LAKE CREEK — Perhaps the Southern Oregon outdoor fanatics who have fared best from the worst back-to-back drought years on record here are those who will be crouched against the base of an oak tree next week decked out in camo and holding shotguns.
Oregon's wild turkey hunters are poised to begin their popular spring season with plenty of birds on the ground and in their roosts this year thanks to very good nesting success during the past two very dry springs.
"We've had good survival the past two years, so there should be a fair number of adult birds and jakes," says Mark Vargas, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District wildlife biologist.
"I expect good to above-average hunting of mature toms," Vargas says. "We're looking for a good season."
The season begins Saturday during the traditional Youth Turkey Hunt that gives young guns the first shot at Oregon toms before the rest of the state hits the fields Wednesday during the traditional April 15 spring opener.
Kids 12 and older can hunt the regular season as well, which runs through May 31 and sports a daily limit of one turkey with a visible beard. About 10 percent of hens have beards, and they are legal in the limit.
Hunters here can kill up to three turkeys per season. Tags are available at point-of-sale license outlets throughout the season.
Both the youth hunt and the ensuing regular season include a bonus opportunity for hunters younger than 18 at the C-2 Cattle Co. ranch near Lake Creek, where an agreement with ODFW's Restoration and Enhancement Program gets 10 kids a one-day guided hunt on the ranch's bulging turkey population.
Layne Collom of Eagle Point found the C-2 ranch to be tom-terrific last year, bagging his first tom on his only shot on the first day he could legally hunt turkeys with his own license.
Collom started that opening morning in a blind over decoys, but the toms weren't roosting nearby so they hiked two ridges over before they ran into birds.
"I looked over and saw one at about 40 yards," Collom says. "I was kind of laid down and sitting when I shot."
The bird, which sported an 8-inch beard, flew briefly before falling to earth and raising Collom into the ranks of turkey shooters.
"I was hoping I'd get one the first day, but I wasn't sure," says Collom, who was one of two C-2 youth hunters to bag a gobbler last year.
The drawing for the opportunity to hunt C-2 has drawn growing interest around the state. This year 175 youths applied for the 10 slots, and the winners came from across Oregon. The closest to the Rogue Valley is a hunter from Chiloquin, says Vince Oredson, the ODFW wildlife biologist overseeing the program.
While the last two warm, dry springs have created promising expectations in the state's turkey-hunting mecca, the bluebird weather patterns that helped nesting success could be giving way to the kind of rainy and windy conditions that turkey hunters despise.
Rain is forecast for Saturday's youth opener as well as next Tuesday and Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.
Most turkeys killed in the spring season are called in by camouflaged hunters using a series of calls to draw sex-crazed males looking to mate. In cold, wet weather, birds are more likely to stay roosted in trees and are less responsive to calls.
The birds responded early and often last year.
The Rogue, Applegate and Evans Creek wildlife management units, which make up the lion's share of the Rogue Valley's hunting zones, routinely rank in the top turkey watersheds based on the numbers of turkeys killed in the spring hunt, ODFW statistics show.
The top wildlife-management unit for turkey hunting historically is the Melrose Unit near Roseburg. However, the Rogue Unit overtook Melrose last year in total turkeys killed by hunters in the spring hunt, more by brute strength of effort than anything.
The unit's 1,209 turkey hunters logged close to five hunting days apiece in the field to kill 419 turkeys, statistics show. That's a bird for slightly more than one-third of all hunters, and a rather pedestrian .07 birds per hunter/day.
The Melrose Unit sported just 725 hunters who logged half the hunting days as their Rogue counterparts but still shot 412 birds for a .57 bird per hunter average and .16 birds per hunter/day.
"While the Melrose is always up there in terms of units, you have to sort of put that into perspective," Vargas says. "We're always the top watershed for turkeys,"