Patience on the Prairie

For me, there is no better subspecies of wild turkey than the Merriam’s.

Maybe it is the constant gobbles they fire off at every call, the beautiful white barring on the tail and covert feathers, the mountainous type of terrain they most often occupy, or maybe it is just because it is the subspecies I chased in Wyoming at the beginning of this addiction plaguing me each spring. No matter the reason, when I got an invitation from a hunting industry contact to pursue turkeys in Colorado this spring, I was eager to make it work. What made it even better is that fellow Team HUNT member and onX employee Zach Sandau would join me and several other hunters in camp.

I touched down in Colorado Springs late on a Thursday. By mid-morning Friday, Zach and I were picked up and headed to our outfitter just outside of Trinidad, Colorado. The terrain wasn’t quite like Zach or I expected. Instead of making our way towards the high country, we started east onto the prairie and came to a ranch bordered by a cottonwood-filled river bottom.

Man in camouflage placing a turkey decoy while hunting near Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Despite not being surrounded by the snow-capped peaks to the west, our event host, Mike, assured us our outlooks would change because this place was “filthy with turkey!” It didn’t take long to see how right he was. By five o’clock that evening, we looked down on an alfalfa field filled with more than 50 birds. They were flocked up, but we knew we had a chance to catch them coming off the roost trees scattering the river bottom only 100 yards away.

The #1 GPS Hunting App
Private and Public Land Boundaries, GPS Tools, and All the Info You Need to Succeed.

With daylight quickly closing, we headed off to sight in the Tru-Glo Gobble-Stoppers atop our Browning Maxus shotguns. A couple rounds of Federal’s 3rd Degree through the barrel and I was ready to go. That night we all chatted about our morning hunt plans. Since the farm was covered with turkey, we decided to hunt in two waves. I would hunt the morning, and Zach would hunt the afternoon. We also decided to hunt from blinds, because the outfitter preferred we didn’t run and gun and risk pushing the birds off the property.

It was getting late, but I still scouted the ranch and plotted the location of the blinds using my onX Hunt App. This may seem silly to do while hunting a private ranch, but I have learned it never hurts to know your boundaries in case the birds don’t cooperate. That night, I barely slept. Morning would bring opening day of turkey season in Colorado.

My alarm went off at 4:45 a.m. and I threw on my camo. I was lucky enough to draw the blind closest to where we saw birds the night before, so I checked my diaphragm, pot and box calls to ensure they were prepped for first light. I stashed a granola bar and a bottle of water in the back of my ALPS turkey vest, picked up a variety of turkey decoys and Mike and I were off into the darkness.

The sky was barely lit due to a new moon, so we stumbled down the farm road and across the green alfalfa field under dim starlight. Only one hour ‘til shooting light. We raced to place our small group of decoys in front of the blind. It was a mixed bag of Primos, Avian-X, and Montana Decoy turkeys, but our spread looked good. The first gobble rang out under the cover of darkness. The cold of the morning made it sound close; maybe 100 yards away.

Turkey hunting blind set in a field for hunting near Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Light slowly crept into the sky and the trees came alive. Yelps and gobbles filled the air, and I knew there was a chance this could be a quick morning. Through my binos, I saw the trees lining the river were loaded with roosted birds. Fly-down came, and the birds pitched off in the direction of one of the other hunters. I hoped he would be lucky enough to get a shot on ol’ tom. And since he was packing a crossbow, there was little chance he would bugger up the birds even if he did punch his tag. We waited.

The first bird stepped out into the field, its gaze locked on our spread. A few soft yelps was all it took for the bird to begin an all-out sprint in our direction. The bird slowed about 25 yards to the right of the blind and let out a half-hearted gobble. It was a Jake. He milled about our decoys and proceeded to yelp and make further attempts at gobbling. We let him walk. Shortly after, more turkeys filtered out into the field, this time from the corner of the field closest to the other hunter. I imagined clowns piling out of a tiny car as the birds poured into the field. Before long, there were dozens of birds within view, and bringing up the rear was ol’ tom.

We called, but the birds made it clear they had an agenda. They headed to a high point overlooking the field so the hens could eat and the gobbler could strut for his ladies. Based on the previous evening, we knew there were more birds in the area. We continued to aggressively call, and a gobble rang out. This was no jake. He read the script and came to our calling and the decoys just like he was supposed to, but we decided to pass. It was not even an hour into the hunt and he appeared to be just a two-year-old bird.

Have you ever let a game animal walk and regretted it moments after it had passed? I soon began to feel this way as our “young” bird made his way atop the hill housing the monster flock, and proceeded to strut all over the place unchallenged by the other mature bird. From my years of hunting Merriam’s in the west, I should have remembered that it is best to not judge the maturity of a bird by its beard size as they can easily break off from exposure to harsh winters. It appeared Mike and I made a mistake.

Even with a missed opportunity, we enjoyed watching the flock of turkeys mill about the neighboring hill. There were easily more than 30 birds, and we knew the number would grow. Six hens came through our decoys, with a jake bringing up the rear. We watched five more longbeards break into the open, all joined the flock atop the hill. The final count was 54 turkeys, with at least seven mature toms. We were now more than two hours into the hunt.

Man with Merriam's turkey shot in a green field near Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Since the birds were flocked up and we had missed bagging a bird off the roost, we knew we would play the waiting game. The birds would eventually finish their morning meal and retire back to the cover of the river bottom. Another hour passed and the hens started to break. They came down from their perch and began working back through the alfalfa with all seven toms in tow. Mike and I knew it was now or never, and we both began working our turkey calls. A few hens split from the flock and brought two toms with them. I shouldered my shotgun and patiently waited. The toms were moving within range but I still had to wait for them to split.

Finally, the birds hit the decoys and a gobbler stepped away from the small group to strut. I let him do his dance, and upon breaking strut, he elevated his head. My shotgun rang out – Colorado Merriam’s turkey down! The flock took off towards the cover of the cottonwoods, and Mike and I gathered up my bird. Zach was up next. He too experienced the waiting game of hunting flocked up turkeys, but also punched his tag that day. The Team HUNT crew was tagged out.

Now at home, I reflect on my hunt. Yes, it was a first-morning kill. And while my turkey won’t break any records kept by the National Wild Turkey Federation, I can’t help but think how special this hunt really was. I got the chance to return to my turkey hunting roots and pursue Merriam’s turkey – a bird that in my lifetime has seen tremendous population growth in Colorado. And I also had gotten to share the trip with a friend.

Last updated: July 2018.

Written by Scott Mathson