by Ray Sasser
Muffled by wind and the insulation of green hardwood forests, the gobble was barely audible, yet it sent chills down my spine. Somewhere back in the dense Red River County thicket, a Texas-born eastern wild turkey gobbler had issued his mating call. Tommy Humphrey gave me one of those raised-eyebrow smiles that said, “we’re in business.”
A former NFL lineman, Humphrey is the oversized executive director of the Dallas Safari Club. He began hunting spring turkeys in 1978, about the same time the first eastern-strain wild turkeys were stocked on the Chapman Ranch in Red River County.
Texas has more wild turkeys than any other state, but we’re overrun with birds of the Rio Grande variety. They thrive in the dry climates of North, Central, West and South Texas. In recent years, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) have spent more than $2 million reintroducing eastern-strain birds into East Texas. The Texas project is the largest turkey restocking effort yet attempted and it’s funded by sportsmen—those who support NWTF and all Texas turkey hunters who buy the mandatory turkey stamp.
At least in Red River County, the money has been well-spent. The day before the 1995 season ended, Humphrey shot a mature gobbler along this very treeline. The hardwood bottom where the birds were roosting skirted a huge agricultural field. As we drove to the spot before daylight, our host Roger Hooper told us of repeatedly seeing a flock of 17 gobblers working through this area the previous fall. Hooper has a season hunting lease on the Chapman Ranch. On the final day of the 1994-95 deer season, he saw a flock of mixed hens and gobblers in which he counted 54 birds.
Hooper is a Paris businessman who spends as much time as possible in the game-rich Red River bottomland. He often hunts without a gun. Sportsmen like Hooper have become invaluable census takers for biologists frustrated by attempts to count elusive eastern turkeys.
Humphrey and I suddenly came alert as we heard the gobble again, this time more distinct and obviously less muffled. We’d set up two hen decoys at the edge of the huge open field, hoping for a repeat of the turkey movement pattern that Humphrey had witnessed the previous day.
“At daylight yesterday, I heard turkeys gobbling way back in the woods so I tried the traditional tactic of moving in on them,” he said. “The woods were so thick they were hard to get through. What those gobblers did yesterday was work their way out to the field where they strutted and gobbled. They worked right along the edge. If they do the same thing this morning, we’ve got a real good chance.”
Humphrey and I had backed into the edge of the brilliant green canopy. We could see both directions for several hundred yards. We were dressed in full camouflage, including facemasks. If we sat perfectly still, the sharp-eyed birds would have trouble seeing us.
Within 10 minutes, a mature gobbler had walked out into the field about 400 yards down the treeline from our position. He was followed by a second bird and then a third. Three gobblers in a weedy field wasn’t exactly how I had pictured my first eastern turkey but I had my fingers crossed. One thing was certain. I’d as soon have Tommy Humphrey doing the calling as any native Texan I know. Humphrey is an oversized maestro on a variety of turkey calls.
Now he was using his favorite box call to yelp seductively. I watched through binoculars as the lead turkey gobbled in response. With the peak of the breeding season well behind us, the turkeys weren’t exactly lit up. They fed around in the weedy field for a few minutes, gobbling occasionally when Humphrey called. Then they slowly started meandering our way.
I’m not sure at which point the gobblers saw our Judas hens but they took their own sweet time about coming to the decoys. They wandered our way for an excruciating 30 minutes. I had plenty of time to admire their tawny colors, distinctly darker than the Rio Grande birds I was used to hunting. These particular birds showed a faint reddish tint to their feathers. Their fans lacked the white tips of the Rio Grande species and they displayed none of the sheen that makes a Rio Grande gobbler standing in the sunshine appear to be wearing a suit of copper.
When the turkeys were about 100 yards away, the subordinate gobbler of the three separated from the other two and walked directly to the tree line. At first, I thought he might enter the deep woods and lead the two bigger birds with him. The two dominant birds kept coming slowly from their position out in the field, however, and the subordinate gobbler turned at the edge of the cover and walked directly toward us. He was clearly afraid to approach hens while in the company of two dominant gobblers.
I eased the 12-gauge onto my upraised knee and watched the turkeys come steadily closer. When they were 30 yards away, Humphrey whispered “anytime you’re ready.” I shot the bird that had exhibited the most dominance. Shooting an eastern turkey is not supposed to be that easy and you’re certainly not supposed to watch the gobbler coming to you from 400 yards away.
There’s been a lot of hype about how difficult it is to hunt eastern turkeys and how easy it is to hunt Rio Grandes. Most of it is just that—hype. The denser cover preferred by eastern turkeys naturally makes them a little harder to hunt. The main consideration is hunting pressure. Eastern turkeys, by the very nature of where they thrive, are hunted much harder than most Rio Grande populations. Texas spring turkey hunting is still in its infancy. Fifty more years of hunting pressure on Texas Rios could leave future generations singing a different tune.
One thing is certain about eastern turkeys. It has not been easy to re-establish them in their traditional East Texas range. TPWD made every mistake in the book, including early efforts to stock Rio Grande turkeys in the Piney Woods Region and the subsequent release of pen-raised, eastern-strain turkeys. Not until the current mass stocking funded by sportsmen’s dollars have any real strides been made.
If you moved to Texas from Iowa, you can probably empathize with many of this state’s eastern birds. They just strolled out into a Midwest cornfield one wintry day, minding their own business, only to find themselves trapped by a rocket net. Next thing they knew, they were aboard a jet, headed for Texas. Corporate transfers know the disconcerted feeling. They can also relate to arriving in Texas only to find a group of unfamiliar predators licking their chops over the prospects of new meat.
At $525 apiece, imported eastern-strain turkeys are pretty expensive bobcat food. There are no bobcats in Iowa, so Iowa turkeys don’t know how to avoid the clever, feline predators. Back in 1987, When TPWD began their eastern turkey program in earnest, they figured birds released in good habitat would double the population in their first year.
In theory, the turkey population would double again the second year, but that hasn’t happened. Two years ago, biologists began equipping eastern turkeys with radio telemetry devices to discover why the 3,500 birds released up until then had not increased exponentially.
They found that transplanted birds suffered 50 percent mortality their first year. After tracking 60 hens for two years, researchers have not documented a single poult that survived more than four weeks. Of nine Iowa turkey hens released on TPWD’s Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area last March, only one attempted to nest, and she was unsuccessful.
“Mortality rates drop considerably after the second year,” said John Burk, TPWD’s eastern turkey program leader. “The birds obviously learn to adapt to their new environment, and those that survive for a year learn to avoid Texas predators.”
Birds stocked to supplement existing populations also fare better. Burk theorizes that newly released birds join company with locals and learn the ropes more quickly. In fact, eastern birds are doing best in counties that border Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. All three neighboring states have substantial eastern turkey populations and the birds naturally cross state lines.
Three factors that have stopped the eastern turkey restoration program from being an instant success are predators, habitat and adaptability of released birds to a new environment.
“When turkeys from the Midwest are first released, they spend a lot of time just wandering around,” said Burk. “It’s like they know there’s supposed to be a cornfield there somewhere, but they can’t find it. Once they learn their home range, they settle down into more stable movement patterns.”
Because of habitat similarities, turkeys trapped in the Southeast logically would adapt better to East Texas. Unfortunately, the supply of Southeastern birds is limited. Burk hopes that will change in the near future. Unlike most wildlife projects, money is not an issue with Texas eastern turkey restoration. Texas turkey hunters who spend $5 for a turkey stamp generate more money to pay for eastern turkeys than there are turkeys available to buy.
While the project is not progressing as fast as Burk had hoped, there are some bright spots. Red River County, for instance, is the only county in Texas to have an eastern turkey season this spring or last spring. It is impossible to accurately count eastern turkeys but Burk figures there may be 800 to 1,000 birds in Red River County. Marion County could be even better. The top counties, Red River, Marion, Bowie, Cass and Harrison, are all in Northeast Texas. Burk thinks neighboring Lamar and Fannin counties could eventually be just as good.
He plans to recommend them all for spring turkey season in 1997. With millions of acres of suitable eastern turkey habitat, much of it on public lands or wildlife management areas, the eastern turkey project has unlimited potential and virtually unlimited funding.