Here’s the thing I love about those Texasisms: They’re all true, and that’s great news for turkey hunters who want to head to the Lone Star state in a quest for a Rio. In keeping with the “bigger” theme, I could easily find 50 things instead of 10 to tell you before you strike out on a Texas adventure. But that would take a lot more room than I have here. Besides, you will continue to read much about Texas in this magazine, as you always have. That’s because the state is a premier early-season destination for writers looking for new material and turkey hunting gear manufacturers who want to field-test new products in an environment where they can really put stuff through the paces.
What follows is a general overview of things I’ve learned from several Texas trips, all in the southwestern quarter of the state. Some of it is good advice anywhere, but these are things I’ve found to be most noteworthy.
Also, be aware that when you hear about Texas’ generous bag limit of four turkeys, that is most often in reference to the Rio Grande subspecies, but there is a population of Eastern birds in East Texas, for which the bag limit is not as liberal.
1. Ask questions, and then ask some more questions. It isn’t difficult to find a guide or outfitter who will host you for your Texas hunt, and I highly recommend you go this route, at least for your first visit. But all ranches are not created equal. Key items to inquire about (in addition to the obvious consideration of price) include how much property will be available for you to hunt, how many other hunters will be on the property and whether the hunt is guided, semi-guided or not guided at all.
Next, ask about hunting methods. I’ve had disappointed hunters tell me their Texas “adventure” meant sitting over a corn feeder with instructions to stay put until the “guide” came back to pick them up. Well, hunting over bait is perfectly legal in Texas, and if you want to hunt that way, have at it. But if you want more excitement and challenge, make sure your host will accommodate you by pointing out roost areas, likely turkey travel routes and other features that will allow you to move around and give you the chance to call and work birds.
Ask about the limit; often it is only two birds, even though your license is good for four. Sometimes a ranch will allow you to shoot a third bird. Make sure you understand their policy before you go.
Asking for references and calling as many as you can should help you decide on a guide or outfitter and eliminate unwelcome surprises.
2. About Optics: Don’t make me say it. Hunting in much of Texas bears little resemblance to staking out Uncle Bill’s 10-acre clover field in Minnesota. Many of the ranches that offer the best hunting are measured not in acres but in square miles. If you’re going to try to hunt these big wide-open spaces with efficiency, you need to take binoculars. This trip might be the perfect excuse to upgrade to some really good glass. Then, if there’s any money left over, consider adding a range-finder to your optics arsenal. Distances can be deceiving, particularly if you’ve done most of your hunting in heavily forested areas.
3. Take extra camo. I’m not trying to insult your intelligence by telling you to wear clothing that matches your surroundings (duh, but true). But I am telling you to be sure to inquire of your host about the landscape you’ll be hunting before you go. One misconception about Texas is that the whole place is brown and dusty, so light-colored “brush” or “western” patterns are called for. Well, sometimes that might be the case. But a couple of years ago when we held our T&TH Sweepstakes hunt near San Angelo, our host Skipper Duncan of Adobe Lodge told us they’d had one of the wettest springs in years. We arrived to find blooming flowers everywhere we looked, and the grass was so green it seemed to be glowing. Mossy Oak Apparel had helped sponsor our sweepstakes, and the new Mossy Oak Obsession pattern with its bright, almost tropical green hues turned out to be just the ticket.
On the flip side, this past spring I hunted at Dove Creek Ranch, just a skip away from Adobe. Ranch manager Ronnie Rose told us that temps had dropped into the teens only days before we arrived and their spring was two weeks behind. It had warmed up before I and some writers arrived to hunt, but the landscape lay in stark contrast to my earlier Texas hunt. Realtree had just introduced its new Advantage Max-1 HD pattern and supplied us with some clothing to try. Max-1 looks nothing like Obsession, and this time it was the best choice.
4. Be ready to sit anywhere. On the Dove Creek hunt last spring I was hunting with Realtree’s media relations manager, Dodd Clifton, when we met up with a huge group of Rios doing what they’re known for — traveling. We executed what I dare say was one of the finest end-around moves ever made in the history of turkey hunting to get in front of the group, then dove into a patch of mesquite- and cactus-laden scrub brush in an effort to set up.
Such places are noticeably lacking in 30-inch oaks to rest against. So I curled up in a sort of semi-fetal position and tried to hold still without leaning on a nearby cactus. Clifton, meanwhile, simply unfolded the stadium-style seat that was built into his vest and sat. If he would have set down his gun and picked up a beer I might have thought he was sitting in the club seats at Lambeau Field. I was so jealous that when I finally got a shot a few minutes later, I missed. At least that’s the excuse I’ve been using. Next time I’m going take such a vest, or steal Dodd’s.
5. Pack these essentials. Speaking of setting up, I’ve learned the hard way that there are three things every hunter needs: leather gloves, knee pads and ratchet cutters. Remember those cliches I mentioned earlier? There’s another one that says something to the effect that everything in Texas will either bite, cut or stick you. It’s true.
Gary Sefton, the Woods Wise marketing manager with whom I’ve hunted Texas a couple of times, told me about the leather gloves, something for which I’ve been deeply thankful. The knee pads didn’t occur to me until last year when I tried some of Ol’ Tom’s “Technical Turkey Gear” pants, which include foam pads that you slip into interior pockets. You can take them out if you don’t like them, but in Texas they’re a great option. If you don’t want to go that route, consider packing a set of knee pads like basketball players wear. You’ll be glad you have them. As for the ratchet cutters, you already have those, don’t you?
6. About those snakes … If you live in snake country you’ve already honed your sixth sense about them. If you don’t live in snake country you’re probably either terrified of them or completely naive. My best advice, which I’m borrowing from guys who have had a lot more snake encounters than I have, is this: Be aware and be wary, but don’t be paranoid.
I’ve se en only one rattler in four trips to Texas, and it was dead. It’s not that I haven’t been looking for them, I just haven’t crossed paths with any. Your host can usually tell you where the most likely snake hangouts are, but that doesn’t mean one couldn’t be curled up in the shade of that little bush where you’re about to build your blind. For that reason, snake boots are a very good idea. Of course, they’re only helpful if a snake strikes you below the knee. So, exercise extra caution when reaching out to clear a sitting spot and double-check the area before you settle in to call.
7. Take your whole arsenal of calls. When Rios are at their most cooperative, you can have a blast working them with all sorts of calls. So haul along as many as you can carry. Why not?
Before I took my first trip to Texas several years ago, a guy told me Rios really like friction calls. I don’t think they “like” or respond to friction calls better than other types. What he probably really meant to say was that Texas is a good place for loud calling. When the terrain is wide open, the wind is blowing and there’s not a turkey in sight, you have nothing to lose by wailing away on a boat paddle box call or yelping and cutting with gusto on a glass call.
8. GPS? Yes. Wander in circles for an hour as you try to find your way out of a mesquite-thicket maze and you’ll see that a GPS unit is as indispensable in Texas as it is in the Ozarks.
9. Be prepared for the heat. (Warning — blatant product endorsement ahead!) Texas and heat just go together during turkey season. Sure, there’s the odd cool day here and there, so you’ll want to pack a jacket, but when the temperature rises, it really spikes. Remember how I mentioned the late spring during last season? Well, Texas must have decided to play catch-up during the week I was there. Two days in a row the temperature climbed to 93 degrees. Both days I spent the last few hours of daylight near the overflow runoff from a windmill’s water tank after hiking in a mile from the main road.
A couple of years ago I would have been sitting in my sweat-soaked cotton T-shirt and pants just trying to survive the day. But this time I wore an Under Armour HeatGear T-shirt underneath a lightweight Ol’ Tom vent-back long-sleeve shirt. I can’t explain exactly how Under Armour clothing does what it does, but the way it wicks moisture away from your body creates a cooling effect that’s almost as good as sitting in front of a fan. Honest. And if that’s not enough, it’s anti-microbial, which means you don’t smell like a javelina in a mud wallow at the end of the day. (Well, you might, but the clothing doesn’t.)
10. Understand Your License. Upon killing a Texas turkey you are required to notch out the month and day of the kill and print the place (ranch name or WMA) and county of the kill. You must then affix the tag to the turkey’s leg.
Therefore, it helps to know where you are before you kill a turkey. It also helps to have a string or some sort of tie to attach the tag. Last spring, contributing editor Scott Bestul and I were hunting about two miles apart on the same ranch one afternoon. The good news is that we both killed a turkey. The bad news was that I didn’t know which county I was in and Bestul didn’t have anything with which to attach his tag. All of this could have been much more unpleasant than it turned out to be when we met the game warden a while later.
See this month’s “Tree Call” column for the details of that embarrassing moment. Come to think of it, I guess I should have included an 11th tip here: Don’t forget to take a good dose of common sense.