The early bird may get the worm. But the second mouse gets the cheese.
That astute observation by comedian Steven Wright could double as a description of prevailing conditions for the spring turkey hunting season that opened last Saturday in Colorado. Worm hunters were likely to find them frozen stiff.
Likewise, snowy conditions in much of the state and particularly the higher elevations favored by wild Merriam's turkeys likely left eager bird hunters with a few frozen parts of their own over the weekend. A brief weather window along the eastern Colorado river bottoms offered a slightly better opportunity for Rio Grande turkey chasers, but by most accounts, prime conditions for both subspecies remain a couple of weeks away.
"The standard course for any turkey season is the best time to go hunting is when you have time to go," said Ed Gorman, small game manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "If you have to be first, then go opening weekend. But some of the better hunting is two or three weeks into the season."
Think of the first of Colorado's three annual turkey seasons like spring fishing, Gorman says. It's good to have several nice days in a row to stimulate some action, rather than the cold weather swings seen so far this April. These turkeys like it hot before they trot.
"Wintering sites for Merriam's are pretty specific type sites," Gorman said. "But breeding habitat can be all over the place. Some of those springtime movements can be delayed a little bit as winter hangs on longer than normal. ... It's just a matter of getting them in the right place and having them in a receptive mood if you are calling them in."
The start of spring turkey season in 2013 stands in stark contrast to 2012, when warm, dry conditions set the mood for gobblers to begin breeding well before opening day arrived. Those conditions may help explain the decrease in spring turkey harvest from 2011, despite an increase in hunters. Success rates for both limited licenses (55 percent success) and over-the-counter hunters (25 percent) diminished slightly even though turkey populations continue to climb.
"I can't really predict when birds are going to start getting fired up, but I'm not as concerned this year with the toms and hens being finished as early as they were last year," said Jim Bulger, a veteran turkey hunter who serves as CPW's hunter outreach coordinator. "If I have time, I'm going to be hunting around the first part of May. By then the breeding season should have begun in earnest."
Bulger managed to help a pair of youth hunters harvest two Rio Grande jakes along the South Platte River on opening day, but mature birds were hard to come by. That could begin to change by the end of the week, should a warming trend arrive in the eastern lowlands the Rio Grande subspecies calls home.
Seasoned Colorado turkey hunters often chase Rio Grande gobblers with a limited license in April, then head to the foothills to find the more mountainous Merriam's during the season's final weeks in May.
The timing also works out well for less-experienced participants in the nation's fastest-growing hunting sport, giving those without the preference points required to land a limited license the chance to study up on tactics through the new CPW Turkey School created by Bulger. The online education program offers lessons and tutorials designed to help novice hunters develop the skill set required to hunt spring turkeys.
"We are seeing the same sort of growth in Colorado as nationally. Lots of folks want to learn turkey hunting," Bulger said. "But the information out there is predominantly focused on Eastern turkeys because that's where most guys hunting turkeys come from. There's not a lot of regional stuff about hunting Merriam's and Rios in Colorado. Turkey School is at least a starting point for folks getting started here in Colorado."
The state saw more than 15,500 turkey hunters in 2012, the vast majority during spring season. But many who apply only for the limited draw aren't up for the challenges of hunting the less-concentrated turkey populations typical of over-the-counter units.
"That's unfortunate, because they don't go out and play and learn. They might wait four years to get a tag, and then don't know how to hunt a turkey," Bulger said. "There's still a ton of opportunity to hunt with over-the-counter licenses. ... I chase them around every year. My enjoyment is that I get to go out and act like I'm turkey hunting. Sometimes I find them and sometimes I don't."
Scott Willoughby: 303-954-1993, firstname.lastname@example.org