More often than not encounters with mountain Merriam’s end with hunters getting schooled by wary toms or watching them from afar. After getting busted by a tom not long after sunup, we encountered a sizable group of hens and strutting toms without being able to close the distance. Watching this struttin’ and gobblin’ spectacle alone was worth the price of admission, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The previous afternoon Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) Habitat Watch Volunteer Rick Hooley and I backpacked some four miles into the southwest Colorado backcountry. That evening we encountered a tom near camp. Watching his brilliant red head appear, disappear and reappear through the brush was riveting and all the motivation we needed to roust before sunup prepared for the morning hunt.
At dawn multiple toms were gobbling from the roost within earshot of camp. Hence, we set out with a confident stride. Our first turkey encounter was a hen. She surprised us while we were in the open, with two toms gobbling nearby. Then one of the toms made an appearance. He immediately noticed two not-well-hidden hunters and hastily reversed course.
“Like most successfully evolved prey species these big birds are survival specialists,” explains Colorado BHA founder David “Elkheart” Petersen (in Going Trad: Out There With Elkheart). “Their bulging, side-set eyes constantly scan for danger in all directions. (I’ve had approaching toms spot my camouflaged form through brush so thick I couldn’t see them at all). Spotting any fast movement is their cue to putt and run.”
We could hear other toms gobbling in the distance and headed in their direction until spotting the aforementioned group of hens and strutting toms 150 yards away alongside a gurgling creek. A game of cat and mouse ensued. After calling one of the toms in to about 75 yards, he stopped and stood statue-still for a long minute, looking intently for a hen. Seeing none, he lost interest and wandered off.
With no way to approach the flock unseen, we backed off and descended toward the creek. They moved upstream. We followed. They moved some more. We hiked upslope to try to get above them. They moved again. However, it wasn’t long before we had toms gobbling below us, directly to our front, from above, and even a distant gobble to the rear for good measure.
We were surrounded by gobbling toms seemingly running circles around us, showing themselves from afar and occasionally moving in our direction but staying beyond shotgun range. Then a tom responding to hen calls and moved upslope directly to our front, but predictably out of range. Now we had at least two gobblers above us. Unfortunately, toms are hard to call downhill.
David Petersen says (in Going Trad), “Remember that it’s usually easier to call a tom uphill or across level ground than to lure him downhill.” Knowing this, we cautiously stalked upslope in hopes of spotting one of the gobbling toms, but four hens intervened. They surprised us from behind, using the same route we had just hiked, and started putting (i.e., we were busted). The alerted toms went silent, with one crossing over a nearby ridge in plain sight. Schooled again.
As explained by my friend Joe Canella (in “Bringing Up Girls As Hunters.” Whitetales: Summer 2019), “The sensation of hearing a gobbler holler from the predawn darkness seizes attention. The sensory encounter with the approaching unseen beast as he thunders a response to your yelping call for a first time or a seasoned hunter is thrilling and never gets old.”
As far as Rick and I were concerned this hunt was already a success. We’d encountered multiple toms and convinced several to close the distance, but putting a gobbler or two in the freezer would be icing on the cake. We moved on in search of more toms while taking in the visual spectacle that is southwest Colorado’s high and wild San Juan Mountains.
As Colonel Tom Kelly wrote in Tenth Legion, “Make no mistake but that the purpose in hunting turkeys is to kill some … [but] they live in such delightful places that simply being able to visit their ground is a pleasure.” The oak brush and ponderosa pine habitat Merriam’s seem to prefer here is also terrain that’s not overly difficult to navigate. It’s impossible to waste a spring day turkey hunting in the San Juans.
Despite being schooled by one tom after another, the tables were about to turn. We made a beeline over to where late morning toms might be cruising in search of receptive hens and struck gobbler gold. Near the edge of a picturesque mountain meadow dotted with towering ponderosa pines, a tom gobbled enthusiastically. Rick and I were working together like a well-oiled machine now. No discussion was needed as we prepared for another game of cat and mouse.
Although I’ve turkey hunted solo (with both shotgun and camera) many times over the years, it’s more enjoyable to team up with another hunter, as explained by David Petersen (in A Man Made of Elk): “Team hunters can overcome these common ‘too close for comfort’ problems by positioning the shooter forward … along the expected approach route and the caller back, a common turkey tactic.”
Following David’s advice, we set up and less than a minute later two strutting toms were within shotgun distance. Once they separated, we had our first gobbler. A half hour later another shotgun blast broke the morning silence. Just like that, in the span of thirty minutes, it was over. When all was said and done, we covered twelve (public lands) miles to put these two toms in the freezer.
David Petersen (who introduced me to turkey hunting) emphasizes that leaving roads and trailheads behind is beneficial for both elk and turkey hunting: “… trust me on this one: To find both good (undisturbed) hunting and good (quiet) camping, you must get away from the metastasizing motorized mobs. The surest way to do that is with a backpack.” Especially after the first week or two of turkey hunting season.
“It doesn’t matter how good you are. I’ve been at this a long time, myself, but I’ve also hunted with some of the very best, and one thing they’ll all tell you is that when turkey hunting gets tough, it gets tough for everyone,” Field & Stream contributor Jace Bauserman says. “And once public-land birds feel some pressure, it gets tough … by the season’s second week, most open-to-anyone turkey haunts have been pounded. Boot tracks cover turkey tracks, arrows have been launched, and shotgun blasts have echoed. Birds get smart.”
The best way to counter this inevitability is to get as far off the beaten path (within reason) as possible. “Road camping is easier and more comfortable, while backpacking will get you into bigger, wilder, quieter backcountry,” David wrote in Traditional Bowhunter. “I say, backpack if you can and while you can. There’ll be plenty of time for comfort in our graves.”
For additional information see:
- Colorado mountain Merriam’s turkey hunt photos (April 2022).
- “Hunting Backcountry Mountain Merriam’s (The Bare Essentials).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 3/18/22.
- “Why Hunt Mountain Merriam’s? (Part I).” Colorado Outdoors: 3/19/21.
- “Why Hunt Mountain Merriam’s? (Part II).” Colorado Outdoors: 4/7/21.
- Modern Carnivore: Learn How To Hunt Turkeys.
- 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 six books, including “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 Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.”
 David Petersen. Going Trad: Out There With Elkheart. Durango, Colorado: Raven’s Eye Press: 2013, p. 120.
 Joe Canella. “Bringing Up Girls As Hunters.” Whitetales: Summer 2019, p. 16.
 Colonel Tom Kelly. Tenth Legion. Lakeland, Florida: Tom Kelly, Inc., 2013, p. 57.
 David Petersen. A Man Made of Elk. Eagle, Idaho: TBM, Inc., 2007, p. 106.
 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.