I had a competitor. There were six gobblers half a mile away. When I worked the box call, they lifted their heads. That’s when a hen started to call from the ridge. Instead of working against her, I went up the ridge and got behind her. When I called, she called. Sometimes a tom gobbled back.
Soon the hen was quiet. Rather than raise the call volume, I called as quiet as possible.
Fifteen minutes after I heard the last gobble, five shiny toms came into view. As soon as the first bright red head cleared a fallen tree, I put the bead on it and squeezed the trigger.
With that lonely hen’s help, I’d worked the flock for an hour and 20 minutes.
At first it seemed like the hen was my competitor for the toms’ attentions, but because there were more gobblers than females, her charms helped lure them into my trap.
I’d say the boss gobbler got the girl, but there was no doubt his wingman got to be guest of honor at my dinner table.
If you’re anything like us at Rocky Mountain Game & Fish, you have been thinking about turkey hunting for months, counting down the days.
We have been going over statistics, talking to biologists and guides in Arizona and New Mexico. We like to look for trends. We want to steer you to the hotspots.
Go ahead and pattern the shotgun with those new loads, the 2017 spring season will be one to remember. Let’s start in the Grand Canyon State.
This year, like last year, Arizona’s turkey populations are building on strength. There were no major fires last summer, and the winter of 2015-16 was mild. In fact, the last few winters leading up to 2016-17 have not been hard on birds. Populations are stable in most game management units and increasing in some areas. The Arizona Game and Fish Department estimates there are 20,000 turkeys in the state.
Think of turkey habitat in Arizona as an arc that starts south of Eagar and Alpine in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and swings up through Whiteriver on the White Mountain Apache lands, up through the Mogollon Plateau, Flagstaff, into the Kaibab National Forest to Fredonia on the Utah border.
According to historical data, the extreme southwest corner is still in severe drought, but the rest of Arizona is said to be in dry and moderate drought conditions. And some game management units enjoyed more rainfall during the critical nesting and hatching season.
Hunters chase three subspecies in Arizona: Merriam’s, Gould’s and Rio Grandes.
Merriam’s are the main quarry and can be found north of the Gila River and north through the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest. Pine woods offer some of the best habitat. The birds also make use of other trees and vegetation types found from 3,500 feet to 10,000 feet.
Rio Grande turkeys are found north of the Colorado River on the Arizona Strip on Black Rock Mountain. Rios favor riparian zones studded with the substantial trees where the birds roost.
Gould’s turkeys are filling in their historic habitat in the Coronado National Forest and in other parts of southern Arizona along the Mexican border.
Biologists estimate a total turkey population of about 20,000 birds. The 2015 spring harvest (the last year for which the data was available) was 961 birds.
“The last hard winter was in 2009-10,” Tom McCall said. McCall is the game specialist in Region II, based in Flagstaff. His territory takes in the Kaibab Plateau and the far side of the Colorado River. “Unit 5A took until last year to turn around,” he said. Numbers are stable to improving in 5B, 6A and 9 as well, but 12A (North Kaibab) is a good one. In the Kaibab, it’s a five-hour drive from Phoenix and that’s a good thing. When planning a hunt here, bring supplies and expect primitive camping. Nearest lodging is at Jacob Lake or Fredonia.
McCall has seen turkey numbers drop and build again. Moisture is one of the most important factors. In the Flagstaff area, last year, April through July, rainfall was higher than normal for each month. With last fall came a good green-up and a good acorn crop, which is one of the main food sources.
In Pinetop Region I, the best producers are units 1 and 27. The town of Eagar marks the top of GMU 1, which is made up of private, state trust and U.S. Forest Service lands in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. Check out 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. Snow could make access to some areas difficult early in the season.
Bounded in part by the New Mexico border and the San Carlos Reservation, Unit 27 hunters establish high elevation camps from Alpine to Rose Peak. There are lowland options as well.
Early each spring, the department offers at least three different hunt camps primarily for kids but also open to older people who are new to the game.
Spring season dates vary by region. 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 process. Hunters younger than 14 must have proof of hunter education. For more information, visit www.azgfd.com.
The National Wild Turkey Federation says there are more Gould’s in Arizona now than at any time in the last 100 years. Those that want to tag a Gould’s to complete their turkey slam should look to the Coronado National Forest, in the Huachucas and high elevation reaches in southern Arizona. 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.
Looking ahead to turkey season in New Mexico, the big question is what was the precipitation like during the growing season last year? Turkeys thrive when the grasses are green and there are a lot of bugs for poults to eat.
By the National Weather Service numbers, the 2016 water year started off great, but trickled off with drier conditions in January. February and March were dry too but April brought more rains and then the state began to dry again in May. The water year ended at 102 percent of normal.
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 insects the young birds need.
Rio Grandes and Merriam’s are the main quarry, while Gould’s turkeys are found in the Coronado National Forest and the Animas Mountains along the southern border. There’s an estimated population of 35,000 turkeys in New Mexico.
In 2014, across state the spring turkey hunt success ran to 26.3 percent. Game management units 6, 16 and 34 turned out the most gobblers. Take a look at the map and the reasons are obvious. This is the best mountain and edge habitat and these units are closest to the human population centers — Albuquerque, Silver City, Las Cruces and Alamogordo.
According to the harvest surveys, most spring hunters spent two days afield, but the most successful spent more time at it. A total harvest of 555 turkeys (both sexes) was reported in the fall season.
Turkeys require roost trees, big oaks and pines. Scout for roost structure with water and feed close at hand. Turkeys can scratch out a living wherever there are grasses (which encourage bugs) and weed seeds. But they also need escape cover — a small stand of trees — and water. Look for a spot with one or two small ponds or a creek or a guzzler nearby.
Wherever the farmland is cultivated, look at the lay of the ground nearby, where foothills flatten out into fields or in the forest near agricultural operations. In these places, flocks feed down to the private land then head back up to public ground to roost. Plan the hunt with a map or aerial photos.
For the highest density of birds, look north and south of Ruidoso, in the Lincoln National Forest. East of Alamagordo, GMU 34 is New Mexico’s most productive turkey unit where hunter success equaled the statewide average. Neighboring GMUs 35, 36 and 37 are 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, 21 and 22. Units 15 and 16 have long been among the most productive. To get away from the crowds, Dan Williams, New Mexico Wildlife information officer, recommends, “Go to the Gila.”
In the Zuni Mountains, in Cibola County, consider GMU 10. Another place to prospect is west of Corona (in the Cibola National Forest), in units 37 and 38.
North of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the Carson and Santa Fe national forests offer good public land access.
Be ready for high elevation hunting in the Pecos Wilderness (GMUs 45, 46, 48 and 49). Here, the Merriam’s roost on the ridgetops between 7,000 and 10,000 feet. For a place to hunt, find good roosting timber adjacent to grassy meadows and other feeding areas.
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 (opened last year) provides more access to hunters.
When looking to get away from the crowds, give special consideration to GMUs 51 (directly north of the productive Unit 6) as well as units 55 and 57.
North of Clayton, along the Colorado border, both Merriam’s and Rio Grandes can be found in the Cimarron and Carrizozo watersheds.
East of Albuquerque, a narrow strip of forest in Unit 14 offers lower hunter success (a bit better than 10 percent), but it is close to home for many.
For Rio Grande turkeys, the best numbers are in the Pecos River watershed and along the Canadian (GMUs 40, 41, 42).
New Mexico’s season runs April 15 through May 10. 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 are also held on select state properties in cooperation with New Mexico Wildlife.
For next season, keep in mind application for draw permit hunts must be made by early February. Open areas for draw permits are in Unit 2, Unit 8, Marquez WMA, W.S. Huey WMA and the Valle Vidal and Greenwood area.
To target the Gould’s subspecies, plan to hunt the lower southwest corner of the state, south of Lordsburg in units 27 and 28. Tags are offered through raffles and auctions administered by the National Wild Turkey Federation.