Turkeys returning to San Bernard


Mar 11, 2001
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Nov. 10, 2001

Turkeys returning to San Bernard

By SHANNON TOMPKINS, Houston Chronicle

Edward A. McIlhenny hunted wild turkeys across the South, from the Carolinas to Texas, and vowed he never had better hunting for larger birds than along a Texas waterway called Rio San Bernardo.

In his seminal book on the topic, The Wild Turkey and its Hunting, published in 1914, McIlhenny describes hunting huge gobblers along the San Bernardo's timbered bottomland and adjacent oak mott prairie.

Only a couple of decades after McIlhenny slipped along the San Bernardo with his rifle, calling gobblers to the gun during the spring breeding season, things changed.

Those eastern subspecies turkeys, once plentiful, vanished -- victims of unregulated hunting and rapacious destruction of their habitat.

Even the river changed. The Rio San Bernardo, named by the Spanish, was anglicized. It became the San Bernard River.

For almost a century, the sound of gobbling and the yelps of hen turkeys were absent from the San Bernard country, leaving it much diminished

But that, too, finally has changed.

About five years ago, turkeys began appearing in the San Bernard bottoms and in the country along the lower reaches of the Brazos and Colorado rivers to the west and southwest of Houston.

The bird were part of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's huge effort to reestablish eastern subspecies wild turkeys in the birds' former range.

Wild-trapped eastern turkeys from South Carolina, Iowa, Missouri, Georgia and other locales -- bought with money generated from sales of the $5 state turkey stamp required of all persons hunting turkey in the state -- were released throughout eastern Texas.

The region southwest of Houston, the edge of the eastern turkey's former range, was the final area to be stocked in the program.

When those releases were made, TPWD biologist John Burk, head of the eastern turkey restocking project, said the habitat in that area was some of the most encouraging he had seen.

The mix of big timber along the rivers, creeks and bayous presented excellent roosting habitat and good mast potential. The pastures and prairies were perfect for nesting areas and brood-rearing.

And the expanses of agricultural fields awash with small cereal grains such as milo and corn and soybeans were perfect for providing first-rate food for the birds.

Burk predicted the eastern birds would thrive in that habitat.

They have.

"These counties represent some of the strongest populations of turkeys, if not the strongest, in all of eastern Texas," Jerry Cooke, head of upland wildlife ecology for TPWD, told the TPW Commission's regulations committee last week.

Cooke was speaking before the committee to present the wildlife division's potential proposals for changes in hunting regulations for the 2002-03 hunting seasons.

Part of that package was a proposal to open Wharton, Fort Bend, Brazoria and Matagorda counties to spring turkey hunting.

If the commission approves the proposal, local hunters could, come spring of 2003, walk in Ed McIlhenny's tracks for the first time in nearly 100 years.

Another proposed change in hunting regulations for 2002-03 is an "experimental" program that would redefine a "legal" buck in Austin, Colorado, Lavaca, Fayette, Lee and Washington counties.

If approved, deer hunters in the six counties would be restricted to taking only bucks with "a hardened antler protruding through the skin and at least one unbranched antler, one antler with 6 or more points, or an inside spread measurement between the main beams of 13 inches or greater."

This proposal has been pursued by some landowners and hunters in the affected counties as a method of reducing what they see as the unacceptable drain on the region's buck population.

Heavy hunting pressure coupled with the region's character of landowners controlling very small tracts of land has resulted in few bucks living long enough to develop large antlers.

According to TPWD data, 74 to 91 percent of the bucks taken in those counties over the past three decades have been less than 2 1/2 years old.

By creating a "slot limit" for bucks in the six counties, buck harvest would be reduced by about 65 percent each year, Cooke said. This would allow young bucks to live long enough to develop the larger antlers some hunters desire.

The 13-inch spread regulation should be fairly easy for hunters to follow, Cooke said. The average distance from ear-tip to ear-tip of a buck deer with its ears out is about 13 inches, he said.

Larger towns in the affected area include Brenham, Giddings, La Grange and Halletsville.

On the fishing front, TPWD staff is proposing to liberalize bass regulations on a once popular area lake and to tighten rules on an increasingly popular bay system.

·TPWD inland fisheries division staff propose changing largemouth bass regulations on Gibbons Creek Reservoir near Bryan from the current catch-and-release only rules to a 14- to 24-inch "slot" limit.

Gibbons Creek, a 2,500-acre power-plant lake opened to the public in the mid-1980s, has a history of producing monster bass and was a very popular destinations for bass anglers.

Since the imposition of the catch-and-release only bass rules in the mid-1990s, the lake's popularity has drastically declined.

The Texas Municipal Power Agency, which controls the lake, lobbied for easing of the bass restrictions in an effort to generate more interest from the fishing public.

Under the proposal, anglers would be allowed to retain five bass per day with none measuring between 14 and 24 inches. Also, only one of the five bass could measure more than 24 inches.

·Some anglers on Sabine Lake take avaricious advantage of the area's border status, and that has generated some bad blood.

TPWD's coastal fisheries staff hopes to address that with a proposal to mandate that all anglers bringing their catch into Texas must abide by Texas size and bag limits.

On the Texas side of the bay, the bag limit for speckled trout is 10 per day with a 15-inch minimum. For redfish, it's three per day with a 20- to 28-inch slot. For flounder, its 10 per day with a 14-inch minimum.

Across the unmarked boundary on the Louisiana side of the bay, the trout limit is 25 per day with a 12-inch minimum; reds have a five-fish daily limit with a 16-inch minimum and one over 27 inches. Anglers can take 10 flounder per day, with no minimum length.

Under current rules, if a Sabine angler holds a Louisiana fishing license he or she can legally catch and retain a Louisiana limit of fish (from Louisiana water) and return to the Texas side.

Sometimes, those fish are taken from Louisiana water. Sometimes they aren't.

But when a boatload of Texas anglers return to a Texas launch with Louisiana limits of trout and reds and flounder, the Texas anglers who abide by Texas limits are upset. They see the haul as unethical pillaging of the resource and damaging the fishery.

By mandating any anglers launching in Texas to abide by Texas regulations, no matter where they fish or what licenses they hold, TPWD would speak to both issues.

TPWD staff will return to the commission at the group's January meeting with official recommendations for changes in 2002-03 hunting and fishing regulations.

If the commission allows the proposals to be forwarded, the potential changes would be subject to public hearings across the state.

The TPW Commission would consider adoption, modification or rejection of the proposals at its April meeting. Any changes in hunting and fishing regulations would take effect Sept. 1, 2002.

Shannon Tompkins covers the outdoors for the Chronicle. His column appears on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.
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