YAKIMA, Wash. -- This might not be called the heyday of turkey hunting in Washington state, but it isn’t far off. In fact, a pretty strong argument could be made that this year might be one of the best in a long time to be out trying to bamboozle a big tom turkey.
Wild turkeys have been around forever and ever. The early settlers in America found them all over the East Coast. Ben Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be our national symbol. But turkeys were most likely not native to the Pacific Northwest.
That being said, Washington has been home to wild turkeys for over almost 60 years. The first birds were introduced to the state in 1960 and over the years three different subspecies of turkeys have taken hold and are now available in populations large enough to hunt.
The three subspecies of wild turkeys around the state include the Merriam’s, Rio Grande, and Eastern. Currently, the Merriam’s subspecies occupies portions of Ferry, Klickitat, Pend Oreille, Skamania, Stevens, Spokane, Okanogan, Chelan, Kittitas, and Yakima counties.
Rio Grande turkeys can be found in Asotin, Columbia, Garfield, Lincoln, Walla Walla, and Whitman counties.
Confusingly, the Eastern subspecies are found western half of the state in Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Lewis, Mason, Pacific, Thurston, and Wahkiakum counties.
Of the three subspecies, the toughest to hunt is the Eastern variety on the west side of the state. Not only are Easterns supposed to be more wary, they live in some thick places, with lots of private land surrounding them. And their population numbers are much lower than the Rios and Merriam’s.
Because we have three different subspecies, and because we have good numbers of turkeys in several counties in eastern Washington, hunters are allowed to shoot three turkeys in the spring, with the following restrictions: only two turkeys may be taken in eastern Washington and only one of those may be taken in Chelan, Kittitas, or Yakima counties (combined); only one turkey may be taken in western Washington outside of Klickitat County. Two turkeys may be taken in Klickitat County.
When you look at the spring turkey harvest numbers over the past 16 years you can see there have been some ups and downs but for the most part the annual harvest has been pushing 5,000 birds with a few years bumping over that.
In 2016, the last year harvest numbers were available, 4,980 turkeys were tagged by Washington hunters. And the bulk of those, 3,421, were taken in a five-county area of Northeastern Washington.
If you are looking for a place to hunt this spring, that would be the place to start.
Other good regions of the state to try for a spring gobbler include the southeastern counties in the foothills of the Blue Mountains and in Klickitat and Skamania Counties. With a relatively mild winter and a really good nesting season last spring and summer, the turkey populations seem to be in really good shape.
Some friends up in Lincoln County are saying that they are seeing “lots more turkeys this year.” Anecdotal yes, but still a good sign.
Here in Yakima County it is not quite as rosy. We do have some turkeys roaming the foothills of the Cascades but the number of birds has never been anywhere near that of the populations of turkeys to the east of us.
Every year a few hunters fill their tags in District 8, which is made up of Yakima and Kittitas Counties. In 2016, some 185 toms were taken in our district, but most of the harvest was in the northern portion--in the Naneum, Quilomene and Teanaway units. No success numbers were available for 2017, but again, with a mild winter and good nesting conditions last spring it is easy to believe there should be a few more birds around.
The spring turkey hunting season opens on Sunday, April 15 all over the state, and runs until May 31. There is also a special two-day youth hunting season this Saturday and Sunday, April 7 and 8.
Again, a hunter can take three birds in Washington in the spring, but one must be an Eastern.
Frankly three birds is a lofty goal. In fact, in 2016, only one hunter in the entire state accomplished the feat. Most hunters are quite happy just to bag one tom in the spring. A second is a nice bonus.
While a few turkeys are killed by hunters just out wandering in the woods, the main way to hunt spring gobblers is to set up and try to call them in. This time of year is mating season and the toms are out strutting their stuff, trying to locate hens who are ready to breed.
Hunters who have done their homework, and located some birds ahead of time, can sometimes get the toms to come to them by sounding like a lonesome hen. Wary toms who are with hens rarely come to the call, but once in a while it is amazingly easy to call one in. It just depends on the bird and what the situation is.
There are all kinds of great sounds and scenarios that hunters experience in the outdoors, but having a mature tom turkey come looking for you, gobbling and drumming as he does, may be the ultimate hunting experience.
If you’ve ever had a hankering to hunt wild turkeys this might be the year to do it. Is it the heyday of turkey hunting in Washington State? Maybe. If not, it is darn close, and should be a whole bunch of fun.
- Rob Phillips is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer who has written the Northwest Sportsman column for over 25 years. He can be reached at email@example.com.