I rose up on tiptoes — as if that would help project the sound — and I laid out the sweetest set of yelps in my repertoire.
I didn’t hear the reply, but my brother did, from just over the little hill to our left, and he quickly hissed at me to call again. I complied. This time the response was swift and urgent, and I heard it too.
We could tell from the sound that the gobbler was coming fast, and we barely had time to top the slight rise and slam down against a couple of trees before the mature bird came gliding up the hill, gobbling and strutting and doing his best jungle man routine in a patch of brilliant morning sunshine.
I called a couple of times just to give my brother the full show as that bird gobbled and strutted in that weird kind of robot dance turkeys do. And the tom stayed right out in the sun to show his colors to best effect.
My brother, when I gave him the nod, slammed the bird with a load of 6s, and we picked up our first turkey of the day.
That was about 10 years ago, but it’s a familiar scene, one that will be played out in one form or another more than 10,000 times this spring, as hunters sample the spring turkey wares of Texas Rio Grande and eastern wild birds.
Unfortunately, spring turkey hunting seems to be dying a slow, tortured death in Texas.
Maybe it’s drought. Maybe people are just tired from a deer season that now lasts nearly five months. Maybe we still haven’t gotten through to people that spring turkey hunting is the most interactive, most fun, most exciting hunting our state has to offer. Whatever the reason, though, we’re in a 20-year decline.
“For the 2011 spring season we had 41,554 hunters,” said Jason Hardin, upland game bird specialist for Texas Parks and Wildlife. “That spring, hunters harvested 12,033 birds. (In) 2009, (we) had a harvest of 20,555 and 2010 had a harvest of 15,871.”
Those are not big numbers for the state with the largest single turkey population in the country and Rio Grande turkeys that could number in the millions. But Texas came late to the spring turkey hunting world and the highest interest came in the years closest to the beginning of that season.
“The highest harvest was in 1993 with 33,477,” Hardin said. “The average harvest since the survey began is 23,860. The 10-year average is 23,020. The last three years have been the toughest.”
Texas has a liberal 4-turkey annual limit, though only one of those can be an eastern wild turkey. Rio Grande turkeys can be hunted in the fall and spring and easterns in spring only. Rio Grande turkeys are amazingly widespread in Texas, basically covering all of the state west of I-35 with a few birds occurring east of that line. They live in the deserts along the Rio Grande and up on the High Plains north of Amarillo.
Rio Grandes live long lives most of the time, which means they can get away with a year of bad hatches because of weather, even two years in areas with a large concentration of birds. Water is important to their nesting success, which means 2013 could go either way. But hunting success is determined by the turkey hatch two and three years prior to the season.
“For folks hunting Rios in the Hill Country, Cross Timbers and South Texas, I would say they should expect to see a good number of jakes and three-year-old gobblers,” Hardin said. “The Jake mobs could have an impact on those older gobblers when it comes to calling. The Trans Pecos and southeast Panhandle area apparently missed a lot of the late winter and early spring rains received in much of the rest of the state and did not get a hatch. Those areas of the state will consist of mostly 3-year-old birds.”
Spring turkey season opens March 16 in the South Zone and March 30 in the North Zone. Eastern turkey seasons runs April 15-May 14.