Spring has finally sprung. In turkey hunting arenas, that’s just another way of saying it’s showtime.
Here in Texas, the opening act of one of nature’s greatest shows often
unfolds on colorful stages steeped in beautiful wildflowers, where rolling hills resonate with the deep, raspy calls of love-sick Rio Grande gobblers looking for lady friends on a crisp April morning.
Rios are by far the most abundant of the three subspecies of wild turkeys found in Texas. Experts estimate the population at around 550,000
birds with the largest concentrations found in the Edwards Plateau, Rolling Plains and South Texas.
Texas turkeys don’t get much hunting pressure in the big scheme of things. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s most recent Small Game Harvest Survey indicates about 40,000 spring hunters shot close to 17,000 gobblers last season. They enjoyed an outstanding success rate of nearly 50 percent.
Playing the Game
Turkey hunters rely on assorted calls to strike up sexy conversations with boss birds at the height of the spring breeding season. The idea is to tap into the turkey’s distinctive line of communication and fool a gobbler into thinking you are something you are not, usually a receptive hen in the mood for male company.
In the wild world, the girls usually go to the guys. Spring turkey hunters attempt to reverse the process by simulating the sounds of a hen that’s playing hard to get. It’s a dirty trick meant to throw the gobbler into a breeding rage and ultimately entice the bird into shotgun range, about 30 yards or less.
It's a pretty cool show when you get to play the game, because each encounter is totally different and the outcomes are never the same.
One gobbler may show little interest in a seductive yelp or purr, no matter how sweet the music. But the next may come shuffling in like a suicidal puppet on a string, color plumage ruffled as it gobbles, spits and dances in a pompous display of self importance meant to impress the girls and discourage other male suitors.
To hear Jason Hardin tell it, spring turkey is a great sport for hunters of all ages that can be almost addictive in a sense.
Hardin should know. The 46-year-old wildlife biologist has headed up the wild turkey program for TPWD for going on 14 years. He has hunted gobblers in eight states and tagged birds in all but two.
“Once a hunter hears a gobbler respond to their call the first time they’re hooked, especially if they get to pull the trigger,” Hardin said. “It never gets old. I’m looking forward to my first hunt of the spring season right now. I can’t wait.”
Seasons at a Glance
Spring season dates vary according to zone, region and wild turkey
* The Rio Grande turkey South Zone season in 54 counties has been underway since March 20 and runs through May 2. The North Zone season in 101 counties is April 3 - May 16.
* The season in 10 counties (Bastrop, Caldwell, Colorado, Fayette, Jackson, Lavaca, Lee, Matagorda, Milam and Wharton) with a one-bird limit on Rios runs April 1-30.
* North Zone Youth Only spring seasons, March 27-28 and May 22-23; March 13-14 and May 8-9 in the South Zone. Adults may accompany youths during Youth Only seasons, but are not allowed to hunt.
* Eastern wild turkey, April 22-May 14 in 13 counties. Counties included are Red River, Grayson, Fannin, Lamar, Bowie, Cass, Marion, Panola, Sabine, Newton, Nacogdoches, Polk and Jasper. Eastern turkey seasons are closed on all Davy Crockett, Angelina and Sam Houston national forest lands.
Though participation in spring hunting has dipped over the last decade, Texas consistently ranks among the Top 3 states in hunter numbers, turkey abundance and annual harvest.
Likewise, just about every spring turkey season in Texas is a good one. Hardin is forecasting excellent prospects for the 2021 season, citing banner reproduction years in 2019 and 2020 across most of the Rio Grande’s historic range.
“There were pockets in the eastern rolling plains where the birds didn’t do so well, but overall there are a lot of jakes out there this year and there are a lot of two-year-old gobblers this season that were jakes last year,” he said. “We should be set for good hunting seasons this year as well as next.”
The good news about a surplus of jakes in the field is the immature birds are usually pretty easy for hunters to fool. The downside from a hunting perspective is where there are big numbers of jakes there will be just many young hens, called jennies. Most successful turkey hatches result in a 50/50 ratio of male and female birds
Hardin says big numbers of jennies are great for sustaining the population. However, it can make hunting difficult at times because gobblers are often reluctant to come to a decoy or call when they have already got live hens entertaining them.
“There are going to be a lot of jennies and two-year old hens this season that will be a big distraction to the gobblers,” he said.
As mature gobblers go, Hardin says there should be fair numbers older birds in the field from previous seasons.
“We have such a low harvest rate in Texas that we always have great carry over on our adult males,” he said. “Every year there are going to be some older toms with long beards and with big ol’ hook spurs out there. I’m sure we have some gobblers that die of old age or get old and get eaten by predators. Not all of them get shot.”
After The Freeze
It is still too early to tell if the winter storm event that crippled Texas in February will have a negative impact on turkey production this spring and summer. Hardin says fat reserves the hens take into the nesting season will naturally impact overall success.
“Juvenile hens may put all of their energy and fat reserves into growing, whereas a 2-4 year old hen that gets an early green up will put on a lot of fat reserves going into the nesting season,” he said. “The healthier the birds are going into the nesting season, the more effort they’ll put into it. They definitely used up some of those fat reserves with the winter storm event.”
Timing it Right
The best time to go turkey hunting is whenever you can, but the early birds aren’t always the ones who have the best success.
Some of the best hunting generally occurs the during the middle to latter part of the season, after most of the hens are bred and sitting on nests. Hardin says mature toms are prone to get lonely and venture out looking for hens that might be still be receptive, thus making them more responsive to calling, decoys and more likely make fatal errors.
Hotspots For Rios
Rio Grande turkeys have a broad range extending from far North Texas to the Coastal Bend, South Texas and parts of Trans-Pecos. Hardin says some of the best hunting occurs throughout the Edwards Plateau and South Texas. Among the counties with the richest histories are Concho, Runnels, Coleman, Willacy, Kennedy, Jack, McCulloch, San Saba, Mason, Menard, Sutton, Kimble, Edwards and Uvalde.
Hotspots For Easterns
Eastern turkey populations continue to struggle across much of their native range in the Pineywoods and Post Oak regions.
More than 40 counties were open for spring hunting in the early 2000s, but the number has since dropped to 13 as the result of dwindling numbers and limited harvest. Strides are being made towards rebuilding populations in key areas with an aggressive super-stocking formula.
Hardin said the top counties for bagging an eastern are Red River, south Sabine, Newton, Polk, Fannin, Lamar and Grayson. The total eastern harvest last season was 195 gobblers, up from 150 in 2019.
Red River was the top producing county in 2020 with 52 gobblers followed by Newton (40) and Grayson (27). TPWD has proposed to close the season in Panola County in 2022.
East Texas hunters are reminded of special regulations including a one gobbler limit by shotgun, archery gear or crossbow only; hunting over bait is prohibited.
Successful hunters in ET counties are required to report the bird to TPWD online using the “My Texas Hunt Harvest” app. Reports must be filed within 24 hours of harvest.
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by email, email@example.com.
Lunker program cracks 600-mark, Coleman comes in with 14.83
By Matt Williams
It’s been a banner year for Toyota ShareLunker Legacy class entries. Legacy ShareLunkers are female largemouth bass weighing 13 pounds or more that are caught from Texas waters between Jan. 1 - March 31.
Through March 19, Texas Parks and Wildlife’s spawning and genetics research program had received 17 entries from eight different lakes. It’s the program’s best year on record since the 2010-11 season, when 19 entries were turned in from six lakes.
Lake O.H. Ivie near San Angelo has had the hot hand for giants this season. The 19,000-acre West Texas lake has produced nine of the 17 entries, including a new lake record 16.40 pounder, a 15.40 pounder, four 14 pounders and three 13-pound-class fish.
Sam Rayburn (2) is the only other lake with more than one entry thus far. Lakes Travis, Austin, Conroe, Fork, Palestine and Coleman have one apiece. The fish from Travis (15.32 pounds) and Coleman (14.83 pounds) are both new lake records.
ShareLunker caretaker Tony Owens at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens pointed to several 2021 highlights:
* Each Legacy entry undergoes genetics testing to determine if it is a pure Florida or a crossbreed. Owens said six entries thus far have tested to be pure Florida bass. Among them are 16.40, 15.40 and 14.42
pounders caught from Lake O.H. Ivie, a 15.32 pounder caught from Lake Travis, a 13.44 pounder from Sam Rayburn and a 14.83 pounder from Lake Coleman.
In coming weeks, all ShareLunker entries will be paired for spawning in hatchery raceways with select males from previous ShareLunker spawns.
A portion of the pure Florida prodigy will be retained for use by TPWD in rebuilding its Florida bass hatchery program. In time, the department’s Florida bass brood stock will be comprised entirely of fish whose ancestors weighed upwards of 13 pounds.
Other Legacy ShareLunker offspring are divided for restocking in donor lakes. Unless specified by the angler, all Legacy fish are returned to the lakes from which they are caught after attempts are made to get them to spawn.
* On March 14, the program cracked the threshold of 600 entries with three Legacy class fish (600, 601 and 602) recorded on the same day. The record number of ShareLunker entries for one day is five, recorded March 3, 1996.
* Two 2020 Legacy fish put on extended loan to the program last season have stacked on some serious weight over the last 12 months.
A 13.28 pounder caught at Lake Alan Henry by Blake Cockrell now weighs 16.4 pounds. Meanwhile, James Maupin’s 13.15 pounder caught from O.H. Ivie weighs in at 17.1 pounds.
Owens said the fish were recently weighed before transfer to spawning raceways. The big bass have been enjoying a year-long diet of rainbow trout, koi carp, gold fish and sunfish.
“They look like a couple of pigs,” Owens said.
* Survival rates among 2021 Legacy lunkers has been excellent thus far. Through March 19, one entry, a 13.20 pounder from O.H. Ivie, had died at the TFFC.
Owens said is unclear if of fish died from internal injury, stress or a combination of factors. “She never responded to any kind of treatment and was pretty much on her side the whole time,” he said. “We hate to lose any of these fish, but sometimes it just can’t be helped.”