Hunting Colorado’s Mountain Merriam’s (& The Tenth Legion)

The author displays a Merriam’s turkey.

The best-known book of turkey hunting’s poet laureate, Colonel (retired) Tom Kelly, is Tenth Legion. The title comes from the Tenth Legion of the Roman Army, a matchless military force that stood fast against barbarian hordes for centuries. Over generations, the soldiers forming the Tenth Legion’s ranks became a cult, a breed apart, and their feats have become a touchstone for unstinting commitment, writes Jim Casada in his American Hunter article, “Reflections of a Marvelous Madness.” Such is the commitment and dedication I see demonstrated by those like my friend, Rick Hooley, and conservation officer, Rob Brazie.

Rick is a San Juan National Forest Habitat Watch Volunteer for the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA), and he’s devoted a significant chunk of his life to learning the habits and habitats of turkeys, elk, trout and other wildlife in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. I’ve been privileged to hunt with Rick during seven spring turkey seasons.

Rob is a senior conservation officer for Idaho Fish & Game. He has hunted turkeys throughout the United States, completing three “grand slams” (i.e., bagging one of each of the four subspecies of U.S. wild turkeys: the Eastern, Osceola, Rio Grande, and Merriam’s), with a shotgun, bow and muzzleloader. I recently attended a “Hunting Wild Turkeys: Welcome to Your Next Obsession” seminar put on by Rob at BHA’s 7th Annual North American Rendezvous in Boise, Idaho.

Part of his presentation covered “Run-and-Gun” turkey hunting tactics. It turns out I’ve been using these (or similar) tactics for eight years now, in Colorado’s high and wild San Juan Mountains, having learned them from Rick Hooley. Rob’s presentation bullet points on Run-and-Gun turkey hunting addressed (in part):

  • Work a ridge top, trail or logging road—look for sign.
  • Find a spot where you can set up quickly if needed.
  • Yelp loudly or shock gobble (i.e., use a crow/coyote call).
  • Listen for a responding gobbler(s).
  • Call (yelp) a couple of times then wait (5 minutes).
  • Call again (more aggressive).
  • No response, sit for half an hour (a tom may come in quiet).
  • Call one last time (yelps and then excited cutting).
  • Move to next location and start over.

Utilizing similar tactics, learned from years of hunting Colorado’s mountain Merriam’s with Rick, my spring 2018 turkey hunting season unfolded as follows:

Monday, April 16th

After arriving at a backcountry (i.e., backpack camp) San Juan National Forest turkey hunting locale at 4:00 p.m., I set up my tent and started hiking/hunting, intently scanning the terrain ahead—especially open meadows—while occasionally stopping to yelp or “shock gobble” (i.e., using a crow or coyote call, which often elicits a shock gobble response from toms within earshot).

Photo by David Lien.

While hiking/hunting, I managed to spot a coyote and tom simultaneously (within a hundred feet, or so, of each other) in a meadow 50 yards ahead. The tom wouldn’t respond to yelping, but later four jakes (young male turkeys) in another meadow gobbled/talked to me, then headed uphill. I decided to circle around and intercept them but ended up moving two other turkeys off their roost near dusk. While returning to camp, I stopped to watch six elk feeding in the adjacent meadow. Encounters for the day included: 1 tom, 1 coyote, 2 roosted turkeys, 4 jakes and 6 elk.

Tuesday, April 17th

Before sunup, I heard two or three toms gobbling from the roost not far from camp. I started yelping some 150 yards from their roosting location. A coyote heard the racket and approached to check things out. The wind picked up right after sunup, making it near impossible to hear toms gobbling in response to calling. Later I looped around the meadow where the jakes were the previous evening, then backtracked toward camp, encountering three elk, including one spike.

Since high winds were making hunting unproductive, I opted to take a short nap trailside, basking in the unseasonably warm temperatures. A half hour later I was surprised to hear a tom gobble nearby, jarring me awake. Then he walked by out of shooting distance, unresponsive to calling, seemingly taunting me.

Later I had a close encounter with three yipping and yowling coyotes followed by four elk and four jakes feeding in close proximity. The jakes were heading north, so I circled around for an ambush attempt. They passed by out of range, unresponsive to calling, ending my action for the day. Encounters for the day: 1 tom, 3 coyotes, 4 jakes and 7 elk.

Photo by David Lien.

Wednesday, April 18th

At 3:00 a.m., there was some commotion in camp, which turned out to be the local elk herd milling around. I opted to scare them off so they didn’t accidentally trample my tent. Hunting/hiking before sunup, I heard toms (and hens) calling from the roost on a nearby ridge. The high winds had thankfully subsided.

Despite my slow and stealthy (or so it seemed) approach, the flock busted me (usually indicated by a series of loud “putts”). Such putts signal that turkeys are running away from you saying, “Everyone run! Something dangerous is near!” Ever hear a deer blow at you in the woods? This is a very similar concept.[2]

I bumped these turkeys but didn’t see them, just after sunup, then hiked up to another meadow located above a small stream valley. After making a couple of yelps that reverberated into the valley below, two toms gobbled responses. A few seconds later I called again, with both responding again. Generally speaking, you need a tom to gobble several times to get a good fix on his location, as explained by Tom Kelley in Tenth Legion.

“A turkey can gobble only one time and give you direction. But the direction is only half of what you need,” Tom explains. “The other necessary element … is distance, and unless he is very close when he first gobbles, you cannot tell exactly how far away he is … It is generally considered safest to start toward him the minute you hear him, and if he will gobble three or four more times at reasonably spaced intervals, you can get his location fixed and get to the proper place to try to kill him. All kinds of things can happen during this procedure, which in military circles is called a movement to contact,” 

While executing my movement to contact, I set up behind a sizable ponderosa pine on the edge of the meadow and called the first tom in, strutting and puffing. Upon seeing his red head appear in the meadow, I prepared to shoot. However, he apparently saw movement and turned around, heading downhill at a fast walk, but still strutting. Hence, I shifted a couple hundred feet toward the second tom and succeeded in calling him in, and this hunt ended on Day 3 at 8:15 a.m.

Photo by David Lien.

Although I’m, at best, a mediocre caller and don’t have any grand slams or other impressive accolades to bolster my turkey hunting credentials, the most important element of any turkey hunt boils down to just getting out there and trying your best day after day and year after year. With some dedication and persistence, you will gain admittance to the Legion, as explained by Tom Kelly in his book Tenth Legion.

“I hunt with regularity and delight in the company of a good many men who are inept turkey hunters. They can’t yelp. They get lost in the woods. The best day they ever had they couldn’t tell north from straight up,” says Tom. “But they do the one really important thing and they do it exactly right. They go … the only final and absolute rule that must be followed to achieve membership in the Legion. All in the hell you have to do is try.”

For additional information on turkey hunting in Colorado see these Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), and related, resources:

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.

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