March 17, 2015
The cool front arrived much colder than predicted. In fact, heavy frost covered the fresh spring greenery the South Texas Brush Country was just beginning to wear. Jolie was thrilled she had not yet taken her heavy winter hunting clothes home from camp as insulated coveralls were needed this morning.
There had been no response to her yelping. Only a few distant gobbles had been heard in the early dawn. The sun had not yet broken over the treetops and right now she was cold. Fingers and toes chilled to the bone, Jolie decided to take a short walk. Leaning her shotgun against a big bull mesquite, Jolie began stomping her feet while clapping gloved hands in an attempt to warm herself.
Movement caught her eye. A mere 15 yards away, a huge longbeard stepped out, instantly performing the wild turkey waltz. Jolie was stunned, her breath taken away. Frozen statue-still, amazed to be so close, she knew any attempt to grab firepower would be useless. She had to stifle a laugh, realizing her warmup noises had brought out a grand old tom right under her nose. It was fascinating, unique, and one of her most cherished outdoor memories.
That story is true. When turkey hunting in Texas, always expect the unexpected! In nature, you never know what may happen. And when it comes to spring turkey hunting, anything goes. It's one of the fun things about chasing gobblers lusting for a hen.
A hunter may be stampeded by a roving gang of jakes or totally surprised by a crafty longbeard arriving in silent stealth mode. Spring gobblers can be quite a challenge.
It's never too early to start making preparations, scouting areas, and planning your hunting strategy. Of course, things can change on a moment's notice, with the weather being the most unpredictable factor in any hunt, but especially in springtime. That's particularly true in the Lone Star State! It can go from hot to cold, dry to flooding, dead still to raging wind or vice-versa within only a few hours and sometimes within minutes.
With weather in mind and knowing much of Texas has dealt with drought for longer than anyone cares to think about, what are the prospects for the 2015 spring turkey season? Well, Loyal Gobbler Chasers, they are better than you might think! But (there's always a "but"), as usual, much depends on the area or region you plan to hunt.
Texas Parks and Wildlife's Upland Game Bird Specialist Jason Hardin knows wild turkeys. After all, it's his job. "A cooler-than-average summer coupled with decent and timely rainfall resulted in hens in good condition entering the nesting season," he said. "We should have a good crop of 1-year-old birds entering the spring 2015 season."
Unfortunately, Hardin said the 2013 production was spotty. "There were not many reports of jakes this past spring across the Rio range, and that typically means fewer 2-year-old birds. There were a bunch of 2-year-old gobblers and a lot of those should carry over into the 2015 season as 3-year-old birds.
"I guess, in short, it's typical Rio Grande turkey conditions." he added, "Up and down from one year to the next, but no major dips or spikes. The drier weather over the past decade or so topped off by the 2011 drought has led to the loss of a significant number of traditional roost sites."
Hardin said the loss of cottonwoods in the Rolling Plains and much of the hackberry trees in South Texas are the most obvious. Both regions could have long-term negative impacts far beyond the typical year-to-year rise and falls in weather related density.
"This is a concern for a number of biologists," Hardin said. "Landowners need to protect what roosting habitat remains in these areas and promote regeneration through proper management."
TPWD saw a small rise in eastern turkeys checked at mandatory check stations in 2014. "We hope this trend will continue. That said, eastern turkeys still have a long way to go," Hardin acknowledged.
Historically, eastern turkeys would have occupied most of East Texas, but as of the 2015 spring season, turkey hunting will only be open in 28 East Texas counties. The population is currently estimated between 8,000 and 10,000 birds. TPWD reopened the eastern turkey restoration program this past winter, releasing 247 birds into three sites in two counties with plans to release another 80-plus birds next winter onto a fourth site.
"We hope to continue restoration for the next few years and then reassess our efforts," Hardin said. "We are hopeful our new Super Stocking protocol coupled with stringent habitat suitability evaluations and focal area development will lead to successful eastern turkey restorations."
Larry Hodge of Athens, a frequent contributor to Texas Sportsman, has considerable gobbler hunting experience. Before the abundance of either-sex turkey decoys, Hodge spray-painted the head of a hen decoy red and named it Ben Her. Naturally it worked like a charm in drawing in boss toms. And more than just a few times!
"I can tell you it's much different hunting easterns than Rio Grande turkeys," said Hodge. "With Rio Grandes you're likely to have more success in midday calling gobblers whose hens have left them to lay. With easterns, my limited experience says you need to roost them the night before and call them off the roost next morning before they get henned up.
"And with Rio Grandes you will probably have the chance to work multiple birds during the day. With easterns you're lucky to find one to play with as they just aren't present in great numbers."
With a chuckle, Hodge added, "My advice would be forget hunting easterns on public land in East Texas and go West, Turkey Hunter, go West."
For years I have paid close attention to all things wildlife in the "Center of Texas" near Brady, certainly west of Larry Hodge's residence. According to TPWD's Hardin, my sightings of young poults in June meant they resulted from a second or third nesting attempt most likely due to nest predators such as raccoons and skunks.
That is not unusual as nest predation is one of the most common reasons for poor hatches. Predator control is important in balancing the wildlife ecosystem. Areas that have coyote trapping and avid hog eradication taking place claim their efforts appear to be making a difference in turkey, quail, and fawn recruitment.
Lack of rainfall also affects turkey propagation. Having adequate cover for small poults coupled with good forb and insect production is vital to survival of young birds. Several ranch owners throughout the Hill Country say they have more turkeys this year than in the past five years. Places that haven't seen or heard bobwhite quail in quite a while are once again witnessing these birds. Many hunters believe when quail are showing signs of having a good hatch, turkey reproduction is even better.
Houstonian Clayton Teat has been hunting the same Liveoak County ranch for 15 years. Now an experienced spring gobbler slayer, he got his first taste in 1998 while hunting in McCulloch County. His brother-in-law called in six gobblers in separate setups but turkey fever got the best of Clayton every time.
Beginner's luck kicked in when hunting alone the next day. Teat killed a triple-bearded wonder. The grand gobbler's decor measured 11, 8 1/2 and 6 3/4 inches respectively. Advised to mount it as the bird was equivalent to bagging a muy grande whitetail, Teat poofed it off. He now regrets his decision, as no spring or fall gobbler over the years has equaled that first trophy tom.
"I was green as a gourd and had never witnessed anything like a big tom strutting and strumming," Teat said, enthusiasm evident in his voice. "But I was hooked immediately and haven't missed a spring season since then. I love all hunting but going after spring gobblers is my favorite! Well, right up there with hogs, deer, dove and quail."
Teat said he's seen numerous flocks of hens and poults throughout the summer. While not claiming to be an expert, he believes his area of South Texas has a good supply of gobblers of all ages. Last year only a handful of his fellow hunters were successful, but it wasn't through lack of effort.
"It was a weird spring," he said. "We'd hear gobbling but hardly any birds, jakes or older ones, came to calls, and so we didn't put a dent in the local numbers."
Warren Bluntzer of Warren Bluntzer Wildlife Consulting Services, Inc. manages properties and advises landowners across the state on wildlife issues. "I believe most areas are still feeling the effects of drought," he said. "Ranches with good management practices in place as well as areas that received timely rains will naturally have a better turkey population.
"The 2014 hatch depends on the geographical area, again going back to rains producing good grasshopper and other insects so necessary for poults to survive. Overall, I personally don't think the state's turkey numbers are quite where we'd like them to be, but in Texas things can change in a short time."
TPWD's Chip Ruthven is Project Leader of the Lone Star State's Panhandle Wildlife Management Areas. "We had very little to no reproduction in 2011 and 2012," he admitted. "Although spotty throughout the Panhandle and Rolling Plains, we did raise a few birds in 2013. However, going into 2014 our overall wild turkey numbers were still down as a result of the drought. However, even with the downward trend, the Rolling Plains still has some of the more robust wild turkey populations in the state."
Ruthven said that much of the Panhandle has seen abundant rainfall since late May 2014. Although a little too late for prime nesting, it provided excellent brood rearing habitat for those birds that hatched clutches early. Very young broods were observed on the Matador WMA in mid-summer suggesting some hens nested or re-nested once the rains came. It also set the scene with abundant cover going into fall and this spring.
"With improved range conditions," said Ruthven, "I expect predation on wild turkeys to decrease as other potential prey species (rodents, rabbits, and others) for large predators has increased. I would expect a lot of mature gobblers still to dominate the population in spring, with a fair number of jakes and 2-year-old birds. A wet spring and summer next year should put wild turkey on a solid rebound."
Out in West Texas, Annaliese Scoggin is TPWD's technical guidance biologist for the Trans-Pecos District. "It's always tough to get a good feel for turkey numbers in the Trans-Pecos," she said, "since they are so spotty in distribution and not typically one of our focal species."
As in many areas of the state, Scoggin said, the last several years of drought have been very hard on turkeys in particular. Rains out west came a little late in 2014 to help with reproduction. "Hopefully, the few remaining birds will have a chance for better reproduction rates if we get the rains predicted," Scoggin concluded, "It will be quite a while before our populations recover to pre-drought levels."
To wrap it all up in a nice spring bundle, Texas turkey hunters need to plan now where they want to hunt. As with all hunting, it's a combination of Lady Luck and decent weather conditions. Remember, it's not always about the end result, as in posing for a photo with a grand longbeard, but about being alive outdoors, enjoying spring and all that Mother Nature has to offer. Good luck with the turkeys!