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Texas Sportsman
Lone Star Turkey Forecast
Here's what Texas' spring turkey hunters can look forward to when they hit the woods this season.

Photo by D. Toby Thompson

By Bob Hood

Spring turkey hunting at its best! That's what Texas turkey hunters have come to expect, and they aren't likely to be disappointed when they take to the fields for the 2003 season. After two back-to-back years of above-average turkey hatches, there should be plenty of longbeards roaming Texas' hills and valleys for hunters to chase.

Although most Texas hunters will be targeting Rio Grande turkeys, more of them than ever before also will be going after eastern gobblers. That's thanks to many years of stocking efforts by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game officials in an effort to reintroduce the birds to their former ranges in East Texas. A continuing climb in the numbers of counties open for the gobbler-only hunts has been taking place since restocking efforts first began in the mid-1970s.

Texas turkey hunting has come a long way since the first spring season was held for Rio Grandes in 1969. That initial season was held in one county - Kerr - and had spread to only five counties three years later. Nevertheless, it wasn't long before spring turkey hunting gained so much popularity that numerous other counties across the state began to include the annual event.

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Today, there is a spring season in virtually every county in the state with a huntable population of Rio Grandes. And the number of East Texas counties on the spring-hunting list is growing annually, as the eastern subspecies continues to flourish there.

Texas actually has three spring turkey seasons, two for Rio Grandes, which are divided by North and South zones, and the eastern turkey season. A total of 129 counties are open to spring turkey hunting in the North Zone, 32 are open in the South Zone, and East Texas has gone from an initial three to 32 counties that are now open to eastern turkey hunting.

The dates for these spring seasons will be April 5 to May 11 in the North Zone, March 29 to May 4 in the South Zone and April 14-27 for eastern turkeys.

As the spring seasons near, it isn't unusual to see fevered turkey hunters practicing on their turkey calls while driving to work, buying camouflaged netting in local sporting goods stores or patterning their shotguns for that "perfect" turkey load.

Like the opening of the general deer hunting seasons, spring turkey hunting season is greeted with a thrust of excitement from those who have all done the same thing at least once - witnessed a gobbler strut or walk to within just a few yards of a hidden hunter using his call.

Texas hunters after Rio Grandes can take up to four turkeys per year, including both the fall and spring seasons, but only gobblers may be taken during the spring season. Some counties allow the harvest of hens in the fall. Eastern turkey hunters are limited to one gobbler per spring season.

The fall seasons for Rio Grandes are regarded by many hunters as simply an "opportunity," not a sport. Most fall turkeys are taken by deer hunters who simply shoot a turkey as it wanders by their deer stand. It is the thrill of calling in a gobbler during the spring mating season that brings most hunters' temperatures to the boiling point.

Statewide, Texas hosts a population of almost 5 million turkeys, which has helped build the Lone Star State's reputation as the No. 1 spring turkey-hunting destination in the nation. Typically, approximately 60,000 hunters take to the fields to hunt the Lone Star State's prized bird in the spring. Harvest figures compiled by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department show that approximately one-half of those hunters bag at least one gobbler.

Last year, the woods were full of jakes, so that bagging a longbeard required a lot of persistence for many of our hunters. That was because 2000 was one of the worst years for turkey reproduction in recent history, and it was followed by an above-average hatch in 2001.

Hunting pressure, therefore, has been heavy on the older toms, and the exceptional hatch of 2001 and again in 2002 has set the stage for great hunting in 2003 - and for even the following two to three years!

Good rainfall during the spring nesting season is essential in producing a good turkey hatch, and the lush vegetation associated with the rains go a long way toward ensuring a higher survival rate of those birds that are hatched. Another plus that's directly related to rainfalls and temperatures is an explosion of insects, mainly grasshoppers, which provide an abundant and often easily acquired source of high-grade protein for turkey poults.

"I've seen more young turkeys on my ranch than I can ever remember," said rancher Jessie Goldstein of Coleman. "And it's not just turkeys, but quail, too. Everything worked just right for the birds this year - good early rains that came when they were incubating their eggs and more weeds and grass and grasshoppers. If my hunters don't get some good gobblers this spring, it won't be because the turkeys aren't here."

This year's hatch is estimated to be even higher than that of 2001, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials, who use various methods to determine turkey population trends. Heavy rains during last April and continuing through June soaked many regions of the state, which had been missed by 2001's overall generous rains. And even more rains hit again in September and October from virtually one end of the state to the other. That little bonus was due to a hurricane off the Texas Coast at a time when cool fronts were pushing in from the north.

What this all means is that the potential for exceptional spring turkey hunting in the regions that traditionally are the best - the Cross Timbers, Edwards Plateau and South Texas - is higher this year than it has been in a long time, and other regions that normally provide only average success - the Post Oak Savannah, Rolling Plains and Blackland Prairies - should be above average in 2003.

Again, there will be a lot of young gobblers in the woods, and that combined with a good carryover of the excellent 2001 hatch should make this one of the best seasons in years for hunter success. The more seasoned turkey hunters likely will bypass the jakes, with a good chance of their bagging a gobbler with a long beard. And there also should be some great calling experiences for novice hunters, considering the plentiful supply of younger birds in the woods this year.

The No. 1 turkey-producing region in Texas is the Edwards Plateau, a generally rugged region of heavily wooded hills, rocky creekbeds and narrow draws. The area is primarily used for raising livestock rather than cultivated crops.

Turkey reproduction in the Edwards Plateau generally is high every year, mainly because of the lush habitat and generally adequate rainfall from one year to the next. The area attracts approximately 20,000 of the state's estimated 60,000 to 65,000 spring turkey hunters annually, and yields an average harvest of about 7,500 birds.

There generally are no "hotspots" for turkey hunting in the Edwards Plateau because the birds abound throughout the region. Any hunter who hunts near a major river system or its tributaries can expect prime hunting conditions during the 2003 season.

Close behind the Edwards Plateau in both hunter numbers and harvested gobblers is the Cross Timbers region, where more than 17,000 hunters annually harvest 7,600 or more gobblers. Landowners in the Cross Timbers region use their lands for ranching, but cultivated fields also are plentiful, with maize and wheat among the more plentiful crops.

Some of the best hunting in the Cross Timbers area traditionally is in the counties of Palo Pinto, Stephens, Young, Brown, and Comanche, but there is good hunting to be found in other counties, too.

In the Cross Timbers, the best chances of calling gobblers in the spring center on a two-point formula: a wheat field that lies adjacent to a creek or river. In an area populated with turkeys, find a bend in a creek or river with tall pecan trees or cottonwoods and you'll likely be in a good roosting place. Set up at the edge or in a corner of a field within 200 yards of that bend, and chances are good you'll call up a gobbler or gobblers, especially early in the season when the highest mating activity generally is taking place.

In South Texas, where the average harvest during the spring is about 5,500 birds among an estimated 7,600 hunters, the best success also is along the major river and creek arteries. Heavy predation by coyotes and other predators seems to keep the birds confined to the densest cover, which means along draws, creeks and rivers. Nevertheless, the overall hunting success in that region is higher than in any other area of the state.

Portions of southwest Texas, especially along the Rio Grande border with Mexico, experienced some heavy flooding last spring and in the fall. Although the unusually heavy rains, which put the Rio Grande into a 10-foot rise in a stretch of river from Del Rio to Laredo in October, came too late to affect reproduction, it no doubt displaced many turkeys. That means bagging a bird could be a hit-and-miss affair in traditionally good hunting areas along the river this spring season.

Turkey populations in the eastern Texas Panhandle and the Rolling Plains of northwest Texas remain stable, which means there are about as many turkeys in the area as the habitat can handle. Because much of the area consists of open cropland habitat and large cattle-grazing pastures, turkeys there are forced to stick mainly to the few creeks and draws that cut through the land and in pastures that are set aside for non-agricultural use.

Although overall turkey populations in the Texas Panhandle and Rolling Plains are not high overall, isolated areas with adequate habitat traditionally harbor numerous birds. Calling gobblers in such an area in the spring can be just as good as rattling up a buck during the major rutting season in portions of South Texas. In both situations, the males of the species are in high competition with one another for the females.

Eastern turkey hunting can be a boom-or-bust affair, except for hunters who are at least somewhat familiar with how the hunting area has been managed - or mismanaged. Heavy annual rainfall that often brings as much as 60 inches or more to much of East Texas has made the area a paradise of tall timber and, in many areas, thick undergrowth.

Ideal turkey habitat doesn't include thick undergrowth. The birds like more-open spaces, where they can wander unrestricted and stay more in tune with avoiding the dangers of predators. As a result, some of the best eastern turkey hunting in Texas can be found in the Angelina and Sabine national forests and on lands owned by timber-operating companies, which have become part of the state's public hunting lands program.

* * *
Which turkey is easier to call - an eastern or a Rio Grande? That, of course, is a hot topic among hunters (much like the debate over which caliber makes the best deer rifle). Overall, however, most spring turkey hunters will tell you that the Rio Grande is the more aggressive of the two, which in turn makes it more likely to respond to a hunter's turkey call.

Eastern turkeys, perhaps because of their normal heavy-canopy habitat, seem to skirt around the edges of the thick cover before exposing themselves or before coming directly to a call. This less-aggressive behavior has helped them gain the reputation of being a more difficult bird to trick with a call.

Nevertheless, the eastern turkey is on a slow but relatively steady incline, and that's the positive side - at least it is going up. As the years pass and the birds continue to build in numbers, hunters can expect to see even brighter hunting prospects for them in the future.

As the spring seasons grow longer, calling a gobbler generally becomes a bit tougher in many areas, but that may not play a major role in hunters' success this spring. A fair leftover crop of older birds from that good 2001 hatch coupled with plenty of jakes from last spring have set the stage for one of the best spring seasons we've seen within the past five years in Texas.

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