Merriam Madness

Once you bag your first Merriam turkey, you’ll be hooked

It is springtime in BC, trees are budding, shoots are breaking through the soil. Toms are gobbling in the distance and it’s time to gear up, get out and find a big Merriam turkey.

Turkey success: With incredible eyesight and hearing, you need to be on your game when it comes to hunting Merriam turkey. But that’s all part of the fun!
Turkey success: With incredible eyesight and hearing, you need to be on your game when it comes to hunting Merriam turkey. But that’s all part of the fun!

We have always joked at the shop that Merriams are like hunting two-legged elk and if they could smell like an elk, we would have a tough time getting close enough for a successful hunt. Their eyesight and hearing are very acute — they do not hang around to ask questions, they run! Without a doubt, this interactive hunt can get you hooked on BC’s wild turkey.

Turkeys can be hunted with an assortment of bows and firearms; however, the majority of turkey hunters rely on a 12-gauge shotgun. The shotgun needs to be equipped with a tight choke or a specifically engineered turkey choke that manages a high-energy turkey load. The turkey choke will also give more performance to that firearm. It delivers knockdown power when paired with the right load, distance and proper placement. The 12 gauge has become the tool of choice for its ethical harvest rate, as well as its safety while hunting over decoys or in proximity of other hunters or farm animals.

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Patterning Your Shotgun

With the correct choke chosen and installed, you will want to pattern your shotgun with the proper turkey hunting load, like the Winchester Longbeard XR or Federal Premium 3rd Degree, No. 5-6-7 shot mix. Both loads are designed to hold a tight pattern while shooting a muzzle velocity of 1,200 to 1,250 feet per second. If you are recoil sensitive, ensure that you have an adequate recoil pad or shooting vest on, this load has some snap to it.

Turkey hunting is not like hunting ducks or geese by wing shooting them, it’s more like hunting big game animals with a very small vital area to hit. Adding a red-dot sight system will give you consistent eye positioning on the target versus relying on a bead sight system.

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There are multiple ways of patterning your turkey shotgun in preparation for your opportunity if a tom should arise, here is a basic way to do so:

Set up a turkey target at 10 yards. There are a wide variety of targets out there; yes, you can use paper with a jiffy mark, however, targets with outlined kill zones or splatter areas train you for the field. Setting up a shooting bench, trigger sticks or shooting off your knees in a seated position will create consistency for this exercise and give you accurate results.

If you must sight in your red dot, you can use trap load in No. 7 or 8 shot at 10 yards and adjust your sight accordingly. Once satisfied with your pattern placement, make the switch over to the turkey load.

Pattern your shotgun at 10 yards (pattern should be an orange size blown out in the target), 20 yards, 30 yards, 40 yards and possibly out to 50 yards. Your goal is to have a minimum of 10 pellets in the brain and spine area to ensure an ethical harvest.

Toms, Jakes & Hens

You should be looking to harvest a mature male or tom. A tom is distinguished by multiple features, such as size, beard length, uniform fan, head, longer spurs and deep gobble sounds. Their beard is located on the front of their chest and looks like a miniature dark horse tail or paint brush; it constantly grows, unlike their other feathers, and can measure up to 10 inches or more in length. Jakes are an immature male bird bearing a small tuff of one to one-and-a-half inches in length. Some hunters can confuse them with hens out in the field. Hens (female turkeys) can occasionally have a beard; it is a good idea to go off other traits to identify a tom versus a hen before squeezing the trigger.

Toms are easy to pick out when they strut, as they have a uniform, round tail fan, unlike the jake with central tail feathers sticking up two to three inches above the fan like bucked teeth. This is a result of molting and losing feathers, and the next summer he will regrow into a uniform tail and gain his status as a tom. Hens do not strut or fan their tail.

Toms and jakes have a similar-coloured head compared to a hens; however, in the spring during breeding season, mature gobblers’ heads can change colour from vibrant reds, blues and even white on the top and back of their heads, depending on their mood. Jakes tend to have a pale red or pale blue head, while hens have typically a dull grey-coloured head.

Spurs located on the back legs are used to establish dominance. Older, mature toms generally have the longer spurs that allow them to fend off other birds for breeding rights. Just like the beard, they continue to grow from birth.

Turkey Sign & Location

Scouting is necessary for success. Toms, also known as long beards, gobblers or jelly heads, prefer open areas to strut; however, they may strut anywhere if enticed by a calling hen. Having an open area is beneficial for a gobbler to spot danger and observe a hen’s reactions. Locations that show signs of skat, tracks, scratching and wing tips dragged in the dirt will indicate a strut zone. The strut zone will belong to a tom or two with their flock of ladies.

During the last hour of daylight, turkeys will fly up and roost in heavy mature trees with dense coverage to protect themselves from wind and predation overnight. They are vocal before dark; this is the perfect opportunity to shock call them to determine where they are located and potentially figure out a game plan for the morning hunt. Shock calling turkey can be an array of sounds and is like playing Marco Polo. To shock call, make a short caw sound with a crow call and listen for a gobbler’s response, and continue this until you are able to pinpoint their whereabouts. However, do not hunt the roost tree. Hunt away from the roost so you do not bust it. A roosting tree can be greatly beneficial over the years, as generations of birds may return to it, slimming down your search for new birds in the years to come.

Blending In With Decoys

Wild turkey have the ability to detect movement and assimilate detail very rapidly with their vision. Their eyes are located on the side of their head, giving them monocular vision, accompanied by better peripheral vision than us humans have. To some degree, turkey can see colour. By rotating their head, they get a full 360-degree field of view and judge distance more effectively. Sight is an essential part of their survival; hunters must have minimal movement and wear camouflage to blend into surroundings. Face coverings and gloves are highly recommended if you are hunting out in the open. Using a blind, screen or natural brush can aid in hiding any movement that you may make while getting into position for a shot.

When you have a jacked-up tom coming into your decoy spread, spitting, drumming and fully fanned, ready to spur your male decoy, your heart will be pounding. There are multiple ways to set up your decoys; however, there is one layout that has led to success almost every time over the years. In the strut zone, you can have two or three lookout or feeding hen decoys dispersed within 12 to 15 yards of your seated location, with one laydown hen on the ground and a jake standing over her. Use hen sounds, such as clucks, putts, cuts and yelps obtained by mouth reeds, box calls or pot calls made of glass, slate or plastic. Once the gobbler spots what is going on, he may not be able to resist; he will come over to investigate and possibly fight your jake decoy to assert his dominance and breeding right.

In that cool, crisp morning air, a gobbling tom strutting his way into your decoy spread has led you to a successful spring hunt. The tom you have been blessed to harvest will feed you and your loved ones with some of the finest game meat so you can enjoy dishes like cordon-blue breaded cutlets, butter turkey over a bed of rice or a deep-fried turkey and you will be hooked on hunting spring gobblers.