An Empty Quiver: Chapter 15. The Not-So-Easy Merriams

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Preface

 

By: Dr. Dave Samuel
By: Dr. Dave Samuel

OK, I admit it, I am not much of a turkey hunter.  My University job was very hectic during spring turkey season with finals to grade and other administrative tasks associated with the end of a semester.  The truth is that you can count the number of turkey bowhunts I have done on one hand. 

 My first turkey bowhunt took place in South Carolina.  I was the special guest of Westvaco Corporation and one of seven hunters there that week.  And, I was the only bowhunter to have hunted there, ever.  The guides drew straws to see who would get stuck with the bowhunter, and my guide was not happy at all.  The first morning we set up and he called.  A gobbler answered on the roost around 400 yards away, but ten minutes later my guide came to me and said we’d quit because the bird wasn’t coming.  He just didn’t want to be out there with a bowhunter.  Too bad for him, but I’d come there to bowhunt and wasn’t about to quit.  I said that we’d move to a large live oak at the end of the field, two hundred yards away, and two hundred yards closer to the roosting bird.  We did so, and I climbed under the oak and started to get set up, when the guide, now forty yards behind me, started to call.  I looked up and here comes a big gobbler, running right toward me.  I didn’t even have my face mask on, and the bird skirts the edge of the live oak brush, about fifteen yards away.  I drew, looked for an opening and released my arrow.  The bird flopped and hobbled off.  I walked out to look for sign, and the guide stepped up, asking “What the heck are you doing?”  I told him that I’d shot at a turkey and was looking to see if I hit it.  He said, “I didn’t hear you shoot” and I responded as I held my bow high, “This gun doesn’t make much noise.”  This guy was getting irritating.  We found blood, and now I had his attention, and we blood trailed him sixty yards down a trail to where he lay.  That bird weighed in at 23 pounds, the biggest bird harvested that week.  There was a two-bird limit and I’d like to believe that the guides drew straws to get to see who would take out the bowhunter in camp the next day.

 There is no doubt that the Merriam’s turkey is the most beautiful of all the turkey subspecies.  The white in the feathers gives this bird a distinct appearance, so when my good friend Scott Whyel suggested that we go to Wyoming to hunt Merriam’s, I jumped at the chance.

It was pitch-black on the third morning of our hunt, and ‘frustrated’ best describes my mood.  I’d been told that Merriam turkeys were ‘easier’ than our eastern birds, but so far that didn’t seem to be true.  We were seeing lots of birds, but hadn’t come close to getting a shot.  As we left the truck, my partner, Keith Casteel whispered, “Look at it this way Dave, we’re trying a new strategy, we’re in Wyoming, and it’s a beautiful morning.  What could be better?”

The two previous evenings we put gobblers to roost, then set up the following morning and called.  Each time we had birds fly down, talk to us a little, then move out in the opposite direction following hens.  Once was bad enough, but when the same thing occurred the second morning, we knew it was time for a change.  Since Merriam’s often roost in the same location, our late afternoon scouting was in that vicinity.  Sure enough, just at dusk, three big gobblers flew across the road, headed to the roost where we’d observed them before.

The second phase of our strategy was to place a Double Bull blind on the gobblers entry path and let the birds come to us the next morning.  And so it was that Keith and I put out the decoys and got settled in the blind, awaiting first light.

We didn’t know if hens had roosted close to the gobblers.  If so, and we called, the gobblers might head the other direction as they had before.  So we sat there quietly, believing that with or without hens, they’d leave the roost the same way they entered the night before.  No question, it was a bit of a crap shoot, but thirty minutes after daylight, when I’d just about given up, we heard a gobble not 200 yards away.  Just that quick the three gobblers came over a small rise, spotted our decoys and literally ran toward the blind.  Was our luck about to change?

The Merriam is a spectacular bird, different from our eastern subspecies because of the white feathers on the margin of the tail and lower back.  I was also intrigued by the challenge of bowhunting them in the more open habitat of the ponderosa forests of the West.  Thus, when my good friend Scott Whyel told me about a ranch we could hunt in western Wyoming, it sounded like an adventure.

I’m always game for trying something new, so on April 13 I flew from my West Virginia home to Rapid City, South Dakota with Scott, Keith Casteel, Ryan Furrer, and Ed Neallis.  Keith had just built Scott a beautiful muzzle loader shotgun, but the rest of us planned to use bows on the hunt.

After landing in Rapid City we loaded our rental van and headed two hours west to a motel in Hulett, Wyoming, population 415.   Soon we met our guides, Randy Greer and Curt Stull and planned the morning hunt.  Curt had seen eight gobblers come off a pine ridge roost that morning and had blinds already set.  The next morning found us in those blinds along a field waiting for the gobblers to start talking from their ridge roost.  Right on cue, just as it got light enough to see, birds gobbled and we answered, letting them know that there were hens in the field.  The only problem was that there were some hens in the roost trees and they took the gobblers the opposite direction.  First morning; turkeys one, hunters zero.

During the day we toured the area looking for birds.  We saw several large flocks and tons of  white-tailed deer.  I had no idea that part of the world had so many whitetails but even at mid-day there were lots of deer.  It was incredible.  But we were there for the turkeys and found several areas with birds headed to roost.

In the morning Scott, Ed, and Ryan went to a new location.  Keith and I returned to the same first-day blinds, again calling to the roosting gobblers.  Sure enough the hens again took them away from us.  Scott didn’t have any action but Ryan and Ed hunted together and had the same thing happen.  They called and the hens took the gobblers out of town.  Merriam are easy . . . right?  Second morning; turkeys two, the turkey experts zero.

As we had lunch in a café in Hulett, and with help from Randy and Curt, a new strategy emerged.   Our idea was to split up and try to find gobblers without hens going to roost.  No hens meant that when the gobblers left the roost the next morning, they just might look for the hens they heard calling.  That would be us.

Strategy made, we caught a few hours sleep, then Keith and I jumped into the van to look for birds and put them to bed.  Randy and Curt took Scott, Ryan and Ed in different directions, also looking for birds.  Just at dusk, luck was with us as three big gobblers flew across the road then headed to roost on the same ponderosa pine ridge where we hunted the first morning.  After dark we quietly erected a blind on the path the gobblers had just taken, hoping they would exit that way in the morning.

Because hunting had been slow, and we weren’t getting close enough to the birds for a bow shot, Keith decided to carry a gun, while I took my bow.  If we saw gobblers, our plan was for me to shoot first, then Keith.  Great plan if the birds cooperated.  They did.

As mentioned at the outset, when the gobblers saw our decoys they ran right to us.  I came to full draw and waited as one bird went into full strut display near the blind.  He turned, giving me a direct frontal shot, and the Gobbler Getter broadhead did the job.  As the bird flopped on the ground the other two moved off ten to twenty yards and milled around for a few seconds.  That was more than enough time for Keith to connect on his bird. Whoa. Our slow hunt changed in just a few seconds with two big gobblers down.  We called Scott on the cell phone and soon he arrived and took photos.  Third morning; hunters two, turkeys zero.

My good friend Keith Casteel (on right) and I scored a ‘double’ on Merriam’s
My good friend Keith Casteel (on right) and I scored a ‘double’ on Merriam’s

Now that our turkey hunting was over, Keith and I trailed along as our companions chased birds. That evening we all split up along a high bluff and spotted a number of gobblers going to roost.  Some had hens, some did not.  Using our new strategy, Ryan, Ed, and Scott each set up blinds.  Early the next morning all three connected on beautiful, big gobblers.  As we all gathered with Randy and Curt, Ryan, Ed, and Scott each gave the exciting details of their hunts.  Devil’s Tower was in the background as we took a ton of photos.  Deer were feeding everywhere, and suddenly Randy had us talking about a bowhunt for whitetails.  Sounds like another great adventure to me.  Oh yes, the new score for the fourth morning; hunters five, turkeys zero.  Not so easy, but with so many birds, your odds for success can be pretty darn good.

Few things are more satisfying than lugging a big Merriam’s to the truck.
Few things are more satisfying than lugging a big Merriam’s to the truck.

 

Postscript

 

 I look back on this hunt with nothing but good memories, and it is because I was with some great guys.  Bowhunting is an individual activity, and comradery is not a major item for many such hunts.  But this hunt was different.  It wasn’t strenuous.  We’d hunt the morning then meet at a café for a late breakfast where we’d discuss the morning’s hunt.  Then we’d catch a little sleep and get ready for the late afternoon hunt.  It was relaxing, in beautiful country, with great guys.  After the evening hunt we’d adjourn to a local golf club for a wonderful meal.  The fact that we all got gobblers didn’t hurt either. 

Wyoming offers limited quota turkey licenses for certain counties, and general turkey licenses for others.  We hunted in a general license area and over the counter licenses (at the time of this hunt) were available from January 1 through May 14.  Season dates vary, but in our area the season ran from April 14 to May 15 with a bag limit of one gobbler.  I used my Mathews Icon set at 55 lbs, Carbon Express Terminator Hunter arrows tipped with New Archery’s Gobbler Getter broadheads.  Mornings were chilly, but day time temperatures called for very light clothing.  If you are interested in bow hunting for Merriam’s turkeys, contact Randy Greer at PO Box 38, Gillette, WY 82717 (307 687-7461).

A few years after taking the above hunt, a bad surgery ended more strenuous hunts that required a lot of walking and all flying in airplanes.  As I said at the outset of this chapter, I am not much of a turkey hunter, but my medical situation meant that I had to do the hunts I could do.  I knew I could get in a ground blind, so I went to the Internet to look for a Merriam’s bowhunt and came across Dave Keizer who only caters to bowhunters for turkeys via his Double K Guides in Gregory, South Dakota.  A quick call put me in touch with an extremely positive-sounding guy who extolled the virtues of bowhunting Merriam’s turkeys in South Dakota.  From a physical standpoint, most anyone can do a turkey hunt as you only need to sit in a blind.  Keizer’s information on turkey numbers (lots of birds) and bowhunter success rates (near 100%) sealed the deal.  When almost 100 percent of the bowhunters take a gobbler, you’ve got to be interested.

 A quick call to the Bowhunter magazine staff in Harrisburg, PA confirmed my thoughts on this hunt.  They’d been there several times and the numbers of gobblers seen was unbelievable.  Merriam’s galore.  The price for guide service, lodging and food was also affordable, so in early April I headed for Gregory and the opening of the gobbler season. 

 Once settled in, Dave assigned me to Jeff Quinn, an assistant with tons of Merriam’s experience. That evening we went out to scout and put 20 birds to roost.  But the next morning, as we gathered for breakfast, I’d learn that we were going to another location where many more birds had been seen. 

Prior to daylight, Jeff and I grabbed a Double Bull blind and two chairs and headed for a 600-yard-long field overlooking the Missouri River.  Apparently several hundred birds roosted near the river then came to this field to court and feed.  From there the birds would head out in all directions for the day.  I know the phrase, ‘several hundred birds’ sounds a bit ridiculous, but it turned out to be true. 

At dawn we started hearing birds leave the roost, and soon close to 100 hens and gobblers were within 150 yards of the blind.  Hens were everywhere, turning over cow patties for insects and grubs.  The gobblers had other things on their mind, and as soon as one group of birds left the field, others came up from the river.  The ‘parade’ of birds continued until 9:30 A. M. when the field was empty.  None had come close enough for a shot, but it was one of the most interesting hunting mornings I’d ever spent. 

John Witschen from Blaine, MN was in a blind at the other end of the field and he’d connected on a dandy mature gobbler.  That afternoon we returned to the same spot and got into the blind early, before any birds entered the field.  The morning and evening strategy was to never let any birds see us entering or leaving the blind.  It worked.  About 60 minutes before dark birds started to enter the field.  Again the hens fed while the gobblers strutted.  Twice we watched gobblers mate hens.  Finally a big gobbler paused at 30 yards, and I undershot him.  No matter.  It seemed that there were always more birds coming and going. 

Early the second morning, we’d repositioned our blind by about twenty yards and put out a crouched turkey decoy.  The first group off the roost passed 60 yards to our right but the second group hung around and eventually one dandy gobbler spotted the decoy and began to strut as he slowly approached the blind.  It took him a good 15 minutes to come fifty yards, but eventually he was right there, eight yards from us, focused on the decoy.  My arrow flew true and the hunt was over.  We remained in the blind another hour until all birds were gone.  Over the next few weeks, many bowhunters would hunt with Dave and Jeff and almost all would get their gobblers. 

This is my South Dakota Merriam’s.
This is my South Dakota Merriam’s.

 No special equipment is needed for Merriam’s turkeys.  You might take some decoys and a comfortable portable chair, though Dave will provide those for you.  You definitely want to use expandable broadheads to ensure recovery of your bird.  Hunters stay in a house in Gregory, and there is food for breakfast and lunch available.  A nice couple from town brought hot dinner to the house and no one left hungry.  The bowhunt was four days and most hunters left their birds with Angela Wilson of Wild Intrigue Taxidermy.  I found her work to be outstanding.  Some of the gobblers are pure Merriam’s with the solid white band on the tail, while others are hybrids of Merriam’s and Eastern’s called ‘mudders’ with a light tan band on the outer tail feathers.  You can purchase a license on line.  For more information call Dave at home at 605 835-8658 or his cell at 830-2091. (Since this was written, Dave has passed away, but friends have taken over the business.  Check out Double K guide service). 

 The boys at Bowhunter magazine were right.  It was the most amazing turkey situation I’d ever seen.  Gobblers galore and Dave Keizer knew exactly what to do.  

 

For more please go to: The Future of Hunting

For more also go to: Straight Talk Interview: Dr. Dave Samuel

Be sure and visit Dr. Dave’s website, Know Hunting