March 28, 2019
“Son, if you want to get that bird, you best get goin’. He ain’t comin’ to you.”
Those sage words, now decades old, still pound in my head, driving my legs up the mountain. I’m scrambling, gasping, praying the birds stop short of the top. This isn’t turkey hunting according to Eastern rules: no spacious blind, taxidermy decoys, half-a-dozen calls, longbeards racing across soybean fields; then, I’m home for lunch.
This is Merriam’s country, up-and-down Western mountainsides, day-long gobble fests, turkeys that wander for miles and fly across canyons that will take me two hours to pound down a canyon side and wheeze back up the other side, only to find them feeding their way up hills so steep I couldn’t fall forward if I tried. These are gobblers that will check out half a dozen strut zones hundreds of yards apart, gobble at the yap of a distant coyote, imitate passing geese; then, shyly, they mutate into the strong, silent type while I’m pouring my heart out on the rails of a cedar box call.
The West is a turkey coop of Merriam’s, Rio Grandes and Easterns, but it’s Merriam’s that dominate the Washington landscape around my home and much of the rest of the West. Mountain gobblers. Sagebrush strutters. Beautiful birds with big fans and tailfeathers with a broad, white band painted across the ends. Snowy-white rumps and beards that disappear into chests of golden-bronze feathers that change shades as fast as I blink. Wrinkled heads that might burn blue or glower in angry red. They can ghost out of a roost tree as silent as owls or blow out in a thunder of wings that makes hunters duck. They waddle uphill at the speed of sound … or so it seems.
Like the trio somewhere across the clear-cut. They might be down in that run with the yellow grass or scratching dirt and bark on the log landing off to the right. I’m running uphill, wheezing and gasping in slow-motion, aiming in the general direction of a low pass where, if luck holds and I don’t collapse along the route, I intend to blind-up and gun-down the redheaded bird when the trio reaches the pass.
THE WESTERN WAY
There are those crazy days when everything goes right in a turkey hunt: the morning sun shines, the wind dies, and the gobblers are hot for dates from daylight to dark. Every scratch on the slate triggers a blow-out gobble back. The birds flock to level meadows. Toms with 10-inch beards race each other toward the hen decoy, competing for three minutes of spring love and a face full of No. 6 shot. That’s a story-book hunt. I had one … once.
The other 99 percent of the time, it’s run, gun and blind for mountain Merriam’s, and the better you get at it, the more beards you’ll tack on the wall. In the West — especially on ragged, uncultivated public land — you can spend a long spring season sitting in a blind, calling and hoping without ever seeing a gobbler. To understand why, find a small hill, stand on top of it and look to the horizon.
The West is big country, most of it up and down, thick with conifers, oaks, bitterbrush or sage, with a lot of empty space between birds. And big country calls for big-country hunting techniques, the same techniques I use for elk.
Dress light, carry little and be ready to cover a lot of ground in a hurry. Put the calls where you can get one without undressing. Strap the binoculars to your front, and — perhaps, most important — be ready to change everything. It’s critical to be willing to dump the pre-hunt mind-set and adopt a new plan in mid-hunt. I can pattern a flock’s movements for a week, set up an ambush in the perfect spot, position the decoys just so, and ready the calls.
But if the birds, for some weird turkey reason, waddle off in another direction that morning, it’s pointless — and likely, bird-less — to stick with the plan. Switch gears, get out of the blind and hunt those birds like they want to be hunted. See where they’re going, get there first, throw up a blind, pick out multiple shooting spots with the range finder, hunker down, wait and shoot. It’s that easy.
Ready from the Git-Go
I come into the turkey woods from the start ready to run and gun. While it’s still dark, I walk through known roosting areas — not slow, but not fast, and always quiet. Every 100 yards I call, sometimes with a gobble, sometimes like an owl or coyote. Sometimes with all three. Anything to get a reaction, to get a directional line on a bird on roost. When I trigger a gobble, I sneak in that direction, try to pinpoint the roost, decipher the fly-down zone, hunker down right there and wait as silent as a stump.
There are 360 degrees of directional options around that roost; most of the time, the birds fly-down in one of the 359 directions where I’m not sitting. And when birds hit the ground, they scatter. A couple of soft putts, maybe a “Where are you?” cluck and a “Here I am” scratch might pull them in your direction.
Failing that, it’s time to run. Get a line on the flock’s direction, loop well out and away from their travel route and move quickly, but stealthily, to get in front of them, making sure you’re far enough ahead of the birds to give you time to set up. I pull two foldable, foam decoys — a jake and a hen — out of my pack and plant them exactly 25 and 30 paces from my hide, the ideal range for the 12-gauge, full-choke in my hands.
Next, I find a spot for a blind located between the decoys and where I expect the turkeys to arrive. I choose this position because I want the birds looking past me, at the decoys, in case I need to move the gun a bit.
I carry — and sometimes use — a portable, camouflaged, instant blind. It’s more screen than cover but it works, weighs nothing and sets up in seconds.
A couple of branches and sticks stacked in front of the screen hides any hand movements or body shifting. Most of the time, however, I just hunker in the shadows at the base of a tree behind overhanging branches, shoulder the shotgun, brace the barrel on my knees, pop in the mouth call, lay the box call beside my leg … and wait. Other times, a couple of low, feeding calls — maybe a “come hither” purr or a series of clucks — brings them in.
The three turkeys I’ve been chasing up this blasted mountain have, of course, given me the slip. I catch a glimpse of them crossing the ridge east of the pass and at least 200 yards above where I’m kneeling, trying to catch a breath. How did they get that far ahead? Break off the chase, swing wide and hustle to the end of the ridge.
That’s what it’s like when I miss the roost flock. Move quietly but quickly, stopping every 50 to 100 yards (if it’s windy, stop at 50) to hammer out a gobble, a big thundering challenge that spooks deer, arouses coyotes and carries far. I want any tom in the area to know I’m here, to thunder back. Just keep moving and thundering. Sooner or later, I’ll get a reaction. If the reply is distant, I’ll try to cut the range in half, maybe less, set up and call again — not quite as loud, but with authority. Any tom worth his beard will scream back. Close the gap. Stop … always in a shadow, behind a tree or covering bush. If you’ve ever been pinned down in the open, you’ll understand why. Gobble lightly and immediately play a hen call. Odds are, unless he’s henned up, the tom will be coming.
My three birds make it off the ridge before I get there. Tracks cross a dirt road and lead downhill toward a brushy canyon. I sit down in the dirt at the edge of the road, sweep the downhill with my binos. Suddenly, I’m looking into a turkey eye. I crawl back to the far side of the dirt track and run for 150 yards. Stop. “Cluck.” “Yelp.” Slide downhill to the elevation where I saw the birds feeding and side-hill their direction, stopping to purr and cluck, as contented as a barn-yard bird spur-deep in shelled corn. It takes 20 minutes to work and cluck through the 150 yards of brush and small trees.
I step around a clump of weather-beaten elderberry vines and 12 yards away a turkey’s back shines in the sun. Then another. Hens. They’re facing away and have no idea I’m here.
I raise the gun and look for the tom. He’s got to be here. The hens feed and purr just a few feet from my barrel. Time stops. A bug lands on my trigger guard. I shift my right foot ever so slightly. A snowberry bush 15 yards downhill explodes with dust and thundering wings. The hens flush wildly behind it, crash the brush and for just a heartbeat I see a big, red head on the first bird … and they’re gone. The birds sail across the canyon, land on the far side and run up a deer trail. Three dark dots in the distance. One with a red head.
I know where that trail goes.