Out-of-staters flocked to Washington state to chase turkeys

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The word about Eastern Washington's robust turkey populations is out.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials say they are seeing an increase in nonresident turkey hunters who travel far to chase gobblers in the Inland Northwest.

Todd Baarstad, the department's private land biologist for Lincoln, Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties, said he's seen an uptick in calls from nonresidents looking for advice on where to hunt and how to find the birds.

This year, beginning in February, he received calls from hunters from at least 10 states, including  Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and New Jersey.

"We've really seen for whatever reason an increased interest in folks coming from out of state to hunt," Baarstad said.

WDFW data shows that nonresident tag sales have been on the rise for several years, topping out at more than 1,500 in 2023. That's almost 1,000 more tags than were sold in 2019.

Many of those tags are sold to hunters from Idaho, Oregon and Montana, but purchases by people from states farther afield have been growing.

In 2023, 113 tags were sold to hunters from Alabama, the third-highest total for an individual state. Arkansas and Georgia were next on the list, with 81 and 79 tags, respectively. Four years earlier, hunters from those three states purchased a total of 35 Washington turkey tags.

The rise comes as turkey populations tank in some parts of the country, particularly the South and the Midwest. In some states, the declines have led officials to limit turkey hunting opportunities.

Meanwhile, the birds have thrived in Washington and North Idaho, so much so that they've become a nuisance for some landowners.

Dean Nizer, WDFW's private lands biologist for Spokane and Whitman counties, said the word is getting out among serious turkey hunters.

"I think Washington is pretty well known for having good turkey populations," he said.

Many hunters, both resident and nonresident, begin making their plans by calling WDFW's private land biologists, like Nizer and Baarstad. There are about a dozen of them around the state, and part of their job is to help hunters get access and offer advice. In the days leading up to any hunting season, their phones start ringing, and the calls don't stop until the season ends.

This is Nizer's first year as a private land biologist in Whitman and Spokane counties, so he wasn't sure how much he would hear from turkey hunters this spring. He got plenty of calls — during the peak, he said, he was getting up to a dozen calls a day, plus emails.

A lot of the calls he took this spring came from Georgia and Alabama, he said. In one case, he ended up going hunting with a man from Alabama who is trying to bag turkeys in every state he can.

The hunter  killed two birds during his trip, and Nizer was there for one of the harvests.



"That was pretty cool to be a part of that experience with him," Nizer said.

Nizer added that the hunter also hit Montana and Idaho on his trip west.

Baarstad said the chance to hunt multiple states is a draw for a lot of the hunters he's spoken to over the years. They might book lodging in a town like Newport, Washington, and then hunt both sides of the state line.

Baarstad has been a private lands biologist for 22 years. He said the interest in turkeys from nonresident hunter began rising about eight years ago, reaching a sort of crescendo this spring. He estimated that he spoke to around 30  hunters from the Southeast this spring — some who planned to hunt alone and some who were coming with a party of four.

"Turkey hunters are an odd bunch," he said. "They'll put a lot of time and money into going a long ways to shoot a big grouse."

Baarstad is an avid turkey hunter. In 2023, he hosted a group from Georgia who he'd been talking to ahead of the turkey season. The day they arrived in Spokane, he took them on a short hunt in Lincoln County.

"It's kind of fun to have that connection, get to know people a little bit more," Baarstad said. "I've done that several times over the years."

The group didn't take any turkeys the day they hunted with Baarstad, but they had a good trip nonetheless. Between four people, they killed seven turkeys.

"By and large, most of these turkey hunters really do well," he said. "We've got a lot of birds."

Friday marked the end of the season. As it was inching toward its close, the calls had started to dry up. Nizer heard from a couple of hunters from Georgia who had been hunting in the Tucannon area during the second-to-last week of the season, but otherwise his phone had mostly stopped ringing.

Soon enough, though, people will call for help planning their fall hunting seasons. Then winter will hit and hunters will start dreaming of gobblers again.

"I'd be curious to see what it looks like next year," Nizer said. "I would expect that the calls are going to keep going up."

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