As I alluded to in part one of this article last week, here in the East Kootenay we have the Merriam’s turkey, one of about 12 different species of wild turkeys in North America.
The Merriam’s got kickstarted in the Creston Valley around 35 years ago when a few nomads made their way into B.C. from Northern Idaho. In 1989, Creston had enough turkeys to allow an LEH season and 30 permits were issued for toms only.
Then 25 years ago, some birds were transplanted from Creston to the East Kootenay and the rest is history, as the saying goes.
The Merriam’s turkey is a very challenging and sporting bird to hunt, and the mating ritual begins in late February or early March in most areas, and by the time the spring hunting season rolls around in the middle of April, they are already going strong. The toms puff their feathers and strut around, gobbling loudly in an effort to attract prospective mates. What really adds to the excitement of hunting them is the ability to call them into close range. At this time of year gobblers can be enticed to betray their location by using crow, owl, hawk, coyote, or another gobbler call. Once their location is pinpointed you can close the gap and begin some seductive hen calling. One of the mistakes that hunters sometimes make is attempting to get too close to a Merriam’s gobbler. Merriam’s don’t seem to mind travelling long distances to come to a call, whereas other species can be more reluctant.
After countless errors on my part, I have now formulated a rule of thumb. If the turkey appears to be moving forward and consistently changing his calling location I stay put.
Merriam’s turkeys have absolutely incredible eyesight and just one mistake of moving unnecessarily can end the hunt immediately. However, if after a period of calling and getting responses, if the gobbler appears to be staying in a fixed location then I will try and close the gap between us. It is here that it gets risky, because the less distance you have to travel to set up again the better it is, especially if you are using decoys as part of your calling strategy. That means more movement on the hunter’s part, but if a turkey is not moving it is sometimes worth the gamble.
This past spring I did about five or six days of scouting before the season began and I had located two different flocks in separate areas.
I decided on the closer of the two for the first day of the hunt, so opening morning I was already making my way in the dark to a spot where I could try some ‘locator’ calling.
The morning was cool and clear and I was about to take my pack off when I heard what I thought was a gobble a few hundred yards away. I knelt down and waited for about 2-3 minutes and it was then that I heard not one gobble, but two back to back. In the pre-dawn I closed the distance to what was probably a couple of hundred yards. I was not worried about being seen, as it was just dark enough to warrant almost unlimited movement on my part.
At this point, I laid my pack down behind a tree and fumbled for my calls. As I did, I heard several gobbles and I knew the turkey(s) were in a roosting site in the big pines. The terrain they were in would make for very tough pursuit so I knew instinctively that I had no choice but to be patient and see how the situation played out.
When daylight finally had won the battle over darkness I was kneeling inside the branches at the base of a big fir tree and I began calling on my box call. This type of friction call is great for long distances because it has ample volume as opposed to the traditional mouth call. I was fairly aggressive with my calling and received the reward of responses every single time. However, I was somewhat confused at the location of the closest gobbler. I realized quickly after successive answers that there were at least 3 toms answering my calls and they appeared to be moving around. I scoured the dark pines with my binoculars for any sign of movement and then finally away off to my left I saw a turkey make a quick left turn and head into a depression in the landscape. I scratched on my call again with all the volume I could muster, and there was a barrage of gobbles in response coming from an area not more than 75 yards away. I shouldered my ancient single shot 16-gauge shotgun, in anticipation of the birds coming into view.
“Be patient, sit tight, sit tight,” I kept muttering to myself.
A few minutes passed by and frankly the silence was deafening. I thought for a moment I had blown this set-up somehow, so out of desperation I cranked on my gobbler call followed by three or four soft yelps on the box call. The woods lit up again with gobbling toms and they were closer now, so I cocked my gun and not a moment too soon. What a sight to behold…several toms crested a small hill, one after the other and began to make their way towards me.
One gobbler would sound off and another would follow and blow up to display his wonderfully coloured plumage. I was enjoying it immensely but remembered why I was there. I chose the bird that offered me the best clean shot and my Remington roared, and the bird dropped like a stone, while the others scattered quickly.
There is no doubt about it, hunting the wild Merriam›s turkey can be frustrating at times, but when everything comes together as it did for me on opening day, it can be very rewarding, and it’s safe to say addicting, in a good way. The silence, the waiting, the morning chill, and the spine tingling call of a big tom in the distance. It’s what makes the sport of turkey hunting so special. Then there’s the very satisfying feeling of walking out of the woods with a nice tom on your back just as the sun peaks it’s head over the mountains. Priceless!
F.J. Hurtak is the author of the books, Elk Hunting in the Kootenays and Hunting the Antlered Big Game of the Kootenays available at selected retail outlets in B.C. and Alberta. All profits go to acquire land for wildlife.