Nobody likes a smart aleck, but most turkey hunters will agree that there’s no sound more inviting on a crisp spring morning than the raspy growl of a rambunctious gobbler talking serious trash.
Gobbling turkeys gobble year-round, sometimes in response to loud or sudden noises that interrupt an otherwise quiet landscape. “Shock gobbles” can be triggered by the slamming of a truck door, the cawing of a crow, the honking of a car, or the sounds of other turkeys.
Spring swallowing is sweet music to a turkey hunter’s ears. Spring is the height of wild turkey breeding season – a time when gobblers are sometimes heard to attract receptive hens, establish a pecking order among other gobblers, and discourage other male suitors from encroaching on their territory .
National wildlife agencies still schedule spring hunting seasons to coincide with peak breeding times. This is when gobblers are boosted by testosterone and most sensitive to the various calls hunters use to tap into their line of communication.
The main idea behind the call is to trick a gobbler into thinking you’re something you’re not, usually a turkey that feels sexy but plays hard to get. It’s a dirty trick meant to lure a lovesick Tom into shotgun range – about 35 yards or less with a muffled 12 gauge to throw pellets in a tight pattern.
Some turkey hunts go so smoothly that it hardly seems like a challenge. The bird comes shuffling through the brush in a breeding rage accompanied by fits of uncontrollable gobbling, ruffled colorful plumage as it spits and prances in a haughty display of self-importantness meant to impress the ladies.
Jason Hardin, wild turkey program manager for the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife in Oakwood, knows all about these suicidal gobblers who arrive like puppets on a string. He also came across a few long beards that weren’t so easy to fool.
Hardin has hunted wild turkeys in eight states, from Texas to Oregon, and learned valuable royal game lessons along the way. One of the most educational experiences happened 10 years ago at the Caddo National Grasslands Wildlife Management Area in Fannin County.
Hardin had a gobbling bird heading his way when he heard a sickly call that sounded more like a turkey screaming for help than looking for love. “It was the worst hen call attempt I’ve ever heard,” he recalled.
The gobbler suddenly fell silent. Hardin surmised that a novice hunter moved too close, spooked the bird, and spoiled his hunt.
Not so. Moments later, he spotted the wild hen heading in the opposite direction. The gobbler was on his heels.
“Apparently even a hen doesn’t sound like a championship caller at times,” he said. “Nothing is more impressive than the real thing, especially when the hen does what it’s supposed to and goes to the gobbler rather than the other way around.”
Of all the games practiced by hunters, the spring turkey hunt must rank among the most enjoyable of all. No two hunts are ever the same and the birds can be unpredictable from day to day.
With the 2022 Rio Grande season set to begin across most of the state 30 minutes before sunrise on April 2, now is the time for Texas’ 50,000 spring hunters to prepare for the show.
Here’s what Hardin had to say about the Texas turkey population and outlook for the upcoming season, along with some tips to help hunters increase their chances of catching a mature gobbler:
Three subspecies of wild turkeys are found in Texas – Rio Grande, Eastern and Merriams.
The Rios occupy about two-thirds of the state and are by far the most abundant, around 500,000 birds. Hardin says only two other states — Alabama and Pennsylvania — could have eastern wild turkey populations to rival the numbers in the Rio Grande in Texas.
Rios can also be found in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii. Most were from Texas breeding stock.
The Easterns are far behind Rios with a population of about 10,000 birds resulting from restocking efforts using trapped wild birds purchased from other states. More than 40 east Texas counties experienced a spring season in 2005, but the number has slowly skyrocketed due to limited habitat and changing land use practices. Only 12 east Texas counties will have a spring season this year.
Hardin says TPWD continues to restock eastern wild turkeys on sufficiently sized properties where habitat and management guidelines are being met. Since 2014, 1,025 wild turkeys have been released at 12 locations along the Trinity River, from Henderson counties to Walker counties, along the Neches River, from Anderson counties to Tyler counties, and along Sulfur River and White Oak Creek from Hopkins County east to Morris County.
The aggressive super-stocking formula is to stock 80 birds (20 gobblers/60 hens) at one site. The birds are purchased for $525 each using money generated from sales of the TPWD Upland Game Bird endorsement. Each super low costs around $42,000.
Merriams are the least common Texas turkeys with isolated pouches found in the Davis Mountains of far western Texas. Hardin says the last estimate in the early 2000s indicated around 500 purebred Merriams. He says these birds have probably hybridized with Rios since that time.
With over half a million birds statewide and plenty of places to hunt them, there’s no bad year for spring turkey hunting in Texas. Although soaring gas prices may prevent some hunters from heading into the woods as often this spring, Hardin says the outlook is good for those who can make the trip.
“We’ve seen average production over the past few years and this past nesting season was no exception,” Hardin said. “I would expect a good mix of jakes [juvenile gobblers] and adult birds in most counties with an open turkey season.
Hardin noted apparent declines in the panhandle’s east, where some landowners believe the disease may be a problem. However, TPWD testing of 120 birds from the Rio Grande in 2021 revealed no obvious disease or parasite issues.
“We continue to monitor the situation and prepare further research to examine possible changes to landscapes such as loss of roost cover, other vegetative changes and/or changing agricultural practices,” he said. .
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be contacted by email, [email protected]
The seasons at a glance
Rio Grande, North Zone: April 2-May 15
Rio Grande, South Zone: March 19-May 1
Rio Grande, gobbler special 1 (Bastrop, Caldwell, Colorado, Fayette, Jackson, Lavaca, Lee, Milam, Wharton and Matagorda): April 1 to 30
Is (Bowie, Cass, Fannin, Grayson, Jasper, Lamar, Marion, Nacogdoches, Newton, Polk, Red River and Sabine): April 22 to May 14
Rules to remember
Be legal: Valid hunting license and Upland Game Bird endorsement ($7) required.
Hunter training certificate: Required for every hunter born on or after September 2, 1971. The minimum age for certification is 9 years old. Hunters under the age of 9 or between the ages of 9 and 16 without certification must be accompanied by a licensed hunter 17 years of age or older who is certified or exempt.
Marking a turkey: All turkeys must be tagged with the appropriate tag from your license immediately after harvest.
Mandatory declaration: Required in the 12 Eastern Texas counties with a spring season and in the 10 counties in the Western One-Gobbler Only zone. Turkeys must be reported within 24 hours of harvest using the My Texas Hunt Harvest app or online.
Legal Means of Eastern Turkey: Shotguns and legal archery equipment are the only legal means of shooting; no bait hunting.
Main counties for Toms: Hardin says Brown, Coleman, Concho, Edwards, Gillespie, Jack, Kimble, Mason, McCulloch, Menard, San Saba, Sutton and Tom Green had the highest harvest from 2015-20. Good hunting is also in a number of central Texas counties.
Turkey Hunt Dollars: Texas turkey hunters contribute nearly $63.9 million to the Texas economy, according to a 2015 survey by Southwick Associates. In 2017, spring hunters spent approximately $1,233 each on turkey hunting activities.
Five Common Turkey Hunting Mistakes
There are many ways to ruin a good turkey hunt. Hardin cited five common mistakes made by spring hunters:
1. Quit too soon: Most hunters go opening weekend and quit. Texas offers plenty of turkey hunting opportunities in the spring, and in many cases opening weekend is not the best time to hunt birds. The breeding behavior of wild turkeys, particularly Rios, will be dictated by the timing of spring green-up, which is influenced by the timing and amount of winter and early spring rains. Some of my best hunts have been in the middle or late spring season.
2. Not having the right equipment: Some years the insects are terrible in the spring. A small insect repellent can prevent a hunter from squashing mosquitoes or gnats, which will put a turkey on high alert when movement is seen. Plan to hunt in hot or cold weather. Conditions may change from day to day.
3. Calling too much: The hen usually goes to the gobbler in the wild. Excessive calls often cause a gobbler to hang up out of range. You want the gobbler to think there’s a chicken in a specific area without scaring it away. Call too much and he will leave.
4. Not knowing the property: Learn the property you are looking for. Study the aerial footage and come up with a game plan. Identify possible roost sites along creeks and streams. Set up a few hundred yards away so you can hear the birds on the roost without jostling them.
5. Getting too close: Move away from the roost site at first light or sunset. Hitting birds on a perch is a great way to ruin your hunt. Repeated blows could completely ruin a roosting site.
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