Spring turkey hunting is a personal obsession for me, and over the years I have been fortunate enough to hunt many western states during April and May. With high and increasing populations of Merriam’s and Rio Grande turkeys, the West provides some of the absolute best turkey hunting in the country. It has always been a mystery to me why many western hunters opt to skip spring turkey season. Though turkeys are not big game, they can provide all the challenge and adrenaline rush of larger game species.
Though all western states have a turkey season, five of them standout in my book as being the best of the best. Regions of Wyoming, Montana, Oregon, California and Hawaii have turkey hunting that is nothing short of fantastic.
The eastern parts of Wyoming offer hunters great localized concentrations of Merriam’s turkeys from the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains on over to the Black Hills region that borders South Dakota. Generally in spring, these turkeys are scattered throughout the lower hills all the way down to the creek bottoms. Though birds are all over the eastern part of the Cowboy State, my personal favorite place to hunt them is just outside Sheridan. The Bighorn Mountains provide a beautiful landscape and background, there are plenty of unpressured birds, and they are generally quite vocal. The state limit is one spring gobbler, but tags are available over the counter.
Just across the border in Montana, the hunting is just as good. The southeastern quarter of the state boasts high Merriam’s populations, and these birds too are unpressured. I have hunted Montana (and WY) a number of times with Big Buck Outfitters, and they have access to prime private land as well as some very high quality acreage on the Crow Indian Reservation. Depending on where you hunt in Montana, the limit is either one or two spring gobblers.
Moving farther west, the state of Oregon has local concentrations of Rio Grande turkeys as high as can be found anywhere. Last year I hunted in the Mqua Valley with Jody Smith’s Guide Service, and the numbers of gobblers I saw just driving the roads was staggering. I had numerous opportunities at longbeards the first afternoon, and took a nice gobbler just 3 hours after arriving in the area. My second bird came in perfectly in an early from the roost scenario. I had phenomenal success in late May, and Smith assured me that the hunting was even better in late April. Oregon has a three gobbler spring limit and tags can be purchased over the counter.
Although wild turkeys are scattered from end to end in California, my personal favorite is the area north and east of Sacramento. There are both Merriam’s and Rio Grande’s in California, but in the foothills near the small community of Dobbins, the birds are vocal Rios. I have hunted on property that my good friend Greg Wilkinson has a couple of times, and the turkey hunting is excellent. The landscape has lots of open pastures with canyons and draws full of oak and pine for roosting, and it is perfect for mobile and aggressive turkey hunting. I was able to buy my tags over the counter in Sacramento upon arrival.
Lastly, one of the best places I have ever pursued spring turkeys is on the Big Island of Hawaii. Hunters can purchase 3 spring gobbler tags over the counter, and though multiple islands have turkeys, virtually all spring hunting is done on Hawaii. There is a good amount of public land available, but if you want an experience of a lifetime, check out the famous Parker Ranch. The property is over 175,000 acres and has an unbelievable amount of Rio Grande turkeys as well as various other game birds. Hunting is done from sea level all the way up to nearly 7,000 feet on the slopes of the Mauna Kea volcano. Success rates are phenomenally high on the Parker Ranch, and I was able to take 3 gobblers there with a blackpowder shotgun. Of course if you go over to Hawaii to turkey hunt, you should take your better half and score some serious brownie points.
I have pursued spring turkeys in more than half the states in the U.S. as well as New Zealand, and one thing I have concluded is that the gobblers in the West are the most vocal that can be found. Grant it, Rios and Merriam’s generally are more vocal by nature, but I also believe that the fact that they live on large pieces of property, and are not pressured by hunters as compared to easterns birds in the southeast that may live on 300 acres and get hunted virtually every day for 6 weeks, accounts for their willingness to gobble and respond to the call.
Because of their vocal nature, western birds typically can be called to more aggressively. I prefer loud diaphragms, box calls and aluminum friction calls. My Knight and Hale Silver Queen aluminum call seems to elicit gobbles out West when nothing else will. Hunters can also call birds longer distances in the West. It is nothing for a bird to come 200-500 yards in Montana, but in Alabama, you need to be 75-100 yards before you ever make your first call. Loud and aggressive is my rule of thumb in the West. I like loud yelps, cutts, and cackles to get Rio and Merriam’s gobblers fired up and headed my way. Once I find a call that gets a bird fired up, I pour it on him and try to keep his attention. Generally, if you can keep him talking, you will also keep him coming your way.
Glassing is also a great tactic on western gobblers. The open spaces that western birds inhabit, lend themselves to the use of optics. You can find a high point and see birds sometimes miles away, and you definitely would not be able to float a call that far. With glassing, you can often locate birds quickly, determine if there is a mature tom in the group, and figure out a game plan for approach from a distance without ever disturbing the birds. Most western hunters realize the effectiveness of glassing, but we all need to remember that it works turkey hunting just like it does during pronghorn or mule deer season.
I discovered a secret weapon while hunting the West last spring that brought a ridiculous amount of birds right into my lap. I was on the quest for a wild turkey Grand Slam with a bow, and I got myself a Hazel Creek Real Hen decoy. This imposter is a mounted hen turkey, and once in sight, gobblers cannot resist. I connected with my BowTech Allegiance at a mere 4 steps on a beautiful Wyoming Merriam’s after my decoy had been molested for over 15 minutes by a dozen jakes in May last spring. This ultra real decoy brings toms in on the run, and I found that if I set up where turkeys could see it from long distances, they often came in quickly from hundreds of yards away. The Hazel Creek deke is surprisingly easy to carry, and I actually packed it in my luggage and flew with it on half a dozen trips last year. It makes turkey hunting almost unfair, ALMOST.
With my incredible passion for spring turkey hunting, I could easily turn this article into a short book. I can ramble for days about chasing gobbling toms, but we have more topics in this magazine that need to be covered. This spring, don’t miss out on one of the most fun and exciting hunting sports there is. Spring turkey hunting in the West is as good as anywhere there is, and the opportunities are seemingly endless. So when longbeards are strutting and gobbling in April and May, pick up your favorite shotgun or bow, and hit the field for what will certainly be a wonderful way to spend time in the western spring.