When I first hunted Wild turkeys in California back in the 1970s, the state had just opened its first turkey hunting seasons ever. The population was limited to a few areas of the state, and the chances of success for a clueless college kid were grim.
Fast-forward 30-some years, and all across the West wild turkey populations are booming. The reasons are many, but primarily it’s due to the fact that turkey hunting has never been more popular. State game departments, both on their own and in cooperation with prominent conservation groups such as the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), have transplanted birds hither and yon, and worked to improve habitat throughout the region. Today, every Western state except Alaska has at least some wild turkey hunting for the Merriam’s and Rio Grande subspecies, and in some areas these two subspecies have interbred. In southern Arizona, there’s also limited hunting for the elusive Gould’s subspecies.
If you’re one of the many North American Hunting Club members who wants to get in on the action, hunting the West is a bit different than hunting east of the Mississippi River—especially if you’re a do-it-yourselfer who wants to hunt public land. To be successful, you need to use the same approach as you would when hunting big game.
Making A Plan
John Higley, a good friend and hunting companion of more than 40 years, is an acknowledged expert on Western turkey hunting. Here’s his sage advice on planning a Western turkey hunt.
“There are definitely more turkeys today in every Western state than there were 10 years ago,” Higley said. “The key to planning a successful public land hunt is the same as planning an out-of-state big game hunt: research, research, research. Assuming you’re not taking a guided hunt or hunting private land—and in most cases, turkey numbers and success rates are highest on private lands that control hunting pressure—you have to find where the birds are concentrated on public land, and then figure out how to access and hunt them there.”
While Higley highly recommends contacting the various state game departments, he begins his research with the NWTF.
“Go to the NWTF’s Web site and you can look up individual Western states and their turkey biologists,” Higley said. “This is a great place to begin researching a new hunting spot. Also, the NWTF has a regional technical committee, which has several committee members in each state. Find out who these people are, call them directly and ask them some general questions about turkey populations in their state. I ask about how the hatch was 2-3 years ago, because I want to hunt adult birds; whether there were any die-offs lately; about drought, fires, etc. Once you’ve narrowed down your choice, you need to order maps, including topographic maps, as well as maps from the BLM, U.S. Forest Service and other appropriate agencies that control the land.”
Higley says it’s also important to remember that some Western states have a turkey tag drawing, meaning you have to apply for tags, just like you do for big-game tags, though in many states you can buy a license over-the-counter. “Some states have fall seasons, some have spring seasons, some have both,” Higley said. “It’s important to find this out before you begin making your plans.”
The Tactical Advantage
In terms of hunting tactics, Higley says hunting Western birds is essentially the same as hunting Eastern birds—with a few twists.
“All turkey hunting is a short-range game, meaning you have to get close to the birds before you can kill one,” he said. “That means you should always try to move in as close as possible to the birds before calling to them. The big difference out West is that the terrain is much more severe and more vertical, and you might have a million or more acres at your disposal.”
Higley says it’s crucial that you scout this big country efficiently and quickly. “You can’t spend all day on a small tract of land, like you might do on a relatively small farm in the East or South,” he said. “The key is to travel accessible Forest Service roads by truck, mountain bike or on foot, looking for sign and listening for turkeys. Instead of stopping where it’s thick, stop where there are openings in the forest canopy. This is where turkeys like to hang out because there’s more food is these open areas. Look for tracks, especially on the dirt roads, and go from there.”
One of the most important tools you can have is good 8X or 10X binoculars, because glassing for feeding or strutting birds over long distances is critical. One time Higley saw turkeys in New Mexico with his binos but he couldn’t hear them gobble, because the wind was too strong and blowing in the wrong direction.
“When scouting, you do your thing and move on,” he said. “You don’t wait an hour, but move on to the next spot relatively quickly. That’s very important.”
Little Things, Big Differences
“You need to be aware that when you’re hunting Merriam’s turkeys, you’ll be at 5,000 feet or more in elevation, so you need to be in decent shape to hike around the steep mountains,” Higley said. “Also, at higher elevations the hunting might actually be better later in the season if it’s snowing, blowing, etc. early during the season. Mud can also be a factor because roads can be mudded out and undrivable. You’ll find that Western birds gobble up a storm during nice weather, but clam up when a storm front is passing through. If you can time it, hunt the high country during the first break of good weather right after the season opens up.”
Higley also noted that Western spring weather can be anything from sunny and warm to cold, raining, snowing and windy. “I never travel to hunt a Western state without packing along a lightweight, packable Gore-Tex rain suit, long underwear and cold-weather clothing and boots,” he said.
A standard 3-inch 12 gauge shotgun fitted with an aftermarket turkey choke tube and patterned with No. 5 or No. 6 shot is ideal. Many hunters add a rest such as the Hunter’s Specialties V-Pod Shooting Stick, which helps keep the gun steady when birds are closing over a long, open distance. A turkey vest with padded seat is always welcome. Because of the vast distance and often windy weather, using friction calls that carry their sound can be beneficial when trying to elicit a response.
A compact GPS like the new Bushnell ONIX 200, ONIX 200CR or ONIX 400 that allows you to navigate and plan your hunt using actual satellite images and aerial photography can be a big help in quickly figuring out the terrain and conducting your hunt.