Nobody likes a smart aleck, but most turkey hunters will agree there is no sound more inviting on a crisp spring morning than the raspy rumble of a boisterous gobbler talking some serious trash.
Gobbler turkeys will gobble year-round, occasionally in reaction to loud or sudden noises that interrupt an otherwise quiet landscape. “Shock gobbles” might be triggered by the slam of a truck door, caw of a crow, honk of a car horn or sounds of other turkeys.
Springtime gobbling is sweet music to the ears of a turkey hunter. Spring is the height of the wild turkey’s breeding season — a time when gobblers sometimes get vocal to attract receptive hens, establish a pecking order among other gobblers and to discourage other male suitors from infringing on their turf.
State wildlife agencies always schedule spring hunting seasons to coincide with peak breeding periods. This is when gobblers are revved up on testosterone and most responsive to assorted calls hunters use to tap into their line of communication.
The main idea behind calling is to fool a gobbler into thinking you are something you are not, usually a hen turkey that’s feeling sexy but playing hard to get. It’s a dirty trick meant to lure a lovesick Tom into shotgun range — about 35 yards or less with a 12 gauge choked to throw pellets in a tight pattern.
Some turkey hunts come together so easily that it hardly seems like a challenge. The bird comes shuffling through the brush in a breeding rage accompanied by fits of uncontrollable gobbling, colorful plumage ruffled as it spits and prances in a haughty display of self-importance meant to impress the ladies.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wild turkey program leader Jason Hardin of Oakwood knows all about those suicidal gobblers that come barreling in like puppets on a string. He has also crossed paths with 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 some valuable lessons about the regal game birds along the way. One the more educational experiences played out 10 years ago at the Caddo National Grasslands Wildlife Management Area in Fannin County.
Hardin had a gobbling bird coming his way when he heard a sickly call that sounded more like a hen turkey screaming for help than one looking for love. “It was the worst attempt at a hen call I’d ever heard,” he recalled.
The gobbler suddenly went silent. Hardin assumed a rookie hunter had moved in too close, spooked the bird and spoiled his hunt.
Not so. Moments later he spotted the wild hen headed in the opposite direction. The gobbler was tight on her heels.
“Apparently, not even a hen sounds like a championship caller at times,” he said. “Nothing is more impressive than the real thing, especially when the hen does what she is supposed to do and goes to the gobbler rather than the other way around.”
Of all the games hunters play, spring turkey hunting has to rank among the most enjoyable of all. No two hunts are ever the same, and the birds can be predictably unpredictable from one day to the next.
With the 2022 Rio Grande season set to get underway in most of the state at 30 minutes before sunrise on April 2, the time is ripe for Texas’ 50,000 spring hunters to get ready for showtime.
Here’s what Hardin had to say about the Texas turkey population and the prospects for the upcoming season, along with a few tips to help hunters boost their chances of bagging a mature gobbler:
Three wild turkey subspecies are found in Texas — Rio Grande, Eastern and Merriams.
Rios occupy about two-thirds of the state and are by far the most plentiful, about 500,000 birds. Hardin says only two other states — Alabama and Pennsylvania — may have eastern wild turkey populations to rival Texas’ Rio Grande numbers.
Rios also can be found in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii. Most originated from Texas brood stock.
Easterns run a distant second to Rios with a population of about 10,000 birds resulting from restocking efforts using wild-trapped birds purchased from other states. More than 40 East Texas counties enjoyed a spring gobbler season in 2005, but the number has slowly spiraled 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 properties of sufficient size where habitat and management guidelines are met. Since 2014, 1,025 wild turkeys have been released at 12 locations along the Trinity River from Henderson to Walker counties, along the Neches River from Anderson to Tyler counties, and along the Sulphur River and White Oak Creek from Hopkins County east to Morris County.
The aggressive super-stocking formula involves stocking 80 birds (20 gobblers/60 hens) to a site. The birds are purchased for $525 each using money generated by sales of the TPWD Upland Game Bird endorsement. Each super-stocking costs about $42,000.
Merriams are the least common of Texas turkeys with isolated pockets found in the Davis Mountains of far West Texas. Hardin says the last estimate in the early 2000s indicated about 500 pure-bred Merriams. He says those birds have likely hybridized with Rios since that time.
With more than a half million birds statewide and plenty of places to hunt them, there is no such thing as a bad year for spring turkey hunting in Texas. Though skyrocketing gas prices could keep some hunters from getting to the woods as often this spring, Hardin says the prospects are good for those able to make the trip.
“We have seen average production over the past few years and this past nesting season was no exception,” Hardin said. “I would anticipate a good mix of jakes [juvenile gobblers] and adult birds across most counties with an open turkey season.”
Hardin noted some apparent declines in the eastern Panhandle, where some landowners believe disease may be an issue. However, TPWD testing of 120 Rio Grande birds in 2021 found no glaring disease or parasite issues.
“We are continuing to monitor the situation and preparing for additional research to look at possible changing landscapes such as loss of roosting cover, other vegetative changes and/or changing agriculture practices,” he said.
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seasons at a glance
Rio Grande, North Zone: April 2-May 15
Rio Grande, South Zone: March 19-May 1
Rio Grande, Special 1 Gobbler (Bastrop, Caldwell, Colorado, Fayette, Jackson, Lavaca, Lee, Milam, Wharton and Matagorda): April 1-30
Eastern (Bowie, Cass, Fannin, Grayson, Jasper, Lamar, Marion, Nacogdoches, Newton, Polk, Red River and Sabine): April 22-May 14
Rules to remember
Get legal: Valid hunting license and the Upland Game Bird endorsement ($7) required.
Hunter education certification: Required of every hunter born on or after Sept. 2, 1971. Minimum age for certification is 9. Hunters under 9 or between 9-16 with no certification must be accompanied by a licensed hunter 17 or older who is hunter ed certified or exempt.
Tagging a turkey: All turkeys must be tagged with the proper tag from your license, immediately after harvest.
Mandatory reporting: Required in the 12 East Texas counties with a spring season and in the 10 Western One-Gobbler Only Zone counties. Turkeys must be reported within 24 hours of harvest using the My Texas Hunt Harvest app or online.
Eastern Turkey legal means: Shotguns and lawful archery equipment are the only legal means of take; no hunting over bait.
Top 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 also is found is in a number of counties throughout central Texas.
Turkey hunting dollars: Texas turkey hunters contribute nearly $63.9 million to the Texas economy, according to a 2015 Southwick Associates survey. In 2017, spring hunters spent about $1,233 each on turkey hunting activities.
Five common turkey hunting mistakes
There are plenty of ways to screw up a good turkey hunt. Hardin cited five common mistakes made by spring hunters:
1. Quit too soon: Most hunters go opening weekend and call it quits. Texas provides a lot of spring turkey hunting opportunity and in many cases opening weekend is not the best time to chase birds. Wild turkey breeding behavior, especially Rios, will be dictated by the timing of spring green-up, which is impacted by the timing and amount of winter and early spring rains. Some of my best hunts have been in the middle or latter parts of the spring season.
2. Not having the right gear: In some years, bugs are horrible during the spring season. A little bug spray can save a hunter from swatting at mosquitos or gnats, which will put a turkey on high alert when the movement is seen. Plan to hunt in hot or chilly weather. Conditions can change from day-to-day.
3. Calling too much: The hen usually goes to the gobbler in the wild. Excessive calling will often cause a gobbler to hang up well out of range. You want the gobbler to think there is a hen in a specific area without spooking him. Call too much and he will leave.
4. Not knowing the property: Learn the property you are hunting. Study aerial imagery and come up with a game plan. Identify possible roost sites along streams and creeks. Set up within a few hundred yards so you can hear birds on the roost without bumping them off.
5. Getting too close: Stay away from the roost site at first light or around sundown. Bumping birds off a roost is a great way to ruin your hunt. Repeated bumping could spoil a roost site altogether.