Guy walking log

A spring turkey hunter traverses a creek bottom in deep East Texas. One of the cardinal rules of spring hunting is to always set up at location provides an incoming gobbler the path of least resistance. Attempting to call a gobbler across a creek or fence line is likely to be a futile effort.

On April 4, when darkness gives way to the first gray light of dawn, another spring turkey season will be born across most of Texas. Time for turkey hunters to get their game faces on and steady their nerves for what can be one of Mother Nature’s most exhilarating shows.

When spring gets in the air, tom turkeys get in the mood for love. Texas turkey hunters take to the woods hoping to spoil the romance with dirty tricks meant to throw a mature gobbler into a breeding rage that results in a fatal mistake.

Those who don’t share the passion for spring turkey hunting might call us April Fools, but we know better. The only fools in this game are those who have never taken the time to play it on the colorful stages across Texas.

Spring is the mating season for wild turkeys. It is a narrow window of time when boss gobblers revved up on testosterone are prone to act silly and make dumb mistakes.

The birds communicate amongst themselves through signature body language and a wild symphony of distinctive turkey talk spoken by no other animal on the planet.

Many of the wild turkey’s sounds can be heard from a considerable distance on a crisp spring morning. Perhaps the sweetest music to the ears of a spring turkey hunter is the resonant rumble of a dominant male advertising his services to the ladies.

Male turkeys, called “gobblers,” engage in boisterous gobbling to attract hen turkeys that are receptive to breeding, and to discourage other gobblers from moving in on their turf. Gobbling is often followed by other pompous displays of self importance like strutting, spitting and drumming.

Gobblers may be vocal throughout the day, but they typically talk the most trash soon after pitching from their roosts at first light. With any luck, the tough guy act will swoon all the girls in the area before any competition comes calling.

In the wild turkey’s world, it is common for receptive hens to seek out the guys, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes the gobblers go mobile looking for girls that are playing hard to get.

Spring turkey hunters attempt to exploit the sexual urge. They use assorted calls to make seductive yelps, purrs and other sounds to simulate the language of other turkeys.

The idea is to fool a lovesick tom into thinking they are something they are not, and to ultimately lure the regal bird into shotgun range, 40 yards or less.

Not every spring gobbler winds up being an April fool, but a bunch of them do. The most recent harvest data from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department shows 42,543 spring hunters harvested about 18,000 birds in 2018.

My guess is there is a unique story behind each one of those gobblers, because no two turkey hunts are ever the same.

Calling a mature gobbler into shotgun range can at times be so easy that doesn’t seem like much of a challenge. The gobbler falls for the trick and comes barreling in like a suicidal puppet on a string.

One shot. Lights out. End of story.

Other times it isn’t so simple. Some birds may gobble once and never say another peep. Others might answer an invitation repeatedly, all the while heading off in the opposite direction.

Anyone who has spent much time chasing spring gobblers will agree. It is the mystery and the challenge that keeps most hunters coming back season after season.

2020 seasons at a glance

Texas spring gobbler seasons are divided in four different zones: North, South, Special 1 bird and Eastern. Seasons are set to occur during peak breeding periods in 178 of the state’s 254 counties.

The Rio Grande turkey South Zone season in 54 counties runs March 21 through May 3.

In 10 Western one-turkey counties (Bastrop, Caldwell, Colorado, Fayette, Jackson, Lavaca, Lee, Matagorda, Milam and Wharton), April 1-30.

The North Zone Rio Grande season in 101 counties, April 4 through May 17.

There are two Youth Only weekend seasons for licensed hunters age 16 and under in the North and South zones. North Zone, March 28-29 and May 23-24; South Zone, March 14-15 and May 9-10. Adults may accompany youths during Youth Only seasons, but are not allowed to hunt.

The three-week season in 13 East Texas counties, April 22 — May 14. East Texas counties include Bowie, Cass, Fannin, Grayson, Jasper, Lamar, Marion, Nacogdoches, Newton, Panola, Polk, Red River and Sabine. Seasons are closed on all Davy Crockett, Angelina and Sam Houston national forest lands.

Texas trio

Three subspecies of wild turkey are found in Texas — Rio Grande, Eastern and Merriam’s. The Rio Grande is the most abundant and widespread with high densities across Central, North, South and West Texas.

TPWD estimates the eastern turkey population at 10,000 birds across the Post Oak Savannah, Pineywoods and Gulf Prairies regions. Merriam’s populations in far West Texas have dwindled to about 500 birds due to hybridization with expanding Rio populations, according to Jason Hardin, TPWD wild turkey program leader.

Season forecast

While Eastern and Merriam’s populations continue to struggle across their native range, Hardin says Rio Grandes are booming.

Texas’ Rio Grande populations typically cycle between 450,000-600,000 birds, depending on breeding and recruitment success during previous years. Hardin believes their numbers are pushing the high end heading into this season

“It should be a great year,” he said. “We saw good nesting seasons in 2014-16 and we saw another exceptional hatch last year that gave us another big bump.”

The biologist says there are a surplus of juvenile birds on the landscape from the 2019 hatch. Plus, there are still plenty of mature gobblers that carried over from the 2016-17 breeding seasons.

“Our harvest rates are usually super low, so there are still a lot of 3-and 4-year-old birds out there,” he said.

Adding to the banner spring hunting outlook are current range conditions that are pointing towards another successful nesting season.

“Things are setting up just like last year,” Hardin said. “We had an early green up that helped the hens get in good shape. They started nesting early and poults were on the ground early. We’ll see another big bump in numbers if the conditions stay like this. There’s a lot of potential to grow the population.”

The best time to go spring turkey hunting is whenever you can, but Hardin thinks mature toms will be most vulnerable when hens are sitting on nests and incubating eggs in the latter part of part of April.

“Around April 21 is when a lot of the hens usually start nesting,” he said. “As soon as the hens start sitting, the toms are going to start getting lonely. That’s when they’ll be the most willing to come to a call.”

Hardin added that early season hunts in the South Zone also can be fruitful.

“Toms are ready to go, but the hens are not,” he said. “That can make toms more vulnerable to calling and decoys. Once the hens become receptive around the end of March or early April, the gobblers become much harder to call. You can catch a hot tom at any time during the season, but the normal biology of the bird drives the toms to be more cooperative early and late.”

Regs to remember

East Texas hunters are limited to one gobbler, using shotgun, archery gear or crossbow; hunting over bait is prohibited.

Successful hunters in East Texas 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.

No more than one gobbler may be harvested in the Western 1-gobbler zone, all counties combined.

It is unlawful to hunt roosting turkeys by any means at any time, or to release turkeys without department authorization.

All turkeys must be tagged with a tag from the hunter’s license immediately after harvest. Tags should be secured so they are not lost in transport.

A valid Texas hunting license and upland game bird stamp endorsement are mandatory for hunting turkeys in Texas.

Hunting sweet spots

There are several tracts of public land in Texas where hunters can enjoy free walk-in hunting with a decent chance of success. A valid hunting license and upland game bird stamp are required.

For eastern turkeys, Hardin recommends the Caddo National Grasslands in Fannin County, the Sabine National Forest in Sabine/Newton counties and Corp of Engineers (COE) property around Pat Mayse Reservoir in Lamar County. For Rios, the LBJ Grasslands in Decatur and COE lands near Crowell and Waco are good options, Hardin said.

TPWD also offers multi-day draw hunts on select wildlife management areas. It is too late to apply for 2020 hunts. Hunting on any TPWD WMA requires a license, upland stamp endorsement and a $48 annual public hunting permit.

Top counties for Rios

Jack, Coleman, Concho, McCulloch, San Saba, Mason, Menard, Sutton, Kimble, Edwards, Uvalde and McMullen. Hunting is excellent all across the Edwards Plateau region.

5 common turkey hunting mistakes

There are all sorts of ways to screw up a perfectly good turkey hunt. Hardin offered five common mistakes that spring hunters make and ways to avoid them:

Not patterning your shotgun: Take time before the season opens to pattern your shotgun with the ammo and choke you will use while hunting.

Forgetting the necessities: Make a list of all the supplies you will need in the field (bug repellent, face mask, decoys, gloves) and make sure all equipment is functioning properly.

Being impatient: If you are hunting an area birds are known to frequent, go there and stay put. The last thing you want to do, especially on smaller properties, is to bump and educate the birds.

Testing new calls in the field: Don’t wait until you get to the field to try out a new call. Practice it before you go.

Not reporting eastern turkey harvests: It is mandatory to report harvested birds in the 13 East Texas counties with an open season. Reporting is a key management tool for eastern wild turkeys.

Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by email at mattwillwrite4u@yahoo.com.

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