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Turkey season is set to open, but birds are behaving differently

Oklahoma's spring turkey season opens April 6 and runs through May 6. In southeast Oklahoma, the season opens April 22 and ends May 6 due to lower populations. [OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES]
Oklahoma's spring turkey season opens April 6 and runs through May 6. In southeast Oklahoma, the season opens April 22 and ends May 6 due to lower populations. [OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES]

Turkey hunters likely will see fewer birds this spring as the state’s wild turkey population has declined from a year ago.

The population of Rio Grandes are down across the state, only slightly in most locations, but in a few areas in far western Oklahoma the decrease is more significant, said Rod Smith of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

“Other than some of individual lands I don’t think people will see a huge difference," Smith said. "They will probably see fewer turkeys, but an adult tom is what most people are after, and last year’s reproduction doesn’t affect that a great deal.”

Oklahoma’s monthlong spring turkey hunting season opens Saturday. It is one of the most popular hunting seasons in the state.

The wild turkey is the state’s game bird and the about only “game” in town for hunters this time of year.

The wild turkey is native to Oklahoma. It was an important food source for Native Americans and early settlers of the territory.

Unregulated hunting almost wiped wild turkeys out in the early days of statehood, but restoration efforts brought them back.

A decade ago, the wild turkey population reached a peak of an estimated 120,000 birds, Smith said. Last year, the estimate was 105,000, he said.

“We just had great reproduction back to back to back, but that’s not normal,” Smith said. “Then the drought hit in 2011, 2012 and turkey numbers took a hit.”

The population has bounced up and down since then. Oklahoma’s turkey population is still in better shape than most states, particularly its eastern neighbors where the Eastern subspecies of wild turkeys are in decline.

That’s why Oklahoma has a shortened turkey hunting season in southeast Oklahoma where the Eastern birds reside. The turkey hunting season in Oklahoma’s eight southeastern counties opens April 22 and closes May 6 as it does statewide.

Most of the state is home to the Rio Grande subspecies of wild turkeys, and out-of-state hunters converge on western Oklahoma during the spring to bag a gobbler. Many of them come to Oklahoma in pursuit of the Grand Slam, the quest to take all four subspecies of wild turkeys.

“Go out to western Oklahoma on opening weekend and see all the out-of-state trucks,” said T.J. Goodpasture, regional director of the National Wild Turkey Federation in western Oklahoma. "It’s going to be apparent very quickly how important turkey hunters are to the economy out there."

Roger Mills County, where the Black Kettle National Grasslands and the Black Kettle Wildlife Management Area are located, is the No. 2 county in the country for number of birds registered in the NWTF record books, second only to Osceola County in Florida, Goodpasture said.

“That tells me there a lot of guys who go out there hunting public land, or just hunting Roger Mills County, just to get their Rio for their grand slams,” he said.

Goodpasture said he’s received mixed reports about turkey numbers this spring in Oklahoma.

“It’s going to be hit or miss in some areas,” he said. “Scouting is going to be pretty important."

Smith agrees, saying the birds seem to be behaving differently this spring.

“I think it is going to be important for people to scout ahead of season and see if turkeys are using the same places they have in the past,” Smith said. “People that normally have turkeys when they break up from the winter roost aren’t seeing them so much.

“Generally, they go to the same places every spring, but this year seems to be a little different for whatever reason. Turkeys will come to the same place for 10 years in a row, then in the 11th year they might just go in a different direction.”

Ed Godfrey

Ed Godfrey was born in Muskogee and raised in Stigler. He has worked at The Oklahoman for 25 years. During that time, he has worked a myriad of beats for The Oklahoman including both the federal and county courthouse in Oklahoma City for more... Read more ›