Turkeys Through The Roof!

Perfect natural conditions in the mountains of Santa Fe are lining up to ignite a possible gobbler population explosion. Let a few locals enlighten you on high-altitude hunting for Merriam's on the Mesa. (April 2007)

A wet 2006 means that many Northern New Mexico hunters will have a great shot at a nice Merriam's.
Photo by Brian Strickland.

Green-chile cheeseburgers and pink coyotes aside, what would draw the serious hunter to Santa Fe, N.M.? Thirty years ago, the only answer would have been "Mule deer!" True, there were other species. But good populations of such Rocky Mountain game animals as elk or turkey were few and far between.

Today, thanks to improved management practices and favorable weather conditions, the mountains surrounding the nation's oldest -- and highest -- state capital offer quality hunting for virtually every Rocky Mountain game animal.

A case in point is the burgeoning population of Merriam's turkeys. But the best part is that their increased numbers remain relatively unknown to the majority of red-head addicts, even those who live here.

THE PUZZLE

An old turkey hunter I once knew described healthy wildlife populations as the end result of several pieces of a puzzle coming together.

"Give 'em plenty to eat and drink, a place to raise their young without too many humans running around, and you'll get the critters," he often said. And he was right. Nowadays, the problem is finding a place with all the ingredients for good hunting in an area with good public access.

Topping 7,000 feet above sea level, Santa Fe sits on a bench jutting out from the west slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. North of town, the foothill country turns very wild very fast, and the coyotes there don't come in pastel shades. The ridges and canyons draining the vast Pecos Wilderness are home to herds of elk, deer, predators of every shape and size -- and recently, large flocks of turkeys.

I say "recently" because turkey numbers are up sharply from a few years ago. But there seems there have always been turkeys in the Santa Fe National Forest, according to archeologists. Excavations in Bandelier National Monument, just west of Santa Fe, have shown evidence of "wild" turkeys that were kept in pens and raised by Native Americans hundreds of years ago. That indicates their presence as well as their importance as a source of food and clothing to ancient inhabitants.

WHERE TO GO?

In recent years, one place where the pieces have really come together is an area about 18 miles north of downtown Santa Fe, known as Borrego Mesa. In Spanish, borrego means sheep. But in the relatively flat area between the Rio Quemado and the Rio Medio these days, you hear a lot more gobbling than baaing.

In May 2002, the Borrego fire burned thousands of acres of national forest land. Beginning in the piñon-juniper forest near the Borrego campground, the fire gradually made its way up into the high country near the Pecos Wilderness boundary.

As mentioned earlier, improved management has had good results on game populations, and this fire was one example. While firefighters protected homes and certain watershed areas, portions of this fire were allowed to proceed naturally through the forest. A late-spring snowstorm extinguished it as it burned slowly through aspen and spruce groves in elevations approaching 10,000 feet.

At the time, the fire seemed to be a tragedy, its path marked by ugly black trees jutting up from bare dirt in a swath several miles long. Adding to the problem, a prolonged drought prevented the area from rebounding as quickly as hoped, even though reseeding efforts were carried out with diligence.

Things began changing for the better during the winter of 2004-05, with its record-breaking storms. The area was blanketed with heavy wet snow, followed by a cold, wet spring that allowed the moisture to replenish parched ground.

It all came together to form a virtual turkey incubator. With new growth sprouting in their high-country nesting grounds, the poults of 2005 enjoyed an easy summer, growing fat on berries and insects. Then they found their wintering ground blessed with an abundance of mast crops like acorns and piñon nuts.

Spring 2006 saw the flock heading up into the nesting areas under warm, dry conditions that ensured good survival rates for the first-time-nesting hens.

The early summer was painfully dry, and may have had a slight negative impact on the growing chicks. But by July, the wettest monsoon in recent memory was in full swing. The result, going into winter, was lush forests and excellent forage for animals of all kinds.

Predator populations are now about average. Hunting pressure is relatively low. In this part of Northern New Mexico, the stage is set for turkey numbers to go through the roof!

GETTING THERE

I chose to feature Borrego Mesa because of its excellent hunting opportunity and its proximity to Santa Fe. But before telling you how to get there, I should mention a few things.

First, all of Northern New Mexico -- not just the Sangres -- has benefited from recent weather patterns and conditions.

The nearby Jemez Mountains offer almost identical conditions, after the devastating Cerro Grande fire destroyed hundreds of homes in Los Alamos. Turkey numbers are up in that area as well, although not at the same rate as across the valley at Borrego.

Go to the Web site of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish -- wildlife.state.nm.us -- and pull up the game management boundaries map. Among my choices for over-the-counter tags are units 44 and 45, which include Borrego Mesa; Unit 6, the Jemez Mountains; and Unit 51, Carson National Forest.

If you feel lucky, don't hesitate to apply for some of the draw hunts. My first choice would be Unit 2, followed by the legendary Valle Vidal in unit 55. In 2006, while hunting elk in Valle Vidal, I ran into a flock of jumbo-sized birds. It was a large group, and every bird appeared to be over 20 pounds!

The second point to bring up is license requirements. At press time, both spring and fall tags were still available. Residents pay $28, and nonresidents shell out $110.

A second tag costs $10, no matter where you live. Habitat stamps and access validation add a few dollars to the final bill. The bag limit is two turkeys, and legal sporting arms include bows and shotguns only. Mobility-impaired hunters

may use a crossbow. No centerfire or rimfire rifles may be used.

Now here's how to get to Borrego Mesa: From Santa Fe, head north 16 miles on Highway 285, which will take you through both the Tesuque and Pojoaque pueblo lands. At State Road 503 -- which has a traffic light, believe it or not -- head east towards the mountains through the village of Nambe.

Follow the signs toward Santa Cruz Lake. Turn off on Forest Road 306, which will take you to the Borrego Mesa Campground. You're there!

While you might run into turkeys right in the campground, chances are you won't. So what should you do with the largest designated wilderness area in New Mexico staring you in the face? Read on, because hunting these birds requires a few special tactics you might not be familiar with, if you've never hunted gobblers in the Rockies before.

GALLOPING GOBBLERS

I began hunting at an early age, which basically meant following my dad. We trudged through the scrub oak and ponderosa pine forests around our home in Northern New Mexico. Deer were our intended prey, but turkey and black bear were included in the license for a nominal fee. We always paid the fee, though I suspect it was more wishful thinking than any real hope of even seeing a turkey, much less bagging one.

Still, I carried the little 25-20 everywhere we went and was ready to do my part, should the opportunity arise. It never did.

So rare were the birds back then that just finding my first turkey tracks inspired me to ask a barrage of questions about wild turkeys. Nixon was president. Vietnam was the hotspot, and turkeys were as rare as, well, hen's teeth.

The one question that sticks in my memory was "Do they fly or walk?"

My dad thought for a minute, then answered, "Actually, most of the ones I've ever seen were sort of . . . galloping along."

Galloping birds? Then and there, I was committed to seeing a turkey in the wild.

It took almost 20 years for me to realize that goal, in part because of low turkey populations, but mostly due to my inexperience and lack of effort. I grew up, became a respectable hunter, put some meat in the freezer and horns on the wall. But I never went out in springtime, never heard a hen yelp or a tom gobble. That would change.

TURKEY DAN

I realize he sounds like something I made up just for this article, but I assure you, "Turkey Dan" is a real person and he's earned the name, too. It has been 15 years since he burst through my door swinging a very large gobbler over my head (his first). More importantly, since then he has repeated the trick every year (yes, every year!), not to mention helping dozens of guys like me bag our first birds.

All told, he has helped put well over 50 toms in the freezer, every one taken on public land.

So, how does Dan do it? I've spent many days in the woods with old T.D., and what follows are his answers to questions I've asked him over several seasons.

Rocky Mountain Game & Fish: What's your secret?

Turkey Dan: Effort, plain and simple. I cover ground all day, everyday until I find what I'm looking for.

G&F: And what, exactly, are you looking for?

TD: Turkeys are like any other animal. Food-water-shelter is critical for their survival. In New Mexico, most turkeys are found between 7,500 and 9,000 feet elevation, in the ponderosa pine forest.

That takes care of the shelter part, including the roosting trees. Almost every roost I've ever seen has been a big ponderosa, usually on the edge of a fairly deep canyon. As for food, in fall and winter, it's acorns, pine nuts, piñon nuts and grass seed -- in that order. In spring and summer, it's generally green grass, berries and insects, although they eat certain flower blossoms and any seeds and nuts they find at that time of year, as well as worms when they find them.

G&F: It seems like you have a gift for locating turkeys, even in places you've never been before. There's got to be other things you look for.

TD: One thing I always look for is the snowline. As the snowline moves higher and higher up the mountain, the flocks follow, feeding on the fresh grass coming up.

G&F: How often do you call?

TD: When I'm scouting new ground, I call every 100 yards or so, sort of trolling through, hoping for an answer. On the other hand, if I know there are birds close by, I call very little until I'm set up exactly where I want. Been busted too many times over the years, and educated gobblers will take a lot of your time with no results.

G&F: What type of calls do you use? And what sounds do you try to make?

TD: I use latex diaphragm calls, primarily easy to carry, hands-free. Box calls, slate calls all the other stuff works great, if you are calling for someone else. If you are hunting alone, as I often do, you need to have both hands free while coaxing a bird in. As for sounds, I concentrate on hen noises -- mostly loud yelps for locating hot gobblers, then purrs and clucks for bringing them in. I sometimes use a crow call to induce shock-gobbling, but that's something I do pretty sparingly.

G&F: What about blinds, or electronic callers?

TD: Too much weight!

I might cover 10 miles or more in a single day, and all of it up and down mountains, across canyons and that type of stuff. I don't want to be carrying anything I won't absolutely need to kill a turkey.

G&F: How much does the weather determine success? And what are the best conditions for turkey hunting in this area?

TD: I used to think weather played a bigger part in it than it actually does. Over the years, I have been successful in everything from snow to high winds. Ideally, a crystal-clear morning with no wind, and temperatures in the mid-20s, is best. But I never let weather stop me from going out. Even if I don't hunt, I can look for signs.

One year, it snowed 9 inches opening day, so I drove the roads till I cut tracks. Once I figured out where they were going, I got in front of them and started calling real softly. That old longbeard ran in like he was late for supper.

G&F: Do you have a preference for early or late season?

TD: Not really. Most of the guys I take out really like early to mid-season because the toms are more vocal. But I think I've killed more birds later on, once the hens have started to nest.

G&F: Why is that?

TD: It almost seems like the gobblers get bored or lonely in the middle of the day when the

hens have gone back into the thick stuff to lay eggs or sit on the nest. If you can find where the girls are, often the boys will be running around nearby.

If you can sound like a lost hen, you'll get the toms' attention every time. And they frequently come in quietly, so you need to be alert.

G&F: What time of day is best?

TD: Daytime. What I mean is, turkeys are doing something all day long. If you quit after the morning hunt, you're cheating yourself out of opportunities to learn about them, and maybe talk one into a situation where you'll get to squeeze the trigger.

G&F: Where's your personal favorite place to hunt?

TD: It's all good, really. Everywhere you go, we are seeing more turkeys. If I had to pick a spot this year, I would be torn between Borrego Mesa and Unit 52, up near Tres Piedras.

G&F: Why Unit 52?

TD: Because they've only recently opened that up to spring hunting. There is a good population, and the birds aren't as educated as in other spots, including Borrego Mesa.

The downside to 52 is that it's so far from anywhere.

THE "GOOD OLD DAYS" ARE NOW

Whether you choose an over-the-counter tag for an area like Borrego Mesa, or apply for a limited-entry hunt on one of the state wildlife areas, New Mexico's spring 2007 turkey season is set to be one of the best on record.

The "good old days" for bagging a New Mexico tom are happening right now, let's be sure they don't pass us by!

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