Plan your path, then hit the highway for turkey hunting’s Grand Slam
By Jay Anglin
Through the strong efforts of fish and wildlife agencies, the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and a robust North American conservation ethos, wild turkeys can be found in every state but Alaska. It’s no wonder an increasing number of hunters travel to pursue these oversized game birds each spring.
The siren song of hunting far from home can be practically irresistible. With many states offering multiple tags, a road trip is a great way to extend one’s season. And while some hunters simplify logistics by booking with a reputable outfitter, others prefer to freelance – a prospect that’s much easier for turkeys than it is for big game or even waterfowl.
Wild turkey hunting doesn’t require a bunch of specialized equipment, and a turkey doesn’t take up the same amount of space in the back of a truck as an elk. Additionally, wild turkeys are typically found in places that are accessible and relatively easy to identify. True, public land often necessitates extra hiking to find birds that haven’t been heavily pressured, but there are still plenty of spots for sportsmen with limited time or mobility. Hunting private land is also a distinct possibility, as many landowners will still accommodate friendly door-knockers.
Indiana hunter, Trevor Draves, takes full stock of his first morning in the wilds of Western Nebraska. Zak Floro photo.
Some hunters insist that a “turkey is a turkey”, but when it comes to Meleagris gallopavo, this isn’t exactly the case. There are five distinct sub-species of wild turkey; all prefer different types of habitat and occupy specific regions of the continent. The eastern half of the US and Canada is strictly the domain of the adaptive and well-known Eastern wild-turkey – the one exception being the Osceola, or Florida wild turkey, found only in the Sunshine State.
The western half of the continent is a lot more complicated from a distribution standpoint: The Merriam’s sub-species is found in rugged ponderosa pine stands at higher elevations, while the Rio Grande tends to inhabit the vast prairie and scrub regions at lower elevations. The largest of all wild turkey sub-species, the Gould’s, is found only in the mountainous terrain of the northern half of Western Mexico and extreme southern Arizona and New Mexico (where it can be hunted through special tag lotteries). Each sub-species possesses unique characteristics.
Interestingly, many fish and wildlife agencies have released various sub-species of turkeys where they never existed historically. Several western states now have Eastern wild turkeys as well as Rios and Merriam’s. What’s more, numerous healthy populations of wild turkey now exist throughout the Western US and Canada in places where they never occurred naturally prior to release. Not unexpectedly, hybridization comes into play where the various sub-species overlap.
With huntable populations of turkeys now available in all sorts of different places, the wild turkey Grand Slam has become a popular quest for traveling turkey hunters. It entails taking all four of the common US sub-species. Contrary to what some may believe, it’s not necessary to harvest all four birds during the same season; they just have to be registered with the NWTF. If you throw the Gould’s wild turkey into the mix, it’s called the Royal Slam (For additional details, go to http://www.nwtf.org/hunt/records/slams).
Accomplishing a Grand Slam may not be as difficult as it seems, given that there are now many places where hunters can expect to see multiple sub-species within a fairly confined geographic area, with Florida’s Osceola being the outlier. The NWTF’s wild turkey distribution map is a handy tool for identifying where the various sub-species can be found.
The true Osceola has some very unique characteristics, including longer legs, shorter wings and beard. In contrast to other sub-species, true Osceola gobblers appear darker and exhibit minimal white barring on the wing primaries. Jim Conley photo.
Without question, the central region of the country provides the best place to get started on a Grand Slam and the opportunity to bag multiple birds. With the exception of the Osceola, the various sub-species are plentiful from the Dakotas to Texas. The northwestern states are also home to several sub-species and offer plenty of public ground to hunt.
Besides lengthy seasons, over-the-counter tag availability, abundant public land and plentiful birds, another advantage of hunting western states is the ability to hunt Native American Reservations. These massive parcels consist of sovereign land managed by tribal fish and wildlife agencies – separately from respective state governments. This provides hunters the opportunity to harvest additional birds with an exclusive license. It’s necessary to contact reservation personnel well in advance, so plan accordingly.
Ask anybody who has turkey hunted the wide-open spaces of the west about their favorite state and you’ll likely hear different answers. Plano Synergy pro-staffer, Jared Bloomgren, of South Dakota is certainly content with his home state. “It’s no secret that the western part of the state is prime turkey country, as the Black Hills are home to thousands of Merriam’s,” says Bloomgren, who adds that the area is mostly public land. “The Merriam range extends east into the prairie, too. The Rosebud Reservation offers very affordable turkey hunts and you may even have the chance to connect with an Eastern wild turkey while out in the prairie units, in addition to a highly sought after pure, white-tipped Merriam.”
Guides and outfitters exist throughout good turkey range, and their services are a great option for traveling hunters. This is particularly true when dealing with Florida’s Osceola. With nearly four decades of experience, you’d be hard-pressed to find a turkey hunter and guide possessing more wisdom than Osceola guru, Jim Conley. Avian-X TV’s Matt Morrett refers to Jim as a “true treasure”, and makes it a point to hunt with him annually.
Florida turkey seasons open before most other states – as early as the first week of March in the southernmost hunting zone. Due to the tide of Eastern wild turkey genetics progressing south, turkeys are now officially referred to as the Florida sub-species in that state. Conley recommends hunting from Orlando southward for a pure-strain Osceola gobbler. And, while Florida does claim an abundance of public land, Conley highly recommends using an outfitter to access private land. “If it was going to be the last turkey I’d ever see, I still wouldn’t hunt public land”, he chuckled. “You’re likely to spend the same amount of money coming down multiple times to tag an Osceola on your own, so you may as well spend the money with an outfitter the first time to access prime private ground.”
Conley went on to explain the unique habitat requirements of the Osceola, and how success rates are extremely high for his hunters because he and his guides do not over-pressure the birds. The extra investment seems worth every penny.
When it comes to hunting travel, there may not be an easier or more affordable game animal to pursue far from home. Plentiful birds and a plethora of destination options make life fairly easy for the traveling turkey hunter – as long as some advance planning is employed. If you are reading this, you obviously enjoy turkey hunting, so why are you only hunting one species or one state? Hit the road and get to work on your own Grand Slam.
Many states offer multiple tags available over the counter. Plano Synergy pro-staffer Jared Bloomgren specializes in bow hunting for South Dakota Merriam’s, but the state supports populations of Easterns and Rios on its ample public lands as well. Jared Bloomgren photo.