Tagging Merriam's Gobbler with Mossberg .410 Prompts Discussion about the Toughest Turkeys
Updated: Jun 14
Note: a version of this article appeared in The Hunting Wire. Blog includes a video.
Concluding any quest is often, at once, joyous and bittersweet. Knocking out two wild turkey slams in one trip can amplify that emotion. That was the case with a mid-April Northwest Nebraska hunt for Merriam’s. Two gregarious, frosty-feathered Merriam’s toms closed out both my Grand Slam and Royal Slam journey during a journey to Chadron in Nebraska’s beautiful Pine Ridge country, a region extremely popular with hunters looking to complete a slam. Hunting guide Thomas Chamberlain estimates 80 to 90% of the nonresident hunters traveling to Chadron are on such a mission.
The Grand Slam includes four subspecies of wild turkeys: the Eastern, named for the geography in which it inhabits; the Rio Grande, common to Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, with some transplants liking the northern California, Oregon and Hawaiian climates; the Osceola, a Florida wild turkey with long, dagger-like spurs; and the Merriam’s, whose primary range is the Rocky Mountains.
A Royal Slam builds on the Grand Slam, adding the Gould’s subspecies, typically found in the mountains of northern Mexico, although some limited success is being seen establishing these birds in the mountains near Tucson, Arizona, and southern New Mexico.
Hunters generally agree that Easterns are the hardest to hunt. These turkeys have adapted to intense hunting pressure and have developed innate wariness. Most of my wild turkey hunting takes place close to home in the Virginia Piedmont and Northern Neck, a historic peninsula bounded by the Potomac River on the North, Rappahannock River on the South and Chesapeake Bay at the end.
Easterns have the strongest gobbles of the subspecies, thundering so loudly they seem to shake the morning dew from nearby leaves. They also have the longest beards. Rios are “moderates,” middle-of-the-roaders in demeanor, beard length, spur length and strength of gobble. Osceolas are often deemed toughest to call in.
Many hunters hail Merriam’s as the most beautiful wild turkey, with feather tips on its tail and lower back often as snow-white as a bridal gown. What they earn in beauty, they lose in other attributes, typically having the shortest beards and spurs of any subspecies and gobbles that sound a bit yodel-like compared to their booming Eastern cousins.
My sole previous attempt to tag a Merriam's came a decade ago on a five-day, late-season public-land hunt to South Dakota's storied, magical Black Hills. A heavy show shut things down and our group managed just one turkey - a hard-won jake taken on the final day. That near shutout had me rethinking some of the things I had heard about Merriam's and the seeming ease of hunting them.
Mossberg .410 – Mission Accomplished
As often happens in wild turkey hunting, moving in on a group of birds can find you awkwardly pinned down. That was the Nebraska scenario as hunting guide Thomas Chamberlain (308-430-0032) and I maneuvered through a shallow draw, trying to get ahead of a big flock of on-the-move Merriam’s.
The turkeys were in a field, close to the ponderosa pines lining the draw. Once our movement options played out, we found ourselves with no suitable place to sit. Everything was on an unworkable slope or situated such that getting the drop on an incoming gobbler would be impossible.
So, we crawled up toward the field until we reached the edge of a flat spot some 35 yards below the top of the draw. Further advance would surely see us busted. The safest bet was to stay put and play sniper, with any shot from my .410 bore Mossberg Model 500 turkey gun [https://www.mossberg.com/product/500-turkey-52280] coming from the prone position.
The turkeys were close and talkative. We occasionally saw a portion of strutting tail fans. Any interested toms would need to be “talked” over the edge. Chamberlain lifted his box call and hit a few notes.
“Gobble, gobble, gobble.” The turkey chatter paused, as if they were wondering, “Did you hear that?” Within seconds, two young gobblers scrambled down the hill to our left, retreating as quickly as they came. Moments later, two more toms appeared. One briefly popped into a strut to announce his magnificence. Once the gobbler stepped into an area where I had a small window for a clean shot, I centered the red dot from the GPO SpectraDot optic [https://gpo-usa.com/red-dot] on his wattles and the Mossberg boomed. The tom dropped where it stood 33 yards away.
My Nebraska hunt ended with a fine Merriam’s, made more special by taking it with a .410.
Just a few years ago, a .410 was considered a kid’s gun, maybe capable of taking a turkey at about 20 yards. Today, high density tungsten shot has revolutionized things. A .410 firing a 3-inch shotshell stuffed with No. 9 tungsten shot is a turkey getter. With a suitable choke tube to restrict the shot-pattern size, a .410 is a capable 40-yard turkey gun, with those smaller tungsten pellets packing enough punch to be as lethal as lead shot. Tungsten Super Shot (TSS) has a density of 18 grams per cubic centimeter. Traditional lead shot comes in at about 11 g/cc. A No. 9 tungsten pellet has the approximate knockdown lethality of a No. 5 lead pellet when fired at comparable velocities.
That same tungsten shot also allows hunters using 12 gauges to drop toms at ranges unheard of a few years ago -- ranges some hunters might consider unethical, especially purists who value calling birds in close. My other Nebraska gobbler fell to a Mossberg Model 535 12 gauge stuffed with TSS (Tungsten Super Slam) Shot [https://tssshot.com/] No. 7 shotshells.
Situation Abnormal – All Flocked Up
The Nebraska hunt had me pondering differences between Easterns and Merriam’s. Besides shorter spurs and shorter, thinner beards, Merriam’s seemed to reside in unusually large flocks.
Jeff Budz, who has 107 Grand Slams and calls himself a “flat-nosed turkey reaper,” said seeing large Merriam’s flocks in early season this year was abnormal, with weather keeping birds in their winter patterns, hanging around the farms and cattle pens where they find feed in cold weather. Indeed, 5 inches of snow fell the night before opening day and it was snowing again two days later.
“The birds want to break off, with hens dispersing to nest, but early in the hunting season we were still looking at February flocks. Ordinarily, I have to move a lot with Merriam’s. They travel much more on a daily basis – miles often,” Budz said. “This year, though, they were hung up on private ranches. Public land hunters early in the season were struggling because birds weren’t moving.”
Thomas “Doc” Weddle, who has notched 37 Grand Slams, said Merriam’s also make him walk – a lot. “And nearly all of it seems to be uphill...both in catching up to them, and when coming back from the hunt,” Weddle said.
Chamberlain said he sees distinct behavioral differences among Merriam’s flocks depending on the habitat where they spend most of their time. Turkeys preferring to roost in big cottonwoods along river bottoms are more homebodies, Chamberlain said. These birds learn to frequent hay yards and other areas where cattle are fed, as well as pastures teeming with weeds, and insects.
“These Merriam’s don’t seem to range as far, preferring to stay close to their food sources, while the timber birds (often roosting in pines and hardwoods) usually wander a lot more,” Chamberlain said. “River bottom birds tend to have a little bit bigger bodies – at least a couple pounds heavier - and better beards due to their nutrition versus the birds wandering in the timber,” he added.
In my Mid-Atlantic experiences, flocked-up birds disperse either before or early in the season. Once hens begin nesting, lone gobblers or pairs with a dominant tom and his wingman seem to dominate the action. Finding these birds can take work, but once found, you can often get them to commit with appropriate calling, tactical moves and patience, that all-important turkey hunting requirement.
“Usually, around Mother’s Day, most hens will be bred – weather can push that back a little - and we’ll start seeing a lot more toms hanging out in their strut zones,” Chamberlain said. “That’s a fun time. The toms get aggressive and come quickly to the call.” Chamberlain also likes, though, seeing the big flocks, comparing gobbler options and, when possible, making plays for the more mature birds. Success can be elusive with so many eyes watching.
Gobbling & Calling
Remarkable to me was how incredibly raucous Merriam’s flocks were on both the roost and ground. Unless spooked, those birds seemed to never shut up. The large flocks appeared to have smaller social groups within them, especially among adult birds.
Merriam’s jakes, the juvenile gobblers, were even more disruptive than those I’ve encountered in the East. Jakes run around in street gangs, intimidating older toms and generally raising hell. One tight-knit group of Nebraska jakes totaled 26 bids, more akin to an army than a street gang. I have never seen more than five jakes - all likely brothers - in a group while hunting in Virginia. It certainly bodes well for future-year gobbler hunting.
Trying to call any strutting, attentive tom away from his hens is often pointless. You may succeed in piquing the interest of a hen, getting her to investigate and pulling the gobbler along with her, but I’ve often found jakes or two-year-old satellite toms, birds lower in the pecking/breeding order are the ones exuberantly charging toward your calls, regardless of subspecies.
Hunting one river bottom flock in Nebraska, we had a pasture full of birds, at least 40 or more. One strutter about 150 yards away was at the far margin of the flock. He never gobbled but eventually showed interest in our calling and approached to within 50 yards – probably a “gimme” with the 12 gauge but still too far for the .410 I carried. He repeatedly squared off with our position and then turned to look toward the pasture. My hope for him to tiptoe a few yards closer evaporated when a hen raced in, excitedly got his attention and then squatted, indicating her readiness to breed.
Now, even though this tom was a seeming outlier to the full flock, he clearly had status, otherwise why would a hen rush in and offer to breed, especially when 20 jakes and younger toms were available? It was an unhappy ending for both me and the gobbler when three jakes raced over and ran him off. Too bad. He was a nice, big bird with a long, thick beard by Merriam’s standards.
“When those old toms finally get the hens away from the jakes and young toms, they’ll quit gobbling,” Chamberlain said. “Most of their gobbling will be on the roost or at the end of the day. They learn that if they’re out there gobbling all day, all they’re doing is attracting competition.”
Another variance I quickly noticed was the length of the calling sequences made by Chamberlain and his friends. Where a yelping sequence in Virginia may average 5-10 notes, both Chamberlain and actual birds strung out the yelps for an incredibly long time.
“I’ve heard frustrated hens yelp for minutes,” Chamberlain said.
Chamberlain seldom cutt on his box call and rarely, if ever, clucked or purred, all things I routinely do in Eastern encounters when trying to upset a dominant hen enough that she wants to find me or to sweet talk a tom into gun range. Gentle purring has coaxed many Easterns those last few yards.
“I think the dominant hens yelp a lot just to let everybody know where they are and to keep their group together. I don’t hear that much cutting among these turkeys,” he said.
Chamberlain’s experience with Easterns is about as limited as my experience with Merriam’s. He hunted Georgia once. He heard markedly less gobbling from the roost and almost nonexistent gobbling once turkeys hit the ground. “I learned you have to call a lot less to Easterns. They will quickly know something isn’t right,” Chamberlain said. The sheer power of an Eastern tom’s gobble also made an impact. “It’s a deeper, more aggressive sounding gobble. I finally got to hear a few gobbles on the day that I got my birds,” he said.
Who’s the Toughest?
Budz declares Merriam’s the easiest turkey to hunt with Easterns - solidly - the toughest.
“The Eastern is just so much smarter, likely because they’ve been hunted for generations and have adapted to the pressure,” Budz says. “Merriam’s will shock gobble easier, gobbler earlier and more often.”
Not so fast, said Weddle. “In no way, shape, or form do I consider Merriam's to be easy. I nearly always need to work my hind-end off when pursuing those white-tipped mountain-hoppers,” Weddle said. “I don't know where these guys encounter easy Merriam's, but I ain't found many of them to be that way, and most folks I know who have spent much time hunting them would agree!”
Weddle believes Gould's and Rio's are “by far” the easiest turkeys to hunt. Merriam’s are next with Osceolas and Easterns the toughest. “Of course,” he said, “any given turkey of any subspecies can be easy or tough, dependent on a myriad of factors. One obvious difference between Easterns and Merriam's is the amount of movement they tend to tolerate. Easterns are much more prone to turning themselves inside-out if they see the hunter moving around.”
“I very much prefer to hunt solo birds,” he added. “Flocks of turkeys mean that many more keen-eyed turkey eyeballs potentially picking me off. There is also a whole plethora of reasons why a flock might not come to the call, or even purposefully go the other way.”
Budz sat he rarely sits in a blind, staying on the move until he finds a tom or a group of turkeys that he thinks he can move on. He agrees Merriam’s are more hunter-mistake tolerant and admits making loads of mistakes, learning from each one. He doesn’t shy from aggressive calling with Merriam’s but points out that such calling will often turn off an Eastern, making a tom suspicious or causing a dominant hen to lead the flock away from distraction.
The debate, if you can call it that, over Merriam’s versus Easterns may be increasingly moot.
Budz said he believes Rios are taking over. Why? They are prolific and, to paraphrase, display a “party on dude” outlook that sees them charging in to breed any receptive hen when males of other subspecies lay back out of either learned or natural caution. The Rios may be racing headlong to their doom when it’s a hunter making those sultry hen sounds mimicking a Merriam's hen. More often than not, though, they win the real prize and when those baby turkeys (poults) hatch and grow, the tips of their tail feathers are just a little creamy yellow hued that the previous generation.
The Thrill Remains
My pulse still quickens and breathing picks up when any gobbler approaches during a hunt, just as it did a couple decades ago when I was first learning the game. Chamberlain noted I seemed a little excited as each bird moved toward gun range. I explained, “The day that I don’t get that thrill, that intense personal connectivity to this experience, is the day I’ll quit.”
Given the nature of wild turkey hunting, I don’t expect that excitement to ever wane. I hope, however, to get another chance to hunt Merriam’s - maybe figuring out a little more what “normal” looks like with this grand, majestic and intriguing bird.