Hunting Western Turkey
March 30, 2012
Just about all turkey hunters have been in this situation at one time or another in the woods. Here I was nestled against a thick pine, and a mature tom was strutting some 60 yards away. Each time I sent him a chorus of love-sick yelps, his chest would expand and then exhale a belly-deep gobble that echoed through the canyon. For the next 20 minutes I pulled everything out of my seasoned turkey toolkit: yelps, clucks, purrs, but nothing seemed to get him to edge closer. It
looked like this he-said/she-said long distance romance was at a stalemate and there wasn't anything I could do about it. I guess after a couple of seasons under his belt, this veteran gobbler suspected something was awry, and he was right. All I could do was watch him strut and listen to his bellowing gobble, but I wasn't complaining. How could I? Here I was hunting on some of Colorado's prime public ground, with an over-the-counter tag in my back pocket and I'd just witnessed a spring heavyweight in all his glory.
The Rocky Mountain West is a big-game hunter's paradise. Not only do western sportsmen get to enjoy falls filled with bugling elk, wide-racked mulies, sharped-eyed pronghorns and wise whitetails, but if the stars align and they are lucky enough to draw a tag, they might just get a crack at moose, goats and the elusive bighorn sheep. Although these stunning critters are what the west is no doubt known for, once winter's grip loosens and spring settles in, we offer some pretty good turkey action as well. With success rates as high as 70 percent in some states, some westerners might argue that the turkey hunting could be in the epic category.
With solid turkey hunting opportunities in virtually every corner in the Rocky Mountain West, you can't go wrong wherever you decide to go come spring. With tags as easy to get as taking a trip to the local Wally World, millions of acres of prime public ground and tons of gobbling toms, you need to look no further than New Mexico, Colorado and Idaho.
CENTENNIAL STATE TOMS
If you're a turkey enthusiast looking to hunt where turkey numbers are strong and hunters have an opportunity to hunt nearly 18,000 square miles of public ground with an over-the-counter tag in their back pocket, then start making plans to spend some time in scenic Colorado to chase the king of spring.
This past season over 13,600 turkey hunters headed to the woods, which is up from the previous spring, which hosted nearly 13,156 hunters. More importantly, 26 percent of hunters with an over-the-counter tag reported that they carried out a longbeard, with most of those coming from public land. Those who were lucky enough to draw a limited tag had a success rate of 57 percent. In all, an estimated 2,500 toms fell to well-placed shots last spring.
The Merriam's are indigenous to Colorado and are located west of Interstate 25 and south of Highway 160 in southern Colorado. These thunderous birds roam far and wide and are mainly located in the foothills of the Front Range, the southwest region of the state, and in parts of the Western Slope. Colorado also enjoys a healthy population of Rios, and they are generally located east of Interstate 25 in the river bottom habitat of the Platte and Arkansas rivers, as well as other tributaries. Although Rios are localized to these relatively small regions, their numbers are as boastful as their gobble. Don't expect to hunt them this spring unless you have already drawn one of the coveted tags.
Wild turkeys are well-distributed throughout the state, with some of the best locations to bag a tom being in the vast Four Corners region, central and southern Front Range and in limited pockets along the riparian zones out east. The top producing counties last spring were Yuma County in far eastern Colorado, in which 226 toms were harvested; Delta County, out west, in which 217 toms were harvested; and Las Animas County, which encompasses the southern Front Range region, that spit out an estimated 209 toms. Other top producers were La Plata and Archuleta counties in the southwest and along the Front Range in Fremont County.
From a public land perspective, some of the best areas in Colorado are El Paso, Teller, Pueblo, Huerfano, Custer and Fremont counties. However, because this region is located close to the populated Front Range, it does get its share of pressure, but the weekday hunter usually has plenty of elbow room. Other notable areas that are off the beaten path are Montrose, Ouray, Dolores, San Miguel La Plata, Archuleta and Montezuma counties. This southwest region is vast and offers plenty of public turkey hunting opportunities
LAND OF ENCHANTMENT TOMS
If you were to ask turkey hunters across the Lower 48 to make a wish-list of turkey-rich destinations they would want to visit during spring, my guess is that New Mexico would not breach the "Top 10." However, much like forgetting to pack shotshells for a spring turkey hunt, that would be a mistake. Similar to its neighbor to the north, New Mexico also offers tons of public ground to spread out on, turkey numbers hovering in the neighborhood of 35,000 and easy-to-get tags across much of the state. However, what New Mexico offers that Colorado doesn't is the opportunity to kill up to two toms in some areas because numbers are so strong.
One aspect of New Mexico's continued turkey success is the capture and transplant partnerships they have developed with other federal, state and non-profit organizations like the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF). With better technology for capturing and transplanting wild turkeys, they have been able to successfully reestablish wild turkeys in many parts of New Mexico. In fact, hundreds of Merriam's and Rio Grande turkeys have been transplanted across the state, which has been a huge factor in the wide distribution and stellar population of toms New Mexico enjoys today.
Most mountain ranges in New Mexico support healthy numbers of Merriam's, which make up the bulk of the turkey population. Rios are located along the Rio Grande River south of Albuquerque and the Canadian River Basin north of Tucumcari. Annually, around 13,000 turkey hunters head to the woods every spring across New Mexico giving chase to these two subspecies, and about 1 in 4 come out of the woods with a tom draped over their shoulder.
Although Merriam's are well-distributed in the mountainous region across New Mexico, it goes without saying that some areas are better than others. One of the top areas you should consider this spring is Unit 34, the Lincoln National Forest east of Alamogordo. Turkey numbers are typically strong here, and it won't be long before you roost a gobbler or two once you're in the woods.
Another top contender is Unit 10, the Zuni Mountains. Typically, the Zunis host some of the most successful turkey hunters each spring, with about half unleashing their 12-gauge on unsuspecting toms. The gobblers can be found in the lower pinion/juniper to aspens and firs in the higher elevation, as well as the thick oak brush in between. Finding toms won't be hard here, either, and the key to finding the unpressured ones amounts to a little extra boot leather.
Known for producing New Mexico's top bulls year after year, units 16A, 16B, 16C and 16D of the Gila are not bad units to consider if you're wanting a beard-dragging tom this spring. Any of these units can produce a tom, but 16A and 16C are typically the best as they offer prime habitat. You'll find the birds strutting from the lower pinion-juniper to the Douglas firs and pines in the higher reaches.
Rounding out this western turkey trilogy are the toms of Idaho. And although the Gem State is known more for its spud production, the turkey hunting opportunities there aren't too shabby either. In the 1950s, the Eastern subspecies were introduced to Idaho, and in 1961 the Merriam's subspecies was transplanted from Colorado to numerous sites along the Salmon River. Like many conservation efforts in which sportsmen and wildlife officials have teamed up on over the years, turkey populations boomed in many regions across the state, making Idaho a top turkey hunting destination.
Like anywhere else, some areas across Idaho are better than others, so for hunters to find consistent success they need to focus on a specific region, season after season. Public land hunting out west can be tough, so the hunter who learns the ins and outs of specific areas is the one who usually comes home with a punched tag. That being said, some of the best areas for Idaho turkey hunters to key in on are the Clearwater, Southeastern and Southwestern regions. Turkey numbers are dense in these areas, and hunters who do their homework have a great opportunity for success.
The Clearwater Region is located east of Hwy. 12 between the Kelly Creek and the South Fork of the famed Salmon River. This mostly wooded region typically boasts the largest number of successful hunters over the years, so it goes without saying that there are a lot of birds there. Because of this, you can bet it receives its share of hunting pressure. However, solitude can be found by hunting during the week and getting farther away from the roads and access points.
Best areas to find willing toms doing the spring strut are in zones 10 through 20, and the best habitat to search is along the numerous rivers, creeks and drainages in the area. Although private property is heavy along the Clearwater River drainage, there's plenty of national forest and BLM access in the region to get the job done. However, knocking on a few doors during some preseason scouting trips might get you some prime private ground.
At first glance, the Southeastern Region does not look like your typical turkey habitat, but looks can be deceiving. In fact, if you look close enough you might just see some gobbling toms. There are an estimated 3,000-plus turkeys roaming across this small corner of the state and, for the serious hunter, it's worth a look.
Look to find some toms hanging around the riparian habitat in zones 73 through 78. Specific areas to consider are the Bear and Snake river drainages. These deep drainages offer excellent habitat to find willing longbeards.
The Southwest Region is also a top spot to tag a tom, with zones 22, 23, 24, 31, 33 and 39 being excellent locations. Although there are good numbers of turkeys in all of these zones, accessing them in the rocky terrain can be difficult, so make sure your boots are broken-in.
The Snake River region can be very good and boasts excellent habitat in which to find birds. Areas along the Payette and Boise rivers, as well as the North Fork of the Payette River can also be good.