East Texas spring turkey hunting outlook likely to be diminished

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Texas turkey hunting remains the best in the country.

The Pineywoods region of Texas has long been a bastion of wildlife, harboring some of the best deer hunting and duck hunting in the state.

However, one outdoors pursuit that seemingly lags somewhat behind is turkey hunting, specifically for the eastern subspecies of the bird that calls the pine thickets and hardwood bottoms its home. Make no mistake, the Lone Star State is the No. 1 hot spot in the country for turkey hunting, but that’s for the much more abundant and flourishing Rio Grande subspecies that call the Hill Country, Rolling Plains and South Texas home.

In good years, notably those with plenty of timely rainfall, it’s not uncommon for the Rio Grande turkey population statewide to top 600,000, according to Texas Parks & Wildlife Department biologists. However, the eastern turkey population is a fraction of that, something that has those same wild game managers looking for answers and ways to boost that figure for hunting purposes.

Since 1995, when Texas’ first spring eastern turkey hunting season was opened in Red River County, biologists and state officials have maintained a mostly conservative approach — a shorter season, mandatory check stations, one gobbler bag limit — to give the birds ample opportunity to establish themselves in new haunts.

Jason Hardin, TPWD’s turkey program leader, said that wildlife officials continue to monitor the eastern turkey situation carefully, using past data from check stations as “trigger points” in identifying areas of concern – specifically those counties with declining turkey numbers.

“(Historically) Just because there has been low harvest in some counties doesn’t necessarily mean those areas don’t have any birds,” Hardin said. “When we went out to our field biologists and landowners in some areas, they indicated there were still plenty of turkeys out there but they were protecting them and not hunting them.”

Hardin said the overall turkey outlook across the state is as good as it has ever been, despite the negative connotations associated with eastern turkey hunting in some traditional hot spots.

“There was a lot of moisture this past winter going into early spring. Good moisture means early green-up and those hens are going to be in great shape. We had a fair amount of production so we had a fair number of juvenile birds out there. And they went into the nesting season and the breeding season in great shape,” he said.

Turkey Hunting Regulations

The Texas Parks & Wildlife Commission last year approved closing spring eastern turkey hunting in 11 East Texas counties in 2016, while restructuring the season in two other coastal counties.

Hunting season for eastern turkeys is closed this year in Angelina, Brazoria, Camp, Fort Bend, Franklin, Harrison, Hopkins, Morris, Titus, Trinity and Wood counties, and on National Forest lands in Jasper County. The closures will allow biologists to evaluate the prospects for future eastern turkey restoration compatibility and restocking efforts, according to TPWD. The department’s goal is to reopen hunting should the eastern turkey populations in the affected counties become capable of sustaining harvest.

TPWD also restructured the existing spring turkey hunting season in Wharton and Matagorda counties. The new regulations will continue to allow for a 30-day spring only, one-gobbler season and eliminate mandatory harvest reporting.

Hunters are reminded that all eastern turkeys must be reported to TPWD within 24 hours of harvest via electronic reporting at www.tpwd.texas.gov/turkey or on the My Texas Hunt Harvest app. Hunters who use the electronic reporting options are issued a confirmation number upon completion of the registration process. Hunters still have to tag harvested birds accordingly.

Last year’s spring framework was the final hunting season that physical check stations were open as TPWD has transitioned from the physical checks for mandatory eastern turkey harvest reporting to electronic reporting only this spring. The harvest reporting app also can be used as a tool for voluntarily reporting and tracking harvests of other resident game species, including Rio Grande turkeys.

Turkey History and Stocking

Previous efforts have been aimed at improving eastern turkey figures in the Pineywoods, with help from out-of-state transplants from Alabama, Missouri, Kansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. Dozens of those birds were introduced at the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area near Tennessee Colony as part of a “super stocking” program focusing on restoring more adequate numbers of the birds to their traditional range. The most recent stocking included roughly 250 of the birds at the WMA and other sites in East Texas, with a ratio of three hens to one gobbler in hopes of spurring the birds to breed and ultimately multiply.

Hardin noted that the effort came in the wake of other stocking programs in the 1980s and ’90s in more than 50 Texas counties. Those efforts didn’t bear as much fruit as wildlife officials would like, with fewer than 30 counties in all of East Texas open to turkey hunting in the most recent seasons. The initiative was as much a study in overall stocking efforts as it was a scientific barometer in what has led to such a drastic decline in eastern turkey figures.

TPWD actually began releasing wild trapped eastern turkeys from neighboring states as far back as 1979. By the early 2000s, more than 7,000 wild birds had been “block stocked” in East Texas. Block stocking called for the release of 15 to 20 birds per site with five to 10 release sites per county. Those restorations actually were successful in some areas, but many more failed to create sustainable populations.

Turkey Hunting Tactics

As with scouting, hunters should know as much about the quarry they’re chasing, and after studying up on various reports and discussing the issue with biologists and wildlife experts, and seeing the same things in the field, it leads to the conclusion that turkey behavior has a distinct biological component. Knowing why turkeys do some of the things they do is another way to put in your homework and examine a number of scenarios before you head out.

Here’s a glance at the seasons within a turkey season, and why gobbling picks up in two of them, a notable aspect for hunters looking to fill a tag.

Early season: The beginning of the spring turkey season is much like fall bass fishing: It’s a transition time. Birds will move away from locales where they previously spent a lot of time and seek out breeding areas. This typically occurs in the same locations where they have constructed nests, which can play into your favor if you keep track of where you bagged a bird the previous year.

During the early season I’ve seen and heard amazing activity from toms and hens, including fighting and general cutting up, and it’s not unusual to hear hens being more vocal, too. The reason for this behavior has been linked by biologists to being a result of the uncertainty and very nature of birds that have broken off from flocks where they had spent lots of time.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from hunting turkeys, it’s that familiarity makes them feel most safe, and when they don’t have the security of other birds for whatever reason they often will go silent, which means tougher hunting.

The dynamic for the season usually is set early and dominant gobblers looking to breed will cut out hens, leaving subordinates ripe for the plucking, especially younger toms and jakes that usually will come running to your calls. It’s not unusual to see large groups of jakes and subordinate toms hanging around the boss gobblers and their hens, which makes locating birds easier in the early season, especially if you can find roost sites. This is where safety in groups plays the largest role, and before birds begin to break off into even smaller flocks as the season progresses is one of your best bets to bring home a nice one.

Midseason: During the middle of the spring hunting framework a gradual change begins, and gobbling and loud behavior that was present even days before slowly tails off. Biologically, the birds have established their dominance or lack thereof and the challenging nature of birds in the early season gives way to less aggressive tendencies, especially as the pecking order is set.

Gobblers typically stay close to hens all day and roost near them at night, and birds that are this henned-up are almost impossible to lure away from harems. The toughest aspect about this part of the season is that toms will respond to calls a majority of the time, but they simply won’t break free from hens they’ve found. Even if you try to tempt them with sweet talk or challenge them with raucous gobbles they often end up following their harems whatever direction they feel like going — usually the other way.

One way you can swing things in your favor is to consider another aspect of turkey biology involving hens. As the middle of the season wears on, hens typically begin to visit their nests during late morning to lay eggs after breaking apart from toms at daybreak.

This precisely is why changing your tactics and hunting later in the morning and into the afternoon can mean the difference between bagging a bird and coming back empty-handed.

Late season: This portion of the turkey framework sees another peak in gobbling activity, and like many hunters, this is my favorite time to hunt. The biological aspect during this time of year to consider is the fact that this period sees most hens on nests incubating their clutches of eggs, while gobblers are left to roam in search of other hens to breed with.

This is the magic time, though there are some things to think about that could make things tough. The first is that there simply will be fewer gobblers and the ones left will have heard myriad calls, especially if you’re hunting on or near public lands. These birds also may have ended breeding activity before the season is over, meaning your calling will fall on deaf ears. In this case, targeting food sources and setting up an ambush likely is your best play, especially as hungry toms that have eaten little during breeding season look to replenish themselves.

Spring Turkey Hunting Outlook

Hardin said that gobbler hunting was tough last year, but that could be a good sign of things to come.

“If you were out there calling you had a lot of competition (from breeding-ready hens). A lot of hunters were having trouble getting hens in first thing in the morning off the roost. For those hunters that stuck with, early morning or mid-afternoon, you could get a bird,” he said. “What’s good for a turkey isn’t always what’s great for a turkey hunter. We do a fair amount of restoration and so to do that we have to go out and trap turkeys, and it was one of the hardest years to trap turkeys. There was just so much food out there, you couldn’t bait them in. So again not great for our research and restoration efforts but great for the birds.

“We’ve actually seen hunter numbers go down but I don’t think that’s necessarily a function of a decline in turkey population as much as it is an increase in the popularity of turkey hunting,” he said. “Ten years ago you could come to Texas and you could hunt just about anywhere for $300, $500. You come to Texas nowadays it’s hard to find a place to hunt that doesn’t cost you a couple of grand. The majority of Texas is privately owned so there’s not a lot of public land out there for people to hunt, especially public lands that are open throughout the turkey season. I think financially is has become a little more difficult so the opportunity is not there as much as it once was.”

Still, Hardin summed up turkey hunting as a whole in Texas pretty well: “Landowners, managers and hunters who observed turkeys last year will be seeing them again this year.”

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Will Leschper is founder of The Texas Outdoor Digest. He has been recognized for Excellence in Craft by the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the Texas Outdoor Writers Association. He is Conservation Editor of Texas Fish & Game Magazine and is a regular contributor to the Journal of the Texas Trophy Hunters, in addition to writing for plenty of of now-defunct publications.

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