Oregon's Mountain Gobblers
September 29, 2010
Merriam's turkeys didn't take well in most parts of Oregon, but the high mountain country of the Strawberry, Blue and Wallowa ranges have proven to be stubborn exceptions. (March 2006)
Turkey hunter David Alexander holds up the 11-inch beard on his Blue Mountains gobbler.
Photo by Justin Karnopp.
The gobble echoed throughout the lime-green canyon -- music to our ears. A few moments later, we caught our first glimpse of its maker as a mature tom lit from the oak trees and began his morning strut in a meadow that had been drenched by rain. This was the first weather break in the Blues in a couple of days, and it was apparent that this old longbeard was going to take full advantage of it.
David, Dad and I formulated a quick plan to get within earshot of the tom. We tried to ignore the lures of three jakes in an adjacent drainage and focus our attention on the big gobbler. We made the oak thicket without being detected, and with Dad and Dave set up in front, I called from the rear. A few clucks on a diaphragm call brought an immediate and excited response from the bird. Then his hens appeared, purring and clucking softly in search of another sister. The big tom was at the head of the meadow, out of range, and content to let his hens make the introductions. His girls were 10 yards away when they started to get wary of the situation. The hens bolted at a quick pace and the gobbler followed.
Dave and I moved fast around a rimrock bluff to cut them off. Dave got down and waited in a prone position as the hens single-filed down the ridgeline. Then the big white and purple head showed up. David framed it on his barrel and made a perfect shot. The bird we'd dubbed Tom Gobs, sporting an 11-inch beard, was in the bag. It was David's first turkey and just our second attempt at hunting the Blue Mountains.
When I first started turkey hunting, I logically headed for the rolling hills of southern Oregon where turkey populations are high and public land plentiful. We had good success in the Medford area, which remains an annual destination on our spring turkey quests. However, I am a spot-and-stalk guy by nature, and I prefer to hunt my turkeys just like big game, in more open country where I can locate them with binoculars and move into position.
Merriam's turkeys were introduced in Oregon in the early 1960s, but the birds did not take in much of the state, as Oregon Fish and Game officials had hoped. Today's Southern Oregon turkeys are of the Rio Grande subspecies, which are better suited to the temperate climate there. For Merriam's turkeys, the exception has been in the high mountain country of the Strawberry, Blue and Wallowa ranges, where the elevation-friendly birds have proven to be stubborn inhabitants. While birds' numbers are nowhere near the populations of those in Southern Oregon, huntable populations have been successfully established throughout these ranges. Reintroduction efforts continue throughout the timber country of Eastern Oregon.
SPOT, STALK, CALL
I'm slow to come out of winter hibernation, and I'm not always the first one out of the truck in spring to locate a roosted bird. I've found that the Merriam's subspecies are also late sleepers -- at least they seem to sleep a bit longer than Rio Grande birds, probably due to the colder climates that they inhabit (which suits me just fine).
My strategy is to find a vantage point, a hot cup of coffee in hand, and glass the meadows and openings as the sun starts to warm the strutting grounds. When I locate a bird, I try to determine the best route to get within calling range without being detected by the gobbler or one of his sentry hens. Once I think he can hear clucks and purrs, I set up with a shooter or two well in front and the caller hidden in some thick cover, and try to lure the bird within 30 yards of one of the guns. This type of hunting has proven to be very effective on Eastern Oregon's open slopes.
I spotted my first turkey while grouse hunting near the South Fork of the John Day River about 10 years ago. I have since seen birds throughout the Strawberry range. From the farmlands around John Day, Canyon City and Prairie City to the Malheur National Forest, turkey numbers continue to rise.
Though private property is a barrier to many of us, keep in mind that many landowners are more willing to part with a pesky turkey or two than an elk or mule deer, from which they can make a good deal of money by allowing access or leasing. Many leases don't include spring turkeys. It's worth a knock on a door if you spot a tom strutting along the edge of a hayfield. This is especially true in an area where turkeys are relative newcomers and landowners may view them as unwanted pests. Turkeys can become very destructive, and I've seen them pecking and defecating on roofs, decks and driveways. I would not hesitate to ask permission to take a bird off a ranch in the valley between the Strawberries and the John Day River.
In the Malheur Forest, concentrate on the drainages in the Murderers Creek, Northside, Beulah and the northern part of the Malheur River units. The creek bottoms in the Malheur abound with various berries, grasshoppers and other food sources, and the nearby timber provides roosting sites.
These birds have no reason to stray far from home ranges. I have found the birds in this region to be very territorial, probably staying in the vicinity of where they were released. I have come back to places where I spotted a group of birds a couple of years prior, made a cluck on a diaphragm, and got an instant response. Much of this country is fairly open and conducive to a spot-stalk-and-call strategy. Set up in the shadows along edges of meadows, glass for strutting birds and listen for turkey talk.
The Blues have been very good to me. I have shot a number of gobblers in the hills around Milton-Freewater in the Walla Walla Unit. I've hunted public and private ground in the Blues, and am fortunate to have access to some great private spring strutting grounds. With one exception, I have always come out of the Blues with a gobbler. That was in the spring of 2004, when heavy snows took their toll on the turkeys on Government Mountain. Dad and I hunted for three days before bagging it and heading home, after seeing just two hens. Turkeys are extremely resilient birds, however, and the following fall young birds were once again pecking around the front yard of our cabin.
Mt. Emily is also a good bet for Blue Mountain gobblers, with about 40 percent of the unit publicly owned. Jim Cadwell, district biologist with the Northeast Regional Office in LaGrande, gave an overall assessment of the turkey situation in the region: "The birds are doing well. The populations are expanding and we have turkeys distributed throughout Union County."
In just the past few of our annual elk-hunting adventures in the northeast, turkeys have become a common sight along with the bounty of other wildlife in the foothills of the beautiful Wallowa Mountains. Though I have yet to make the trek to the far northeast for spring turkeys, it's on my list, as I have seen more birds on public lands in the Imnaha, Sled Springs and Chesnimnus units than anywhere else in Eastern Oregon. In particular, the Sled Springs Unit seems to hold a really strong population of Merriam's, though the country is better suited to traditional locate-and-call strategies than spot-stalk-and-call.
I was surprised to learn that the Keating Unit had the highest success rate for turkey hunters in the state. I would surely have thought it would have been the Rogue or a bordering unit where the bonus tag allows for the taking of a third bird. However, nearly 60 percent of Keating hunters tagged their bird in 2004. Obviously, the heavy winter wasn't too much of factor in the foothills of the Elkhorn Mountains.
In the Pine Creek Unit near the community of Halfway lies one of northeastern Oregon's healthiest turkey populations. Interestingly, these birds are not a success story of reintroduction, but birds that flew over from the Idaho side to reap the benefits of the area's lush turkey habitat This is hotbed of turkey action definitely worth checking out for anyone willing to make the long trek to a remote area.