While mild winter conditions made it a difficult season for skiers and snowboarders, it could pay dividends for turkey hunters when the season opens April 15.
Conditions last spring on the east side of the state were relatively good for poult production. As a result, many hunters, as well as district biologists, reported seeing an abundance of young birds last summer in almost all parts of Eastern Washington, said Brian Calkins, small game section manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“That, combined with the mild winter bodes well for the prospects of a good spring turkey season, Calkins said. “I would expect harvest opportunities to be better than last year.”
Calkins said early estimates of the spring 2014 turkey harvest are almost identical to the 2013 spring season when hunters killed almost 3,800 turkeys.
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More than half of the state’s turkey harvest, 63.7 percent, takes place in Eastern Washington, where hunters can encounter Merriam’s and Rio Grande wild turkeys. Hunters in the Willapa Hills and elsewhere in Southwest Washington can hunt for the Eastern turkey.
Mikal Moore, regional wildlife biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation, was more positive when looking ahead to the season.
“We’re looking at an excellent spring turkey season this year,” she said. “With the mild conditions, the overwinter survival is going to be really high. When you combine that with a good production this spring and last spring, the numbers should be good.”
The good spring weather also could affect the hunting season, Moore said.
“Because of this unseasonably warm weather, the females will begin incubating early. So it will be important for people to get out and hunt early in the season,” she added.
“If they want to catch birds vocalizing a lot, they’ll want to get out early in the season. They’ll want to catch those toms who are roaming around looking for something to do once the hens start incubating.”
The health of the Eastern Washington turkey population is a frequent topic when people comment on the state’s game management plan and hunting regulation proposals, Calkins said.
“Almost all comments were from one of two ends of the spectrum with regard to the status of the turkey populations in Region 1,” he said. “It was a pretty equal split between those who were concerned the turkey population has declined substantially and those who believe that the population has continued to grow.”
Moore said the numbers seem to have leveled off in the northeast corner of the state.
“That is a good sign. It’s about where we want to be and there’s a good number of birds there,” she said.
The differing view among hunters might have been a function of whether the individual hunts on public or private lands, Calkins said.
“We certainly do receive quite a few requests for assistance from landowners experiencing conflicts with turkeys. A good recommendation is that it is worth the time to seek permission to hunt on private lands.”
He said the department has agreements with some private landowners in the region to facilitate hunting access including some which specifically offer turkey hunting opportunities. A few are managed under the state’s Hunt by Reservation System. Information on these sites can be found at wdfw.wa.gov/hunting.
Calkins said the turkey harvest has been relatively stable along the eastern slopes of the Cascades. He cautioned that it will be hard to predict how the Carlton Complex fire will affect hunter opportunity, bird behavior or the population in the short term. Moore said turkeys will feed on the new green growth that results from a fire, meaning hunters might find birds where they typically are not found.
Looking at statewide statistics, Calkins said overall harvest and hunter numbers have been declining the past several years without a definitive explanation.
Despite this, he said, the hunter success rate has remained around 30 percent.
“One thing that we will be evaluating is that the decline in hunter numbers began around the time that our tag structure and fees changed,” Calkins said.
SPRING TURKEY SEASON
DATES: April 15-May 31. Hunting hours are one half hour before sunrise to sunset.
RESTRICTIONS: Hunters can take only gobblers and turkeys with visible beards.
BAG/POSSESSION LIMIT: A total of three turkeys in the spring season with the following restrictions: Only two turkeys may be taken in Eastern Washington
and only one of those may be taken in Chelan, Kittitas, and Yakima counties (combined); only one turkey may be taken in Western Washington per year outside of Klickitat County. Two turkeys may be taken in Klickitat County.
LICENSES: A small game hunting license is $40.50 for an adult resident of Washington. A primary turkey tag is $15.90.
• Spring turkey season is open for shotgun (10 gauge or under capable of holding three or fewer shells — a plug may be used to meet this requirement) a muzzleloader with shot and bow-and-arrow hunting only.
• A valid hunting license and an unaltered, unnotched turkey transport tag are required for hunting turkey.
• Immediately after killing a turkey, hunters must validate their own tag by completely removing notches for month and day of kill and securely attach tag to carcass.
• It is unlawful to use dogs, live birds, electronic calls or electronic decoys to hunt turkeys.
• Baiting game birds is illegal.
• Turkey hunters must use No. 4 shot or smaller.
• It is illegal to possess in the field or transport game birds unless a feathered head is left attached to each carcass, except for falconry caught birds.
STATE HOT SPOT
Despite a 53.9 percent decline from 2011 to 2013, the northeast corner of the state produces the highest turkey harvest each spring. Data from the 2014 spring season is not yet available.
Overall, spring turkey harvest fell 47.2 percent statewide in that same time frame.
The turkeys found in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties are Merriam’s turkeys. They flourished in the area after being established in 1961, but then populations slowly declined. A large transplant of turkeys from South Dakota in 1988-89 helped steadily expanded the population’s range and density.
The city of Colville recognizes the popularity of turkey hunting in the area, going so far as to call itself the “Wild Turkey Capital of Washington.” To help hunters find a place to chase turkeys, the city has worked with a number of agencies and hunting groups to produce interactive turkey hunting maps. You can find them at mapmet.com/game/tractsmap.html.