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Hunting Merriam's Turkeys on the Nebraska Plains

By T.R. Michels, Trinity Mountain Outdoors


Nebraska Sandhills

The sun was already high in the sky when Bill and I saw our first Nebraska turkeys. They weren't in the wooded ravines where I expected them; they were just off the highway that ran through the Sandhills Region of north central Nebraska. I had just commented on the lack of trees, except for those around the numerous abandoned and occasionally occupied farmhouses. Then I saw the two tom turkeys, strutting 20 yards from a highway department sand pile, 50 yards from a farmhouse, complete with a dog lying in the dust near the front porch and several cats. Because of the amount of white on their tail feathers and rump I thought they were domestic turkeys. But, when we passed a flock of fifteen turkeys walking across the prairies 15 miles down the road I realized I was seeing my first Merriam's Turkeys.

I couldn't understand what the birds were doing on the open prairie until a few days later, after I had been hunting. Because of the limited habitat available to the big birds in Nebraska, turkeys have learned to adapt to their environment. On the Great Plains the forested areas usually associated with turkeys and turkey habitat occur mainly along the major rivers and their tributaries. In general, the only areas with trees large enough for turkeys to roost in are along the rivers or near the widely scattered farmsteads and small towns. Several farms and towns in this area have their own resident flock of turkeys.

I'd chosen this area to hunt because a map provided to me by the National Wild Turkey Federation showed that one of the highest concentrations of Merriam's, and Merriam's/Eastern hybrid turkeys in North America occurs along the Niobrara River near the town of Valentine, Nebraska. This area is primarily wooded bluffs and river bottoms. West of Valentine you are likely to see more pine forest than hardwoods. The change doesn't seem to bother the turkeys however, because we found birds in both types of forest. On top of the bluffs, away from the river, the surroundings change to the endless rolling plains of grass common to the Dakotas and Nebraska, which is more suited to sharp-tails, prairie chickens, long billed curlews and coyotes than to turkeys. Water is limited and trees are scarce on the prairies, which explains why the turkeys I saw earlier were near the farms.

Turkeys prefer to roost in trees where possible, and the groves around the farms may offer the only trees for miles around. The farm sites also offer feed in the form of grain for the cattle and insects associated with cattle droppings. The overflow from stock tanks and the stock ponds on the farms provide needed water for the birds. Since many of the local people don't hunt, the turkeys move right in and become semi-tame. Many of the farmers and their wives look upon these birds as pets, and don't allow hunting. Even if they did, trying to get within range of these "yard bird " turkeys on the open prairie is next to impossible. There is just no place to set up. Hunting their "country cousins" along the river bottoms, however, is much like hunting turkeys anywhere else. After obtaining permission to hunt on a 12,000 acre ranch we began scouting along the tops of the bluffs adjacent to the river, where we could four wheel drive from one ravine to the next along five miles of the river.

In open country I prefer to locate birds by calling from the top of a ridge that falls into a ravine or valley on one or more sides, so I can hear any answering calls from as many directions as possible. I use a crow call or owl hooter to try to get the birds to "shock gobble' in response to my calling. If I don't get an answer I wait five to ten minutes and try again. If I still don't get an answer I drive to the next ridge and continue until I get a bird to answer. When I use turkey calls in wide open country I use a high pitched mouth diaphragm, or one of the new aluminum striker calls, because the high pitched sounds of these calls carry farther than other calls. Recent turkey research shows that the calls of Merriam's, Rio Grande and Gould turkeys are higher pitched than the calls of their eastern counterparts. When I am calling I like to sound as much like the local birds as possible, and can do this with the new aluminum calls.

When you hear a bird in this country you have to realize that sound carries a long way. I have had birds respond, and heard them, from as far away as a mile and a half. You also have to realize that calls echo off the bare canyon walls in this country; one lone tom may sound like a whole flock. On more than one occasion I have gone to look for a flock of toms I though was in the next ravine, only to find out that it was one bird, and it was two or more ravines away. When you put birds to bed at night be sure you know the exact location of the bird before you leave, or you may start hunting the next morning only to find yourself in the wrong ravine.

Hunting this wide-open country presents some problems that eastern hunters may not be prepared for. Spring weather on the prairie may change from blizzard conditions with temperatures in the 30's one day, to clear skies with temperatures reaching the upper 80's the next. You should take along both heavy and light camouflage clothing, and rain gear. A good pair of comfortable, lightweight waterproof boots are a must when you walk miles across the prairie and cross low lying boggy areas and streams to get the birds. Because of the distances traveled on foot I also take along a combination backpack and folding seat to sit on.

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If you are interested in more turkey hunting tips, or more turkey biology and behavior, click on Trinity Mountain Outdoor News and T.R.'s Hunting Tips at www.TRMichels.com. If you have questions about turkeys log on to the T.R.'s Tips message board. To find out when peak turkey gobbling can be expected in your area, click on Peak Turkey Gobbling Dates.

This article is an excerpt from the Turkey Addict's Manual ($14.95 + $5.00 S&H), by T.R. Michels, available in the Trinity Mountain Outdoor Products catalog.

T.R. Michels is a nationally recognized game researcher/wildlife behaviorist, outdoor writer and speaker. He is the author of the Whitetail, Elk, Duck & Goose, and Turkey Addict's Manuals. His latest products are the 2003 Revised Edition of the Whitetail Addict's Manual, the 2003 Revised Edition of the Elk Addict's Manual; and the 2003 Revised Edition of the Duck & Goose Addict's Manual. For a catalog of books and other hunting products contact: T.R. Michels, Trinity Mountain Outdoors, PO Box 284, Wanamingo, MN 55983, USA. Phone: 507-824-3296, E-mail: TRMichels@yahoo.com, Web Site: www.TRMichels.com

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