Most humans are blessed with five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch) and spring turkey hunters are especially thankful for hearing. The sound of the spring woods at dawn reaches an exhilarating crescendo when robust gobbles rain down from wooded mountainsides. It’s that sound/experience that many turkey hunters find addicting.
If your addiction leads you to Colorado and you’re planning to hunt backcountry mountain Merriam’s, you are likely hiking in from a trailhead base camp each morning or backpacking in to set up a spike camp, which is how I generally hunt gobblers. Either way, be prepared to go light and far in search of white-tipped mountain Merriam’s.
There are a lot of similarities between hunting mountain Merriam’s and elk, including lots of hiking. I’ve found that when hunting either species it’s best to follow the advice of Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers founder (and former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot) David “Elkheart” Petersen.
“If you’ve not hunted western public lands … you’ll just have to trust me on this one: To find both good (undisturbed) hunting and good (quite) camping, you must get away from the metastasizing motorized mobs,” David says. “The surest way to do that is with a backpack.” “I say, backpack if you can and while you can” he adds. “There’ll be plenty of time for comfort in our graves.”
“The hardest thing about tagging these birds is just finding one,” Field & Stream contributor Jace Bauserman says. “Mountain-dwelling Merriam’s are nomadic, opportunistic feeders that love to wander … Toms will wander miles in search of a hen. So, one key to being a consistent Merriam mountain killer is to hike miles and miles and be prepared to sleep under the spring stars.”
“During the early season, they’ll dwell just below the snow line,” Jace explains. “Depending on timing and snowmelt, I’ve found mountain birds anywhere between 6,500 and 10,250 feet … it’s best to do what you would do on a mountain elk or mule deer hunt, which is toss a pack on your back loaded with a day’s worth of supplies and stretch your legs.”
Wherever (or however) you hunt, be sure to get there well before sunup and listen. If there are turkeys roosted in the vicinity, you’ll likely hear toms gobbling intermittently a half hour or so before sunrise. Alternatively, you can use a locator call (or shock gobble) to trigger responses from toms within earshot.
Male turkeys will often gobble at any loud noise they hear. Crow and coyote calls, for example, are tried and true tactics for getting toms to sound off. I use a crow call. The “Come Here” call consists of three long caws evenly spaced, “CAWWW-CAWWW-CAWWW.” Wait one or two seconds and continue with three more long caws, “CAWWW-CAWWW-CAWWW.”
A wingbone call works too. Native Americans started using wingbone turkey calls as early as 6,500 B.C. Today, these ingeniously simple calls still fool gobblers. Insert the small end of the call between your lips—either in the middle or slightly off to one side—and form a very tight seal. The call should just barely extend into your mouth.
To create short clucks, suck air in as if you were making kissing sounds. For yelps, extend the kissing inhalations and suck in air, then drop the lower jaw slightly to create the two-note break of a hen yelp. Practice makes perfect. Another option is to yelp loudly with a slate (or other) call.
Calling is the key to spring turkey hunting, but the sound of your calling is less important than the cadence or rhythm. I’ve heard some of the most atrocious-sounding hen calls only to find out they were coming from real hens. The sounds hens make (i.e., their voices) are all over the map, like the infinite variety of human voices, but the cadence is more predictable and important to imitate.
“Calling is the essence of spring turkey hunting, and reams have been written about the subject,” E. Donnall Thomas Jr. explains. “My advice is twofold: keep it simple and avoid overcalling. Calls come in a variety of forms including box calls … slates, and mouth diaphragms (which are … hands free). All are effective given the right bird and the right situation. Learn one and stick to it. Most turkey calls are meant to imitate hens … At first, learn the yelp and don’t worry about the rest.”
“Most first timers, with a decent pot call and some instruction, can get pretty decent in a short time. The best bet for starting out is to learn to yelp competently,” Outdoor News contributor Tony J. Peterson explains. “Without being able to yelp, turkey hunting is a different and much more difficult proposition. The tendency for most first timers when learning this call is to make short, sharp circles with the striker. This will create a yelp, but it will be a fast-in-cadence type of yelp that sounds rushed.”
“The better bet is to extend that circle into an oval, or a J-shaped stroked to make a yelp a two-note sound,” Petersen adds. “Listen closely to live turkeys and you’ll hear that their yelps aren’t monosyllabic sounding calls, but contain two parts. Any new hunter who spends a fair amount of time mastering yelping and getting the rhythm down will kill turkeys. And if they can do that, they’ll learn the slow-drag of a purr or the quick pop of clucking and cutting sequences. After that, the birds had better watch out.” See the two YouTube video links below for additional information/instruction.
I’ve never shot a tom using decoys. When hunting backcountry mountain Merriam’s, it’s just one more thing to carry and mess with. “Decoys aren’t a must, especially if you set up in the timber where a bird will have to come looking for a hen,” Jace Bauserman adds. “Decoys or no, the trick to killing a public-land mountain Merriam’s is having the desire to cover lots and lots of ground to simply find some birds to hunt.”
In addition, don’t start calling unless you’re prepared for immediate action. I generally prefer to set up next to a sizable tree. Turkeys almost seem to sense when we’re unprepared and all too often will come charging in if you aren’t hidden. Once you have your tree and weapon at the ready, start making hen noises.
Also, be aware that it only takes one or two encounters with hunters to sufficiently “educate” most toms, who then revert to waiting for hens to come to them, which is the way it normally works in the natural world. However, we want toms to come to us. For that to happen you want both lovestruck and (ideally) “uneducated” toms.
Perhaps the best turkey hunting advice I can pass along comes from turkey hunting’s poet laureate, Colonel Tom Kelly. “I hunt with regularity and delight in the company of a good many men who are inept turkey hunters,” Tom wrote in Tenth Legion. “They can’t yelp. They get lost in the woods. The best day they ever had they couldn’t tell north from straight up. But they do the one really important thing and they do it exactly right. They go.”
For additional information see:
- “Why Hunt Mountain Merriam’s? (Part I).” Colorado Outdoors: 3/19/21.
- “Why Hunt Mountain Merriam’s? (Part II).” Colorado Outdoors: 4/7/21.
- YouTube video: “How to Use a Turkey Slate Call.”
- YouTube video: “Turkey Hunting … footage of hens cutting and yelping.”
- CPW 2020 Colorado Turkey rules and regulations brochure.
- CPW Colorado Outdoors Online Archives-Turkey Hunting
- National Wild Turkey Federation-Colorado: https://www.nwtf.org/about/state/colorado
- National Wild Turkey Federation’s “Save The Habitat. Save The Hunt” initiative:
- David Petersen (Colorado BHA founder) books: https://davidpetersenbooks.com/
David Lien is a former Air Force officer and co-chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of “Hunting for Experience II: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation” and during 2019 received BHA’s Mike Beagle Chairman’s Award “for outstanding effort on behalf of B
 David Petersen. “Planning a Do-It-Yourself Western Hunt.” Traditional Bowhunter: December/January 2012, p. 91.
 David Petersen. “Planning a Do-It-Yourself Western Hunt.” Traditional Bowhunter: December/January 2012, p. 90.
 T. Edward Nickens. “How to Use a Wingbone Yelper: An old-school skill that’ll fool wary gobblers.” Field & Stream: 2/22/17.
 E. Donnall Thomas Jr. “Turkey Time.” StalkHuntingGuide.com: 2019, p. 75.
 Tony J. Peterson. “Pot calls: Best bet for beginning wild turkey hunters.” Outdoor News: 3/13/15.
 Colonel Tom Kelly. Tenth Legion. Lakeland, Florida: Tom Kelly, Inc., 2013, p. 122.