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Spring is turkey time in North Idaho

by RALPH BARTHOLDT
Staff Writer | April 15, 2010 9:00 PM

SANDPOINT - John Zornick hunted tom turkeys in North Idaho when they were elusive birds whose gobble drifted ghostlike through the spring fog. He hunted the birds successfully in the 1980s, he said, but it required a lot of work. "In 1985, they were hard to find and hard to hunt," Zornick said. "If you had a permit, you had to work at it."

SANDPOINT - John Zornick hunted tom turkeys in North Idaho when they were elusive birds whose gobble drifted ghostlike through the spring fog.

He hunted the birds successfully in the 1980s, he said, but it required a lot of work.

"In 1985, they were hard to find and hard to hunt," Zornick said. "If you had a permit, you had to work at it."

These days, finding a spring flock of Merriam turkeys in North Idaho is significantly easier and resident tags can be purchased over the counter for $19.75.

The spring hunt that runs from April 15 through May 25 is a promising time to bag a bird, said Calvin Fuller of Sandpoint Outfitters.

The earlier that hunters get in the field, the better their chances at success, Fuller said.

Birds that are in tight groups in early April tend to spread out and travel more as the season progresses, making them harder to find.

"The best time to shoot one is the season opener or shortly after it," Fuller said.

And Bonner and Boundary County are some of the best places to hunt Merriam turkeys.

North Idaho populations are burgeoning despite two hard winters and a series of wet springs that can wreak havoc on egg survival.

Although bird numbers were down last spring, according to Idaho Fish and Game, numbers bounced back up with good nesting conditions later in the year.

"They should be back to normal this year, or near normal," said Phil Cooper, spokesman for the game department.

Before moving to North Idaho from Pocatello in the mid-1990s, Cooper, an avid turkey hunter, often traveled to Boundary County to bag a tom.

"I would drive to Bonners Ferry to turkey hunt," he said.

North Idaho is still the best place to hunt spring birds, he said.

"We're in the best part of the state and one of the best parts of the country to hunt turkey," he said.

Along the Highway 41 corridor to Priest River and north to Priest Lake, as well as the many valleys that spur off Highway 95 to Canada, turkeys are numerous in North Idaho, but there is a caveat: Most of the birds are on private land, Cooper said.

Decades ago, when the birds were introduced to the Gem State, farmers and ranchers stood in line to get a few birds planted on their land.

Although the first season opened in 1966, the birds multiplied rapidly as they adapted to their new haunts.

Several years ago, the department pushed the season ahead by two weeks to give hunters a better chance at bagging a bird, and boosted take limits to six birds annually depending on seasons and units (check Idaho Fish and Game regulations).

Bird poop from a lot of birds was one of the reasons for increased bag limits.

"Over time people were tired of having droppings in the feed troughs and on the farm equipment," Cooper said.

What it boils down to, said Fuller, is that in North Idaho turkeys are ripe for the taking.

He recommends scouting for the birds in the morning before they fly off their roosts. Toms gobble before they fly to the ground and the hens follow.

"Sneak to within 100 or 150 yards of the roost tree and start calling," he said.

Setting up decoys puts the birds at ease as well and lures them to the gun.

"It fires them up," he said. "They are really competitive."

Since their introduction in 1961, North Idaho turkey populations have become so healthy that the state for years trapped Panhandle birds and shipped them to less populous regions.

"Turkeys pretty much occupy any suitable habitat anywhere in the state," Cooper said.

Because the birds are most often found on private land in the Panhandle, he urges hunters to knock on doors and ask permission before they cross a barbed wire fence or attempt to sneak past a "No Trespassing" sign.

"It's very important to ask permission from landowners," he said. "Generally, it's very easy."

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