Jani’s Best Tips for Hunting Western Turkeys

by Braxton Taylor

Hunting turkeys out west is a blast. I cut my teeth hunting turkeys in Nebraska and have honed my western turkey hunting tactics in Montana over the last ten years. The Merriam’s and Rios that inhabit these landscapes are not that different from their Eastern cousins. Sure, there are nuanced differences, like the deeper sound of an Eastern’s gobble or the often worn-down spurs of a Merriam’s. But they all yelp, they all gobble, they all roost in trees—you get my point. That’s why most of my tips have to do with the terrain rather than the birds themselves.

Be Prepared to Walk

Although there are certain zones where densities of turkeys rival those of the east, much of western turkey country, especially in the latter half of the season, can have sparse numbers. It’s big country, and turkeys like to wander. They spread out to utilize the best of what the landscape has to offer.

Covering a lot of country by foot or truck is a necessity. I prefer to walk because the exercise is nice and it’s a better way to enjoy the woods. But driving and stopping to glass and shock gobble will also work. I like to work a main ridge system that lets me access the upper end of many smaller ridges and drainages. Hopefully, every half-mile or so, I’m calling into a new valley. Soon enough, one will have a gobbler that’s ready to play.

Stay Off Ridges and Skylines

Instead, use the ridges to your advantage when moving in on a bird. Western turkey country can be wide open, and turkeys use their eight-power eyesight to its fullest extent out there. Walking to the top of a ridge is pleasurable: it’s easier walking and the views are prettier.

But you stick out like a sore thumb to any turkey on the next ridge over and sometimes two ridges over. This rule should be used for hunting any critter out west. Instead, walk just off of the ridge-top and pop up every 100 yards or so to glass or call.

Try Different Calls

The sound of a gobble can literally be heard for miles in the right conditions. The western woods are sparser than eastern deciduous forests, and thus, the sound of a gobble can travel a long way. Other factors also come into play in how the sound carries. Is it a stiff breeze or dead quiet? Any wind noise will quiet a gobble. Is the wind coming toward you or blowing at your back? Is it a humid morning or dry as can be? Dry air carries sound further; damp, humid air limits it.

Try any and all sounds you know to shock gobble a bird. I stood there with my wife and brother by my side in disbelief after trying owl hoots, crow calls, loud yelps from a box call, and even yelling without getting a gobbler to answer. It was our first hunt in a drainage that almost always held a gobbler.

My wife urged me to try an excited cutting sequence on my diaphragm (she must’ve seen it work in the past). So I did, and low and behold, right below us, not 200 yards away, a crisp and clear gobble cut the wind. We never did kill that bird but we had a lot of fun chasing him and his two hens for the next two hours.

The point is, give it time and give it different sounds, when trying to shock gobble a western bird. Maybe the bird was in a bit of a depression and couldn’t hear your first attempts. Maybe you just didn’t hit quite the right note or tone with your previous calls. Whatever the reason, if you’re standing on a prominent precipice overlooking beautiful turkey habitat, don’t just hit the crow call once and walk away. Sit down, enjoy the view, soak it in, and give them everything you’ve got, twice! I’ve seen coyote howls, cattle moos, dog barks, and many other loud noises get a response.

turkey sit

Glass

Use the wide-open terrain to your advantage. Turkeys are out feeding all day, and as they filter in and out of glades of ponderosa or a cottonwood grove along a river bottom they can be visible from a long distance. If the morning roost hunt didn’t work out or you’re still struggling to strike up your first gobble, take a mid-morning break and glass for a few hours.

Those shiny, dark birds have a hard time hiding from a pair of 8’s. That’s right, go small when choosing binos for a turkey hunt. You mostly just need to identify them as turkeys and not crows or ravens. If there’s a strutter in the group, it’ll be apparent.

Don’t be Afraid to Hunt High

I’ve seen turkeys as high as 10,000 feet in Colorado. Just like other critters, turkeys will follow the snow line up a mountain, seeking out young, fresh forage. And sometimes high means steep. There’s no country too steep for a mountain Merriam’s. I’ve hunted them in terrain where you always set up on the uphill side of a tree for fear of rolling down the hill if you do otherwise.

If this sounds like elk hunting to you, it’s because they can live in the same habitat. Add an elk bugle to your list of shock gobbles to try.

turkey walk

Use the Terrain

You will rarely have vegetation to aid in your cover. If you get lucky, there might be a downed tree to sit in front of that breaks up your outline, but often, you end up sitting at the base of a ponderosa pine that doesn’t have a branch until six feet up.

From a turkey’s perspective, the camoed lump at the base of that tree is much different than every other tree he’s looked at that day. You’re not quite waving a flag, but I’ve been picked off plenty of times, especially when I’ve been calling, and there’s supposed to be a hen feeding at the base of that tree instead of the odd-looking lump.

That’s why I like to set up in a spot that has some kind of roll in the terrain about 30 to 40 yards away in the direction of the turkey. This way, if he’s coming to your call, he has to commit to looking over that roll, or horizon line, to see the spot where the hen should be. When he does, he should be in range.

The one thing that can get tricky with this setup is if he’s coming in silent, you don’t know where to expect his head to pop up and, consequently, where to aim your gun. To help yourself, make a couple of soft yelps or scratch the ground if you haven’t heard him for a few minutes. When he gobbles, adjust your aim.

If he does pop up ninety degrees to your point of aim, wait for his head to go behind the trunk of a tree and make a quick move. If he’s only forty-five degrees off of your gun barrel, just make a quick shift and shoot him. That motion will certainly get his attention, but he will usually give you enough time to aim and pull the trigger.

Bushwhack Him if He Doesn’t Want to Play

My turkey days are limited, and my main goal is to come home with a bird—I’m not above bushwhacking a gobbler. The lack of deciduous trees across the west makes for a lack of crunchy leaves on the forest floor, which makes for extremely silent walking, or running, if that’s what it takes. If the gobbler won’t come to your call, most often because he’s already got hens, make an educated guess on their direction of travel, get ahead of them by a couple hundred yards, and let them come to you.

The quiet groundcover makes it a breeze to accomplish this with stealth. Turkeys, like almost all game, love to cross saddles. If they’re working up a draw, they are almost sure to cross in the saddle versus going over a high point. A similar funnel can be found with creeks. If a creek pushes towards the edge of a field from inside the woods, that creates a pinch between the field and creek.

If the turkeys are using the woods, they’ll most likely come through that pinch instead of flying over the creek. If they walk by your first ambush spot out of gun range, don’t blow it by spooking them. Instead, let them get over the next rise and circle them again. Eventually, they’ll feed within range.

Keep a low profile, stretch your legs, and enjoy the gorgeous vistas of western turkey country. And if anyone tells you that hunting Merriam’s or Rios out west is easy or easier than Easterns—ask them how many western birds they’ve killed. Their answer will explain their ignorance. The western hunt is a different bird for sure, but it’s not easier by any means.

jani's turkey tips

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