The Hardest Turkey Hunt

John Taranto dealt with snow, freezing temperatures, long hikes and high elevation in search of a trophy Merriam's turkey. After all the hardships see if he was able to tag a bird.

North Fork Trailhead

North Fork Trailhead

And so our adventure began at the North Fork trailhead in Colorado's San Isabel National Forest.Outdoor Life Online Editor

When National Wild Turkey Federation staff writer (and former Outdoor Life intern) Paul Rackley called me in February to ask if I'd like to join him on a turkey hunt in Colorado this spring, I didn't hesitate in saying yes. I knew we'd be hunting Merriams, and after striking out on that subspecies last year in South Dakota's Black Hills, I still hadn't killed one.

Paul's offer got real interesting when he mentioned the idea was to hunt and camp on national forest land where we would hike several thousand feet of elevation and untold miles over the course of the week. A real adventure.

Fast forward a couple of months and Paul, NWTF managing editor Jake Fagan, outdoor writer Lynn Burkhead and I are standing at the North Fork trailhead in the San Isabel National Forest, each of us with some 60 pounds of camping and hunting gear strapped to our backs. The plan is to find a good campsite a few miles into the mountains (thereby guaranteeing we won't have any competition for the birds), set up camp and try to roost some turkeys before nightfall.

The hiking is slow-going for a variety of reasons, the weight on our backs being one. The treacherous, uneven terrain and the thinning air as we climb roughly 2,000 feet in elevation don't help, either. Fortunately we find a suitable campground about 2 miles into the hike and decide to set-up there among the aromatic ponderosa pine and stark white aspen trunks. There's plenty of groundspace for our four one-man Slumberjack tents on one side of the trail, a fire pit on the other and a cold, steadily flowing stream just 50 yards down the trail where we can get water for cooking and drinking.

According to topo maps of the area, several valleys and canyons drop off on either side of the trail for several more miles into the mountains. We head out around four o'clock in pairs-Paul and Lynn, Jake and myself-to scout the area we are to hunt the next 3 days and see if we can roost a bird or two for morning.

The scenery is breathtaking as we climb wooded hillsides, traverse mountain streams and glass alpine prairies. But aside from a couple sets of mallards swimming around a beaver slough, the only animal sign that Jake and I see all afternoon are black bear and mountain lion tracks-and some of them are rather fresh. We arrive back at camp before Paul and Lynn and start a fire. Before long, the others wander back into camp with a scouting report that doesn't differ from our own: no turkey tracks, no turkey scat and no turkeys calling.

It appears that the birds haven't made it up to 10,000 feet yet this year. Over a dinner of rehydrated beef stroganoff we decide to hike back to the trailhead in the morning, hop in the mighty Kia rental and drive back out to a state wildlife area we passed on the way in that resembled likely turkey habitat.

The temperature has dropped into the twenties and snow has begun to fall as I crawl into my sleeping bag. My shotgun and three loose shells lie next to me in the tent. It's becoming apparent to me, a born-and-bred flatlander, that Rocky Mountain turkey hunting is going to be unlike any spring hunt I've done before.

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We hiked to the vehicle in pitch-black darkness this morning, but it was far easier than the hike in yesterday since we were headed downhill and my body wasn't being crushed under my pack. After the short drive to the SWA, we set off in pairs in different directions up a gradually sloping meadow.

Within 400 yards of the parking lot, Jake and I heard a hen yelp several times. We froze in our tracks as our eyes widened and our grins grew. Just to hear a turkey improved both our hopes and moods ten-fold. Jake responded with a volley from his mouth call and immediately got an answer. For a moment, we though we were dealing with an overzealous hunter who had himself miaken us for a live bird. Then we heard a distant gobble. We stood where we were and heard the "hen" call again. Each set of her calls included no fewer that 10 yelps.

We decided to alter our course and come around on top of a rise on the back part of the meadow. As we made our way to where we would set up, the gobbler continued to to hammer away in the river bottom below. We figured that if the "hen," who wasn't too far from us, could pull the tom up into the clearing, we would definitely have a shot at him. Jake and I set up against a couple of ponderosas and set to work.

The gobbler answered us and the other hen every time we called to him. Unfortunately, our the other hen turned out to indeed be the real thing and made a bee-line to him, leaving us high and dry. It became clear that we weren't going to kill this bird sitting down, so we set off across the ridge that ran above the river bottom in the hopes of cutting off the gobbler.

We managed to get within 50 yards of him, but were never presented a shot as the tom and-count 'em-8 hens made their way up the hill. Jake and I knew there was going to be no pulling this bird away from his girlfriends, so we made a last-ditch effort to sprint straight up the hill about 100 yards and try to once again cut them off. The dry, dead wood and loose stones on the ground most likely gave us away as we climbed the hill because we never saw the birds again.

We sat for a while and called. Nothing. Then we moved and sat for a while and called. Nothing. It was clear that the few toms there were in this area were horribly henned up. We headed back to the vehicle to find Paul and Lynn, who had had less luck than us. The decision was made to hike back into our camp, get a bite to eat, strike camp and hike back out. We were surrounded by thousands of acres of public land, so we saw no point in staying someplace where we knew there were so few huntable birds. Surely, we assumed, a change of locale was all we needed to sway our luck.

As we approached Walsenburg in the mighty Kia, and re-entered cell phone range, Lynn made a call to a buddy of his who lives in Colorado Springs. Head to the Mill Set trailhead west of Colorado City, we were told. There's another area of the San Isabel there that gets very little pressure, and there are always birds in the area. Plus, it's a lot of open meadows and rolling hills. Now that's more like it, I thought to myself.

Within an hour we were hiking into our second camp in two nights, and although this hike was considerably shorter than the one yesterday, I thought my heart was going to burst right there on the trail. This was the kind of hiking where all you can see in front of you is dirt. Apparently, a westerner's idea of "rolling hills" differs somewhat from mine. Mercifully, we came to a good place to set-up camp after less than a mile of hiking. Before long we set out to scout and try again to roost a bird.

I'll spare you the grueling details. Scenery? Unmatched. Turkeys? Uneard from. Well, that's not entirely true: Jake and I heard one hen, about 700 feet straight down a sheer-cliff canyon. Paul and Lynn heard none. With a fire-ban in effect in this area, it was straight to bed once the sun went down and my stomach was full of rehydrated beef stew.

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I woke up feeling like I'd been beaten with a baseball bat all night. And for all I know, I had been-I was so exhausted, there was little chance of anything waking me up. Paul and Lynn had left camp a bit before Jake and I and made their way up the mountain to an open meadow where they had hoped to strike a gobbler off the roost. Jake and I hiked half-way to them and ducked down into a draw where we set up and called for the first hour or so. We heard a gobble while we sat there, but he was a considerable distance away, in fact perhaps not even on the forest, as we were pretty close to the border.

After a while we continued up the mountain to find Lynn left alone. Apparently Paul had gotten a crazy look in his eye and, according to Lynn, "took off over the other side of the mountain." When we asked if Paul had mentioned how long he'd be gone, Lynn could only tell us that Paul left some food and a bottle of water purification tablets.

Around noon Jake, Lynn and I wandered back to camp for lunch and we made the decision to hike out again, when and if Paul ever returned. We were down to our third strike and it was clear that we were going to go down swinging if we stayed there another night. Before long Paul wandered back into camp without a bird and didn't put up much of an argument when we proposed changing locations yet again.

Lynn spoke with another connection, this time an employee with the Colorado Department of Wildlife, who told him about a rancher north of Canon City who released a bunch of birds on his property a few decades ago and was now "covered up" with them. We called information for the gentleman's number and within minutes had set up a meeting with the man at his ranch for later that afternoon.

We visited with the rancher and his wife for some time upon our arrival and learned that the ranch had been in the family since 1901. Inside their home were two of the largest mule deer racks and the absolute largest black bear (cinamon phase) rug I had ever seen. In the garage were piles of old antlers, some of which dwarfed many I've seen on walls. All the animals had been taken on the ranch over the years.

The missus took us down to the river bottom on the south side of the property where she said the birds usually hang out. We found more turkey sign along that river than I've seen in entire forests. There wasn't a doubt in any of our minds that we would get on the birds in the morning, so we left prior to fly-up, to avoid messing up any roosting patterns, and headed back to town to get a hot shower and some bed sleep. We'd be back dark and early.

[pagebreak]April 27. 2006
We left our motel in Pueblo this morning at 3:30 to make the hour-plus drive to the ranch. We had spent just two nights in tents and sleeping bags, but lying in that bed last night nearly brought tears of joy to my eyes.

Paul let Jake and I out at a gate on the main road and he and Lynn continued up the road a ways to another gate. From where Jake and I started out, there was only one way across the river without getting wet: a precarious balancing act over a couple of large trees that had washed downstream at one point and now were wedged in a bend. We made it across without incident and hiked through the dark past sleeping cows to where we decided last night we would set up.

As the sky grew pink, I eagerly anticipated one of those gobbles that comes from a bird so nearby you can feel it in your chest, a sound I hadn't heard all week. Listening to turkeys and all the other birds wake up as the Lynn left alone. Apparently Paul had gotten a crazy look in his eye and, according to Lynn, "took off over the other side of the mountain." When we asked if Paul had mentioned how long he'd be gone, Lynn could only tell us that Paul left some food and a bottle of water purification tablets.

Around noon Jake, Lynn and I wandered back to camp for lunch and we made the decision to hike out again, when and if Paul ever returned. We were down to our third strike and it was clear that we were going to go down swinging if we stayed there another night. Before long Paul wandered back into camp without a bird and didn't put up much of an argument when we proposed changing locations yet again.

Lynn spoke with another connection, this time an employee with the Colorado Department of Wildlife, who told him about a rancher north of Canon City who released a bunch of birds on his property a few decades ago and was now "covered up" with them. We called information for the gentleman's number and within minutes had set up a meeting with the man at his ranch for later that afternoon.

We visited with the rancher and his wife for some time upon our arrival and learned that the ranch had been in the family since 1901. Inside their home were two of the largest mule deer racks and the absolute largest black bear (cinamon phase) rug I had ever seen. In the garage were piles of old antlers, some of which dwarfed many I've seen on walls. All the animals had been taken on the ranch over the years.

The missus took us down to the river bottom on the south side of the property where she said the birds usually hang out. We found more turkey sign along that river than I've seen in entire forests. There wasn't a doubt in any of our minds that we would get on the birds in the morning, so we left prior to fly-up, to avoid messing up any roosting patterns, and headed back to town to get a hot shower and some bed sleep. We'd be back dark and early.

[pagebreak]April 27. 2006
We left our motel in Pueblo this morning at 3:30 to make the hour-plus drive to the ranch. We had spent just two nights in tents and sleeping bags, but lying in that bed last night nearly brought tears of joy to my eyes.

Paul let Jake and I out at a gate on the main road and he and Lynn continued up the road a ways to another gate. From where Jake and I started out, there was only one way across the river without getting wet: a precarious balancing act over a couple of large trees that had washed downstream at one point and now were wedged in a bend. We made it across without incident and hiked through the dark past sleeping cows to where we decided last night we would set up.

As the sky grew pink, I eagerly anticipated one of those gobbles that comes from a bird so nearby you can feel it in your chest, a sound I hadn't heard all week. Listening to turkeys and all the other birds wake up as the