Anyone who’s heard the echoing “Gobble-obble-obble!” of a longbeard at dawn during April knows something primordial lives in the woods, hills, mountains and valleys of this country and continent. It’s an explosive vocalization, one like no other, that my friend David Petersen says is, “at once high-pitched, deep-throated, melodic and maniacal, with emphasis on the last quality.”
The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is endemic to North America and evolved more than 11 million years ago. While they have no close relatives, they’re cousins of pheasants. And not unlike a male pheasant, the wild tom, with his bold tail fan and bright wattle, is one of a kind. Prized for his keen senses and fabled intelligence, a tom can reach 30 pounds or more with a wingspan pushing 5½ feet.
The ancestor of the domesticated turkey, the wild turkey is native to North America and separated into five subspecies based on regional adaptations. It’s also the only poultry species native to the Western Hemisphere and one of only two turkey species worldwide. The second, the Ocellated (Meleagris ocellata) of Central America, is significantly more ornate. Two turkey subspecies call Colorado home.
The Merriam’s turkey lives primarily in the mountains while the Rio Grande resides on the flat lands east of Interstate 25. The Merriam’s is partial to open meadows and usually roost in ponderosa pine trees. They can also be found in oak brush and piñon-juniper stands. The Rio Grande is the larger of the two birds and can usually be found in cottonwood trees and along riparian areas. Rio Grandes are easier to locate than Merriam’s and hunting them is (purportedly) not as difficult.
I first hunted longbeards with David Petersen (founder of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers) during April 2008, and although we never saw a turkey during that hunt, we heard a tom gobbling from the roost at dusk and dawn. His Gobble-obble-obbles! echoed down the mountainside, reverberating through our sparse backcountry camp in the San Juan Mountains.
That’s all it took for me to know there’s no better way to spend a spring morning in the mountains than chasing toms, but I wouldn’t tag my first turkey until 2011, when Colorado BHA Habitat Watchman, Rick Hooley, asked me to join him on a Merriam’s hunt in the San Juan Mountains. Some notes from that hunt explain the basic tactics involved:
Tuesday, 4/26/11: “Up at 0400 … Light rain most of the night … Rick arrives at 0445 … start hiking/hunting at 0500 (2 inches of crunchy snow still on the ground). Rick stops to coyote call or yelp periodically, but no response. See herd of 25 elk on ridge a half-mile away. Cut turkey tracks (four turkeys) at 0545, and follow them to within sight of a fast-moving hen. More tracks on the trail en route back to trailhead. Finish at 0930.”
Wednesday, 4/27/11: “Up at 0400. Calm, clear, and cold. Meet Rick at 0445 and put on hip waders to cross a small stream … Start hiking up ridge at 0510 while periodically calling. Hen tracks on trail, but no toms respond.
“Back down to stream at 0710. Rick belts out a few loud calls before wading stream, and receives a response on the opposing ridgeline. Don waders, cross, head up into the woods along an old logging road after gobbler responds to another yelp series.
“Set up along road … me in a small clearing near an overturned stump with Rick 50 feet to the rear. Only eyes moving/scanning, back-and-forth. Fingers starting to freeze. Rick keeps calling, the gobbler keeps responding. Fingers getting colder. Rick moves further away and changes up calls.
“Gobbler getting closer. Fingers numb. Spot tom coming down the logging road. A red, white and blue head the size of my fist, swiveling and bobbing, strutting and looking for a hen. Rick is now well to my rear. Tom is oblivious to my presence. Shoot at 25 yards at 0745.”
This day showed me that among the relatively few ways to suspend concern completely over one’s problems, be they numb fingers or things far more serious, imagining a tom turkey working his way slowly toward you in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains ranks near the absolute top. And successful hunters are rewarded with fine, lean meat (albeit somewhat tough) for the freezer.
With careful cooking, wild turkey can make an excellent and nutritious meal, but beware that cooking time is closer to a chicken than a Butterball. Basting is also recommended. The two enemies of cooking a wild turkey are high temps and overcooking, and a roasting bag is deemed essential by many turkey-eating aficionados. Good luck.
David Lien is a former air force officer, chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and author of Age-Old Quests II: Hunting, Climbing & Trekking.