As the misty fog lifts over the early morning, it leaves a shiny wet dew on the grass and leaves. I’m sitting with my father, under an old tall white oak, with plenty of damp leaves under me for cushion. The cool moist air gives me a small chill as the sun is just starting to hint that it is coming up in the east.The song birds start to sing and everything is coming alive. Out of this peaceful stillness comes a towering, almost booming, sound that seems to shake the ground. That sound flooded inside me and almost caused me to shake without knowing why.A twenty gauge shotgun “rests” on my knees and against my shoulder. In reality, it is now bouncing on my knee.My father takes his hand and rests it on my leg, gently trying to get it to stop shaking. He then reaches back in his lap and picks up his trusty slate call and makes a quiet yelp. Instantly, not one, but two of those booming sounds ring out through the woods. The shakes get worse. Trying to hold still the best I can is almost painful, but that pain quickly goes away when another echoing sound rings out.Less than fifteen minutes later… BOOM!!!And I was carrying my first ever wild turkey out of the woods with the biggest smile a seven year old boy could have on his face.
Obviously, this is not the whole story, but I could literally fill up a book with descriptions of this memory. It is forever ingrained in my mind. I can remember every second, every gobble, every smell and every detail. All of those details come flooding back to me every time I go turkey hunting and the reason I keep going every year. Rain, shine, sleet, or snow, I will be out chasing those beautiful birds. I was addicted to it from the first time I ever stepped foot in the woods and heard that first gobble.
I have read many boring articles about turkey hunting and honestly a lot of them will put you to sleep. The ones I really love are the ones that are informative and still keep you involved.The story above took place in Southern Missouri.Now, in Missouri Ozarks, pretty much any strip of property with a small grove of trees can hold a gobbler or maybe more.I have seen five gobblers with hens roosting on a two acre section of property with just a few trees.I’m not saying that turkeys are going to be everywhere but you have a much greater chance of finding one back east.
Turkeys need just a few things:
Trees – Turkeys need trees and this is not just any tree either. Most turkeys prefer a large tree with strong limbs they can fly up and roost on. Turkeys are usually not incredibly picky on the type of tree, just that it has solid limbs high enough up so they won’t be attacked by predators. One thing you will find is a lot of these birds are pretty territorial. They will go back to the same general area, if not the same tree, to roost every night unless something or someone changes that.
Food – Turkeys are omnivores. They eat everything from nuts and berries to lizards and insects.They are constant foragers who will feed on grass, croplands, seeds, nuts, and prairie.
Open Spaces – Turkeys need small open areas to mate and feed. These open areas allow the gobblers or Toms to “strut their stuff” and show off for the hens.
Water – Just like any living creature turkeys need water too. They get their water from some of the plants they eat, dew in the mornings, or straight from a water source from a rain puddle to a stream.
Now that we know can focus on these four very general things a wild turkey needs for its habitat, we could look at an aerial map of the United States and see why the turkeys flourish in the Eastern and Midwestern United States.Those areas of the county have all of those needs in abundance.Looking a little further west, these four core habitat needs are a little more sparse. There are far fewer dense trees, more prairies, and less water. In the Rocky Mountain Region and Western United States the wild turkey seems to gravitate to a mix of conifer and hardwood tree covered areas. In Wyoming and Western Nebraska specifically this is usually limited to conifers and cottonwood trees around water sources and other food sources. In these Western states, we don’t need to look for large plots of trees or forests only; turkeys are very adaptable and will use just a few trees to roost; for example, six to eight cottonwood trees along a creek.
We’ve covered a few general habitat tips, but you may still be asking yourself, “How do I find a turkey, especially out in the Western United States?”Research. Ok, yes that sounds terrible, but any good hunter will tell you the more you know about an area the more successful you will be. Start out by checking to see if your area has turkeys. Most states have a Game and Fish, Department of Conservation, Department of Wildlife, or other agency that takes care of the wildlife in your state. Contact this agency or explore their website and most if not all will have an area for wild turkeys.
We now know there are wild turkeys in your state. What do you do now? Well let’s focus on the Rocky Mountain region of the United States.You should concentrate on areas of lower elevation tree cover, especially in the early spring.Turkeys don’t like deep snow. In the west, turkeys will literally migrate miles to find the four habitat needs listed above, and then come back in later spring and summer to the cooler lower elevation mountain areas.
Another useful secret to finding turkeys out in the Rocky Mountain region is cattle. Yes, cows, beef, bovine. In the winter months, ranchers bring their cows down from the higher elevations to the lower pastures to keep them fed and safe.Turkeys follow right along. They aren’t afraid to grab an easy meal from a farmer or rancher spreading out hay and feed for his cows.Turkeys, like many other animals, are in a survival battle and do what they can to keep going.A ranch close by is a huge plus in finding turkeys. And really, “close” is a strong word. Remember out west, turkeys travel, so “close” might be a couple of miles, up to eight to ten miles. With today’s technology, a person can find all of this information and research using the internet, but just like every animal and hunting spot, nothing is as valuable as boots on the ground scouting to find out if the animals are actually there.
Scouting is a whole new ball game in this day and age. As I mentioned, the internet has become one of the biggest tools for scouting out there.Deriving information from your state’s wildlife management office and being able to relate that information and the few habitat tips above to aerial maps to narrow down the possible areas, makes finding these elusive birds much easier. For traditional scouting of areas for birds, it will relate greatly to scouting for elk, deer, or other wildlife in your areas. You want to hit the trail, find a vantage point, and glass. Spotting the birds without going into their ranging area that is preferred, but sometimes not possible. When scouting an area you might not necessarily see the birds but be sure to look for the signs that they are there:scratching of needles or leaves on the ground, turkey scat, and of course, tracks. If you find any of these, there are certainly birds in the general area.
One of the most important elements of scouting is searching for roosting areas. Roosting of birds is pinpointing where those birds are going to sleep that night and this will usually hold true for most of the season. Turkeys roost every night in a tree. In the spring, right before and as they fly up, at dusk, or fly down in the early morning, they get very vocal. The hens will yelp and the toms will gobble.Just like most statements when it comes to animals, this is not always true, and sometimes the birds need a little encouragement to talk.An owl hoot or a crow call usually does the trick in a pinch, as does a loud raspy box call.
To find turkeys in the West, focus on finding trees, food, open spaces, water, and cows. Keep these in mind next time you are looking for a new turkey hunting spot. Good luck and keep those turkeys talking.