Hunting Merriams Turkeys on the Nebraska Plains by TR Michels
The sun was already high in the sky when Bill and I saw our first Nebraska turkeys. They weren’t in the wooded ravines where I expected them; they were just off the highway that ran through the Sandhills region of north central Nebraska. I had just commented on the lack of trees, except for those around the numerous abandoned and occasionally occupied farmhouses. Then I saw the two tom turkeys, strutting 20 yards from a highway department sand pile, 50 yards from a farmhouse, complete with a dog lying in the dust near the front porch and several cats. Because of the amount of white on their tail feathers and rump I thought they were domestic turkeys. But, when we passed a flock of fifteen turkeys walking across the prairies 15 miles down the road I realized I was seeing my first Merriam’s Turkeys.
I couldn’t understand what the birds were doing on the open prairie until a few days later, after I had been hunting. Because of the limited habitat available to the big birds in Nebraska, turkeys have learned to adapt to their environment. On the Great Plains the forested areas usually associated with turkeys and turkey habitat occur mainly along the major rivers and their tributaries. In general, the only areas with trees large enough for turkeys to roost in are along the rivers or near the widely scattered farmsteads and small towns. Several farms and towns in this area have their own resident flock of turkeys.
I’d chosen this area to hunt because a map provided to me by the National Wild Turkey Federation showed that one of the highest concentrations of Merriam’s, and Merriam’s/Eastern hybrid turkeys in North America occurs along the Niobrara River near the town of Valentine, Nebraska. The area is primarily wooded bluffs and river bottoms. West of Valentine you are likely to see more pine forest than hardwoods. The change doesn’t seem to bother the turkeys however, because we found birds in both types of forest. On top of the bluffs, away from the river, the surroundings change to the endless rolling plains of grass common to the Dakotas and Nebraska, which is more suited to sharptails, prairie chickens, long billed curlews and coyotes than to turkeys. Water is limited and trees are scarce on the prairies, which explains why the turkeys I saw earlier were near the farms.
Turkeys prefer to roost in trees where possible, and the groves around the farms may offer the only trees for miles around. The farm sites also offer feed in the form of grain for the cattle and insects associated with cattle droppings. The overflow from stock tanks and the stock ponds on the farms provide needed water for the birds. Since many of the local people don’t hunt, the turkeys move right in and become semi-tame. Many of the farmers and their wives look upon these birds as pets, and don’t allow hunting. Even if they did, trying to get within range of these “yard bird ” turkeys on the open prairie is next to impossible. There is just no place to set up. Hunting their “country cousins” along the river bottoms, however, is much like hunting turkeys anywhere else. After obtaining permission to hunt on a 12,000 acre ranch we began scouting along the tops of the bluffs adjacent to the river, where we could four-wheel drive from one ravine to the next along five miles of the river.
In open country I prefer to locate birds by calling from the top of a ridge that falls into a ravine or valley on one or more sides, so I can hear any answering calls from as many directions as possible. I use a crow call or owl hooter to try to get the birds to “shock gobble” in response to my calling. If I don’t get an answer I wait five to ten minutes and try again. If I still don’t get an answer I drive to the next ridge and continue until I get a bird to answer. When I use turkey calls in wide-open country I use a high-pitched mouth diaphragm, or one of the new aluminum striker calls, because the high-pitched sounds of these calls carry farther than other calls. Recent turkey research shows that the calls of Merriam’s, Rio Grande and Gould turkeys are higher pitched than the calls of their eastern counterparts. When I am calling I like to sound as much like the local birds as possible, and can do this with the new aluminum calls.
When you hear a bird in this country you have to realize that sound carries a long way. I have had birds respond, and heard them, from as far away as a mile and a half. You also have to realize that calls echo off the bare canyon walls in this country; one lone tom may sound like a whole flock. On more than one occasion I have gone to look for a flock of toms I though was in the next ravine, only to find out that it was one bird, and it was two or more ravines away. When you put birds to bed at night be sure you know the exact location of the bird before you leave, or you may start hunting the next morning only to find yourself in the wrong ravine.
Hunting this wide-open country presents some problems that eastern hunters may not be prepared for. Spring weather on the prairie may change from blizzard conditions with temperatures in the 30’s one day, to clear skies with temperatures reaching the upper 80’s the next. You should take along both heavy and light camouflage clothing, and rain gear. A good pair of comfortable, lightweight waterproof boots are a must when you walk miles across the prairie and cross low lying boggy areas and streams to get the birds. Because of the distances traveled on foot I also take along a combination back pack and folding seat to sit on.
After getting a response from a nearby tom on the second morning of the hunt Bill and I decided to set up a flock of turkey decoys and try to call the bird in. I took the three decoys out of my backpack and set them up in a small clearing in the pines. After choosing a couple of trees for back rests I set up the hens on a small rise slightly to the left of where I expected the tom to come from. Then I placed the jake within shooting distance, where it could be easily seen by an approaching tom. I like to place the decoys off to one side of my shooting position, so that when a bird comes in it is attracted to the sight of decoys, which keep the bird from looking in my direction. I place the jake decoy in a clear shooting lane, because I’ve found that a tom will often attack a jake before it will go to the hens; when the tom approaches or attacks the decoy I have a clear shot.
After the decoys were setup Bill and I positioned ourselves so that we could each watch a different approach to the setup. Then I yelped a couple of times on my mouth diaphragm. A few minutes later Bill whispered that he could see two toms strutting below us on the next ridge. I called a couple of more times and heard the birds gobble back, but they were unwilling to come any closer. We waited a half-hour while the turkeys continued to gobble, but they didn’t come any closer. Finally we decided to move to the top of the next ridge, closer to the turkeys. When we got there I set up the decoys again and called. Almost immediately there was a thunderous gobble with an echo, and then another thunderous gobble; I was sure at least one of the birds was coming in.
After twenty minutes of calling the bird hung up just below the rim of the ridge. I knew the bird was close by the sound of its call but I couldn’t see it. In an effort to bring the bird in I started a series of fast clucks, simulating the “cutt” of a turkey. The cutt is the sound of one bird telling another that if the two are going to get together, the other bird will have to do the walking. Almost immediately a double gobble echoed up from the valley below us. I waited a while then let loose with another cutt; cluck…cluck…cluck … cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck … cluck … cluck cluck. There was another double gobble from about twenty yards away.
With the sheer drop of the ridge and the echoing I couldn’t pinpoint the tom, but I knew it was close. As I looked over at Bill I could see the excitement in his eyes. I motioned for him to get ready. I clucked softly; cluck. Then I moved my head slowly to search for the bird. I saw a bright red and glowing white head appear over the lip of the rim off to my right. I looked at Bill, to see if had spotted the tom. He raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Where is it?” When I looked at the bird there were not one, but two heads peering over the rim. The double gobble I heard had come from two birds. They were about ten yards away, and I was sure that Bill could see them. I looked at him again, but he still hadn’t seen the birds.
I had two turkey tags and was thinking that this would be a great time to fill one of them. But, Bill had never hunted turkeys before, and I wanted him to get the first shot. Although we were both well camouflaged, I was afraid that at this range the birds would spot us. They were staring right at me, and I heard one of the toms putt; putt…putt…putt. Not really an Alarm Putt, more like the bird was nervous. The bird’s necks crossed as they tried to locate me, and I clucked softly to settle them down. Bill’s bow was still down and I motioned to him with my hand to get ready. If the birds saw us there wouldn’t be much time to draw and shoot. He shrugged his shoulders slightly. He still didn’t see the birds. I was glad that I had stopped using my striker call earlier and had begun using my mouth diaphragm; using the mouth diaphragm reduced the chance of the birds spotting my hand moving and left both hands free to hold my bow.
One of the birds putted again and I clucked in response. The sound was so loud I half expected to see Bill’s hat blow off. Fortunately he saw the bird and had the presence of mind to let an arrow fly.
When I got up to see where Bill’s bird was I heard him say, “Well I rolled that one.” I said “You sure did.” as I watched the bird roll down the ridge. Then I heard Bill say, “He’s going to go all the way to the bottom.” And that’s exactly what happened. I watched in amusement as Bill tried to catch up with the bird as it cart-wheeled, wings flopping wildly, 150 yards down the steep embankment. It finally hung up in a yucca plant, 20 yards from the bottom.
A couple of days later Bill and I spotted a flock of fifteen turkeys near an abandoned farm. Through a break in the trees we could see three toms strutting in the grove behind the old house. I knew there was no way to call the birds in because they were already with a dozen hens. As we watched, the birds began to walk toward the far end of the grove, and I noticed a small brush choked ravine that began near the grove. I told Bill that we should work our way down the ravine to the far end of the grove, to try to intercept the birds when they came by and he agreed.
We quickly worked our way through the brush and up the ravine toward the grove. No sooner had we gotten into position than the first hen walked by at about fifteen yards. Behind her the flock slowly fed and walked it’s way toward us, with the toms taking up the rear. It wasn’t long before the hens walked out on to the prairie. I told Bill to wait until the toms were within range, then pick out the largest tom. Before I knew it the toms came out of the grove, and I just had time to draw and release. At my shot the tom fell down, and the rest of the flock scattered across the prairie.
When we got back to Valentine we registered our birds and weighed them. Bill’s tom weighed 22 pounds and had a 9 1/2 inch beard. My bird weighed just under 21 pounds and sported a 10 1/2 inch beard and long spurs. He now sits in my living room, in a full strut pose, a reminder of hunting Nebraska’s prairie longbeards.
Note: Some of Nebraska’s best turkey hunting occurs along the rivers, where the land is privately owned. There are also a number of Wildlife Management Areas in the Sandhills Region with turkeys, deer and ducks on them. Anyone planning a hunt in the Sandhills should allow a couple of days for scouting and getting permission to hunt on one of the ranches. We found the landowners cooperative as long as we were respectful of their property, didn’t bother the cattle during calving time, and remembered to close all the gates. Nebraska holds both spring and fall turkey hunts. In the Sandhills hunters are allowed two toms in the spring, and two birds of either sex in the fall.
Nebraska also has excellent whitetail and mule deer hunting. There are 130 to 170 class whitetails taken often enough to make me go back. For bird hunters the Sandhills offer sharptailed grouse, prairie chickens and pheasants, and a number of species of ducks on the potholes that abound in the area.