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Rolling Plains Rios

Rio Grande gobblers descend from their roosts in the Panhandle cottonwoods to woo hens and afford hunters springtime thrills.

By Lee Leschper

The rich, warm air of a spring night was fading with the first glow of dawn. But it was hardly a silent dawn. The cottonwoods towering above us were heavy with turkeys. Hens were yelping softly and gobblers were bellowing their challenge to the growing light.

Struggling not to jump at every gobble, the two out-of-state hunters under trees to my left were watching the open field where I’d promised the gobblers would fly down. I was smug with expectation. During the last three seasons, I’d called up eight long-bearded toms in this mother of all turkey spots in Collingsworth County, in the eastern Texas Panhandle.

“Just a matter of time,” I said with a chuckle behind my camo headnet. “We’ll be tagged out by breakfast.”

Such pride goes before a fall. The air filled with heavy wings, then heavier bodies landing — directly behind us. I stole a peek and found 12 gobblers in full strut. The guys sat paralyzed. With shotguns still on their laps, they were afraid even to twitch, much less turn or shoot.

The huge gobblers paraded past us at 15 yards. Frozen by the proximity of so many giant birds, my novice turkey hunters never even lifted a finger. Then the big toms wandered off and strutted and drummed for at least 20 minutes, about 30 yards out of shotgun range.

Such is spring turkey hunting on the Rolling Plains.

Spring turkey hunting is a glorious excuse to revel in the richest days of the year, when the early spring woods explode with life and energy. There is much to love — wildflowers, the vocal game of cat-and-mouse that teases a gobbler into shotgun range, the heart-busting thrill of a huge turkey gobbling in your face, the comradeship of those who share the love of this wonderful spring tradition. Then there’s the majesty of a gigantic and wary bird, bold enough to be admired and accessible to hunt almost anywhere in Texas.

Panhandle Habitat

While spring turkey hunting is special anywhere, there’s a larger-than-life charm to hunting in the hills and creeks and prairies of the Rolling Plains in April, when the air is filled with gobbles of lovesick Rio Grande gobblers.

The Rolling Plains stretch for hundreds of miles, from the northeastern Panhandle to the very center of Texas near Brownwood. This is the “Big Country” of huge ranches and limitless horizons. The dark red sandy soil is ideal for growing prairie grass and cattle. This country is a mix of open range dotted with mesquites and fertile river bottoms lined with cottonwoods. These bottomlands are home to one of the largest Rio Grande turkey populations in Texas and the world, thanks in large part to the roosting habitat that those cottonwoods provide.

The first settlers to the eastern Panhandle in the late 1800s wrote of seeing huge flocks of turkeys leaving the open plains to roost in the Canadian River bottoms. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps, to battle soil erosion, planted thousands of cottonwoods and black locusts to create shelterbelts. Those shelterbelts remain prime turkey roosts today, a wonderful and unexpected benefit of 1930s soil conservation.

Hunting Strategy

The Rolling Plains rank second only to the Edwards Plateau in the number of turkeys harvested each season. Out-of-state hunters in particular have learned that the eastern Panhandle offers some of the best spring Rio Grande turkey hunting on earth.

Elsewhere, spring turkey hunters locate their quarry in thick timber entirely by sounds, usually seeing a gobbler only when it’s already in shotgun range. But thanks to the wide-open terrain on the Rolling Plains, successful hunters often will spot, stalk and call gobblers over half a mile or more.

In the spring, the turkeys follow a simple pattern. They roost in the largest cottonwoods, often dozens of birds in the highest limbs of a single tree. At dawn the birds fly down and scatter to feed, with the hens concentrating on feeding while the toms are strutting and gobbling to get the hens’ attention. This showy strutting, drumming and nonstop gobbling makes spring mating special.

Later in the morning, each bred hen will slip away to her own nest of 10-12 eggs, leaving the toms alone. As more and more hens are bred and nesting, the toms spend more time chasing those that remain. A tom is very reluctant to leave a willing hen to answer a hunter’s calls. So the challenge for hunters is to find a gobbler alone.

Hunters start at dawn, setting up out of sight but as close as possible to roosting birds. With luck, a few gentle clucks and a hen decoy will entice the gobbler to fly down right into your lap.

I once made this work too well when I was hunting with a friend. When the gobbler I was coaxing flew down, it landed about 3 feet from my friend, which is probably why he missed the bird a few seconds later at seven steps.

More often, the toms fly down with hens and immediately follow them away from the roost, first to water, then to feed. If the hunter knows where they are headed, an ambush can be set up. Taking a high vantage point to spot the birds on the move will provide an idea of where they’re going. Getting in the line of travel and then calling often will bring a tom into range. Calling him in the direction he’s headed anyway can make it seem easy.

But often the toms just won’t leave the hens. If you can intercept the entire flock, having scouted their feeding areas in advance, calling is academic. Lacking that, the best time to call is late afternoon, when the hens have gone to their nests and the toms find themselves alone. Then they are more likely to answer and come to a call.

At midday, look for toms loafing in the shade of oak mottes or larger timber, often bordering an open field.

Setting up in an afternoon strutting zone, which may be a plowed field or in an open area near a roost, can be effective. A couple of hen decoys and soft, consistent calling will often lure a lonely tom into range.

Turkey Requirements

Rio Grande turkeys are resourceful and durable game birds, but they do require some key habitat.

While turkeys will eat almost anything they can swallow, natural forage is the most important element of their diet. This includes grasses, woody plants and seeds. New-growth grasses and seeds are important in the spring, while farm crops, including wheat, oats, alfalfa and milo, are important fall forage. Insects, especially grasshoppers, are an important source of protein for poults during the summer. Hackberry, juniper, mesquite and prickly pear sustain them through the winter.

Rios need large trees for roosts, surface water, a variety of native food plants and brush for loafing cover. They also need quality nesting cover that might include brushy hillsides, ravines, bluestem, shinnery oak and thickets of plum, mesquite or hackberry trees.

Rainfall, the factor landowners can’t control, is probably the single most important factor affecting turkey populations on good range. Timely moisture can increase turkey production fivefold to sevenfold. Adequate rainfall includes “stored moisture” from August and September rains, winter rain or snow and rains in the spring, providing a flush of new green growth, abundant insects and woody cover for poults.

The past several seasons have been especially favorable, as timely moisture on the Rolling Plains has helped the turkeys produce excellent hatches.

The Decline of Turkeys and Cottonwoods

But there’s been a concern that Rolling Plains turkeys are declining. For four years, a team of wildlife biologists from Texas Tech University, with support from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, has been conducting the most extensive and costly study ever done on wild turkeys. Warren Ballard and Mark Wallace at Texas Tech are directing the study.

The five-year study is looking at all aspects of Rio Grande turkeys on the Rolling Plains. Turkeys are being studied in four places: the Matador WMA near Paducah, the Gene Howe WMA near Canadian, a group of ranches on the Salt Fork of the Red River in the eastern Panhandle and the Cimarron National Grassland in Kansas.

The study is reinforcing the importance of riparian areas. Managing for turkeys in this region must focus on managing and improving riparian habitat.

“Cottonwoods are in pretty bad shape in the Panhandle and the Southern Great Plains,” says Derrick Holdstock, now the Texas prairie dog program leader, who spent almost three years as a graduate student on the turkey study. “That’s due to several factors — losing riparian areas, an overall lowering of the water table and encroaching agriculture.

“And cottonwoods are the primary species turkeys use for roosts. Most of the turkey’s life revolves around roosts. In the spring when they are nesting they may travel three or four miles from the roost, but in general, 99 percent of turkeys are within 500 yards of a riparian area.

“The roost is the center point of the turkey’s life. Anytime you lose a large roost area, it’s going to hurt the turkey population. As we see these old cottonwoods die, they are not being replaced.

“Turkeys will move (if they’ve lost roost cottonwood trees), or will roost in lower trees, which increases predation,” Holdstock says. The more turkeys have to move, whether to feed, roost or breed, the more vulnerable they become to predators, he said.

“There’s a big incentive to improve riparian areas,” Holdstock says. “If you can clear riparian areas of salt cedars, the water table will come back up. If you can fence off riparian areas to keep cows from grazing, you can have regeneration.

“In New Mexico, when they are clearing an area of salt cedar, they’re planting pole-sized cottonwoods, which are big enough to shade out and prevent new growth of salt cedar.”

Management tactics like these become more attractive when landowners realize they can generate significant revenue from turkey hunting, whether for season leases or package hunts. Hunting seems to have little impact, while predation from coyotes and bobcats has a significant impact. In one year of the study, coyotes killed almost 25 percent of the monitored turkeys.

Overall turkey survival in the study has varied from 43 to 56 percent. Regardless of the time of year, hens survived better than gobblers.

Recruitment and poult survival are big factors in turkey population growth or decline. Hatching poults are especially vulnerable, because they tend to be pretty noisy. The first two weeks are critical in the lives of poults, because they are unable to fly into roost trees to avoid predators.

The program originated out of concern that Rio Grande turkey populations on the Rolling Plains were declining. Among other things, researchers are looking at key factors on how movement and mortality of different ages and sexes of turkeys affect the population.

“From what we have seen with populations,” Holdstock says, “they tend to fluctuate with trends in season and weather. We’re seeing that these turkeys have a lot of satellite roosts. That suggests that instead of declining, the turkeys may be just relocating to new areas and different roosts.”

Protecting Creek Bottoms and Waterways

The Rolling Plains are an ecosystem in transition. Riparian areas — which include the Red, Wichita, Brazos and Canadian river watersheds and their many tributaries — make up less than 5 percent of the Panhandle, yet provide most of its wildlife habitat, not just for turkeys, but also for ducks, doves, quail, squirrels, rabbits, white-tailed deer, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, opossums, songbirds and turtles. Cottonwoods are the dominant trees, with understories of hackberry, soapberry, persimmon, pecan and dogwood.

A turkey-hunting fanatic, TPWD biologist Gene Miller works with Panhandle landowners to improve their habitat for wildlife. In particular, he focuses on the creek bottoms and waterways that are the foundation for many of the wildlife species here, including turkeys.

Protecting the riparian areas will be essential to future wildlife management plans here, he says. Exotic invasive vegetation, including salt cedar and redberry juniper, is threatening the Rolling Plains.

The thirsty salt cedar, first appearing in Texas in the 1880s as an ornamental, has gained a stronghold along watersheds. The salt cedar uses huge amounts of water and poisons the soil with salt, making it unsuitable for native vegetation.

With the explosion of salt cedar, there has been a corresponding decline in the majestic cottonwoods so important to turkeys as roosts. Many cottonwoods are dying of thirst. As the Ogallala Aquifer is drained for intense agricultural irrigation, the water table has fallen below the trees’ roots. Stark skeletons of dead cottonwood trees dot the entire Great Plains, including the Rolling Plains.

“As goes the water table, so go a lot of these riparian areas,” Miller says. “For the cottonwoods to survive, they need periodic flooding. Fencing riparian areas to control grazing is also important, so there are no cows there to eat the cottonwood seedlings.”

A decline in habitat, especially roost trees, ultimately will produce a decline in turkeys, Miller says. The goal of land managers, he says, is to maintain the overall health of the landscape.

With that goal, the conservation agencies of eight states have formed the Southern Great Plains Riparian Initiative. While it’s not a “turkey” campaign, the National Wild Turkey Federation plays a big role in the SGPRA.

“There are charismatic species like turkeys, in whose name we work to make improvements,” Miller says. “We’re talking about healthy landscapes — topography, hydrology, brush control.”

Earning Your Spurs

Even in the best turkey country on earth, wary old gobblers have to be earned, as my two out-of-state companions learned on their springtime hunt. After our initial paralysis, we chased gobblers over hill and dale for the next three days. One afternoon, I called five longbeards into a late-afternoon strutting area and one of my partners rolled one at 17 yards. Another midday, we set up in a thick treeline and called softly and steadily. After almost an hour of answering gobbles, a double-bearded wise old tom sneaked into range of my other buddy’s shotgun.

In between, we had plenty of near misses. But the high point of their hunt was the final morning, when we returned to our favorite roost. This time we were ready, setting up inside the tree line along the travel route the birds preferred.

When the turkeys pitched out of the trees, the first dozen hens landed within 15 yards of us. And then a flight of gobblers, like hedge-hopping bombers, swooped over from behind us, no more than 10 feet over our heads, beards swinging in the dawn air. Four big boss birds landed among the hens and broke instantly into tail-flared struts. With two quick shots, my buddies filled their tags with bronze-and-black gobblers, just as the field burst into brilliant golden light with the first rays of morning sunlight.

Just another day in turkey-hunting paradise!

Lee Leschper is an Amarillo writer whose outdoor column appears in a number of Texas newspapers.

Rolling Plains Turkey Outfitters

Spring turkey hunts are becoming a popular source of supplemental income for Rolling Plains landowners. Hunters can find options from guided hunts to do-it-yourself day hunts.

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