Turkeys are turkeys
At least, to an extent, and I've hunted countless Merriam, Eastern, Rio, and a few Osceola. Each is unique and offers challenges in its discriminate way.
Success in the turkey woods will always be about having a good foundation in the basics, knowing your tools, and understanding turkey behavior. Western turkey guys, in my opinion, are at a disadvantage of hunting culture, and I hope I can try to provide a little more clarity of the misconceptions made by hunters out here.
Most of our knowledge comes from the east because of the availability of chasing the eastern birds. So by default, most of the content is about those turkeys and not the western versions.
There are 6 million turkey hunters, and the west is a tiny percentage of the tags sold. As a result, we don't get the volume of encounters to dial in our skill sets, and we hunt vast swaths of public land compared to the eastern world. In contrast, the east consists of tiny plots of property. Even 10,000 acres back east would be considered huge by eastern standards, but for us, out west, we can smoke through 10,000 acres in a day looking for birds.
Turkey hunting is a true art back east, and it's in the skill of calling, learning patience, and knowing their area and tactics. Unfortunately, making it art is one area western guys lack.
There are seven primary turkey vocalizations, and every guy should know how to use them. It matters knowing what to say and how to say it, OR more importantly, what NOT to say. It's a small gap between a cluck and an alarm putt, the main difference being the volume.
Knowing the difference between saying "everything is all good" to "hey, maybe we need to haul ass" is of value to hunters.
Basic turkey sounds:
- Basic yelping
- Tree yelping
- Fly down cackles
- Kee Kee runs
- Alarm putt (not recommended)
- Fighting purrs
Knowing these and how to combine them is a critical component of turkey hunting.
Look them up.
Study, listen, and listen some more.
Then do your best to practice them. There's so much on Youtube nowadays that there's no excuse not to know them. The NWTF world-calling competition is a good one to look up to start with. The NWTF website, Turkey Call magazine, and Turkey Hunter offer incredible amounts of knowledge.
To shoot a turkey, you have to find one first, and out west, I think being successful is more about finding them. Locating birds covers two topics, general hangouts and shock calls.
First, you need to be where they are, it seems simple, but it's not always. Since this has a western theme, it starts by knowing where the turkeys winter, usually at the mouth of canyons at lower elevation out of the winter snow, and then they feed up those same drainages in the springtime.
I often first find turkeys at ranches feeding with the livestock in January. Or, in the fall, where you find turkeys, you can bet in the spring they are headed back in that general direction. They stay close to the snow lines. Feeding on the soft, tender shoots of grass coming up that's high in protein and the acorn crop from the prior year. Focus on the southern face of the slopes where the snow first melts. Using snowshoes and ATV snow tracks is not uncommon, and access is critical to finding birds.
Most birds we kill are in and at the snow line, but some birds will stay low in their winter grounds. I consider these resident birds, but most you'll find move upcountry.
Western birds like to travel.
I talked to DOW employees here who have had turkeys walk from Colorado to Utah in a few months. Like their Eastern brethren, they will use the same roost trees and nesting areas, but it'll cover a much, much larger area. Every place will have little nuances, I found myself in the middle of nowhere in Nevada once finding more antelope than turkeys, but by the end of the hunt, we found the turkeys there were roosting of all places on power lines in a desert and hung out with cattle (I heard two gobbles and called in 3 hens in 50 mph winds in a week of hunting and came home empty-handed, lol).
Shock calling has some crossover, but I'll add a few things we use out west. First, get in the habit of going here before your turkey call of choice, giving yourself a better chance to prepare. It helps, if you can, to find them and get set up before hitting a turkey call. IF, and when you pull out your box call while trying to locate a bird, make SURE you have a tree picked out to set up by. Better yet, be next to one, to begin with. I've screwed up here more than once by having turkeys run at me or being right on top of them.
- Crow calls
- Owl hooter (little more eastern related).
- Coyote howlers (no, I'm not worried about it scaring them, they hear them every day and every night. I don't think they care).
- Cow elk calls (loud as you can).
Learn more about the turkey that you intend to murder.
So I'll cite two examples that I see ALL the time that are critical mistakes, and it's simply not knowing the biology. I'm not asking you to go to college, but take a few minutes to look at the NWTF website on turkey behavior and get some basic information.
The first mistake I see is guys only hunting birds off morning roost times and coming out of the woods too early at 10:00 in the morning. I secretly love you guys for this because you are leaving me more turkeys to shoot. The deal here getting missed is this, hens are in a breeding mode, which means the morning activities by and large revolve around mating, then around 10-11 a.m., the hens start the process of nest building and leave the Toms alone to search out more hens to watch Netflix and chill.
I kill most of my turkeys between 10:00 and 2:00, not off the roost. So the bird that walked off ignoring your efforts earlier will often work for you later in the day.
Another little nugget of info is if you can watch birds go to roost and see where they fly up from, you'll find that they will fly down in the same spot the following morning. So you could theoretically set up the next day under cover of darkness and have your turkey in the morning. If you do a little digging, there are many of these little tidbits out there. A little book, "Tom Foolery 2000," by Earl Groves, has many short stories teaching lots of little pointers that I recommend. I met Earl years ago at a turkey hunting school we hosted at Vermejo Park Ranch. Earl, I found, was soft spoken, quiet, and unassuming but a real master assassin of turkeys.
Another mistake I see first-hand is your gun.
Make sure to pattern it out to 50 yards and with different loads, and then make sure it has a good camo job on it and isn't shiny. I see first hand time and time again guys screw in a fancy 100.00 choke and don't pattern it, resulting in missed birds.
The camo gig is a real issue also.
Turkey see significantly better than we do. Cover every inch of yourself and your gun. They see 270-300 degrees and have 3X better vision than a person with 20/20. It's like hunting a beady-eyed periscope with 8x10 binoculars attached to their head. If you see them, they can dang well see you.
Decoying birds is a common topic. So here's my take on it. I've had success with decoys, minus the exceptions of the Merriam's bird. Merriam's don't seem to be near as aggressive as the other three species. However, I have seen the exception in New Mexico, where decoys worked well in large flock numbers like 100-200. But, at home in Colorado, where the numbers are much smaller in almost every hunting instance, they tend to shy away from decoys. So I don't carry one often.
Dress for it.
Preparing for the worst and hoping for the best is my motto. Mornings in early April are often below 20 degrees, layer up, keep some quality down, and waterproof gear. I live in a base layer of a merino 250 zip-off bottom paired with King's Camo lone peak pants and gaiters that seems pretty bombproof for early spring with the extra side vent they offer.
With a down top and rain jacket, I can go through almost any condition the spring has to offer with layering. Conditions swing wildly in April from full sun to blizzards, so good gear is a serious part of not dying in the west as far in as we go hunting turkeys.
Gearing up and weathering out a short April blizzard makes a difference as the turkeys always seem to fire up as soon as it blows through.
More hunters are accidentally shot turkey hunting than in any other season. That said should be enough, but every year, I hear of near misses and the death of hunters. Don't wear visible turkey head colors. Red, Blue, White, Black.
If you see another hunter get their attention, so they know you are there. Know what you are aiming at! No one cares if you kill a turkey so much that you make bad decisions. It happens far more than it should. We recently had a kid shot in the chest who died because the t-shirt logo colors were similar to a turkey's head. I also remember as a kid when a gentleman was shot in the face while smoking a cigarette. The white of the cigarette was mistaken for the white on a turkey's head.
Just saying, folks, pay attention.
Calls to me are prized instruments that play a consonance of wildness, that to many like myself are magic.
Speaking something in turkey and getting an answer back is an enriching connection to the hunt. One that I'm keenly aware of and appreciate.
Great calls are coveted by avid turkey hunters and often become worth passing down to their children. I have my eyes set on my father's poplar box with a heart pine lid that is his favorite, calling in many a turkey. I'll cherish it one day for the sounds it makes as much as his fondness for it.
Although I make calls myself, I have a deep collection and can't walk away from a good call no matter who makes it. I appreciate them and respect them all.
At this point, calls have developed into three categories:
- Introductory and entry-level calls bought by the guy that has never hunted much from places like Walmart that cost less than $20.
- Then we have midline stuff that runs anywhere from $20 - $50 on average.
- Serious hunters, though, don't bat an eye for custom-built diaphragms that cost more or box calls in the $80 - $100 range.
You get what you pay for, so keep that in mind as you start out making those choices. However, I'd at least go midline here because there is a significant difference in quality from a Wally world call or one found at an actual hunting store. I don't care if you buy my brand or not. Just get something good.
Much success to you this year,
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