On My Merriam’s Way
Story and photographs by Dana Farrell
When I received an invitation from a friend to hunt spring turkeys in the pine hills of northwest Nebraska, I thought it would be a great opportunity to try out some new gear, and having previously only hunted easterns in my home state of Michigan, possibly put a Merriam’s turkey fan on my wall. Every couple of years, I look forward to making my way west to hunt big game, and this time, turkey hunting in the Cornhusker State would be the first stop on a trip to Idaho for black bear – not a bad way to spend two weeks in the springtime, and a lot more fun than sitting at my desk.
During this hunt, I would be field testing CZ-USA’s 612 Waterfowl, a 3½-inch 12-gauge pump shotgun with a synthetic, camo-clad stock. This, along with one of Hevi-Shot’s special heavier-than-lead turkey loads, would be an enjoyable litmus test of two leading-edge products. My experience with CZ has been very positive. I think they’re doing a lot of great things with their product line and I wanted to try their waterfowl pump-gun on turkey. I’ve been a fan of Hevi-Shot’s denser-than-lead products for some time, having used them on Michigan turkeys and decoyed waterfowl, but this would be my first experience using their Magnum Blend; a 3-inch, 2-ounce triplex payload of No. 5, 6 and 7 shot. A pretrip pattern-testing session, using an extra-full choke, produced concentrated, dense patterns on paper at 30 yards. This left me anxious to try this hard-hitting combo on a Nebraska gobbler.
The area where I hunted looks like the Black Hills of South Dakota. In fact, the Black Hills are only a short hop, skip and jump across the state line about 75 miles to the north. Like the Black Hills, the northwest corner of Nebraska is timbered with tall pines separated by large rolling grasslands interspersed with hardwood draws, laced with small winding streams. Elk, mulies and pronghorn roam the hillsides, along with a burgeoning population of Merriam’s turkeys. It is beautiful country, and with a mixture of public and private land holdings and a local community very welcoming to the economic bonus traveling turkey hunters bring to their area, access is not hard. The nearby 22,000-acre Fort Robinson State Park is open to public hunting and has a variety of camping and cabin rental options well suited to the needs of the traveling sportsman. Other private holdings provide combination hunting access and on-site accommodations as well.
I was hunting a steep river gully that was maybe 100 feet from top to bottom, all full of hardwoods and surrounded by gently sloping meadows on both sides. A lazy stream wound its way through this break in the land and grassy patches. This looked like prime strutting arenas for love-hungry toms. Springtime was in full swing when I visited in late April, with trees leafing out and colorful wildflowers making their annual appearance. Nights were cool with daytime temperatures approaching a pleasant 70 degrees.
This would prove to be a most interesting turkey hunt, and one that required a good measure of woodsmanship to pull off. I set up on a small meadow, near the lip of a gully just before daybreak, and put out a pair of decoys, a hen and jake then settled against a tree while several toms sounded off from their roosts. Gobbles came from different directions, enthusiastically answering my soft yelps as the sun edged over the horizon. Ninety minutes after sunrise, when no toms had followed through with their chest-beating promises, it was time for me to make a move. Judging by his gobbles, one bird had moved into the open field behind me but was playing hard to get and resisted the urge of my mournful yelps. Moving carefully to avoid skylining, I got up and crept to the edge of the rise behind me to peer out into the adjacent meadow. Over the ridge I spied a strutting gobbler about 75 yards away. He held a commanding view of his surroundings and was anxiously awaiting a lady friend to take him up on his unabashed invitations. Slowly backing down behind the hill, I weighed my options and made a plan to belly crawl towards the bird’s position, closing the distance by about 25 yards and putting me just out of range for a comfortable shot. At the top of the draw within view of the bird was a yucca, which I crawled up to and behind for cover. Reaching the end of the draw I attempted a call to bring the bird within a shootable range. It was a stretch, but I had nothing to lose.
Lying down flat on the ground, I army-crawled my way towards the spiky plant positioned at the crest of the ridge. A few minutes later while peering through the yucca towards the end of the depression, I could see the bird at around 50 yards, still struttin’ his stuff. I yelped softly on my slate call, immediately gaining his attention and coaxing him in my direction another 10 yards. At that point he was a comfortable 40 yards away and close enough for a confident shot; I didn’t wait. One poke from the CZ 612 and the Magnum Blend rolled him over and closed the deal. You’ve got to love it when a good plan comes together.
His fan looks really great on my wall, and contrasts nicely with a Michigan eastern I took a few years back. ASJ
IF YOU GO:
Nebraska turkey tags are $23 for residents
and $90 for nonresidents, and a $20
habitat stamp is required. Crawford, Neb.,
is the nearest town and has all the needed
essentials. A place worth checking out is
the High Plains Homestead, a throwback
to the 19th century American West.
Rooms are $68.50 single occupancy per
night and good steaks, grilled over a wood
fire, are available at their Cookshack. Visit
them at highplainshomestead.com.
For camping options, Fort Robinson
State Park is only a few miles from
Crawford and offers an assortment of
camping facilities and cabins for rent. –DF