For the last six years, I’ve been privileged to hunt public lands Merriam’s turkeys in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains with Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Habitat Watch volunteer Rick Hooley. Although Rick makes his living as a fly fishing outfitter/guide, he’s also a crack turkey and elk hunter.
In my previous post “5 Tips for Hunting Merriam’s Turkeys,” I shared some of what I’ve learned about turkey hunting from Rick and other informed hunters/sources. Here I’ll expand on some of what was previously covered and add a few new tips.
1. Hunt the Early Season
This may seem entirely too obvious to even mention, but hunting toms during the first week (or weekend) of the season, before they’ve been chased (and educated) by other hunters, will give you an edge, especially novices. Given the importance of calling to turkey hunting, someone who’s less polished in the art of convincing toms to come running to their hen-talk will be at a distinct advantage earlier in the season.
Rick and I usually backpack in to public lands turkey locales Sunday afternoon of the first weekend, hunting en route, and Rick called in a group of four (possibly five) toms before we made it to camp (during April 2016). Later, in another turkey hunting spot, I called in a group of three toms, and then two more that nearly ran me over in their haste to find the hen they thought was seducing them. If these gobblers had already encountered hunters, they surely would have been fewer in number and less enthusiastic about coming in “fast and hot.”
2. Calling Toms
Although Rick uses both slate calls (also called “pots”) and diaphragm (i.e., mouth) calls, my calling is much less refined, and I stick to slate/pot calls: two slate calls from different manufacturers with two different strikers will provide options for varying the tones/sounds of your hen calls.
My friend David Petersen (author of A Man Made of Elk), who hunts turkeys with a traditional bow, says: “Slate calls in my opinion make the most realistic sounds. My favorite is an old cheapie I bought 20 years ago, not even made anymore. Stay away from glass slates, as they’re tricky to use.” Most strikers are made of wood, but there are different kinds of wood. You will, for example, get a slightly different tone from ash than from hard maple.
By carrying two pots and two strikers you can produce at least four different tones or frequencies. To our ears there might not seem to be much difference, but to a turkey a slight change in frequency can make all the difference. And these days, to learn how to use your call, just go online and watch/wade through the dozens or hundreds of free videos on the subject.
According to Outdoor News contributor Mark Strand: “In order to insert yourself into the conversation and influence turkeys into coming to you, the calling you send forth has to sound real. This is no substitute for getting the rhythm right, and tone is important. It takes practice, but with a good slate or box call, most hunters can make realistic calls after 10 minutes.”
3. Time of Day
Although Rick and I usually don’t miss hunting the early morning hours, when toms are oftentimes gobbling from the roost before sunup, many hunters stop hunting for the day by noon. However, during recent years I’ve shot toms as late as 4:45 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
And according to (former) Pioneer Press hunting/outdoors columnist Chris Niskanen: “Ideally, you want to be sitting in your blind [something I’ve never used] an hour before sunrise, but … I’ve often found there is a spurt of gobbling activity around 10 a.m. I’m reassured, too, that a lot of toms have been killed in mid-afternoon. And in the rain.”
4. Be Patient
Many turkey hunters move/give up too soon, only to get up and hear or see an alarmed gobbler running through the brush at close to the speed of light. Outdoor News contributor San Small says, “Usually, 15 to 20 minutes without hearing a gobble is long enough to wait … My friend and turkey mentor Lenny Heisz once told me, ‘A turkey’s got nowhere to go and all day to get there.’ I am reminded of that every season, and I have to keep telling myself to wait just a little longer before moving.”
5. Beware of Silent Runners
I refer to toms that come in without gobbling—thus, not alerting you to their approach—as “silent runners.” This year Rick and I had three toms come in silent, which usually requires an extra dose of the aforementioned patience, along with constant vigilance. Later in the season, when toms have been hunted/pressured, they’re more likely to come in silent.
According to Chris Niskanen, “Sometimes a boss tom is content to be silent. One of my biggest toms, a 25-pounder, walked up silently behind me and didn’t gobble until he was 10 yards away. Once I pried my heart out of my throat, I waited silently until he moved from behind a tree and into range.”
To wrap up, American Hunter contributor Ray Eye says: “Hunters think turkeys have human traits and that a turkey is outthinking our every move when, in fact, the turkey is only thinking, ‘Girls, poop, bug, fight … girls, poop, bug, fight … girls, poop, bug, fight.’” And Dean “Redbeard” Mundhenke, founder of Madhatter Calls, adds: “The only real expert in the turkey woods are the turkey’s themselves. You really can’t make hard and fast rules for there is always one bird that wasn’t in school that day.”
Story and photos 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 during 2014 was recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation.”