2018 Rocky Mountain Turkey Hunting Outlook
March 06, 2018
Spring has just about sprung and turkey hunters across the country are thinking about bagging a trophy tom this season. We're here to help. Game & Fish wants you get the most out of your season with our deep library of turkey hunting articles with expert advice, field reports and previews. Check out the 2018 Turkey Outlook for your state below:
When you're a turkey hunter, you think about it year 'round. You watch the weather, you scout for feathers and old droppings, and you try to find the spots other people overlook. We want to help. This year, we have identified some trends and uncovered interesting statistics. We talked to biologists and outfitters in both New Mexico and Arizona, and we think we can steer you in the right direction. Let's start in the Land of Enchantment.
In the Southwest, turkeys do best when the first rains come in October and the showers continue into late winter. The water year starts in October, so let's look back to October 2016 through July 2017; that's when this season's younger males (jakes) were getting their start.
According to the National Weather Service, the 2017 water year brought above average precipitation to the following regions: south of Lordsburg, south of Dulce, east of Albuquerque, Las Cruces, and from Ruidoso to Roswell, north to Santa Rosa, Tucumcari and Logan. The US Drought Monitor shows that the extreme west side of the state is still classified as abnormally dry.
Turkeys do best when the grasses grow tall and there are a lot of bugs to pick off. Spring downpours during turkey nesting can have both positive and negative effects. A hard rain can destroy eggs, but new growth greens the grass and supports better conditions for bugs. Bugs are what baby turkeys need.
Merriam's and Rio Grande turkeys are the main focus for spring hunting. Gould's turkeys are found in the Coronado National Forest and the Animas Mountains down south. The state is home to an estimated 35,000 wild turkeys.
In 2015, the last season for which data is available, spring turkey hunt success ran 22.8 percent. According to the harvest surveys, most spring hunters spent two or more days afield. A total harvest of 556 turkeys (gobblers and hens) was reported in the fall hunt.
To survive in huntable numbers, turkeys need big oak trees and pines to roost in. They like tall grass and bugs. They also require sanctuary cover. In short, they can be found in "edge" habitat and there is a lot of edge surrounding Albuquerque, Silver City, Las Cruces and Alamogordo. Here, the best units are GMUs 6, 16 and 34.
The state also keeps statistics on how each unit does on producing a second turkey for a successful hunter. This expands our best unit list to include GMUs 36, 45, 55 and 57.
Watch Some Great Turkey Calling Tips Here
A lot of birds can be found in the Lincoln National Forest near Ruidoso. East of Alamogordo, GMU 34 is New Mexico's most productive turkey unit, where hunter success was 21 percent last season. Neighboring GMUs 36 and 37 are also reliable producers for Merriam's turkeys.
In the West, the Gila and the Cibola forests offer some of the better hunting. Look at GMUs 15, 16 and 21. Units 15 and 16 are by far the most productive in this region.
In Cibola County, look at Unit 10, which turned out 51 birds for 46 hunters. West of Corona (in the Cibola National Forest), Unit 37 is a steady producer and turned out 23 percent hunter success, which was much better than the statewide average.
North of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the Carson and Santa Fe national forests offer good public land access.
High elevations in the Pecos Wilderness, in GMUs 45, 46, 48 and 49, turn away some hunters, but this can be a productive place to hunt. Merriam's roost on the ridgetops between 7,000 and 10,000 feet. Look for tall timber adjacent to grassy meadows.
West of Santa Fe, GMU 6 is the most productive in this region, but there is a lot of habitat here to explore. The Valles Caldera provides more access to hunters.
When looking to get away from the crowds, give special consideration to GMUs 51 (hunter success ran 28 percent) as well as units 55 and 57. In fact, 55 and 57 registered much higher hunter success than the statewide average.
Look along the Colorado border, north of Clayton, for both Merriam's and Rio Grandes in the Cimarron and Carrizozo watersheds.
East of Albuquerque, it might pay to knock on doors and cultivate landowner connections. A narrow strip of forest in Unit 14 offers lower hunter success (a bit better than 13 percent), but it is close to home for many.
For Rio Grande turkeys, populations are highest in the Pecos River watershed and along the Canadian in units 40, 41, 42. Of these, unit 42 turned out the most turkeys in the last reporting period.
New Mexico's season runs April 15 through May 10. The bag limit is two bearded turkeys. Hunter education is required for hunters aged 18 or younger. A special youth season allows young hunters a chance to go afield the weekend prior to the opener. Youth hunts, organized by New Mexico Wildlife, are held in several locations.
For Draw Permit hunts, application must be made in early February. Open areas for the Draw Permit hunts include GMUs 2, 2A, 6B (Valles Caldera), 8 (archery-only), 9 Marquez WMA (NM resident-only), 33 (youth-only) and 55 (Valle Vidal and Greenwood).
To target Gould's turkeys, plan to hunt the lower southwest corner of the state, south of Lordsburg in units 27 and 28. The Gould's is the largest of the five subspecies, with longer legs, larger feet and more prominent center tail feathers. White tips on the tail feathers and rump coverts are another subspecies indicator. Lower back and rump feathers shine copper and greenish gold. Tags are offered through raffles and auctions administered by the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Contact the New Mexico Public Lands Information Center (877-851-8946) for good U.S. Forest Service maps.
By the end of August 2017 more than 400,000 acres of Arizona had burned, the largest area since 2011, which was a scorcher. Some wildfire can be good for turkey habitat, encouraging the growth of new grasses.
According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the San Pedro River watershed in the southeast corner of the state is in moderate drought, while a great portion of the state is experiencing abnormally dry conditions. The west, northwest and north-northeast portions of the state are experiencing little to no drought.
Three wild turkey subspecies are hunted in Arizona: Merriam's (Arizona's most numerous turkey), Rio Grandes and Gould's. The Arizona Game and Fish Department estimates there are between 15,000 and 20,000 turkeys in the state.
The 2016 spring harvest (the last year for which the data was available) was 837 birds, down from the year before. The fall harvest ran to 583 birds.
In 2017, the Arizona Game and Fish Department published five years of turkey survey data that shows observed turkey numbers surveyed from 2012 to 2016. A careful examination indicates that turkey numbers are stable in some units and are in decline in others.
On the New Mexico border, units No. 1 and 27 offer some of the best turkey numbers in the state. A broad band of prime Merriam's habitat runs from the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest (beginning south of Eagar and Alpine) on the New Mexico border up through the grounds of the White Mountain Apaches and the San Carlos, through the Tonto National Forest and the Coconino National Forest through Flagstaff and on up to the Kaibab Plateau and Fredonia on the border with Utah. Look at units 3B, 3C, 4, 5A and 8 (near Flagstaff). Pine woods offer some of the best habitat. The birds also make use of oaks and other deciduous trees and other vegetation types between 3,500 and 10,000 feet above sea level.
In Pinetop Region 1, the best producers are units 1 and 27. The town of Eagar marks the top of GMU 1 in Pinetop Region I. Unit 1 is made up of private, state trust and US Forest Service lands in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. Scout Escudilla Mountain, Black River, Kettle Holes, Wildcat Creek, Boggy Creek, Centerfire Creek, Mexican Hay Lake, Burro Mountain, Greens Peak, Garris Knoll, Wahl Knoll, Pat Knoll, Milligan Valley, Pole Knoll, Juan Garcia Mountain, St. Peter's Dome and Sizer Knoll. Check forecasts and road reports while planning early season hunts. Snow can limit access.
Bounded by the San Carlos Reservation on the west and the New Mexico border on the east, Unit 27's southern edge can be found at Clifton and Guthrie. Alpine is on the north end. Hunters can base high elevation camps from Alpine to Rose Peak. Other options include Blue River and Eagle Creek and Strayhorse.
In unit 7, the best hunting will be on Sitgreaves Mountain, Kendrick and the San Francisco Peaks. To get away from other hunters, take advantage of road closures. Slate Mountain and Wildcat Hill can also hold birds. Turkey numbers are stable in units 8 and 10, west of Flagstaff. Look for oak trees, water and nesting cover. In unit 8, hike in to the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness or the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness.
One of the bright spots for turkey hunters is definitely in unit 12A (south and east of Colorado City) where conditions were good for young turkeys in 2016 and 2017. According to Tom McCall, Region 2 game specialist in Flagstaff, the North Kaibab has the strongest turkey population in the region where the birds make a living on acorns, junipers and pinyon nuts. The North Kaibab doesn't get as many hunters, because it is five hours from Phoenix. Application must be made in October.
Here, north of the Colorado River, is where a hunter can find both Rio Grande turkeys and Merriam's. Most likely to be found in the creek bottoms, Rios will be near the larger trees where they like to roost.
When planning a hunt in the Kaibab, be ready for snow with chains and a tow strap. Bring all supplies and expect primitive camping. Nearest services are at Jacob Lake and Fredonia. Some of the most productive areas are forests with spruce, fir and aspen. In 12A, elevations range from 3,000 feet up to 9,200 feet.
To the west, another option is 13A with pine and oak woodlands on Mt. Trumbull, Mt. Logan, Slide Mountain and the Sawmill Mountains.
Hunters that have their sights set on Gould's turkeys look to the Coronado National Forest, in the Huachucas and other high country environs in southern Arizona. The National Wild Turkey Federation says there are more Gould's in Arizona now than at any time in the last 100 years.
Early each spring, the department offers at least three different camps primarily for kids but also open to older people who are new to the sport.
Spring seasons vary. The bag limit is one bearded turkey, and hunters may take only one bird per calendar year. The department also offers youth hunts. Fall hunts are issued through a lottery. Hunters younger than 14 must have proof of hunter education. For more information, visit www.azgfd.gov.