Colorado has two subspecies of wild turkey—the Merriam’s, also known as the mountain turkey, and the Rio Grande, primarily found in eastern Colorado. Merriam’s are wanderers and frequent ponderosa pine forests. The Rio Grande prefer cottonwood trees along riparian areas. Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) says Rio Grande turkeys are larger and easier to locate than Merriam’s, so hunting them is generally not as difficult.
Merriam’s turkeys were historically found in the mountain forests of Colorado, New Mexico and northern Arizona. They have been transplanted into the pine forests of Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota. Merriam’s can be found not only in ponderosa pine forest but also other vegetation types in elevations ranging from 3,500 to 10,000 feet.
Although approximately the same size as the Eastern turkey, the Merriam’s has different coloration. It is black with blue, purple and bronze reflections. White feathers on the lower back and tail feather margins distinguish the Merriam’s from other subspecies of turkey. According to CPW, Merriam’s turkeys now inhabit approximately 19,000 square miles of forest lands in Colorado. Stan Baker, a regional biologist for the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), says, “Colorado ranks in the top two or three states as far as western turkey hunting is concerned.” According to the NWTF, the state’s top five turkey-producing counties are Mesa, Garfield, Delta, Archuleta and Yuma.
My first hunt for mountain Merriam’s was with Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers founder David Petersen in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Since then I’ve hunted Merriam’s with Colorado BHA Habitat Watchman (for the San Juan National Forest) Rick Hooley. David and Rick are extraordinarily adept at both backcountry turkey and elk hunting, which makes sense (especially for such gifted woodsmen) given the habitat-tactics overlap inherent in hunting these two venerable species.
Five Tips for Mountain Merriam’s Hunters
1. Identifying Mountain Habitat
Merriam’s favor wooded areas interspersed with open meadows along with plentiful ponderosa pine. The open canopies allow for easy access in contrast to a closed-canopy spruce. The trees become the nighttime roost for turkeys, which have poor nighttime vision. Mountain forests in Colorado provide acorns, berries and insects that Merriam’s like.
Zach Roth, Littleton-based regional director for the NWTF, says to find prime habitat areas. “Probably the best tool … is Google Earth,” said Roth. “There are a few things that I really look for that will support turkeys. Areas that are in lower elevation relative to the surrounding geography—small canyons and ravines—are good spots to look. You also want to look for deciduous trees among the conifer forest, meadows and water sources. It’s similar to elk hunting in that sense.”
Rick Hooley and I hunt Merriam’s from a backcountry camp in the San Juan Mountains, where we also encounter plenty of elk. The habitat here encompasses a lung-busting mix of small canyons and steep mountainsides containing a healthy dose of ponderosa pine and Gambel’s oak intermixed with small, grassy clearings—terrain tailor-made for mountain Merriam’s.
2. Thinking Like an Elk Hunter
“Anywhere that people hunt elk, there are probably turkeys there too,” says Roth. “I’ve taken 8 to 10 people turkey hunting for their first time in the past year-and-a-half. All of them were elk hunters, and they could really relate to the strategy, the tracking, calling the birds in and hunting on a lot of the same terrain. A lot of big-game hunters get into it because it is so similar and not a whole new skill set being learned. The fundamentals are the same. If you’re used to hunting big game, the chances are that you’ll like hunting turkeys.”
One of the more effective tactics for hunting mountain Merriam’s is particularly familiar to many bow elk hunters, as David Petersen describes in his book “A Man Mad of Elk.”
“Mountain turkeys share more with elk than overlapping habitat preferences. They also overlap in breeding and defensive behaviors, making hunting the two radically distinct species surprisingly similar. Consequently and happily, if you’ve never hunted elk in rut but are an experienced turkey chaser, you’re way ahead of the game. And versa-vice …”
“When the calling action gets eyeballing close, two elk hunters—working just like two tom hunters—can be a deadly team. A rutting bull homing in on a bugle or cow chirp will focus his attention on the source of the sound, giving the shooter—who is set up between caller and game … a close, relatively relaxed, high-percentage shot opportunity.”
3. Locating Toms
Once you have a feel for habitat and tactics, it’s time to get out there and locate some birds. American Hunter contributor Jim Casada says, “Owl-hooting or crow calling at first light are tried-and-true methods for locating gobblers on the roost, yet turkeys are prone to gobble at a sudden loud or sharp noise any time of the day.” Locator calls are loud by design, so a tom will hopefully reflexively gobble a response if within earshot: crow, coyote, owl and cow-elk calls (try mixing them up occasionally) all seem to work.
4. Calling Gobblers
Wild turkeys can make up to 28 different vocalizations, but turkey calls are divided into two basic categories—friction and air. Friction calls produce their sound through contact of two surfaces. Such calls include slate, push-button and box. Air calls resemble a wind instrument, and require the caller to blow through a chamber or across a reed or diaphragm. Tube calls, wing-bone and mouth diaphragm calls are included in this category. Once you’ve located a gobbler and closed the distance to, say, 100 yards or so, start calling.
Outdoor News contributor Tony J. Peterson explains some calling basics: “Most first timers, with a decent pot [i.e., slate] call and some instruction, can get pretty decent in a short time. The best bet for starting out is to learn to yelp competently. Without being able to yelp, turkey hunting is a different and much more difficult proposition. The tendency for most first timers when learning this call is to make short, sharp circles with the striker. This will create a yelp, but it will be a fast-in-cadence type of yelp that sounds rushed.”
Peterson adds, “The better bet is to extend that circle into an oval, or a J-shaped stroked to make a yelp a two-note sound. Listen closely to live turkeys and you’ll hear that their yelps aren’t monosyllabic sounding calls, but contain two parts. Any new hunter who spends a fair amount of time mastering yelping and getting the rhythm down will kill turkeys. And if they can do that, they’ll learn the slow-drag of a purr or the quick pop of clucking and cutting sequences. After that, the birds had better watch out.”
As a tom approaches, look for movement and the telltale red, white, or pale blue coloring of his head. Remember to sit absolutely still, moving only your eyes and execute any shot quickly, aiming for the head and neck. Hunting mountain Merriam’s is hard and unpredictable work (as all hunting should be), but also incredibly exciting and rewarding. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “The wild turkey really deserves a place beside the deer [and elk]; to kill a wary old gobbler … by fair still-hunting, is a triumph for the best sportsman.”
5. Check Out Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Turkey Hunting Tips:
For current season dates, regulations and additional information see the following tips on turkey hunting from Colorado Parks & Wildlife:
Story written by David Lien. Lien is a former Air Force officer and chairman of the Colorado Backcounty Hunters & Anglers. He 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 during 2014 was recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation.”