The tide has turned, it appears. After several years of prolonged drought in most of the state, during which time turkey recruitment seemed to wane more each year, the most-parched areas of Oklahoma have got more rain, and wildlife populations, including wild turkeys, seem to be bouncing back.
I was out in northwestern Oklahoma last fall during dove season and my friends and I commented on how many young turkey poults we were seeing. It's normal to see hens being followed by a few poults at that time of year, but last year we saw poults running everywhere, some with their mamas and some wandering on their own.
That is good news for turkey hunters throughout most of the state. Out where I've hunted turkeys for the past few years there is a turkey roost in a row of cottonwood trees along a small, intermittent stream. A decade or so ago there were more than 200 birds roosting there nightly during the spring season. In recent years the numbers of turkeys had dwindled so that you could count roosting birds on your fingers. So the turnaround in turkey numbers is a welcomed event in that area.
The Wildlife Department's hunter surveys that measure the number of hunters participating in hunting various species, and their success in harvesting whatever species they sought, show that spring season turkey harvests peaked at around 40,000 birds in the years between 2002 and 2006, but had declined to less than 25,000 in more recent years. The number of hunters going afield in the spring dwindled along with the reduced harvest as well.
It's hard to say how much the populations have improved, since the results of the Wildlife Department's latest winter turkey roost count weren't available as I write this, and the hunter success charts haven't been published for the most recent seasons, but both hunters and wildlife managers are reporting improved bird numbers in many counties.
Let's look at some of the places where hunters are likely to find turkeys this spring seasaon, which is open from April 6 to May 6 this time around.
The spring season limit, as usual, is three tom turkeys. Hunters should read the current hunting regulations, either in the regulations booklet or online at wildlifedepartment.com, because in most counties only one turkey can be harvested, although there are 14 Western Oklahoma counties where two toms is the legal limit.
In eight southeastern counties, where the turkey populations are made up chiefly of eastern turkeys, the season is shorter, as it has been for quite a few years. Eastern turkey populations declined seriously back in the late 1990s and early 2000s in many southeastern states, and Oklahoma's easterns took a big hit as well.
So in the southeast corner of our state, the spring turkey season this year is April 18 to May 6. In those counties, the spring limit is one turkey per hunter from all eight counties combined. Those counties include Atoka, Choctaw, Coal, Latimer, LeFlore, Pittsburg, Pusmataha and McCurtain.
While we are talking about the southeastern area, it's a good time to note that hunting eastern turkeys in the mountainous and heavily forested lands of the southeast often is much tougher than hunting Rio Grande turkeys in the central and western portions of the state. Rio Grandes also dominate in much of northeastern Oklahoma, although there are some eastern birds in areas near our border with Arkansas in the northeast.
Eastern gobblers tend to be more cautious and wary than Rio Grande birds. And because the cover is more dense and the terrain more rugged in the southeast, it can be frustrating to hear birds gobbling at close range and still not be able to see or get a clear shot at a gobbler there.
When I began turkey hunting 30-some years ago, I began out west, with Rio Grandes, and harvested birds pretty easily on my first three hunts. Feeling cocky, I thought it was time to head down to the Ouachita Mountains and bag an eastern bird. It took me nine years, hunting all but one of those spring seasons, to finally harvest an eastern tom, hunting on public lands and timber company lands (which now are public hunting areas in the Three-Rivers WMA) in McCurtain and LeFlore counties.
I've talked to several Oklahoma turkey hunters who have similar tales of frustrating hunts for eastern birds.
One thing that added to my frustration was that twice during that long 9-year drought, I saw eastern birds strutting and gobbling openly on the eastern shore of Broken Bow Lake while I was fishing the lake in the springtime. The toms would come out into the open, spread their tail fans and strut around like models on a fashion show runway, even while we fished within 15 or 20 yards of them. Yet when I donned my camouflage togs and went and hid in the woods to kill one, I couldn't coax one within shotgun range.
Not being a glutton for punishment, I started seeking out turkey hunting spots in central and Western Oklahoma — Rio Grande country — and went back to harvesting a turkey or two most years.
Don't get me wrong. It's not like the Rio Grande birds can't be cautious too. My friends and I have had many hunts where we saw many turkeys but couldn't get one to come to our calls or decoys. But we also have had days when two or three nice gobblers would converge on our spot and hang around for 30 minutes, trying to get a decoy to react to their strutting and dancing.
There is an area in western Oklahoma, mostly north of I-40 but with a little bit south of that highway, where Rio Grande turkey populations are higher than in the rest of the state. It is also the part of Oklahoma where shinnery oaks grow. I don't know if the shinnery oaks are a major factor in nurturing turkey populations, but I suspect that they are, for they provide lots of food and excellent cover for turkeys and other wildlife.
Shinnery is a strange plant. It consists of a huge underground root system that sends up dozens, sometimes hundreds, of small branches that look like individual "trees." They rarely grow much more that waist-high, but they can produce abundant acorn crops. And the dense foliage in these shinnery mottes can protect many small animals from predators.
Ranchers don't like shinnery much, and often poison it or try to remove or discourage it in other ways, but it is good wildlife habitat. And the 750,000 acres or so of shinnery country in Western Oklahoma also happens to be the area where turkeys have been more abundant than just about anywhere else in the state.
The same region of the state also offers some of the best public-land turkey hunting in Oklahoma. Out by Cheyenne lies the Black Kettle National Grasslands — 31,000 acres consisting of about a hundred individual tracts that range from about 40 acres up to several hundred acres each. Hunters come from all over the U.S. to hunt turkeys on Black Kettle each spring, and many are successful.
A little ways north and east of Black Kettle lies Packsaddle Wildlife Management Area — 20,000 acres along the north side of the South Canadian River. Although maybe not as productive as Black Kettle, Packsaddle still produces several toms for spring season hunters each year.
Other public tracts in the state's best turkey hunting region include the Hal & Fern Cooper WMA — about 16,000 acres, and nearby Fort Supply WMA — about 5,000 acres, both located near the town of Fort Supply. The Ellis County WMA, about 4,800 acres south of Arnett, and the Canton WMA, about 15,000 acres surrounding Canton Lake, are other good spots for public-land turkey hunting.
There are hundreds of thousands of acres of good private land populated with turkeys in that region. Some tracts are leased for hunting and some are owned or leased by guides and outfitters, some of whom advertise in this magazine, and who can help hunters bag a tom.
In general, the northwest quadrant of the state offers the best turkey hunting, and the closer you get to the Texas Panhandle, the better the turkey numbers seem to be.
But there are other areas where hunting can be good. Quite a few central Oklahoma counties produce good harvests each spring and several northeastern counties are pretty good too.
My son and I have bagged birds in Creek and Osage counties where there are quite a few birds on both public and private lands. The Keystone and Heyburn WMAs both hold huntable numbers of turkeys, at least in places, and the Deep Fork WMA in Creek and Okfuskee counties has produced birds for a couple of friends each spring.
Over closer to the eastern edge of the state, Cherokee, Adair and Sequoyah counties usually offer some pretty good hunting. In Cherokee and Adair, a hunter might find easterns or Rio Grandes. I've seen some pretty big flocks of eastern birds in southern Adair County. There also are numerous tracts of public land in the area, mostly around public lakes such as Tenkiller and Robert S. Kerr.
The Wildlife Department publishes a map (available on their Web site) that shows a general distribution of turkey populations by county. The best counties, of course, are mostly in the west, but even in counties that are shown to have lesser populations there are areas where turkeys are fairly plentiful. It's possible to find turkeys in pretty much all of Oklahoma's 77 counties these days.
Hunters should take note that it is required to tag all turkeys harvested with the required information, and to have a turkey license or permit for each bird harvested. Harvested birds should be checked in, but that can be done online these days at the Wildlife Department's Web site.
There is a Youth Spring Turkey Hunt, in advance of the regular spring turkey season. This year the statewide youth hunt is April 2-3, and in the southeast counties it is April 16-17. The Youth Hunt is for hunters younger than 18 who are accompanied by a non-hunting adult. Detailed regulations are both online and in the annual hunting regulations booklets.
All hunters, except those exempt like lifetime hunting license holders, must have a current hunting license and a $10 turkey permit for each bird taken.
Any turkey with a beard is fair game during the spring season. While it usually is only the male (tom) turkeys that have beards, bearded hens are actually somewhat common in some areas, especially among the Rio Grande birds. My son has taken bearded hens in Osage County and I've seen several out in Ellis County.
Some hunters who have refrained from hunting in recent seasons as the drought took its toll may find that conditions have changed in their hunting areas. I know that turkeys have shifted their roosting spots in some areas, especially where some streams have dried up during the drought.
So pre-season scouting might be worthwhile this spring. It helps to know where turkeys are roosting and which directions they tend to go when they leave the roost in the morning and what routes they take when returning to the roost in the evening.
Springtime turkey hunting usually is done best in full camouflage clothing or from camouflaged blinds. But hiding in camo and imitating the sounds of a turkey can be an invitation to trouble if there are novice or unsafe hunters in the area, so game wardens advise hunters to wear an orange hat or vest while walking in the woods during turkey season, and to be alert for other hunters approaching.