Keys to Texas turkey hunts are getting out, practice

There is no sound like it in the outdoors — the springtime gobble of a Rio Grande tom turkey.

For years I’ve heard people in conversations try to recreate it by making a blubbering sound with their mouths. These days, the best comparison I can offer is that of a high-pitched, hearty laugh from a very amused person.

Expert turkey hunters and biologists might disagree with that, and if they can offer a better description, I’d welcome it.

But all agree that the gobble is a sign that there is a tom turkey in the woods looking to mate, and if we apply our skills just right, mimicking the call of a willing hen, we might lure him within range.

In that instant there is that great feeling — the same one you get when you first glimpse a mature buck near your stand, or that tug on your fishing line that’s so strong it bends the tip of the rod.

You literally hear your heart pounding in your chest.

Game on

The North Zone spring season for Rio Grande turkey got under way March 29 and continues through May 11. The South Zone season began March 15 and concludes April 27.

My first turkey hunt was nearly 30 years ago with my father, Bob Miller, in northern Erath County. We’re from Wisconsin, but we never hunted turkey there. After my parents moved to Azle, Dad became a turkey hunter. He assured me that it was a hoot.

So, one weekend, I drove down from Sherman, where I was working my first newspaper job out of college, and I met Dad on a ranch near Thurber.

Shortly after sunup, we were tucked away in some thick brush. Dad started working his coffin-shaped wooden box call, and although he was a rookie, he must have been doing something right.

The still morning air was pierced by a faint gobble in the distance. It was game on.

Dad kept calling and the gobbling grew louder. Suddenly, the tom emerged.

Then there was movement to my right; I turned and was face to face with a second tom.

He was so close it seemed I could have reached over and grabbed him by the neck, but he bolted from the scene.

That startled the first tom, and he also ran, but Dad stopped him with a blast from his 12-gauge Remington 870.

I don’t think high-fives were popular yet, but we were jumping up and down, hooting and hollering.

Turns out Dad never saw the other bird.

Gobbling their heads off

That outing is the standard to which I compare all other turkey hunts, and I’ve yet to match it. Like any other outdoors quest, my chances will improve when I commit to getting out more and practicing the skills.

But I am not alone, according to statistics from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Since 1982, the average success rate of a hunter has been approximately 42.16 percent, said Jason Hardin, TPWD’s turkey program leader.

“Harvest is heavily influenced by hunter participation,” Hardin said. “We can easily track harvest simply by knowing how many hunters are chasing birds in a particular year.”

Last year, for example, 46,607 hunters hunted spring turkey, and 20,490 of them harvested birds, according to TPWD data.

But Texas has plenty of Rio Grande turkeys for those willing to put in the time and effort to hunt them.

There was a poor hatch in 2011 — a year of infamous drought conditions that hamper population growth for any wildlife species.

But turkey numbers picked up in 2012. Lots of juvenile “jakes” were spotted last spring, and now they are mature toms.

“There have been a lot of 2-year-old birds getting harvested,” Hardin said. “I was in Menard County the opening weekend in the North Zone, and I had to put my gun down so I wouldn’t use all my tags at once.”

Hardin offered another recent report from Kerr County, in the South Zone.

“It was really dry near Kerrville,” he said, “but birds were really gobbling their heads off.”

Stay on your toes

Weather will test a spring turkey hunters’ skills. Conditions can bounce back and forth from freezing cold to near 90-degree days and back to cold again. And wind is a problem, whether it’s hot or cold.

Flexibility is key, said Robert Cantrell, an avid turkey hunter who owns Texas Outdoors sporting goods in Fort Worth.

“You can have great success early in the morning, but this time of year, it’s better midday,” Cantrell said.

He said a lot of toms seem to be roosting with hens early, and they don’t budge until they get bored, around 11 a.m. to about 2 p.m.

And if it’s windy, go ahead and make your calls, Cantrell said. But don’t be surprised if a tom appears without that famous gobble. The wind, he observed, seems to deter gobbling.

“Keep your eyes open,” Cantrell said. “Hit your call just every now and then. But you’ve got to stay on your toes. They’ll come in, but they won’t call.”

Cantrell related one such experience when he was guiding a young girl a couple years ago on a donated hunt from the Sportsmen’s Club of Fort Worth, south of Benbrook Lake.

“It was real windy,” he recalled. “I said ‘You watch over here,’ and I called in a monster bird. But I looked over at her and she was sound asleep!”

Cantrell tapped the girl on the leg and she popped up, startled. The tom, which had appeared without a gobble, made a quick getaway.

“Well, that was the end of that,” Cantrell said with a chuckle. “And he was a good bird, too!”