Bowhunting Merriam’s Turkeys

Itching to bowhunt gobblers with stunning, white-tipped fans? Here’s what you need to know when planning a trip for Merriam’s turkeys.

Bowhunting Merriam’s Turkeys

My wife and I arrived at a small public parcel right when roosted gobblers should’ve begun sounding off, but the silence was deafening. I noticed some strutting marks where a gobbler had recently dragged his wing tips across the dirt road near the parking area, so we listened a while longer. Not a peep.

We jumped back into our Jeep and began driving when we noticed another occupied vehicle parked alongside the dirt road about a half-mile from the public ground. It was my brother and one of his friends. I pulled up next to them and dropped a window. Before a word was exchanged, gobbling met our ears. A tom was a few hundred yards out near a prairie farmstead.

“I bet he heads for the public where you saw the strut marks,” my brother, who’d been hunting Merriam’s for 4 years, predicted. I initially thought he was just trying to keep me optimistic, but they no more than drove away when the tom crested an open ridge above the farmstead that runs clear to the public. The lone bird was gobbling hard and beelining north, just as my brother had forecasted.

Our Jeep was immediately kicking up dust. Once I parked, we hustled 75 yards off the road carrying our blind, chairs and decoys before positioning the decoys in a clearing amidst junipers. We deployed the blind about 6 yards away and hopped in.

With our hearts still racing from the tactical operation, I was floored when the gobbler answered my first call from only 150 yards away. I called some more, and minutes later he walked within 1 yard of our blind en route to the decoys. When he spun and faced us in full strut, I shot his neck. That first successful Merriam’s hunt taught me that the subspecies can be extremely nomadic, and I’ve remembered it since.

That isn’t the only thing Merriam’s have taught me during the past 9 years of chasing them. So, if you’re itching to bowhunt them, pocket the following insights before you make Merriam’s country your spring destination.

The author scored permission to hunt in this private horse pasture. In it, he scored on his biggest and prettiest archery Merriam’s gobbler.
The author scored permission to hunt in this private horse pasture. In it, he scored on his biggest and prettiest archery Merriam’s gobbler.

Characteristics, Range and Tendencies   

It’s a misconception that once you hit Nebraska and South Dakota, all turkeys from there to the West Coast are Merriam’s. While there are loads of Merriam’s within these parameters, the NWTF’s subspecies-distribution map denotes that Merriam’s turkeys occur within pockets of western and southwestern states. It’s important to note that some states with Merriam’s turkeys also have populations of Hybrid, Eastern and Rio Grande turkeys. Washington, for example, has pockets of Merriam’s, but also pockets of Eastern and Rio Grande turkeys. So, if you’re after a true Merriam’s, study the NWTF’s map to settle on a destination.

Merriam’s gobblers are typically similar in body size to Easterns. My largest weighed more than 24 pounds, but most are around 20 pounds, give or take. Beards tend to run shorter than those of Easterns — ropes measuring 6-8 inches are about average. Spurs tend to run shorter, too. Their gobbles are remarkably similar to domestic farm turkeys — high-pitched with nowhere near the thunder of Eastern toms. Of course, a Merriam’s gobbler’s most distinguishing feature is his exquisite white-tipped fan.

During winter and early spring, snow concentrates Merriam’s flocks to cattle ranches, feedlots and farms. As the spring thaw exposes ground, their daily movements expand, although feedlots where they aren’t being pressured continue to be a season-long food source for birds that come and go.

Now, while almost nothing beats the view of several hundred Merriam’s turkeys in a single flock — common during late March and early April — hunting such a large flock can be challenging. This is especially true if you don’t have time to pattern them and you set up outside of the flock’s daily routine. Calling and decoying to hundreds of birds can be frustratingly ineffective. If you’ll be hunting early, plan on killing 1 or 2 hunting days and just observe. Try to pin down a pattern and then set up along it. Then, a curious or aggressive tom — or 10 of them — is more likely to visit your decoys.

In the bigger hills and mountains, scratch marks often denote a feeding area.
In the bigger hills and mountains, scratch marks often denote a feeding area.

Find the Habitat, Find the Birds

Coming from Wisconsin where agriculture and timber abound, my first trip to Merriam’s country really surprised me. You have to be careful not to drive right by prime Merriam’s haunts. One small public parcel where I’ve killed two big gobblers has minimal cottonwood trees surrounded by a slough and prairies. I’m sure many hunters don’t look at it twice. Merriam’s don’t require many trees, so don’t overlook parcels with minimal tree cover.

To get started with planning a Merriam’s hunt, spend a generous amount of time perusing public land hunting opportunities on a mapping app such as HuntStand Pro. Roosting trees are number one, and I also look for water sources, especially riparian habitat. Public lands that adjoin large private ranches — especially with agriculture or cattle feeding operations — can be very productive, as birds often move back and forth between the two. HuntStand’s Crop History layer denotes agriculture and what crop was planted the previous year, which can be valuable info.

On arrival to hunt, a spotting scope and 10x42mm bino save a lot of legwork. But, use your boots to cover areas not visible from roads. Remember, Merriam’s are roamers, so you can’t always rely on seeing them from roads. Sometimes you have to hike to find clues such as feathers and droppings beneath large trees (roosting areas) and scratch marks galore (feeding areas). Where legal, an e-bike can help you sort through ground more efficiently.

Moving up out of the prairies and into the pine-timbered hills and mountains, these birds are often more difficult to find because they inhabit big country. I see a couple of ways to get started. First, map out residential areas that adjoin larger Forest Service or BLM chunks. Birds tend to hang out where bird feeder leftovers are a daily cuisine, and once they raid the neighborhood, they often spend the daytime foraging the forest on south-facing slopes on colder days or north-facing slopes when it’s hot.

Another way to find birds is to identify tough-to-reach ridges and meadows far from population centers with minimal road access on the HuntStand app. Plan to hike, call and glass a lot, but know that you’ll often have the advantage of the terrain to move in tight after you locate birds. Some prairie habitat is too open for this.

While I always point toward Merriam’s country with ample public hunting lands — both large and small tracts — in mind, I stay flexible and watch for birds on private lands. Many ranchers/landowners view turkeys as nuisances and happily allow respectable hunters to pursue them. I’ve gained access to a few different spots this way and filled tags. If your public land spots aren’t producing, straighten up your shirt collar and knock on some doors.


Passive, Aggressive or Some of Both?

Setups and tactics vary just a bit based on timing and terrain. If I’m hunting early in the spring in prairie habitat, I typically try to peg some spots where a stationary blind will be effective on large flocks. This is usually near a roosting area so I can be on birds immediately at dawn. If possible, placing your ground blind during midday when birds are gone reduces commotion when you return to hunt the following morning. I usually settle on a location where my decoys are most visible from the roost trees, or where I’ve observed birds traveling while scouting.

If I have nothing cooking a few hours into a morning hunt and no birds are around me, I’ll use terrain and cover to move around and find a responsive tom. I want to be as mobile as possible and able to set up in less than a minute, so I forget the pop-up blind and rely on my camo, decoy(s) and natural cover.

Later in the season when birds are more dispersed, I hunt almost entirely mobile. If I can move around and find a tom — especially late in the morning — he’s usually very responsive to calling at this point in the season. Once during a late-May South Dakota hunt, I called a tom and jake in from 1,000 yards (distance confirmed via rangefinder) using a loud box call. Most hens were nesting, and these two guys were scoping the prairies for hens. I rushed my bow shot and shaved off feathers, but the hunt illustrates how effective running and gunning for late-season Merriam’s can be.

In the hills and mountains, your approach can be adjusted to the setting. If you’re hunting where a residential neighborhood adjoins a large section of forest lands, a stationary blind can be effective in catching birds as they come and go. But, in more remote areas, consider leaving the blind behind and carry just one decoy so you can cover lots of ground.


Good Footwear and Fitness

Because Merriam’s turkeys inhabit big country where miles of daily hiking is normal, it’s imperative to wear supportive yet lightweight boots with positive traction. Cactuses are common, so rugged leather construction is best. I’ve had great success with Danner boots such as the Pronghorn. LaCrosse’s Lodestar is another personal favorite.

Outfitted hunts on ranches with resident birds often require minimal effort. But, when you’re making your own luck on public lands, success usually comes at a physical expense. I consider regular cardio training the bare minimum to be an effective run-and-gun Merriam’s hunter. Don’t want to be huffing and puffing or sore at the end of day 1? Get fit!

The author’s 2021 Nebraska tom sported a longer-than-average beard and spurs, a stunningly white fan and weighed a whopping 24-plus pounds.
The author’s 2021 Nebraska tom sported a longer-than-average beard and spurs, a stunningly white fan and weighed a whopping 24-plus pounds.

The Grand Finale

Why don’t I finish with another success story to stoke your fire for your upcoming hunt? On Nebraska’s 2021 bow-only opener, I bowhunted a horse pasture where I’d gained permission. That morning, only jakes were around, so I hooked up with some family members and spent the rest of the day looking for antlers.

The following morning I was back, knowing that toms often pass through. I arrived at the horse pasture a little bit late. As I was setting up, I heard a turkey “putting” from the roost at the pasture’s edge. I continued setting up, hoping the roosted bird would mistake me for a horse in the inky pre-dawn lighting.

From my blind, I spied the roosted bird. It was a tom. He calmed down and started gobbling. Then, another gobbler boomed from a ravine just beneath the pasture. His gobbles thundered in comparison. He sounded like an Eastern. I gave just a few tree yelps, then went silent. The unseen gobbler soon flew down and materialized about 50-60 yards away. Instantly, he locked onto my jake decoy, spitting and drumming the entire way in. I drew my bow just before he appeared in my blind window, and when he was broadside next to the decoy, I squeezed slowly until the shot broke.

The arrowed bird fluttered about 20 yards away before succumbing to his deflated lungs. It was all over in seconds. His primary and secondary tail feathers practically looked like they’d been dipped in white paint. He was absolutely gorgeous — easily the prettiest gobbler I’ve ever harvested. And at just over 24 pounds, he was a real thumper!

I hope that my success anecdotes have stoked your fire, and that you’ll apply some or all of the points I’ve outlined. They’ve served me very well when I’ve made my destination Merriam’s country, and I believe you’ll find them useful, too.


Sidebar: Ways to Save

With fuel and lodging prices up — and everything else for that matter — maybe a Merriam’s trip is too big a pill to swallow. But, have you thought about creative ways to afford it? Here are some ideas.

  1. Buddy Up: Invite a buddy or two and split fuel, lodging and groceries.
  2. Drive a Car: If you have one, a fuel-efficient vehicle can make the trip more affordable as compared to a truck. But, remember that four-wheel drive is nice to have if rains make dirt roads greasy. If your destination involves dirt roads, it’s smarter to play it safe with a 4x4.
  3. Tent It: From mid-April through the end of May, weather is typically conducive to camping. Rather than pay for a motel, spend a few nights under the stars on Forest Service or BLM lands for free.
  4. Eat Sandwiches: Nothing satisfies like a hot meal after long prairie or mountain hikes, but living on sandwiches during your turkey hunt cuts costs.
The author prefers a short bow such as this Mathews V3 27 for hunting from blinds. He uses a stout arrow with a large Rage broadhead. He also prefers a box call with far-reaching volume.
The author prefers a short bow such as this Mathews V3 27 for hunting from blinds. He uses a stout arrow with a large Rage broadhead. He also prefers a box call with far-reaching volume.

Sidebar: Merriam’s Bow Rig

The same bow setup you carry for whitetails will work well on turkeys. I shot my most recent Merriam’s with a Mathews V3 27, but the company’s new Phase4 29 is a great replacement. It balances well, has incredible stability, and is deadly quiet and accurate. It maneuvers well inside my Primos SurroundView blind. On the hunt, I shot an Easton 6.5mm Acu-Carbon 340 arrow tipped with a Rage Hypodermic NC 100-grain broadhead.

Photos by Becca and Darron McDougal


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