Springtime gobbler hunting is all about love.
By John Jefferson
The old man and the little boy crossed the creek on the foot bridge, a fallen cypress tree about 20 inches in diameter. It was the 11-year-old’s first hunt of what would be a lifetime of hunting.
This fog-shrouded scene from my own childhood resembled an image from Currier & Ives: an old man with a pump shotgun and a small boy slipping through misty woods, perhaps hoping to ambush a turkey for the table. You could expect to have the relative silence of the woods startlingly interrupted by the raspy gobble of a tom turkey trying to locate a prospective mate. Not so that morning. The turkeys were mostly gone by that time in history. Big game in East Texas in the ’40s was either squirrel or catfish. It would be nearly three decades before the raucous, piercing sound of a gobbling turkey would return to the forests between the Colorado, Brazos, Trinity and Sabine.
It’s different now. Turkeys are abundant in most of Texas where there is suitable habitat. An ambitious stocking program started in the ’30s has paid off. Eastern turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) have recently been reintroduced into East Texas (see sidebar, on the facing page), and Merriam’s turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo merriami) are found in a few mountain ranges in the Trans-Pecos. Rio Grande turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia) are found throughout the middle two-thirds of Texas from the Rio Grande to the upper, eastern Panhandle. Rio Grandes are the most profuse, the best distributed, the most hunted and by far the most bagged species in Texas.
The 2003 harvest records show that the Edwards Plateau Ecological Region (the Hill Country) hosted 33 percent of the hunters and produced 37.3 percent of the harvest. The Cross Timbers region was next, with 27.6 percent of the hunters and 24.8 percent of the bagged birds. South Texas had 15 percent of the hunters and rendered 19.5 percent of the turkeys, and the Rolling Plains saw 12.4 percent of the state’s hunters take 15.5 percent of the total kill.
At one time, deer hunters took most turkeys in the fall. That started changing in 1969 when Texas conducted its first spring turkey hunt in Kerr County. Although only 12 gobblers were bagged on that hunt, it was the shot heard ’round the state; a springtime call to arms. More counties were added in subsequent years, and hunters realized this was real hunting at its best. Turkey call sales soared, and they haven’t slowed since.
Spring turkey hunting is all about love. Most spring turkey hunters imitate the sound of a willing hen to induce an anxious gobbler to come courting.
As dawn breaks and a hunter hears a distant gobble from a turkey just preparing to leave the roost, the hair stands up on the back of his head. If he strikes a few hen yelps on his box call and the gobbler answers back, one of hunting’s greatest dramas has just begun. It may end later with the report of a shotgun, or it may end in silent disappointment; either way, it truly epitomizes the word hunting.
I was leading a photo workshop on the YO Ranch once, and had positioned several photographers in cedar clumps and sat silently waiting for daylight. A gobbler let out his morning greeting, and excitement welled inside me. I gave a few yelps on a box call, and waited. On cue, he answered back. His gobbles were closer each time he answered for several minutes, the last one being nearby. Then he quit. I called sparingly, but nothing more happened. As I stood up, one of the photographers burst out of the brush and stammered, “That’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever witnessed!”
Curious, we walked toward where the gobbler was last heard. We discovered an 8-foot game fence not visible when we came in before daylight. Looking down the fence line, we saw a gobbler and a hen walking along together on the other side.
Either flaw in that calling scenario would have been fatal. Turkeys won’t usually cross a creek or a fence to come to a call, and it’s practically impossible to call a gobbler away from a hen. Gary Sefton, with Woods Wise Game Calls, is a singer/songwriter and has released a CD of turkey songs. One that explains the foregoing frustration is entitled He’s All Henned Up and Happy.
Texas has three turkey zones, each with its own spring season. Rio Grande turkeys are hunted in 129 counties in the North Zone from April 2 - May 8. In the South Zone, 32 counties have a March 26 - May 1 season. Eastern turkeys may be hunted in 43 counties from April 1 - April 30. Bag limits vary from four for Rio Grandes in most counties to one for easterns. Check the Texas Parks and Wildlife Outdoor Annual for county-specific regulations.
I was on a hunt with Jim Zumbo, hunting editor of Outdoor Life magazine, last spring and asked him to compare Texas hunting with other states. “The terrain in Texas is flatter than that of the habitat where Merriam’s and easterns live,” he told me. “Vegetation is different, in that Rio Grandes are far more visible from long ranges. I think Rios gobble more than easterns and Osceolas, and about as much as Merriam’s. I’ve never seen concentrations of birds like this anywhere in the other 17 states I’ve hunted.”
A favorite hunting tactic is to follow turkeys to the roost in the late afternoon, then return the next morning to hunt birds coming off the roost. They call it “putting the birds to bed.” It’s illegal to shoot into a roost, but there’s nothing wrong with setting up nearby and calling when they come off.
Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Gary Sefton and I were hunting out of Skipper Duncan’s Adobe Lodge Hunting Camp south of San Angelo one spring. Sefton, a seasoned caller, had discovered a roost and offered to call for me. We walked half a mile into a creek bottom before daylight and set up in some low brush. We thought we were being quiet. We could barely make out the silhouette of several large pecan trees along the creek. As it started getting light, the birds began to stir and come off the roost. When we heard the first gobble, Sefton called softly, being careful to not overdo it. It was a still morning, ideal for calling.
But there was no consistent response — just a gobble here and there. And the sounds seemed to be getting farther away. And that was it. Either the birds had heard us in the dark and suspected we were a four-legged predator or the hens were hungry to feed in the opposite direction and led the gobblers with them. Even experienced hunters are occasionally fooled by the birds we call turkeys.
But it’s not just a sunrise sport. Jim Casada, a soft-spoken South Carolinian, writes books on turkey hunting. After a hunt, he told me, “I think most folks who have traveled widely and have hunted turkeys a great deal would agree with me that Rios are a blast because they respond to calling so readily at all times of the day.” If there is no action the first couple of hours, the gobblers may be with hens. Later in the morning, though, they may respond. Keep moving; keep calling.
Wind can be a problem. It makes it difficult for the birds to hear a call. Hunting with M.D. and Julie Johnson near Evant one spring, I gave up hunting in the gale that had beset us. Julie has a grand slam of North American turkeys, and M.D. has written a book entitled Successful Turkey Hunting. They went back in the frustrating wind and cut sign in the wet sand, noting the direction the birds had headed that morning. Taking a stand near the tracks, they waited for the birds to come back to roost. The gobblers returned an hour before sunset. M.D. counted to three and they shot, more or less simultaneously. They each scored.
Turkeys’ eyesight is amazing. A hunter must be totally camouflaged — head, face and hands, too. A veteran turkey hunter once emphatically told me that being concealed and remaining motionless was far more important than being a good caller. Even a rank amateur can call up a gobbler; but unless you are perfectly still, he’ll spook.
A box call is the easiest to use. A slate call can also be mastered with a little more time. A diaphragm mouth call takes considerably more practice but gives you the advantage of being able to have your hands free. If you can make the sound of a hen’s yelp and repeat it five or six times in a row with any type call, you can call turkeys, but learning the correct rhythm of calling is essential.
Portable blinds help keep you concealed while calling. On a hunt with Dodd Clifton, of Realtree, I learned another trick. We found a likely calling site just before daylight. Dodd motioned for me to get settled by a strategically situated leaning rock. My turkey vest had a good seat cushion and back support, so I was comfortable enough to be able to sit still. Dodd pulled out a pair of pruning clippers and cut a dozen or so cedar boughs, which he stuck in the ground in front of us. In about four minutes’ time, he had constructed a perfectly natural looking blind. And since cedar is as close to being a rare plant as imported fire ants are to being an endangered species, no environmental damage was done.
A hen decoy is an invaluable piece of equipment. The soft rubber ones that can be stuffed in your vest are ideal. Hard plastic ones make better yard art. A decoy gives the gobbler something to concentrate on instead of where he last heard the sound of a hot hen.
Turkey guns are a personal choice. I prefer a 12-gauge pump because I have worn myself out carrying a heavy automatic on a hot day. It has to have a sling, too. The gun should have either a full choke or a special turkey choke that holds the pattern together tightly.
Choose #4, #5 or #6 shot. Remington makes a fine load called the Premier Hevi- Shot and Winchester Supreme High Velocity turkey loads hold up well, too. Be sure to determine which load throws the best pattern out to 40 yards with your gun. Optimum shot patterning is important to your success.
A good pair of snake leggings or boots and some tick spray round out your essential equipment.
After two years of good conditions, good hatches and good carryover of birds from preceding years, Texas is blessed with abundant turkeys throughout the state. And they’re waiting to hear from you.
Give ’em a call.
Eastern Turkey Restoration Successful
Wild turkeys, originally part of the East Texas ecosystem, were gone from the region before 1900. When the first spring turkey season opened in the Hill Country in 1969, game biologists knew that parts of East Texas resembled traditional turkey habitat in the southeastern United States. Since Rio Grande turkeys do not fare well in the relatively damp East Texas environment, biologists focused on eastern turkeys.
Plans were laid to restock with eastern birds from the southeastern states and the Midwest. Since 1987, TPWD has stocked more than 7,100 easterns in 57 counties, according to a report by John Burk, then department Turkey Program Leader. Most were stocked in riparian corridors — creek and river bottoms — in the Pineywoods and Post Oak Savannah ecoregions of East Texas. The stocking area was generally from the top four counties in Northeast Texas bordering the Red River, south along the Louisiana border, curving in toward Jasper, swinging around Houston toward Bay City and El Campo and following a jagged line just west of the Colorado, Brazos and Trinity rivers, extending only as far west as Cameron.
In the early phase of restoration, TPWD used Fund 9 license dollars until the Texas Turkey Stamp was enacted by the legislature in 1992. TPWD worked with other state wildlife agencies as well as the National Wild Turkey Federation to coordinate the trapping and interstate transfer of eastern turkeys to East Texas. The department spent more than $3.5 million to acquire the more than 7,100 turkeys released on more than 300 sites in East Texas.
Eastern turkey restoration is considered successful. Populations are expanding. Harvest data in 1999 indicated that hunting pressure was low and that turkeys were underutilized. This spring, parts of four additional counties will be open to hunting, bringing the total to 43 huntable counties, approximately the number in the historic eastern turkey range. Check your county of interest in the Texas Parks & Wildlife Outdoor Annual. The season has been expanded to 30 days and is open April 1-30.
The bag limit on eastern turkeys is one gobbler, which must be tagged at a check station within 24 hours after kill. Only shotguns, archery and crossbow are legal, and hunting over bait is prohibited. Check stations are listed at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/hunt/regs/2004/stations.