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Turkey season

by Warren Illi
| April 7, 2022 12:00 AM

It’s springtime in the Flathead. Similar to the fall season, the outdoor person has many choices of what to do in the great Flathead outdoors. Turkey hunting starts in just a week, on April 15, for most of Northwest Montana. Last week I spent some time in the Thompson Chain of Lakes area and noticed the winter ice was rapidly retreating back from the shore. So, when turkey hunting opens on April 15, some of our valley lakes may be available for open water fishing. I just purchased a new small outboard trolling motor, so I am eager to test it.

But in all likelihood, I will opt to go turkey hunting in the early morning and fish after lunch. Thanks to Jim Williams, the local Regional Supervisor for FWP, any hunter can buy a turkey hunting license. For many years, turkey licenses in Northwest Montana were limited. The prevailing attitude of local wildlife managers was that offering unlimited turkey hunting licenses in the Flathead would create a backlash from local farmers who would get tired of too many hunters knocking of their doors in the early morning hours, asking permission to hunt. When Jim came to Region 1 or Northwest Montana, as the Regional Wildlife Manager, he opened turkey license sales to anyone that wanted to buy a license and hunt. I haven’t heard of any backlash from landowners. Thanks Jim!

Aiding Jim in his decision to offer unlimited turkey hunting permits, was the biological fact that turkeys were expanding their natural range. For decades, wild turkeys in Northwest Montana were mostly limited to the Flathead Valley. The prevailing biological opinion was that turkeys could only live in the Flathead Valley where turkeys had a chance to survive tough winters by feeding on the food available on local farms. Then, for some reason that no one has explained to me, wild turkey populations expanded to all corners of Northwest Montana. Somehow, turkeys learned to survive outside the more favorable climate and food of valley farms.

A couple of years ago, my wife and I were driving on a remote timber access road on the Kootenai National Forest, at an elevation of 6,000 feet. We were surprised to see a large turkey strutting down the road. I can’t imagine what any self-respecting turkey was doing trying to live at 6,000 feet! This same expansion of wild turkey habitat has occurred throughout the United States. When I was a young man growing up in Minnesota, the only wild turkeys were in the southeast corner of the state. That corner of Minnesota has nice hardwood forests and a milder climate. Now wild turkeys are found all over the state! A couple of years ago I was fishing on a Minnesota lake, 300 miles north of the traditional turkey range, when my morning fishing experience included hearing turkeys gobbling in the nearby forest. Many wildlife experts believe there are more wild turkeys in the United States now than when the Mayflower landed. This is a real wildlife management success story.

There are two ways to hunt wild turkeys in the Flathead. The highest or most dense turkey populations are in the bottom of the Flathead Valley. In fact, wild turkeys are so common that they can prove to be a real nuisance. Flocks of turkeys will take up residence in your yard and use your porch railing as a roosting place. After those birds leave your yard or porch, they leave behind a large amount of droppings. When that happens day after day, those wild turkeys are not so welcome. So, one way to fill your spring turkey tag is to find a farmer or rural friend that has a turkey problem and help them thin the turkey population. That is more of a turkey shoot than a real hunt.

The more fun way to fill a turkey tag is to hunt public land or corporate timber land open to public hunting, outside of our valley. Those turkeys are harder to find, more wild and difficult to kill. I like to drive low elevation roads, especially along stream bottoms with brush and hardwood vegetation. I drive a short distance, get out and listen for a turkey gobble. I sometimes give a crow call to stimulate a gobble. If no gobbles are heard, I move on. If I hear a gobble, the real hunt begins. The challenge is to get within shooting range of a tom or male gobbler. I have a couple of turkey calls. The easiest one to use is the slate call. This is a small round slab of slate similar in size to a hockey puck. You hold this device in one hand and have pencil like device, called a striker, in your other hand. You rub the striker tip against the slab of slate to make a variety of sounds called clucks or yelps. These and other sounds are meant to call a male turkey or gobbler to you, imitating a hen ready to mate. If the gobbler already had a group of hens, he is unlikely to come to your call. In that case, you may need to sneak in for a close shot at the gobbler. Turkeys can be extremely wary, so sneaking in is easier said than done.

Perhaps the number one reason to go spring turkey hunting is an excuse to get outside and roam the spring woods after a winter of spending too much time inside. So, get outside and enjoy some spring fishing, turkey hunting or hiking. Sure, beats lawn work!

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