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Wild Turkey Grand Slam Part Two by Tim Herald

Wild Turkey Grand Slam (Part 2)

By: Tim Herald

In part one of this piece, I discussed hunting Osceola and eastern subspecies of wild turkeys as part of the US Grand Slam of wild turkeys. In part two, we will look at hunting the Rio Grande and Merriam’s subspecies that are predominantly western birds.

Rio Grande

Per, the Rio Grande turkey was originally found in the southern Great Plains, western Texas and northeast Mexico. They have expanded their range and been introduced into Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Utah, South Dakota, Hawaii, and California. The Rio Grande turkey, at full maturity, is slightly smaller in body size than the Eastern wild turkey. It is pale and copper-colored having tail feathers and tail/rump coverts (short feathers located at the base of the tail) tipped with a yellowish buff. An alternating color pattern includes tan feathers with medium or dark brown buffed tips. The Rio Grande’s color is consistently lighter than the Eastern or Florida bird, but is darker than the same feathers in the Merriam’s.

I find that both Rio’s and Merriam’s gobble more on average than easterns and Osceolas, and they are generally more receptive to coming to calls. This makes these birds a lot of fun to “run and gun” hunt. I do find that Rio’s very often seem to have a daily routine, and they may cover a lot of ground throughout the day. For example, they may have a general roost, fly down to a strut zone and spend the early morning, then they get on a route that may take them in a big circle through the day hitting areas where hens generally feed, other strut zones, loafing areas in the shade during the hot part of the day, and end up coming back around to the roost in evening. What often happens that these birds may gobble back to you a lot, but if they are moving on their route and you are not, they may well not turn and come to you. It’s best to try to learn their route and be in front of them. Like with any other turkey, if you are where he already want to go, it’s much easier to call him to you!

This can be frustrating though because a bird may gobble back to you 100 times, but he either stands his ground or moves away. Usually when Rio’s respond to calling, they come in pretty quickly or they aren’t coming, so if a tom doesn’t seem to be moving my way, I am very apt to move on him much quicker than I would if I was hunting an eastern. In general, I think you can be more aggressive when hunting Rio’s both in your calling and moving.

I use a box call a lot when hunting Rio’s. They seem to respond well to higher pitched calls, and in some of the big open country they live in, a box call seems to carry farther, especially on windy days which seem to be frequent in their range.

Merriam’s tells us of the Merriam’s subspecies: Although approximately the same size as the Eastern, the Merriam has different coloration. It is black with blue, purple and bronze reflections. White feathers on the lower back and tail feather margins distinguish the Merriam’s from other subspecies of turkey. Merriam’s appear to have a white rump due to pinkish buff, or whitish tail coverts and tips. Merriam's turkeys were historically found in the ponderosa pine forests of Colorado, New Mexico, and northern Arizona. They have been transplanted into the pine forests of Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota. Merriam's turkeys can be found not only in ponderosa pine forest but also other vegetation types in elevations ranging from 3,500 to 10,000 feet. 

Many hunters consider the Merriam’s as the most beautiful of the US turkeys, and like Rio’s, they are generally very vocal and react readily to calling. Although they congregate in huge winter flocks into the 100’s, and in states that have seasons in March and early April, they can be almost impossible to call. A hunter almost has to ambush a gobbler in this situation as it is extremely frustrating trying to drag a single bird away from a herd of 150. As spring progresses and the birds break up into smaller groups, they become much easier to call.

Merriam’s generally roost in the same areas, so once roosts are identified, you should have good morning and evening setup locations. During the day, covering the most ground possible is a great strategy. Often Merriam’s are in open country, and you can use optics to actually glass birds and then make a game plan on how to get in as close as possible and make a setup. Running and gunning with loud calls is also a great way to locate birds. Merriam’s seem to come to calls from much longer distances than their eastern cousins, so you don’t have to get right on top of them to call them up.

Last spring, I went to western South Dakota with a couple of friends to hunt Merriam’s. The outfitter we hunted with had a unique operation, and they were very aggressive. We didn’t go out and make early morning roost setups. We waited until the sun came up, and then we glassed birds (often in river bottoms), and then we went in with homemade gobbler decoys to challenge the toms. This is sometimes called “reaping”, but basically is using some sort of gobbler decoy or just a tail fan to try to entice the tom to come in to you to fight the “intruder”.

When this works, the birds often run in, and are shot many times within 5 yards. There is a lot of action and adrenaline with these hunts, and the strategy is perfect for Merriam’s where birds are visible, and you often have to cover a lot of country finding them.

The first morning in SD, we spotted a nice bird strutting with about 20 hens. This would be a tough situation for a traditional calling setup. One of the guides took my friend Barb and using some cover, slipped in to about 200 yards, and setup against a row of hay bales. The guide crawled out in the wide open, made a call to get the longbeard’s attention on his gobbler decoy, and the bird turned and came straight at him strutting and gobbling the whole way. Barb shot her first Merriam’s at about 20 yards, but he was coming closer.

That afternoon from a high bluff, we glassed a bunch of birds down in a cut cornfield adjacent to a river about a mile away. We made our way down to the river, got under the cut bank, and worked our way around to where we could peak up into the corn field. There were two big toms and a bunch of hens strutting about 300 yards straight in front of us. My guide popped up his silhouette gobbler decoy over the bank, and the two strutters began moving our way. Suddenly my guide said, Get ready, they are coming in fast!” I was watching the two toms slowly but steadily moving our way, so I was a bit confused until movement from our left caught my eye, and I saw a group of turkeys literally sprinting straight at us.

There was a number of jakes and one longbeard, and they charged in to about 5 yards in just a few short seconds before I raised up, picked out the big gobbler, and made a good shot. I was using my favorite shotgun topped with a Trijicon RMR2 reflex sight, and I feel certain I would have missed without the sight. It gave me super fast target acquisition, and at less than 10 yards my pattern was about the size of a baseball, so my aim had to be very precise. It was an extremely exciting hunt, and I experienced another the next day taking another beautiful tom at a mere three yards after he almost strutted on top of me on his way to the decoy. Again, even at point blank range, I knew when my Trijicon red dot was on his neck and I touched the trigger, the Merriam’s gobbler was mine!

If you haven’t hunted Rio’s or Merriam’s, I highly suggest you give them a try. They are a ton of fun to hunt with their frequent gobbling and the fact that you can get aggressive while hunting them. There are many great outfitters who can put you on western birds, and in many states, there is high quality public land opportunities for these subspecies. If you live where you can hunt them from home, well I am just plain jealous!

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