Sunday, January 10, 2016

Hunting Rio Grande Turkeys in Western Nebraska

Atrocious cover in an actual turkey hunting spot. 
I'd never harvested, hunted, or even seen a wild turkey other than the Eastern Turkey.  I'd heard that several of the western turkey subspecies, including the Rio Grande, are dumb as rocks, but that the sheer numbers of the birds made it very tricky to split off a small group within bow range, or even within gun range.   With an 8-year standing invite to hunt some private rangeland and CRP ground in western Nebraska, my brothers and I finally committed on the trip.

I had heard rave reports of the size of the turkey flock, and the density of the roosts, prior to our arrival, and so I arrived ready.  I mean, it sounds straightforward.  We had roughly 1000 acres of private land to hunt, hundreds of turkeys on that land, and a landowner diligently watching the birds' movement.     The rave reports of the turkey flock started to overshadow the original intent of our trip - duck hunting.  I was fired up!

But as it turned out, I wasn't ready at all for the "on the ground" reality.   Three factors gummed up the works and turned my trip into one of the most frustrating trials I've faced in my two decades of bird hunting.   Hopefully, through my description of these factors, you can avoid some bumps in the road in your next hunting trip in the west.

The first confounding factor was this: lack of cover.

That's about 11 trees on 500 acres.  The lack of cover should have not surprised me at all, but as an east coaster, I admit, I was overwhelmed by the openness of the land.  You could walk a mile and not see a single mature tree, even in the distance.  That becomes a problem when you go to your conventional turkey hunting playbook, which would contain a dozen or so methods of hiding in cover between the roost and the feeding area, or in cover between the roost and the gobblers' preferred strutting area.   So, by itself, the lack of cover is a challenge.  Add the large size of the turkey flocks (and number of eyes in each flock), and you have yourself a problem.

Say that you've identified the dominant active turkey roost, and you have access to hunt that piece of property, but (obviously) you don't want to bust the roost.  This is where we found ourselves during our several turkey hunts, spread across 6 days.  We simply couldn't put enough hunters in the field to cover the vast area through which turkeys *might* travel en route to or from the roost.   And hunting "a ways" off the roost, as all turkey hunters know, is the key to harvesting a bird or two without having the entire flock abandon that roost.   All of this, and the resulting frustration, leads to the second confounding factor:   hunting tactics that educated the birds. 

My first morning in Nebraska, the landowner had us in pasture creases, 500 yards from the roost where dozens of turkeys had been roosting.   In the 10 chaotic minutes after dawn, we had run all over Hell's Half Acre, and one turkey had been killed - a small group of birds happened to work up the crease where my brother was lying in wait.   But only 12 turkeys had flown out - more on that in a minute.  Subsequent hunts found us next to roosts, underneath active roosts, and in general covering huge areas of land to get in front of moving turkeys at various parts of the day.  If you were a turkey in the area we were hunting that week, you saw humans, over and over again.  We hunted high, we hunted low.  We moved through ditches and across valleys.  We covered some ground to get on top of the surprisingly small groups of turkeys, which was successful in the sense that we killed turkeys, but was self defeating in the sense that we were education the turkeys about our tactics the entire time.   With only two roosts in a 2500 acre area, what could have motivated them to move on (or stay in small groups along the creek)?  Well that's our third confounding factor - prior hunter pressure.

Had some intel that turkeys used this route to return to a roost
behind this cedar tree every evening.  Didn't pan out - 

turkeys were scared to return to this roost.
We learned that all of our turkey spots had been hunted within the last month.   Again, on the east coast, with small roosts of a dozen or so birds, this wouldn't be an issue.   But the (long gone) hunters in Nebraska left a trail of wary birds that I couldn't have anticipated - afraid to move in big flocks, constantly laying down in heavy cover, and refusing to roost together in their typical large groups.

I learned an important lesson about hunting in the west.  By choosing to hunt turkeys in December, we gave ourselves an enormous hardship in the way of having to hunt a turkey flock that had been made extremely wary of hunters.

All this being said, we didn't not shoot turkeys.
Yes, you should go hunt out west. 
In the end, I was the only hunter on our trip who did not punch my tags for Rio Grande turkeys - the birds were there, to some degree, and "we" eventually got on them.   The other guys worked hard, shot straight, and had some luck (your hunting buddy can't help that the gobbler walks right up to him, and not right up to you, when you're sitting back-to-back).

I've had a month to think about this trip, and I believe that had I really understood the three factors above (lack of cover, need for well thought out tactics, and pressure/tactics from other hunters previously on the property), I would have been 100% successful.  I hope that these tips are helpful for you on your next trip to the west.

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