I really wasn’t expecting a response when I sent the cadence of lovesick yelps up the canyon. It had been a long, hot, spring day along Colorado’s southern Front Range, and the birds had developed a late-season case of lockjaw. To be honest, with the sun quickly dipping towards the jagged ridge to the west, I was ready to call it quits. Nevertheless, my pulse quickened when a lone gobble echoed against the canyon walls in my direction. I was eager to make a final stand.
In little more than a minute the lonesome tom sent out another thundering gobble, and it was obvious he was coming in and fast. After quickly setting up a lone hen decoy, I jumped into a cluster of pine and anxiously waited for him to show himself. Coming around a juniper in a running strut only seconds later, the lovesick tom skidded to a stop when he eyed my decoy. Drumming and gobbling every step of the way, he inched into shotgun range, trying hard to develop this late-afternoon romance.
Fifty yards quickly melted into twenty and when he passed by a patch of buckbrush I squeezed the trigger, putting an end to another long day in the field. While stroking his handsome coat of bronze feathers and admiring his 8-inch beard and 1-inch spurs, I put everything into perspective. Although hunting on public land out west can be tough sometimes, it sure is sweet when it all comes together.
I love spring turkey hunting! Although I can’t say the strutting spring western gobbler tops my fall affairs like mule deer, whitetails and antelope, it would be fair to say that I have not missed a spring turkey season in the last dozen years or so. After all those years, just the sight of a colorful longbeard, puffed in all his glory, never fails to get my heart racing and I suppose it never will.
I’ve hunted spring turkeys across several western states, and although some are better than others, several are no doubt top turkey-hunting destinations. That being said, here are a few you shouldn’t miss with this spring.
- The NWTF offers a more detailed hunt guide with exclusive, member-only information prepared by NWTF biologists and field staff. To access this information please join the NWTF. Please check with your local wildlife agency to confirm seasonal information before planning your hunt, as information is subject to change.
CENTENNIAL STATE TOMS
When most sportsmen think of Colorado, visions of bugling bull elk and wide-racked mule deer are the first things that come to mind. Who can blame them, with more elk than any other state in the union, and perhaps the best place to wrap your hands around a whopper mulie buck? However, with an annual success rate around the national average of 25 percent, a healthy number of both Merriam’s and Rio Grande turkeys and nearly 18,000 square miles of public ground to chase them on, the Centennial State is no doubt one of the best western states in which to pursue spring gobblers.
Stan Baker, regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), says, “Colorado ranks in the top two or three as far as western turkey hunting is concerned, but I don’t think you can beat what Colorado has to offer as far as opportunity goes.” Baker points out no other western state offers the number of over-the-counter units or public hunting opportunities Colorado does. When you consider the number of birds living there, “it doesn’t get much better than this,” insists Baker.
This past spring over 15,500 turkey licenses were sold to Colorado hunters, which is up from the previous spring that boasted nearly 14,600 hunters. Although there were more hunters in the field, over 65 percent of them reported having plenty of elbowroom on the vast amounts of public ground on which most were hunting. Over 25 percent of hunters with an over-the-counter tag reported finding success in the turkey woods, and those who were lucky enough to draw a limited tag had a success rate of 55 percent. In all, an estimated 3,200 toms fell to well-placed shots last spring.
The Merriam’s is indigenous to Colorado and these birds are primarily located west of Interstate 25 and south of Highway 160 in southern Colorado, along the foothills of the Front Range, the southwest region of the state, and in parts of the Western Slope. Colorado also enjoys a healthy population of Rios, and they are generally located east of Interstate 25 in the river bottom habitat of the Platte and Arkansas rivers, as well as other tributaries. Although Rios are localized to these relatively small regions, their numbers are as strong as their gobble. Don’t expect to hunt them this spring unless you have already drawn one of the coveted tags, which can take up to 3 to 4 years to draw.
Without question, the best locations for the over-the-counter hunter to bag a Colorado tom this spring will be in the southwest and western regions and along the southern Front Range. In fact, some of the top-producing counties last spring in the West and Southwest were Archuleta, Mesa, Delta and La Plate counties with approximately 725 toms being harvested. Not only do the southwest and western regions boast the highest density of Merriam’s turkeys, but they are also where public land hunters find the highest success rates.
If you’re interested in heading to the Front Range, typically hunters do well in Pueblo, Huerfano, Teller and Fremont counties, and last spring was no different with approximately 425 toms crumpling to solid shots. However, because this region is located close to the populated Front Range, it does get its share of pressure. But with excellent access to public ground, there’s plenty of room for the willing hunter to roam. The key to finding toms here is getting off the roads and going deeper into the woods or hunting during the week. Some of the better units in which to find the birds are 69, 84 and 691.
LAND OF ENCHANTMENT TOMS
Although often overlooked by traveling turkey hunters, similar to its neighbor to the north, New Mexico also offers miles of public ground to spread out on, turkey numbers hovering upwards of 35,000 to 40,000 and easy-to-get tags across much of the state. However, what New Mexico offers that Colorado doesn’t is the opportunity to kill up to two toms in some units.
One factor that has made the Land of Enchantment such a western turkey hotspot is the efforts of organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and New Mexico Game and Fish. Over the years they have captured and transplanted literally hundreds of Merriam’s and Rio Grande wild turkeys across the state, which helped to create the high turkey populations New Mexico hunters enjoy today.
Most mountain ranges in New Mexico support healthy numbers of Merriam’s, which is the subspecies that makes up most of the turkey population. Rio Grande turkeys are less distributed and are primarily located along the Rio Grande River south of Albuquerque and the Canadian River Basin north of Tucumcari. Last spring, over 14,000 turkey hunters headed to New Mexico’s mountain slopes in search of gobbling toms and, according to New Mexico Game and Fish surveys, over 5,200 toms were harvested with a hunter success rate of nearly 30 percent.
The Sacramento Mountains in south-central New Mexico are a popular spot among turkey hunters and are considered to be a top location to chase the Merriam’s turkey. Population numbers are strong in the region, and hunter success in units 34 and 36 has been as high as 40 to 50 percent in recent years. It offers everything from alpine spruce, aspen forest, pinion-juniper foothills and oak hillsides to chase longbeards through, and it won’t be long before you roost a gobbler or two once you’re in the woods.
Known as one of New Mexico’s top bull-producing regions, the Gila National Forest routinely spits out its share of longbeards as well. Last season hunters boasted a 40 percent success rate across the region, and it’s sure to be just as good this season. Although each of the units can produce its share of toms, units 16A and 16C are ones to spend time in this spring. These areas offer the best habitat and finding a strutting tom in the pinion-juniper and Douglas fir forest is usually a cinch.
The Zuni Mountains, in Unit 10, are another top contender, and turkey hunters typically find success up in the higher aspen and pine forests to the lower pinion-juniper and scrub oak hillsides. Last spring, hunter success was around 25 percent, and although that was low when compared to previous seasons, many feel hunters’ success will be much better this spring. Finding toms is usually not a problem here. However, be aware of your boundaries because there is an Indian reservation, national park and military reserves that typically don’t allow hunting.
COWBOY STATE TOMS
Rounding out this western tom trilogy is the great state of Wyoming. And even though I’m partial to my home state of Colorado, if I had to pick one western turkey destination to visit spring after spring, I would have to put Wyoming near the top of the list. Although it doesn’t offer the vast amounts of public land and the number of easy-to-get-tags as Colorado and New Mexico, what it lacks in these categories, it makes up for in hunter success. Annually, roughly 5,500 turkey hunters head to the woods each spring, and about 3,000 of them head out of the woods carrying out an ol’ tom. In fact, typically non-resident hunter success is about 70 percent across Wyoming, and usually about half of the resident turkey pros leave the woods with a smile as well.
Wyoming offers both Merriam’s and Rio Grande turkeys, and a hybrid subspecies of the two, with the Merriam’s being the primary population. They are distributed throughout northeast and eastern Wyoming, and the most significant reason hunters seem to harvest so many toms season after season is the healthy numbers of birds roaming throughout these regions. According to the latest Wyoming Game and Fish surveys, many turkey flocks offer a tom-to-hen ration of one-to-one, which in much higher than Game and Fish officials desire.
So where should you head to take part in this turkey fest this spring? Well, it’s hard to beat the northeast corner of the state. These are the famed Black Hills, and without question for the public land hunter it does not get any better. Non-resident hunters typically enjoy a 75 percent or better success rate in these scenic hills, and with numbers like these you know it’s not hard to find some willing toms.
The second most productive area is the Laramie Peaks region, and it’s located in parts of Converse, Platte and Albany counties. Although this region does not have the public land mass that the Black Hills do, there is enough National Forest, BLM and Walk-in access to keep you busy. A recent hunter survey shows a non-resident success rate around 50 percent, and it would not surprise me that if most of the success was found on public ground.
Although light on public access, other areas to consider are 3, 5 and 7, which are located in the Gillette and Sheridan areas. Typically, non-resident success hovers around 85 percent in these areas, but in order to partake of the turkey bounty there, either dropping a few greenbacks or knocking on a few doors is in order because the turkey population is mainly located on private ground.