I generally hunt turkeys the first week of Colorado’s spring season (mid-April) and then return two weeks later (the first week of May) to “hunt” with a camera. As a bonus, because the habitat of mountain Merriam’s turkeys and Rocky Mountain elk overlap in much of western Colorado, it’s not uncommon to encounter both species in close proximity this time of year.
Although elk hunting is notoriously difficult with success rates hovering between 15 to 20 percent in Colorado, over the counter (OTC) license turkey hunting odds are not much better. For comparison, during the 2020 elk hunting season the average success rate for all rifle hunters with bull tags was 16 percent. In other words, if you hunted in Colorado for six seasons in a row and killed one bull, you’d be on par with the average. The overall success rate (for archery, muzzleloaders and modern firearms) was only slightly better, at 18 percent.
It is estimated that nearly 24,000 hunters pursued spring turkeys in Colorado during 2020. Some 26 percent of OTC hunters reported harvesting a bird. However, within the limited license sample 51 percent put meat in the freezer. For the decade-plus I’ve been chasing Merriam’s in the mountains of southwest Colorado (same goes for elk), I have only hunted OTC units. Hence, I have more than my fair share of stories about the ones that got away.
In addition, as many Colorado elk hunters know well, by the time rifle elk season(s) rolls around wapiti have been pursued for a month by bow hunters (recently there have been more non-resident bow licenses sold than resident) and for two weeks by muzzleloader hunters. As a result, just finding elk on public lands can be challenging.
For example, during the 2021 second rifle season I hunted six days—including some 50 hours of “armed hiking” covering over 50 miles through 14,700-plus feet of elevation gain—without hearing or seeing a single elk and encountered very little fresh sign. Some of my elk hunting friends who live locally reported similar results, including Colorado BHA founder David “Elkheart” Petersen, but back to turkey hunting.
“Many hunters seem to believe turkeys have an almost mythical intellect, and I used to be as guilty regarding this perception as anyone,” explains Outdoor News contributor Ryan Rothstein. “I’m convinced that even turkeys themselves don’t know exactly what they’re going to do at any given time. We consider them intelligent because they’re the most on-edge and paranoid critter we can hunt … and they bail at the slightest sign of trouble.”
“Turkeys have a way of fooling us that’ll make you think they’re the smartest critters around. I don’t buy it anymore. Their brains just ain’t big enough,” Rothstein added. “What they do have is easily the best eyesight in the woods, along with the paranoia of a mob boss.” From my experience one thing is certain: just one or two encounters with hunters will elevate an adult tom from kindergarten to a PhD when it comes to evading hunters.
If nothing else, they’re fast learners, which means your best advantage for potentially putting a gobbler in the freezer is finding birds that haven’t been hunted. Definitely not an easy task on public lands, but well worth the extra effort. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for the adult toms we encountered during the first week of May (i.e., the third week of spring turkey hunting).
On Wednesday (5/4/22), Colorado BHA Habitat Watch Volunteer Rick Hooley and I completed a loop hike through some new turkey terrain, covering five miles while encountering lots of sign but no gobblers. Later, we moved to another locale, spotting a herd of 30 or so elk enroute, and encountered a flock with vocalizing toms and hens. A jake ventured our way for photos, but we bumped the flock, then covered another couple miles with no turkey encounters.
Cinco de Mayo
The Colorado BHA chapter was founded by former U.S. Marie Corps helicopter pilot David “Elkheart” Petersen during 2005 (the first BHA state chapter). David lives in the Durango area, and we periodically purchase signed copies of his books to give to our new chapter leaders, so I stopped by his cabin to pick up a new batch around dinner time.
“It would normally be my infamous elk-green chili stew,” David said, “but I’m fresh out of elk, thanks to CPW mismanagement, overzealous hunters like me, mechanized public-lands recreation, drought/climate change, just too damn many people wanting too much.” During the entire time I’ve known David (since 2006) I don’t recall him not putting an elk in the freezer (for additional information on Colorado elk herd and hunting trends see the links included below).
After dinner, I set out to set up camp in the vicinity of a Merriam’s roosting locale. Thursday morning (5/5/22) multiple toms were gobbling from the roost on a nearby ridge. Following an old forestry road, I crossed a creek to close the distance, then waited. Multiple hens and at least two toms were nearby. It sounded like a Cinco de Mayo celebration from 6:00 to 6:30 a.m. While moving up the ridge toward one of the gobbling toms, I closed to 100 feet or so before bumping him.
Later a tom gobbled down by the creek. Despite a cautious approach, he spotted me and that was that. These two toms are PhDs now. Enroute to camp I spied a group of elk in the adjacent field, tried to close the distance for photos and bumped them. On the drive out I encountered 50 or so elk in multiple groups and had to slow down for a few standing in or crossing the road. A far cry from my experience while hunting elk during 2021, but that’s okay.
As American Hunter contributor and guide John Caid said (in “A Life Dedicated to Conservation and Hunting,” February 2022), “Some come out and just enjoy the hunt itself. Others, a few, are here for glory. They want this and that, and it’s sad, but they don’t let themselves enjoy the hunt. It’s supposed to be enjoyable—it’s hunting … this is supposed to be fun. It’s not all about harvesting the animal. You are going to be outside seeing things you’ve never seen before. The hunt is way more important than the harvest.”
And Outdoor News contributor Ron Schara adds, “Do more than kill turkeys. Join a chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Observe what your state DNR is doing for turkey habitat, research, population surveys.” Also consider joining groups like Trout Unlimited (TU) and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) in addition to upping your BHA membership to a Life Member. Wildlands and wildlife need many more like you!
For additional/related information see:
- David “Elkheart” Petersen (Colorado BHA founder) books.
- “Colorado Elk Hunting: Right Place, Right Time.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 9/23/21
- “Trails vs. Elk: ‘They’re Just Dying Off.’” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 12/3/21.
- “No State Treats Resident Big Game Hunters Worse than Colorado-Tag Allocation-Hiding in Plain Sight. The Secret to the Elk and Deer Tags in Colorado.” Public Land Jurisdiction: 3/24/22.
- Sylvia Kantor. “Seeking Ground Less Traveled: Elk Responses to Recreation.” Science Findings #219 (U.S. Department of Agriculture-Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station): September 2019. https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/sciencef/scifi219.pdf
- “Hunting Mountain Merriam’s (& Gettin’ Schooled).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 4/22/22.
- Colorado mountain Merriam’s turkey hunt photos (April 2022).
- Southwest Colorado elk, grouse and mountain Merriam’s turkey encounters (May 2022).
David Lien is a former Air Force officer and co-chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of six books including “Hunting for Experience: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation.” During 2019 he was the recipient of BHA’s Mike Beagle-Chairman’s Award “for outstanding effort on behalf of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.”
 Mark Kayser, Field Editor. “10 Reasons Why You Will Fail This Elk Season.” American Hunter: September 2021, p. 45.
 “No State Treats Resident Big Game Hunters Worse than Colorado-Tag Allocation-Hiding in Plain Sight. The Secret to the Elk and Deer Tags in Colorado.” Public Land Jurisdiction: 3/24/22. https://publiclandjurisdiction.com/no-state-treats-resident-hunters-worse-than-colorado/
 Ryan Rothstein. “Affectionate about the turkey hunt? Give it a KISS [keep it simple, stupid] this season.” Outdoor News: 4/15/22, p. 14.
 Ryan Rothstein. “Affectionate about the turkey hunt? Give it a KISS [keep it simple, stupid] this season.” Outdoor News: 4/15/22, p. 31.
 David Petersen. “Re: Wed.” Email: 5/1/22.
 John Caid. “A Life Dedicated to Conservation and Hunting.” American Hunter: February 2022, p. 40.
 Ron Schara. “The gist of turkey hunting: exceptions to all rules.” Outdoor News: 4/22/22, p. 7.