New Mexico Turkey Hotspots

Yet another spring in which hunters may take two gobblers marks the success of New Mexico's turkey management plan. Here are three places you should try this year.

Photo by Burt Carey

I've been impressed by the wild turkey's resilience over the past several years. Despite drought and myriad environmental factors that have sent deer populations plummeting and emptied quail coverts, turkeys have been doing especially well. So well, in fact, that New Mexico hunters may tag two birds again this spring, and success rates continue to top 50 percent in some areas. And though I don't especially like the idea of taking two birds from a single canyon, let alone from a single flock, it's nice to know that a single trigger pull or arrow release won't end all of my springtime fun.

I've begun to see numbers of turkeys in places where I've observed only the occasional bird in years past. Be that as it may, the best areas are those you can depend on for success rates of more than 40 percent year in and year out. Here are three of the best The Land of Enchantment has to offer.

GILA WILDERNESS

Generally, 50 percent of the hunters who travel to the vast and remote Gila National Forest get a turkey. I bump that figure up to 100 percent by investing a little extra effort and trekking into wilderness despite the fact that I hunt with bow and arrows.

Yes, I always get my gobbler. Of course, I often have a bit of assistance from my buddy, Billy Lee of Mimbres Taxidermy & Guide Service, who's an outfitter and has mules and horses and always seems to know a good place to find birds. When Billy's busy I simply strap on a backpack and hump it into one of several places where I see only the occasional backpacker who has taken a wrong turn somewhere up the trail.

All of Billy's hotspots, and the ones I backpack into, have common traits. They are remote, involving at least 10 miles of hoofing, and there is permanent water. Consider five miles a minimum start to get away from the general public and discover undisturbed birds. Water need not be one of the major rivers like any of the three forks of the Gila River, though these are good starts. Anything even remotely attached to these waters, good-sized side canyons with springs at their heads, are good bets. This means spreading out a map and poring over it until something jumps out at you. The possibilities are limitless.

Reliable access points through Forest lands and into wilderness includes Snow Lake, trekking downstream into the headwaters of the Middle Fork; Willow Creek to get you into Iron Creek and adjacent areas including Turkey Feather Pass; Cooney Prairie and the Black Mountain area (look for springs on your maps); or the lower Gila River near Cliff and Gila to take you into places on the southern tier of the wilderness.

SACRAMENTO MOUNTAINS

The Sacs don't offer the shear wilderness desolation of the Gila, but hunters here still enjoy some of the highest spring success rates in the state, some years topping 50 percent. It can be awfully difficult to get away from roads and the modern bane of four-wheelers in this area, but that's still the best way to find an unmolested gobbler willing to respond to your best calls. Getting away from it all is often what it's all about.

High and low, fir forest to piñon foothills, you will find turkey here, so don't be afraid to look in fringe areas to find productive hotspots away from crowds, including Rio Grande turkeys in the southern reaches of the unit, as well as the lower Hondo Valley region. Higher elevations surrounding the Mescalero Apache Reservation are the best bets for Merriam's gobblers.

Private lands around Cloudcroft and Cloud Country and the Mescalero Reservation offer access dilemmas for those unwilling to walk, so look over maps to find places where a little skirting can get you into productive areas that the public cannot access with motorized vehicles. The old trick of calling someone else's bird across a fence always does the trick near the reservation, setting up near the boundary and calling birds across to you. The Sixteen Springs Canyon area outside of Mayhill is a great place to ply this trade.

Farther south, near Sunspot and Timberon, getting away from competition can require more creative thought, but map work is worth the effort. Bucking the end-of-the-road syndrome is also a good ploy here. Look for wholly obvious places that others blast past on their ways to the end of the road where everyone else parks. I have found birds right out of Cloudcroft, right in the middle of the Cloudcroft Ski Area, places others pass by in the dark of morning rushing to places further afield.

Secondary growth within areas of recent forest fires should attract turkeys this year. There have been several big fires around Mayhill, Weed and adjacent areas, so there is plenty of new habitat to investigate. Despite what Smokey The Bear says, fire is good for wildlife and these areas should always be explored.

ZUNI MOUNTAINS

The Zunis near Grants have long provided a better than 45 percent chance at turkey-hunting success, with vast areas without roads, and alpine as well as foothill habitat to add variety to your pursuits. The only potential pitfall in this area is a complicated array of land status types, from large private holdings, to National Parks lands, to Indian reservations, even a military reservation, and large tracts of isolated land belonging to the public that can be tricky at best to success.

Many areas are off limits to hunting and should be avoided by carrying and consulting a good map when in doubt. They can also aid you in finding a little-used and remote hunting spot, access obstacles that keep others out who are unwilling to invest a long hike to skirt these parameters.

Such places include many inholdings of private lands, and the western Zunis and the Zuni Reservation. These areas are generally found at lower elevations, often have fewer birds, but also fewer people. Examples include the head of the Rio Nutria, Tampico Draw, and Red Mesa area in the far western reaches of the range, The Notches and Muerto Canyon areas in the central portion of the Zunis.

Classic alpine high country throughout the Zunis is found from around Barometer Mountain and nearby McGaffy Lookout in the northwestern portion of the Zunis, along the entire length of Oso Ridge to 8,557-foot Gallo Peak in the southeast. Much of this is high-altitude mesa country, and looking for blank places on the map without roads is the best way to proceed. For example, the block of ground between Cerro Colorado and Cold Springs, in the southern portion of the Zunis, and country just north of Rice Park Dam jump out at me. There are many such places where 10 squares miles can easily be found without roads.

Other gr

eat options, presenting access troubles, but low-pressure use, include all those small but isolated pieces of Forest Service land scattered about the Zuni's edges. Pasture Hollow between the Zuni Reservation and Ramah Reservoir, other blocks above Ramah, and several blocks on the "Hogback" nearer Fort Wingate stand out. Study maps carefully to avoid trespassing when accessing these places.

Better-than-average moisture in the past year should continue to provide fantastic turkey hunting for 2005. Those willing to work for it can better the 50 percent success enjoyed by the public, then take to the field again to fill that second tag.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

Seasons & Licenses: Traditionally spring turkey season opens April 15 and closes May 10. The most productive dates normally fall somewhere in the middle of these dates, when hens have taken to nests and gobblers are on the prod. Licenses are issued over the counter, $15 residents, $75 non-resident, $10 for a second turkey tag. Contact the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish at (800) 476-8000 to be sent hunting information, or visit online: www.wildlife.state.nm.us.

Gila Outfitter: Billy Lee can host you on a fully guided wilderness hunt or drop-camp you in a proven area with your own gear, or his. He uses sturdy and gentle mules and horses to get you and your gear into remote areas safely, camps tented and comfortable, with cowboy cooking around the fire part of the experience. Contact Billy Lee at 505-536-9685, billyl@gilanet.com, or online: www.gilaoutfitters.com.

Maps: Good maps are an important part of turkey hunting. Drop by or contact the New Mexico Forest Supervisor's Office, 2113 Osuna Road NE, Suite A, Albuquerque, NM 87113-1001; (505) 761-4650. BLM offices often have more detailed land-stat maps. Contact the BLM State Office, Santa Fe, NM 87504.

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