Texas Turkey Hunting Forecast for 2014
March 11, 2014
Calling up a long-bearded gobbler during the spring Texas turkey hunting season is just about as close as a hunter is going to get to channeling his inner cave man.
Sure, you can bust a lot of caps early in the dove season most years, and sooner or later, a nice buck is bound to come to corn or respond to rattling, but there's absolutely nothing that compares to pitting your hunting skills against a wily tom when the wildflowers are blooming and love is in the air for the big birds. If you can bag a strutting gobbler that you've managed to lure within range solely on the basis of your ability to talk turkey, you are a sure 'nuff hunter. Put simply, spring turkey hunting is a challenge.
A few springs back, I had been dealing with my share of challenges. One afternoon on a ranch in the Post Oak Savanna between Lockhart and Luling, a friend and work colleague had sweet-talked a gobbler into view. Letting my appetite for white meat overrule what I know about shotguns, I let loose on the big tom too soon. All the pellets from my over-under 12-gauge did was make him hunker down and run for cover.
A few days later, hunting on the same place, I called up a turkey, but once again I didn't let him get in close enough before I pulled the trigger. So, lesson to Mikey and to anyone who doesn't want to miss a nice gobbler: Hold your fire as long as you can stand it. A shotgun is not a rifle, no matter how hot the load.
Considerably annoyed with myself at my lack of success on a lease that obviously had plenty of turkeys, once again I donned my gilly suit and gathered up my calls in the hope of finally bagging a bird before the season played out.
Another friend and I set up an ambush on a line between the area of the lease where most of the turkeys seemed to be coming from and a feeder. I placed my camo chair in high grass with a clump of cedar trees and brush behind me, the better to blend in. Before I sat down to start trying to attract a hefty lover boy, I set my rubber hen decoy in a clear spot only 20 yards or so from my hiding place.
That done, I sat down, dropped a couple of No. 4 loads into my gun, made sure the safety was on, and reached for the rubber shock call that had been a gift from the same co-worker who had called up the bird I'd missed a week or so earlier. The bigger gift from him had been the insight that he offered along with the call, which was to use it to attract a distant gobbler's attention when you aren't hearing any gobbling.
The call is loud and makes a sound roughly like the triumphant gobble of a big tom. It tends to make other toms concerned that somebody else is having a more meaningful spring fling than they are. If any gobblers are around, the shock call usually reveals their presence.
And that's what happened on this particular April afternoon. Almost immediately, I heard a distant gobble coming from a real bird. I waited for a few moments and then scratched out the first overture on my box call, hoping I was producing an acceptable come-hither invitation in hen-speak. Over-calling is not good, so again, I waited. It was a warm afternoon, and even hotter inside my camo clothes. It's hard to be a patient hunter when sweat's running down your back, especially when you have to be as still as you possibly can. Fortunately, good things often come to those who wait, and that's what happened to me.
The tom whose attention I had attracted with the shock call apparently liked what he heard coming from my box call and responded with a suitably studly gobble. The courtship was on.
That adrenaline-building dance is what makes turkey hunting so exciting — a "romantic" conversation with a gobbler looking for love in all the wrong places. Having a gobbler respond to your call brings the first surge of excitement. Realizing after he answers you the second time that he's coming closer to your place of concealment is the next supercharged moment in spring turkey hunting.
Trying to keep my cool and not sound too chatty, which sounds unrealistic and can scare off a willing suitor, I could feel my heart rate picking up speed as the tom's gobbles got louder and more assertive. Finally, he strutted into view with tail feathers fanned, heading purposefully straight toward the faux hen I had attracted him to with my equally phony flirting.
My shotgun already on my shoulder, I tried to be as one with the motte of greenery behind me. A gobbler's visual acuity is one reliable defense he has against his hard-wired, overpowering lust for feminine companionship during mating season. If he spots a movement that doesn't look natural, no matter his desire, he's on his way to live and love again another day. Sooner or later, there's always another gal.
Anyone who has ever successfully called up a gobbler and held his fire until he's sure the bird is in range knows how hard it is to resist the temptation to pull the trigger. Determined to atone for my earlier premature shooting, I waited until the tom was just about at the point where he might start thinking his potential lady love's sexy moves were nothing more than a pretty piece of plastic waving in the wind, which it was.
Finally, I pulled the trigger and the big gobbler went down in his tracks, a flopping heap of brown and bronze feathers. I waited with my finger on the trigger to make sure he didn't get up and run. I've seen toms do that, but this guy's salad days were forever wilted.
* * *
Fortunately for hunters in Texas, there is no shortage of turkeys. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Jason Hardin, who oversees the agency's turkey management efforts, the Lone Star State has a population of about a half-million wild turkeys. That's down from an estimated all-time high of 600,000 birds, but better than the 450,000 the count sometimes reaches. And way better than it was in the early 20th century, when Texas turkeys had almost been hunted to extinction.
"We have more Rio Grande turkeys and more hunters than any other state," Hardin says, "and one of the higher harvests. Pennsylvania and Alabama harvest a few more birds than Texas, but we have so many Rio Grande turkeys that a lot of out-of-state hunters come to Texas for their grand slam."
In 2012-2013, based on hunting license sales, some 19,000 hunters bought turkey stamps or super-combo licenses in the fall of 2012, with 20,000 sales last spring. Hardin said those nearly 40,000 hunters spend an amazing 1.1 million days hunting, or about two weeks per hunter.
The number of turkey hunters is about 50-50 between fall and spring, but the hunting is vastly different. Spring traditionally has been considered the best time to hunt toms, but TPWD did not allow spring hunting until 1970, and even then it got off to a slow start. Now in its 44th year, the spring season has long since taken over as the most popular turkey season in Texas.
This year in the North Zone, which is the largest with 101 counties, the season gets under way on March 29 and continues to May 11. (There's a special youth-only season March 22-23 and again May 17-18.) In the 54 counties of the South Zone, the youth season is March 8-9 followed by the regular season of March 15 to April 27. Another youth season for the South Zone will be May 3-4.
The bag limit for Rio Grande turkeys (no hens in the spring) is four toms except for eight counties, where the season is only April 1-30 and the limit is one gobbler. Check the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Web site or the department's 2013-2014 Outdoor Annual for more details.
No hunter likes going home empty-handed despite the often-recited phrase that the worst day in the woods beats the best day in the office. TPWD bag surveys show hunters enjoy about a 50 percent success rate each year, so a turkey hunter can figure, at least statistically, heading to the field with even odds.
Honing your hunting knowledge along with your skinning knife is the best way to improve your chance of taking a spring gobbler.
TPWD has produced an excellent booklet on Texas turkeys, a publication anyone taking to the field hoping to score a gobbler should take time to read. It's available through the agency's Web site at www.tpwd.texas.gov/publications/huntwild/wild/species/upland_game/ or at most TPWD offices.
One of the most important things to understand about turkeys is the acuteness of their vision. As one expert put it, "If a gobbler could read, he could read a newspaper three football fields away." In fact, a turkey's eyesight is 10 times better than a human's. They also have a wide field of vision and are masters at detecting movement.
While you might get away with taking a deer when you're only partially camouflaged or not at all, that won't work with a turkey. Particularly if you want to walk and talk a turkey down, you need to be camo'ed from cap to boots. That includes having something over your face and gloves on your hands.
Hunting from a blind buys you a bit more leeway, but if you can see a turkey, odds are he can see you. Be careful not to swing your binoculars up or shoulder your shotgun too fast. Nothing douses a gobbler's ardor any faster than seeing a movement that doesn't seem natural.
The prime method of luring a gobbler within range of your shotgun is to sound like the cutest sweetie in the woods. That takes practice, but I've gotten toms to answer an inexpensive plastic box call.
Duck hunters have always used decoys, and over the last few decades, turkey decoys have become increasingly popular in Texas. Some hunters put out enough rubber or plastic to create a small flock, but the conventional wisdom is that one hen decoy will do the trick and is certainly easier to handle than multiple fake birds.
Beyond working to make sure all Texans have an ample population of wild turkeys, in his spare time Jason Hardin is also a turkey hunter.
Asked for his top spring turkey tip, he suggested hunting later in the season. "A lot of hunters focus on the first part of the season," he says, "but at that point there's still a lot of competing hens out there."
Later in the season, he says, gobblers start getting a little less picky with fewer hens to pick from. Not only are the chances of calling in a gobbler better, but there's also fewer hunters out there trying.
In talking about prospects for this spring's turkey season, Hardin uses the word "phenomenal" a lot.
"We had pretty phenomenal production in 2012," he says. "This spring, we're going to have plenty of 2-year-old gobblers, and there's nothing much better for gobbling action."
Hardin sees this spring as generally comparable to 2011, when despite the drought, which resumed in several parts of Texas after a brief respite, there had been what the biologist termed "unbelievable" production in 2010.
"Some turkey production was late last year," Hardin continues, "so it's not going to be a boomer year for jakes, especially since we didn't get any early rains."
Though much of Texas enjoyed a rainy fall thanks to a couple of tropical systems that brought a lot of moisture inland, that drought was not considered broken. And rain, or the lack of it, is a critical factor in turkey production. Late winter rains translate into good forb production, which enhances turkey habitat and food availability. High grass also makes it easier for hens to hide their nests from predators.
The Edwards Plateau, which includes much of the Texas Hill Country, continues to have the state's largest population of Rio Grande turkeys. For this big chunk of Texas, Hardin again invokes the P-word.
"Production has been phenomenal from south to north in this region," he says. "Hunters will have plenty of 2-year-old gobblers to call up."
In the eastern Rolling Plains, which is to say the eastern half of the Panhandle, Hardin says there is no shortage of turkeys in the riparian (wooded stream bank) areas.
"In this part of the state," he says, "we've got more turkeys than hunters. This area didn't get as much rain, but there are still more birds than anybody can shoot."
In addition, Hardin says, its all good when it comes to turkey numbers in the Hill Country and Cross Timbers.
In East Texas, TPWD is continuing its efforts to increase the number of eastern turkeys. The department first started conducting studies on easterns in 2003, with another round in 2007-08, Hardin said. Earlier this year, the department released 240 eastern turkeys in three places. Eighty birds were released on the nearly 11,000-acre Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area in Anderson County, with another release on a private ranch just across from the state WMA. The final batch of birds was turned loose at Oak Hill Mine east of Henderson in Rusk County.
Easterns can be taken in 28 counties in East Texas. The season runs from April 15 to May 14. All harvested eastern turkeys must be taken to a TPWD check station within 24 hours. To locate a station, check with a TPWD field office or call 1-800-792-1112.
"On the Coastal Plains, particularly in the oak mottes, we've got a lot of turkeys. If you can find a place to hunt in Brooks, Kleburg, Kenedy and Willacy counties, it's (that word again) phenomenal."
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