Since the first time I went spring turkey hunting, I have been hooked on the season. Apparently I am not alone as Texas hunters now kill more birds in the spring than the much-longer traditional fall season.
There is just something about the interaction of calling a strutting tom within shotgun range that makes it special. It is also a good excuse to extend the hunting season into spring.
Actually the hunt can be harder than it seems, making success even that more meaningful. The hunter is up against an animal with keen eyesight and the ability to see 270 degrees around it without turning its head. It also has amazing hearing and will react to the sound of a snapping stick by running to safety.
Conditions also have to be right. Rainy days and windy days may impact the birds’ activities as well as their ability to hear a call and a hunter’s ability to use a call.
The turkey’s mood is also an issue. The spring seasons are set to run around the bird’s breeding season. Go too early or too late and they may not be interested. Go on the wrong day and they may already be with hens and not responsive.
Of course the game is played by attempting to call a gobbler within range by imitating a hen, which is exactly the opposite process of what happens in the wild.
In dry years, like this year in much of the Rio Grande turkey range, the length of breeding activity could shrink, if it happens at all.
But when it goes right, it is hard to compare any other Texas-style hunting to it.
Of course the first key to success is being where there are birds.
“Like most years there are some areas that are in better shape than others,” said Jason Hardin, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s turkey program leader.
He explained hatches of Rio Grande turkeys the last two years should mean good populations in the most popular hunting areas of the state.
“We had an excellent hatch this past year and a fair hatch in 2020 so there should be quite a few jakes and a fair number of older birds across most of the North Zone. The Edwards Plateau always produces the highest number of birds on the landscape and our harvest surveys reflect that. The Cross Timbers is usually a close second to the Edwards Plateau for harvest,” Hardin said.
However, there is at least one area where there are long-term concerns about the population.
“Those counties along the eastern Panhandle in the Rolling Plains have seen some declines over the past 10 years. Early on we just contributed the declines to the 2011 drought because we saw a bump in numbers from 2015-2017, but those numbers did not hold and some landowners who once complained of too many birds are asking where their birds have gone,” Hardin said.
In response to the decline, TPWD trapped 120 turkeys to sample for diseases or parasites, but found nothing. The next step is to find funding for a landscape change analysis comparing the present to one done two decades ago.
Across the border in Oklahoma, the state is so concerned about a declining population it has adjusted dates, reduced the limit and scheduled habitat research. Then, in contrast to what is happening north of the Red River and in northern Texas, the turkey population in Wilbarger, Wichita, Clay and Montague County south of the Red River is expanded back into areas they haven’t been seen in years.
Throughout much of the U.S., spring turkey hunting is more about hunting Eastern or maybe Osceola turkeys. In Texas, Rio Grande turkeys ranging from South Texas through the center of the state and into the Panhandle easily make up the majority of birds.
When settlers first arrived in the state, the population was spread out among Eastern turkeys in the eastern woodlands, Rio Grandes in the middle and Merriams in the Trans Pecos mountains. The numbers were so plentiful that when limits were first started in 1903, hunters could take 25 per day during a five-month season. However, by 1959 there were only an estimated 100,000 birds still in the state, and the Eastern population was almost non-existent.
The Rio Grande population began to solidify in the 1960s before really taking off about 20 years ago. The first spring season was initiated in 1969.
While the Merriams populations continues to decline because of the lack of habitat and encroachment and cross-breeding with Rios, TPWD continues its efforts to re-establish a population of Eastern birds in the Pineywoods and portions of the Post Oak region. Since 2014, 1,041 Easterns have been released on 12 sites with mixed results.
The equipment for turkey hunting is fairly simple, a shotgun and heavy loads of No. 4 or 5 shot, full camo, including face and hands, some type of call with the ability to at least yelp and possibly cackle are necessary, along with bug spray.
The season has already opened in the South Zone and will continue through May 1. The North Zone will run April 2-May 15.
There will be an Eastern turkey season in Bowie, Cass, Fannin, Grayson, Jasper, Lamar, Marion, Nacogdoches, Newton, Polk, Red River and Sabine counties April 22-May 14.