Becoming a Turkey Hunter
By Jonathan Lambert
If you had to pick only one species to hunt for the rest of your life, what would it be? - my reply would be, hands down, TURKEYS!
At the age of 22, my hunting experience was limited to that of an annual elk hunt my family planned every year, and the occasional pheasant hunt… At this point in my life, I had never yet successfully harvested a deer, never emptied a box of shells while trying to shoot my first dove, or never realized all the different hunting opportunities Colorado had to offer – like pronghorn, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, or TURKEY hunting!
As I began to learn about all these different species, the thought of being able to turn that possibility of “maybe one day” into a reality of actually hunting something new and different was very exciting to me. Questions began to surface in my mind – “Where can I find out more about hunting this species? How long before I can draw a license? What area should I apply for?” – all good questions.
I started by talking to the experts… the folks at Colorado Parks and Wildlife. I used to think “the draw” process meant that if you applied for a license and were unsuccessful, well then: better luck next time. It is true that “luck” does play a role in drawing a license, but I learned that there is much more to it than just luck.
Trying to understand how this rather complex process works can be discouraging, but figuring out preference points was a key part of helping me take those first steps needed toward applying for something new and unfamiliar.
There are different types of licenses: 1) limited licenses (these are licenses a hunter should apply for in the drawing and are usually specific to a single or a small group of GMUs) and 2) unlimited licenses (these are licenses not offered in the drawing because a hunter could purchase one of these anytime, before or during the season, and are usually valid in many non-limited GMUs).Preference points help you draw a limited license and can be gained one of two ways: 1) by not drawing your first choice hunt-code designated on your limited license application, or 2) by applying specifically for a preference point as your first choice by using the special preference point hunt-code designated for that particular species.
Additionally, the process for drawing sheep, goat, and moose licenses is different than the process for drawing deer, elk, pronghorn, bear, and turkey licenses. Hunters who have more preference points going into the draw (for limited deer, elk, pronghorn, bear, and turkey licenses only) have priority in drawing over hunters with fewer or no preference points. Turkey is the only species for which a hunter can obtain two preference points in one year (once in the spring, and once again in the fall); for every other species, only one preference point may be obtained per year.
Finally, previous years’ drawing statistics are published and made available to hunters. While, unfortunately, these stats don’t predict the future as to who will/won’t draw this year, but they will give you data to estimate your draw potential. The information available includes: how many preference points minimum were required to draw, how many people have applied in the past, and how many licenses were issued in the past. Ultimately, this is your best resource to understand approximately how long it will take you to draw a specific limited license (for drawing limited deer, elk, pronghorn, bear, and turkey licenses).
Taking all of that information into account, it was clear that I would have to be patient in waiting for that first year in which I would be lucky enough to draw a “popular” limited license.
I decided that I needed to start applying for preference points for all the species that I would, one day, want to hunt (even though I didn’t yet know how to hunt any of them) – turkey included. So, that’s what I did; every spring and every fall, I submitted my turkey application with my first choice solely consisting of the preference point hunt-code (not applying for a specific license), and then waited for the refund check to show up in the mail. I figured that building up my preference points wouldn’t hurt anything, and when/if I ever decided to apply for a hunt, I might have a good chance at drawing a limited license that year, whenever “that year” finally came.
Time went on, and my turkey hunting knowledge slowly grew. When I first started, most of what I learned was by talking to other people who had hunted turkeys before; what I call the very basics. Things like: the differences between males and females, that mating occurs in the spring, that spring season offers the best chance at calling a male in close to you, that you can only shoot bearded turkeys (males) in spring, etc. It wasn’t until a buddy of mine (a novice turkey hunter at the time) came to me with a proposition: “Hey, we should go turkey hunting this weekend…” I explained that I had never turkey hunted before and had no idea how to call birds; never mind that I had yet to see an actual wild turkey. He replied, “Well, I don’t really know what I’m doing either, but it would be fun to give it a try…”
We each purchased an unlimited, over-the-counter spring turkey license and set out early one Saturday morning to some U.S. Forest Service property Southwest of Denver. We brought with us a single hen decoy, a couple of box calls, and a blind, and neither one of us knew where to even start looking for turkeys. We spent all day trudging around the woods and there was still quite a bit of snow left on the ground that had not yet melted. Every once in a while, we’d stop, sit down, and call a little bit…no response. At one point, we did come across one set of turkey tracks headed for nowhere in particular… Needless to say, we never did hear or see a turkey that day, but it was fun just to get out and try.
After that, I was under the impression that turkey hunting was much harder than assumed it would be. I wasn’t necessarily discouraged, but my interest in turkey hunting waned some. It wasn’t until two years after my first turkey hunting extravaganza, that my interest was once again sparked. After hearing an excellent story from another buddy of mine about his spring turkey hunt, I decided to try again. I talked with him on the phone for about an hour… and he proceeded to tell me about how after having also purchased an unlimited spring turkey license, he had gone out east of Greeley (one of the State Wildlife Areas), plopped down against a big cottonwood, and promptly fallen asleep for most of the morning, only to wake up and find a Tom strutting around his one decoy not 20 yards from where he sat! I thought to myself, “Well it can’t be that difficult if these birds are dumb enough to walk up to a sleeping man hunched over snoring next to a tree!” It was game on!
The following weekend, I coaxed my fiancé into making the drive out to the same State Wildlife Area with me in hopes of finding a bird. Both dressed in hand-me-down camo and our faces painted (mine with green and brown face paint – hers with blush, mascara, and sparkling lip gloss), off we went. While picking a trail through the tall grass in an area I had never been to before, we slowly made our way toward the river as it began to get light. Across the river and most likely on the neighboring private property, a Tom lets loose a thundering gobble! I looked at her and said, “Well, that’s a good sign…there’s birds here!” We hunkered down and waited, calling periodically with my still very new box call…no response. We hunted all morning and again in the afternoon, and again never did see a turkey… Well, at least we got to hear a gobbler this time.
More time passed, and I continued to build up my turkey points. The following spring, my future father-in-law had drawn a limited spring turkey license for one of the premier turkey hunting units in NE Colorado. He was very excited, though I didn’t fully understand why, and told me that turkeys were probably one his most favorite species to hunt. Off he went in time to set up camp the day before season opened. The following evening, he called and said he was done hunting – a 23 lb. Rio Grande was dressed, in the cooler, and sitting on ice back at camp. I couldn’t believe it! How did he go out in one day, get into birds, and pull the trigger? I was stunned and wanted to know every last detail of how he managed it. He told me the story when he got back home, and again my desire for a successful turkey hunt had been rekindled.
Not long after that, I realized that I now had just as many preference points as he did when he drew his license. I decided that the next spring, I was going to finally put in for a limited area, in hopes of finally earning my own turkey success story the following year.
Perseverance Equals Success
The day finally came when spring turkey draw results were posted to the CPW website for the upcoming 2011 spring turkey season. I drew! Just as I had expected, I had plenty of preference points saved up and was one of the lucky few who applied in the same area as my father-in-law did the year previously. I couldn’t wait to ask him to go with me and show me the ropes!
It seemed like forever for opening day to arrive. The night before we were to head out, I hardly slept. I was so excited. Finally the alarm went off and we headed to the state wildlife area. My father-in-law explained to me that we would want to get in and setup before daylight in hopes that any turkeys roosted in trees nearby would not see us walking in. Not long after sun-up, three different Toms started gobbling from three different directions! I couldn’t believe it – it seemed as though there were plenty of turkeys around. Soon after a pair of hens and a Jake, made their way directly behind me… I could hear them. My father-in-law told me not to move too much, or else they would see me and leave in a hurry. To make a long story short, we hunted for three days, and every day, we saw turkeys. I was getting closer!
But every time a turkey came into range, something happened and I just couldn’t quite make a good shot. I was baffled to think that I might have blown these multiple chances at harvesting my first turkey! Our hunting trip came to and end, and still no turkey. But instead of disappointment, I felt more determined than ever. With almost three weeks left in the season, I wasn't about to give up so easily! I knew sooner or later, one of these birds would have to make a mistake.
The following weekend, I went out again with my brother-in-law and twice we called in a Tom! Again, there was no good shot – if one was out of range, the other was behind a tree. Unbelievable!
I knew that I had one more weekend to seal the deal, so I started asking if any of my family members wanted to go with me – no one was available. Well, I wasn’t going to let a little thing like “going by myself” get in the way.
It was 2:00 AM that following Saturday and the last day that I was able to go. I was just a little late getting to the parking lot and knew that I had to make tracks to get into my spot before sunrise. As I'm slowly walking in, not 100 yards from my tree, a gobbler stands up on a branch, beard barely visible in the early morning twilight. I’m right underneath him and freeze… but it's too late, and like a hurricane, he flies out the opposite side of the tree and across the river, away from me. He had seen me first, and I blew it again! I couldn’t believe my luck. As I grumbled to myself and made my way over to the tree (which would have been a perfect spot had I not scared him) and set out my one hen decoy.
I plopped down against the base of the large cottonwood. Not long after legal shooting light, I hear a faint gobble way off in the distance. I dig out my slate and proceed to call in hopes that he might hear it and begin to move my direction…no response. About 25 minutes go by, and I start wondering if he even heard me call at all. I reach down for the call again, when just around the bend (approximately 50 yards away) I see a red head bobbing through the grass! It was him! Totally unprepared for his presence, I freeze. He moves out into full view and begins to strut at the sight of my lonely decoy.
There are two trees between us and as he moves closer to my decoy, I knew I would have only one opportunity to raise my gun without him seeing me move. He moves a little closer; just enough to where one of the trees blocks his view of me. I raise my gun, and hold steady, waiting. He emerges from behind the tree, takes a few more steps and is now in full view and only 32 yards away. He sticks his neck out in an effort to take one last look at my beautiful decoy… Wham! Down he goes! One shot! I had done it!
I chuckled to myself, and thanked God for providing me with one of the best, most memorable hunts I’ve ever experienced. All my hard work finally paid off! I was so excited that I nearly left my camo shotgun lying in the grass as I started to walk out with my first turkey. I made it back to the truck, dressed the bird, and headed for home. It was still so early in the morning that I couldn’t think of anyone to call and share with my story without waking them, other than my grandmother (I knew she would be up and was very happy for me).
Hooked on Turkey Hunting
From that moment on, I’ve been hooked on turkey hunting. Nothing is more thrilling than having a mature Tom gobble his head off at you, by making him think that you are what he’s looking for.
Since then, I’ve gone out every season (both spring and fall), chasing turkeys. I’ve attended several of the “Turkey Hunting 101” seminars put on by Colorado Parks & Wildlife in an effort to learn more about turkey hunting opportunities in Colorado. I’ve learned several things that I’d like pass on:
Doing your homework is beneficial
Scouting and locating birds before venturing off to hunt in a new area pays off
Calling and learning to imitate real turkeys takes practice
Being persistent while having patience is rewarding
I’ve introduced my two younger brothers, my wife, and my father to the sport. My wife was fortunate enough to harvest her first turkey in a limited area (again, public land) in spring 2012. Last fall (on his second time out), my middle brother harvested his first turkey on a limited, youth-only license on public land near Burlington, CO. Last fall I also came close to harvesting my first Merriam’s turkey, but he was traveling along the “wrong side of the fence” on the private land bordering the state wildlife area where we were hunting (see – they’re smarter than you think!).
We had multiple opportunities this past spring (2013) to harvest several Toms, but again, it’s the little mistakes we hunters make that can cause things to go awry.
The bottom line: it’s difficult to learn something new (like figuring out when, where, and how are the best times, places, and ways to hunt turkeys in Colorado) - but it can be done. It took me several years to “get things figured out.”
But a successful turkey hunt doesn't necessarily mean harvesting a bird. It means finding the birds and the opportunity and challenge of seeing how close you can get them to come to you. I can't put into words just how much it is to play the game. No matter how frustrating turkey hunting can be, it has a funny way of keeping you going back for more.