by Tracy Breen
I was gasping for air as I chased towards the Mountaintop Merriam gobbler that sounded like he was just a few hundred yards away. My lungs and my body were telling me to stop and sit down but my heart and soul told me to push forward. Chasing wild turkeys is one of my favorite things to do. Chasing them in the mountains is something I really enjoy. The gobbler I was chasing on this day was different; he wasn’t just a gobbler that lived in the mountains. He was practically living at tree line. We were going after what I like to call, backcountry longbeards. This bird was hanging out at 10,000 feet. This gobbler scratched out an existence far from the influence of man. As a result, he was smarter than many of the backyard turkeys I often chase in the Midwest. This bird would gobble at our calls but eventually decided he didn’t like what he heard and disappeared over the next ridge. We hiked back down the mountain in search of a more receptive bird. We would find more birds…lots of them.
The weather was unseasonably cold for early April. How cold you ask? It was in the single digits each morning and it snowed almost every day of my hunt. The good news was the birds were still gobbling a little bit each morning so our hope was to find a bird or two at daylight and call them in shortly after they flew down from the roost in the morning. The second morning of my hunt started as planned with lots of gobbling. Although the birds would respond to our calls and come in part of the way, getting a bird to come in close enough to kill didn’t happen. The remainder of the day was spent running and gunning in hopes of finding a hot bird.
In the middle of the afternoon, everything came together. A gobbler high up on a ridge answered our calls. We quickly sat up and started calling to him like an old lonesome hen and the gobbler started to work his way towards us. The problem was he had a large group of immature gobblers with him and they came down the side of the ridge first. The young birds filtered into our decoy setup and were making all kinds of noise. Like a group of teenagers eager to meet the ladies, they were running all around the decoys. Eventually the mature tom came walking into the open. His bleached white fan was open as he strutted in front of us and marched right in to our setup. I made the shot, dropping the bird at at very close range.
For many, hunting big game out West is a pipe dream. The cost is just not something they can tackle. Even guided turkey hunts out west can be expensive. That’s why the draw to hunt western turkeys on a budget is so attractive. The first time I hunted turkeys in Colorado, I had less than $500 into my hunt. For those of you reading this article who dream of hunting out West someday, a self-guided turkey hunt is a great option. Here’s how to make it happen. The following list will show how to hunt western turkeys on a budget and why it’s so effective.
Check With the Locals
You’ll be surprised at how a lot of westerners view the wild turkey when it comes to hunting them. Many will scoff at the idea of actually pursuing these goofy birds for sport. And that’s what makes for the perfect opportunity to take advantage of an abundance of birds. Check with the locals and see where they encountered birds while hiking or hunting other game. Don’t hesitate to ask private landowners for the opportunity to access their ranches to hunt, or at least access tucked away public land via their property. The locals will likely know where to go when it comes to finding turkeys. Just ask them.
Crunch Your Accommodations
While some people choose to walk in and out each day of their hunt to stay in a cabin or hotel, a backcountry turkey hunt is honestly best suited for camping on the fly. This allows you to stay in the middle of the action and save lots of cash along the way. 3-5 nights of hotel expenses could easily put you at $500, just for lodging. Save that money by camping in the backcountry. A small tent or tarp shelter and quality sleeping bag will go a long way in keeping you in the middle of the action and closer to the game. Hunt and stay in the mountains. It will be a trip you will never forget. You will likely see elk, mule deer and a variety of other western game.
Closing in on the Game
Not only does camping in the backcountry save you lots of money, it allows you to literally stay in the game, 24/7. It’s basically an endless scouting excursion. You can step out of your tent to listen for birds in the morning. Listen to where they roost in the evenings, and never miss a beat as they move about throughout the day. Because you are living on location, you never miss out on the action. Like elk hunting, most people who hunt turkeys in the mountains wake up early, stand on the side of a mountain and wait for the first gobble that is within striking distance. Nothing beats listening to longbeards sound off at daybreak miles from the nearest truck and other hunters.
Choose the Right Hunting Partner
You can hunt on a budget when you share the load with a friend. Choose a friend you know and trust to share the hunt with. This means you’ll also be sharing the fuel expenses, scouting efforts, and have someone to keep you motivated throughout the hunt. Hunting with a friend, or two, will cut your hunt cost in half, maybe more. And it’ll be a trip that you’ll likely make an annual tradition once you experience the fun of a backcountry turkey camp with a friends or family.
Chasing Unpressured Birds
When you hike deep into the backcountry for turkeys, you’ll likely be chasing unpressured birds. In many western states, turkey hunting does not draw the crowd like other parts of the country. There are other opportunities like bear hunting and fly fishing that help take a lot of pressure off the turkey population. The hunting pressure you do find on turkeys out west will often be close to home. So if you’re willing to put boots on the ground and cover a little distance, you’ll likely find birds that haven’t encountered a hunter all season.
Choose Gear for Hunting on the Fly
Backcountry turkey hunting is much like elk hunting out west. Many of the same tactics and conditions apply. the proper gear for hunting on the fly is of the utmost importance to keep you effective day in and day out. The gear you choose and use will make a difference in how you hunt, and how long you can stay after it before having to head back to the truck. Here’s a look at some of gear you should consider when hunting backcountry gobblers.
Shelter – Kifaru SuperTarp – This shelter weighs in at just a couple pounds so it packs super light and keeps you covered regardless of the weather.
Sleeping Bag – Temperatures out west will likely be very cold at night during the spring. Be sure you have a sleeping bag that can handle the overnight drop in temps.
Backpack – Outdoorsmans Pack – What makes the Outdoorsmans pack unique is the curved polypropylene frame that fits the body like a glove and only weighs two pounds. The entire pack tips the scales at a little over seven pounds and comes with plenty of pockets for carrying all your gear. It’s a great pack for getting all your gear into the backcountry.
Sleep Pad – Browing 4s Air Pad – Depending on the terrain you’re in, a camp mattress can be worth its weight in gold. You’ll sleep better and be ready to go when the alarm goes off in the morning. It’s a much better alternative to sleepless nights and waking up sore in the morning. It works great for sleeping on the ground or in the back of your truck.
Mapping – onX Hunt – The onX Hunt mapping app is a game changer for any hunter, but works particularly well when hunting fresh ground while chasing turkeys. It’ll show you where property lines run as well as landowner information. It’s a great scouting tool for an aerial look at where you want to begin your hunt. It’s priceless when it comes to saving you time and energy as you locate your bird.
Optics – Vortex Razor HD – Quality binos will save you a lot of time and legwork, allowing you to glass potential hunting spots, watch birds as they move across the country, and check roost trees for birds in low light.
Where to Hunt Western Turkeys on a Budget?
States like Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho and Montana offer great public land hunting and turkey tags are surprisingly affordable. If you are not sure where to go, call a game biologist or two in those states. They will likely point you in the right direction. As mentioned previously, turkey hunting isn’t nearly as popular as big game hunting out west, so gaining intel from the locals is much easier when it comes to turkey hunting.
Hunting mountain top longbeards can be physically demanding, and mentally draining, but the reward is worth it. Give it a try. It’ll be one of your favorite hunts of the year, no doubt.