Backcountry Turkey Hunt
— Article and photos by David Lien
My first experience chasing gobblers was during May 2008 in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. I was with renowned elk (and turkey, it turns out) hunter, David “Elkheart” Petersen, who also founded the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, the first official BHA chapter. Although we roosted a tom that evening, the next morning he gobbled a few more times before disappearing. We didn’t encounter another turkey that day.
David is well-versed in the nuances of mountain turkey hunting, like his friend Ed Dentry, a former Rocky Mountain News outdoors columnist. Both are aficionados of the daunting task of harvesting toms with longbows (i.e., real bows, not space-age catapult devices Petersen calls “wheelie bows”). Dentry, who hunted turkeys with David that spring, too, shed some light on Petersen’s outlook on life and hunting. The following are excerpts from Dentry’s May 8, 2008 newspaper column:
“A minimalist, spiritual hunter and authority on traditional archery, he refuses to purchase a faux hunter’s life. He lives the real thing, dreams it. He also writes about it with artistry, insight and strong opinions (low, in the case of the human species, high in reverence for wildlife).
“After a bracing few days watching elk chew cuds on a faraway slope, listening to woodpeckers and seeing ghost turkeys vanish, we hiked down the mountain and leaned the bows against Petersen’s pickup. It’s the one with the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers bumper sticker: ‘Use the Quads God Gave You.’ For the uninitiated, that would be quadriceps femoris, the four-part muscle that raises the leg and was invented before the wheel.”
As David and Ed know well, hunting turkeys is mostly about getting back into the wilds after riding out a long winter. And if you’ve been privileged to harvest one of these magnificent avian specimens, you know the wild turkey is North America’s second largest bird, after the trumpeter swan. A mature gobbler may stand 4 feet tall and weigh around 24 pounds, with wings spanning 5 feet.
During the 2013 Colorado spring turkey-hunting season, I had the privilege of hunting with Rick Hooley, a Colorado BHA San Juan National Forest habitat watchman. Rick also helped me bag my first San Juan’s turkey (a Merriam’s) during April 2011.
A few days before the start of turkey hunting, Rick emailed me, inquiring about our upcoming hunt:
“Are you still planning on coming over on the 13th? Would you be interested in backpacking into an area on Sunday afternoon and camping in there for one or two nights? The area would be about a 5-mile hike to where we’ve found the birds.”
I let Rick know a backpack hunt sounded good and prepared accordingly.
During the first Sunday of turkey hunting season, Rick and I backpacked 5 miles into the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. From a ridge above a small valley, Rick belted out some coyote (locator) calls (at 6:30 p.m.) and two distant longbeards responded from the direction of our intended camp. After more hiking and hen calling, we were within a few hundred yards of the toms and camp.
At 6:40 p.m., another series of hen calls from Rick confirmed a longbeard closing in on our location. So we set up an ambush along the trail and positioned ourselves in a relatively open area looking downhill in the direction of the tom. Rick was slightly upslope and about a 100 feet to my right and rear. Using textbook turkey (and elk, as David Petersen will attest) hunting tactics, I (the shooter) was positioned between Rick (the caller) and the bird. As Rick continued calling, the tom responded in kind, closing the distance between us like a heat-seeking missile locked on its target.
Each gobbled response to Rick’s hen calls issued more closely than the previous and painted for the hunter an imaginary picture of the bird’s location, not unlike watching a blinking icon advance on a Google map. “Getting closer,” I whispered to no one in particular. Another minute or two passed, yelp followed gobble followed yelp, then a red-head appeared, moving along the far side of a downed ponderosa pine as if floating along bodiless above the dead tree.
I was acutely aware that turkeys have keen eyesight and tend to avoid blocks of solid color, the telltale sign of something man-made. Their 270-degree field of view detects movement out to 100 yards. In fact, turkeys can turn their head almost all the way to the rear on either side, which gives them the ability to see their surroundings in 360 degrees. They also have excellent hearing and can fly 55 mph for short distances and run up to 25 mph.
While remaining statue-still, I watched the tom advance and followed his progress with my eyes (not moving a muscle otherwise), until he entered an opening about 40 feet to my right, and started to strut. Rick was still focused on calling, unaware that the tom had entered our kill zone. I was sitting in the open, with a large tree to my immediate rear. And although watching a strutting tom is an undeniable treat, I knew it might only take a few seconds for him to either spot one of us or realize there weren’t actually any hens about.
David Petersen warns turkey hunters to be very cautious (and still) at this point in the game: “Be aware that any turkey you’ve called in will have your precise location fixed before strutting into sight. Don’t even blink if he’s in sight, and that’s no mere cliché. If he folds his tail and periscopes his neck, he’s looking for that horny hen who invited him in.”
But I needed to reposition for the shot—I’m a lefty and the tom was to my right—potentially revealing my location to the wary but love-struck tom. Luckily, he didn’t seem to notice during the split-second it took to shift and fire in one flowing motion. Rick’s seasoned turkey hunting tactics and calling lured in the estimated 3-year-old tom, and I killed him at 6:45 p.m.
After the shot, the hefty gobbler flopped down the slope it had just climbed to reach—the site of its last few seconds of life—living wild and free right up to the end, which the Butterballs most Americans eat don’t have the luxury of enjoying. He died in the wilds of the San Juan Mountains—not a bad way (or place) to go. We collected the 20-pound-plus bird, reshouldered our packs, and headed down into the valley to set up camp on the edge of an open field full of turkey sign, within easy hunting distance of several toms gobbling from their roosts in a nearby pine grove.
After breasting the bird and placing the meat in a nearby snowbank to cool, we retrieved a couple True Blonde Ales (brewed by Ska Brewing Company in Durango) from the same snowbank and celebrated our kill, reveling in the afterglow of a successful backcountry turkey hunt. A few days later, I emailed David Petersen some details (and photos) about our hunt. His response noted our unconventional turkey hunting tactics:
“Congrats! . . . This sets two records of sorts in my experience. First, I am the only person I’ve ever known, before now, to backpack camp for turkeys. Second, killing a bird at 6:45 pm is the latest I’ve ever heard of. I rarely hunt after 1 p.m. due to the very, very, very low odds of getting a bird to come later.
“Only way I’ve found is if you know where the roost tree they are headed for is and get between roost and bird . . . . By the way, I dare you to eat that ‘bruiser’ turkey. It would be like trying to eat one of my legs, and even worse. Jakes are where it’s at for edibility, and even then, they are just not great. But they are great to hunt, and eating comes with the territory.”
Tough or not, I’m looking forward to eating this tom (if for no other reason), because chasing turkeys, more often than not, ends with no meat for the freezer. As David observed, “Sometimes, for their own reasons, an entire mountainside’s worth of elk will clear out and not return for a week or more. Riches to rags.” Same with turkeys. On Wednesday morning, Rick returned to the area we’d backpacked into on Sunday.
“Those birds were on my mind all day yesterday so I decided to go back in there this morning,” said Rick. “I left here at 4:00 a.m. and rode my mountain bike to the trailhead. I got into the area pre-daylight and covered it pretty good. I didn’t hear a single bird. One thing is for sure, though, the turkeys have vacated that area for now. I wish I knew where they went.”
A few weeks later, Rick sent another email update:
“So far I haven’t pulled the trigger. I’ve called in four other gobblers but either had them hang up just out of range or see me. Last Tuesday one bird only gobbled one time. I set up and he came in silent from the side and saw me turn. He went from 20 yards to 60 faster than Usain Bolt. Another one strutted and gobbled probably close to 50 times at about 60 yards. He finally lost interest and the last time I heard him he was across a canyon and getting farther away. It’s been fun, though, and I’ve got a lot of good hiking in.”
As Rick (and David) will tell you, turkey hunting is mostly about experiencing and exploring the wild and natural (the real) world, and it doesn’t get any more exciting or challenging than trying to call one of these wily, intelligent birds into shotgun or archery range. And gladly, the country’s largest game bird appears to be alive and well in the backcountry of southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.
David Lien is a former Air Force officer, chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (www.backcountryhunters.org), and author of Age-Old Quests: Hunting, Climbing & Trekking: http://outskirtspress.com/ageoldquests/