February 26, 2016
Washington hunters bag nearly 5,000 Merriam's and Rio Grande turkeys a year. An experiment to establish Eastern subspecies has pretty much been abandoned. Highest hunting success is 40 percent in the northeast counties, and it has been as high as 60 percent here. The lowest success rate was 12.5 percent, in northwest areas.
Oregon has almost all Rios, with an annual kill of around 4,200. And the statewide success rate holds near 33 percent. Oregon's top turkey producing areas are in the southwest region.
In both states the two straight summers of monstrous wildfires that devoured thousands of acres of prime turkey habitat is being made even worse by historic droughts that are drying up creeks, ponds and farm water. Even the most optimistic weather forecasters expect the record-shattering drought and escalating summer temperatures to continue at least through 2016.
Washington Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon said her agency is preparing for another year of drought that will take hold earlier and take even bigger tolls. The same negative predictions are in front of Oregon, said Kathie Dello, associate director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute.
For turkeys and turkey hunters, snowless mountains, a hot dry spring and even hotter early summer is a double-edged sword. Warm rainless spring nesting seasons are producing higher than average hatch success and poult survival. However, it is also creating severe water shortages, drying up food sources, especially wild seeds, grasses and insects, compressing predators and turkeys into areas with water, and creating tinder-dry conditions likely to produce another season of uncontrollable wildfires.
In 2014, there were 1,480 wildfires in Washington burning more than 350,000 acres, and in 2015 another 305,000 acres went up in smoke. While not all of that was turkey habitat, a lot of it was. Additionally, a boom in coyote numbers has mirrored the drop in turkeys for some of Washington's best hunting areas.
The turkey decline has been especially hard in the southwestern part of Washington, where game bird managers originally hoped to kick-start a turkey-hunting program by stocking hundreds of the rain-tolerant Eastern subspecies.
After an initial flurry of hunter success, Eastern turkey numbers have plummeted west of Interstate 5. Still, according to Michelle Tirhi, district biologist in Thurston and Pierce counties, WDFW receives reports of individual or small groups of turkeys in Gig Harbor and Key Peninsula, Pierce County, Thurston County and other areas. But the overall scarcity of turkeys equates to poor hunting prospects, the biologist noted.
In the small Willapa Bay town of Raymond and surrounding Pacific County, the few surviving flocks hang tight to river-valley farm turkey feeders and no-hunting signs. Southwest Washington habitats, according to biologist Anthony Novack, "have proven unsuitable for turkey populations."
The southern state outlook is more promising east of I-5 along the Klickitat River just above the Columbia River. Long-considered one of the top areas in the state and hands-down the hot area for southern Washington, "turkey populations in Klickitat County continue to be healthy and hunting conditions should be typical," reported biologist Dave Anderson. However, he also said that harvests have declined somewhat and hunter success at 24 percent is now below the statewide average of 33 percent.
The biologist recommended hunting below 1,500-foot elevation in both the Klickitat and White Salmon drainages. WDFW's Klickitat Wildlife Area is steep, rugged country but harbors a lot of legal birds. The highest concentrations in this region are downriver from the public hunting area on private land along the Klickitat River south of the community of Klickitat. According to Anderson the state agency gets a lot of landowner-turkey conflict complaints in this area, and if — and it's a big if — you can get permission to hunt, success is almost assured.
Productive pockets of turkeys may be located near Goldendale, in the lower Simcoe Mountains, and along the lower White Salmon River.
Merriam's turkey flocks in Yakima and Kittitas counties that seemed to be expanding and thriving earlier this decade have peaked and are now dropping all along the east slope of the Cascades.
Biologist Jeff Bernatowicz said Yakima-Kittitas turkey numbers peaked in 2011 and have "been falling steeply ever since."
In 2014 the harvest was just 100 birds, which is a fourth of what it was a couple of years earlier. He recommended hunters target GMU's 328, 329, and 335. These areas include a mix of private ranchlands where permission to hunt is required, and where public hunting is allowed on timber company holdings and state and federal public lands.
In the Blue Mountain/Palouse region in the southeast corner, WDFW's Paul Wik said that total harvest has dropped from 824 turkeys two years ago to 742 in 2014, which is about average. Flocks in the southwest are a mix of Merriam's and Rio Grandes, and field checks indicate that numbers have stabilized and hunter success is better than in the past three years, Wik noted.
According to Wik, the wildfires that swept through some of the turkey areas last summer appear to have moved some flocks into unfamiliar areas. Overall, the numbers are solid and turkeys are expected to be a good bet for spring hunters.
Wik confirmed that GMUs 154 and 162 have the highest turkey harvests.
"Some of these flocks have become nuisance birds, and landowners are often willing to grant permission to thin turkey numbers," he said.
Densities are lower, but good numbers of birds will be found on national forest lands and state wildlife areas, including the Wooten Wildlife Area in GMU 166 Asotin Creek Wildlife Area in GMU 175, and the Chief Joseph Wildlife Area in GMU 186.
To the north, the Chewelah-Colville areas are considered the best turkey hunting regions in the state, but even here turkey numbers appear to have peaked and dropped.
Ferry, Stevens, Spokane and Pend Oreille counties are still excellent bets for gobbling in spring toms. The region is a checkerboard of private ranches, timber company lands and state and federal forests. More than a third of the lands here are public, a big plus that draws a lot of hunters to this region.
There's quite a bit of public land mixed into private holdings southwest of Chewelah and west of Waitts Lake. A lot of flocks will be located on private ground. And getting permission to hunt, despite high landowner-turkey conflicts, is notoriously difficult.
I've scored by locating where public land abuts private ground where turkeys are likely to move between posted fields and roosting trees. Either with a blind set up or running and gunning, the public ground along these travel routes gives me two cracks at birds moving from roost to feed and feed to roost.
The WDFW biologist for this area, Dana Base, reported that the annual spring harvest is more than 1,700 toms but noted that harvest has dropped by 7 percent. The time it takes to kill a bird has increased by 2 percent. Both are signs that the heyday of turkey numbers has peaked and is leveling off somewhere downhill.
GMU's 121, 111 and 117 are the best bets, although numbers appear to have peaked and are dropping. Turkey numbers are down significantly in GMU 101, 108 and 113, but by most standards there are still good numbers of birds to hunt. Wildfires ran through this region in both 2014 and 2015, but except for temporarily moving turkeys into new areas, the impact on overall numbers was light.
A big question mark is western Okanogan County, where what had been an expanding turkey population was hit hard by back-to-back wildfires that in the last two years incinerated 655,000 acres. That burn area is about the size of Rhode Island, and will have an impact on turkey hunting this spring. Some of the best Merriam's areas are on the flanks of the Methow River and it's tributaries, which were swept by the fires both years. These spur drainages are likely to rebound, but it will take a season or two.
WDFW's regional biologist Scott Fitkin said that, "Turkeys are found in scattered groups throughout the district and often (now) concentrated on private land near agriculture areas."
He also noted that strange winter weather and a substantial drop in the numbers of homeowners feeding turkeys have reduced turkey numbers substantially in the Methow Valley. He said most creek drainages at lower elevation in the burned Alta Unit 242 still hold birds.
The historic 2014 Carlton Complex fire burned lowland habitat from the Columbia River to Winthrop, and this year's Okanogan Complex and Twisp River fires burned most of what didn't burn the previous year.
On the positive side, the devastating Carlton conflagration was followed by an exceptionally mild winter and spring and early rains that generated early green-up in burned areas. By the April 15 opener of hunting season turkeys were back in many of their historic locations. That could happen again this year, according to Fitkin and weather watchers.
Those same conditions and forecasts apply to burned areas in other parts of the state, especially north of Spokane and in the Colville-Republic-Lake Roosevelt burn areas.
Statewide turkey numbers are either stabilizing, sliding, or, in the case of west side Easterns, disappearing. Flocks pushed out of wildfire zones, may return by opening day if food re-develops. In the popular northeast counties, the longtime hotspot in Washington, turkey numbers are declining and a lot of the birds are found behind posted signs. Still there is a lot of public land here with promising turkey hunting options.
While Washington hunters primarily target Merriam's turkeys, Oregon is almost exclusively Rio Grande flocks. These big birds are not only holding their own, but expanding.
In 2014, hunters harvested 4,229 turkeys, up 9 percent from the previous year and the highest since 2010.Good numbers of Rios are widely distributed from the Blue Mountains on the Idaho border to the Pacific Ocean. In southwest Oregon, I opened my oceanfront motel door a few years ago and flushed a flock of six jakes over the edge toward the beach. Beaver State turkeys, I've learned, are where you find them.
And where spring hunters find them most often is in southwest Oregon. Last year was the first time that Melrose Unit didn't take first place in state turkey harvest. That honor went south to Rogue Unit (by just seven turkeys). ODFW said the change was partly due to a decline in hunting pressure in Melrose, possibly because just 16 percent of the unit is public land and access to private land is disappearing. By contrast 57 percent of Rogue is public. Recently- imposed fees to hunt timber company lands have cut hunting pressure throughout the region, and some of the best private turkey areas are now leased for fee hunting.
After Rogue, Melrose and White River south of The Dalles, the next best option is on the far side of the state in northeast Oregon. Almost half (47 percent) of turkeys shot in Oregon during the spring season were killed east of the crest of the Cascade Mountains.
Hotspots are Mt. Emily, Sled Springs, Ukiah, Heppner, and Northside. Individual hunter success rates are generally better in the northeast part of the state. Many northeast Oregon birds are found on public lands, particularly National Forests. Veteran mountain hunters target southern exposures at higher elevations.
Portland-area hunters stand a good chance of success if they can secure permission on private lands abutting the foothills of the Cascades. ODFW expects hunting to be excellent in the Willamette, Santiam and McKenzie units, which made the top 10 for turkey harvest.
In the Northeast region, ODFW finds good numbers of Rios along the front of the Blue Mountains, and they are expanding into new areas. The area is dominated by private land, and access is sometimes difficult.
Public lands with huntable turkey options are central Ukiah Unit on national forestland, southern Ukiah Unit on Pearson Ridge and surrounding drainages, Umatilla National Forest lands in the eastern portion of the Heppner Unit, and Mt Emily Unit on Umatilla National Forest lands on ridges below Black Mountain.
Turkeys are widely distributed and expanding in Grant County, according to ODFW.
Officials recommended scouting Middle Fork John Day River, Murderers Creek, and North Fork John Day River. Also try Ingle Creek, Fields Creek or Deer Creek. In Northside, a lot of turkeys are found at Camp Creek, Pass Creek, Fox Creek, Cottonwood, Dixie Creek and on the adjacent national forest. In Desolation, excellent hunting is predicted at Big, Mosquito, Vinegar, and Desolation creeks.
To the west, in Crook County, ODFW is expecting plenty of long beards to fall in Ochoco, Grizzly and Maury WMUs.
Overall, the mild Northwest winter, early spring, dry nesting season and early green up in both Washington and Oregon have set the stage for a good to memorable spring turkey hunt.