Wild turkeys, not unlike their namesake whiskey, can bring an otherwise sane person to the heights of elation, the depths of depression, or the brink of madness. While not native to the state of Montana, this wily fowlhas proven its staying power against the Treasure State’s harsh climate, numerous predators, and legions of experienced hunters. While the bulk of the turkey population resides in the state’s eastern reaches, good-sized flocks do exist in several areas in the western and southwestern parts of the state.
In 1954, state biologists introduced 13 birds from Colorado to an area around the Judith Mountains in south-central Montana. The second release of birds took place the following year near Ashland. This introduction used 18 birds from Wyoming that proved hearty enough; after 1957, out-of-state birds were no longer needed.
Turkeys need washes, coulees, roosting areas, and plenty of food and water in order to survive. Fortunately, the river-bottom habitat, combined with the agriculture food source provided by Montana’s farmers and ranchers, has proven a boon to the state’s wild-turkey population. Turkeys tend to forage along the edges of grain, barley, and hay fields, but when pressed for food will venture relatively far from these sheltered areas. Due to their tough nature, wild turkeys will often share habitat with sharp-tailed grouse, partridge, pheasants, and white-tailed deer.
The Merriam’s turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) has about as much in common with its domestic brethren as a Yorkie does with a wolf. Wild turkeys have keen color vision, excellent hearing, and a complex communication system that can alert an entire flock to danger with just one cluck or yelp. Mature males have a prominent purplish-red neck wattle, blue-to-whiteish head, a beard, and long spurs on their legs. Females are slightly smaller, less colorful, and usually lack the beard. The back and breast feathers of the female are tipped with a tannish-white, while those of the male are almost jet black, depending on maturity. The average adult male, or tom, of the species can be up to 48 inches tall and weigh in at over 16 pounds. Conversely, the mature hen will usually be about 34 inches tall and weigh only nine pounds. Turkeys’ cunning and adaptability make them more like elk when it comes to the skill level required to successfully hunt them. Plan on spending a lot of time walking, and even more time glassing. Look for likely roosting areas, feeding grounds, and watering holes, and plan on being on-stand long before sunup, and long after sundown.
In Montana, in the fall, wild turkeys can be taken with archeryequipment, a shotgun, or a rifle. For the archer, do some research on the preferred arrows and broadhead set-up for birds, and remember that most of your shots will have to be taken from a sitting or kneeling position. For shotgunners, the trusty .12-gauge is field-proven, with a full choke and two- or four-shot. Turkeys are big, and those feathers can act like armor plating, so the best advice is to get as close as you can and aim for that big colorful head. When hunting turkeys in the fall, remember that 400 square inches of blaze orange is required during regular rifle season.
Fall turkey huntingin the state of Montana is highly specific, and regulations are regionally specific. Non-permitted regions are limited to the eastern part of the state and a couple western regions. Region 3, which comprises most of southwest Montana, is permit-only; but Region 5 is close by (just east of Livingston) and tags can be purchased over the counter. As always, check fwp.mt.gov for up-to-date regs.
Kurt Dehmer owns Durty Kurty’s guide service in Bozeman. This article originally appeared in Stalk hunting guide, an annual guide to hunting in southwest Montana.