|This Sunday, April 16, will be opening day for spring turkey hunting in all of Oklahoma. The season will run for 31 days through Tuesday, May 16. |
Wild turkey populations have declined in the past several years in Oklahoma, especially in the west. However, surveys earlier this year indicated the decline has leveled off for the time being and turkey numbers were “holding steady” compared to last year, said Bill Dinkines, Chief of Wildlife for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
The Department is engaged in a five-year, $2 million research project to learn what is causing turkey population declines and what can be done long-term to manage turkey populations.
The research is focusing on demographic parameters of turkeys at sites in southeastern and southwestern Oklahoma, and genetic variation in wild turkeys across the state. Specifically, researchers are examining nesting success, nesting site characteristics, and cause-specific mortality of poults and hens.
Hunters who normally plan to hunt in western or southwestern Oklahoma might consider pursuing turkeys in other regions where bird numbers are closer to average.
This year, many hunters have been asking why opening day is on a Sunday. Dinkines said when new turkey hunting regulations were drafted in 2021, ODWC wildlife managers had to settle on specific opening and closing dates that would be used year after year. The date selected was April 16, which just happens to fall on a Sunday this year. Barring any unforeseen changes, next year’s spring turkey season will open on Tuesday, April 16, 2024.
Also, hunters are reminded that one of the most helpful things they can do to support wildlife biologists in their current turkey research, conservation, and management efforts is to purchase a hunting license, whether they intend to hunt or not. Each hunting license sold secures federal matching funds normally at a rate many times the price of the license.
For the hunters getting ready to pursue a bird in the next few days, here are some current regional insights from ODWC biologists in the field.
Report by Marcus Thibodeau, Wildlife Biologist
Current gobbler activity: Birds are broken up, gobbling, strutting, and breeding.
Condition of habitat: Drought has impacted areas of the region to various degrees. There is still a good amount of food available, but water is the limiting factor. With the drought, wildfires are a concern during turkey season in this portion of the state.
Reports from landowners or scouting hunters: Recent observations and reports are that turkey breeding is in full swing. Gobblers are very vocal, strutting and breeding. This should make for a great opener.
WMA best bets: Black Kettle WMA, Sandy Sanders WMA, Packsaddle WMA.
Tips for success: 1. Pay attention to WMA-specific regulations regarding early shut-off times. 2. Use Department-issued maps, as sometimes the commercial mapping apps are not always correct. 3. Pay attention to boundary signs.
Mistakes to avoid: With breeding activity in full swing, it may be hard to pull a gobbler off of hens in the morning; midday hunting could be more successful.
Opening-day expectations: Should be a great opening day.
Report by Eddie Wilson, Wildlife Senior Biologist
Current gobbler activity: Birds have broken up from winter flocks, but toms are still with groups of hens for the most part. Some hens are just now starting to nest, and toms are doing a lot of gobbling and strutting. Birds are currently highly visible.
Condition of habitat: Habitat conditions are poor throughout the northwest. Very little green-up is occurring due to no rainfall for the past several months. Late winter and spring food sources including forbs and invertebrates are limited. Many areas are experiencing severe to extreme drought. There are some pockets of decent habitat, but most of the grasslands are very heavily grazed, so nesting and escape cover are hard to find.
Reports from landowners or scouting hunters: Hunters that participated in youth turkey season this past weekend said toms were still with hens and were gobbling but not coming to calls. Landowners are concerned about turkey numbers. Many landowners have concerns about birds being over-harvested since numbers are still low. Northwest Region turkey winter flock survey numbers did stabilize for the most part this year, but numbers are still significantly lower than they were six to eight years ago.
WMA best bets: Hunters looking to harvest a bird on a northwest region wildlife management area this year could consider Canton or Fort Supply WMAs. Both of these areas have birds. Cooper WMA also has turkeys but keep in mind numbers on WMAs are not what they were five or 10 years ago. Be sure to check out all of the property enrolled in Oklahoma Land Access Program located throughout the northwest. Some of these properties offer excellent turkey hunting opportunities.
Tips for success: One of the best things you can do is pre-scout the area prior to the hunt. Move away from areas that have heavy hunter use and find birds that have not experienced a lot of hunter traffic and calling.
Mistakes to avoid: A couple of the biggest mistakes hunters often make are not being patient and calling too often. This is especially true for public land hunters. Give the birds plenty of time to respond before you move or give up.
Opening-day expectations: Bird numbers are still down, but opening day should offer many hunters the opportunity to harvest a tom. The warm temperatures we are experiencing should have more hens nesting and toms on the move. Area biologists are reporting fewer hunter phone calls this year, especially from nonresident hunters. This may be a sign that hunter numbers will be lower than average on public lands. Be courteous to your fellow hunters and hunt safe!
Report by Brent Morgan, Wildlife Biologist
Current gobbler activity: Gobbling has really started ramping up the past two weeks, with birds starting to break up from their winter flocks. Gobbling on the roost has been the best, with little gobbling after fly down. Toms have been seen with hens strutting during early morning.
Condition of habitat: Conditions have improved somewhat from the fall drought, but the region is still behind a bit in moisture. Food plots are looking good. Several areas conducted prescribed burns that are greening-up fast. Nesting cover should be fair, with the understory being thin in some areas due to drought from late summer.
Reports from landowners or scouting hunters: Landowners are seeing and hearing a few birds which should be starting to get a lot more active with warmer weather. Bird numbers are fair to low, with a few areas having a few more than they did in winter. Youth weekend was good for some areas, with a few birds harvested.
WMA best bets: Cherokee and Tenkiller are good bets for turkeys, although both get a lot of pressure. Eufaula and Fort Gibson may be decent due to limited access along the lakes.
Tips for success: 1. Do your homework and scout before season starts. 2. Try to stay a good distance away from a bird and call it to you. 3. Be patient.
Mistakes to avoid: 1. Do not over-call as that leads to more mistakes, and call softly. 2. Trying to get too close to the roost. 3. Moving too much and not waiting on the bird to come to you.
Opening-day expectations: With opening day being on a Sunday, expect lots of hunters out, especially on public land. Bird numbers are still fair to low. Forecast looks windy with a small cold front coming through.
Report by Eric Suttles, Wildlife Southeast Region Supervisor
Current gobbler activity: The toms have joined the hens, and breeding activity is very active. Gobbling in the mornings before fly-down has been steadily increasing. Toms have been seen in open fields and woods where they can display for the hens and partake in courtship behaviors.
Condition of habitat: The drought in summer 2022 did us no favors in the region. Limited vegetation growth and acorn production left all the wild critters in a tough spot over winter. Luckily, we have seen good rain amounts in the region this winter and spring. The rain has led to what the area biologists believe is an earlier green-up than normal. Weather forecasts look to be very favorable for outdoor adventures during the opening week of turkey season.
Reports from landowners or scouting hunters: The turkey population seems to be very spotty. Some reports are indicating good to even increased turkey numbers on their property. While others are saying they have not seen a turkey. Biologists conducting gobble count surveys are hearing good numbers of birds on certain routes but not hearing the birds they believe they should be hearing on other routes.
WMA best bets: Honobia Creek WMA, Three Rivers WMA, Ouachita WMA-McCurtain Unit.
Tips for success: 1. With reports of spotty populations throughout the region, scout, scout and scout some more. I believe scouting is going to be critical to tagging a bird this season. 2. Have a realistic expectation for success with a realistic understanding of the situation. The situation is that we have documented turkey population decline throughout the state. 3. Don’t let the thought of not tagging be what keeps you indoors. Go enjoy the beauty that surrounds you. Oklahoma is an awesome place with great locations to chase a wild turkey in any direction. Go hunt, take a youth, enjoy the sunrise and spend a memorable moment under an oak tree with the sun on your face. But be ready as this is also a great time of day to tag a big ol’ bird.
Mistakes to avoid: 1. Not hunting late enough in the day. The noon hour is a great time to strike up a conversation with a lonely tom. 2. Moving around and fidgeting too much. When chasing the Eastern subspecies of wild turkey, this is even more important. This type of bird has a reputation for sneaking into a call without responding or letting its presence be known. 3. When hunting public land, be mindful and respectful — respectful of the land and opportunities available to us, and mindful of the fact that we are sharing that land and opportunities with others. Safety should be front and center.
Opening-day expectations: I am expecting a much more favorable opening week of turkey hunting this year than last year. The weather looks good, and the birds are active. I believe hunters can expect to enjoy a great day in the woods. If you are in the right spot, you might be successful.
Report by Matt Mattioda, Wildlife Senior Biologist
Current gobbler activity: This is the second year the statewide turkey season is starting on April 16 instead of April 6. Hunters can expect a slight change in turkey behavior than what they are typically used to on opening day. Breeding groups should be well-established, and most gobblers should be with hens by now, with only a few toms still looking for a hen. I have only seen a few hens by themselves in the morning, but they head in the direction of the nearest gobble as soon as they fly down. Gobbling has been very active on the roost and shortly after they hit the ground. I expect many toms will be involved in breeding activity until late morning during opening week of the season.
Condition of habitat: Although opening day is now 10 days later, hunters should not be expecting typical mid-April vegetation aside from the southeast portions of the Central Region. This year’s lack of rainfall has resulted in a noticeably slower-than-usual green-up across most of the region. Even though the trees are late to leaf-out this spring, most turkeys have left their reliable winter food sources in search of better breeding and nesting habitat and are not having any trouble finding food throughout the day. Several WMAs in the region have completed multiple prescribed burns over the past few months. Look for these areas to provide great strutting areas for toms in the mornings.
Reports from landowners or scouting hunters: Landowners and hunters out scouting have had similar reports over the past month: lots of gobbling early in the morning, on and off the roost. There have been several calm mornings leading up to turkey season, and it has made for easy listening. It appears the farther west in the region, more turkeys are being seeing, which is typically the case. Many reports are of groups from two to seven birds each, with some saying they have seen larger groups.
WMA best bets: Several of the WMAs in the region should be good for the opening weekend as they have not received much hunting pressure. After checking with the biologists and technicians in the region, it looks like the best bets to chase a gobbler will likely be at Kaw WMA and Hickory Creek, especially later in the season. These two areas consistently have good turkey numbers.
Tips for success: 1. Scouting is crucial. Locating roosting birds in the mornings or evenings leading up to a hunt is an invaluable wealth of knowledge. Just be sure to not get too close. But don’t stop there. Quietly look for droppings, tracks, strutting marks, and dusting areas to give an idea of where these turkeys are spending much of their time. 2. Be patient. We all dream of the hunt when turkeys fly off the roost straight into your decoys, but that just doesn’t happen all that often. If things don’t go as planned at first light, be patient. Listen to where the bird goes, and set up again and again if you have to. Just be sure you don’t spook them when you move. A lot of turkeys are harvested during midday when all of the hens are on their nests and the gobblers get lonely. Also, if you have a bird responding to you, don’t give up because he quits gobbling; oftentimes he is heading your way. 3. Get away from the road. If you are able, you need to be willing to walk a little, or a lot sometimes. If you are hunting public land, there is a high probability someone has already been calling to these birds from the road. And even if the turkeys are responding, they probably won’t come within shooting range.
Mistakes to avoid: 1. Trying to get too close while the birds are on the roost. This is an easy and costly thing to do. Even though we are starting later in the year, many of the trees do not have a lot of, if any, leaves on them. Be cautious when setting up in the mornings. 2. Calling too much. Lots of hunters like to hear those gobblers gobbling back, but excessive calling is not a normal interaction between turkeys in the wild and can often cause toms to hang up and not come close enough for a shot. Only call as much as necessary to increase your chances of success. 3. Underestimating a turkey’s vision. Decoys help distract turkeys’ attention. But even with them, turkeys are constantly looking for anything that might be a threat. Be sure to move only when you are sure they cannot see you.
Opening-day expectations: Hunters should hear a lot of gobbling on the roost and shortly after fly-down, but toms will likely be “henned up” first thing in the morning. Pack a lunch in case you have to stay a little longer than you are hoping. Opening day this year falls on a Sunday, so that means there will likely be plenty of folks out hunting, especially on the WMAs. Arrive early and stay late, but please be courteous of other people’s space. Conditions are great, and the strutting and gobbling should be in full swing, with hens making visits to their nests midday and leaving the gobblers all alone throughout the region.
Spring turkey season bag limit is one bearded turkey per hunter statewide. While bearded hens are technically legal to harvest, hunters should take every effort to identify those bearded female birds and only target the males.
To find out about field tagging, E-Check, and other turkey hunting requirements, consult the current Oklahoma Fishing and Hunting Regulations found online at wildlifedepartment.com, on the Go Outdoors Oklahoma free mobile app for Apple or Android devices, or in print across the state wherever hunting and fishing licenses are sold.
ODWC’s periodic Upland Update news release provides the latest details about ongoing research efforts. To receive the Upland Update in your email inbox, sign up at https://www.wildlifedepartment.com/outdoor-news.