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IN SEARCH OF THE RIO GRANDE

Rio Grande turkey populations are again strong in Union and Wallowa counties, according to ODFW biologists. (Observer file photo).
Rio Grande turkey populations are again strong in Union and Wallowa counties, according to ODFW biologists. (Observer file photo).

- Dick Mason

- The Observer

More than 2,000 hunters will soon converge on the forests of Union and Wallowa counties.

The hunters, with shotguns, decoys and calls in hand, will be in search of one of nature's elusive creatures, the Rio Grande turkey. The bird uses binocular-like vision, ultra-sonic hearing and an ability to become stealth-like when pursued to evade hunters.

Despite such Rio Grande qualities, hunters ably matched wits with the turkeys in 2006, taking more than 500 in Union and Wallowa counties, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife statistics.

Hunters will have a chance to do at least this well during the upcoming season, which begins April 15 and runs to May 31.

A precursor to the season, however, the juvenile hunt, will take place Saturday and Sunday. That hunt is open to youth ages 17 and under, who must be accompanied by an adult at least 21 years old.

Turkey populations are again strong in Union and Wallowa counties, according to ODFW biologists. Turkey numbers in Wallowa County are best in the Chesnimnus, Snake River and Wenaha units. Union County hunters will have the most success finding turkeys in the north part of the county.

Northeast Oregon turkey numbers are strong in part because of a mild winter. That helped negate the impact of a wet spring a year ago, which hurt nesting success, said Enterprise ODFW Biologist Vic Coggins.

Northeast Oregon is experiencing a drier spring this year, making more areas accessible. Hunters will not be bogged down in mud as much as they were during the start of the 2006 turkey season. Nevertheless, many muddy areas remain. Hunters should be careful not to drive in these areas to avoid damaging terrain.

"Hunters should be prepared to park and walk,'' said ODFW Biologist Leonard Erickson.

The turkeys Northeast Oregon hunters will see this season are almost all descendants of turkeys transplanted here. Rio Grande transplants started in the 1980s.

Since then population levels have exploded.

The number of turkeys has risen so that the ODFW may add a fall hunt in Union County starting in 2008. ODFW biologists will present a proposal for a fall hunt to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission later this year.

Females can't be taken during the spring hunt because it is nesting season. Only males or turkeys with beards can be taken in the spring.

ODFW biologists may propose two fall Union County hunts, one involving traditional weapons and another involving primitive weapons. The type of primitive weapons that could be used has not been determined.

Biologists, though, will not propose that a fall turkey season be added in Wallowa County. Coggins said he wants to see how successful the proposed Union County hunt is before recommending one for Wallowa County.

Fall turkey seasons in portions of Baker, Umatilla, Morrow and Grant counties are already being conducted.

Phil Gillette, the owner of Phil's Outdoor Surplus and More, said hunters would welcome a fall season. Such a season would allow people to rekindle the tradition of harvesting a turkey for Thanksgiving.

Regardless of whether Rio Grandes are hunted in the fall or spring, hunters should follow specific turkey hunting safety precautions. One of the most important concerns dress. Hunters should never wear red or blue because it increases the chance that they will be mistaken for a turkey, Cadwell said.

Big game hunters often wear glaze orange to protect themselves from accidentally being shot. Turkey hunters, though, don't have this option because turkeys easily see color.

That's why many turkey hunters wear camouflage. This means hunters should be careful while packing a turkey out to cover it. Otherwise, the bird may be shot at again by someone who didn't see the hunter, Cadwell said.

The daily bag limit for the spring general season is one turkey. The season limit is two turkeys. Hunters may purchase tags throughout the season.

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