April is right around the corner and that means turkey season is almost here. The time of year that I look forward to most being in the woods. Chasing western Merriam's turkeys can be a lot different than your typical eastern turkeys across the majority of the United States. The terrain alone can be overwhelming for someone who has not experienced the vast country of the Western United States that these birds inhabit. After hunting Meriams in Montana and Washington state for 10+ years there are a few things I do to insure the most successful season possible.
The first thing to always do is identify suitable habitat that the turkeys use on a daily basis. Looking at maps can be a lot to take in especially the size of our western states. So breaking down a certain area can make it easier for you. Turkeys need three things in a relatively close proximity to each other. Roost trees, open terrain for food, and water. So making sure an area has all these together will increase your success and pinpoint locations to start. The most ideal thing to do would be to get boots on the ground and physically scout. Looking for scat, tracks, feathers and the birds the selves will help you locate the areas they like to hangout in. I like to be as non intrusive as possible and use my binos from a distance to make sure I do not put pressure on the turkeys before the season starts.
For a lot of you physically scouting for turkeys is just not possible, but luckily there are some great tools at your disposal. First and foremost using online mapping tools like onX maps is a great way to identify turkey habitat. I myself spend most of my winter looking for ideal habitat and marking locations for me to check out either opening day or the days leading up to the opener. When I first get on the maps I use the satellite imagery layer. I want to find tree’s specifically pine trees over most of the landscape but not overwhelmingly thick. Turkeys like what I call “broken country” open creek bottoms, meadows and sage flats with the pine tree’s scattered sparaticly through the area. This is ensuring the turkeys have their roost tree’s but also has food available with the open spaces at their disposal.
Next I use the topographic layer. I do this because it shows the more permanent water features like creeks, ponds and springs. The second reason is to show the elevation gain from the hill sides that could create good roosting trees or fly down areas that the birds like to use. Finding water can be hard especially in drought years so having this feature can really help pinpoint water the turkeys could be using. Of course the feature I leave on no matter what is my property layers showing the public and private lands to make sure you are staying legal. A lot of land in the west is not marked and it is your responsibility to know where you are at all times.
After you have located prime turkey habitat and you have found turkeys to hunt it can be harder to kill one then one may think. Although Merriams are known to gobble a lot more frequently than their Eastern counterparts. They do this because they are constantly moving and it can be miles in a day. So staying with a flock/gobbler or getting in front of them as they move can be really key to harvesting a tom. Having a good set of boots that can handle the up and down terrain will keep you on your feet all day. I like to use the Kestrel boots for most of my hunts as they are lightweight and very durable for the rugged terrain you may be in when chasing Merriam's turkeys.
If you are lucky enough to come out west and chase these white tipped turkeys remember the resources that are available to you. Don’t be afraid to call the region biologists and ask about where you are thinking about going. They won’t give you specific spots but will let you know general areas that hold turkeys and how the numbers have been fairing over the last year or two. Using the information from them and some of these keys that I use for success. Hopefully it will put a long beard in your lap.