In many southeastern states, spring turkey hunting is regarded almost as important as deer season. In Texas, it is more of an afterthought in the Rio Grande range and almost non-existent in East Texas.
According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, there are approximately 51,000 spring turkey hunters in Texas, about the same number as quail hunters in the state, but only about a sixth the number of dove hunters and less than two-thirds the waterfowlers. In comparison, Texas white-tailed deer hunter numbers range between 600,000 and 800,000.
In East Texas, wild Eastern turkeys remain a rare commodity even after years of restocking efforts and that may be a reason for the lack of interest.
Low numbers was not always the case. Wild turkeys once flourished in eastern Texas. Because of market and subsistence hunting using a 25-bird daily limit and five-month season, the birds were hunted out of existence early in the 1900s. In 1941 the season was closed when it was believed less than 100 birds existed.
TPWD has repeatedly attempted restocking programs in East Texas, first in the 1950s, again in the 1980s and most recently starting in 2014 funded by the department’s Upland Game Bird stamp. The 1980s stockings had limited success, but were good enough for the department to open a short spring season in 1995. This spring there will be a season in 13 counties opening April 22. There had been more counties with a spring season, but that number was rolled back in recent years because of a lack of birds or to accommodate the most recent rounds restocking.
In its current attempt to establish turkeys, the department is doing what is called super stockings where it is releasing about 100 birds in an area. The idea is to saturate the area with birds to overcome early mortality. Previously the department would release three toms and 12 hens, and if there were a high mortality of the toms the release would fail.
A second part of the current plan is to do additional stockings within proximity of others so as the birds spread out they will hopefully overlap.
The effort is showing success.
“Overall, I think the program is going well. My goal is to do five-year evaluations on all release sites. So far we only have a single site that was stocked five years back and has not received any additional stockings,” explained Jason Hardin, TPWD turkey program leader.
The initial super stocking was on the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area and an adjacent ranch in Anderson County. Along with Eastern turkeys the site was also stocked with Rio Grande turkeys in 2016 and 2018 since it sits in a transition area of the two sub-species.
The biologist said the best results seem to be coming from a site called the Neches River Coop where turkeys have expanded as far north as U.S. Highway 84 and as far south as Texas Highway 294. The site was initially stocked as a research area for the super-stocking program.
“The site was stocked in 2007 and today probably has numbers comparable to any open county in East Texas with the exception of Red River,” Hardin said.
He added that three other research sites have had various degrees of success, although some birds are still being seen 12 years later in all of them.
Since the super stockings began in 2014, nine sites have been stocked with 800 Eastern turkeys.
“We have recorded production and recruitment on all sites. We stocked one site this year in Henderson County south of Athens. This is a site that passed the evaluation in 2017 and stocking began in winter 2018, but was not completed until this winter. We released a total of 83 birds this winter and 12 birds in 2018,” Hardin said.
Hardin said what has been different with super stockings is that production and recruitment has occurred sooner than expected.
“I always tell landowners we expect the birds to decline for the first year or two and then begin to grow by year four. Several sites in Anderson County experienced great production in year one and I am hopeful that will continue,” he said.
Hardin said he has also been surprised by how far some of the birds have traveled. One of the turkeys stocked at the Engeling area travel west across Interstates 45 and 35 before being harvested in Ellis County. Two others traveled to Freestone County where they became road kill, and there have been reports of turkeys in Leon County, some 40 miles away.
Hardin said evaluations of potential release sites in the Sulfur River and Neches River drainages would continue.
“We will continue to stock birds as long as we have funding, a source of birds, and the program shows promise with production, recruitment and sustainable numbers. I hope all sites will be a success story, but time will tell. The level of success will dictate how and if we move forward,” Hardin said.
Over the long haul, he hopes to stock gaps between areas where birds have already been released.
“If we can establish populations across these focal landscapes, we will reduce the potential for local extinction by creating greater opportunity for ingress and egress,” Hardin said.
This year’s spring season runs through May 14 in Bowie, Cass, Fannin, Grayson, Jasper, Lamar, Marion, Nacogdoches, Newton, Panola, Polk, Red River and Sabine counties.
The Eastern turkey harvest region-wide has been on a decline since 2005. Red River County has been the best for hunter success followed by Grayson, Newton and Lamar.
The season bag limit is one tom, and hunters must report their harvest within 24 hours through the My Harvest app on a mobile device or online at www.tpwd.texas.gov/turkey.