Thirty Years of Merriams

SOMETHING HAS TO JUSTIFY the alarm clock’s rude blare, and here on the high plains, the simple pleasure of being in the spring woods before dawn matters at least as much as killing a turkey. Our winters are long and demanding, and in contrast to the winterkilled mule deer I just stumbled over in the dark, I am now officially one of this year’s survivors. The wind is dead calm this morning, allowing auditory contact from the rest of the spring celebrants: chattering robins, courting snipe, migrating geese, and sandhill cranes issuing loud, raucous cries from the valley below. If I were a birder — and I am — this would be enough, but I always find that I observe birds more intently when I’m armed.

As I lean against a pine tree in the dark absorbing this great chorus of avian chatter, I’m waiting patiently for one defining sound to arise above all the rest. The particular birds I’m after can cover a lot of terrain at this time of year, but I know the country and its inhabitants. I know how the turkeys love to roost in the towering ponderosas that line the rim of the rocky amphitheater, and suddenly one confirms my confidence with the first gobble of the spring.

When the tom leaves his perch, he’ll likely glide downhill into the clearing between us. If he’s by himself I should be able to call him in, an opportunity whose outcome will be determined by some combination of luck and skill. If he has hens with him, however, I’ll be in for a long morning. At least it will be a long morning in a beautiful place.

Taking advantage of the last few minutes of sheltering darkness, I close the gap between us as much as I dare, establish a makeshift blind at the base of a fallen pine, and deploy two decoys. My soft tree yelp produces an immediate, thunderous reply; he now knows my location just as I know his.

There is nothing left to do but wait.

More than three decades have passed since I killed the first wild gobbler I ever saw. After fishing the Bighorn River in late April, two friends and I decided to leave the stream behind and hunt turkeys in the nearby Custer National Forest. We had no idea what we were doing. Montana’s wild turkey population was just beginning to expand back then, and the birds were still scattered in isolated populations. I’d never been anywhere with an open turkey season in progress.

Credit goes to beginner’s luck. We parked our truck on a back road chosen at random and set off mid-afternoon in three different directions. After an hour’s hike to the top of a ridge, I sat down beneath a pine to consider strategy. I didn’t even own a turkey call. Ten minutes later, a flock of turkeys walked over the ridge and passed by 20 yards away. I trained my shotgun on the reddest head I could see and slapped the trigger. My biggest concern as I raced toward the flapping bird was confirmation that it was a gobbler. It was — a big one, as I can appreciate in retrospect — and as I walked back down the hill with the bird slung over my shoulder I concluded that there wasn’t much to turkey hunting after all. I was wrong of course, but it took another season or two to prove it.

My naiveté toward turkeys at age 25, despite a lifetime outdoors, reflects one of the greatest comeback success stories in wildlife biology. I started hunting as a kid in upstate New York when there wasn’t a wild turkey in the woods. The county I grew up in is now the state’s leading wild turkey producer. There were no turkey seasons in Washington when I moved to the Pacific Northwest as a teenager. Now Washington is one of the few states in which it’s possible to take three of the five wild turkey subspecies. The birds seemed to be following me wherever I went, so I suppose that unlikely meeting in Powder River County had only been a matter of time.

Turkeys were not native to Montana. Today, I can see the site of the state’s first wild turkey release from my kitchen window. Why weren’t they here when Lewis and Clark passed through, and what has happened since to make these hills suitable turkey habitat? Originally, the birds simply couldn’t survive the winters at this latitude and elevation. Now they manage by wintering in feedlots right along with the livestock. Cold, wet weather during the spring hatch rather than severe winters acts as the primary environmental check on Montana turkey numbers nowadays.

My personal relationship with Merriam turkeys changed qualitatively 20 years ago when I decided to limit myself to traditional bows and arrows while hunting them, a choice I’d previously made regarding big game. This decision reflects nothing derogatory toward firearms. I’d just learned a lot about turkeys since that first blundering, dumb luck effort, and it had become a rare opening weekend when I couldn’t fill my one spring turkey tag using a shotgun. I loved being in the woods during the spring and turkey hunting provided just the excuse I needed to be there. My increasing skill level and knowledge of the quarry was getting me out of the field sooner just as I wanted my turkey season to last longer.

The switch to the bow and arrow took care of that. I’ve hunted large, wary, and dangerous game all over the world with my longbow without finding anything that poses greater challenge to the hunting archer than the gobblers in my backyard. Usually, the bowhunter’s greatest challenge is getting close enough to the quarry for a shot. Close isn’t all that hard with turkeys once you’ve learned the birds and mastered a few basic calls. But thanks to the wild turkey’s remarkable vision, drawing the bow to close the deal is another matter. My choice of hunting equipment has provided plenty of opportunity to spend time with wild turkeys, with the advantage usually going to the bird.

Named in 1900 by Dr. E. W. Nelson in honor of C. Hart Merriam, the first chief of the U. S. Biological Survey, Merriam turkeys are often considered the most beautiful and least wary of the four American subspecies (this totally ignores the Gould’s turkey, which is only legal game in Mexico). Anyone who has watched the two white semicircles on a strutting Merriam’s gobbler’s tail as the bird approaches through the woods will find it hard to argue the first point. As for the second, I doubt that the birds originally differed much in IQ. But the eastern and the Osceola, and to a lesser extent the Rio Grande, reflect a bit of history foreign to the Merriam: centuries of intense selective pressure by skilled hunters with firearms. The West simply lacks the rich turkey hunting traditions common to other regions of the country. If the Merriam gobbler doesn’t seem quite as spooky as his eastern cousins, it’s because he hasn’t had to be. With western turkey hunting growing rapidly in popularity, it’s only a matter of time until that changes. I know Montana birds act much more wary now than they did 30 years ago, as confirmed by the story of my own first bird.

With hunting friends scattered all around the country, I’ve had enough exposure to eastern and Osceola gobblers to appreciate the differences in turkey hunting as practiced here and there. When experienced friends from Florida and Georgia listen to my descriptions of Montana gobbler hunting, their primary response is usually disbelief. (Hiking five miles every morning? In the snow?)

But East is East and West is West, as a wiser writer once observed, in no regard greater than the subject of turkey hunting. To tackle the “easy” leg of the Grand Slam out here, a seasoned hunter must be prepared to cover some ground. Turkey densities are much lower in the West, and the birds are far more mobile. After wintering at lower elevations, often in feedlots, large flocks of birds disperse once the snow starts to melt around the time turkey season opens. In mountain foothills, the birds will lag behind the receding snowline until they reach ridges with tall ponderosa pines, their preferred roosting habitat. In river bottoms at lower elevations in the eastern part of the state, they’ll be in or near the cottonwoods. This represents a whole lot of real estate, and finding birds requires a lot of looking.

Or, more accurately, listening … Because toms and hens need to find each other in the big country they inhabit, Merriam turkeys are generally more vocal than their counterparts elsewhere. But even noisy western birds cycle through periods of silence during the spring breeding season. I take the position that you can’t hunt quiet turkeys in big western terrain and make no effort to do so. Unless I know where the birds are, I cover a lot of ground, do a lot of listening, and make plenty of noise myself until I’ve located a responsive gobbler. Southern friends accustomed to stealth and subtle calling may shake their heads at this Gonzo approach to turkey hunting, but when in Rome …

Then there is the weather. The only meteorological condition that makes me bang down on the alarm clock and go back to sleep is high wind, which makes it impossible for me to hear the birds and for the birds to hear me. Otherwise, anything goes. I’ve enjoyed gorgeous weather during Montana’s spring season, but I’ve also hunted turkeys here in April while bundled up in wool, with snowshoes strapped to my feet. If you can’t imagine hunting spring turkeys without the smell of magnolias or orange blossoms in the air, you should be chasing easterns or Osceolas. But never overlook the advantage of tracking snow, which has helped me locate birds more times than I can count.

Winter weather has little if any effect on the dynamics of the breeding season. Merriam’s gobblers are happy to strut in snow up to their axles. This phenomenon explains why visiting hunters shouldn’t be fussy about holding out for trophy toms with 11-inch beards: birds in the Mountain West drag the tips of their beards off on crusted snow.

There’s no substitute for local knowledge when it comes to locating widely dispersed birds in the spring, but a few observations may help. Birds will generally roost on the highest pine-covered ridges free of snow. When covering ground, I look for emerging pasque flowers, renamed turkey flowers in my private vocabulary. Turkeys love to eat the buds, and I’ve cleaned many gobblers whose crops are stuffed with them. Furthermore, their appearance represents an epiphenomenon indicating the elevation the birds prefer. Whenever I spot those delicate purple blossoms underfoot I know I’m getting warm.

The development of portable “pop-up” blinds has revolutionized turkey hunting, particularly for the archer who must somehow draw the bow undetected. I have nothing against them and own a couple, but I’ve never killed a turkey from one. They’re light enough to carry a couple hundred yards across a field, but still too heavy to tote the miles a western turkey hunt may require. Frankly, I prefer the freedom of walking, which allows an opportunity to get back in shape after the long winter, search for shed antlers and lion kills, and pick morels later in the season. Regular use of a blind would no doubt make me a more efficient turkey hunter, but long hikes through western turkey habitat offer too many temptations to ignore.

BACK IN THE MEADOW BELOW THE RIMROCK, the gobbler has emerged from his roost accompanied by two slutty hens with whose seductive yelping I cannot compete. Nonetheless, we’ve maintained auditory contact during his two hour circuit around the bowl, with the tom answering each of my occasional yelps with a thunderous gobble. Tempting as it is to give chase, I know better. The time to cover ground is when you’re looking for turkeys, not working a bird.

Suddenly I realize that the distance between his last two response gobbles has been cut in half. Have I finally said something irresistible, or has he simply given up on his two original love objects? The answer is academic, for I suddenly have visual contact as the tom appears strutting across the clearing with what a former president once famously described as lust in his heart.

When it happens, it looks so easy … Moments later, the bird is pivoting in front of my decoys like a windup toy, less than a dozen yards away. When he turns in full strut and eclipses his vision with his own extended tail feathers, I draw and release and the honed broadhead drops the gobbler instantly in a quivering pile of feathers. Nothing to it. Right …

I’ve always considered myself a reflective outdoorsman although not an overly sentimental one. Nonetheless, it’s hard to ignore a moment of sadness as I stand, stretch my knotted leg muscles, and walk across the open ground to secure and tag the bird. A moment ago, the puffed up tom evoked Shakespeare’s falcon towering in his pride of place; now, he’s dinner. Furthermore, the thought of sleeping in for the rest of the month doesn’t sound nearly as inviting as it should. But this is the natural conclusion of events, made all the more gratifying by the decision to make its achievement as difficult as possible. There will be more turkeys; there will be more mornings in the woods.

With the tom slung over my shoulder, I start back down the hill. Within 100 yards, I’ve detoured into a stand of young cottonwoods to look for bear sign and morels. It’s always been about more than the bird.

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