Tom Foolery: Hunting Mountain Merriam’s
I’ve hunted Merriam’s turkeys on public lands in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains for seven years running now with Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Habitat Watch Volunteer (HWV) Rick Hooley. Rick is a HWV for the San Juan National Forest, and there’s likely few outdoorsmen with his breadth and depth of hunting-angling experience in this part of the state.
We hunt an over-the-counter (OTC) unit, and the most recent Colorado Parks & Wildlife turkey harvest data (for 2015) shows a 30 perecent success rates for OTC licenses holders versus 50 percent for limited license holders. Realtree contributor, Steve Hickoff, says: “The [Colorado] Merriam’s population lives in some rugged country; their nomadic traits can really spread them out and test your patience. You can go for hours, even days, and not hear a gobble.”
But as American Hunter contributor, Sgt. Michael Marek (82nd Airborne Division), wrote: “If it was easy, everyone would do it … hunting is difficult, and that’s what makes being a hunter so great. You truly become a cut above the rest.” Mountain Merriam’s turkey hunting is both physically and mentally challenging, and—in my admittedly biased opinion—truly a cut above the rest.
Scott Olmsted, American Hunter editor in chief, adds: “How can hunting a tom turkey possibly stack up to hunting a bull elk? … every time I’m throttled by a booming gobble mere feet from me as I sit motionless … I am reminded why … At that moment, nothing stacks up against turkey hunting.” What follows are observations from our April 2017 mountain Merriam’s hunt that may be of use/interest to other turkey hunters.
Although hunters need to remain motionless and silent (sans calling) when a gobbler is homing in our yelps, clucks, cuts and purrs, if toms decide to shun such calls things can get tricky. While backpacking in to a San Juan Mountains turkey hunting locale Sunday afternoon, we weren’t able to get a single tom to gobble, whereas in past years we’ve occasionally taken a tom on the way to camp.
Despite the silent toms, we kept a sharp lookout ahead, carefully scanning open meadows in particular, and spotted two turkeys (including a tom) no more than 100 yards from camp. In fact, the adjacent meadow was full of turkey sign. Silent toms or not, we’d confirmed via sight and sign that there were more than a few turkeys in the vicinity.
After setting up camp we kept hunting, moving deliberately and calling occasionally. Approaching another meadow, we saw three turkeys hightailing it out the other side, and later another tom on the run. You really have to live on the edge of your vision to see turkeys before they see or hear you, but it can be done. Over the years Rick has occasionally taken silent toms by spotting and stalking them in meadows.
As explained by Sgt. Michael Marek: “All hunters and fishermen can appreciate that creatures on their own terrain often outsmart even the savviest outdoorsman. This makes us think like our opponents, continually reevaluate our weaknesses and learn from more successful sportsmen.” Near dusk, three local toms loosened up and gobbled from the roost, giving us an indication of what was to come.
Freezin’ For A Reason
Monday morning at 5:15 a.m. the temperature was 25 Fahrenheit. A comfortable temperature when hiking steep terrain, but we were less than a half mile from camp when multiple toms started sounding off, around 6 a.m. Once stationary, it was mere minutes before the subfreezing cold numbed extremities and senses.
And over the next 75 minutes we barely moved as four different toms made appearances, resulting in a bone-chilling experience that reminded me of the kind of teeth-chattering cold I was more accustomed to in my youth while hunting whitetails in northern Minnesota. Rick shot the second tom that came in at 6:50 a.m., but as we prepared to move (i.e., warm up), another tom strolled by, followed by one more.
Both made their escape, and around 7:15 a.m. the avian parade ended, allowing us to stash Rick’s tom—we’d return to clean it later—and start moving/thawing out. I hadn’t shivered that much in years, but seeing four different toms, and watching Rick take one, was priceless. Besides, if we wanted easy, warm and comfortable, there’s plenty of turkeys at the supermarket.
Calling Toms (From Above & Below)
Later a tom gobbled from a nearby ponderosa pine-studded hillside. We set our sights on the summit, breaking trail through thick Gambel’s oak. Some 50 yards from the top we had the tom within earshot, strutting and puffing, but he wouldn’t stroll downhill to join us. With seemingly no other options, I eased slowly up the hill—through the dry, noisy oak brush—and caught a split-second glimpse of the shadowy tom before he disappeared.
We summited the hill and crossed a meadow to a point overlooking the valley below, and within minutes a fired-up tom with hens is homing-in on Rick’s calls. What follows is classic turkey hunting suspense and excitement. Robust “Gobble-obble-obbles!” echo up from the scrubby hillside, reverberating through the still morning air, each gobble closer than the next. With the crest of the hillside a mere fifty feet away, there won’t be much time to react.
The tom gobbles, hens yelp and cluck, Rick responds in kind … repeat. I scan the hillcrest, moving only my eyes, looking for movement. At 10:15 a.m. a hen is the first to arrive, her head on a swivel, searching the meadow. Luckily, a few seconds later the tom appears. His red, white and blue head shimmers in the late morning light, and our hunt is over just like that. He’s a bruiser, possibly fit for mounting, but my favorite trophies are mostly unforgettable memories.
That said, these are gorgeous birds. As Bryce M. Towsley, American Hunter field editor, said: “Merriam’s may not have the largest beards or the longest spurs, but their white-tailed feathers make them a candidate for the most striking of the North American turkeys.” We gather up the hefty tom, head downhill, and find a flat spot near a gurgling creek to “breast” him (i.e., fillet off the breast meat). On the way back to camp, we stop to clean Rick’s bird.
I notice that Rick’s knife slices through the skin and breast meat like nothing. He’s using a replaceable blade knife, and says: “The knife I have is a Havalon Piranta. The blades are deadly sharp and are great for skinning/gutting, not so good when working joints and around bone. Also, a small Leatherman tool or lightweight pliers works good for changing the blade.” I make a mental note to pick one up soon.
During this two day hunt we called-in nine toms, laid eyes on six of them—including four from one locale—and shot two. We also covered a good 2,000 to 3,000 feet of elevation gain in the process. After the hunt I posted a Merriam’s photo online. A friend wrote: “Nice tom!” My response: “I’m still sore. Hard work … the way hunting should be.” And is, especially in Colorado’s high and wild San Juan Mountains.
Bryce M. Towsley, American Hunter field editor, adds: “I have experience with all the turkey subspecies and I think the Merriam’s may well by my favorite to hunt. That’s mostly because of where they live. I love hunting in the West and particularly in the Rocky Mountains where Merriam’s turkeys lurk about in some of the most beautiful country on Earth.” Me too.
For additional information see the Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) “Turkey Hunting” webpage: http://cpw.state.co.us/thingstodo/Pages/turkey.aspx
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 during 2014 was recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation.”