Turkey Hunting Adventures in Idaho Panhandle with NWTF Co-CEO Kurt Dyroff
Updated: Sep 7
I had one state left to check off my list of states I had yet to visit – Idaho. Figures I’d save one of the very best for last. But opportunity came in the spring of 2023, first with an invitation to tour the Buck Knives Factory in Post Falls, Idaho, followed immediately by a trip about 40 minutes north to go turkey hunting in the scenic Idaho Panhandle with National Wild Turkey Federation co-CEO Kurt Dyroff. It had all the makings of a dream week.
Following a fun two days down near beautiful Coeur D’Alene with Buck Knives, it was time to head to Ponderay, just north of the quirky little town of Sandpoint. Both are situated on majestic Lake Pend Oreille, a beautiful glacial lake. It’s the 38th-largest lake in the country and, at 1,152 feet deep in some regions, the fifth deepest.
I first met Dyroff, a Pennsylvania native, when he was working with Ducks Unlimited in the Annapolis, Maryland, office. I was in Idaho to write an article about him, introducing him in more detail to the NWTF’s hundreds of thousands of dedicated members. At his recommendation, I settled into the Hotel Ruby, a nice little property with comfortable rooms, moderate rates, and friendly staff. While I had been touring the knife factory, Dyroff had done a little quick scouting, hoping to find some birds we could hunt in the morning. We spoke as evening approached. He had good news. He’d found a good flock with several mature gobblers. We lined up a predawn rendezvous spot and I laid out my gear.
The hunting spot was in the foothills of the mountains, the first step up from the river valley before the topography rose quickly to the high country. The area had recently been logged and the open areas and dirt roads gave birds easy walking coupled with excellent visibility. Gobbles abounded in the crisp, early morning Idaho air. Despite the lateness of the season – it was May 18 after all – the birds were flocked up. Trying to call a solo gobbler away from the group was mission impossible – not that we didn’t try. Our set up was a little off kilter. We had minimal places for cover except along a road that saw occasional car traffic from the handful of homes nestled in the deep woods. The birds seemed to want to stay down low, along a cutover flat adjacent to a thick stand of timber, the same stand they had emerged from after flying down. Anytime a bird showed remote interest, his flock mates pulled him back into the fold.
We played with them for a couple of hours before the turkeys retreated into the woods. It was prime time to make a move. I created a brushy ground blind closer to the dirt trail the birds liked to walk and near the area where they’d spent much of the early morning chasing each other around. Kurt positioned himself on the other side of a line of trees, slightly higher on the hillside and covering the area where the turkeys had advanced closest to our earlier position. It took a while, but eventually the turkeys began returning from their woodsy sojourn. We both called, but not excessively. Birds seemed to be scattered everywhere. Then, down to my left, I spied the big tom with the white-tipped feathers I had observed after daybreak. This ladies’ man clearly fixed the attention of his doting hens – or vice versa. As often happens with preoccupied dominant birds, he was too attentive to his hens to pay any mind to the calls. Several members of the flock, though, heeded our sultry beckoning, with some marching though the low-ground cutover and others coming straight down the dirt trail.
“It’s gonna happen,” I whispered to myself,” flicking off the safety on the Mossberg 940 Pro Turkey 12 gauge. The two gobblers coming in range weren’t the big boys – likely curious two-year-olds, given that were weren’t prone to strutting. I didn’t care. One was going to be my first Idaho wild turkey, likely a bird of mixed parentage, a hybrid between a Merriam’s and a Rio. The shot was just 19 yards. I put the reflex sight dot of the Holosun optic, which nestles perfectly into the recessed mount of the 940 and affords near perfect low-level sighting, on the turkey's head and squeezed the trigger. The Apex TSS #9 shot laid the bird low, dead before it hit the ground, flopped into a muddy puddle thanks to overnight rains. Dyroff moved down and offered his congratulations. I’ve got to admit, it was a great feeling, standing there at the edge of the Idaho wilderness and preparing to notch my hunting license.
After a lengthy lunch break, Dyroff decided to explore different territory. We hopped in his truck and rode around. Wild turkeys were prevalent on many of the ranches we passed, strutting in fields, hanging out near feeding areas. Accessible land is the key. Private property abounds near Ponderay. We were looking for an apparent lonely boy or two, birds without hens and susceptible to calling.
One such bird seemed promising, but the set up involved parking in a public hunting area, hiking down a hill and across a creek and then setting up to try to call the bird a quarter of a mile off the private land and into our ambush. It almost worked. Once in position, we made some calls and heard gobbles which seemed to increase in volume. Then, the woods went dead. We figured the gobbler had been intercepted by a real hen. Game over.
Next, we slowly climbed winding roads into accessible timberland and state forest, high-country territory places where Dyroff liked to hunt elk. The high foothills were nestled between northern foreboding, majestic Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains and the Cabinet Mountains, which range into western Montana. Every few hundred yards, Dyroff would pause, stop the vehicle and make a call. He was using one of noted callmaker Bob Fulcher’s box calls, its yelps resounding deep across the hillsides.
Rounding one sharp turn, we spied a mature tom just beginning an ascent along a rocky promontory. It was steep – likely too steep for many hunters, including me. Dyroff, though, drove on past the spot, quickly plotted an intercepting route and readied to move out, grabbing his gun and that single box call. Then, he put on a backpack – not because it had anything to do with turkey hunting but solely because he wanted to up the degree of difficulty. The extra weight boosted the conditioning value of this near vertical hike to the summit of this northern Idaho hill.
It turns out the bird zigged instead of zagged, crossing a small dirt road traversing this rugged timberland and was sounding off on an opposing hilltop. Yes, I was "somewhat" snoozing in the truck, when I heard a tap on the door. Kurt explained the bird must’ve decided to cross the road get to a different patch of high ground. The gobbler was up there and sounding off. He got a general fix on the turkey’s position and again ascended to confront his quarry. When he reappeared about an hour later, a beautiful longbeard was riding his shoulder.
Ups and Downs
Work duties called for Dyroff the next day. I hunted solo most of the time. I returned to the turkey-rich environment where I‘d shot the first bird. There, something I’d never seen before transpired. As I was driving down the gravel road into the cutover area, two big gobblers strutted directly ahead of me. I snapped a photo and then slowly rode past. They were right where the dirt access road met a gated trail dead-ending at a rugged creek bottom. Shooting the bird would have been so easy, but that’s not how I roll -- and I strongly recommend others play it fair, legal and ethical with these great birds. I drove past and circled higher, parking at another access gate. Then, I grabbed my stuff and sneaked about 100 yards closer, setting up some 150 yards from the turkeys. The trail they were on bent right and would've left them an easy walk to my position at the base of a tree on a short, steep hillside.
I hit a call. Both birds gobbled. I figured this was likely ending with a race to see which one would first meet Mr. Mossberg. Nope, what happened next was astounding. The turkeys abruptly flew to a rocky outcropping. A big coyote raced on the road where I had just traveled. One turkey flew higher to the right and the other decided to sail back across the road to a large, logged hillside. As soon as this bird launched, the athletic canine was in full chase, streaking across rocks, hurtling the creek and bounding up the hillside. The coyote had expertly estimated the bird’s landing point. The turkey tried to flee uphill, but quickly reversed course, likely in a too-late attempt to again take off and escape. Like an NFL linebacker tackling a high school running back, the coyote flattened the turkey, both tumbling behind some boulders. I wished I had a video camera running. I never saw either again, figuring the coyote was relishing a hard-won turkey lunch. No turkey for Ken. Oh well.
Another Idaho Pandhandle Turkey Falls - What an Adventure!
I was solo again on the morning of the third day and again thinking of hitting that same spot. The bad news was someone beat me to it. A truck was parked not far from where Kurt and I had parked on day one. It was time to regroup. The experience reminded me how difficult it can be to go to an area with patchy public ground and try to figure things out. Fortunately, Dyroff was able to spring from his duties in late morning and we again hit the back roads, ending up back where he had killed his bird. Another gobbler was up there! When I finally reached the top where the land plateaued and logging crews or some other outfit had cut excellent trails, I was astounded by the grandeur and beauty of the place – with its greenery, wildflowers and commanding views. How ideal it seemed for wild turkeys!
Kurt said he’d be happy to double, but he mainly wanted me to get my second bird. He left his gun in the truck. The turkey gobbled just a couple hundred yards from where he shot his and a 90-minute cage match ensured. Of course, it wasn’t a cage match. I didn’t get beat up, unless a jammed big toe from all the climbing and descending and my toe plowing into the front of my boot counts, but my senior citizen rear was increasingly dogged out.
The game went on for 90 minutes, chasing this recalcitrant wild turkey all over the landscape. The bird kept gobbling, but also kept retreating. He was what my friend Jim Spencer would have termed a “bad bird,” a turkey that simply refused to cooperate. Oh, he was interested. We’d call, he’d respond, often forcefully. But he just wasn’t going to come strutting in like a big showoff. I pegged him for a traditionalist, a gobbler that wanted hens to come to him, as nature usually has it.
It was unseasonably warm, low 80s, for the northern Idaho Panhandle in mid-May. I had hunted all morning and, let’s face it, I’m getting old. Humping around the mountains trying to work an uncooperative bird gets harder when confronted with being (largely) out of shape and severely hearing challenged can be tough, especially when it comes to pinpointing a turkey’s gobble. I’m nearly deaf in my left ear. Even with hearing amplification, turkeys often sound like they are way more to my right than they really are. I was about ready to quit, call it a day, mumble something like, “We gave it a good go, eh?” Fortunately, Dyroff was there to push the old bull along. “He’s still gobbling. Let’s try another setup,” Dyroff suggested. He was right. The comfort of the truck could wait.
“Okay.” I really wanted another mountain Merriam’s turkey, although we really couldn’t be sure if this would be a purebred bird with snowy tipped feathers or a cream-colored hybrid with a dose of Rio Grande genes folded in. We stealthily, but quickly, moved along one of the amazingly clean logging trails along the plateau. The area was recently logged. A patchwork of timber – birches, spruce and fir trees – remained on hillsides, ravines and gullies. We paused on a small stretch of high ground and made a call. The bird gobbled – close and loud. I sat down, tucking into a clump of small trees. Kurt set up about 15 yards behind me. I kept looking straight ahead, toward a junction in the logging trail, confident the bird would come from my right and appear there. The bird gobbled every time Kurt called. My Mossberg 940 Pro Turkey was ready, sometimes at my shoulder. This went on for nearly 20 minutes.
Juice Him Up!
I was getting frustrated with this gobbler and decided to chime in with my calls, anything to change his freaking hard-to-get behavior. I began cutting and yelping on a Dave Tyree glass friction call I've had for more than 20 years. The turkey gobbled back, sometimes double gobbling. “Let’s really juice him up,” I whispered to myself, amping up the frequency and intensity of the calls. The turkey had to be hoarse from gobbling.
Kurt and I alternated our calls, likely sounding like a group of hens. The gobbles quickly came closer as the turkey committed. I raised the shotgun to my cheek, drawing deep breaths and feeling the beating of my heart as I awaited the bird’s appearance dead ahead down the trail. My crappy hearing fooled me again. Movement a good 35 degrees to my left startled me. A red head attached to a brilliantly feathered body was poking its way down the hillside. I carefully adjusted position. The turkey stepped out just 20 yards, stretched his neck to look for the hens and, “Boom.” After 90 minutes of trying to get this turkey to show himself, I didn’t wait for any strutting show. This was ending now. The load of Apex TSS shot folded him where he stood. Both of my shots were so close, I had myself second-guessing my choice of shotguns. My Mossberg model 500 in .410 would have been easily adequate. But you never know. The 12 gauge gave me extra security if those turkeys had only offered longer shots.
Dyroff scampered down to the scene, offering a high-five. We inspected the tom – a big-bodied bird with a good beard. His feather tips weren’t perfectly white, but they were close enough for me. Most telling was this turkey had absolutely no spurs. That makes for tough living when it comes to a male turkey competing for breeding and pecking order rights. I guessed this may have been why he was so reluctant to come to the call.
Dyroff walked up to where the bird had come from. “You’ve got to see this,” he said. The vista was spectacular. We took photos from the vantage point occupied by the gobbler a short while earlier. It was a wonderful hunt and an incredible experience. Even if we hadn’t been able to harvest that turkey, the opportunity to venture into Idaho’s scenic beauty and enjoy the sensory delights that accompany mountain hunting was worth the trip.
Wild turkeys were abundant in the Idaho Panhandle. While many congregated near farms and rural properties, they also seemed to be thriving in the state forests and well-managed timberland properties we hunted. Habitat is everything when it comes to turkeys – and most wildlife. Some areas are struggling.
Dyroff, appointed NWTF Co-CEO in May 2022, delights in such challenges. One thing I’ve come to realize about him is that whether he is chasing Idaho’s mountain turkeys or elk, Dall sheep in Alaska, or planting a garden to augment his young family’s meals, he is “all in,” as the saying goes. The full article about his aims for the organization are in the September-October 2023 edition of Turkey Call magazine. But we'll excerpt a little.
Dyroff and Jason Burckhalter, his co-CEO, share an arrangement Dyroff acknowledges as “a bit unorthodox” within the conservation, nonprofit agency world. But, he declares, “I love it, honestly. This arrangement gives me an opportunity to focus on those aspects of our operations that I enjoy, the areas where I have strengths that I can bring to the table.”
Dyroff leads mission-related duties for the NWTF, including conservation and government affairs, finance and accounting, and general business support, which includes legal, human resources and land holdings. Burckhalter directs membership and fundraising-related activities, including field operations and development, marketing and communications, membership, information technology, and facility management.
The NWTF, founded in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is celebrating its 50th Anniversary in 2023. Dyroff believes NWTF can sustain and gain momentum on its way to reaching full potential, noting, “We have so much passion. I just want to help channel that, ensuring we are doing the right thing at the right time, the right place and at the right scale.”
While change in any organization and institution is inevitable, so is the NWTF adapting. Still, sacrosanct, are such values as individual members representing the federation’s core constituency and the mission of sustaining wild turkeys and their habitat. “Our mission hasn’t changed,” Dyroff said, “Supporting hunting, the wild turkeys and their habitat, that’s our DNA. We are not going to drift from that, but I believe there is an opportunity to do more.” Dyroff sees opportunity to broaden membership, bolster hunting numbers, and increase and strengthen partnerships, as exemplified by the recently signed master stewardship agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, the largest and longest such agreement ever. “Some people ask why we’re so involved in forest management – trees,” he said. “Here’s why: there are roughly 6 million wild turkeys on the landscape right now. Tonight, every one of them is going to sleep in a tree. That’s why we care about the health of our forests. There is a lot of opportunity there, a lot of critical work in terms of the health of forests across our entire country.”
Dining tip: The Drift Lakeside restaurant on Pend Oreille Lake is a must if you ever get to that area. The waygu burger with morels is only available for a short while, often when turkey season is in full swing and the tasty mushrooms are popping up. Try one!