For the next several weeks, thousands of North Texas deer hunters will be heading to their leases, towing feeders, blinds, four-wheelers and their very best camo.
In the end, many of them will come home with a turkey.
They are opportunistic hunters, says Jason Hardin of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “They will sit in their blinds looking for that buck, but if a javelina or turkey happens to pass by they’ll take it.
“Those deer hunters account for the fact that more turkeys are currently harvested in the fall season than in the spring.”
And unlike last spring, when the statewide drought put a strangle hold on the turkey population, this fall looks to be profitable for hunters. Hardin, who is an upland game bird specialist and turkey hunting program leader at TPWD, said this fall’s crop of birds looks especially good for the cross timbers portion of the state and many of the western counties.
“It’s still pretty dry in the Panhandle and over by the Canadian River, but the soil moisture we’ve received lately has really helped, and the rest of the state is pretty good,” he said.
In Texas, the spring season runs from the end of March until mid-May, and this spring the hunting was abysmal. It was so bad, the magazine Scientific American — not known as a hunting magazine — ran a story on the poor hunting conditions in the state, tying the hunting to climate conditions and economic impact.
The biggest culprit, the story suggested, was the significant drought of 2011. As it turns out, when drought conditions exist, turkeys just don’t mate. They don’t have time for it because they are searching for food instead. Also, if they do mate, and the eggs are left in a dry environment, they won’t hatch.
And, experts say, when the mating stops, there is no sense sitting there trying to call the males in. They know the score and they aren’t interested.
As a result, it is estimated that this spring’s harvest was 60 percent below the norm because of continued drought conditions.
Texas Parks and Wildlife figures show that in the 2009-10 hunting season, spring turkey hunters killed an estimated 20,555 birds. In the 2010-11 season, that number fell to 15,871 birds. In 2011-12 season, the number fell to 12,033, the lowest in three decades.
It’s too early to tell exactly what the economic impact might be this spring, but it could be significant. The Scientific American story quoted a U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey that said turkey hunters pump more than $200 million into the Texas economy annually, the largest amount of any state.
“There’s no doubt, 2011 was horrible,” Hardin said. “The hens didn’t even bother to get on the nests. But 2012 was a little better, and the turkey population is surviving pretty well. The turkeys aren’t like the disappearing quail; the turkeys have a longer life span and they can survive for several years.”
And, while there are still stories around about diminishing turkey populations in other states, most of those cautionary tales are centered on the Eastern Turkey. Texas has its fair share of Eastern birds, Hardin explained, but it’s the Rio Grande turkeys that hunters prize, and the Rio population seems stable.
Audubon’s November-December magazine has a cover story that cries “Turkey Troubles, The Ups and Downs of an American Icon,” and it chronicles the bothersome trend in many southeastern states where turkey populations have steadily decreased. Texas is mentioned in the story, but Hardin explained the problem hasn’t been as dramatic here as it has been in adjoining states.
“One of the problems, and you can see it in that story, is that many of the states don’t use the same methodology and it’s hard to make comparisons” he said.
Texas is working toward building its population of Eastern turkeys, he added, but it is still the Rios that draw the most attention, and their future, at least for now, looks promising.
“We have about 500,000 Rios in the state,” Hardin said. “They are mostly west of a 50-mile buffer along I-35, and south to Jackson County.”
The fall turkey hunting season runs through Jan. 5 in most North Texas counties, a week or so longer in South Texas. Hardin said there is real hope that if the state’s moisture levels continue to climb, next spring could offer an outstanding turkey harvest.
That’s really good news for the most serious turkey hunters, the ones who go specifically for turkey and turkey alone.
“There has been a long tradition of fall turkey hunting in Texas,” he said, “but it’s moving more to spring now. Not by a lot, but it’s slowly changing.”