Learn the behaviors of the wild turkey that meanders across the West’s Big Sky Country and have a better shot at bagging one this season
So you want to bag a Merriam’s wild turkey.
Let’s start with this question: What subspecies have you hunted thus far?
Here’s why I ask.
Any comparison needs a reference point. We’ll assume that you have some level of experience with Eastern wild turkeys, our country’s most common and widespread subspecies, and are considering heading west to engage with Merriam’s turkeys in the vast and magnificent landscapes they call home.
If you are primarily an Osceola or Florida turkey hunter, you are hunting an Eastern turkey adapted to the wetlands of the Florida peninsula, so you have a similar baseline.
And if your experience is only with Rio Grandes (hello there, Texans and other southern plainsmen and women!), you’ll discover that Merriam’s behave more like Rios than they do Easterns. The kind of big country that both birds inhabit drives that.
Meet the Merriam’s wild turkey
Let’s start with this: A wild turkey is a wild turkey no matter where it is found. The subtleties of appearance, and that alone, are the only “real” difference across the various subspecies—feathers. The rest of the variations are all behavioral: mere adaptations to the countryside each bird inhabits.
For Merriam’s, that countryside is the mountain West. While these birds can (and often do) live on actual mountains, foothills are more the norm. That said, river bottoms—often replete with riverside timber and lush hay and grain fields, not to mention adjoining benchlands—also harbor countless Merriam’s.
Where agriculture in the form of grain isn’t readily available to Merriam’s turkeys, these birds do not grow as big, on average, as Eastern turkeys. Most Merriam’s gobblers I have shot average maybe 17 or 18 pounds, as opposed to 20 (and sometimes amply more, depending on that state and place) for Easterns.
Many hunters covet that classic Merriam’s tailfan, all tipped and adorned with stark white. They are stunning; but not every gobbler carries that white-tipped gene, and in many places (especially where Merriam’s and Rios and sometimes even Easterns have been mixed via stockings, and the birds do freely interbreed), cream- to bronze-tipped birds exist.
A friend once passed up a perfectly good shot at a Merriam’s gobbler that didn’t exhibit the classic white-tipped-and-fringed tailfan.
“You did what?” I asked.
Oh well, to each his own.
Another (and, to me, bigger) reason to hunt Merriam’s turkeys is the landscape they lure you to. The bird originated in and was limited to Arizona, New Mexico, and southern Colorado, but stocking has taken them far and wide. They are now the Turkey of the West (I just made that one up, but it’s true) with Montana, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Nebraska now holding Merriam’s birds.
South Dakota’s Black Hills are a classic place to hunt Merriam’s, but, for my money, Montana is even better. I have also shot them in Nebraska and on the South Dakota prairie, and Colorado—down in the Merriam’s native range—is on my hit list.
Another allure of the Merriam’s: public land hunting can be good to great for these turkeys in the ample spaces of the wide-open West. One of the challenges can be finding the birds, but every species has its challenges, and we’ll get into that next.
The Merriam’s wild turkey lifestyle
Merriam’s country is invariably big. Birds in agricultural areas can be scouted, studied, and patterned, much like Easterns and, sometimes, Rios can. But true wilderness birds—out on the range, up in the foothills, or working the high prairie—are vagabonds of the highest order.
From the moment they hit the ground in the morning until sunset, Merriam’s never seem to quit moving unless they decide to shade up in the middle of the day. There’s a little tip in that for you.
One of the reasons these big-country birds never stop is that they have to keep moving to find forage. Whether it’s pine nuts, acorns in the oak brush, grubs and worms, seeds from prairie grasses, meadow forbs, tubers in the woods, early spring bugs, you name it: mobility is the name of the game.
In treed country, where birds aren’t as visible to the scouting eye, you will have an even harder time trying to “pattern” a flock of Merriam’s. That’s why your mobility in hunting them is so important, and, frankly, so much fun. The birds will often just roost where they are, then fly down and keep going the next day. No other subspecies of wild turkey will lead you on such a long journey.
Where the countryside is less treed, you have a better chance of locating where the birds go to bed and where you might hunt them in the morning. Note: if a roost is well-used, never hunt close to it lest you spook the birds away from it for good.
One final and important note on the Merriam’s lifestyle: these birds find safety in numbers, and, in my opinion, tend to stay “flocked up” in big groups longer than other subspecies of turkey as spring takes hold. Yes, nesting hens will go off by themselves when the time is right, and gobbler gangs will split up some as spring progresses. But you will generally have a lot of turkey eyes and ears to contend with when hunting the gregarious Merriam’s.
How to hunt the Merriam’s wild turkey
You’ve already heard me say a wild turkey is a wild turkey wherever you find it. It’s the “wherever,” more than the bird itself, that drives how your hunting approach changes between subspecies. Here are considerations for five key aspects of successfully hunting springtime Merriam’s.
Merriam’s do seem to gobble more than other subspecies. Why? Because the country is so big, they have to keep the press on to locate a willing hen and then, once she responds, close the deal.
“In my experience, Merriam’s are big talkers,” says my friend Jack Hutson of Lewiston, Idaho, who lives and hunts in the heart of great Merriam’s country on the Idaho-Montana line. “I’ve had good success ramping up the excitement level on Merriam’s to get roosted toms sailing my way, or active ones strutting, walking, or running my way.”
If there is any subspecies of wild turkey that is susceptible, and may require some aggressive calling (i.e., loud and sustained), it is Merriam’s gobblers. If you get one gobbling and coming, keep doing what you are doing.
Yes, you will find some coy birds, but you will know them: they won’t gobble like a nutcase. Adjust accordingly.
“But Merriam’s are least likely of all the subspecies to come in silent,” says Hutson. “You usually know where they stand. That makes them fun to hunt.”
Hunt all day
If you hunt Merriam’s turkeys only for a couple of hours at and after dawn, and then again maybe toward evening, you’re missing out. Maybe really missing out.
One of my early-on Merriam’s turkey hunts, decades ago now, was with my friend and legendary Brittany man Ben O. Williams, who is also an excellent turkey hunter.
“We’ll get up and have a nice breakfast, then head out about 8:30 or 9:00 a.m.,” Ben told me the first evening. “They’ll just be getting going by then. I like to let them do their thing early on.”
That’s just Ben’s style, but it’s also just effective: Merriam’s seem to gobble better all day, compared to other subspecies, and not as suspicious at a “hen” (your calling) talking at midday.
I once called in a limb-hanger of an old Merriam’s gobbler with Ben at my side in the farthest northwest corner of South Dakota. As a May blizzard raged around us, the turkey gobbled almost nonstop and had an entourage of birds in tow. I mouth-called as loud as I could and almost nonstop for an hour to keep that bird coming, and was literally out of breath when he finally moseyed into range.
At 2:00 p.m. Lots of calling. There you go.
Don’t be a follower
We have talked about how big Merriam’s country invariably is. It’s easy to get swindled: spot a group of birds, set up, get an answer, watch them go over a hill or around a bend in the terrain, and sort of just keep following, working them, and trying to call them back.
Turkeys of any subspecies don’t like coming back to where they were. Take that to heart in the big country of big-traveling Merriam’s.
Instead, get a line on their path of travel and spend your legs and breath trying to get behind some terrain and loop ahead of the birds, then set up and call from there.
“It’s easier to call a turkey to where he wants to be anyway,” are the second-best words of turkey hunting wisdom I was gifted from one of the best turkey hunters to ever grace our planet, the late Earl Mickel, who shot a bird in every state that has turkeys, using a call made by a craftsman from that state.
Someday I will tell you his No. 1 piece of turkey hunting wisdom.
Beware the sidewinder
Like every wild turkey subspecies, Merriam’s gobblers have their pecking order. It’s fun to watch birds just duke it out, wrestle, and fight for an upper hand.
If you are calling a bird but having a hard time getting him to commit, you may be dealing with the boss. But stay alert for satellite birds sneaking in silently and hoping to horn in on a little action, attracted by the ruckus, as the big guy stands his ground.
Stretch it out
There’s a reason you came to Merriam’s country: to do something different. A lot of the turkey hunting we do these days is sedentary. But one yearns to get out there and walk, work, freelance it, and feel a special kind of tiredness in the legs at the end of the day.
With Merriam’s, that’s what you can do: move out, cover miles, maneuver for good setups, and make a lot of yakking on your calls … and just have a merry old time all the while. Do it.
Tom Carpenter is the managing editor of Pheasants Forever's quarterly membership magazine, the Journal of Upland Conservation, and an avid turkey hunter.