Canadian Turkey Hunting Slam

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Wild turkey hunting in western Canadian provinces is a relatively new addition in our national outdoor line up. These western birds, largely the elusive and much sought after Merriam’s sub-species of wild turkey, provide western residents with a unique opportunity to pursue them, as they do not exist in eastern Canada. A successful Merriam’s hunt early in the season means you are in striking range of achieving the Canadian Wild Turkey Hunting Slam, which currently has less than 10 lonely registered entries.


My introduction to western turkey hunting

Having moved to Manitoba from my home in Ontario several years ago, I was aware that new and exciting hunting opportunities were likely in store for me upon getting established. I was, however, somewhat distraught at learning that Manitoba’s wild turkey flock was at a minimum, compared to the hoards of eastern turkeys available back home. I refused to let a spring season slip by and stubbornly began scouting some gobblers.

Turkeys were more difficult to locate and, despite seeing some eastern birds inside Winnipeg’s perimeter highway, I eventually found concentrations of classic turkey sign some distance south of town. Doing my homework gained me permission on several parcels of private property along the river, in Manitoba’s Pembina Valley, a scenic and fertile place.

Pre-dawn found me set up in the shadow of a large, multi-stalked Manitoba maple, which I knew from my scouting efforts served as an established roost. Just then, a lone coyote howl in the distance drove two toms and a jake to sound off with their morning gobbles. Hens began to filter out of the maple tree, followed by the legal birds who commenced their way towards me across the small, worked-over sunflower field. My heart nearly jumped through my ribcage when I realized the toms sported the unmistakable white tail feathers of a Merriam’s turkey! Here I was expecting only to see eastern birds, not even considering that other varieties of turkeys might inhabit this new western province I now call home. Wow! Both wild turkey sub-species in the same province? Hmm, aside from being unique, this could get interesting. I began to purr, and offered the flock some soft hen yelps, which to me resemble the sound of a squeaky bicycle wheel. Game on!


NWTF, slams and sub-species

The National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) outlines five various wild turkey slams, achievable across North America. They include the Grand, Royal, World, Mexican and the recently added Canadian Slam. At the time of this writing, only eight Canadian Slam record-holder names have been registered on the NWTF website, which entails harvesting both a Merriam’s and eastern sub-species of wild turkeys in the Canadian provinces they exist in, both within the same season or calendar year. This slam is new to Canada, with the oldest record only coming from 2009, simply due to the fact that Merriam’s turkeys and seasons in which to hunt them only recently became established.

Opportunities in which to hunt Merriam’s turkeys include agricultural areas in the western provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba. Saskatchewan does not offer any open wild turkey hunting season at this time, largely due to the lack of suitable habitat, coupled with winter severity. Manitoba is somewhat unique in the sense that the province appears to be the geographic divide where both eastern and Merriam’s sub-species overlap, co-exist and even hybridize. With some research and securing range maps, such as those provided by the NWTF, southern Manitoba is indeed shown to host both turkey sub-species, as well as a recognized and unique hybrid of the two.

The Canadian Turkey Slam calls for only two birds in order for successful registration, which many of us could do in Ontario, where hunters are able to harvest up to three turkeys annually. Ontario, however, does support a natural, self sustaining population of Merriam’s sub-species, and so anyone interested will need to travel west to achieve the slam.


Manitoba: a slam is born

Here is where Manitoba begins to get the spotlight, harbouring flocks of both eastern turkeys in the south and southeast, and honest to goodness Merriam’s turkeys in south-western pockets of the province.

Wild turkey dispersal patterns have shown that birds colonizing this prairie province did not come from either Saskatchewan or Ontario, but rather from our neighbours to the south – Minnesota to Montana specifically.

Turkey populations here are still somewhat establishing, and this means the Canadian Turkey Slam isn’t easily attained in the same calendar year. Manitoba’s wild turkeys are entirely limited by winter severity and in some years winterkill can be prevalent, taking its toll on the flock. For that reason, hunting wild turkeys in Manitoba is restricted to residents only. A single tag is made available annually, yet is valid during both the spring and fall seasons. If Manitoba experienced a few consecutive mild winters, however, and the limits were increased, a Canadian turkey slam would possible in the same province, during the same season.


Wild turkey hunting in Manitoba and the west

In Manitoba, and the rest of the west for that matter, turkey densities are generally low and scouting plays a critical role. Over the years, I have noticed that turkey populations tend to be spread out and live in pockets in prime habitat, while other areas of seemingly perfect habitat are essentially devoid of turkeys. Another thing I have keyed in on over the years is that the best turkey numbers tend to be adjacent to some of the southern Manitoba waterways, where mature hardwoods, rolling topography and cash-crop agriculture all come together within close proximity of each other.

In my opinion, the “golden triangle” for eastern birds in Manitoba would be from Winnipeg, east to Stienbach and then south to Morden, which loosely delineates the Red River Valley. Anywhere west of Morris is where one can begin encountering hybrid birds. The Pembina or Souris River watershed areas south of Brandon likely offer the best chances at a Merriam’s gobbler. Turkey hunting is generally less practiced in the west than it might be in the province of Ontario for example, and as such, permission to hunt on private property tends to be somewhat easier to secure for now.

Western turkey hunting tactics don’t differ much from those practiced in the east. The standard technique is still to set up on a well-scouted roost tree in the pre-dawn, or spot and stalk variations. Western decoy and calling strategies should also be honed for the field, and employed under the right conditions. With unpressured birds, a typical decoy flock of two hens and a jake, or simply one hen, can be very effective, especially when fed the right symphony of calls. My personal favourite in this department are the latex diaphragm or mouth calls, freeing up both hands and zero movement on the part of the hunter, and fully functional in wet weather, unlike many slate and box calls. The latter, however, do offer increased volume in the big open county that these western birds call home, particularly if the wind is up and not in your favour.

One somewhat unorthodox western turkey hunting technique, which I learned from a fellow whitetail hunting guide in Saskatchewan, reminded me of a hunt I was on for black wildebeest in the open savannahs of Africa. At times, western hunters either wait for the birds to move out of fields or open country, or even spook a flock of turkeys into the timber. Once in the cover of trees, circle and stalk the birds into shotgun range. In this situation, the right calls can be particularly effective. The reason this tactic works here, but is not largely employed on Ontario turkey hunts, is simply due to the fact that western turkeys, particularly Manitoba’s Merriam’s turkeys, are almost completely unpressured and not very hunter savvy. Unpressured or not, stalking wild turkeys over open ground plays on their survival skills, which typically ends in failure for the hunter.

A friend and former university peer of mine, Everett Hannah, has experienced great success in western Manitoba by blending both the standard and unorthodox techniques. He hunts these birds by conducting some intense pre-season scouting and heading out in the morning near a roost tree using both decoys and calls as needed. Should those efforts fail and the birds hang up in the open, Everett will often wait or get the birds to head for cover. At this point he will decoy, call or intercept them into shotgun as needed. Everett has taken a number of Merriam’s turkeys this way, and enjoys hunting pockets of prime habitat he feels exist along the Assiniboine River Valley, slightly southeast of Brandon.


How you can achieve the Canadian Turkey Slam

Western Canadian provinces offering Merriam’s turkeys exclusively to residents, generally the more difficult of the two sub-species to secure, puts these hunters at a unique advantage in terms of success and registry for the Canadian Slam. The route I would take would be to scout hard and effectively hunt your home turf in the west until you’ve successfully harvested a Merriam’s turkey. At this point the hard part is largely over. Once your Merriam’s turkey is “in the bag,” so to speak, book a spring turkey hunt in Ontario within the same season or calendar year. Perhaps you have a friend or family member residing in Ontario who would be happy to host you on an eastern wild turkey hunt, allowing you to complete the Canadian slam in the same year and add your name to the eight lonely records currently on the NWTF board.

Turkey hunting in Ontario is accommodating to non-residents, seeing as over-the-counter tags are available for all units that eastern turkeys exist in. As a Canadian citizen, you are also not legally required to book your hunt through a registered outfitter. Get licensed, get equipped and get out there!

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