Big-Game Gobblers

Pounding steel fence posts rarely produces a celebratory moment. Normally it's a tedious chore, especially for working farmers like Bob Reggear. But on a sunny May morning 25 years ago, Reggear's heavy post driver produced the happiest sound the Idaho man had heard since the birth of his youngest child. "After every clang of the driver, I'd hear a shock gobble," says Reggear, who raises landscaping trees on 2,000 acres north of Orofino. "Clang. Gobble. Clang. Gobble. It was such a thrill. It meant the turkeys had made it through the winter." Prior to that spring in 1985, the booming gobble of a wild turkey had never been heard in Reggear‚ country's high-timbered ridges of ponderosa pine that tumble more than a thousand feet into the deep, twinkling blue water of the Clearwater River and Dworshak Reservoir. This is big-game country. Elk herds graze steep slopes, whitetails flit through timbered shadows, and when snow hits the high slopes that step down from the Montana border, mule deer gather in the clearings around the reservoir. If there were upland birds here at all, they were elegant ruffed grouse and their antithesis, the goofy spruce grouse fool hens that you can knock out of a tree with a well-aimed rock‚ and maybe a handful of chukar partridges on the highest wind-blasted slopes. But several of Reggear's neighbors had hunted wild turkeys elsewhere in Idaho, and they came home gushing about the challenge of spring gobblers. Landowners around Dworshak petitioned Idaho's Department of Fish and Game to plant turkeys, which is why, on a snowy December in 1984, a barge piloted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chugged into a frozen bay below Reggear's farm and released 16 wild turkeys into the gathering gloom of a dreary winter evening.
The birds, members of the Eastern subspecies, hailed from Pennsylvania habitat lower and gentler than Idaho's canyon country. Most of these barge-borne turkeys flew out of transport boxes to lakeside pines. At least one died on the ice, where it was quickly claimed by bald eagles. Would these newcomers stick? Or would they be like another breed of displaced Eastern homesteaders who, less than a century ago, walked away from rough-finished cabins and timber-camp shacks after the desolation and poverty of the Idaho frontier shattered their dreams of Western prosperity? Such seemed likely, as the snow piled up that winter and a few disoriented hens straggled into barnyards miles from the release site. That's the reason why Reggear was so tickled to hear the fence post gobbles in the spring following the release. It meant that the birds had made it. ELK-COUNTRY TURKEYS
Twenty-five years later, the birds are still making it, and at the moment they are in no danger from me, though I have an Idaho turkey tag in my pocket, a slate call that purrs like a satin-gloved madam, and a 3'Äa1'ÅÑ2 -inch Browning Gold loaded with head-jellying Winchester No. 5s. I've been all over Reggear's farm the last two days, trying to close the distance on gobblers that, like chatty freshmen, are eager to talk but don't seem to know how to act on their indecent impulses. I'm here to hunt an Eastern gobbler in the West, but right now these birds are acting a lot more like the other occupants of these ridges: elk. That is to say, they are using every inch of this huge landscape, covering miles in just a few hours, and are so sensitive to hunting pressure that they vanish like ink in the ocean. When the gobblers pitch down from their finger-ridge roost, they fly a half-mile across a steep drainage to catch the morning sun in a meadow that I can see directly across the canyon but which takes me three rock-scrambling hours to reach. My legs burn from the climb, my face and arms are scratched from fighting through thorny underbrush, and even though I hear toms gobbling all day, I have yet to see one of these wide-ranging birds. So far I've found more elk sheds here than turkey feathers.
WESTERN SUCCESS
Other hunters are having better luck. When I stop at Riverside Sports Shop in Orofino -- Steelhead Capital of the World -- dozen camouflaged hunters are gathered around a pickup bed. In another season they might be admiring a trophy bull, but today they're inspecting a pair of gobblers. In the West, spring turkey season is the fastest-growing segment of hunting. Here in Idaho, the state sold slightly more than 5,000 turkey licenses in 1994. Last year nearly 60,000 licenses were sold. In neighboring Washington, license sales jumped from 2,800 in 1994 to nearly 20,000 last year. If that sort of growth pervaded other shooting sports, America would be awash with hunters. But the number of hunters in the United States is relatively stagnant, even declining some years. So why is turkey hunting so popular in an area of the country more commonly associated with antlered ungulates? Much of the credit goes to the National Wild Turkey Federation, but whether for establishing turkey populations or making big-game hunters aware of the remarkable resource out their back doors is a chicken-or-egg sort of question. What is clear is that through its fund-raising dinners, the NWTF has been instrumental in growing both its membership and its investment in wildlife habitat over the last two decades.
In 1990, the West boasted only 2,212 NWTF members; last year, the number was just over 25,000. But more important for the expansion of wild turkey numbers in the region, some $52.7 million has been spent by the NWTF and its agency partners in 17 Western states. That money has been used to improve wildlife habitat, fund wild turkey research and pay for the transfer of wild turkeys into new areas. Wild turkey numbers and distribution have exploded across the West, thanks to aggressive trap-and-transplant operations. But after two decades of almost exponential growth, wildlife managers are trying to put the brakes on further turkey expansion. "Wild turkeys in the West are one of the greatest management challenges we face," says Jeff Knetter, upland bird biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "On one end of the spectrum, we have planted turkeys in habitats that can't support them year-round, and we're being asked to feed them every winter. On the other end of the spectrum, we have birds that have flourished a little too well, and there are so many that they've become a nuisance. Landowners who welcomed turkeys in the first couple of years are now asking us to remove them because they're roosting on their porches or flocking to [livestock] feedlots."
A NEW SUBSPECIES?
Wild turkeys are not native to most of the West north of the Colorado River and west of the Missouri River. Starting in the 1950s, state wildlife managers began trapping birds in their native range -- Merriam -- from the Four Corners area of Colorado and New Mexico, Easterns from Pennsylvania and North Dakota and Rio Grande turkeys from the Texas and Oklahoma plains and planting them in vacant habitat from northern Idaho to southern California. In those early years, game agencies had little regard for, or knowledge of, the specific habitat requirements of the various subspecies. That's how Easterns arrived at Dworshak Reservoir, Rio Grande turkeys populated tributaries of the Snake River and Merriam's got to such diverse habitat as eastern Montana's grain belt and Oregon's high desert. These days, it's generally agreed that Merriam's turkeys‚ a subspecies that thrives in mid-elevation ponderosa pine habitat, is best suited to most areas of the West. In fact, in Montana, legislation mandates that Merriam's is the only subspecies that will be actively managed in the state.
Many turkey hunters are equally keen on hunting specific subspecies of gobblers. They want to know that the bird they're hunting is a Merriam's or a Rio. But decades of diluting the genetic heritage of turkeys in the West has created a sort of winged Heinz 57, toms that thrive in ridge-and-canyon habitats suited to Merriam's but have the caramel-colored fans of Rios, or turkeys with the booming gobble of an Eastern but the easily habituated nature of a Merriam's. Gabe McMasters has a name for these mixed-up turkeys: the Idaho Mountain Mutt. This hybridized strain of turkeys covers most of Idaho‚ indeed, most of the West‚ outside a few core areas where pure-strain birds live in ever-eroding numbers. "The Mountain Mutt is very adapted to Western ecosystems, with our dry summers, harsh winters and often cold, wet springs. Over time, I expect it will become its own subspecies," posits McMasters, regional biologist for the NWTF.
The hardy nature of these hybrids helps explain why turkey hunting has flourished in the West. "When we ask hunters if they'd rather have good turkey populations, even if they're hybrids, or a handful of pure-strain birds, about ninety percent of hunters say they'd rather have good populations,"says McMasters. "They just want to hunt turkeys, no matter what subspecies they belong to."
VERTICAL GOBBLERS
Folks who have hunted only Eastern turkeys on Southern pine plantations or Midwestern bottomlands can't conceive of the amount of real estate Western gobblers can cover. Or the kind of country they occupy. Only a fraction of Reggear's property is level. The rest is steep as a cow's face, so inclined that I can stick a decoy in the ground without ever bending over. I'm surprised these birds don't have freakishly large thighs, given the elevation they have to cover over the course of an average day. They roost on skyline ridges that can be 2,000 feet higher than the valley floor feeding areas. So to hunt them you have to be part sherpa and, when they're as unresponsive as they are being right now, willing to hike miles to strike a hot tom. Finally, as a May snowstorm drops flakes as big and fluffy as marshmallows on Reggear's timber, I find him. Two gobblers are tending hens in a meadow below the ruins of a homesteader's shack on a high, open ridge. One struts every time I yelp, and starts my way only to be reeled back in by possessive hens. The only way to get him in range will be to close the distance, moving undetected across the overgrown meadow.
This will be more like an elk stalk than a classic spring turkey hunt. I drop my vest, wait for a particularly heavy snow squall to cover my approach, and start belly crawling, in plain view of the flock 200 yards away. Luckily, the remains of the homestead barn cover my approach, and as I peek around the timbers of a fallen wall, I can see the eager gobbler coming my way. I give him some encouragement with my mouth call, and as I wait for him to strut into range, it occurs to me that I am enjoying a scene that would have been foreign to the original occupants of this ridge, who might have known turkeys only as domesticated poultry. Later, inspecting the gobbler in the weathered frame of the cabin's door, I notice Eastern-like tail feathers, but a Rio's bulbous head and the short, blunt spurs that are characteristic of mountain Merriam's. But like most Western turkey hunters, I'm not hung up on the purity of this tom's genes. Instead, I'm savoring the hunt, as tough and exhausting‚ and rewarding‚ as the pursuit of any trophy bull.