Trip write-up and photos provided by Wildlife Outfitting and Operations instructor Rocky Robinson.
For the past couple months, the sophomore Guiding in the Outdoors class has been planning a backcountry hunting trip to the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. The Gila was one of the first wilderness areas established in the United States and totals roughly 3.3 million acres. The class went to pursue Merriam’s turkey, a high elevation bird primarily found in the western mountain regions of the United States.
The Merriam’s hunt is a popular choice for the students who want to complete a “Wild Turkey Grand Slam.” To complete the grand slam, a hunter must harvest all four U.S. turkey subspecies (eastern, Rio Grande, Merriam’s and Osceola). Once a hunter completes the slam, they will receive a certificate and a record pin from the National Wild Turkey Federation.
On the first day in the National Forest, a couple students glassed up three birds but were not able to close the distance before the birds headed down the mountain. The next three days we averaged about 10 miles on foot each day, spike camping into the wilderness portion of the national forest. A few of the students just went to fish. The trout they caught were a nice change from the MREs and freeze-dried meals.
We saw lots of turkey sign during those three days but never laid eyes on another bird. Probably a dozen other hunters stopped and talked to us along the way, saying they had been having the same problems- lots of sign but no birds.
The students became particularly attached to two hunters, Kena and Brady. They were ranchers, probably in their early 60s, that had grown up in the Gila Wilderness. They made a living rounding up the feral cattle that are invasive to the Gila. During the elk seasons they would also pack hunters in and out of the mountains on horseback. Kena and Brady would swing by camp around noon each day, spinning stories of the Gila and telling the students where they might go to find turkeys.
On the last full day of hunting we finally found the birds. We heard four different gobblers. The birds would respond to calls but would not come in. After over an hour, the birds disappeared into the mountain and we headed back to pack up camp. According to Brady, “I just don’t think the turkeys are feeling frisky enough yet.”
Overall, the students said they really enjoyed the trip to the Gila. They saw pronghorn, mule deer, coues deer, javelin and more elk than one could count. The Gila is one of the premiere elk hunting units in the United States. Kena told the students, he shot his first elk in the Gila when he was 13. The bull scored over 360 inches (It takes a score of 350 to get into the Boone and Crockett record book).
For more information about PCC's Wildlife Outfitting and Operations (WOO) program, visit our website.