper Snake River tributaries were the site of Washington's first releases of the Rio Grande subspecies. As their name suggests, Rio Grandes hail from the central and southern plains states. They are well adapted to the light rainfall and scrub and open forests of southeast Washington.
As a subspecies, they often appear to have a slightly copper cast to their body feathers, and their tail feathers are usually lighter than the Eastern turkeys but darker than the Merriam's. Rio Grandes tend to concentrate near water, especially brushy riparian areas close to timber, and they will migrate between higher summer and lower winter ranges. They also congregate in larger groups than other subspecies.
"Columbia, Garfield and Asotin counties have been big turkey hunting areas for a long time," said the WDFW's Leurs. "And there's a lot of public land in southeast Washington. There is the national forest (Umatilla) and the Wooten Wildlife Area."
In recent years, the "Southeast" PMU has accounted for the second highest turkey harvest in the state. It turned out 376 birds in 2001 and 533 birds the following year. Columbia County's Dayton and Tucannon units usually kick out the most birds, with a combined harvest in excess of 200 two years ago. Garfield County's Lick Creek and Peola units are its most popular turkey destinations. Asotin County, which contains the Chief Joseph and Asotin Creek Wildlife Areas, gives up fewer birds, but hunter effort is lighter and its 33.9 percent success rate in 2002 was comparable to the best units in the northeast. Walla County's Blue Creek GMU is also productive, yielding between 30 and 70 birds annually.
Although they are grouped within the same management unit as the northeast's Merriam's, Lincoln County's Roosevelt GMU actually contains Rio Grandes and Rio Grande/Merriam's hybrids. This has been a highly productive population. Indeed, during the 2002 season, hunters killed 387 turkeys in the unit, and their success rate was a healthy 32.2 percent. The one wrinkle with Roosevelt birds is that they occur nearly exclusively on private agricultural lands. "Lincoln County is almost 100 percent private land," Leurs said.
KLICKITAT & COLUMBIA BASIN The original Merriam's turkey-planting site in south-central Washington's Klickitat County remains popular and productive. "We historically had the best turkey hunting in Washington," said David Anderson, WDFW district wildlife biologist, "and we've still got a pretty good population of turkeys." In 2002, the county ranked third in total spring harvest, with a total of 300 birds.
Over the years, the state has augmented the original population with additional releases, which have expanded the distribution of birds in the area. As a result, turkeys are now widely distributed throughout the forested areas of the western two-thirds of the county. "The majority of the harvest is coming out of Klickitat County west of the Klickitat River," Anderson said. "They generally don't get as many in Skamania County. However, they are expanding east toward Goldendale."
The Klickitat Wildlife Area, which straddles the Klickitat River breaks upstream of Lyle, is the traditional hunting destination for many hunters. It provides access to more 11,800 acres of prime turkey habitat, much of it the oak brush, meadow and conifer mix that turkeys prefer.
"The wildlife area is good," Anderson said, "but it is one of the most popular areas." He says Department of Natural Resources holdings and private timberlands can provide more solitude and birds that haven't seen as many hunters. "However people need to know the land ownership," Anderson said. "Klickitat County has a lot of private land." The DNR quadrangle maps identify ownership. "It is also a good idea to contact the timber companies."
South-central Okanogan County turns out the most birds in the north-central part of the state. They are found at low to mid-elevation areas, and, as in other areas, are concentrated near perennial water sources. Hunters can obtain access on various units of the 20,000-acre Methow Wildlife Area, which is located on the east and west sides of the Methow River between Twisp and Winthrop. Huntable populations of Rio Grande turkeys may be found at the Colockum Wildlife Area (92,100 acres) south of Wenatchee and on the Desert Wildlife Area (27,700 acres) south of Moses Lake. Douglas County, which doesn't have much public land other than the Central Ferry and Wells wildlife areas along the Columbia River, has proven itself as a sleeper in recent years; its turkey population has i
ncreased to the point the WDFW issued more fall permits last year.
EASTERN TURKEYS OUT WEST The birds Massachusetts Indians shared with Pilgrims, the Eastern wild turkey, is the largest and darkest subspecies, with adult toms reaching more than 20 pounds and standing more than four feet tall, they were first described by L. J. P. Wieillot in 1817. Their subspecies name, silvestris, is Latin for "forest," and they were released in the densely timbered foothills and valleys of southwest Washington, the coastal hills, and Puget Sound. Their tail coverts are tipped with chestnut brown and tail tips are a rich chocolate.
Eastern turkeys can be found in Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Lewis, Mason, Pacific, Thurston and Wahkiakum counties. Although they are widely distributed geographically, Easterns are the least numerous Evergreen State subspecies. Usually fewer than 10 turkeys are killed in any of these counties annually. Thurston County is often the most productive, followed by coastal Washington's Pacific and Grays Harbor counties. The low harvest numbers are most likely a reflection of small populations, according to the WDFW's Anderson. "The populations just haven't had the time to become established," he said.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION According to the WDFW's upland manager, Mick Cope, the agency currently has no active transplanting operations. The department is in the early stages of a turkey management plan, and it will consult the testimony of hunters, organizations and biologists as part of that process.
The 2004 spring turkey regulations had not been determined at the press time of this issue, but it is expected to be similar to last year's dates, April 15-May 15. Only gobblers and turkeys with visible beards may be taken. Hunting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise to sunset during the spring. One turkey per day may be killed, with a three turkey annual limit. There are specific area limits, though, so hunters should consult the spring turkey pamphlet.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Washington-Oregon Game & Fish