On the Hunt for Spring Turkeys

Birds have thrived in Montana

Story and photos by David Reese/Montana Living

It was only an hour after Shane Christianson left his work site that he was in an entirely differently world.

Christianson, a building contractor, was hard at work at a project in Whitefish Tuesday afternoon, but by 6 p.m., Christianson had donned his camouflage clothing, shouldered his archery equipment and was on his way to his hunting blind near Bad Rock fire station south of Columbia Falls.

montana turkey hunter in blind, david reese story, montana living magazine, shane christianson

shane christianson, montana turkey hunter in blind, david reese story, montana living magazine, shane christianson

Shane Christianson in his turkey blind near Columbia Falls, Montana. (David Reese photo/Montana Living)

Just minutes from his home in the Flathead Valley, Christianson was now in his element: hunting turkeys, bow and arrows nearby, and call in hand. For Christianson, the spring turkey season is a chance for him to hunt with his bow after a long hiatus since autumn's elk season.

After a short walk from his truck, Christianson crawled into his small hunting blind, which resembles a camouflage pup tent. He pulled a small, wooden box from his backpack and began calling turkeys, scraping a piece of wood on the top of the box. The high-pitched squeaks carried out over a nearby field, which he scanned with his binoculars.

turkey in field, shane christianson, montana turkey hunter in blind, david reese story, montana living magazine, shane christianson 

He waited for the turkeys to arrive.

Wild turkeys feed in the forests and open fields during the day, and by evening begin to search for trees to roost in. When you're hunting them, you try to catch them between feeding and roosting. 

You can use archery equipment or shotguns when hunting turkeys, but Christianson prefers his Bear bow. 

Spring is the best time to hunt turkeys, since it's the breeding season, and like elk, the male turkeys, or "toms," will respond to artificial calls. "You can call them, and they'll come in strong, like a big bull elk," he said.

On Tuesday evening, Christianson sat patiently in his hunting blind, working his hen call, trying to entice a male into range. Seemingly out of nowhere, a lone hen turkey waddled out into the field in front of him, along a fence line. But since he's waiting for a big male to shoot, Christianson wasn't that interested and let the big bird wander across the field, out of sight.

Hunting turkeys requires patience and skill. Turkeys aren't the big, dumb bird they may appear to be as they feed along highways and driveways.

shane christianson, montana turkey hunter in blind, david reese story, montana living magazine, shane christianson
Turkey hunter Shane Christianson walks to his blind near Columbia Falls, Montana. (David Reese photo/Montana Living)

"They have incredible eyesight," Christianson said.

Access to private land is the big challenge for hunters in the Flathead Valley, although there's public land in the North Fork of the Flathead where turkeys are now being found. 

"You have to get out and knock on some doors," he advised. "It's good to get out early, before the season, and meet the landowners. Ask if you can do something nice for them, like fix a fence. We still need more landowners who will say 'yes.'"

CHRIS FORTUNE, the regional director for the National Wild Turkey Federation, said turkey hunting is growing fast in Montana, with bird populations growing throughout the state.

"Statewide, it's just a positive growth experience for us," he said. 

The National Wild Turkey Federation works with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to identify habitat where turkeys could be removed and relocated, or planted with new birds to establish populations.

While the federation seeks to increase hunting and establishing strong populations of birds, it's up to Fish, Wildlife and Parks to approve any relocations of birds or establishments of populations. "We've got a really good relationship with them (FWP) now," Fortune said. "They see our desire to build populations, and they see there's a demand for it."

About 70 percent of Montana's wild turkey populations are in eastern Montana, while western Montana's bird populations also continue grow, according to Fortune. Turkeys are establishing strong populations throughout western Montana, with birds being seen from the Bitterroot Valley and Swan Valley in the south, to the North Fork of the Flathead and Eureka, to the north, Fortune said. 

"We're starting to get them all over the state," he said.

The turkeys in eastern Montana are of the "Eastern" strain, while northwest Montana's are predominantly "Merriam" turkeys. Neither strain is native to Montana, Fortune said, and are the result of public and private plantings.

One thing that's helped turkey hunting in Montana is that the permit that's required to hunt turkeys can now be purchased over the counter, rather than having to be drawn.

Some sporting goods in western Montana are enjoying the boon. Fortune said one sporting good store in Missoula saw an increase of $15,000 in tag sales when the law was changed to allow over-the-counter sales of turkey permits. 

There are two turkey seasons in Montana: spring and fall. The spring season allows harvest of males only, (because it's breeding season) while in the fall season you can harvest females.

Much like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Trout Unlimited and other wildlife organizations endeavor to conserve their respective animals, the National Wild Turkey Federation is working to get more people involved with the species. Statewide membership in the federation has grown to about 2,000 people, Fortune said, with 17 chapters established around the state. That includes a strong chapter in the Flathead Valley. "We're growing at a pretty quick pace," he said.

For Christianson, a busy building contractor, turkey hunting is a great way to enjoy the outdoors - close to home. It's also a good sport for children, he said. "You can be out here after school with your dad in the blind, instead of sitting in front of a computer or getting into trouble," Christianson said. "And once kids hear that first gobbler come into your call, they're hooked."

On the Net: www.nwtf.org

For information, call Flathead Valley's National Wild Turkey Federation chapter president Shane Christianson at 253-0154.

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