Your preseason guide to hunting Texas’ wiliest game bird.
I scratch the wand across the slate call, and almost instantaneously, the tom turkey responds with a thundering gobble. For 30 minutes, we play a cat-and-mouse game of call and response. He gets closer each time.
Now, he’s 15 yards away. We are eye to eye.
In the shade, turkeys look dark and drab. In the sunlight, however, they shine with an iridescence not seen in many other Texas critters. Here in the early morning sunlight of the Texas Rolling Plains, this big ol’ tom is a kaleidoscope of ever-changing colors as the light hits from various angles.
When he steps from behind a mesquite tree, he’s in full strut. His feathers are puffed and his bright red head is tucked into them. He fans his tail and drags his wings across the ground to make a noise that sounds like a long, resounding crunch.
He’s giving it his all to impress an unseen hen.
For fun, I scratch the call one last time to make him gobble. The noise and the scene are making my heart race.
Turkey hunting may be the most interactive type of hunting in Texas, as it happens in close quarters and at eye level.
From the first moment I saw a turkey up close, I was hooked. In hunting circles across Texas, turkeys may not always get top billing. Those who pursue the challenging bird will tell you there may not be a better hunt than a turkey hunt. The birds are wary and have excellent eyesight, helping them evade hunters. If turkeys had a good sense of smell, it would be nearly impossible to harvest one.
TURKEYS OF TEXAS
WHILE THE TERM “turkey” is generally used to describe the bird now found in 223 of Texas’ 254 counties, three subspecies of turkeys occur in the state. Regardless of the different subspecies, it wasn’t too long ago that turkeys in Texas were rare. Overhunted to near oblivion, turkey populations were at critical levels around the turn of the century. Turkey numbers have eventually increased thanks to trap-and-transport programs, and permanent populations have taken hold.
The Rio Grande turkey is most common. This subspecies roams chiefly west of Interstate 35 and is common from South Texas all the way north to the creek and river drainages of the Texas Panhandle. Rio Grandes prefer habitats with tall trees such as cottonwoods for them to roost at night. They are distinguished from other turkey subspecies by the buff-colored tips on the end of their tail feathers.
Eastern wild turkeys are found in the eastern part of Texas. These Big Woods birds prefer tighter cover than their open-area, big-ranging Rio Grande cousins. They are also slightly bigger than Rio Grandes. Tail feathers provide the best way to tell the distance between the two at a distance. Eastern wild turkeys have dark-brown feather tips, in contrast to a Rio Grande’s buffy tips.
The least common turkey subspecies in Texas is the Merriam’s. Merriam turkeys are found in the dry, mountainous regions of the Trans-Pecos. They prefer ponderosa pine forests at higher altitudes. Like other Texas turkeys, they can be identified by their tail feather tip color, white. (Although Texas has no specific season on Merriam turkeys spelled out in the Outdoor Annual, they are managed as part of the Rio Grande wild turkey population; harvest is allowed in the counties where they occur.)
Unlike some types of hunting, there’s not a ton of preseason prep for turkey. However, like anything you plan to hunt, you owe it to the animal to do as much preparation as necessary for a safe and ethical hunt.
Turkey hunting does require some specialized gear that’s not used in any other type of hunting. A thorough knowledge of your equipment and turkey hunting processes is essential.
FINDING A PLACE TO HUNT
IN TEXAS, a hunting lease offers a tried-and-true method of securing a hunting location. Outfitters are another option. Some outfitters provide multiday hunts, with or without a guide. These hunt packages are less expensive — you don’t have to commit the financial resources to secure a yearlong lease.
Suppose you are looking for public land hunting. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department offers more than 1 million acres of land for public hunting. With a $48 Annual Public Hunting permit, you can access all the lands in the portfolio for various hunting opportunities; a handful of them offer turkey hunting.
If you’re an avid hunter who needs more than one turkey hunt, a yearlong lease does allow you to pursue other types of game when they are in season. You can talk to a local Texas AgriLife extension agent, Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist, game warden or local chambers of commerce. Often, these folks can help connect you with landowners looking to lease their property.
SCOUTING IT OUT
SCOUTING FOR TURKEYS is relatively straightforward. Turkeys are relegated to specific habitat types, so they tend to be more concentrated than, say, white-tailed deer.
Before you scout, take the time to understand all you can about turkeys. Research is the single best first step you can take to becoming a better hunter.
By researching, you’ll discover that Rio Grande turkeys roost in bigger trees. Since Rio Grandes live in the semi-arid parts of the state covered in brush, look for creeks and drainages with big roost trees (such as cottonwoods, live oaks and big hackberries) where the birds spend the night. While it’s considered by some to be unethical to hunt near roost trees (because the turkeys will abandon the trees if they feel threatened), you’ll at least know they are in the area. You can plan your hunting locations around feeding or strutting areas.
Eastern wild turkeys are a bit harder to scout. Since they live in a habitat with abundant big trees, they can roost almost anywhere. To find them, look for feathers, droppings and tracks along creeks or road paths. Eastern wild turkeys will readily use small private backroads — their tracks are a sure way to assure they are in the neighborhood.
The best strategy for scouting is to just listen. Turkeys (both male and female) are highly vocal birds; if they are around, you'll hear them.
HEAD TO THE RANGE
WHETHER HUNTING with a firearm or a bow, you owe it to yourself and the game you’ll hunt to practice often. An accurate shot is essential for a humane harvest, so as an ethical hunter, you need to practice to ensure that you hit your mark.
Rough handling of a gun or bumping the scope can affect the alignment and your accuracy. With a trip to the shooting range, your gun will place a bullet precisely where you aim it.
It’s also essential for you to understand and be prepared for the recoil a rifle presents. Accurate shooting involves muscle memory, and that skill can be developed only with thoughtful repetition on the range.
Bowhunting for deer presents challenges that transcend hunting deer with a firearm. Practicing often is the only way to condition yourself for the rigors of drawing a bow and holding the arrow on target for an accurate shot.
No matter your means of hunting deer, a thorough knowledge of the equipment and its capabilities and limitations is essential. Find a place to shoot and practice often.
Turkey hunting is a technical activity that does require some specialized gear. You can make your outing as straightforward or as gear intensive as you’d like. In the end, there’s no right or wrong amount of gear. Simply focus on the things you need to ensure your success. And don’t forget the bug spray.
CAMO AND OTHER GEAR
TURKEYS HAVE incredibly keen eyesight and are adept at pinpointing movement. Therefore, wearing camouflage is essential for pursuing these wary creatures. For the utmost stealth, match your camouflage to your hunting habitat and cover yourself from head to toe, including gloves and a head net.
To hunt travel corridors, you only need camouflage and a means to harvest the bird. If you want a completely interactive experience, you’ll also need a turkey call. Of the three types of turkey calls — box, slate or diaphragm — box and slate calls are the easiest to learn and master. The key to being a good turkey caller is to practice.
Rounding out the complete turkey hunter’s gear list is a turkey vest. These vests hold your calls and shotgun shells and have an integrated pad for you to sit on in the field. Hang a good set of binoculars around your neck, too.
Some hunters like to use turkey decoys to get an amorous tom’s attention and lure him closer.
LICENSE, PERMITS AND REGULATIONS
TEXAS REQUIRES a hunting license for anyone who hunts. The price varies depending on age, license types and other factors. Licenses are readily available in person at sporting goods retailers or Texas Parks and Wildlife Department field offices, and online through the TPWD website.
Hunter Education is a good idea for anyone who hunts. It teaches valuable information and skills to make every outdoor excursion a safe and responsible one and is required if you were born on or after Sept. 2, 1971.
Hunter safety training comes in many forms but essentially consists of six hours of classroom or online training, plus field training for hunters under 17 years old. An online-only version is also available for hunters 17 and over.
In the preseason, before you go afield, take the time to understand all the game laws and limits for each area and the turkey subspecies you hunt.
GUNS AND BOWS AND AMMO
FIREARM manufacturers make shotguns specifically for turkey hunting. These firearms are fully camouflaged and have thumbhole stocks, optimized choke tubes, fiber-optic sight beads and other technical features. While these shotguns have their place, they aren’t necessary. Any 12-gauge shotgun with a heavy, number 4-shot load will suffice. Like firearm manufacturers, ammo makers have loads geared toward turkey hunting.
After you select a firearm and pick a load, it’s imperative that you practice before the season begins so you'll know how your shotgun shoots a BB pattern at various ranges. As a rule, the farther the BB shot travels away from the muzzle, the wider the BBs become spaced. In other words, the farther the turkey is from the shooter, the less effective the shot becomes. Get a turkey target and a box or two of shells, and head to the range to shoot targets at various ranges to gauge your firearm’s optimum range.
If you want to hunt with a rifle, that’s OK too. However, that applies only to Rio Grande turkeys hunted in the fall. For all spring eastern birds, a shotgun is the only means of harvest. Turkeys are legal with a bow during all seasons and in all counties with an open season.
WITH ANY kind of hunting, safety is paramount.
When turkey hunting, always be sure of your target and what lies beyond your target. Turkeys move through thick brush and are stealthy. What you think is a turkey splitting through the brush may be a cow, dog or person. Never fire on an obscured target.
Wearing blaze orange isn’t required while hunting on private land, it is a good idea to wear it while traveling to and from your hunting area. You don’t want to be seen by turkeys, but you do want to be seen by other hunters when you move.
One important word of advice: Never wear red, white, blue or black on a turkey hunt. Those colors can be mistaken for a turkey’s head or body.
Running through various safety scenarios in the field is always helpful. Understanding where you are likely to shoot and what lies beyond your target are the building blocks of a safe hunt.
The bottom line? Make sure of your target all the time.
Enjoy the turkeys — don’t be one.
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