Mountain Merriam’s (Snow Toms) Hunt

The winter of 2022/2023 produced epic snow totals in Southwest Colorado. As Durango resident Dave Marston (publisher of Writers on the Range) pointed out, it was “obvious this winter as roofs sagged, driveways became mini-canyons, and snow at the nearby Purgatory ski area outside Durango reached 20 feet high in places. USDA SNOTEL sites above Vallecito Reservoir measured snowpacks at 170% and 180% of normal.”[1]

Although I’ve hunted in similar spring conditions once before, the snowpack may have been closer to 120-130% that year (2019) and there was much more snow-free terrain for turkeys to congregate on by early April. During 2023, in early-to-mid April, some 95% of the terrain was snow-covered and much of it with four or more feet.

Prior to the opening of turkey hunting (on April 8) I was working in Honolulu for two weeks and the juxtaposition of coming from a Hawaiian tropical climate to a Rocky Mountain winter wonderland was stark. However, there are turkey hunting opportunities in Hawaii too, but that will have to wait for another visit.[2] FYI, Hawaii is one of two remaining states where Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) does not have a state chapter.[3]

Hunt No. 1 (April 10)

At 5:00 a.m. on Monday morning I met Rick Hooley, a Colorado BHA San Juan National Forest Habitat Watch Volunteer, at a snow-covered trailhead where we started an 8-hour, 10-mile hike/hunt in search of mountain Merriam’s (i.e., Snow Toms). By sunup, around 6:00 a.m., we were hoping to hear gobbling from the roost.

Instead, we encountered a silent, serene Rocky Mountain morning and a handful of tracks in the snow. As backcountry turkey hunter Jace Bauserman said (in an April 2022 Field & Stream story), “Be stealthy but not slow. Keep moving and calling, covering as much ground as possible.”[4] We kept moving and calling. Then, at 7:45 a.m., the first tom gobbled.

“I called again. And again. All quiet … And then the answer,” American Hunter Field Editor Ron Spomer wrote (in “Those Maddening Mountain Toms”). “A booming gobble … Game on …. ‘Yelp yelp yelp.’ Gobble gobble gobble! Oh, what a fine sound. Not so haunting as an elk’s bugle … but fine and vigorous with enough power to buck up the most frustrated turkey hunter.”[5]

Fanning Gobbler - photo credit, Nancy Taylor

There’s nothing like hearing a bugling bull or gobbling tom to get your adrenaline flowing. This longbeard was approaching from the north but stayed out of sight, circling us while gobbling periodically. Simultaneously, a set of possibly three toms closed in from west, responding enthusiastically to our yelping, but also staying out of sight. We were encouraged to have multiple toms in the vicinity, but it soon became apparent that something was amiss.

Our best guess was that they heard our approach through the crunchy snow before we started calling and, hence, were suspicious. In addition, with so much snow on the ground we didn’t encounter any hens. They were probably unwilling to hang with the toms here, where snow-free terrain and nesting opportunities were scarce.

While toms will range far and wide looking for love, relentlessly following their evolutionary instincts, hens seem more reasonable and most likely weren’t venturing far from bare-ground nesting zones. That’s our hypothesis, anyway. As the sun crept higher and temperatures rose our odds of post-holing increased (i.e., no snowshoes) and we opted to call it a day.

Back in town I checked email and had a message from Colorado BHA founder David “Elkheart” Petersen (a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot), who lives in the mountains north of Durango. “I just stepped outside and heard a tom gobble up the hill,” David said. “I gobble back, and he answered, and so did a second tom ... and there’s at least 90% snow up where they are. Nothing can stop springtime!” Given the lingering snowpack, I opted to head for home and wait a couple weeks before returning.

On April 13 Rick was out scouting the local turkey hunting haunts again. “I heard what sounded like two different birds … Lots of crunchy snow so I didn’t go far,” he said. “The creeks are raging so it’s definitely melting fast … I’ll get back out next week. It’s currently snowing up high. Supposed to get another 8 inches or so above 9,000 ft.” I heard similar stories from other mountain Merriam’s hunters.

I drew my first tag for our area and was able to harvest one,” another West Slope hunter, Derrick Wiemer, explained on April 25. “We really enjoyed feasting on the bird. The elk are about to drop their horns and we still have pretty significant snow up here.” “The first day I went out, I realized that I still needed snowshoes to get around,” he added. “Took me over an hour to get to a spot that would normally take 10 minutes as I was post-holing and up past my waist in snow with a firm crust on top that wouldn’t hold me.”

Hunt No. 2 (April 26)

Early Monday morning (on April 24) I landed at Denver International Airport after a five-hour flight from Anchorage, Alaska, where I’d been working the previous week. “It’s amazing that today we can hunt wild turkeys in 49 states—everywhere but Alaska,” Steven Rinella (host of the Sportsman Channel’s MeatEater) explained. “That’s ten more states than had wild turkeys at the time of European contact, and about twenty more states than had them in 1900.”[6]

For example, while growing up hunting in northern Minnesota during the 1980s, we never encountered turkeys. Now, seeing (and hunting) them is commonplace nearly across the state. Back in Colorado, the clock was ticking, and I had some 24 hours to get turned around before a five-plus-hour drive from Colorado Springs to Southwest Colorado to join, first, David Petersen at his cabin for an elk stew dinner Tuesday evening and, then, to resume turkey hunting with Rick Wednesday morning.[7]

David introduced me to mountain Merriam’s turkey hunting in 2008. Although we didn’t see any toms that morning, we heard them gobbling from the roost near camp and that’s all it took, I was hooked.[8] There’s something primordial about the sound of wild turkeys. Just hearing toms gobble is addicting enough, but throw in the thrill of the chase and you have all the makings of an addiction and “Gobbler Fever.”[9]

Wednesday morning Rick and I completed a nearly 11-mile, 7-hour hike/hunt through still mostly snow covered terrain. Starting out at 5:00 a.m., we had three toms gobbling in response to hen calls at 7:45 a.m., but once again none would close the distance, so we took the initiative and went to them.

At 8:00 a.m. a shotgun blast cut through the crisp morning air. We took some time to admire the wild beauty of this primordial bird before I started breasting/cleaning our first tom. Meanwhile, Rick continued hunting. Later, while following his tracks upslope, I heard a muffled shotgun blast (at 9:00 a.m.).

A few minutes later I found Rick with a second tom in hand. While he breasted the bird, I moved off in the direction of two more boisterous longbeards hoping they might pose for photographs. Although I spotted one with a harem of hens, they busted me about 75 yards out. Similar to stalking a herd of wary, watchful elk, a flocky of turkeys’ combined eyes always give them the edge over predators.

Bonus Hunt (April 27)

At another hunting locale Thursday morning I was set up before sunup below a ridgeline dotted with ponderosa pines holding a group of roosted turkeys making a racket (up to three toms and multiple hens) preparing to fly down. With several other toms also vocalizing within earshot, robust gobbles rained down from the wooded mountainside. By taking up a position on their anticipated direction of travel I managed to get some photos as they crossed a forestry road.

American Hunter contributor Tony Kinton described a similar encounter. “And then a gobbler strutted along the two-track to my right, out of range. He was gaudy and splendid and puffed up, his head and neck tucked low in a bed of feathers,” Tony wrote. “Had there been sunshine, he would have glistened in an iridescent orb of brilliance, his broad fan framing a glorious bundle of wildness. He spat and drummed and pirouetted in grand display. Marvelous he was.”[10]

Completing a 6-mile, 3-hour loop hike resulted in no additional turkey encounters, but my cup was full. Experiencing and exploring our wild public lands is more than enough! Although I already had meat in the freezer, that’s merely a bonus. Just being out there hunting Snow Toms in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado is about as good as it gets.

And as Dave Marston said, “It’s a place so wild and beautiful that Teddy Roosevelt protected it in 1905 by creating the 1.8-million-acre San Juan National Forest.”[11] BHA members, along with many other hunter-conservationists, are following in TR’s footsteps by helping defend and perpetuate our unequaled public lands hunting and angling heritage for current and future generations both here and across the continent.

“Killing turkeys is fun. But there is a far more satisfying feeling in … knowing he is still out there in the early sun, feathers gleaming as if he were freshly oiled, light and quick and wild, rather than a bundle of meat and feathers,” Colonel Tom Kelly wrote in Tenth Legion.[12] Ultimately, we covered some 21 miles during 15 hours of hunting for these toms … good, hard work.[13] But perhaps Rick summed it all up best.

“Several 10-plus-mile days post-holing and slipping around in the snow and mud paid off with two great birds,” he said. “It’s always good to get out in the spring woods, and finding a couple gullible gobblers is just a bonus.” Agreed, and well said Rick (and Tom). And, if we’re truthful (American Hunter editor Adam Heggenstaller adds), “Failure is much more fun to talk about. There’s never a shortage of it in the spring, and turkey hunters will always be a willing audience.”[14]

Reference/Related Information

For additional information on turkey hunting in Colorado, see these Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and related resources:

-CPW’s 2021 Colorado Turkey rules and regulations brochure.

-Viral Outdoors (7/8/11). “Slate Call Instructional Video.”

-CPW’s Colorado Outdoors Online Archives-Turkey Hunting

-Colorado Mountain Merriam’s Turkey Hunt Photos (April 2023).

-“Backcountry Turkey Hunt.” Colorado Outdoors: 12/5/13.

-“Why Hunt Mountain Merriam’s? (Part I).” Colorado Outdoors: 3/19/21.

-“Why Hunt Mountain Merriam’s? (Part II).” Colorado Outdoors: 4/7/21.

-David “Elkheart” Petersen (Colorado BHA founder) books:

BHA: Our Issues (PAF)[15]

  1. Public Lands & Waters (Public Lands = Freedom). Protecting and perpetuating our public lands and waters is paramount. We are “The voice for our wild public lands, waters and wildlife.”
  2. Access & Opportunity. Access has emerged as a priority issue for North American hunters and anglers, and lack of access is cited by sportsmen and women as the No. 1 reason why we stop pursuing our passions. Access to the more than 600 million acres of public land is part of being American. However, opportunity is diminished when access becomes excess.[16]
  3. Fair Chase. We must ensure that the ethical pursuit of fish and game is upheld as dearly as our own obligation to morality and citizenship.[17]

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: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation.”[18] During 2019 David was the recipient of BHA’s Mike Beagle-Chairman’s Award “for outstanding effort on behalf of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.”[19]

[1] Dave Marston. “A Colorado reservoir gets ready for an epic snowmelt.” Carlsbad Current Argus: 4/10/23.



[4] Jace Bauserman. “How to Hunt Turkeys in the Backcountry: As long as you're willing to put in the legwork—literally—you can find unpressured toms on a wilderness turkey hunt.” Field & Stream: 4/18/22.

[5] Rom Spomer, Field Editor. “Those Maddening Mountain Toms.” American Hunter: April 2023, p. 41.

[6] Steven Rinella. Instagram Post (5/6/23):


[8] David A. Lien. “Backcountry Turkey Hunt.” Colorado Outdoors: 12/5/13.

[9] “Gobbler Fever: Curse & Cure.” Colorado Outdoors: 5/1/20.

[10] Tony Kinton. “A Flintlocker’s Odyssey.” American Hunter: April 2022, p. 52.

[11] Dave Marston. “A Colorado reservoir gets ready for an epic snowmelt.” Carlsbad Current Argus: 4/10/23.

[12] Colonel Tom Kelly. Tenth Legion. Lakeland, Florida: Tom Kelly, Inc., 2013, p. 133.

[13] David A. Lien. “Hunting Ethically Is Good, Hard Work.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 5/1/23.

[14] Adam Heggenstaller, executive editor. “Turkey Nuggets: Failure Earned.” American Hunter: April 2019, p. 70.


[16] “Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Increase Reward For Illegal Trail Construction (Help Stop Trail Building ‘Free-For-All’).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 4/10/23.




About David Lien

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