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A Fabulous Fall Hunt: Turkeys in Wyoming

By: Randy Tucker

It’s not the type of turkey hunting you’re likely to encounter anywhere else in the USA. Turkey hunting in Wyoming’s wide open spaces presents a challenge that eastern hunters don’t usually encounter.

In the east it’s all about stealth. Turkey hunters use tree stands, blinds, elaborate camouflage, even Gilley suits to disguise their presence. Many eastern advocates of this tremendous sporting challenge paint their faces and hands in elaborate patterns of green, black, grey, and brown in an attempt to blend into the surrounding foliage.

They’ll work with box calls or mouth calls to bring gobblers in range of their shotguns or bows. Archery hunting for turkey is a growingly popular sport.

In Wyoming, none of that applies.

Turkeys are not native to Wyoming. Turkeys are one of the rare species that can have their introduction traced to an exact date, time, and number of initial birds.

In 1935, nine hens and six toms arrived from New Mexico in an exchange for Wyoming sage grouse. Those 15 birds were placed along Cottonwood Creek in Goshen County.

The tough, resilient birds quickly took to the broken landscape of Eastern Wyoming, where cottonwood trees and sagebrush dominate the ecosystem.

The birds grew rapidly in number in Goshen County and quickly moved into neighboring Platte and Niobrara Counties.

I had my first encounter with these magnificent birds in the fall of 1980. Wyoming has a fall and a spring turkey season.

With few natural predators aside from an inquisitive coyote, the birds quickly adapted to river bottoms and agricultural areas. They grazed in patterns similar to mule deer and nested each evening in the middle limbs of large cottonwood trees. Not exactly the habitat made famous by early Native American hunters and European arrivals in the colonial period.

Shotguns and rifles larger than .223 caliber are legal for turkey hunting. The problem with rifle hunting is a kill shot almost always destroys the breast, and that’s all there is to eat on a wild turkey. If you’ve ever tried a leg off a wild turkey, you’ll soon learn how tough ligaments and tendons can be in a bird that runs across open spaces its entire existence.

My weapon of choice was and remains my Remington Model 870 pump-action 12-gauge shotgun. I hunt pheasants and doves with my over/under Stoeger 16-gauge, but for stopping power on a bird as large as a mature tom turkey, nothing beats a 12-gauge loaded with BB or number four buckshot.

Sitting for a turkey works if you know their daily migration routes, and local ranchers in Niobrara County let me on to their patterns. That’s a technique for the solitary hunter.

One season, my dad and brother-in-law hunted an area north of the tiny hamlet of Keeline, Wyoming with me.

The area is classic eastern Wyoming. Heavy with native grasses that turkeys thrive on, with intermittent patches of cottonwood trees growing along the seasonal drainages and large areas of high sagebrush.

We set out from Lusk early one morning and found turkeys almost immediately. As the sun began to rise, we could hear them cackling east of us. Looking into the sun is never a great way to hunt, but we didn’t have any other option with the lay of the land.

Stalking, or driving and setting, are another couple of methods that work in open range turkey hunting.

We set my dad up on the rise of a short hill a few hundred yards from us and started to work our way behind the rafter of turkeys.

Turkeys don’t fly well, but they run like greyhounds. It didn’t take much pressure to get them moving. A few minutes later, we heard the lone report of my dad’s 20-gauge Remington 870. He bagged a nice gobbler with a seven-inch beard and his hunt was over.

The shot broke up the group of birds into singles and small bands of three or four mixed hens and toms.

The sagebrush provided perfect cover for these rattled birds. I stopped hiking and took a knee for a few minutes just to watch the terrain. Sure enough, a head slowly raised from behind a section of sagebrush.

I watched as a cautious tom moved into an open gap to an ever larger single sagebrush. He was only 35 yards away.  I raised my 870 and waited for him to take another look. He did a few seconds later, and I fired, with the entire load of BBs acting like a high speed hatchet. I couldn’t find a single BB in the meat when I plucked the bird clean later that day.

My brother-in-law didn’t fill his tag.

The tom was a respectable 26 pounds before I cleaned the bird. I’ve got the fan and 11-inch beard hanging on my office wall as a reminder of that day.

We cooked the tom for Thanksgiving that year. A wild turkey is a much leaner bird than the hormone-laden frozen turkeys sold at your local grocery store. The meat was a little dry, but lessons learned from earlier roasted wild toms compensated with a mixture of apples and onions and more water than commercial birds require.

All in all, it was a fabulous fall hunt. I’ve taken six birds from Area 2 over the years. Wyoming has five areas open for turkey hunting now, with the best considered Area 1 near the Black Hills of South Dakota. Area 2 is good enough for me.

We live in the confines of Area 5, and turkeys are growing in number. One fall afternoon, when my son was 14, we were working a fence line near Boysen Reservoir in Fremont County jump shooting doves.

I was on one side of a private farm road, and Brian the other. Doves were making short flights to each side of the lane, with us taking turns shooting. It was Brian’s turn for a shot, when I saw him jerk backward. He flushed a large turkey hen that flew directly into him, knocking off his cap and sending him stumbling back a few steps.

He didn’t think it was as funny as I did, but it was a good indicator the hen had nested in the area earlier in the year.

Wyoming turkey hunting is unique, just like the tough range birds that make it possible.

Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at ratucker@wyoming.com.

 
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