Jimmy Cordova of Floresville knows one sure sign of a good year for turkey hunting: Washed-out roads on his lease along the San Antonio River near Falls City. When it rains big in Texas, it may wash out ranch roads, but it also rains bass, bucks, and gobblers, and 2015 was one of those years.
Beneficial rains actually started in the fall and winter of 2014 and peaked in the spring of 2015, when almost the entire state went from severe or exceptional drought to merely dry or even drought-free in the space of two months.
The timing of those rains was crucial, says Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife biologist Dana Wright. "We had a fairly wet winter and then a fantastic spring and summer, resulting in great nesting cover, forb production and insect production. I saw lots of turkey poults of all sizes throughout the summer. I think hunters can expect to see either some really old birds or some really young birds; there won't be many middle-aged birds."
Other TPWD biologists echo Wright's assessment. "In summer we had a ton of reports of three-quarters-grown poults in both East Texas and across the Rio Grande turkey range," says turkey program leader Jason Hardin. "Things are shaping up for good recruitment of young birds into the population. I drove across the Rolling Plains in mid-August and saw several large brood flocks as well as mature gobblers.
There has been a ton of carryover gobblers, so hunters can expect to have good hunting in spring 2016. Hunters should see quite a few jakes this spring and fall, setting the stage for great hunting in spring 2017 as well."
The Rolling Plains, Cross Timbers and western Edwards Plateau lag the rest of the state, since those areas were hardest hit by the drought between 2011 and 2014. However, the central and eastern parts of the Edwards Plateau — the heart of Rio Grande range — fared somewhat better, says TPWD biologist Rufus Stephens. "Even with the extended drought the central and eastern Edwards Plateau has had alternating years of reasonable production with good carryover," he says.
"This should mean that hunters will see good numbers of mature birds in the spring of 2016." Even better, the entire Edwards Plateau had good production in 2015, which means there will be lots of juvenile birds in spring 2016 and lots of mature birds in 2017.
Eastern turkeys are a different story. Eastern turkey populations in the Pineywoods are spotty, and hunting was recently closed in some counties. Be sure to check TPWD's Outdoor Annual county listings.
"There are spots where turkey populations are holding their own, but expansion is slow," says biologist Micah Poteet. "As far as a forecast for next spring, I believe things will remain approximately the same. If you had turkeys the past few years, they should continue to be present. The age distribution and numbers will remain approximately the same, with the exception of possibly more jakes. It does appear that we might have had higher than normal poult production this summer."
The counties with the best populations in the Pineywoods are Newton, Jasper, Nacogdoches, Sabine, and Bowie. Most of the eastern turkey harvest is from private land. The best prospect for full access public hunting is the Sabine National Forest.
Lots of turkeys is good news for hunters, right? Eventually, yes. But remember that lots of hens will be hatched along with all those jakes, and you will be competing against both groups for gobblers' attention. A gobbler would much rather follow a flock of hens he can see than wander off through the brush to a lone "hen" calling in the distance.
And jakes? They tend to travel in packs, come readily to calling, and gang up on any gobbler they find in the area. In years with lots of jakes, gobblers may become wary of revealing their whereabouts by gobbling. Hunters may find it more difficult to locate a gobbler and wind up calling too much, attracting jakes or, even worse, getting busted when the hunters fail to detect a gobbler coming in silently.
A predicted strong El NiÃ±o will complicate the situation in spring 2016. This weather phenomenon generally means a cooler and wetter-than-normal winter for almost all of Texas. This will promote vigorous growth of grass and weeds, which will affect where turkeys travel and how well hunters will be able to see them. And like Jimmy Cordova, you may find roads you normally use are impassable. Scout ahead of time and make a plan based on conditions.
Here are some tips to help you deal with conditions you'll likely encounter when turkey hunting this spring.
Early last season I hunted Rio Grandes with Cordova on 200 heavily wooded acres on the San Antonio River. Turkeys roost along the river and are often seen on interior roads on the lease as well as on a pipeline right-of-way. They would gobble a little before fly-down and a few times after, but then go silent as they followed hens feeding in open fields next to the lease all day. We were never able to break them down and make them come to us
A second hunt late in the season provided some possible answers to the puzzle. Hunting on 2,200 acres near Three Rivers with two first-time turkey hunters, we all took nice gobblers. As before, there were lots of hens to keep gobblers occupied. Rains had produced a flush of waist-high vegetation that was impossible to see over when sitting down. But host Bob Boswell and guides Duke Walton and Steve Hall had the answers to those problems.
"We set up in a ground blind with a hen decoy about 25 yards out the front window," says Johnnie Smith. "The spot was about a mile from where Duke and Steve had put birds to bed the night before. Using several calls, Duke began with several series of loud yelps. The gobblers responded, and it seemed that we were in business. Duke didn't call very often, much less than I had expected.
Once the gobblers had left the roost, and we could tell they were answering from a closer position, Duke switched to a soft cluck. There was only one gobble in response. Then Duke began 'sweet talking' as he put it. After several really soft purrs and cutts, he put everything away and motioned for me to be still and silent. He told me that if they were coming, they were on their way and knew just where we were.
"About 15 minutes went by, and we caught movement out one of the windows of the ground blind. It was a large tom running off two jakes. Then he turned his attention to the decoy, strutting and turning to show off his tail fan and beard. He fell to a well-placed shot at 15 yards."
One detail needs to be added to Smith's account. The ground blind was placed just off a ranch road, which provided the turkeys a weed-free avenue for travel. Fresh J-shaped droppings and drag marks from wingtips showed that gobblers were using the road regularly. The lesson from Smith's hunt was clear: Be where the turkeys want to be.
Marc LeFebre's hunt illustrated some points that will not be lost on veteran turkey hunters: Be patient, be still, shoot well.
"I did not realize the amount of time necessary to sit still and quiet in the blind," he says. "Once I overcame expectations that turkeys would be very active and visible for much of the day, I really enjoyed the quiet and beauty of the land."
LeFebre took a nice tom with a single shot, and then watched as satellite birds jumped on it and spurred the downed gobbler.
After a couple of unsuccessful hunts by myself during which I called to no avail and watched gobblers strut out of range, I hunted with Duke. The setup was similar to that of Smith's hunt, and the results were the same — with one big difference. Two big toms came in displaying for a hen decoy, and I proved it is possible to miss a gobbler at 12 yards when using a super-full choke.
The toms ran, and I could see only two heads above the weeds. I thought it was too far, but Duke commanded me to shoot, and the gobbler went down. We stepped off 62 yards, and the gobbler had one pellet in the head. It was pure luck.
When skill doesn't work, I'll take luck.
The hunt with Smith and LeFebre near Three Rivers also gave a clue that may help you bag a gobbler this spring. When there are a lot of hens to keep gobblers occupied, late-season hunts may be more productive that early ones. Once a hen is bred, she will feed with the flock for a while each morning after fly-down, then sneak off by herself to the nest to lay an egg, one a day until the clutch is complete with perhaps a dozen or so eggs.
As the season goes on and the gobbler breeds more and more hens, he will find himself with fewer and fewer hens in the afternoon. That can make him more susceptible to calling, or, as we observed, more likely to roam about in search of a hen.
It's not often that someone can forecast an outstanding hunting season for two years in a row, but that's what appears to be shaping up for Texas turkey hunters. While opportunities for hunting eastern birds will remain limited for the foreseeable future, Rio Grandes are doing well throughout their range. In more than one sense of the word the next couple of springs will be "Boom!" time in Texas.