Hunting Rocky Mountain Turkeys
August 31, 2011
If you're willing to put in the time and effort, hunting turkeys on public land can be a very rewarding experience.
Why is the West a playground for hunters during the fall and winter months but virtually dormant during the spring? Don't you realize the same drainages that held a rut-fest in September hold new opportunity in April? Of course, those no longer come in the form of chocolate horns and lovesick bugles, but they do have white-tipped fans and produce deafening gobbles. It's springtime in the Rockies and there is no better place to be.
Each spring my obsession with the wild turkey leads me to many states, but most are in the Mountain Time Zone. There is something poetic about having my back to a towering pine, watching the first rays of morning bring the forest to life. Now for the best part: None of those mornings are spent behind a locked gate or require a hefty trespass fee -- they are all on public dirt. You see, I just can't seem to get enough do-it-yourself turkey sojourns, and out West there are plenty to be had. Forget the rumors about needing an outfitter due to the vast landscape, and those spun about turkeys only being on private property. Throngs of Western public tracts harbor robust turkey populations; it's just a matter of doing the legwork and unraveling the ones that will produce year after year.
MORE TURKEYS THAN TURKEY HUNTERS
In 2010, thousands of hunters across the nation hunted spring turkeys. Hunters in Missouri dropped 42,253 birds. Pennsylvania boasted impressive numbers as well. Hunters in the Keystone state put down 42,763 turkeys. In the Midwest, Kansas's hunters killed 33,350 birds, and its neighbor to the south, Oklahoma, had a harvest of 37,407. Now let's take a look at three Rocky Mountain states. Wyoming led the pack with 4,674 birds, and Colorado hunters took down 3,496. Bringing up the rear was Montana with an even 1,000 birds harvested.
When I reviewed this data, it told me two things: The Midwest and East have higher bird populations, and they also have many more hunters chasing them. When I reviewed the Western numbers, it excited me. It tells me that not many hunters are tapping into the amazing adventure that is spring turkey hunting. You see, the West actually has more turkeys than turkey hunters, which is a very interesting fact, and one that doesn't bother this turkey fanatic one bit.
A public land turkey adventure starts at your home. In these uncertain economic times it's not always feasible to make long distance scouting missions. The good news is, you don't have to. Your computer and Internet connection will be your link to scouting from your recliner. Start by perusing the Web sites of state game and fish departments. Their computer gurus have done a fantastic job, and a couple clicks of the mouse will expose a plethora of worthy literature. Colorado's site, for instance, has numerous articles about turkey hunting in the Centennial State. Others have hunt planners, which allow the inputting of data to help focus your search, and customize your hunt accordingly. You will also find loads of data from area biologists covering hatch counts, predation statistics, harvest surveys, population density maps and the list goes on. Spend a few hours pointing and clicking and you will have a general idea about where you want to hunt and what you can expect when you get there.
This part is not only important; it often makes the difference between success and failure. Call your selected game and fish department and get the name and number of the biologist who handles the area you're planning to hunt. Then get out a notebook and write down all of the questions you plan to ask. A couple I recommend are: "I'm not wanting you to draw me an X on a map, but could you name a few places where I will find birds and escape the crowds?" "Hard work doesn't bother me. Is there a few places that prohibit the use of motor vehicles where I may find a bird or two?" These types of questions show the biologist that you are a serious turkey hunter who isn't looking to pile out of the truck and drop a bird 10 feet off an access road. Many times you will develop a solid relationship with the biologist, and not only will you get a few jumping off points, but you may also get exact GPS coordinates.
Now that you have jotted down your questions, start burning up the phone lines. These busy folks can be tough customers to track down, but they will call you back. Each one that I have had the pleasure of speaking to over the years has been nothing but helpful. In fact, I would say that on many hunts, especially some of my maiden voyages, they made all the difference. Their information is what allowed me to come bobbing out of the woods with a fan swaying over my shoulder.
You have checked the Web sites and interviewed a few biologists -- now it's time to study maps. Google Earth is a Godsend. This handy site allows the hunter to plug in GPS coordinates or simply the name of a nearby landmark. Now you can get an up-to-the-minute satellite image of the area you plan to hunt. If it is mountainous terrain, first contact the local forest service office. You will want to find out the most recent elevation of the spring snowline. If they don't have the exact elevation, ask for a predication or draw on past years data. There is no point in evaluating a map above the snowline -- the birds won't be there. However, there is great value in focusing on the area just below the snowline. The birds congregate at these elevations due to new growth shooting up.
After you get the elevation numbers, start by looking for heavily timbered drainage's and ridgelines away from access roads. These are great roosting sites, and if the timber gives way to secluded meadows or open benches, all the better. I also like to find areas like the above-mentioned that are close to access roads. The reason is that by using the map I can identify pinch-points and possible travel routes that pressured birds will take. Many beards in my collection were earned by using this technique.
If the terrain is a lower elevation canyon or cottonwood-dotted creek bottom, study techniques must be adjusted. Concentrate on large cottonwood groves that give way to open areas, such as spotted sage knolls or sandy washouts. Toms love to head to these "strut-zones" right after coming off the roost to attract the attention of any ladies in the area. These locations also have good beetle and grasshopper life, which are favorites of the nomadic Merriam's.
Now it's just a matter of trusting your research and taking to the field. Over the years I have discovered that, more often than not, my long-distance work from the La-Z-Boy puts me smack dab in the middle of a turkey hot-zone.
It's Not Just a Turkey
When I first started giving public land turkey seminars I had a few gentlemen inform me that they weren't willing to go through all the work just for a turkey. My response to that was and will always be, "Then you don't want to k
ill a turkey very bad." Public land birds are tough customers, and if you want to boast a respectable year-in and year-out harvest rate, then going hard is part of the game.
My favorite method for slipping an arrow through a spring longbeard or filling his cranium with number 5's is getting off the beaten path. Most hunters simply aren't willing to strap on a pack loaded down with sleeping gear and spend a few days in the turkey backwoods. It is in these distant canyons and far off drainage's where I find solitude and symphonies of gobbles.
As you wind away from civilization, keep an eye out for sign -- turkeys leave plenty of it. Watch for tracks, droppings, scratching sites and wingtip drag marks. Access high vantage points where you can glass and listen. When you find birds, don't get in a panic or rush to make things happen. This is the beauty of going deep! Many times I will spot the birds in the evening and put them to bed. Then after a peaceful night's rest in my bivvy sack, I resume the hunt the following morning. If roosted doesn't become roasted, I don't press. Instead, I stay methodical, constantly telling myself that I'm the only one back here and my persistence will pay off. Midday is spent glassing and calling from selected ridges. If I spot birds or get a gobble, a game plan is put together. If not, I try to intercept them on the way back to the roost. This same approach will work for you as well; don't hesitate to give it a go this spring.
I won't deny that I'm a call junky. My vest harbors the latest and greatest, but when on public land it's all about the slate. The slate is my go-to public land assassin because of the unique and varied sounds it can produce. Most birds that lurk in the deep woods are veterans -- four- and five-year-old gobblers that prefer the sanctuary of hidden tracts. They have been squawked at by squeaky diaphragms and deafened by booming boxes, but slates often change their attitude. And even if you don't dupe a crafty old Tom, what's wrong with bringing in an over-eager two-year-old? The bottom line is most public hunters don't use these calls, and I have found that when you do what others are not doing, you create success in the field.
Be sure to have several types of slate calls, as you never know what the birds will want to hear. Have at least one glass and aluminum on hand, and be sure to have one that is waterproof. Springtime in the Rockies can bring rain or snow, and many slates won't perform when exposed to excessive moisture. It's also a good idea to have an arsenal of strikers to change tunes until you find the right one.
Regardless of whether I'm working a tough tom or one that seems to be coming on a string, I adhere to the advice given to me by one of my mentors: Call less and listen more. Hey, I like to hear a bird gobble as much as the next guy, but I don't let this factor dictate when or how often I call. Instead I let the actions of the approaching bird determine when I emit sweet hen talk. Over-calling is probably the biggest reason hunters don't bag toms.
If the bird is gobbling regularly and closing the distance quickly, I stay quiet. Why give him the chance to hear something that turns him off? I will give him a few purrs as he gets closer, but will only yelp if he hangs up or seems to drift off course. When working a bird with a cement beak, I stay patient. On more than one occasion, after fifteen or twenty minutes and some sexy yelping, the bird will sound off and start moving in my direction.
When in doubt, always wait it out. Too many times I have figured that I lost a bird only to stand and get busted by approaching radar vision. When it becomes obvious that he isn't coming, only then should you press in on him. Sometimes all it takes is to get 50 or 60 yards closer to the bird, hit the call and it trips his trigger.
I know it's hard to resist opening weekend, and I'm not suggesting you do. What I'm suggesting is that if your first days efforts don't produce a set of spurs, wait a bit. As the season progresses, hens leave their boyfriends to sit on nests, and the boys go bonkers. Much like a rutting whitetail in November, they roam the woods and get very vocal. Birds that make noise allow hunters to pinpoint their position and react accordingly. You can anticipate where a bird is going, set-up and use soft, sexy calling to seal the deal. Plus, the pressure of the early season has sent more and more turkeys into your isolated honey holes. That spot where you left a couple of toms early in the spring can turn into a turkey oasis as the season progresses.
Don't spend another spring wondering if the West is really a turkey wonderland. Instead, use the above-mentioned advice and take to the woods. What you will find is abounding public land populated by some of the most gorgeous birds on earth. And for those who step outside the "norms" of turkey hunting and go deeper and harder than the rest -- you will get up close and personal with a crafty Merriam's. Before long, you will have a longbeard addiction and will become a regular to many Western turkey tracts each spring.