Where will you hunt Merriam's and Rio Grande turkeys in Colorado this spring? Here's a jump-start to a successful public-land season. (April 2009)
My back hugged a thick cottonwood while a mature tom strutted some 50 yards away. Each time I sent him a chorus of love-tones, his chest would expand and his head would jerk with each tone of his gobble. For the next 20 minutes, I threw everything at him but the kitchen sink: yelps, clucks and purrs.
Twenty percent of Colorado hunters with an over-the-counter tag last year took a Rio or Merriam's turkey.
Photo by Brian K. Strickland.
But it looked like this "he-said, she-said" romance was about to be over. He was hung up, and there wasn't anything I could do about it. I guess after a few seasons under his belt, this smart old gobbler suspected something was up. All I could do was watch and listen.
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. I had just witnessed a king-of-spring heavyweight in all his puffed-up glory.
When winter's white begins to fade away and the lush green shoots reach to the sky, it's time to pattern the scattergun, dust off the decoys and break out your best set of camo. The turkeys are hot, and they're waiting for your best rendition of a love song on your box call.
With an expanding population of willing gobblers, the hard-working hunter is sure to get a crack at one this spring.
For Western hunters looking to hunt where turkey numbers are solid and have a public-land success rate around 25 percent, it's hard to beat Colorado, said National Wild Turkey Federation regional director Wayne Dickens. Because of his experience throughout Colorado's vast turkey range, as well as other states, Dickens has concluded that the only other Western state that could come close or match what Colorado has to offer is New Mexico. However, when it comes down to more opportunity, in more public places, Colorado is at the top of the food chain. (Continued)
Guide Todd Weizdred of the High Lonesome Ranch said he's seen a huge increase in the number of turkeys the past few years.
"So much so, that the unit the ranch is located in (Unit 31) was opened as an over-the-counter unit last spring," he said.
Last spring was the first time they ever offered turkey hunting on the High Lonesome, and Weizdred reported success rates were over 80 percent with everyone having opportunities. Although he exclusively guides on the ranch, from what he's seen and heard, the public-land action is good in the unit as well.
"If a hunter is willing to work hard in this area, they will get into birds," Weizdred said.
This past spring more than 13,500 turkey hunters headed to the woods. The number the year before was about 12,000. Although there were more hunters in the field, more than 60 percent of them reported that they felt that they had plenty of elbowroom.
However, more importantly, 20 percent of the hunters with an over-the-counter tag in their pocket reported carrying out a bird. Those who were lucky enough to carry a limited tag had a success rate of 50 percent, and more than 80 percent of the birds were mature toms. In all, an estimated 2,500 toms fell to well-placed shots last spring.
Although these numbers are good, they are down from the previous spring. In 2007, over-the-counter spring turkey hunters had a success rate of nearly 25 percent, while limited tag holders reached a success rate of nearly 58 percent. Also, hunters that year bagged nearly 3,000 birds.
Ed Gorman, Colorado Division of Wildlife small-game manager, said the lower harvest could be blamed on a drop in turkey numbers in some regions of the state.
"Some parts of Colorado had a lot of snow last winter, which did have a negative effect on population numbers in some of those areas," said Gorman.
However, the much-needed snow brought with it improved range conditions, which spell better groceries and habitat for the coming year.
"Insects and oak and piÃ±on nuts are key elements for a healthy turkey population in Colorado," said Gorman. "When you add the better nesting habitat that the moisture helped to produce last season, you have overall good conditions for production."
And indeed, it did!
According to Gorman, there was better-than-average production and good recruitment in many areas of the state. He said hunters would see good numbers of birds this spring.
However, many of the birds will be young jakes, and hunters are generally less likely to pull the trigger on them. Because of this, Gorman said harvest could be down in some areas, but it won't be from the lack of birds.
Don't let that keep you from heading to the woods, there are still good numbers of mature toms running around, he said.
When hunting any wild critters, there are going to be up years and down years. Overall, Colorado's turkey track record has been very good. This success can be attributed to a growing turkey population that Colorado has enjoyed during the past decade. This robust population was created in part from the partnership of the state and turkey federation.
Stan Baker is the regional biologist for the NWTF. He's worked with the CDOW and volunteers to establish turkey populations throughout the state. Over the years, this partnership has helped transplant hundreds of turkeys in many regions of the state. Since Colorado has a solid turkey population, they are able to use their own birds to populate other region of the state.
According to Baker, because of these efforts, Colorado now enjoys a turkey population around 25,000.
Jim Bulger, CDOW hunter outreach coordinator, is not only impressed with Colorado's turkey numbers, but he said Colorado is also unique in that it offers the willing hunter the opportunity to hunt both the Merriam's and Rio Grande turkeys in the same season. That's half of the North American Turkey Slam in one state! (The other two are Eastern and Osceola turkeys.)
A few states offer such an opportunity, but no other can hold a candle to the Western scenery Colorado puts before you, said Bulger.
The Merriam's turkeys are indigenous to Colorado. You'll
find them west of Interstate 25 and south of Highway 160 in southern Colorado. These thunderous birds roam far and wide and are mainly located on the foothills of the Front Range, the southwest region of the state, and in parts of the Western Slope. You will find them living in stands of oak brush, ponderosa pine and wet riparian habitat.
Rios 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 strong as their gobble.
Both species offer heart-pounding excitement, and if you've saved enough preference points, you should be able to hunt both species in the same season every three years. That's hard to beat!
Now that you have the big picture, let's zero in on some regions where you can punch your tag.
There was some concern that the southwest would be losing a lot of birds because of the deep snows and cold weather from the previous winter.
"We did lose some birds, especially the ones that tend to stay higher," said CDOW biologist Andy Holland. "But the birds came through it pretty good."
The top-producing county last spring was La Plata, with an estimated 200 toms harvested. Archuleta County to the east coming in a close second with almost as many longbeards carried out. Typically, these are the best counties in which to punch an over-the-counter tag. They have units 75, 751, 77 and 78, which are scattered between Durango and Pagosa Springs.
This region is where over-the-counter hunters typically have the highest success. It also has the highest density of Merriam's turkeys. And with vast amounts of public ground to stretch out on, it's hard to beat the southwest.
This spring, Holland expects hunters to do well. The Durango-based biologist reports seeing good numbers of broods on the ground. With the much improved habitat that the abundance of moisture created, hunters should see lots of birds.
The areas south of Grand Junction have always taken a backseat to the southwest. That's changing, however. With the positive effects of transplanting projects over the years, turkey numbers are at an all-time high, and that trend is expected to continue. In fact, the top-producing county in the region last spring was Garfield. The third highest-producing, over-the-counter county was Mesa. Together, they spit out about 500 toms and a lot of smiles.
This region also offers good public access. The units to chase toms are 30, 31 and 41. In fact, Unit 31 was just listed as an over-the-counter unit last spring, and the hunters who made tracks there got into gobbling toms, reported CDOW area biologist Stephanie Duckett.
A little farther south of Grand Junction is the famed Uncompahgre Plateau, which encompasses units 61 and 62. Although known more for its heavy-horned bulls and bucks, the longbeards are in good shape there as well, reported Duckett.
The plateau offers the perfect mix of gamble oak, piÃ±on and pine, which is ideal habitat for the resident strutters. Better still, admission to the area is only the cost of an over-the-counter tag.
"Hunters should do pretty well this spring," said CDOW biologist Allen Vit. "We had a good hatch last spring, the acorn crop was really good, and there's a lot of young jakes out there."
Typically, hunters do well in Pueblo, Huerfano and Fremont counties, and last spring was no different. The top-producing area last spring was Pueblo County with nearly 200 toms crumpling to solid shots. Huerfano and Fremont counties had a combined harvest of nearly 200 birds as well.
Because this region is located close to the populated Front Range, it does get its share of pressure. But with excellent access to public ground, there's plenty of room for the willing hunter to roam.
The key to finding toms here is getting off the roads and going deeper into the woods. Some of the better units to find the birds in are 69, 84 and 691. I have spent a lot of time in these units and have always bumped into birds.
Another area to consider is the Rampart Range, which is just west of Colorado Springs. Park and Teller counties farther west can also have pretty good opportunities.
Units 140 and 851 to the south offer perhaps the best public hunting, and encompass the Bosque del Oso, James John and Lake Dorothy SWAs.
The drawback is, you have to draw a tag. But don't lose hope. They are not too hard to draw, and you can get your hand on one in a few years.
If Rios are what you're after, then get in line and start applying for a tag. You'll only be able to chase them about every third season, but once you get a tag, you're sure to have a quality hunt.
Typically, hunter success hovers above 50 percent, and most of the toms come from public ground. By all accounts, hunters who draw a tag will do well.
CDOW biologist Marty Stratmon reports overall production was really good last spring in the Platte River drainage. Average hatch was two poults per hen, and although that sounds a little slim, two is really good when you consider nest destruction and predation, according to Stratmon.
"When you look at it, that's a two-fold increase, which is a substantial chunk of the population," said Stratmon.
Virtually, any one of the units along the river has solid bird numbers. If you have a tag for units 91, 92 and 96, don't be surprised if you see some birds carrying something that resembles a backpack. The CDOW is studying movement patterns, natural mortality and hunter success rate, so feel free to lower the boom on an old tom that looks like he's packin'. Just call the phone number attached to the radio transmitter and report the kill.
CDOW biologist Trent Verquer manages the birds to the south, around the Arkansas River drainage. He said hunters should do very well this year. The spring of 2007 produced lots of jakes, and those birds will be prime 2-year-old toms this spring. So hunting should be good, said Verquer.
According to Verquer, the town of Las Animas is a good dividing line when describing the opportunities found here. West of there has stronger populations of turkeys, while the areas to the east have weaker numbers. This is mainly a habitat issue, said Verquer. Also, solid tom numbers can be found in the canyon country around the towns of Kim and Tobe, and hunters should do well there, too.