Western turkey hunting proves to be a combination of Southern tradition and mountain adventure.
A few years back, I began my spring turkey season in classical fashion -- sitting in a blind in the dark, beneath a ridge where I'd put several gobblers to bed the night before. I like to keep my mouth shut until the birds are talking and about to leave the roost. And so I sat and waited and listened to the unwelcome sound of the wind building in the pines overhead.
And waited and waited€¦ Although I'd set up as close as possible without spooking the roosted birds, an hour after sunrise I had to accept the fact that I'd lost my turkeys.
Extremely steep terrain lay between us, and I surmised that they'd flown down on the other side of the ridge where the wind kept me from hearing them.
Abandoning my blind, I shouldered my daypack and started to climb. At first the terrain felt more suitable to hunting cougars than turkeys, but finally I reached the open habitat on top of the ridge and began to cover some ground.
Patchy old snow lying in the shade beneath the pines soon confirmed my theory when I found fresh turkey tracks headed down the backside of the ridge. The wind had fallen off, which meant that I could hear turkeys and they could hear me. I spotted a fallen pine still bearing its needles and moved in behind its shelter and yelped.
My calls produced an immediate gobble, and a few minutes later a lone jake was strutting in front of me. Am I the kind of guy who would end his turkey season by killing a jake on opening morning? You bet I am. And when the bird pivoted and eclipsed his vision with his tail, I did.
Welcome to the world of Western turkey hunting, where conventional rules are meant to be broken.
Biology may be made up of lumpers and splitters, but both camps agree that there are five subspecies of wild turkeys in our country, and serious gobbler chasers have turned them into a turkey Grand Slam. I've seen Gould turkeys in Arizona, photographed Rio Grande turkeys in Texas while hunting nilgai, and received lessons in humility from a few Osceolas in Florida. I've even killed a couple of the Eastern variety. But the vast majority of my turkey hunting has been for Merriam turkeys in my home state of Montana.
Every eponym has a story. C. Hart Merriam was a prominent biologist who, in 1886, became chief of the division in the Department of Agriculture that eventually evolved into the Fish and Wildlife Service. Merriam advanced important early ecological theories, conducted extensive explorations in the American Southwest and coastal Alaska, and ended his career as a noted Native American ethnographer. Like Coues, Shiras, and other pioneering biologists of his time, he deserves to be remembered through the name of an important game species we hunt today.
Am I the kind of guy who would end his turkey season on opening day with a jake? You bet I am.
Many experienced turkey hunters share my opinion that the Merriam is the most beautiful of all the subspecies, and the thought of a big Merriam gobbler strutting toward me through the woods with the white tips of his tail feathers forming two perfect semicircles is enough to make me endure weeks of early morning alarm clocks every spring.
Furthermore, I've always considered spring turkey hunting an auditory game. And the Merriam is the most vocal of them all.
While the Merriam turkey is native to the Mountain West, America's rich turkey hunting traditions arose in the south and along the eastern seaboard. Eastern hunters heading West to tackle their first Merriam gobbler need to realize it's a different game out here. The first variable to consider is weather. While Western turkey seasons vary by state, most open in early April, as ours does in Montana. While you never know what to expect in the mountains at that time of year, I've opened my turkey season on snowshoes and killed gobblers in spring blizzards. Plan accordingly.
Merriam turkeys occupy a range of habitats containing suitable roost trees, from cottonwoods along riverbottoms to ponderosa pines in the mountains. Wherever they're found, the country is bigger and more open than most eastern turkey habitat, and population densities are lower. In addition, the birds move around a lot more in the spring, leaving the feedlots where they often winter at lower elevations and climbing higher into the hills as snow recedes and grass begins to green up.
Mobility on the part of the birds means that turkey hunters often need to cover a lot of ground to find them, even when they've located them the day before. I'll sometimes cover as many miles hunting turkeys as I do hunting elk.
But this characteristic of western turkeys may call for a change in hunting tactics. Pop-up blinds have revolutionized turkey hunting much as treestands have revolutionized deer hunting, and I've used them with considerable success.
However, even the lightest of them are too heavy to pack for miles. Western turkey hunters should be able to condense their gear into a convenient daypack. When I'm covering a lot of ground turkey hunting, I make do with a strip of camo netting and a lightweight seat that will strap onto a pine when I've set up to call. This system isn't as comfortable or secure as a blind, but it's easy to pack and set up.
Mountainous turkey terrain has some real advantages, too. Elevation and open country allow you to hear birds a long way away. And sparse ground cover makes recovery a lot easier after the shot. While my own turkey recovery rate has been nearly perfect, I attribute that to luck and the favorable terrain I hunt more than to any particular skill on my part.
Wherever you hunt turkeys, remember that every time you hear a gobble you're bearing witness to one of our country's most impressive wildlife success stories. Turkeys captivated the imagination of New World colonists from the start. Ben Franklin wanted to make the wild turkey our national bird. Audubon made the turkey the first subject in his classic Birds of America.
Yet, by the end of the 19th Century, unregulated market hunting and habitat loss had nearly eliminated the wild turkey. Sportsmen were di
rectly responsible for the turkey's eventual recovery to near historic highs today. I can see the site of Montana's first wild turkey release from my deck, and I derive a quiet satisfaction from knowing what segment of our society made it possible.
And so should we all.