March 29, 2023
The day began at 4:00 in the morning amid 16-degree temperatures with high winds and snow in the forecast. Three hours after my hike started, I’d nearly reached the 3,500-foot mark, where I let out my first call. When a reply came from the ridge below, my optimism rose.
No, I wasn’t hunting elk. I was chasing spring turkey on public land in the high country—and it was opening day. Though I tried pulling that tom off the ridge on which it gobbled, there was no chance. My only option was to lose some elevation, hop on the narrow hilltop the long beard claimed, set up, and start calling.
Protected from the wind, it worked. The big tom came strutting and gobbling through the timber, right into my lap. It was one of the most rewarding turkey hunts of my life, and the most physically demanding in my more than 30 years of pursuing these birds out West. While most turkeys in this part of the country winter on private ground in valleys, come March, some hens start moving to higher elevations where they’ll nest. Where hens go this time of year, toms follow.
The number of turkeys that move vertically uphill to public land for their spring courting and nesting ritual is surprising. Not many turkey hunters are willing to work this hard for a bird, and that’s a shame. If you live for those September days of hunting bugling bulls, spring turkey hunting in the high country is akin. Mind you, these hunts are not easy and are far from a guarantee. Toms stick tight to the hens for the simple reason that they are few and far between. The country is rugged, so toms don’t cover much ground so as not to risk burning valuable energy and miss a chance to breed a hen when she’s receptive.
Hell or High Water
Turkeys can endure subzero temperatures, deep snow, and bone-chilling winds, so don’t let bad weather and spring storms stop you. Find where a tom is in bad weather and all you must do is get to the sweet spot and start calling.
I like keeping the high ground. Calling from atop the tallest ridges allows sounds to carry. Sometimes toms are on the ridge I’m traveling, but more often, they’re below, out of the wind. In stormy conditions, locate a tom by getting it to gobble or spot it with optics, then move within 100 yards before calling. Glass exposed points and openings on ridgelines, just as you would big game. Be patient, these toms move slower than those on the valley floor where competition to breed is high and hens are plentiful.
I’ve had the best success setting up on old logging roads and game trails, then calling toms uphill. High-elevation toms don’t seem to mind working uphill to check out a seductive hen call, but you’ll be hard pressed to get them to work downhill.
I prefer setting up in timber as it’s protected from the elements—which is where turkeys usually reside in bad weather. I’ve had toms negotiate thick timber, dense stands of new growth, open units covered in brush, and the edges of burns to reach me. I’ve had a handful launch off an opposing ridge, coast more than a half-mile across a steep canyon and land right by me. The minute there’s a break in the weather, start calling and listen—nothing ignites an early season, backcountry tom like a ray of sunshine.
To locate toms, I like making loud fly-down cackles or cutts that carry far. As soon as a tom gobbles back, figure out where on the ridge it’s located and mark the point. Binoculars, even a spotting scope, can help pinpoint the bird.
Next, move onto the ridge and work the tom from above. Don’t call your way in like with low-elevation birds. Instead, pick your landmarks and get close to the tom before issuing subtle yelps and clucks. If the wind is in your face, calling loud will be necessary. If the wind is at your back, know that you likely won’t hear an approaching tom’s gobble, so keep a watchful eye and don’t move as these birds are wary, see in color, and have powerful vision.
With high-country toms, the more ground you can cover, the better. If you’re surrounded by birds, pitching a tent in that area can be a good move. You might also choose to cover ground with an ATV, mountain bike, even on horseback—all of which have their place.
As the season progresses, toms might become more vocal, but they can be harder to bring in. Toms know the hens in their area have been bred, and won’t budge. These toms focus on feeding, so as grass comes to a head, use that to your advantage to stalk in close, then call the bird in those final few yards.
A decoy isn’t necessary but can also help persuade a cautious tom to close the distance. I’ve had the best luck in the high country with a lone hen decoy, specifically a hen stuffer I made from a fall bird.
When you find toms in the backcountry, return to the same place the following season. Hens can live up to eight years and often nest in the same spot annually. If clutches survive, hen numbers can increase at higher elevations, so keep searching. Once birds hatch, the whole brood often drops to lower elevations where food and water are plentiful through summer, fall, and winter.
If you want to experience the ultimate spring turkey hunt, head to the mountains. The conditions can be brutal, the hunting a challenge, but you likely won’t see another hunter and the breathtaking beauty of the backcountry this time of year is something you’ll want more of.