Colorado’s southwest corner is home to some of the highest, wildest public-lands wildlife habitat in Colorado and the country: the San Juan Mountains. The San Juans encompass both Bureau of Land Management and National Forest lands, and contain not only the largest designated wilderness area in the southern Rockies, the 500,000-acre Weminuche Wilderness, but also the largest roadless area, the 150,000-acre Hermosa Creek watershed.
And it’s a place both Merriam’s turkeys and Rocky Mountain elk call home. My first San Juans turkey was taken only a couple miles (and a couple hundred feet in elevation change) from where I killed my first elk. Zach Roth, Littleton-based regional director for the National Wild Turkey Federation, says the Merriam’s turkey sub-species is often found in the hilly big-game habitat comprising much of the state’s public lands. “Anywhere that people hunt elk, there are probably turkeys there too,” says Roth.
However, taking a mountain Merriam’s can be as difficult as killing an elk. Statistics compiled by Colorado Parks and Wildlife for the 2012 turkey season (the most recent available) showed hunter success rates for over-the-counter (OTC) license holders at around 25 percent, with limited license holders achieving a much higher 55 percent harvest rate.
As explained by former Denver Post outdoors columnist Scott Willoughby, “The fortunate few who drew limited licenses this spring will generally look to the Eastern Plains, where habits of the Rio Grande subspecies are easily patterned … Everyone else—some 15,000 hunters in the forest and field before the season ends at the end of May—will be doing it the hard way, tracking the more elusive Merriam’s turkey that inhabit about 19,000 square miles of rugged terrain statewide.”
Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) Habitat Watchmen (for the San Juan National Forest) Rick Hooley and I have been doing it the hard way for five years running now, chasing mountain Merriam’s from a backcountry backpack camp through a lung-busting mix of small canyons and steep mountainsides containing a healthy dose of ponderosa pine and Gambel’s oak broken with frequent small, grassy clearings—terrain tailor-made for mountain Merriam’s.
On Sunday (April 12) afternoon we hiked four miles into the San Juan Mountains, arriving at camp not long after 5 p.m., and then hiked another mile or so (encountering a small herd of elk along the way) to find our first turkeys. At 7:15 p.m. two toms sounded-off from a meadow above us, but couldn’t be enticed to come downhill. I mentioned to Rick that in five years of turkey hunting with him we’d never successfully called (and subsequently killed) a tom downhill. As Colorado BHA founder David Petersen explains: “Remember that it’s usually easier to call a tom uphill or across level ground than to lure him downhill.”
We quickly decide to circle around the toms and gain elevation, but were subsequently spotted by the sharp-eyed gobblers (at 7:45 p.m.) and opt to head back to camp. On the way, Rick periodically belts out a coyote call to see if any gobblers will respond from their roosts. None do, until we encounter another group of elk and decide to switch to a cow elk call. Immediately two gobblers respond, giving us some likely targets for the morning hunt.
Monday morning we awake around 5:30 a.m. to the yipping and howling of coyotes reverberating down the valley, and have two distant toms responding to cow elk calls by first light. We close in on their location, set up and start hen-calling, then watch a stealthy tom glide down from his roost (apparently unaware of our presence) a mere 100 feet away. After some fruitless back-and-forth calling with the two gobblers, we head downhill, following the tom we’d seen flying from the roost, and spot a group of turkeys moving across an open field (at 7 a.m.).
No toms respond to our calls, so we move on, eventually getting a response from a gobbler that’s well above us and across a small creek canyon. It’s too steep and rugged to consider crossing, so we gain elevation until we’re opposite his location on our side of the canyon. As Rick continues calling, the tom responds in-kind, first dropping down his side of the canyon, and then (apparently) flying across to our side to find the hot-to-trot hen.
In his book, Going Trad: Out There With Elkheart, David Petersen says, “A spring gobbler likes to strut in to a calling hen—tail fanned wide, wings half-extended and held low so that the tips drag the ground, stepping with a haughty, head-bobbing gait. To accommodate this flashy showmanship, he needs a fairly open approach avenue: a closed logging road with the grass grown over … a wide game path or finger meadow.”
There were no such openings on the 30-to-40 degree slope we’re traversing, so it’s anyone’s guess where the tom might decide to make his appearance. Regardless, we set up to intercept him using tactics described by David Petersen in 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.
The key thing to remember when you have a tom closing or eyeballing close is to remain absolutely still, moving only your eyes and nothing else, no matter how cold or otherwise uncomfortable you may be. Within minutes the telltale bobbing red head of a love-struck gobbler appears some 40 yards away, approaching from below. I watch him strut-and-fan as he moves closer, stopping only to extend his periscope-like neck to locate the yelping hen.
At 8:30 a.m. we have our first mountain Merriam’s of the morning down and a half hour later we’re on the move again looking for another tom. At 10:30 a.m. we have three toms gobbling (two from a ridge above us and one below, across a small creek valley) and set up for the two above. One closes, but then disappears before we spot him.
We opt to descend and cross the valley, and, before long, Rick spots the aforementioned (strutting) tom in a meadow with a hen and starts calling. First the hen passes by about 50 yards out, then the tom follows, turns toward Rick and struts to shooting distance. At 11:30 a.m. a second mountain Merriam’s is down and by noon we’re headed back to camp, serenaded by yet another love-struck tom gobbling from somewhere in southwest Colorado’s high and wild San Juan Mountains.
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 as a “Hero of Conservation” in 2014.