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New Mexico Turkey Hunting Tactics

Physical and Mental Preparation

Spring gobbler fever has really taken hold across the country. As such, more and more of us are making plans each spring to travel to far-away places to hunt our favorite game bird. Those of us that have been doing that for a while have discovered one important fact: conditions change from location to location, turkeys do not necessarily behave the same way in all places, and hunting tactics must be modified, at times, to maximize one’s chances of success in any given locale.

New Mexico turkey hunting offers a physically challenging hunt with Merriams turkey that are exciting to hunt.

Over the years, we have hosted many hunters from different parts of the country at our cabin in the Lincoln National Forest in the mountains of southern New Mexico. In that same time span, I have traveled to other parts of the country to hunt with many of those same folks in their turkey woods.

One thing I have found to be crystal clear, in almost every place, there are preparations needed that are of importance and specific tactics that work better than others. Not only that, but often the preparation and tactics that are a key component for success in one location are things that are rarely effective, and rarely used, in others.

One great thing about these hunting forums is that we all get to chat with, and glean information from, really good turkey hunters from all over the country. Not only are the individuals that hang out here mostly great turkey callers, they also know what is important and what works best in the places they hunt. The difference between success and failure on an out-of-state turkey hunt is often a function of how much attention we pay to the advice given by those that hunt there all of the time.

Here in New Mexico, hunting our high-altitude Merriams gobblers, there are some key ingredients to success. One of the very first ingredients, especially for those coming from around sea-level, is being fit for hunting here. Of course, there is no way of adjusting for the altitude difference, unless you have a handy 8,000 foot tall mountain in the neighborhood that you can go scurry up on occasion. However, it is somewhat important that you get yourself prepared for walking and climbing around at that elevation by doing what you can to get “in shape”.

Another pre-hunt attitude adjustment that is helpful here is to get rid of the “small woods” mindset that often comes from being confined to hunting small tracts of private ground that seems to be the case in many parts of the country. Out here, we have literally hundreds of thousands of acres to hunt, almost all of it public land, and the turkeys are, basically, scattered in varying densities throughout.

We have large areas that have high concentrations of birds and we have significant areas that have few or no birds. The key component here on whether there are turkeys around is most often the reliable availability of surface water. The second important component is the presence of roost trees, or other structures that turkeys will feel comfortable with roosting in.

The point to be made about this is that the first consideration when hunting this country is to find where the birds are before starting to hunt them. That sounds easy enough, but often, those that come here do not understand that they have to “think big” in order to do that. To some, thinking big means covering a few hundred or thousand acres looking for signs of turkeys to hunt, because that is what they are used to doing where they come from. You have to throw that mindset out the window when you come west and hunt the vast amounts of public lands that exist in many places here.

Having maps of the areas you are going to hunt is critically important when hunting these large public land areas, as well. Most of our public-lands turkeys are found on either Forest Service lands, Bureau of Land Management lands, or a combination of both of those. The “fly in the ointment” is that there are almost always private land holdings scattered about these public areas. Both the Forest Service and BLM produce maps of the areas they manage and you can normally order the maps of the areas you intend to hunt from the websites of these agencies.

Having maps that show you road systems and land status (public/private) is essential here. Often, the private land holdings are those areas that were homesteaded or otherwise privatized generations ago when settlers were picking and choosing the best locations for farming and ranching. Many of these areas are still being farmed and as we all know, turkeys like to help themselves to the various crops that farmers are growing. Hence, you will often find concentrations of birds close to these private areas.

Obviously, you cannot hunt private lands without permission and, quite often, it is difficult to obtain that permission. The good news for us turkey hunters out here is that our turkeys like to roost in tall pine trees, and usually those tall pine trees are found on the public Forest Service lands adjacent to these private holdings. And the other good news is that there are generally ways to get around the private holdings through public land routes. Land status maps will show you what those potential routes are, and therefore allow you to find ways to get to birds that you otherwise might think were off-limits to you. Once again land status maps are a critical tool.

Besides the land status, however, these maps can also provide you with a wealth of information on other stuff that is important to your hunt success. Often they will show topography, elevation, and locations of springs and water courses key elements out here.

And for those that are really serious about map use, you can go “all out” and order the detailed topo maps of the area you are hunting. In my opinion, these are of less importance than the agency maps with land status.

Finally, I won’t go into a detailed discussion about “personal affects” such as clothing or footwear. Suffice it to say that bringing clothing that can be layered on or off depending on the temperature and conditions is a good idea, and good hiking boots are advisable. Just so you know, snakes are not generally going to be a problem.

Finding Gobblers to Hunt…Roosting

So the obvious first question is,…”How do we go about finding those pockets of birds in those vast areas?” Well, fortunately, that is usually pretty easy to do. Our gobblers and are generally vocal and willing to gobble, not only in the morning on the roost like most gobblers everywhere, but also in the evening, right at dark, after they fly up to roost. Not only that, but they are very susceptible to shock gobbling tactics during those periods, and often even during the day.

Using roost shock-gobbling tactics is an essential element in finding birds to hunt here. And not only is it important, it is one of the elements that make hunting here so enjoyable. There is nothing quite like the feeling of going to bed knowing where one or maybe even several gobblers are spending the night. That is part of the hunting strategy we face,…deciding which gobbler out of many that might have been located is going to be “the one” for the next morning’s duel.

The next question I hear asked often is. ”What is the best locator call to use out there?” The key to a good locator call in this country is one that is loud. Crow calls work well here, and most of our local guys rely on those more than any other. However, all crow calls, or other locators for that matter, are not created equal. Getting good volume out of whatever kind of locator you choose is a must. If you are not able to really “rip it” with your locator, then find one that you can. It rarely matters what the call sounds like as long as it is loud.

When is your locator work going to be most effective? Like I said, it could work any time, but the times when it will work most effectively are during the low-light periods of dusk and dawn. In the evening, that period of time starting at sundown until about a half hour to forty-five minutes after (or when it gets to be fully-dark) is the best. And what we call “prime time” is that period from when the light is just starting to fade and for about twenty minutes thereafter. Occasionally you will get a gobble out of a tom after full-darkness, but that is much less reliable than the period mentioned. It should be pointed out that the “evening gobble” is not as sure a bet as the “morning gobble”. Even under the best of conditions, there will be gobblers out there that are less enthusiastic about gobbling in the evening than they are in the morning. It is not unusual to hear several birds gobbling in the morning in a location where you only heard a bird or two the night before.

The morning roosting period is similar to the evening, but reversed. Our birds will, at times, gobble well before the first hint of daylight. In fact, when we are leaving our cabin in the morning in the dark, and everybody is banging around in their vehicles and such, our cabin gobblers that roost nearby will often start gobbling at the noise we make (It’s a good way to start the morning’s hunt!). It is more likely, however, that your locator use will be more effective when the eastern horizon is starting to show a bit of glow.and then up until sunrise, and sometimes even beyond for a while.

The strategy for efficient roost locating does not end there, though. The area we hunt is largely public land, which means that there are other hunters vying for the attention of the same gobblers you are. So it is not just a matter of finding a gobbling bird to hunt,…it is also important to find the “right” bird to hunt. Gobblers that are along and close to the roads are likely to get a serious workout during the season from an assortment of hunters. You can pretty much bet your patootie that a mid-season gobbler here that has set up shop close to a road is going to be a tough customer to sell any kind of calling to. Not only that, but there is also the chance that you will have competition from other hunters for the easy-to-get-to birds.

The trick in your roosting strategy then, is not only to find gobbling birds, but to find as many as possible so you can pick a likely responsive candidate for your hunt. Covering as much country as possible during prime roosting time in the evening can be an important tool in your bag of tricks. This is, of course, assumes that you have not already found a bird that you have chosen to focus on. If you have found a gobbler then your evening strategy may change.

Here is your basic method of roosting birds in the evening. Take your map and assess the area you want to cover and the road system within that area. Plot out a route that you think will give you the maximum ability to cover as much country as possible, taking into consideration that you want to be able to hear birds as far away as possible, as well. There are nuances to this strategy that we will touch on later.

Having established your roosting route, plan on being at the starting point when the sun goes down. Remember, gobblers are generally not as likely to gobble at sundown as they are fifteen minutes later, so don’t get in a hurry at this point. If you rush the evening roost, you may well miss birds that will gobble in a bit.

First of all, make sure your method is sound. Check your locator volume by giving it a test run at this point. Of course, you always want to minimize extraneous noises. The vehicle is obviously turned off, and all members of your party are advised to keep the talking and shuffling about to a minimum. It is really easy to miss a faint gobble from a bird a mile away because someone decides they want to carry on a conversation or shuffle around in the dirt right when it happens.

The second thing to remember is that these birds are not responding because you sound like a genuine crow, or owl, or whatever. They are shock-gobbling because of the sudden loud sound they are hearing. So don’t do what some of these guys you see on TV do with their locators and go to squawking like a banshee on the darn thing. These birds will gobble as soon as they hear the very first note of your call, so hit the call a couple of quick, loud notes and then listen intently. If you extend your locator noise beyond that, you will miss distant gobbles because of it.

After listening for about fifteen seconds for responses to the first call, hit the locator again with a couple of loud blasts and listen again. Most of the gobblers that are going to respond to your locator will do so on the first series. On occasion, you will get a response to the second series that did not come on the first but that is the exception rather than the rule.

Once again, don’t get in a big rush until you start seeing the light starting to fade. When things start to get a little blurry, this is the time to put ‘er in high gear. You absolutely do not want to fiddle-fart around now! You want to get from place to place as fast as you can. In this country, it is best to drive at least a half-mile, and no more than a mile, between locator uses, and you want to hit as much country as you can in that window of about thirty minutes of prime time.

This country is made up of large canyons with secondary smaller canyons that run into those, and with even smaller canyons that run into those. Good places to stop and try your locators are at those junctures of main and secondary canyons. So when roosting, always stop and try at these canyon intersections.

So here we go. The lights are starting to fade a bit. We’ve tried the locator at our initial starting spot. If it got a response, we have mentally marked where the bird or birds are at. We jump in the vehicle and quickly “fly” on down the road to the next spot that looks likely. We pull over, turn off the engine, and pile out of the vehicle quickly.

Everyone is quiet, and if they are not, they are summarily admonished for not being so.

The assigned locator guy gives two loud bursts on the call. Everybody listens quietly for a response. If a bird is heard, there is no need for a second round. We mark any birds heard, make the appropriate mental notes about the location and whether there is a likely candidate for a morning hunt here, and jump back in the vehicle. And down the road we go again.

Next stop: same scenario and again and again until it is full darkness, and we are not getting any more responses. At any stop, if there is not a response on the first series, we have waited fifteen seconds and blown the call a second time. Anything after a second attempt is almost invariably a waste of precious roosting time.

Early in the season here, it is not unusual for a roosting run to produce fifteen, twenty, or even more gobblers responding to your calls. Later in the season, the birds will have been picked over some, and some will have wised up a bit,….but it is still not unusual, even at the end of our season, to be able to roost multiple birds each evening by doing this.

One important consideration in choosing an area to try to roost birds is the weather situation at the time. More specifically, that “situation” is whether or not it is windy. Wind is our biggest enemy in hunting here, and it has some serious consequences in terms of affecting roosting. Like I said, this country consists of large canyons and ridges, and the altitude varies from around 7,000 ft. up to almost 10,000 ft. When it is windy, the higher up you get, the windier it usually is. What that means for locating birds is that you have to tailor your roosting strategy, or at least the areas you choose to try to roost gobblers in, according to the wind conditions of the day. We have all learned that if the wind does not start dying down as it gets close to sunset, or if it blows all night long, that roosting is going to be tough. The general attitude is,…if the wind is up, don’t bother trying to roost birds on the high ridges, and don’t expect a lot of gobbling anywhere.

Regardless, this roosting process allows you to pick and choose the birds you want to hunt, and gives you options for hunting our public lands Merriams that you would not otherwise have.