For most turkey hunters, the chance to dial in on the habits of the local flock and put the smackdown on a tom or two within a reasonable drive of their home is what the spring season is all about. No doubt, figuring out and beating the birds in your own backyard is what ultimately makes a person a great turkey hunter. But after that nut has been cracked, some guys understandably feel the need to spread their wings and seek the challenge and adventure only a new scene can deliver.
With time and funds being limited for most of us, the question then comes down to where a hunter should focus his or her efforts. But ranking states can be tricky. All too often such lists are based on a host of subjective criteria to determine the best places. After personally having gone turkey hunting in 22 states and having covered the sport for the past 13 years, I know my 10 favorites that I would rattle off, if left to my own devices. But like any sportsman, I’m biased too, so rather than leave you to my personal favorites, I took a look at four main criteria: turkey populations, harvest rates, percentage of birds harvested annually and tag costs. Tag availability, bag limits and access to public land and/or guided opportunities were also given some weight. I also wanted to include at least one state for every subspecies of wild turkey. The results surprised even me. But as Charlie Sheen would be quick to point out, “the scoreboard doesn’t lie.”
10. South Dakota
South Dakota squeaked onto this list for one reason—the Merriam’s hunting found in the Black Hills. While there is another state with “Merriam’s” action that scored higher, there is no way it compares to the concentration of birds in the Black Hills area. Flying into the airport in Rapid City in spring will find as many passengers in hunting camo as in jeans and 10-gallon hats, and there is a strong mix of outfitters and public land available to accommodate them all. Hunters must apply for permits, which are always a drag, but success rates are better than middling. Because of the draw, license costs for nonresidents are very reasonable (only $85), and hunters can take two birds. Hit an Indian reservation, all of which have a separate permitting system, and you can take even more.
Like South Dakota, Florida rides in on this list by virtue of a subspecies provisional. It is the only place in the country where Osceola turkeys can be hunted. They are found in the bottom two-thirds of the state’s peninsula, and while biologists there combine them all in projecting population estimates—roughly 100,000 birds total—hunters there also harvest in the ballpark of 26,000 birds each spring. That’s a whopping 26 percent of the state’s entire turkey population. Those kinds of numbers don’t happen if the hunting isn’t good. Osceolas are known for their longer spurs, and the terrain is among some of the most beautiful you can hunt. Not too many years back, Florida was one of the best deals anywhere for nonresidents, but then the game department woke up to the monopoly they held on the subspecies and jacked license and permit costs up to a hefty $278 for the full season. It’s still worth it and there is also a less costly 10-day license option available.
Moving into the heart of the Eastern’s range, Tennessee is home to 310,000 turkeys (5th most in the country). Hunters there tagged 37,000 of those birds in 2010 (7th most). The state presents hunters with a lot of mountainous and rolling terrain, and the numerous hollows and wooded ridges provide ideal habitat for gobblers to thrive in. The Volunteer State boasts abundant public land hunting for its gobblers as well, with key locations in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area and the Cherokee National Forest WMA. Both of these areas offer enough public land for serious hunters to escape the crowd.
As with its whitetails, Kansas is earning a reputation for its turkey hunting. Across the state, hunters will find Easterns, Rio Grandes and Merriam’s. Merriam’s, however, are primarily found in the southwestern corner, which is accessible only by draw, while the rest of the state is available to over-the-counter tags. Kansas boasts the ninth highest harvest of any state in the U.S., with last year’s harvest coming in at 34, 991 birds. It was also number one in the percentage of the turkey population harvested, with 35 percent of its estimated 100,000 birds. Hunters are finding big time success here.
With Easterns in the southeastern part of the state and Rios ruling the rest, Oklahoma offers some fantastic hunting—most of it for Rios. The Sooner State didn’t even crack the top 15 for turkey populations, but hunters there scored on 37,407 birds in 2010 (5th for harvest) making it so a whopping 30 percent of the state’s turkeys rode home in a truck last spring. Terrain in the northeastern extent of the Rio’s range looks more like the hardwood farmland common to Eastern hunters, but gives way midstate to more open, arid and rolling agriculture and pastures. There are even Merriam’s found in a small northwestern portion of the state; and with a license that permits three birds, Okie hunters can make quick work of three out of the four subspecies needed for their Grand Slam.
Our nation’s second state has always boasted one of the richest hunting traditions in the country, and that honor extends to turkey hunting where western Pennsylvania’s rugged terrain has always supported ample turkey populations, even when they waned in many other parts of the country. Last year Pennsylvania hunters tagged 42,478 (4th overall) of the state’s estimated 360,000 (3rd highest population) wild turkeys, part of that success, no doubt, is the result that the state is among one of the most crowded with sportsmen. Despite the high rankings, the harvest rate was only 12 percent of the overall population meaning there is still ample seed stock for producing more birds each year. National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) regional biologist Bob Eriksen predicts a good year for hunters with ample three-year-olds available for some real challenges given the excellent 2008 hatch. All-day hunting will be permitted during the last weeks of the season for the first time in modern history.
Texas is home to the largest turkey population of any state with an estimated total of 510,000 Easterns and Rios. The latter account for 500,000 of them, making the Rios the draw, and while the range is thin on public land offerings, outfitters and day-hunting opportunities abound, many of them offering multiple-bird hunts with stupidly high odds at very reasonable rates. Nonresident licenses remain affordable at approximately $126 and a single license permits you the season bag limit of four bearded birds. Texas offers the preeminent Rio experience with top-outfitted options in the Texas Hill Country or slightly farther west between San Angelo and around Eldorado. The Albany area, three hours west of Dallas, also boasts some fantastic hunting. Double up your fun throughout this range and add a hog hunt to your adventure.
Always my personal favorite and what I would honestly declare the number one turkey hunting destination in the country based on my experiences, Missouri rolled in at “just” No. 3. From the southern Ozarks to the northern woodlots and pastures, it was nothing to hear gobblers in the double digits on the roost in the late 90s and early part of the past decade. Hunters set a state record in 2004 killing 62,000 gobblers. Successive years of unfavorable weather have hampered reproduction, but the state still boasts an estimated 308,000 turkeys, and last year hunters tagged 46,200—far off the record mark, but still good enough for the second highest harvest in the country! As NWTF regional biologist John Burk says, “Missouri in a down year is still as good, if not better, than most places for hunting Eastern wild turkeys.” The state remains a model of excellent turkey management, and public land is abundant with state and/or federal lands open to hunting in nearly every county.