I start thinking about turkey hunting some time around January. It’s just a niggling series of questions I ask myself that forms in the back of my mind and doesn’t really take front-and-center until March. After that, it hits a fever pitch as I mark enough days on the calendar to get my fix in a few states but not so many that I’ll also have to hire a divorce lawyer.
The problem with spring turkey hunting, is there are an awful lot of places to go. Nearly every state, or most worth traveling to, will sell you an over-the-counter tag as a nonresident. Better than that, most of the best states also have public land that is littered with birds, meaning the find-a-place-to-hunt part of the equation is already solved.
Honestly, the hardest part is often just narrowing down the best state in which to spend your time. While I’m parsing out my own travels, I always realize something — my mind moves to South Dakota first. From there, it travels south until I’m just shy of the coast in Texas. Each state along the way is a top-five contender for nonresident dollars in its own right. In fact, those states bookended between South Dakota and Texas represent nearly all anyone needs for a quality hunt.
Choose one or choose all five and just go.
A Northern Start
South Dakota is just special. There are the closest-to-pure Merriam’s you’re probably going to find on an over-the-counter tag. These vocal, white-tipped-fan strutters live in the vast expanse of the Black Hills and they draw most of the attention. They should, too. They are beautiful, vocal, plentiful, and live in a setting that is so different from most turkey hunts.
The rest of South Dakota doesn’t receive much love longbeard-wise, which means just about any public riverbottom you can find will have lightly pressured birds, especially if you’re not hung up on your Grand Slam and will gladly shoot a hybrid or Eastern. Bowhunters can take advantage of the weeklong archery-only season, while gun hunters get about five weeks to jelly-head a longbeard starting in mid-April.
And then there is Nebraska. Of the states I get angry correspondence about, Nebraska is numero uno. It seems that Nebraska’s unbelievable hunting is a secret, but not a very well-kept one.
Nebraska has a killer early archery season, a long any-weapon season, and while the bird numbers aren’t quite what they were a few years ago, are still pretty incredible. The Cornhusker State isn’t known for vast amounts of public land, but there’s plenty to be had. If you’ve got kids, Nebraska has some of the best youth license options out there and if you keep shelling out the dough, you can shoot three longbeards before you’re cut off.
The Middle Of Middle America
Kansas is more well-known for big whitetails than anything, but while the deer receive all of the love, the turkeys are nothing to scoff at. Kansas hunts like Nebraska in that if you can find a timbered riverbottom, you’ll find gobblers. Sometimes, if you can find a 10-acre woodlot in a sea of CRP, you can find gobblers as well. Like its northern neighbor, Kansas has some pretty sweet youth deals.
Kansas is one of the states that has enacted an early archery season, which starts April 9 and goes through the 17th. The following day the general season kicks off, and you can hunt until the end of May. I spent some time two years ago hunting late-season gobblers in Kansas, and aside from the tornadoes (no joke), it was pretty incredible.
And then there is Oklahoma. I love it, because it’s a total sleeper for most game animals, but especially for turkeys and deer. The Sooner State offers Easterns, Merriam’s, and Rio Grandes. Or to put it another way, three subspecies and a pile of mutts. Oklahoma is diverse, full of public land, and the tags are generous.
You do have to pay attention to the regulations (obviously) because season dates and bag limits vary by region and county. If you play your cards right, you can shoot three toms in a season. For most of the state, you can hunt from April 6 to May 6. In the Southeast Region, you’ll be hunting between the dates of April 23 and May 6.
Vocal & Suicidal
Then there is Texas. My first time hunting Texas for gobblers was an experience I’ll never forget. We walked through mesquite flats and oak motts for miles, and called in birds on nearly every setup. We also walked up on a cowboy who’s coffee had clearly just kicked in and who most likely, thought there wasn’t another person within miles.
Texas is full of birds, plum full. Now, thus far I’ve mentioned an awful lot of public land, and you’re not going to find that in Texas. The Lone Star State does have more public ground than it’s given credit for, but when compared to overall land mass it’s a tiny amount.
You’ll have to book a hunt or engage in some other pay-to-play operation most likely, but it’s worth it. You might get a bonus pig, or you just might have the kind of hunt where the Rios are talking (they talk A LOT) and your decoys are in danger of losing their paint jobs due to incessant pecking.
Seasons vary quite a bit depending on what part of the state you want to hunt, so consult the regs and plan accordingly.