Article by: Kurt Martonik
Photos by: Chris Toomey
April 11th, 2020 turned out to be a better day than I could have ever imagined. I had thought endlessly about the upcoming Turkey season and could barely sleep the days leading up to it. I had never hunted Merriams turkey before, and heard how challenging it can be hunting them in the mountains. Two weeks before the season, I took my wife out to scout. I anticipated a day of hiking and finding little, if any turkey sign. At this point, I had lived in Colorado for a little less than a year and had only seen one flock of turkeys, so I didn’t have high hopes. My excitement changed once we arrived at the parking area that I had planned to start from. As we opened the doors, all I could hear were dozens of birds, yelping, clucking, gobbling, and everything in between.
It was just getting light and we hurried up in their direction to get set up. When they hit the ground I can only describe it as the best morning I’ve ever had in the turkey woods. Gobblers everywhere, no exaggeration. We called a group of eight into 10 yards and had them gobbling simultaneously. To say I was excited for the season to start was an understatement! Fast forward two weeks and I’m pulling into my camp site at 8 am the day before season. I got there early just to get the campsite that I had picked out. Later that day, my buddy Chris Toomey showed up with some venison steaks to start the trip off right. We went out and scouted and found very little sign. Then, we took a ride to listen for some birds and lucked out. There were people everywhere calling, but we found a bird that we were almost certain no one else could hear. At 3:30 am I was up and making coffee, 15 minutes before the alarm was meant to go off. Chris came over to the tent and we discussed the plan over a cup of coffee. We could have easily made it to where we heard the bird walking from our campsite, but knew we had to stake a claim and make it look like more people were in the woods. The campsite next to us had two vehicles so we figured that was enough for people to avoid parking there. We hit the main road and drove about a half mile down and pulled off. Despite making it there almost two hours before light we were not the only vehicle. As we got ready, four more vehicles pulled in. This isn’t something you want to see but we stuck with our plan as most of them went on the other side of the road. We got into a position that we could easily reposition once we heard the bird start to gobble. As it got light out, he lit up and started to gobble. We re-positioned ourselves a couple hundred yards from where we thought he was. It didn’t take long before we heard hunters about a hundred yards to our left, but the bird was only answering our call though so we thought we had it in the bag. Once the tom hit the ground he shut up... About a half hour went by and we could hear the callers to our left make it to our 11 o’clock and knew we had to make a move as we were being cut off. Both a little uneasy with the amount of hunting pressure, we put an orange vest on our backpacks to be a little more visible to the other hunters. We took off to our 2 o’clock to create some space between us and did the equivalent of still-hunting, moving quietly and listening a lot. The other hunters were calling so we didn’t feel the need to let the gobbler know where we were at. He wasn’t answering anyways. We crested on top of a ridge and there was a boulder about the size of a small house. We decided to go around it’s left side. Once on the other side of the boulder we had an excellent view through the big timber. We resisted the urge to call and just listened. About 300 yards to our 4 o’clock there is a shooting range, and we thought we heard a vehicle trying to turn over and start. After about five times of hearing that sound it hit me that it might be the sound of gobbler strutting. I whispered to Chris that I was going to look over the edge of the ridge just in case. This is not where you’d expect to see turkey, very steep, and thick like a Pennsylvania clearcut. I peaked my head over the edge, locked eyes with two hens and saw a full fan facing away from me at 10 yards. I ducked down slowly and signaled to Chris that we had them right next to us. I crawled up the big rock in front of me and got ready to pop up. I slowly rose on my knees with my shotgun on my shoulder. As soon as my shotgun barrel cleared the rock I had the gobblers head in my sights at five yards and let him have it. He collapsed and started hurling himself down the mountain with me right behind him. I caught up to him and got my boot on his neck to finish him off. I had hit him in the front of his head and saw a good portion of my pattern in his beak and nose.
Chris came running down and congratulated me. What an awesome strike of luck! Had we hit that ridge a minute earlier or later it would have ended up completely different. If we would have gone around the right side of the boulder, we would have been face to face with the hens he was following. Everything lined up perfectly. Once my nerves calmed down I admired my first Merriam’s turkey. I have always looked at them as being the best looking out of the turkey species but this one blew us away. He was a great old bird who had probably held this mountain for a couple years. His left spur was a good size and his right spur was broken off at the end. I couldn’t have been happier.
Chris and I made our way back to camp and enjoyed some celebratory beers while cooking up a great venison and egg breakfast. I had planned on camping for the next two or three days but was happy I didn’t have to. With 6-8 inches of snow scheduled that night I thought it was probably best to head out that evening. Overall, it was a great experience hunting those mountain birds. Later at camp, we got around to measuring it and it ended up being bigger than we thought.
The beard measured 9 7/16”, the left spur 1 1/8”, and the right spur despite being broken, still measured 7/8”. We didn’t know it at the time, but quickly found out that this was an exceptionally big Merriam’s gobbler. Whether it was a big Tom or not, it didn’t matter to us. This was a new adventure that I was just happy to experience.
To learn more about hunting Merriam's in Colorado, how to locate them and the story on this mountain gobbler, listen to the East Meets West Hunt podcast, Episode 123 with Kurt Martonik and Chris Toomey.