Wild Turkeys Of Montana

Jan 7 13:27 2009 Marlene Affeld Print This Article

Watching a flock of wild turkey move across a Montana meadow is a fine sight. They forage, yelp and gobble, oblivious to the plight of millions of their domesticated brothers doomed to grace holiday tables. If you are a wild turkey living in Montana, it is highly unlikely that you will ever wind up in the oven.

Watching a flock of wild turkey move across a Montana meadow is a fine sight. They forage,Guest Posting yelp and gobble, oblivious to the plight of millions of their domesticated brothers doomed to grace holiday tables. If you are a wild turkey living in Montana, it is highly unlikely that you will ever wind up in the oven.

Once non-existent, Montana’s wild turkey population is flourishing. Distinguished from other birds by their impressive size, iridescent bronze-colored plumage and naked bluish head, wild turkeys are a prized addition to the state’s diverse upland game bird population.

Although the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopova) is native to North America and was an important staple in the Native Indian diet across most of America, it is only in the last fifty years that the succulent bird could be found in Montana.

Merriam turkeys are actually native to Colorado and were introduced into central Montana in 1954 with 13 birds obtained from our Colorado neighbors. In 1955 another 18 birds from Wyoming stock were introduced to Montana. The hardy new residents thrived and as their population grew surplus birds were trapped and transported to other parts of the state.

Presently there are about thirty Merriam’s turkey flocks with huntable sized populations in about seven areas of the state. Hunted in Montana since 1958, wild turkeys have become a favored game bird. Montana has both a spring and fall gobbler season, but don’t be too worried about the turkey. Successful turkey hunting takes a very high degree of skill and luck. Wild turkeys are wary, have very keen hearing and eyesight and a seemingly magical ability to disappear during hunting season.

Mt.gov, Montana’s Official Website offers the following information and tips for turkey hunters:

“Montana has a spring gobbler season and an either-sex fall season. Hunters are required to purchase a turkey tag in addition to a bird and conservation license. Hunters are allowed one wild turkey per special tag holder per special season. Popular hunting areas include the Long Pines and Ashland areas of the Custer National Forest and portions of Fergus County and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Specific information on season hunting dates, open and closed areas, and other information on regulations can be obtained from the turkey regulations for the spring and fall hunts.

Consistently, successful turkey hunting for toms requires a high degree of skill. Wild turkeys are extremely wary and possess keen color vision and good hearing ability.

Finding a place to hunt turkeys in the spring does not present major problems since much hunting in eastern Montana occurs on either U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or Bureau of Land Management land. But finding turkeys can present a problem. Preseason scouting for sign left by turkeys is the best way to find a good hunting area. Signs to look for are roost trees, droppings, feathers, scratch and dusting areas. Also, listen for gobbling. Make a note of feeding areas. In the timbered areas, preferred roost trees are tall, over- mature and dead ponderosa pines that are sheltered from high winds. A lot of the turkey range east of the Continental Divide is on private property. You must have permission to hunt turkeys on private property.

Climbing a high butte during late afternoon and scanning the open park areas with a spotting scope is a good way to spot turkeys. If any toms are in the vicinity, chances are good they will be out in the open going through their courtship display. Once you spot a tom, mark his location and arrive there early the next morning before he leaves the roost tree. Some hunters use an owl hooter during the early morning to get roosted birds to call back. Hooters are commercial mouth-blown devices that imitate a large owl's hoot. Once a gobbler is located, the hunter can move in quietly, then hide and use his turkey call.

If you don't hear a bird gobble of its own volition, move through the woods and make several hen yelps every 300 to 400 yards. Such calling should be done only from a location where you can hide quickly and also have a good view of the surroundings.

  • Be in the woods by the crack of dawn because this is when the breeding-age toms begin sounding off with lusty gobbles audible half a mile away on a still morning. Breeding-age toms do most of their gobbling during the first two hours of daylight, but during the height of the mating season, an occasional gobble may be heard at any time of the day.

  • If you hear more than one tom gobbling, move in on the closest tom as fast as possible. Stalking a more distant tom may result in a busted stalk.

  • When calling to a tom on the roost early in the morning, a couple of soft, sleepy clucks works better than the hen yelp. A tom is reluctant to respond to a love yelp so early in the morning.

  • Whether you wear camouflage or not, your clothing should blend with the foliage around you. Although some hunters swear by facial camouflage and clothing, other good hunters are inclined to believe one's movements spook turkeys.

  • Where should you take a stand? After a gobbler sounds, try to move within 200 yards of his position and then choose a stand in a fairly open area. As a general rule, turkeys avoid thickets that could conceal an enemy. A turkey likes a certain amount of ground cover within the timber to make it feel secure. However, the ground cover must be open enough to instantly afford the turkey good vision, allow it to walk without touching or coming into bodily contact with thick ground growth and assure it quick wing action and passage if need be. Turkeys are like any other animals-their behavior is mostly directed toward survival. Once you are on a stand, sit still and be patient. Smoking, coughing and other unnecessary movements simply do not fit into the strategic plan for hunting turkeys.

  • Try to get uphill and on the same ridge as a gobbler. It's the easiest place to call from. Turkeys are a lot easier to call uphill than downhill.

  • When selecting a calling site, look for a tree with a good thick base. Sit in front of it, and use it as a backrest.

  • Weather conditions play a big part in the success of the spring gobbler hunt. A day that starts with a clear, cool morning and no wind is a good choice for hunting turkeys. Eastern Montana unfortunately has its share of inclement weather during the spring turkey season. Cold weather-especially when coupled with a foot of snow-usually dampens the amorous attitudes of gobblers, making calling almost useless. If such weather conditions occur, stay home, practice your calls, read up on the life history of the wild turkey and hope for a better day.

  • Although rifles are legal, most turkey hunters prefer using a 12-gauge shotgun with a full choke and using 0.2 or No. 4 shot. Turkeys are big, tough birds, and their vital organs are tucked away beneath heavy, metallic-colored feathers. Breeding-age toms also have what is called a breast sponge, which acts like a flak jacket. It's a large mass of fatty tissue that helps them remain in prime physical condition during the breeding season. Wild turkeys also have blinding speed afoot, and even a broken wing seldom results in a turkey in the oven. Because a turkey's body is nothing less than a miniature armored-tank, preferred areas to shoot at are head and neck.

Selecting a call presents a bewildering problem for the beginner, especially if he asks for advice - few turkey hunters are likely to agree on a selection. This diversity is understandable, since calls differ widely in appearance and method of operation.

One of the most popular and easiest to use is the large hinged-type box call. The top edges of the box are beveled and are chalked by the user. By drawing the paddle or lid very slowly and gently across either lip, the low, seductive mating yelp of a hen can be imitated. Concentrate your efforts on learning to imitate only the hen yelps and clucks. These are really the only two calls you have to learn for a successful hunt. The yelp is soft and plaintive and usually uttered in a series of threes. Visualize it as: "kee-yuk, kee-yuk, kee-yuk . . . . key-yuk, key-yuk". It must be done pleadingly with medium-pitched sounds, and with each perk ending on a rising inflection. A calling sequence should start with four or five yelps.

The rhythm of the yelping sequence is far more important than the tone, and this is what you should try to perfect when calling. Surprisingly enough, some hens will produce yelps that are really off key. When the hen is responsive to the gobbler, her call is snappy and to the point. As soon as you make some hen yelps, the tom will usually respond quickly with a gobble. Make a second call soon after the first to convince him that he really heard what he thought he did. Then, remain quiet for a while, regardless of how much he keeps gobbling. You can be sure he has zeroed in on your position and can come straight to you, if so inclined.

If he is still gobbling from the same location 10-15 minutes after you last called to him, you might try a couple of clucks every 5 or 10 minutes until he comes in. If the bird is a 2-year old tom unable to gather a harem of hens, he will often move in quickly after hearing your hen yelps. But if you are working on a long-bearded old tom with a complement of hens in the vicinity, you are probably going to have a frustrating experience.

The hens in his harem may go to him soon after he starts gobbling and your early morning efforts to lure him to you usually will be futile. A little patience and a different call may turn the tables. Under such a set of circumstances, a gobble from your box call may spell the margin of victory. Many box calls have a crisscross arrangement of rubber bands holding the lid gently to the box top. If you hold the call bottom down in the palm of your hand, handle pointed away from you, a quick shake will produce a gobble. This call often moves a hesitant tom into range because he thinks a rival gobbler is moving in on his hens. Use it with caution, however, because it also might call up another hunter.

Probably the best way to learn the yelping sequence of the hen turkey is to listen to a good caller or to a turkey-calling instructional record. If you are halfway serious about learning the basic calls, practice the yelping sequence outdoors throughout the year and don't wait until the day before the hunt to review your calling instructions and to begin practicing yelps.”

Wild turkeys seem to prefer open ponderosa pine woodlands; however, Montana’s wild turkey population is adaptive and they fare well across most of Montana. You will find turkeys in thick grasslands as well as areas with deciduous trees and brush coverage.

Foraging on the ground, wild turkeys consume a wide variety of flower heads, tubers, seeds and insects. When available, the sweet seeds of the ponderosa pine are favorites of the Merriam turkey. In Northwestern Montana, wild turkeys also eagerly feed on snowberries, service berries, chokecherries as well as rose hips. The turkeys are helpful in keeping spider and grasshopper populations controlled, happily snapping up the invasive insects. Cultivated grains including wheat, barley and oats are also favorite foods. Some of the larger turkey populations have prospered in proximity to grain fields. When available, wild turkeys will also feast on small vertebrates such as snakes, frogs and toads. Survival through Montana’s fierce winters is often dependent on the kindness of local landowners that supplement their diets with corn and grain.

Wild turkeys generally nest on the ground, seeking shelter under brush near woodlands that adjoin an open meadow. Turkeys will often roost in trees at night.

Males have a prominent bright red neck wattle, a beard and spurs on their legs. The male sports a proud plumage of brownish-bronze feathers, tipped in black. An adult male is about 48 inches in length and will weigh an average of 17 pounds. Rather drab, the more demur female is smaller with the back and breast feathers tipped in yellowish brown or yellow. A female will average about 34 inches in length and weigh about 10 pounds.

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Marlene Affeld
Marlene Affeld

Marlene Affeld has a passion for the environment and all things natural. A seasoned traveler, Marlene enjoys sharing her experiences with others. Visit Marlene's site at Nandu Green for Eco-Friendly living options.

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