If there was ever any doubt about whether Texans can hunt and fish during the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe, Gov. Greg Abbott seemed to settle that issue.
For now, that is, as the coronavirus crisis continues to change news headlines on an almost hourly basis in Texas, the U.S. and the rest of the world.
Abbott issued an executive order for Texans on March 31, 2020, that implemented essential services and activities protocols, directing state residents to minimize non-essential gatherings and in-person contact with others who aren’t in the same household. The order also renewed and amended the governor’s previous order that closed schools, bars, and restaurants among other things.
But in a state where outdoor recreation is greatly prized each year, the governor of the Lone Star State refused—for now, at least—to put the closed sign out for anglers and hunters wanting to get some stress release in the great outdoors.
From a press release issued by the governor’s office: "This Executive Order does not prohibit people from accessing essential services or engaging in essential daily activities, such as going to the grocery store or gas station, providing or obtaining other essential services, hunting or fishing, or engaging in physical activity like jogging or bicycling, so long as the necessary precautions are maintained to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and to minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household. The order also includes exemption for religious services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship. All critical infrastructure will remain operational, and government entities and businesses will continue providing essential services.”
Despite increasing pressure for Abbott to issue a more restrictive shelter-in-place order, as some other governors around the nation have done, the state’s chief executive continued to resist such calls.
"Social distancing is our best tool in the fight against COVID-19, and the actions we have taken thus far have proven to be effective in limiting the spread of this virus," Abbott said. "Now it is time to re-double our efforts to reduce further exposure as much as possible and flatten the curve. As with all the actions the state is taking, the Essential Services and Activities Protocols is informed by the expertise and guidance of the CDC as well as state and local health officials. I urge my fellow Texans to heed these heightened social distancing directives to protect their health and the health of those around them. By following these guidelines, we will limit the spread of COVID-19 and overcome this challenge together."
What does all that mean? Until further notice, it would seem that the green light remains on for outdoors enthusiasts this spring.
While some federally and locally operated boat ramps, campgrounds, and lakes are closed in Texas, as well as guiding activities being shut down in certain areas, the announcement by the governor avoids a complete closure of recreational fishing as was recently enacted in the state of Washington.
It also keeps the door open for those who want to venture forth—with group-size restrictions and social-distancing protocols noted—to partake in the annual spring turkey season, a time when hunters hope to tag a protein-rich gobbler for the freezer during a time when food isn’t as easy to find at the local grocery store.
Down south closer to the Rio Grande River, the spring season for Rio Grande turkeys in the South Zone runs March 21-May 3 this year. With the season already a couple of weeks old down in the cactus-and-mesquite-choked Brush Country, early reports indicate fair gobbling activity and some big longbeards already being taken by hunters.
In the North Zone closer to the Red River, the season for Rio Grandes runs April 4-May 17, according to a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department news release. Additionally, TPWD notes there is a special one-gobbler limit season (for Rio Grandes) April 1-30 in Bastrop, Caldwell, Colorado, Fayette, Jackson, Lavaca, Lee, Matagorda, Milam, and Wharton counties.
In the counties open under the state’s Eastern turkey hunting regulation package, the season for Eastern gobblers runs April 22-May 14. TPWD reminds hunters that they are required to electronically report their harvest of an Eastern wild turkey to the agency within 24 hours of taking a bird.
TPWD also notes that Eastern turkey reports can be made through the agency’s My Texas Hunt Harvest App, which is available for free download at Google Play or the App Store. Eastern turkey harvest reports can also be made online at TPWD’s turkey page. However such a turkey is electronically reported, the agency reminds hunters that they still must appropriately tag harvested birds in the field.
How will this year’s spring turkey season play out across Texas? While the coronavirus outbreak has clouded travel and camp gatherings, for those who do get out, the action should be pretty good, according to TPWD biologists.
"If the current green conditions hold and weather does not turn hot too early, Texas can expect another year of turkey population growth,” said Jason Hardin, TPWD turkey program leader, in a news release. "We currently have good soil moisture across much of Texas and just need a little more to keep us on track for another great year of recruitment."
While there should be a mix of young and old birds, hatch trends in recent years could limit middle-aged toms strutting their way across Texas.
"With low harvest rates, most Rio Grande turkey hunters can expect to see some 4- and 5-year-old toms across most of the Rio Grande range," said Hardin. "There are not going to be a lot of 2- to 3-year-old birds out there this spring.
As noted, there have already been some good longbeards taken in the state’s South Zone. But in general, expect hunting to start slowly and grow increasingly better as the days lengthen and the weather warms up.
"With the spring coming on strong, toms will pair with hens early in the season," said Hardin. "But as those hens begin to initiate nesting activities around the middle of the season, the toms will turn on and readily come to calling."
Hopefully, by that point in the season, the state’s turkey hunting will be heating up and the Lone Star State—along with the rest of the nation—will be turning the corner on the coronavirus outbreak that has made the spring of 2020 one that will never be forgotten.
In the meantime, please keep close check here and elsewhere on the current status of federal, state, and local regulations governing the status of travel, essential activities, and more concerning the COVID-19 crisis. It’s a fluid situation and one that is certainly subject to more change.