The pleasant smell of wildflowers lingered in a muggy Bee County breeze.
So too did the pleasant echo of turkey talk not long after daybreak in this South Texas turkey hunting hot spot.
The pair of gobblers had given away their position with a raucous retort only minutes earlier and slowly advanced toward the slight percussion of a lonely hen and the three other birds that swayed gently with each occasional gust through the sendero. The thick and prickly brush concealed the boisterous birds but every response seemed a few steps closer to the camouflaged duo perched in the dense vegetation not far from the lane the birds were toeing.
This was going to be a quick hunt.
The turkeys continued to answer each time the striker snailed its way across the slate, offering their most ardent gobbles in hopes of tracking down the hen that seemed to want their attention. However, each cluster of minutes that passed spelled disaster for the hunters hoping that the dark silhouettes would materialize a stone’s throw away down the barrel of a balanced scattergun. Twenty minutes after making contact, an eternity for an impatient turkey hunter, the birds that undoubtedly seemed ready to come charging in simply hushed and likely retraced their path calmly in the other direction.
It was a quick hunt.
Turkey hunting in Texas
There are no outdoor pursuits that compare with Texas turkey hunting, due in large part to the game you’re pursuing. Turkeys are quirky critters from the day they first emerge from a freckled egg cocoon, but their inherent biology during mating season makes them downright strange.
Regardless of how difficult they may be to bag, there’s nothing difficult about discussing this year’s season.
In a word, it should be good.
Jason Hardin, turkey hunting program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said there are anywhere from 400,000 to 600,000 Rio Grande turkeys in Texas, with the lower figure coming in years that have been hampered by drought. However, this year should be one that sees more hunters than in other typical seasons.
Hardin said that potential is based on a number of factors.
“There are no reasons to anticipate any significant declines beyond the typical ebb and flow of the Rio Grande turkey in response to moisture and drought,” Hardin said. “The only silver lining to the extreme drought of 2011 is that the majority of hens did not attempt to nest and therefore they were not as vulnerable to predation. In other words, the majority of hen mortality occurs while nesting. Since they did not nest we had above average survival.”
Hardin, who is an avid turkey hunter himself, noted that range conditions played a role in setting the stage for a better year.
“With the wet winter and spring we experienced this past year, a large number of hens were in great shape going into the nesting season,” Hardin said. “Predation was high this year on our radio-marked turkeys, but not out of the broad range of normal mortality. I expect hunters to see a ton of young birds and jakes this year.
“We also had an amazing hatch in 2010. If you hunted Rios in Texas this past spring then you know what I’m talking about. There were a lot of 2-year-old gobblers on the landscape. I expect to have fair to good carryover and therefore should be a lot of 3-year-old gobblers going into the 2013 season. However, those jakes (and there will be a lot of them) that we produced this spring will probably play havoc on many of our spring hunters. But, that also means a good number of 2-year-old birds going into the 2014 season.”
Hardin said there are two areas that hunters can guarantee will have more birds than anywhere else across the state.
“The Edwards Plateau has always been the hot spot for Rios,” Hardin said. “The Cross Timbers always has the second-highest number of birds harvested. The reasons we have so many Rios in the Edwards Plateau, the Cross Timbers and in the coastal sand plains of South Texas is due to the availability of roosting habitat. The most limiting factor for Rios in most cases is adequate roosting cover.
“Rios prefer to nest in the biggest and largest grove of trees around. These are typically associated with creeks and rivers. There is no lack of rivers, creeks and other waterways in the Edwards Plateau and Cross Timbers. The coastal sand plains is known for its distribution of large live oak mottes. These systems provide the Rios with adequate roosting habitat to better utilize the greater landscape. These areas typically provide rangelands dominated by native grasses and scattered shrubs, and these landscape features provide excellent nesting, brood-rearing and escape cover for adults and young alike.”
Hardin also noted the reason for different season dates in different regions of the state. He also said that hunting later in the season typically is your best bet at bagging a bird or multiple birds.
“Our seasons are staggered (north zone and south zone) and they are also fairly long to better capture gobbling activity,” Hardin said. “Texas is a big and diverse state. This is true if you look east to west where we have a significant rainfall gradient, or if you look south to north where we experience a growing season gradient. A lot of hunters insist on hunting the opening weekend. However, this typically is only a good idea if we had a mild winter with adequate rainfall. The condition of the hens will play a large role in when they begin to breed. Mild and wet winters lead to early green vegetation being available earlier in the year, which means hens are ready to breed earlier than in more droughty or colder winters.
“By allowing for a long season we provide hunters with an opportunity to better capture breeding activity. It is really impossible in Texas to put a date on the calendar and know for certain year-in and year-out that gobbling activity will be where the hunter wants it.”
The spring Rio Grande turkey framework in 101 “northern” counties runs from March 30 to May 12 while the season in southern counties is from March 16 to April 28. The north zone youth-only season is March 23-24 and May 18-19. The youth-only dates in the south zone is March 9-10 and May 4-5. In eight counties east of San Antonio including Bastrop, Caldwell, Colorado, Fayette, Jackson, Lavaca, Lee and Milam, the season dates are April 1-30 with a bag limit of one Rio.
In addition to a Texas hunting license, an upland game bird endorsement is required to hunt turkeys in any county.
TPWD last year closed spring turkey hunting in the following 15 East Texas counties in response to low populations and harvest numbers: Cherokee, Delta, Gregg, Hardin, Houston, Hunt, Liberty, Montgomery, Rains, Rusk, San Jacinto, Shelby, Smith, Tyler and Walker. The closure was aimed at enabling biologists to reassess Eastern turkey restoration efforts in areas having suitable habitat, restock sites and provide brood stock protection. The agency’s goal is to reopen hunting once the Eastern turkey populations in the affected counties are capable of sustaining harvest.
TPWD also delayed spring Eastern turkey hunting in the remaining 28 counties two weeks. Biologists say the delay gives hens time to begin nesting prior to the season opening. That framework this season will run April 15 to May 14.
Also new last season, hunters were allowed to harvest gobblers and bearded hens during the spring season in counties having a bag limit of four turkeys. Hunting is for gobblers only during the spring in all other counties.
All harvested Eastern turkeys must be taken to a check station within 24 hours. To find the check station nearest you, contact a TPWD field office or call 800-792-1112.
Turkey hunting tactics
Turkey hunting should be a relatively easy pastime for successful hunters. Just as with mature whitetail bucks during the rut, boss toms are eerily predictable with their amorous intentions bristling in each strutting or drumming pose. While that part of their life cycle remains a constant, that doesn’t mean that they always repeat past behavior. In fact, it’s a good bet most hunters would agree that turkeys rarely do the same thing twice. I’ve personally seen turkeys exhibit tendencies reserved for one segment of the spring season that are the exact opposite of what a hunter should expect.
The late season usually is my favorite time to hunt gobblers, but it also is tougher than during the first few weeks when imprudent younger toms will come running with even a hint of a hen imitation. One downside to hunting later in the spring season is that it’s possible the birds may have cut their breeding activity short.
The first portion of the turkey season typically has hunters approaching an outing slightly different if classic patterns somewhat are in play. The midseason typically features a gradual shift for talkative turkeys, and gobbling and loud behavior that had been present even just days before slowly tails off in many instances. Biologically the birds have established their dominance or lack thereof, and the challenging nature of turkeys in the early season has given way to less aggressive tendencies, especially as the pecking order has been set.
Gobblers typically remain close to hens all day and also roost near them at night, and birds that henned up are almost impossible to lure away from their harems. The toughest aspect about this part of the season is that toms will respond to calls a good majority of the time, but they simply won’t break free from hens they’ve already found.
The middle part of the season often calls for a change in tactics such as hunting later in the morning and into the afternoon, and the greatest item a turkey hunter can tote along is a heavy dose of patience. You might hunt all day to hear just one gobble, but it might just be worth it.
I’ve observed some utterly peculiar turkey behavior during the middle part of the spring season, mostly from toms that went into stealth mode. On a hunt some years back in the eastern Panhandle, my father and I set up in an oak motte adjacent to a field with a couple of hen decoys out in front. After calling on and off for a half-hour, we finally gave each other the “let’s move somewhere else” signal — a sheepish shrug of the shoulders. That was all that the muted tom that had crept near our setup needed to see before rapidly fleeing, but not before finally sounding off with a warbling gobble, which sounded strangely like a laugh.
Turkey hunting can be tough. It’s a fact proven the hard way.
However, there’s no such thing as a bad spring turkey hunt — even the ones that don’t turn out like you expect. All you can do is chalk it up to the next time you’ve got the chance to chase after a wily gobbler and enjoy the scope of the spring panorama.
Turkey hunting is an educating experience, one that should impart a lesson each time you hit or miss.
In my case, the pair of turkey tutors at the beginning of this feature conveyed one overriding lesson: Stack the deck in your favor when you can.
Texas turkey hunting outlook
This Texas turkey hunting season may not be a slam dunk for hunters looking to bag multiple gobblers, but that’s really not the point of heading into the woods this time of year. Even a single gobbler harvested by the traditional method of calling it in to shotgun range is a trophy. However, there should be no shortage of young birds and jakes that can make even the most novice of hunters look like a pro.
If you’re lucky enough to be turkey hunting in Central Texas or South Texas, you know you’ve got plenty of opportunities to harvest a bird. However, you shouldn’t overlook the Rolling Plains and eastern Panhandle, which have more turkeys than you may think.
Most of all, use this season to take a youngster out and attempt to aid them in harvesting their first bird or even first game critter. We owe it to future generations to pass outdoor pursuits on, and turkey hunting may be the best way to plant the seed that will grow. When you finally bring one in and are staring down your shotgun barrel at a strutting tom, there’s no better time to be a hunter. And if you allow a youth the chance, they’ll be hooked for life.
It’s going to be a great spring. Get out and enjoy it.