Backcountry Tom: Turkey Hunting in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains

The author displays a Merriam's turkey he harvested in the San Juan Mountains.
The author displays a Merriam’s turkey he harvested in the San Juan Mountains.

Colorado has two subspecies of wild turkey—the Merriam’s, also known as the mountain turkey, on the Western Slope and the Rio Grande on the Front Range. Turkeys are most often hunted during the spring, when their mating season occurs, with females laying a clutch of eight to twelve eggs that hatch in May.

Just as bull elk are more vulnerable to human hunters during their fall rut/mating season, male wild turkeys (called toms or longbeards) become more susceptible to hunting in the spring. The tom is identifiable by hair-like feathers, called a beard, on its breast and red (white and blue) head. Colorado has spring and fall turkey hunting seasons. Be sure to check the current regulation brochure for season dates.

The limit is two turkeys in the spring (one may be taken with a limited license and one may be taken with an over-the-counter license). One turkey may be taken in the fall. Hunters can harvest only tom turkeys in the spring with shotgun or bow. Either sex of turkey is fair game in the fall, and hunters may use rifles and handguns. During 2012, about 55 percent of limited-license hunters reported harvesting a bird, compared with just 25 percent of over-the-counter (OTC) or unlimited-license holders.

This year was the fourth year in a row I’ve hunted turkeys in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains with Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Habitat Watchman Rick Hooley. Hooley has a wildlife biology degree from Colorado State University and started hunting turkeys when he was in high school (about 1980), saying: “There is nothing like the sound of a gobble in the spring woods. Like every other type of hunting, I learn something every time I’m out there.”

We backpacked into the San Juans not far from the Weminuche Wilderness Area Monday evening, set up camp, and by 6:30 p.m. we’re looking to roost a mountain tom or two in preparation for the morning hunt. But as often is the case when chasing unpredictable and finicky longbeards, our plans didn’t go as planned, as my notes from this hunt describe:

“Set up camp, then cross two swollen streams to get to a meadow full of turkey sign and some well-used roosts/lodgepole pines … push elk out of the meadow … At 7:20 p.m. have 2-3 distant toms gobbling in response to Rick’s hen calls. Decide to close the distance, unaware that one of the toms has the same idea.

“Approaching the bottom of a brush-covered ridge, a tom gobbles no more than 100 yards away/above us (a drone’s eye view) as we hustle to set up an ambush, but we’re (apparently) spotted … no more is heard from the tom, despite Rick’s hen calls. Return to camp at 8 p.m.”

How the big bird saw us is explained in its genetic code of survival, and it is an ongoing cause for admiration—and consternation—among longbeard hunters. Turkeys have excellent hearing and a 270-degree field of vision that detects movement out to 100 yards-plus. With a flap of its black wings, the turkey can scramble away, half-running, half-flying, at 25 mph (and can fly 55 mph for short distances), leaving us to wonder what went wrong.

Turkey camp. Photo by David Lien.
Turkey camp. Photo by David Lien.
The moon above the San Juan Mountains. Photo by David Lien.
The moon above the San Juan Mountains. Photo by David Lien.

During our walk back to camp, under a rising/coming “blood moon,” part of a lunar eclipse named for the reddish color from the filtered light that illuminates earth’s satellite during the event, we were reminded of our wily red-headed quarry. In the morning, up at 4:45 a.m., we left camp under the light of the now setting, shadow-casting, full moon. My notes from that morning describe what we saw and heard:

“Hear three distant toms gobbling from the roost at 6 a.m. … Move toward them, and after some hen calls from Rick it sounds like one, then two, may be closing. Set up an ambush on the edge of a football field-sized meadow with me (the shooter) between Rick (the caller) and the approaching toms.

“I’m facing what sounds like the closet tom, but he’s on the ridge above us and doesn’t come in (busted again?). The other bird, to my extreme right and rear, is still closing … With my head turned as far right (owl-like) as possible, I can see him peripherally coming across the meadow, periodically gobbling and fanning in response to Rick’s calls …

 “He’s about ten feet directly behind me now, moving toward Rick, and starts to get nervous (“putt, putt, putt!”) … Rick sees the sprinting tom run between us, out to my front and left, and waits until he’s completely clear before shooting(at 6:35 a.m.).”

Hooley with his San Juan tom. Photo by David Lien.
Hooley with his San Juan tom. Photo by David Lien.

Wild turkeys are wary and supremely adapted for survival on the Colorado landscape—they live through the vast majority of encounters with hunters. During three days of hard hunting we had around a dozen toms respond (from a distance) to our calls, with possibly half of them sounding as if they were at some point moving in our direction.

We set up a half-dozen ambushes, but just one of those toms closed to shooting distance—the only one we actually saw. But even if you don’t see a tom while hunting, just hearing gobblers grace the mountains with a chorus of rattling vocalizations makes my day and hunt complete. The gobble alone is largely responsible for many hunters addiction to this grand game bird.

Written by David Lien. Lien is a former Air Force officer and chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of “Hunting for Experience: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation,” and was recognized by Field & Stream in 2014 as a “Hero of Conservation.”

5 Responses

  1. Which gmu would be good for over the counter? I am 15 and just moved to Colorado, so I don’t know where I could get my first Colorado bird. Thank you for any advise.

    1. Carter,

      Thanks for your comment/question. Give one of our “Hunt Planners” a call. They can give you some info about available GMUs and licenses for turkeys. You can reach them at: 303-297-1192. Ask for a “Hunt Planner” when you call. Thanks and good luck!

  2. Im a TarHeel and i would love to come to Colorado in the spring and turkey hunt and then come back in the fall to elk hunt. I was fortunate enough to take a 60″ bull moose on the Innoko River in Alaska this September. id like to give you a call. i work for an airline so flying in to Colorado is no problem. i love to turkey hunt. im self taught and have made all the mistakes and try to learn from them. Ive had sucess in North Carolina and Virginia. id like to go hunting with someone in Colorado in National Forrest area.

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