MICHAEL BABCOCK Great Falls Tribune GREAT FALLS
It's been called elk hunting in the spring because the prey often responds to a call and in both sports, the hunter can put some miles on. But the game here is wild turkey and in Montana that means the Merriam's Turkey. Spring turkey hunting opens April 12 this year and runs through May 18. Licenses are available from all Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks offices, on the FWP web site at www.fwp.mt.gov and from FWP license providers i n t h e s tate. FWP Information Bureau chief Tom Palmer says that last year, the agency sold 10,972 spring turkey tags to residents and 697 to nonresidents. Fall turkey tag sales were greater. Residents purchased 13,427 tags while nonresidents bought 807 fall tags. Palmer said that from 2004 through 2006, the harvest was about 6,000 turkeys per year, with about half taken in the spring. There are isolated populations of wild turkeys in many parts of Montana, but southeastern Montana has the greatest concentration of turkeys. Even between Ulm and Cascade, there are new populations of wild turkeys planted earlier this year. But there is no hunting of those birds until populations get established probably in two or three years. Good populations exist around Lewistown and in the Judith Mountains, although many of those areas are on private land and access must be arranged. The Bull Mountains southeast of Roundup hold good populations of turkeys, but most of the land is private and hunters need to cultivate access. T h e L i t t l e S n owy Mountains near Lewistown have good numbers of turkeys and that area offers reasonable public access. There are also large numbers of turkeys in the Flathead Valley and no special permit is needed. The state issues special permits through a drawing for other areas such as Sanders and Lincoln counties, and the hunting can be good. The Clark Fork Valley near Thompson Falls is full of turkeys. Since turkeys respond to a call, most are taken by hunters who "set up" after hearing a turkey gobble or after spotting a flock at a distance. A set up usually involves one or two decoys, with the hunter hiding behind the decoys and imitating the call of an amorous hen. It takes a good hunter to consistently harvest a wild turkey each year. The birds are extremely wary and have keen color vision. That makes camouflage crucial. Turkeys roost in trees at dusk, so find where turkeys are roosting and return in the morning before first light. Set up a hen decoy and, after the toms fly down from their roosts, try to call a gobbler in to gun or bow range. A 12-gauge shotgun usually is the weapon of choice, although a 20-gauge shotgun is plenty if the hunter is familiar with it and knows the pattern it throws with the shot shells you are using. Bow and arrow hunting for turkeys is popular but tough. Two hunters a caller behind the decoys and a shooter hidden along side the path that the turkeys are most likely to take to the decoy is a setup t h a t works, sometimes. Sometimes, nothing works. Since turkey breeding is stimulated by extended daylight, many of the hens will already have nested by the time the season opens. Males stay reproductively active the entire season and some hunters believe that later in the season it may be easier to set up on a gobbling tom. There will be fewer hens to interfere. Early in the season, turkeys may be found along river corridors or in barnyards and at cattle operations. Later, they disperse into the uplands and prefer grassy draws mixed with ponderosa pine. Hunters should plan for any kind of weather. It can be snowy and miserable on opening weekend. And, wear absolutely nothing with the colors red, blue or white, colors that are found on a gobbler's neck. In 2005, FWP commissioners extended the spring turkey season, which allowed hunters to take advantage of one of the best gobbling periods of the spring. Past Montana spring turkey hunting seasons began the second Saturday in April and ended the first Sunday in May. Those seasons allowed hunters to be in the woods for the initial peak of gobbling, which occurs near the beginning of turkey season, but not a second period. Biologists f rom the N a t i o n a l W i l d Tu r key Federation discovered that hunters were missing an opportunity to hunt the second gobbling peak, the time when hens are nesting and gobblers are lonely. FWP commissioners extended the turkey season by a week when they set final season in February. All wild turkey subspecies gobble in phases. The first peak of gobbling typically falls near the first week of turkey season, depending on location. The second peak occurs when most hens are laying eggs or incubating nests, which happens late in the Montana hunting season. Researchers from the NWTF, South Dakota State University and the Colorado Division of Wildlife conducted gobbling counts in Colorado and South Dakota and found that Merriam's turkeys reach their second peak May 11-20. That was one to two weeks after Montana's season ended in years past. Researchers also found that hens in Montana are incubating eggs between May 20 and June 5. The extra week of turkey hunting should catch the time period when females are laying eggs and toms are gobbling.