April 17, 2023
We are turkey hunting tributaries of Montana's Powder River, a network of prairie streams defined by linear stands of ash and cottonwood trees, and enough buffalo berry and chokecherry underbrush to make turkeys feel comfortable. But instead of a high-pitched box call or a coyote howl to locate these Merriam's turkeys, Rich Loeber uses his optics.
"We're going to get up on a high point and glass," Loeber says. "To my mind, the best piece of gear for turkey hunting out here is a good pair of binoculars. I've noticed that these open-country birds are way more visual [than their timber-country cousins]. They're doing the same thing we are, getting up on high points and looking out for danger. If we can see them before they see us, then we have an excellent chance of getting into range and calling one in."
We do exactly that. We spot a trio of gobblers feeding in bluestem prairie grass on a gumbo knob above the drainage. A flock of hens is lower down in the taller grass. We slide off our glassing point and into a deep ravine that leads us into a larger tributary that, in turn, will drop us right into the main stream below the turkeys.
The approach reminds me exactly of the way I hunt open-country antelope. I use these terrain features, either dry stream beds or obscuring ridges, to hide my approach. One major difference, of course, is we don't have the added concern about human scent with these turkeys.
We drop into the main stream, keeping our eyes peeled for turkeys that we perhaps didn't spot from above. We're moving like cats now, making sure we don't snap twigs or show ourselves to the birds that are just in front of and above us.
When we find a small, grassy clearing in front of two trees that we can lean against, Rich stakes out two decoys and we slide into cover, pulling our facemasks up and propping our shotguns on our knees.
We intended to double if two gobblers came in, but instead only one responded to our calls. When we saw him, he was already in range, and as he strutted behind an ash tree, I got my bead on him and killed him when he stepped out, 30 yards away in the only decent tree cover within the entire prairie township.
PROSPECTING FOR BIRDS
I've had luck simply walking prairie streams and river bottoms, but by far the most consistent approach to killing open-country gobblers is to find them first. It's an approach that works as well on the meandering Milk River near my home as on its tributaries, and I've employed the same strategies in eastern Colorado, northeast Wyoming's Black Hills and southern Oregon.
It works because you don't risk bumping or spooking birds as you blindly walk and call. But it also works because you can often "take the temperature" of gobblers by watching their behavior from a distance.
"I know which birds are killable just by seeing how they interact with hens and with other gobblers," says Dale Tribby, a wildlife biologist who has hunted hundreds of these prairie birds. "If a tom is voluntarily gobbling or is in strut most of the time, then I know if I can get into earshot of that bird, I have a pretty good chance of killing him."
That's a strategy that works once birds are on the ground and actively interacting with each other. But prospecting for roosted birds is equally productive, says Tribby. "There just aren't that many roost sites out on the prairie," he says, "so they have high fidelity to a handful of trees. That makes finding them pretty easy, but because those roosts are so well known, they often won't sit up there and gobble their heads off."
Typically, you'll get a few daybreak gobbles, and then the toms will go silent. "I think that's because there are so many predators on the prairie," says Tribby. "There are coyotes everywhere, and bobcats in some of these draws. And hawks and eagles. Those birds are so visually wary because they have to be. They're using their eyes way more than their hearing to stay alive."
Still, if you can find a vocal bird on the roost, the chances of killing him are good simply because you can predict where they'll fly down. Hunters who sneak in early to a strut zone often do well on rivers and streams around the West. But Tribby has seen plenty of gobblers pitch out of trees onto the bald prairie.
"A lot of times they'll fly onto a grassy knoll where they can see danger, but also where other turkeys can see them strutting," he says. This is why it pays to be glassing a wide expanse just after fly-down.
Once you've spotted birds and worked into an ambush spot, restrain your calling. Open-country gobblers are similar to highly pressured Eastern woodland toms. A few yelps that get a response are more effective than wailing away on your call. Keep the birds guessing about your specific location and let them make the move. And if a gobbler hangs up, don't give up on him, says Loeber.
"There's lots of times a hot gobbler has just gone cold, and I figured he was led away by a hen, but when I got up to leave, there he was, watching from cover," he says.
Because these birds are visual, and because turkey densities on these narrow riparian corridors are often not especially high, gobblers are wary when they hear what sounds like a new turkey. While the most aggressive toms will often spit and drum right into a call, most will respond, then move in quietly. So, make sure your setup has plenty of visibility in all directions.
"I've had numerous birds that I thought were coming from downstream circle around and come in from my blind side," says Tribby, who says if you blow a setup, don't give up. Instead, circle way around on the flock and try another approach. This is one of the great advantages of hunting small streams on public land: Usually you have lots of room to adjust and try different tactics.
"A gobbler that you spooked in the morning has probably forgotten all about it by noon," he says.
AMBUSHING IS FAIR GAME
Most veteran turkey hunters know the pinnacle achievement of the spring is calling a tom into killing range. But sometimes it doesn't work out. Early in the season, hens will often lead gobblers away from what they perceive to be a rival. Other times, weather (these prairie habitats are notorious for their April snowstorms) shuts down gobbling. Or, because these are primarily public lands, hunting pressure might have made gobblers call-shy.
For whatever reason, not every gobbler comes in on a string. It's OK to kill a spring tom without calling.
"I bet I've killed half my birds by sneaking on them and bushwhacking them," says Loeber. "Especially after the first hour of light, that's about the only way to kill a bird in some of these places."
Again, optics are your best tool to locate birds and figure out an approach that will either get you into range or allow you to set up in the direction they're headed so you can ambush them.
The same approach that Loeber and I used, hiding our profile and movement by staying in deep cuts and arroyos, lets you move undetected across treeless landscapes. In badlands country, you can use little washes, hoodoos and rimrocks to get close to birds. And in larger rivers, simply staying below steep banks will allow you to move up and down the stream undetected.
"To me, one of the most exciting ways to hunt turkeys is to see what direction they're going and then wait on them," says Loeber. "It's exciting because you often have a lot of eyes on you, and you have to stay dead still [until the gobbler gets into range]. Then there's the challenge of getting a clean shot without spooking the flock."
- This article on turkey hunting is is published in the West edition of April 2023's Game & Fish magazine. Learn how to subscribe