Hunting the Merriam’s Wild Turkey

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While they may not have the longest beards or the loudest gobbles, they are the least wary of the subspecies and Merriam’s make their home in some of the most mountainous states. This makes hunting them, at times, a physical challenge. Merriam’s can grow nearly as tall as the eastern, but they don’t typically weigh as much, topping out around 20-25 pounds.

Top States for Merriam’s Wild Turkeys

A map of the U.S. with states where Merriam's wild turkeys live highlighted in orange.


High Hunter Success Rates

Hunters find turkeys in Idaho, boasting an approximate 50% success rate every season. Hunters can also bag up to two turkeys through a general tag and one extra tag. But with all that, Idaho’s turkey country is no walk in the park. Steep terrain and rugged landscape can be challenging. And while Merriam’s rule the roost in terms of population (about 90% of all the turkeys in the Gem State), there are some huntable populations of Rio Grandes in the Idaho Falls and Boise regions.

Local Intel: Higdon Outdoors’ Beau Brooks

“When I think of turkey hunting in Idaho I think of the panhandle of northern Idaho. It is a beautiful thick forest and turkeys use the logging roads as their highways to navigate this thick landscape. There are turkeys across the whole state of Idaho, but there are some draw areas in the south and definitely a smaller population. If you’re planning a trip to Idaho, make sure you look into getting a permit to hunt the various logging companies’ lands. It will unlock a lot of great turkey habitat. Many of the areas I have hunted turkeys in Idaho, I didn’t expect there to be birds in because they were so thick. But they are there and very vocal. Plan to navigate the public land that borders private land because the majority of the birds stick close to those borders. 

“Idaho weather-wise can change like the flip of a switch. One day it could be snowing and the next day it could be 70 and sunny. Plan to walk a lot because the logging companies gate most of their roads, and keep the box call close to locate birds across the expansive valleys. Plan for setups on logging roads to find success calling in a gobbler. Idaho is definitely one of the most beautiful places to hunt turkeys in the country and keep an eye out for morel mushrooms, they’re everywhere!”

Take a closer look at Idaho:
ID Turkey Regs


A Place for Public Land Hunts

Montana has an abundance of different habitat types in which you can find turkeys. They stretch from true mountain birds in the central and western portions of the state to craggy, canyon country filled with sage further east, and what locals refer to as ‘yardbirds’ in many of the state’s small acre farm parcels throughout the state’s river bottoms. With less than 30,000 turkey hunters in the state and tens of millions of public acres accessible to the public, finding solitude is certainly doable. That said, like most of the western states, particular pockets of the state have the best turkey habitat, hold the most turkeys, and still draw plenty of hunting pressure. Merriam’s are the predominant subspecies throughout the state but there are pockets of true easterns in the northwest part of Montana and certainly some hybrids that bleed throughout the western quarter of Montana. Opening on April 15, the first couple weeks are a weather battle. Birds are certainly gobbling but to see lows in the teens and even single digits is not uncommon.

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Local Intel: Skull Bound’s Jana Waller

“Montana is not only a state that provides great public land hunting opportunities for elk, deer, bear, antelope, and other big game species but it has bountiful turkey hunting as well! I’ve been very fortunate to hunt turkeys in a number of different states and ecosystems, even notching a Texas Rio tag to complete my turkey grand slam in 2019, but I’d have to say that run-and-gun turkey hunting in the Missouri River Breaks of Montana is really hard to beat! 

“There are different areas of Montana that provide vastly different experiences when it comes to turkey hunting on public lands. I live in the Bitterroot Valley just outside of Missoula where the birds tend to flock up on the river bottoms in the winter and early Spring. They are often referred to as “yard birds” since they are often seen loitering in people’s yards and milling around horse pastures and backyard campfire pits. As the snow melts and the temperatures rise the flocks often move off the river bottoms and into the mountains, making for a more exciting typical ‘cat and mouse’ style of turkey hunt where calling and decoys actually work. 

“I’ve been heading over to the central part of Montana for the past decade to partake in an annual backcountry turkey hunt with Jason Matzinger and friends. We set up tents, disconnect from the world, and spend a few days running and gunning birds, looking for sheds and just enjoying the company of good friends in the Missouri River Breaks. The rolling hills and pockets of timber hold elk, mule deer, whitetails, and antelope and as the coulees turn green with fresh grass we typically find birds moving off the river bottoms and up into the valleys and mountains. It’s the only place I’ve ever turkey hunted where GLASSING plays a big role. If there aren’t any birds answering in the morning we’ll sit high on a ridge and use our binoculars. We often refer to these birds as ‘cliff divers’ because they pitch from one canyon to another. It’s not uncommon to chase the faint echos of gobbles only to find him strutting on the opposing ridge with a giant gorge in between you and the taunting Tom.  

“In Montana, turkey tags are over the counter and depending on which part of the state you’d  like to hunt, there are often multiple opportunities. You can get a general license good for any part of the state in both spring and fall seasons and there are often additional tags available for  either sex with any weapon in the fall. Of course, always check with the current Fish, Wildlife & Parks regulations.  

“There’s no better way to break that ‘cabin fever’ than to get into the beautiful mountains of  Montana in the Spring for bear and turkey hunts. There’s plenty of public land opportunities and the odds of stumbling across an elk or deer shed make it all the more exciting! Make sure to  download your offline maps within the Hunt App before heading out since many areas have limited cell service.”

Take a closer look at Montana:
MT Turkey Regs

New Mexico

Home to Three Subspecies

New Mexico is a unique turkey state in that it boasts being home to at least four subspecies: Merriam’s, Rios, hybrids, and Gould’s. This is made possible by the variations of habitat that can be found throughout the state. Much of the state is mountainous, which is where the Merriam’s will be found. However, several areas of the state are river valleys with open landscapes. This is where the Rio Grandes call home. The Gould’s are only located in one isolated area in the southwest corner of the state and are under strict management after several translocation projects, which involved moving Gould’s turkeys from the larger populations in Arizona. Hunting Gould’s in New Mexico only takes place through tags that are issued by raffle and auction. This leaves the most viable option being Merriam’s or Rios. There is a vast amount of public land available in New Mexico, but if you plan on coming here to hunt for the first time be sure to bring your hiking boots and have your Offline Maps downloaded because whether you choose mountains or valleys, you’re likely going to have to cover some ground.

Local Intel: onX’s Own Lake Pickle

“I can remember very clearly the first time I broke day in New Mexico in the spring. The thin mountain air made it seem like I should be able to hear every gobbling Merriam’s within a 50-mile radius. To this day I consider it one of the most beautiful places to go and hunt in the spring. One of the biggest pieces of advice that I would give to someone heading there to hunt for the first time, however, is don’t show up expecting an easy hunt. The birds of the mountain can be finicky. They like to travel. You would be amazed how much ground one Merriam’s gobbler will willingly cover in one day. They also, in my experience, are often spread out over a very large expanse of ground. Success out there for me usually required a whole lot of walking and prospecting with calls that could reach high volumes, like the pot call and box call.”

Take a closer look at New Mexico:
NM Turkey Regs

South Dakota

Get Ready to Walk

Sharing the Black Hills region with Wyoming, turkey hunting in South Dakota is all about public land opportunities. Three-quarters of the 2.3 million acres described as the Black Hills are public lands mostly managed by the U.S. Forest Service. 

Of course, anytime you can gain access to the private lands along the river bottoms, you’ll find very dense turkey populations. The Merriam’s found here were introduced to the state from New Mexico in 1948, 1950, and 1951, with the introduction of a grand total of 29 birds. These birds clearly found the habitat suitable for success as South Dakota now has well-established turkey populations across much of the state. 

A hunter aims a shotgun at a Merriam's wild turkey gobbling in a field.

Local Intel: Bartholow Brothers Shooting’s Foster Bartholow

“Being born and raised in the Black Hills of South Dakota, I’ve been fortunate to guide others on their quest for the prestigious Black Hills Merriam’s turkey, as well as personally chase after birds in the Hills and several units throughout the state.

“One thing most hunters don’t know, is our state offers opportunities to hunt several species of turkeys including Merriam’s, easterns, and Rios. Hunting these birds all come with their own challenges, so if you’re new to the area I suggest you fill up your truck with a full tank of gas, grab the binos, and get ready to put on the miles. 

“Hunting the eastern side of the state, you’ll typically find these birds in areas with tall cottonwood trees surrounded by tree belts, cornfields, and water sources. If you have a day to scout, watch these birds as typically they have a recognizable pattern they follow.

“In my experience, the public land Black Hills Merriam’s is a dream hunt come true. With the beautiful scenery of endless pine trees and hidden meadows, hunting the 1.2 million acres of public national forest lands can test even the greatest turkey hunters the woods have seen, but getting off the beaten trail and on foot is going to give you the best opportunity for success. 

“Be sure to bring your favorite turkey calls as our birds are typically wildly vocal, and try to stay at the top of the ridges when making a move on that wise gobbler. The con: with lower reported turkey numbers in the Hills and later start date coming for this year’s ’23 spring season, I expect these birds to see more pressure and wise up quick.

“If you’ve hunted South Dakota before, you know the weather shifts can go from t-shirt weather one day to late-season elk gear the next. My advice, bring extra layers, gloves, and two pairs of boots. If you get a snowstorm, don’t give up… we’ve seen some of the most insane gobbling and strutting action with a half-foot of snow on the ground.”

Take a closer look at South Dakota:
SD Turkey Regs


Outfitter or Not, Give This State a Go

Predominantly known for its Black Hills region in the northeast corner of the state, Wyoming has more opportunity than most realize. With two different season start dates for different regions, you can hunt as early as April 1 in parts of the state and all the way through the end of May. As another state with multiple draw opportunities, including the Black Hills, you need to apply in the month of January for certain tags, but over-the-counter tags are also offered in parts of the state. Turkey densities seem to dwindle the further west you go in Wyoming with the entire western fifth of the state not even open to turkey hunting. You’ll want to focus your efforts near major river systems throughout the state that have an abundance of mature cottonwoods for roost sites with proximity to agriculture. Though rich with public lands, much of the turkey habitat along river systems is private. Given Merriam’s are known to reside in larger groups later into the spring this can pose a challenge if you are unable to gain access. 

Local Intel: Hunt Club TV’s Phillip Culpepper

“If you want one, Wyoming is the place to go with undoubtedly one of the most beautiful turkey subspecies, the Merriam’s. Years ago I filmed deer hunts there before I ever turkey hunted it. When the day finally came to turkey hunt Wyoming, it was a dream come true. Like every state, it can have its ups and downs on the population, but traditionally in places where turkeys live, it has pretty solid numbers. 

“I have hunted in the Black Hills area with Seven J Outfitters, and regardless of weather conditions, you are on birds. The most frustrating thing can be nasty weather, but behind bad weather is always sunshine, and more often than not if the sun is out a turkey is gobbling somewhere. Be ready to walk and cover some miles, prepare for literally every weather condition, and don’t be afraid to yelp! Merriam’s have a high pitch to them so I always love to use a slate or glass pot call or box call. Also, the higher pitch will carry further and you will be amazed at how far you will strike a gobble on a calm day.”

Take a closer look at Wyoming:
WY Turkey Regs

Ryan Newhouse

Though raised hunting squirrels and whitetails in the South, Ryan Newhouse has spent nearly the last two decades chasing Western big game in Montana and writing professionally about his travels and the craft beers he’s consumed along the way. He loves camping, fishing, boating, and teaching his two kids the art of building campfires and playing the ukulele. And yes, he’s related to Sewell Newhouse, inventor of the steel animal traps.