Looking to make your Grand Slam Turkey run this spring, or just to add a new species to the list? I’ve been chasing wild turkeys across the country for over a decade with archery tackle, and during that time I’ve adapted a system for each particular subspecies that has proven effective time and time again. Over the next four weeks I will be reviewing some surefire recipes for success for each of the four turkey subspecies recognized by the National Wild Turkey Federation.
The Mountain Merriam’s 411
The crafty Merriam’s inhabits the mountainous and canyon regions of the western United States. Originally introduced into the ponderosa pine forests of Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, the birds have since been transplanted into Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota. In some states like Colorado, Nebraska and South Dakota, Merriam’s gobblers have bred with Rio Grande hens. The result is a bird that doesn’t boast the snow-white fan hunters crave.
Currently, the Merriam’s population is estimated at around 335,000, and according to the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Rocky Mountains are considered the central hub for harvesting a pure Merriam’s turkey.
Nomadic opportunistic feeders, Merriam’s birds will wander to high altitudes during the spring and summer, following the receding snowline. The area just below snowline boasts the newest, freshest shoots of plant life, and bug life is present as well. It’s not uncommon for the birds to wander above 10,000 feet — an elevation to keep in mind especially as the temperatures warm and the season progresses.
During the winter months, when snow comes to the high country, birds filter down into the foothills where they will spend the winter in large flocks. Merriam’s turkeys are great travelers, and it’s not unusual for these birds to travel more than 40 miles, depending on factors such as weather, food and predation.
Merriam’s gobblers are as black as the ace of spades, with blue, purple and bronze reflections that are only distinguishable through a quality pair of optics or when gazing at a downed bird. A mature tom will typically mirror the size of a large Eastern, and arguments have been waged about which subspecies is the largest. Merriam’s toms will tip the scales between 18 and 30 pounds, but most fall in the middle part of this range. Females are naturally smaller and boast buff-tipped breast feathers that are not nearly as dark as those of the male.
The Merriam’s turkey has the weakest gobble in terms of sheer volume of the four subspecies and, due to the rocky terrain it inhabits, sports shorter, more spindly beards. Spurs are also typically much shorter due to the constant contact the birds’ feet have with rocks.
Merriam’s Ain’t Easy
If you’ve hunted turkeys for any amount of time, you’ve likely heard someone say, “Merriam’s turkeys are dumb birds. They gobble at anything and come running to calls.” The truth is that the Merriam’s birds pursued on outdoor television and YouTube videos are often being hunted on private ranches where the birds receive limited hunt pressure. Of course they’re going to be a little dumber. Don’t fall for this myth. The Merriam’s can be as crafty as any of the other three subspecies found in the U.S. Like all turkey subspecies, Merriam’s turkeys boast incredible eyesight. Also, due to the fact that these birds have large home ranges, they can be very difficult to put a pin on.
Years ago, I pedaled 10 miles into remote pinon and cedar-lined canyon in search of a public-land Merriam’s gobbler. The Colorado season was only two days away, and I wanted to get a jump on the competiton. Late that evening, my optics detected 12 different toms and a pile of hens meandering down the river toward some large cottonwoods. I put the birds to bed and quietly slipped out of the area.
Note: Don’t ever fall into the “I’m not gonna work that hard for a turkey” crowd. I’m not saying you have to mountain bike 10 miles, but if consistently killing Merriam’s birds on public or pressured private land is your goal, hard work and the willingness to go the extra mile are two prerequisites.
I returned with a good friend on opening morning. We’d left the trailhead at 2 a.m., and by the time our Double Bull blind was set in a large sage flat the birds were using as a strut zone, the glow of the eastern sun was beginning to tease the canyon to life. To my excitement, the leafless cottonwoods were filled with black blobs, and a symphony of spring-time gobbles rang out. Two hours later, my hunting partner skewered a large tom, and I skipped an arrow under the breast of a bird less than 3 yards away. Yep, I had a turkey meltdown. It happens.
We remained in the blind, letting my not-sure-what-the-heck-happened tom melt into the backdrop. Through my binos I kept tabs on the other 10 toms and hens — toms and hens that had long passed our position before the pair of lovesick two-year-olds showed up on the scene. They kept going … and going … and going. In fact, the group never stopped. I know because I’ve ridden the canyon many times and from the positon we were in, I could see at least 3 miles in their direction of travel. The meandering birds covered that distance in no time.
We hoped the mob would return that evening, but we were skeptical. We decided to set up along the river between a pair of roost sites (one being the roost the birds had used that morning). Guess what? Not one bird returned to the roost they’d used that morning (and for several days). Fortunately, a pair of boisterous gobblers — gobblers that had come from the opposite direction we watched the morning birds go — wandered into our decoy spread. At 20 yards, my arrow was true, and my hunting partner and I had pulled off a Colorado public-land double.
This story illustrates just how nomadic Merriam’s birds truly are. These turkeys had used and returned to the same roost for at least three days that I knew of. Then, for whatever reason, they decided to pitch down one morning and walk miles away and not return. Yes, I know pressure moves animals like nothing else, but we were the only ones at the trailhead that morning, and all but two of these birds had long passed our position before we launched our arrows.
Weeks later I returned to the area with another hunting buddy who’d yet to punch his tag. The turkey rut had progressed and the early-spring flocks had dissipated. We hunted hard for two days and were able to put our eyes on only two different toms.
Calling All Toms
As far as the birds being easy to call, I’ve found them no easier to bring within shotgun or bow range than any of the other three species. As with calling any bird, the period of the rut, hunting pressure, weather and the like all play a role in how responsive or unresponsive a bird will be to sexy hen talk.
What I have found to be true is that Merriam’s birds seem more willing to close large distances in an effort to seek out hen talk. Does this make them stupid? No! Due to the vastness of the landscape these birds often call home, it’s not uncommon for a walk-about tom to respond and come to a hen call that barely tickles his eardrums.
Note: Because Merriam’s longbeards will travel so far to investigate a call, I’m very patient when I commit to a ground blind set. Give your calls time to work, especially if you know birds are in the area.
When calling Merriam’s birds, I prefer, especially when trying to simply raise a gobble, to run calls that carry great distances and cut through the often-howling western wind. My favorite reach-out-and-touch-their-ears Merriam’s call is a box call. Box calls get a bad rap. I hear the following comments a lot when giving seminars: “They’re too easy to use.” “Every hunter on the planet hammers away on them.” “They don’t work on public land.” “You can’t get the exact pitch you want.” I could go on forever with the negative comments I’ve heard about box calls. Here’s my opinion about these calls: They work great to cut the western winds. There is a big difference between “hammering away on one” and “mastering one.”
On multiple occasions I’ve been able to sit behind a quality spotting scope and watch a tom 500 yards away take notice of my box call. Box calls, if mastered, can produce pitch-perfect tones. I feel this is especially true when using a true chalk-on-wood system.
Another Merriam’s eardrum-ringer is an aluminum pot-and-peg call. I’ve found aluminum pot calls carry a great distance. I’m also a fan of glass. What I love about pot-and-peg calls is that the volume and pitch can easily be adjusted by simply swapping strikers. If mastered, these calls produce, in my opinion, the best turkey tones.
Like many turkey fanatics, my go-to is a diaphragm. Through this wonderful industry I’ve been blessed to hunt with a pair of NWTF Grand National Calling Champions — Billy Yargus and Josh Grossenbacher — and I learned a lot from these wonderful gentlemen. Josh’s Zink Signature Series calls and Billy’s M.A.D. Yargus-branded calls are some of the best I’ve ever used. The key to any diaphragm, regardless of which one you choose, is practice, practice and more practice.
Note: I’m generally not a big fan of the diaphragm call directions provided on the package. If you’re looking for proper instruction on how to become a mouth-call master, check out Flambeau Outdoors Presents Billy Yargus & Matt Van Cise Calling Tips on YouTube.
Another thing I’ve found to be true when chasing the white-tipped Merriam’s is the deeper you go, the better your experience will be. Let me elaborate. The West is big, right? Most public land and national forest areas are measured in square miles rather than acres. You can get away from the crowds, especially since many turkey hunters abide by the “I’m not going to work that hard for a turkey” attitude. How do I know? I experience great backcountry success season after season. In fact, a few years back, I startled a couple of gentleman sleeping in their tents at a particular Colorado trailhead. The area is known for a robust Merriam’s population and thus draws the attention of throngs of hunters.
It was 3 a.m. when I heard them rustling in their tent. I was loading down my pack and preparing for the long walk in. Seconds before I started down the trail the duo emerged. The first asked me, in a joking manner, “What are you gonna do, shoot one out of the roost?” His partner laughed. I simply smiled and told them the exact name of the canyon I was planning to get to. The jokester looked me dead in the eye and said, “If that’s what I have to do to kill a turkey, I don’t want to kill one. That’s a miserable hike. And if you do kill one, you have to pack it back out.” I didn’t respond. I simply shook their hands and went on my way.
Three hours later I found myself not knowing which direction to go. Birds were gobbling like mad to my north, south, east and west. It was insane, the type of morning you dream about. Since I wasn’t toting a blind, I decided to stay put and hollow out the bottom of a big cedar. The blind was ready in minutes, and I placed my decoys. The entire time, of course, birds were gobbling like mad.
Note: When it comes to decoy choice, I’m a big believer in purchasing the best quality you can afford. For me, that’s Dave Smith Decoys. However, toting a trio of DSDs (I like to use a jake, laydown hen and a feeding hen) into remote country is difficult. When going deep I prefer a quality-looking, durable, inflatable-style decoy like those from Avian-X. My get-off-the-beaten-path choices are the LCD Laydown Hen and the LCD Jake Quarter Strut. If I’m planning to run-and-gun, I’m a fan of the Heads Up Decoy Strutting Turkey. This decoy can be mounted to your bow or placed in the ground on the provided stake.
I grabbed my slate and let out a few soft yelps. The birds thundered back. I matched their intensity and started to yelp and cut. Each time I cut, the birds only gobbled harder, their booming voices reverberating off the canyon walls. It wasn’t a matter of if birds were going to come, it was a matter of what direction they were going to come from first and how many would arrive.
It was the birds to the west that scrambled into view first —three toms followed by a gaggle of jakes. The birds were so entranced with the decoys and with each other that they never saw me draw my bow. I picked out the biggest tom in the bunch and splashed a Rage-powered Easton through his lungs.
After removing the innards and strapping the bird to my pack, I started the long march back to my Chevy. On the way, I passed 14 other hunters, all toting shotguns. I spoke to several, and it seemed that the success rates closer to the trailhead were dismal at best.
When I arrived back at my truck the gentlemen I visited with earlier that morning were cooking up lunch. “It’s a damn madhouse down there,” said the vocal one. “This is just ridiculous. Guys were running birds off the roost. I mean, it wasn’t even safe.”
They hadn’t noticed the bird strapped to my pack, but when they did, that’s when things really got interesting. The quiet one said, “Wow, what a beautiful bird. That is just awesome. If I can have a chance at a bird like that and stay away from this many people, I’m willing to go.” His partner snorted at him, but he followed me to my truck and I showed him my exact locale on the map. I’m not sure if he every ventured into that canyon or not, but I like to think he did.
When it comes to western birds on public land, don’t be afraid to burn some boot leather. Separate yourself from the masses and find those pockets of hidden birds — birds that are often more than willing to come to hen talk and a quality decoy spread.