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May is for Merriam's

May is made for chasing Western toms. Here's how to find and fool late-season gobblers.

May is for Merriam's

Late in the season, when Merriam's hens are tending their nests, gobblers will still respond to calls as they search for any available late breeders. (Shutterstock image)

As my truck window rolled down, an unmistakable Merriam's gobble carried across the prairie to my well-trained ear. The source? A dark ornament on a dead cottonwood's bare limb. Another gobbler, still on the ground, soon roosted, and I left with a solid game plan. As I parked my truck in the predawn darkness the following morning, lightning intermittently lit the prairie. More than 10 seconds after each flash, distant thunder boomed, followed by shock gobbles. The radar showed the storm was moving north, missing the chunk of public dirt I was standing on by at least 10 miles. Confident I was safe, I beat feet toward the cottonwoods.

With dawn impending, I hunkered against a tree 50-some yards from the roosted birds. While I waited, they gobbled, double-gobbled and triple-gobbled. Eventually, the two rope-chested birds flew down, landing at the edge of shotgun range. Immediately, their fans blocked their heads as they strutted away. Beside me, a deployed Montana strutting tom decoy lie flat in the grass. Slowly, I propped it upright (I had great visibility and was certain no one else was hunting the property). By the time I raised my shotgun and peeked around the decoy, the toms were already within range. My Benelli made its own thunder, claiming the larger bird.

If that type of hunt sounds like something you'd enjoy doing yet this spring, let's discuss some tips for late-May Merriam's success.

FIND LESS-PRESSURED BIRDS

Hunting for Merriam's turkeys wasn't always so publicized, but social media has made chasing the "birds with the white-tipped fans" the thing to do. Merriam's flocks are seeing way more hunting pressure than they ever did in the past, as droves of Easterners flock west for a "gritty" spring adventure in the Western wilds. Knowing that, it takes a creative edge to find birds late in the season, particularly if you're hunting on public lands or private lands open for public hunting with walk-in access. It takes even more creativity to find birds that haven't been pestered all season long. With that in mind, I have some ideas for you.

First, don't try to tackle this task without a good phone app. I like HuntStand Pro since it not only denotes property ownership with a satellite view, but I can identify areas with prime turkey habitat by alternating between a few different layers. I use the Crop History layer to locate all agriculture in the vicinity, even if it's on adjacent private land. Next, I like to use the Tree Cover layer to determine possible roosting options. Then, I reference the Terrain layer to see what ridges and benches are available that might facilitate roosting. Water nearby is crucial, too. Basically, I'm looking for areas rich with turkey necessities.

After analyzing turkey habitat on the app, I try to identify locations that I believe other hunters are either too lazy to reach or will overlook. Typically, if you're willing to hike 1 to 3 miles from parking areas (I know, it's a long way to go for a turkey) you'll usually have said location to yourself. On large parcels, I specifically seek the fringes where private and public lands adjoin, especially if the private lands have farming or cattle operations (which appeal to turkeys) and the public features classic roosting habitat. You also might consider the roadless and trail-less areas deep in the public land. And don't forget the small parcels with very few trees, as I've taken a couple of Merriam's gobblers—including the one mentioned in the opener—from such locales.

Once I mark several options, I drive around and glass. Spotting scopes aren't just for elk and mule deer; one can prove extremely valuable for Merriam's hunting, too. While you can't see everything from the road, the combination of binos and a spotting scope can help you spot birds at distance. Then, you hike in knowing—not hoping—that you'll have birds to hunt.

Obviously, not seeing birds in your optics doesn't mean they aren't there. Merriam's are travelers, especially during the final stretch of the spring season. They can be skylined on a ridge one minute and out of view moments later. If your scouting gives you reasons to believe the property holds turkeys, lace up your boots and try to locate one.

If your public-land spots aren't producing birds, or the birds you're finding are running the other way when you call, try finding turkeys on private land from the road, then ask the landowner for permission. This is far less daunting for turkeys than it is for big game, as folks tend to be less protective of turkeys than deer and elk.

Most hunting apps will give you the landowner's name. From there, I typically look up the individual on whitepages.com (I pay for the premium version so my search results reveal cell numbers). Then, I either call the phone number(s) listed in my search results or I visit the associated address (if local). Finding un-pressured birds is hugely advantageous this late in the spring. And while it's difficult to do with the influx of hunting pressure, using the steps we've covered so far helps your cause.

turkey hunter with spotting scope
Glassing from the road is an inconspicuous and effective way to find Merriam's gobblers, especially in prairie habitat with lots of visibility. (Photo by Darron McDougal)

CALLS AND DECOYS

During my first hunt in a given location, I use my calls and decoys to the fullest extent (if the situation allows), and I usually have quick hunts with birds coming to the call. Once, I ranged a tom and jake at 1,000 yards. After making a few calls on my box call, they came running and were in my decoys within minutes.

Not all Merriam's are so responsive, however, so change up your calling and/or decoys as needed. If I have a bird responding, but not coming closer, I shut up and let the turkey's curiosity build. If birds are seeing my decoys but hanging up, I might pull the jake decoy and leave just the hens. In some cases, nothing you do will bring Mr. Merriam's in on a rope. When that's the case, it's time to burn some boot leather and put on a stalk.

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KNOW THE TERRAIN AND GO

Terrain is almost always involved when hunting Merriam's turkeys. If you simply move within 100 yards and set up, you might miss the mark. With roosted birds, reference where the tom is roosted on your app's terrain layer. Next, try to determine possible landing strips where he'll pitch down. Try to avoid setting up downhill of a landing strip, as calling gobblers downhill is notoriously difficult. Instead, set up level with or even above where you think he'll fly down.

Also, know the terrain before moving in on birds that are on the ground. Whether I'm trying to run down a gobbler that evaded my calling and decoys or trying to close some distance before setting up on a bird for the first time, terrain is my friend or foe. If I use it well, I'll make my maneuver undetected, but even a small oversight can expose me and instantly end my hunt.

I'm constantly reminded just how much ground Merriam's can cover. Be in shape and never foster the "tomorrow's another day" philosophy. Keep after birds as long as you can. I've hiked nearly 8 miles in a morning to kill a tom. Tomorrow isn't guaranteed, plus you don't know for certain that he'll roost in the same location. Go get him today.

CLOSE THE DEAL

Elk hunters who routinely get within archery range of elk are great hunters, even if they don't kill. Closing the deal is the most difficult part. Many things can go wrong the moment that elk is in range.

When hunting Merriam's turkeys, your greatest challenge with closing the deal is yardage. Inclined and declined angles mixed with varying habitat and terrain can complicate yardage estimation, and it's common for hunters to miss due to underestimating distances.

Always carry a rangefinder. You might not be able to use it on a bird, but you can use it as soon as you set up. Zap different objects and memorize the yardages. Then, when a tom pops his head above a rock or around a tree, you'll know if he's in range. These tips might not guarantee a 20-yard shot at a gobbler, but they've helped me take several. Use them, and you might be slinging a late-May Merriam's over your shoulder for the hike back to the truck.

TOP SPOTS FOR MAY MERRIAM'S

Pack the truck and hit the highways for a turkey road trip.

  • Custer National Forest, Montana: The Long Pines area of the Custer National Forest in southeastern Montana is a popular destination for turkeys. It encompasses more than 65,000 acres of pine timber with ranching operations on the outskirts. Nonresidents can scoop up an OTC license; the season runs through the end of May.
  • Kaniksu National Forest, Idaho: Way up in Idaho's panhandle is the sprawling Kaniksu National Forest, which is home to plenty of Merriam's gobblers. Look to the fringes of the forest where agriculture is common on adjoining private lands. Camp on federal lands or stay in a motel in any of the nearby towns, including Priest River, Idaho, and Newport, Wa. Nonresidents can purchase a general spring hunt tag and/or apply for a controlled hunt tag. The season runs through May 25.
  • Thunder Basin National Grasslands, Wyoming: Wyoming's pine-timbered hills and riparian habitats southeast of Upton are home to turkeys, and there is plenty of land open to public access via the Thunder Basin National Grasslands, walk-in areas and lands operated by the state of Wyoming and the BLM. Focus on isolated pockets of pines or along Turner Creek. Camp on federal lands or grab a motel in Newcastle. Some Wyoming areas can be hunted with a general OTC tag, though Hunt Area 1 is a limited-draw area with a January application period.
  • Mesa County, Colorado: Merriam's thrive in Mesa County, where hunters can pursue tags on BLM and forest service lands, as well as a couple of state wildlife areas. This is big country, and Merriam's are nomadic, so this hunt will test your physical fitness. Nonresidents can purchase an OTC tag and hunt through May 31.



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