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Go West For Turkey Hunting
Your coyote yips scream in the chilly mountain air. An obbblle floats a long way through the ponderosa pines. You jog a mile in 10 minutes, sliding down slopes and huffing up ridges, zeroing in as the tom’s roost gobbling grows louder. Pumped and sweating a river, you set up on the edge of a meadow, catch your breath and eke out a tiny tree yelp.
Not one, but four toms bellow! Grinning as dawn oozes from silver to gold in the high country, you yelp a bit louder. The turkeys thump down from their roosts. You ready your shotgun, grin some more and wait.
Just then the quartet roars again—200 yards out and going in the opposite direction! You frantically dig a box call from your vest and cutt. You can barely hear the birds’ last gobbles as they race up and over a mountain.
It can happen like that out West. Merriam’s and, to a lesser degree, Rio Grandes are the vagabonds of the turkey clan. Some mornings the birds seem to lace on track shoes and sprint out of their roosting areas. It adds intrigue and more than a little frustration to the chase.
Why They Run
Like most turkey addicts, you probably grew up hunting birds in woodlands in the East or South. Well, the first time you venture west, the enormity of the turkey habitat will both amaze and excite you. From Texas to New Mexico, up to Montana and the Dakotas, you can chase gobblers on sprawling plains and in towering mountains.
The country is awesome, big, beautiful and open. You’ll take one look at it and think, “How in the world can I call in and shoot a turkey out here?”
The larger and more open the habitat, the farther any game travels. Some studies show that western turkeys roam two miles or more each day. One morning you might find a flock of Merriam’s birds roosted and gobbling like mad in a canyon. Go back the next day and that spot will be quiet as a tomb, because the turkeys are roosted in a canyon or in an oak grove three miles away.
Hens partially explain why westerners roam and seem to run from your calling. In the spring many Merriam’s and Rio Grande gobblers travel with hens, lots of ‘em. A lot of the old hens hate it when you call. The more you call the faster the hens move away, and they take the gobblers with them.
Scouting the West
The Easterner who heads west should plan on scouting at least two days prior to a turkey hunt. This is especially true when planning a do-it-yourself adventure on a sprawling national forest or Bureau of Land Management tract. Although a hunting outfitter or ranch manager can tell you where flocks hang out on private land, you should still get out there and see for yourself where turkeys roost, feed and strut.
Topo maps and binoculars are a must. One exciting thing about turkey hunting the west is that turkeys are so visible. You can drive for miles and spot gobblers all over the place, usually with hens. Of course you’ll also glass a lot of country with no turkeys in it. That’s good too, because it helps you narrow down the best spots to hunt.
In the Southwest, many Merriam’s turkeys inhabit elk country. The birds wander in canyons, meadows and 6,000- to 8,000-foot mountains during April and May. The turkeys almost always roost in ponderosa pine trees. Check your topo map for preferred roost sites on north- and east-facing slopes near creeks. Hens feed and toms strut in canyon bottoms thick with Gambel oaks.
Farther north in Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas, turkeys roost in cottonwoods or yellow barks, and toms strut in adjacent grasslands and meadows. In eastern Nebraska, the easternmost range of the Merriam’s subspecies, you might find hens and gobblers traveling the hardwood forests with their Eastern kin.
Rio Grande turkeys inhabit the plains. In Texas they roam ranchlands dotted with live oak trees, mesquite and cacti. In Kansas and Oklahoma, the birds live in draws and grasslands with scrub oaks and cedars.
Good roosts are sometimes far and few between on the plains. Scout for tall oaks, cottonwoods or sycamores along rivers and streams. Beneath those trees you are apt to find a mother lode of tracks, feathers and droppings. In Texas you can sit in a grove of live oaks at dusk and have 50 or more Rios fly up all around you, yelping, cackling and gobbling. You sure know where to hunt the next morning!
Rios are apt to strut anywhere in their open habitat. Check out a crop field or cattle pasture near a creek or river, especially if there’s thick nesting cover for hens nearby. Scout for tracks, droppings and strut marks in sandy ranch roads. When the sun rises each day and shimmers on the plains, glass for strutters in the shade of oak or cottonwood trees.
In the hot and arid west, both Rios and Merriam’s turkeys sometimes visit creeks, stock tanks and other water sources in late afternoon. Pinpoint the blue areas on a map, and check them for fresh tracks, droppings and strut marks.
Turkey Hunting & Turkey Calling Tactics
One thing you’ll love about Merriam’s and Rios is how they love to gobble at dawn and dusk. While they will bellow at the barred owl hoots and crow calls you use on Eastern turkeys back home, don’t head to Texas or Montana without a coyote call in your vest. High-pitched yips, barks and howls really turn those turkeys on.
When an Eastern tom roars deep in the timber, his gobbles seem to rattle the ground. When a Rio or Merriam’s tom gobbles out in the wide-open spaces, he sounds like his head is stuck in a can. Don’t let the acoustics of the country and those faint gobbles fool you. A western gobbler is usually closer than he sounds, especially on a windy day. And it’s almost always windy when you hunt out west.
One morning a flock of Merriam’s turkeys might pitch down from their pine roosts and mix and mingle awhile. Or the birds might sail 300 yards down into the bottom of a canyon at daybreak. Deciding where to set up is always a crapshoot, but as a rule, think high. Most of the time that will put you in good turkey calling and maneuvering position.
Anytime you can set up on or near a hillside with oak brush, nuts, seeds and the like, do it. Hunt Merriam’s turkeys (or Rios for that matter) that roost near a food source and you’re in good shape. The hens will pitch down and feed at dawn; the toms will strut around the gals and peck some, too. Since the turkeys are not wont to beeline for a faraway feeding area, they are less prone to shun your calling and run.
When you do get a tom hot and bothered and gobbling at your calls, keep it up up! If you tone down or quit calling to a western turkey, he tends to lose interest and walk away. Now don’t blow a gobbler off a hillside or out of an oak motte with loud, fancy calling. Just keep clucking, yelping and purring seductively till he struts into shotgun range.
Many mornings a flock of Merriam’s turkeys will fly off the roost, hit the ground and march over a steep mountain or fall off into a deep draw. If you can’t follow the birds quickly, let them go. You can waste all morning chasing toms that run and gobble in inaccessible places. You’d be better off driving a mile or so to a valley or series of ridges and hills that you know from scouting holds more birds.
If you can slip undetected into a patch of live oak or cottonwoods one morning, go for it. Set up within 100 yards or so of roosted Rios and work them as you would Eastern turkeys. Start out with a few tree clucks and yelps to let the birds know you are there. Crank up your calling once the turkeys fly down.
Rios, more so than Merriam’s, tend to hang around awhile beneath their roost trees. Hens preen and peck for feed while toms strut, gobble and tread a gal when they can. If you feel good about your setup, sit tight and continue calling in hopes a gobbler will break away from his hens and come in. If the turkeys eventually drift off toward a feeding or nesting area, get up and try to cut them off at the pass.
All-day turkey hunting is legal in most western states, and it pays to hang tough throughout the day. Cover lots of country and call aggressively, and you might strike a gobbler anytime. In late afternoon, head for a canyon or oak grove where you know turkeys sometimes roost. If there is a creek, stock tank or other water source in the area, great. You might catch turkeys grabbing a drink before they head for bed.
If dusk falls and you’ve neither seen nor heard any turkeys, hit a box call and then a coyote howler. If a Merriam’s or Rio Grande gobbler is anywhere near, he’ll answer, and his gobble is apt set off a chain reaction of gobbling from other toms in the vicinity. But if you don’t get a response, that’s okay, too. At least you’ve narrowed the big country a bit and ruled out one potential roost. Truck a mile or more over to another canyon or oak grove the next morning. I bet you’ll hear some toms gobbling there.