Texas turkey hunters are on the brink of another spring hunting season. Depending on where you hunt, there may or may not be much to gobble about over the next couple of months.
Spring turkey season is set to coincide with the birds' breeding season. Turkeys are social birds. When looking for a mate, gobblers attract hens by gobbling.
Spring turkey hunters attempt to reverse the process by using a hen call to tap into the turkey's line of communication. The goal is to fool a lovesick Tom into thinking you are something that you are not by simulating the sounds of a girl turkey that is playing hard to get.
A gobbler that falls for the trick will often come barreling in with its colorful plumage ruffled -- strutting, spitting and gobbling in a haughty display of self importance intended to impress hen turkeys and discourage other gobblers.
Many spring hunters use shotguns to play the game, so it is critical to allow the bird to get close before pulling the trigger. Most hunters will agree that about 40 yards is pushing the limit for a 12-gauge outfitted with a full choke and high velocity turkey loads.
While any turkey hunt is a good one, the best hunting always takes place in areas with the highest turkey populations. Texas has more wild turkeys than any other state and three subspecies — the Rio Grande, Eastern and Merriams.
The most abundant are Rio Grandes, which occupy about 2/3 of the state including Central, South and North Texas. Merriams are the least common with isolated pockets found in mountainous areas of far West Texas.
The other subspecies is the eastern wild turkey found in the Pineywoods and Post Oak Savannah regions of East Texas.
Once plentiful across the region, native eastern populations were wiped out in the early-1900s by early settlers who lumbered their habitat and shot them into oblivion. By the 1940s, existing populations were gone.
While significant strides have since been made towards re-establishing populations by restocking suitable habitat with wild trapped birds from other states, the efforts haven't panned out near as well as wildlife experts had originally hoped they would.
In fact, spring hunting seasons implemented more than a decade ago were recently closed in 15 counties after populations dipped below what biologists believed to be sustainable numbers.
The season remains open in 28 East Texas counties in 2013, but limited reproduction and dwindling numbers across the board have experts more concerned than ever about finding a solution for what appears to be widespread problem that extends will beyond the East Texas region.
We'll talk more about that later. First, here's some insight on what Texas' 90,000 spring turkey hunters can expect in Rio Grande country this season, according to Jason Hardin, wild turkey program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Hardin says Rio populations are in fairly good shape statewide with the exception of the Trans-Pecos and the southeastern Panhandle, which have been exceptionally dry for several years now.
Elsewhere, the biologist says popular hunting regions such as the Hill Country, Cross Timbers, Brush Country and Coastal Plains should be bustling with jakes (juvenile gobblers) and three-year-old toms thanks to banner hatches in 2012 and 2010. He also pointed out that two year olds will be lacking due to poor hatching success linked to the severe drought in 2011.
"We had a good hatch in 2012, so I'm anticipating lots of jakes (juvenile birds) and plenty of gobbling activity in the field this season," Hardin said. "There also are a lot of boss toms out there from the 2010 hatch, which was one of the best hatches we've seen in recent history. It can be sort of frustrating when you call and have 10 jakes rush in on top of you, but it is something hunters are going to have to deal with this year."
As earlier mentioned, the outlook isn't near as bright in eastern Texas, where turkey numbers continue a slow spiral in the wrong direction despite the thousands of man hours and millions of dollars that were spent restoring them beginning in the 1980s.
All total, more than 8,000 wild trapped turkeys purchased from other states at a cost of $525 each were released on select "block stocking" sites in nearly 60 counties between 1987 and 1995. The project was funded by the National Wild Turkey Federation Texas Super Fund, turkey stamp and public hunting permit sales and private donations.
The theory was the wild transplants would reproduce and expand to the point of being able to withstand the limited hunting pressure of a month-long season outfitted with restrictive harvest regulations, including a one-bird bag limit.
Sadly, things just didn't work out as planned. Beginning in 2005, annual harvest records coupled with observation data began to show a region-wide decline in turkey numbers that is more evident today in some counties than ever.
Perhaps the most alarming example is Red River County in far northeast Texas, where the first spring season was established in 1995.
For years Red River dominated East Texas harvest data. The county gave up an all-time high of 132 gobblers in 2005. The annual harvest there has been dropping ever since. In 2012, Red River hunters only killed 27 birds - barely half as many as were killed in 1995.
While harvest numbers in a thimbleful of counties have remained fairly consistent over the years, most indicate a gradual decline. Even "national forest" counties like Jasper, Angelina and Sabine have witnessed noticeable drops, despite intensive control burn practices that have a rich history of benefitting turkeys and other wildlife.
Looking for answers
Beginning in 2007, the TPWD, NWTF and SFA forestry department joined forces to implement a series research projects aimed at unraveling some of the mysteries behind fizzling turkey populations and ultimately turning things around.
At the heart of the project were a series of "super stockings" that were performed on private property sites encompassing more than 150,000 acres in Anderson, Houston and Nacogdoches counties.
A super stocking includes 80 wild turkeys (60 hens and 20 gobblers), more than five times the number of birds utilized in the former block stocking criteria. The idea was stocking more birds might allow populations to get a toe hold faster and ultimately make it over the hump.
The birds were released on core areas spanning about 10,000 acres. Co-op agreements were secured ahead of time with surrounding landowners who agreed to carry out specified habitat management plans.
Many of the birds were equipped with electronic transmitters so scientists could track them using radio telemetry gear. This allowed for gathering reliable data about movements patterns, nesting, survival and recruitment.
The results yielded from the studies have been impressive, Hardin says. This holds especially true on the North Neches River Co-op, which includes more than 71,000 contiguous acres and about 20 miles of Neches River frontage in Anderson County.
"Those birds have blown up over there," Hardin says. "We sent out surveys last year to all of our Managed Lands Deer cooperatives in East Texas and we got more turkey observations in and around that vicinity than anywhere else in East Texas. We've had lots of production and lots of survival."
Restocking program re-opens
Hardin says the results from the research have been so encouraging that the department has elected to reopen the eastern wild turkey stocking program, this time using a habitat evaluation tool developed by the TPWD, SFA and the NWTF.
Fittingly called the "Habitat Suitability Index" (HSI), the tool will allow scientists to assess and rank potential eastern turkey super stocking sites for future stockings. All properties must undergo an extensive habitat evaluation and meet minimum scoring guidelines in order to be considered.
Among other things, a co-op property must be under a department approved wildlife management plan for period of at least three years before evaluation, and be a minimum of 10,000 contiguous acres in size. Sites that earn a minimum score of 70 on the index will be ranked against others.
The top ranking sites will receive super stockings to the tune of $45,000 per pop, based on the availability of funding and brood stocks. Stockings will be paid for using money from the NWTF Texas Super Fund and from Upland Game Bird Stamp sales.
Anyone who is interested in learning more about the HSI might want to attending an upcoming meeting/presentation set for 6:00-8:00 p.m. at the Ellen Trout Zoo on Lufkin.
The meeting is being held to discuss wild turkey management on national forests, but the general public is welcome to attend.
You can also contact Hardin by phone at 903-322-2770 or email at Jason.Hardin@tpwd.state.tx.us.
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
2013 Spring Turkey Season
North Zone (101 counties): March 30-May 12
* Special Youth Season: March 23-24 and May 18-19
South Zone (54 counties): March 16-April 28
* Special Youth Season: March 9-10 and May 4-5
East Texas (28 counties): April 15-May 14