Our annual roundup of population trends, management changes, and public land availability
The Southwest region of the United States not only includes Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona but also California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. Each state has its own unique character, and four subspecies can be hunted across the entire region. The news is good regarding hatches and low hunting pressure (either due to the challenge of rugged terrain and/or that you're paying for private land opportunities).
Want to know where to go in the Southwest, get some insider intel along the way, plus details on the current state populations of turkeys and last season's spring kill? Sure you do. Get your read on with our Turkey Hunting Nation updates for the dozen southwestern states, including available public lands.
For the most part, the Lone Star State is a pay-to-hunt stop. On the best ranches, locals hired by the outfitter, if only as drop-off/pick-up guys, will put you on birds and let you have at them in semi-guided style. Looking to hunt on the cheap? You can do it with well-earned connections and visit as the guest of other like-minded turkey hunters. However, non-residents typically employ the services of an outfitter, which is often more expensive than a traditional DIY gobbler hunt, but far less costly than booking, say, a Texas whitetail trip. Some ranchers view turkeys as annoyances.
Yep, there’s some public ground — if you consider less than 1% of the state’s total landmass being publicly accessible as “some.” Wildlife Management Areas and federal ground in East Texas are also available.
The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation officially states: “Turkeys are no longer confined to river systems, since roost sites are now available in tree rows, shelterbelts and upland timber, which was not available before man settled the Oklahoma prairie. This has dispersed populations of birds across the western three-fourths of the state and made them more accessible to sportsmen. Turkey hunters have a legitimate chance to bag a spring tom on many of the Department’s lands open to public hunting.”
And it has more public land than its neighbor to the south.
To the west, the Black Kettle Wildlife Management Area has good Rio Grande turkey populations. Some of the better public hotspots for the Eastern subspecies are Three Rivers, Honobia Creek, and Pushmataha Wildlife Management Areas. Some Merriam's are even found in the state, especially in the Panhandle region (Cimarron County), including hybrids.
Most mountain ranges in New Mexico support healthy numbers of Merriam’s gobblers, which make up most of the turkey population, as indicated by population estimates.
Some of the more popular areas for finding longbeards are the Sacramento Mountains in south-central New Mexico; the Gila National Forest out West, and the Zuni Mountains in Unit 10. The north-central regions hold birds as well.
Success rates in these regions are usually well above the statewide average, and they offer excellent public-land opportunities.
Rio Grande turkeys are less distributed and are primarily located along the Rio Grande River south of Albuquerque and the Canadian River Basin north of Tucumcari.
You'll also find Gould's wild turkeys living in the extreme southwestern tip of the state.
Rio Grande turkeys were recently introduced on the Arizona Strip at Black Rock Mountain (similar terrain to where the birds were transplanted from in Utah). According to Arizona Game & Fish (AG&F), “This turkey subspecies prefers areas with drainages and stream beds in relatively open brush and scrub country, up to 6,000 feet in elevation.”
AG&F reports Merriam’s turkeys can be found not only in ponderosa pine forests but also other vegetation types in elevations ranging from 3,500 to 10,000 feet. The best populations occur in the ponderosa pine forests north of the Gila River.
Gould’s occupy habitats in southeastern Arizona, one of the state's two native wild turkey species (Merriam’s are the other). This subspecies now occupies only a few remote mountain ranges in Arizona, AG&F indicates. However, these birds are making comeback tracks in the Huachucas and other mountain ranges in southern Arizona.
Birds are found in nearly all of California’s 58 counties. The highest take typically occurs in Butte, Calaveras, El Dorado, Mendocino, Nevada, San Luis Obispo, Shasta, Tehama, and Yuba counties. Although many populations roam on private land, the state, U.S. Forest Service, BLM, and public utilities offer numerous public opportunities.
Rio Grande turkeys are the most widespread subspecies in California and, as mentioned, are found along the Coast Range, plus the Sierra Nevada and Cascade foothills. Although in much smaller numbers, the Merriam's subspecies roost in the northeast and along the Transverse Range in Kern County. Additionally, Easterns were released along the northern coast and Eastern / Rio Grande hybrids from the Midwest have been transplanted along the south coast.
Rios have been the primary Nevada subspecies, and populations are now located along river corridors in western Nevada, the Ruby Mountains of Elko County, Paradise Valley in Humboldt County and in eastern White Pine County.
In southern Nevada, birds populate Lincoln County, as well as the Moapa Valley and the Overton area of Clark County.
Asking permission of private landowners is required before you put in for a tag
Turkey hunting in Utah is broken up into five regions (Northern, Central, Northeastern, Southeastern, and Southern), and without question, the best opportunities are found in the two southern regions, says NWTF regional biologist Stan Baker.
Access to public land is excellent, both limited and unlimited licenses are offered in every region, and success rates routinely average more than 30%.
One area where turkey numbers have historically decreased has been in the San Juan region below Interstate 70. Other locations in the state have seen an increase in turkey sightings.
Areas around Cedar City, the Boulder Mountains, Enterprise, and Pine Valley are good places to start. Each of these areas offers excellent public access, and all are good options for those with an unlimited tag.
The Merriam's population lives in some rugged country; their nomadic traits can really spread them out and test your patience and endurance. Western Colorado is covered in National Forest, BLM, and state lands. Most turkeys live in these vast chunks of public ground, and annually about 25% of hunters find success there.
Merriam’s are the state’s primary species and are located west of Interstate 25, and along the southern portions of the Front Range.
Rios are also present but limited to the river-bottom habitat of the Platte and Arkansas rivers, as well as other tributaries in the eastern portion of the state. Success rates for hunters chasing Rios on the Eastern plains are much higher, hovering around 50 to 75%.
Realtree turkey hunting editor Steve Hickoff has chased gobblers all over the United States and Mexico. He was born and raised in northcentral Pennsylvania, and now makes his home in Maine. Hickoff was named the NWTF Tom Kelly Communicator of the Year for 2019, a prestigious award reflecting his longtime work promoting hunting and conservation as a turkey hunting writer, editor and book author.