Seconds after my box call cut through the Montana wind, I heard the faint yet distinct answer of a Merriam’s tom across the valley. As I closed the distance, I wondered if the setup would mature. He was a long way out and, to top it off, I felt certain he was in the company of hens.
Thirty minutes after I set up, he strolled onto the valley floor. At that point I knew he’d seen the decoys and was committed. As if on cue, the big tom strutted into the decoy set and presented me with a perfect 17-yard shot.
Some avid hunters have labeled the Merriam’s turkey as the easy bird to hunt. Having spent years chasing Eastern turkeys from my boyhood home in Virginia, I’d have to disagree. The same elements that produce tried and true success on other turkey subspecies have to be applied to the pursuit of these white-tipped feathered strutters of the West. Scouting, setup and calling all play heavily into the ultimate success on mature toms.
The harsh climate these birds inhabit causes them to flock up heavily during the winter and then disperse at the first hint of spring. The timing of spring’s arrival can make scouting extremely difficult. Areas where you found large flocks two weeks before the season opener may not produce a singe gobble on opening day. These turkeys have been known to travel miles from their winter habitat to their spring breeding and nesting areas.
Terrain also plays a part in scouting. A large portion of the Merriam’s home range is the mountainous country of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Montana. Other areas, in the Dakotas, Nebraska and parts of Wyoming, consist of flat, broken tracts. When scouting these locations I look for roosting and feeding areas as well as water sources.
To narrow down key locations, I start by targeting cattle feed lots, calving lots and newly green pastures of ranches and farms in the area. Those steaming piles that are a nuisance to clean off our boots become a turkey’s delight once they’ve dried. While scouting last spring, I watched a flock of 12 jakes and gobblers walk in to a calving barn and not exit until they’d had their fill. Knowing this piece of the puzzle allowed me to formulate a plan for the turkey I mentioned at the beginning of this article.
Dependable setups evolve by being in locations where turkeys are or where they’re going to be. Last spring, my hunting partner and I arrived at a landowner’s house just as birds were beginning to gobble on the roost. By the time we’d checked in, gotten our gear and crossed a wide, irrigated alfalfa field, the birds were already on the ground. We tried our best to coax one of the big toms away from his lady friends but they paid us no mind. Armed with the knowledge of their roosting location, I eased back in the following evening. For the first hour I didn’t see or hear a bird. But as the sun slipped low on the horizon, a pair of hens filtered into the area and began feeding in and around my decoys while calling to each other. When a gobbler blasted out from directly behind my blind I nearly fell off my seat. As he strutted by he paused between my decoys, allowing me to make a heart-stopping, four-yard shot.
For decoys, I like to use a strutting tom and a hen in my setup. I position them six to eight yards in front of my blind, facing the open shooting window.
To pull birds in to 10 yards or less, decoys must be realistic. They should have real feathers and glass eyes. I’ve taken a Primos B-Mobal and made some deadly modifications. First, I took real tail feathers and placed them in the fan holder that came with the decoy. Then I purchased a taxidermy gobbler head and mounted it on the decoy. The end result is an extremely lifelike decoy that’s easy to transport. I took a different approach for the hen. I purchased taxidermy eyes and carefully carved out the plastic ones. Then I put in the glass eyes and filled the head with expanding foam to hold them in place. For feathers I used the Turkey Skinz from Cabela’s. This lifelike full-body covering adds an unbelievable 3-dimensional look that fools birds every time.
We arrived on a bluff overlooking a two-mile stretch of Montana river bottom just as a tom far off to the east set off an echo of gobbles all the way down the river. We wore ear-to-ear grins as we headed to the closest birds. They were roosted in a big cottonwood, silhouetted against the early dawn sky. Soon after we set up, they hit the ground and went quiet. My hunting partner and I decided to tag team our calling. He started out with soft yelps on a diaphragm and I answered back with my own series of soft yelps on a friction call. Immediately we got a one-gobble response and two mature toms came running in to the decoys. At six yards the birds went into full strut and offered up my second point-blank shot of the season.
Communicating effectively with wild turkeys is critical for success. Whether you choose diaphragm, friction or box call depends on personal preference and what your hunting situation dictates. In my home state of Montana we get our fair share of wind and often have to cover large tracts to locate birds. In those conditions, the box call is my call of choice because of its ability to cut through the wind and carry the sweet yelps of a hen over great distances. On calm days or for close-range calling, I prefer friction calls because of their realistic sound and extensive calling versatility. No matter which you choose, the key is to master calling with realism and confidence. Practicing with a CD that contains real wild turkey calls will ingrain realistic-sounding calls into your memory. Mastering wild turkey vocalizations such as plain, excited and short yelping, as well as fly-down cackles, hen cutting and gobbler/hen interactions, gives you confidence when luring a mature tom.
This past season, my hunting partner, David Holder, and I located a flock of Merriam’s in the broken country of eastern Montana. Previous scouting told us these birds would work back over a saddle late in the day to roost in a timbered draw. The wind howled as we staked down our blind and secured the decoys. After we were anchored in, I cut the wind with my box call. An hour later the first of a dozen hens appeared in the saddle, with three mature gobblers bringing up the rear. As the hens fed past the decoys, David’s soft calls enticed one of the toms to break from the flock. Unnerved by his sudden departure, the other two toms came running. At eight yards both birds went in to a full strut, giving David the perfect chip shot. The successful result was the culmination of thorough scouting, a well-placed setup and realistic calling. Following the same guidelines can put you on your way to that easy tom you’ve always dreamed of.– Kirk Clark