“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
I’m sure when poet Robert Burns inked those words in his seminal “To A Mouse”, wild turkeys were the furthest thing from his mind.
But oh how this poetic truism has rang true in all things turkey for me lately.
Last year I founded Turkey Revolution, a project to raise awareness of wild turkey conservation.
It began with a quest to photograph the Grand Slam of wild turkeys (Rio Grande, Eastern, Osceola, Merriam’s)-all within 2019. That concluded at 9,000 in elevation in Colorado last June by photographing a gorgeous and ultra-rare bearded cinnamon phase Merriam’s hen with poults.
This year’s goal was to photograph the elusive Gould’s turkey that inhabits the “Sky Island” areas of Arizona and New Mexico.
I had the location.
I had the contacts.
I had a time picked out to travel during the peak breeding season.
Not only was air travel not an option but the federal lands the limited Gould’s population dwells in were off-limits as well, so I decided in March to switch 2020 and 2021’s objectives. The Gould’s search would begin next year and the search eastern turkeys in the Pineywoods of East Texas where I live would begin.
A tract of private land 75 minutes from my home that had turkes on it opened up and it happens to be in Newton County, one of 12 counties open to hunting eastern turkeys in the Pineywoods region.
Once a mecca for these birds, poaching and habitat degradation took the numbers down to nothing.
Gradually intensive stocking and habitat work from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) and National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) brought the region’s numbers up to around 10,000.
Me and my friend Josh Slone scouted his friend’s property heavily the day before the season opener and figured we knew where the birds were roosting.
It was in a big creek bottom on the edge of a clear cut.
Our plan was to set up on the outside of the roosting locations and get the birds as they came into the field to feed. Tracks, scat, and scratching showed they were using the exact spot where we set up the day before.
So, now we go back to that whole best-laid plans of mice and men thing.
We got to the location well before daylight, set up the decoys, and after things settled a few minutes let out a call.
A gobbler called back immediately.
It sounded like he was on top of us.
He gobbled again and I was thinking the bird might already be on the ground right out in the weeds just past our decoys.
“Holy smokes! He’s right there in that big pine tree!,” Josh said.
On the outer edge of the creek bottom was a small clump of trees and sitting on a limb about 60 feet up was a gobbler.
He was way too close for comfort!
The big gobbler let out a flurry of gobbles that was unlike anything I’ve heard and was running up and down the big limb strutting.
I don’t like to get this close to roosting birds, especially in an extremely open clear cut like we were in.
I thought there was no way this bird was going to come to us. The sky was so clear we didn’t even need a light to walk in so I knew he saw us setting up.
Josh kept toying with him and he seemed interested until a hen busted out into the field and started calling. He fixed his attention on her and as she made her way down the field away from us, he flew down, walked far out of range along the woodline, and followed the girl.
Who could blame him, right?
Just as I was about to get discouraged, I saw a beard hanging off a big pine tree about 60 feet up and 30 feet away from where the other gobbler flew down from.
A few minutes later I saw tail feathers as the bird moved.
It was a huge gobbler!
And it never made a sound.
Not at daylight. Not for the next hour.
Not for the next two hours. It just sat in that tree and barely moved.
I have seen turkeys in roosts a little after daylight but nothing like this.
At around 8:30 it walked from the backside of the tree to a limb on the front side in perfect sunlight.
I grabbed my camera with the 400 mm lens knowing the Lord had granted me an opportunity and snapped away.
As the massive gobbler stood there with beard dangling, I was in awe.
This was the county I have hunted in my whole life.
It was the county my father first let me accompany him to a deer blind in the late 70s when there were few deer and no turkeys.
And here I was with my true hunting partner Josh sharing the moment.
When my father died of natural causes on a deer hunting trip with me in 2014, I was broken. I didn’t know if I would hunt again, especially hunt deer.
Dad was my hunting partner and whitetail were his thing.
But I couldn’t help talk hunting being around Josh. He practically forced me to get on his deer lease and here we were together seeing a turkey that never made a peep for 2.5 hours after daylight in a county that means something to both of us.
It was a powerful moment.
When I got home, I reached out to TPWD Wild Turkey Program Leader Jason Hardin about the birds in Newton County.
The bird I photographed did not have a leg band so it was at least a second-generation wild bird so I thought.
“You will not likely see any banded wild turkeys in Newton County. The area has not received a stocking in 20 years. My records show four release sites scattered north to south across Newton County,” Hardin said.
“Restocking efforts began slowly in the late 1970s and concluded in 2000. There may have been some earlier restocking efforts, but those would have consisted of Rio Grande wild turkeys and pen-reared turkeys (illegal to release today in Texas for the purpose of establishing a wild turkey population).”
Historical Newton County Release Sites
Donahue Creek in central Newton County near Louisiana border: 1977 (2 males), 1978 (4 hens), 2000 (15 hens and 4 males)
Sheppard Road in southern Newton County near Louisiana border: 2000 (5 males and 15 hens)
Scrappin Valley in northern Newton County: 1981 (8 females, 2 males), 1982 (4 males), 1996 (5 males)
Slaydons Creek in southern Newton County near Louisiana border: No data in my records other than the location suggesting a restocking effort in the late 70s or early 80s.
I was blown away to see Sheppard Road on the list because my Aunt Ann lived at the end of it and I took my first animal-ever there-a swamp rabbit. I used to hunt squirrels on the very public hunting unit that used to exist where the birds had been released in 2000.
Listen to The Higher Calling podcast as Chester Moore interviews TPWD’s Jason Hardin on a can’t miss episode.
“Newton County birds are part of a larger population that expands west out of Louisiana. Once you get to Sabine County, Toledo Bend reservoir serves as a fragmenting feature on the landscape,” Hardin said.
“Turkey numbers begin to decline rapidly as you move north to Shelby County due to the connectivity with the larger metapopulation in Louisiana.”
Hardin said Louisiana wild turkey genetics flow into Newton County.
“They make their way here naturally through regular population expansion. The lake reduces that potential for ingress to those areas north of the Toledo Bend lake dam,” he said.
This Turkey Revolution journey has been full of surprises.
Whether it was the super rare color phase Colorado bird hen noted above, learning that York’s turkey population has declined 40 percent in the last decade after hunting there in 2019 or that reservoirs can serve as a barrier for natural turkey expansion, surprises are the norm.
Josh and I are returning to the property in hopes of bagging a gobbler this time. We have a new game plan and are hoping for better turkey cooperation.
I’ll never forget watching that big Newton County gobbler walk out on that limb and pose for us.
And I’ll never forget watching a TPWD and NWTF eastern turkey release in Titus County in the Pineywoods just a month before COVID-19 became an issue.
This year has been special in the quest to learn about the region’s eastern turkeys and share it with hunters and other wildlife lovers.
I’ll always remember the disruption caused by the pandemic as giving me a greater chance to learn about the turkeys in my back yard.
Sometimes plans do go awry, but that doesn’t mean something just as good can’t come along.
The shrill gobble carried across the 1/2 mile stretch of the valley with ease.
Positioned on a tall hill (by East Texas standards) my friend Josh Slone and I were pumped to get a response to our first call and it was loud!
The space between these hills and the creekbed below had been clear cut in the last six months and while that practice has questionable merit, the first year or so of a clear cut provides lots of new growth for turkeys, whitetails, and many other creatures.
This was a better start to the day than a public land hunt the day before where we saw plenty of sign, but no birds. My friend Derek York got a good luck at a gobbler and two hens but that was while he was transitioning between locations and wasn’t ready to take a shot.
The same thing happened to me and Josh here on a private lease as later in the morning after seeing a couple of hens, we decided to move toward where we had heard the gobbler earlier and as soon as we went to stake out the decoy there he was.
At about 1/4 mile away he popped out of the woods and popped right back. A turkey’s vision is astounding and once he saw us we knew there was no chance he was coming back out no matter how much we called.
This was a very special couple of days as we were hunting eastern turkeys in the Pineywoods of East Texas. A limited season for this subspecies exists in a handful of counties where restoration efforts by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) have boosted eastern numbers from near zero to around 10,000.
Restoration efforts continue with “super stockings” that are putting upwards of 80 birds in key locations to see eastern numbers expand in this vastly forested region.
On the way back from day two’s hunt, I realized we had been turkey hunting on Earth Day.
To me, it was a fitting way to celebrate the environment and enjoy God’s creation in a fun, exciting way.
In my opinion, as turkeys go, so do America’s forests.
Where forests have either natural fires or controlled prescribed burns and trees adequate for roosting turkeys thrive. And in those same locations so do many other creatures including species of concern such as indigo snakes, the red-cockaded woodpecker, and gopher tortoises.
The difference is there are no groups willing to spend millions to help woodpeckers or indigo snakes, but there is a group that has hundreds of thousands of members and that spends millions helping turkeys-the NWTF.
Wildlife and its habitat need cornerstone species to inspire people to stand for their existence and proliferation. In the mountains, it’s bighorn sheep and in much of the rest of America’s forests, it’s wild turkeys.
Seeing eastern turkeys on a hunt just 75 minutes from my house in the eastern extremity of Texas was a dream come true. I will be returning numerous times to try and bag a bird and enjoy this pursuit that would have been impossible without the diligent efforts of hunter-conservationists.
I’m not one of those hunters who says that only hunters care about wildlife That’s nonsense. I know many nonhunters who do as well.
But I don’t know any group that has a hardcore contingent of conservationists willing to spend as much money, time, and effort on behalf of wildlife as hunters and fishermen in America.
It’s truly remarkable what this group of people have done for wildlife in the United States and beyond.
That’s why spending Earth Day hunkered down in the brush, calling out to turkeys in East Texas was so fitting for me.
I learned to conserve wildlife through hunting and fishing and to this day it remains a means of connecting with nature, collecting food for the table, and enjoy the outdoors to the max.
Thank God for the planet and for filling the forests of America with wild turkeys.
My life is better thanks to their existence.
Chester Moore, Jr.
Chester’s Turkey Revolution project has hit many media outlets already in 2020 with a message of turkey conservation. Here’s where to find some of the articles and broadcasts.
The Wildlife Journalist® and Higher Calling blog publisher Chester Moore was awarded the National Wild Turkey Federation’s (NWTF) “Advocatus Magni Award” for being an outstanding advocate of wild turkey conservation and hunting.
Moore received the award at the NWTF Texas banquet in College Station, TX and said it a true honor to be recognized by such a prestigious organization and for something he believes in wholeheartedly.
“As turkeys go, so do America’s forests. If we get turkey conservation right then everything from whitetail deer to gopher tortoises and wild sheep benefit,” he said.
In 2019 Moore embarked on a quest to raise awareness to turkey conservation and began by photographing the Grand Slam of turkeys around the nation in one year.
“There’s much more to come. This award inspires me to do even more and explore things like the link between turkeys and sheep in their shared range. It’s going to be a great year,” he said.
The highlight will be taking a group of teen’s from Moore’s Wild Wishes® program into Colorado on a search for wild sheep, turkeys and elk in the mountains.
These Higher Calling Wild Wishes Expeditions will take these young people who have a critical illness or loss of a parent or sibling on a special conservation mission trip to raise awareness to sheep, turkey and elk habitat and conservation issues.
My daughter Faith excitedly proclaimed those words as she cracked open a box and released an Eastern turkey into the wilds of Titus County, TX.
We went to document the release for this blog and Texas Fish and Game and she got a chance to participate courtesy of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) and National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF).
To say she was pumped was an understatement.
This bird was one of 21 brought in from Missouri over a two-day span to kick-off what TPWD calls a “super stocking”.
A “super stocking” involves releasing a minimum of 80 turkeys at each site over time with the ideal ratio of three hens for each gobbler.
In the past, TPWD released smaller numbers in area but have over the last decade went to larger stockings and are seeing more success.
“It’s the same old story,” said TPWD turkey program director Jason Hardin.
“The birds were essentially wiped out by subsistence and market hunting along with extensive habitat loss in the later parts of the 19th century, but with the help of the NWTF, we have been able to bring the birds back all across the country. Although more than 50 counties in East Texas were stocked during the 1980s and 1990s only 28 counties are open for turkey hunting today. So we had to start looking at why we were not as successful in keeping the Eastern wild turkey population flourishing as other states in its historic range.”
I have been talking turkey with hunters in East Texas since these super stockings began and have many reports of increased turkey numbers in the counties where they have taken place.
Stockings attempts in the 1970s involved releasing Rio Grande birds as well as pen-raised Easterns but both failed to gain traction.
Now TPWD only releases wild-caught Eastern turkeys from states like Missouri, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina.
They give a $500 donation to participating state wildlife programs for each bird that comes from upland game bird stamp sales. Transportation and other fees are covered by NWTF.
For an extremely in-depth discussion on this topic listen to the podcast of my radio program “Moore Outdoors” on Newstalk AM 560 KLVI as I talk with Annie Farrell of NWTF.
In March 2019 I began a quest to capture quality photographs of Rio Grande, Merriam’s, Eastern and Osceola turkeys-all within 2019.
The idea is to raise awareness to turkey conservation. I call this project Turkey Revolution!
Hunters (like myself) call this quest the Grand Slam.
And while I took a few hunts this year including bagging my first eastern in New York, this quest is to document with a camera these great birds and to share the experiences through my various media platforms like this blog, Texas Fish & Game, Newstalk AM 560 KLVI and The Wildlife Journalist®.
I happy to announce I wrapped up year one of this adventure in Colorado photographing Merriam’s turkeys.
I got photos of numerous birds there including a very special one-a cinnamon-colored bearded hen you can see a brief clip of in the video below.
Also check out this photo of another beautiful Merriam’s I found in Colorado and a shot of a distant flock I got on a return trip in October on a snow-covered mountain.
This has been a truly exciting adventure and 2020 looks to be equally as interesting as we are in touch with the top biologists, wildlife managers and hunters around the nation on the issue of turkeys.