Finding them is half the battle. Looking for prairie gobblers is a bit like hunting elk in September; time and miles pass quickly as the hunt progresses. But all it takes is one confrontation.
Many sportsmen don't even know we have wild turkeys in western Canada. Limited in numbers, but thriving as stable populations in many regions, Alberta, British Columbia, and Manitoba offer quality hunting opportunities. While Ontario, in the East, has the largest numbers of birds, I was looking to harvest a bird in my own corner of Canada. Alberta in particular, allocates only 50 tags each spring for hunters to try their skill at taking a Merriam's turkey in the Porcupine Hills northeast of Pincher Creek.
Prior to my first turkey hunt, I marveled at the sensational stories told by visiting American hunters. But if anyone tried to convince me of how difficult these critters were to hunt, I basically laughed in their face. After all, a bird is just a bird, right? How smart can they really be?
Well, I've got broad shoulders, and I'm not afraid to admit when I'm wrong. Following nearly a full week of hunting these cagey birds, I have a newfound respect for this much sought after game bird. A true convert, I'm now of the opinion that wild turkeys offer one of the most sporting hunts in North America.
It was in March of 1999 as I filtered through my junk mail, that I noticed one letter in particular. It was the coveted spring hunt draw results. Alberta has a limited entry draw for Merriam's Turkeys and following five successive years of application, I knew my time was drawing near. Tearing the envelope open, I was elated to see that yes, in fact, the word 'successful' appeared to the right of the application code. My hunting partner, Darryl Kublik, and I were going after gobblers and there was a pile of work to do if we were going to tip the odds in our favor.
Planning for a turkey hunt is quite an ordeal. Everything from pre-season scouting to acquiring and practicing calls, gathering topographic maps and researching turkey behavior are commonplace. It took both Darryl and I combining efforts and accessing personal contacts to get all the information in place.
With the season open the entire month of May in Alberta's Wildlife Management Unit 305, first on our list was to contact local Natural Resources Service biologist, Richard Quinlin in Claresholm; he's the biologist responsible for overseeing the turkeys in WMU 305. Our conversation was very interesting. He shared a little of the history of the bird as an introduced species. We learned that since their first introduction to the Cypress Hills in 1962, Fish and Wildlife authorities have made numerous attempts to introduce the Merriam's turkey into various southern regions of the province. In 1963 and 1973, a combination of hatchery-raised and wild-trapped birds were transplanted from Nebraska to Alberta's Porcupine Hills Forest Reserve.
Recent bird counts indicate the Porcupine Hills turkeys number approximately 250 birds in the spring and increase to as many as 500 in the fall. Hunting opportunities are made available only to Alberta residents through a limited entry draw system, so competition with other hunters is limited. Each special license, in combination with a Game Bird permit, allows the hunter to take one bearded turkey. The best tip we received from Richard was that Merriam's turkeys favor open deciduous forests and forest edges -a good bit of information, but not enough. So I called Scott Bennett at Mossy Oak.
My 10 minute conservation with him was worth its weight in gold. He said, "do your best to find a roost. Merriam's turkeys generally roost in larger evergreens up high on ridges in the evening as the sun goes down". Then, according to him, it was simple, "start your day long before sunrise, move in and set up your decoys and begin calling just as legal light presents itself. If all goes well, the gobbler will fly down and approach in curiosity". Excellent information, we took this to heart and based most of our strategic planning on the very premise that turkeys roost high and work their way down into valleys for mid-day feeding.
Calling is critical
Hunting turkeys without a call is like trying to cut grass without a lawnmower. Sure you can always get out there on hands and knees with a pair of shears, but frankly, it's not all that productive. There's a reason so many manufacturers sell turkey calls; quite simply, calling works.
The months of April and May are prime breeding times for turkeys. During this period, jakes, toms and even hens become increasingly vocal. Putts, clucks, purrs and a plethora of varied sounds are made by both sexes. Each has its time and place and more importantly knowing when to mimic which sound can bring a turkey on the run; and let me tell you, when they get cranked up, the guttural gobble of a mature tom is spine-tingling!
Locator calls emulating a crow, owl, woodpecker or coyote howl are commonly used by proven turkey hunters. I'll admit, while I still believe in these calls, they didn't prompt as much response as I'd hoped for, but it was my first outing.
Turkey calls mimicking a range of natural vocalizations, now that's a different story! Much of our hunt involved trial and error. Employing a Lohman box call for most circumstances, we'd begin each set-up with a series of putts and clucks. Due to windy conditions and the need to project sound further, our box calls were most frequently used. Even for a neophyte turkey hunter, box calls are simple to use and capable of producing a variety of different sounds.
Making the shot
Merriam's, like other turkeys, can be hunted all day long. This was sage advice passed on by another friend south of the border. Our experience proved a variation of this bold statement. Yes, they can be hunted throughout the daylight hours, but there were definitely prime times to focus on specific areas. Consistently, the first hour of daylight was most critical. If a gobbler was going to make noise, it would be right at sunrise. As the sun ascends higher in the sky, vocalizations became sporadic at best, and it becomes increasingly difficult to prompt a tom to give away his location in the heat of the day. Having said this, Darryl and I managed to find birds throughout the day by covering lots of territory and calling frequently. We had encounters with birds moving too fast, or in the wrong direction making for a virtually impossible shot opportunity. By day three we were realizing how wary and astute these birds really are.
Day four, however, proved to be one both of us would have engraved in our mental hunting diaries forever. In the pre-dawn darkness, we began our ritual hike to a series of ridges we knew to hold at least three different gobblers and what we estimated to be half a dozen hens. Settling under a canopy of large pines, we found an area with plenty of sign. The ground was littered with turkey dung and lots of tracks. Yelping a box call, we were immediately cut off by a distant gobble. Now all we had to do was sneak to within 100 meters, set up and call again.
Fifteen minutes later, we were in position, each sitting on the ground backed up against a large tree. Fully camouflaged, and each strategically located 20 meters from the decoys, I began with a series of calls. In a matter of minutes a hen followed close behind by a jake materialized 35 meters from Darryl. To my disappointment however, they slipped by, apparently not even noticing the decoys.
Staying put, we continued our vigil and suddenly from not too far off in another direction we heard the distinctive flapping of feathers as a turkey came down off the roost. A fascinating phenomenon, they sound clumsy, beating their wings in an effort to soften the landing. Unfortunately all that came of this occurrence was a lone hen meandering to within 12 meters of Darryl . . . but no gobbler!
Another half hour passed and the woods became silent. At this point our enthusiasm was suffering a little.
With the morning hours waning, we decided to explore a completely new area with entirely different habitat. It was around noon that we sat ourselves down on a ridge overlooking a vast valley. Carefully glassing, we strained to pick up any movement. Spotting only one deer and a moose on a distant hillside, no turkeys were seen.
Only after moving further down the valley did our luck take a 180 degree turn. After covering no more than a few hundred meters, all of a sudden an incredibly loud gobble echoed across the valley. We estimated the call came from nearly a half kilometer away. With no breeze whatsoever, the still, hot conditions of the day were perfect for carrying sound. Not a word was uttered. With a brief glance and a grin, we were off! We knew if the gobbler was that vocal in the heat of the day, chances were good that he'd come to the call!
Trudging down into the deep valley and up the other side, we made a best guess as to where the sound came from. By this time, nearly an hour had passed. We were having serious doubts as to whether the bird would still be nearby.
Moving to a plateau of open clearings, a matrix of tall grasses and medium-sized aspens looked to offer the perfect habitat, so we erected the Feather-flex decoys
and each quickly selected a nearby tree. I had just placed my pack on the ground when not more than 75 meters away I heard a turkey emitting a series of soft putts. But this wasn't a relaxed vocalization. It was more of an alarm sound.
Snatching my pack from the ground, I hurried to an appropriate tree facing the sound. I immediately began calling with my Lohman box call. No sooner had I stopped when a loud, aggressive gobble erupted not far up the hill. Exchanging vocalizations for the better part of 30 minutes, Darryl and I were convinced at one point that the bird was moving away from us. What we were about to experience in the coming minutes can only be described as pure ecstasy for a turkey hunter. Not only did the tom turn and begin to approach, but what we thought was one bird miraculously materialized into three! Between them, they gobbled at least 20 times as we patiently waited them out.
As their calls grew louder, a bright red head and a dark black body with iridescent feathers appeared at a distance of 45 meters. Strutting one after the other, in single-file, they made their way toward Darryl. Still oblivious to our decoys, they proceeded in a wide circle.
Eventually the lead gobbler moved to within 18 meters. With a loud boom, the valley echoed as Darryl took his bird! Happy to see one down, I'll admit that I was hoping we'd both get an opportunity. At that point I considered grabbing my call, but amid the confusion, the birds didn't really know what had happened. With one dropping out of sight, the others trotted around in visible chaos. Fortunately, Darryl had the presence of mind to immediately grab his call and begin sounding off like a lovesick hen. The combined sound and realism of the decoys was enough to give me the extra few seconds needed to take the only shot possible. Just prior to disappearing in the tall grass, a mature tom stepped into view at 40 meters. Locking the bead of my Remington 12-gauge on his head, I touched off a shot. Following another thunderous boom, the second bird hit the ground hard.
We were ecstatic! Not only had we anchored one, but two of these magnificent birds in one set-up! With an average of between four and six gobblers killed each year in this small unit, we wondered if any other hunters had accomplished this feat in Alberta.
This was definitely a hunt to remember.
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