Texas’ wild turkeys and turkey hunters have enjoyed riding a strong, positive and swelling wave for more than four years.
That wave, built on water from four consecutive years of most of the state’s turkey habitat being blessed with abundant or at least timely winter and spring rains that had been absent for much of the previous decade, saw the state’s Rio Grande turkey population, already the largest in the nation, boom. Hunters participating in the state’s spring turkey season greatly benefitted from that robust population of the state’s largest and most challenging game bird.
“Overall, we’ve had a series of very good years,” said Jason Hardin, upland game bird specialist who coordinates turkey programs for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “We’ve had some good and above-average production years and, in 2016, a phenomenal production year. There are a lot of Rio Grande birds on the landscape.”
This sounds like great news for turkey hunters anticipating the 2018 spring turkey hunting season. And it almost certainly is for those heading afield in the 54-county South Zone where the spring season opens March 17. But things are a little less certain in parts of the 101-county North Zone, where the spring season opens March 31.
The difference? The multi-year wave of beneficial conditions for turkeys – and turkey hunters – appears poised to continue in South Texas but seems to be breaking in other parts of Texas.
“It’s been brutally dry in a lot of the western half of the state, and that’s almost certainly going to affect the birds’ behavior during the spring season ” said Gene Miller, National Wild Turkey Federation wildlife biologist whose area of responsibility covers much of Texas’ Rio Grande turkey range.
Much of Texas’ High Plains has gone as long as 150 days without measurable rain, Miller said. And those dry conditions have spread southward into the turkey-rich Rolling Plains and western Edwards Plateau regions.
“It’s super dry in the Panhandle and parts of the Rolling Plains,” Hardin said. “Unless we can get some rain in those areas and green things up, it doesn’t bode all that well for turkeys or turkey hunters this spring.”
It’s not that there’s any lack of turkeys in the regions.
There are hearty populations of adult birds, carryover from the past few years of good and even great nesting success, Hardin and Miller said. But the dry conditions could trigger changes in turkey behavior that makes them less vulnerable to the tactics hunters employ during the spring season.
Turkey hunters depend on the birds’ strong mating instincts and associated behavior to give them a shot at a successful hunt. To draw an adult gobbler within shotgun range, hunters mimic the vocalizations of hens with whom the gobblers aim to mate during the relatively brief spring mating season.
But if hens aren’t interested in mating, gobblers are much less prone to respond and come to calls.
This spring, hens in the driest regions of Texas are likely to be disinclined to play the mating game. A dry winter meant little growth of cool-season forbs that hens greatly depend upon to build body condition ahead of the rigors of mating, nesting and brood rearing.
This spring’s brought little relief, with only minimal growth of vegetation that feeds the birds, serves as nesting cover and produces the high-protein insects necessary for the hens and, more important, any poults that hatch.
If hens lack the body condition and habitat conditions necessary to have at least a fighting chance of successfully producing eggs, nesting, hatching young and having enough resources to feed raise poults, they’ll just not mate.
“If you have a spring where you have a good wildflower crop, that usually means turkey habitat conditions are good and you’ll have a strong mating season,” Hardin said. “When you don’t see wildflowers, you’re going to have a weak mating effort.”
“In a lot of the country in the High Plains and Rolling Plains, there’s zero wildflowers,” Miller said earlier this week.
That certainly doesn’t mean this spring’s turkey season is a lost cause in dry regions of the state. But it does mean it’s likely adult gobblers will not be as “hot” as during years of strong mating activity.
“In those areas, you’ll probably hear some gobbling on the roost but things will get quiet when the birds hit the ground,” Miller said. “You’re probably not going to hear lot of what I call ‘Dr Pepper’ birds – toms that gobble at 10, 2 and 4, looking for hens throughout the day.”
Even in regions of the North Zone where drought is bearing down and habitat conditions are poor, turkey hunters could have decent success. A “phenomenal” hatch of turkeys in 2016 means there are a lot of 2-year-old gobblers on the landscape, Hardin said. Those 2-year-olds, heading into their first mating season as adult birds, are the most aggressive and most likely to respond to a hunter’s hen yelps, clicks and purrs.
“When you have a lot of 2-year-olds out there, it can make for a great season,” Hardin said.
Another characteristic of this year’s Texas Rio Grande turkey population could help hunters but do few favors to the overall turkey population. While Texas saw good, even great turkey reproduction in 2014, 2015 and 2016, the 2017 hatch was underwhelming in many areas, despite generally good habitat conditions. That may be a factor of turkey populations in some area already at or above carry capacity.
The result is that the number of “jakes” and “jennies” – year-old gobblers and hens, respectively – is low in most turkey populations across the state.
Hardin, who has spent the past couple of months crisscrossing Texas, trapping hundreds of wild turkeys for banding projects and research programs, said he’s been surprised at the low number of year-old birds.
“About 90 percent of the turkeys we’ve caught have been adult birds,” he said.
That lack of a large population of year-old turkeys means hunter will be less likely to have packs of aggressive, stub-bearded “teenage” gobblers coming to calls, bullying and spooking the long-bearded adult gobblers most hunters prefer. And the lack of a swarm of young hens means adult gobblers will be more competitive for mates, making them more likely to come to hunters’ calls.
While this spring season could be challenging in the areas of Texas where drought has set in, it promises to be very good in most of the state, including the state’s South Zone.
The 54-county area that kicks off Texas’ spring turkey season has benefitted from timely rains again this winter and spring. The landscape is green, birds are abundant and in good physical conditions.
“Things look good in most of South Texas,” Hardin said.
Success in South
That assessment has been echoed by hunters making preseason scouting trip to the area.
“The folks I’ve talked with in places like Burnet, Carrizo Springs, Dilley, Cotulla, Junction all say they’re seeing more birds than they seen in years,” said Bill Crowell, a veteran turkey hunter and owner of Humble-based Crowell Custom Calls. “There’s a lot of carryover from great hatches in the past few years. It’s shaping up to be another really good spring season.”
Hardin, who was trapping and banding turkeys in South Texas this past week, agrees. But he warns hunters headed afield early in the season to expect competition from real hens. During his recent trapping work, he saw South Zone birds exhibiting aggressive mating behavior, with gobblers pursuing and mating with hens.
With real hens receptive to gobblers’ advances, it will be harder for early-season hunters to pull the toms away from the harems they collect.
“You’re going to see a lot of gobblers ‘henned up’ early, ” Hardin said. “But hunters shouldn’t get discouraged. Don’t put everything on opening weekend. Later in the season, when most of the hens have been bred and leave gobblers to build nests or begin laying eggs, can be when you have your best success.”
Texas turkey hunters will have plenty of time to try hitting that sweet spot when most hens are busy with nesting and gobblers are still looking for potential mates. The South Zone spring turkey season continues through April 29. The North Zone season runs through May 13. In 10 counties having a one-gobbler Rio Grande season – Bastrop, Caldwell, Colorado, Fayette, Jackson, Lavaca, Lee, Matagorda, Milam and Wharton – the spring season runs April 1-30. In the 15 East Texas counties having a spring season for eastern subspecies turkeys, the season dates are April 15-May 14.
“Except for those areas where dry conditions are a factor, prospects for this spring season look very good. There are a lot of older gobblers out there,” Hardin said. “We had helpful rains in some areas in February that improved habitat and helped green things up. If we could get a little more, it would help.”
But even if the wave Texas turkeys and turkey hunters have been riding for the past few years breaks a bit in some regions, the state still holds an ocean of Rio Grande turkeys.
In turkey-rich Texas, there’s no such thing as a bad spring turkey season; some are just better than others.