|The surrounding higher elevations were still covered with a dusting of fresh snow while the more gentle slopes of the oak and digger pine country was covered in a lush green with patches of wild flowers growing in every meadow. The drive into hunt camp went right through the Sequoia National Forest at an elevation above 4,500 feet and well into Merriam's turkey country.
Mike Berry Guide Service has been a long time advertiser in Western Outdoor News with many readers having enjoyed successful hunts with Berry and his well qualified guides. When an invitation came to check out his leased hunt ranches and add a Merriam's turkey to the list of turkey species harvested it was a no brainer to meet up with veteran guide Leo Fisher in Bakersfield and make the drive up the mountain.
The hunt had been delayed a couple of times due to weather conditions and work schedules but the hunt was on just a week prior to the end of the spring season. There are not a lot of places where Merriam's turkey can be hunted successfully and Berry has a few of the better ranch properties under lease for this turkey along with a variety of big game animals, exotics and upland game birds. With the closing of the Tejon Ranch to all hunting, including the highly coveted Merriam's turkey that so many hunters desire, hunt options have been greatly reduced.
WON was teamed up with Leo Fisher, head guide for Mike Berry Guide Service, and his lovely wife Debbie who would be camp chef. After setting up the Pioneer trailer on a level spot on the mountain and getting a fire going, we headed off to try and locate a gobbler before the sun dropped below the Greenhorn Mountains. Fisher had opted to set up camp in a meadow rather than use the 1940's homestead house that was in the process of being cleaned up and remolded to accommodate hunt groups in the near future. "Our camp site is closer to where we will be hunting turkey in the morning, which will allow us ample time to get up before dawn, have a sweet roll and then be in position just before sunrise in the morning," added Fisher.
As we rounded a bend in the road a small covey of valley quail flushed off the side of the road and dumped into a blooming live oak. "This ranch is loaded with game. It not only holds a lot of Merriam's turkey, but the quail population is very high and there are some very big trophy mule deer to hunt along with black bear and wild hogs. It's hard to find places like this to hunt and these Merriam's are the "real deals" when it come to hunting this species," said Fisher.
Stopping at a spot overlooking a deep canyon Fisher got out his box call and let go with a couple of raspy clucks, which immediately got a gobble response clear down in the bottom of the canyon. "Look down there Jim in that clearing by the dead digger pine. That gobbler is strutting and gobbling his head off. I am sure if I kept talking to him he would strut right up the face of this mountain. Let's just back out of here quietly and check out a few other likely spots as options for tomorrow's hunt," said the soft spoken guide.
By the time we checked out the last area with the sun almost set, a faint gobble down on the valley floor would give us our back-up bird and it was time to head back to camp to see what Debbie had cooking on the barbeque.
After dinner Leo and this hunting editor sat up next to the warm fire and talked hunting, guiding and lot of other subjects that always seem to come up around a camp fire.
"I have been guiding hunters for over 25 years and just seem to enjoy putting hunters onto game. I spent a couple of years guiding on the Tejon Ranch, where I learned an awful lot about hunting turkeys and hogs, which I now put to use when on hunts with Mike Berry clients, along with treks off into the Sequoia National Forests and public land over in the Las Padres National Forest west of Taft. On this ranch the Merriam's do very well as the steepness of the terrain is ideally suited for this species of turkey, we are at the right elevation, there are year round creeks that provide a reliable water source, there is plenty of food available and the cover is protective of poults and other upland game bird chicks," said Fisher, who went on to add, "This is also big buck country for High Sierra mule deer. The racks are wide and thick and in the fall the ridges and meadows are home to some fine bucks of which we only harvest a few in order to properly manage the herd."
The stars disappeared as a layer of clouds moved in over the mountain camp which didn't bode well for the morning hunt. "This cloud cover might keep the birds quiet a bit longer, but I think if we patiently wait out the morning that we'll do just fine," was the ending comment from my confident guide.
Fisher stopped the 4X4 on top the mountain and we stepped out to listen before doing any calling. Down in the canyon you could hear the soft putts of a hen, but there were no gobbles. Opting to just leave the vehicle, drop down and side hill, through knee high wild oats, into a likely position above the more level creek bottom, we made the move quietly and spoke mostly with our hands.
Fisher had us backed up to a huge oak and got out his well-used calls. A couple of soft yelps didn't produce a response, nor did a cluck out his diaphragm call, but when he got on his Quaker Boy box call the canyon echoed with gobbles. A nod to each other indicated that the birds were where we wanted them, they were likely henned up and we needed to sit tight and wait.
Unfortunately the location was not ideal for this shooter, which offered up only marginal shooting lanes, and we needed to make a short move to a more acceptable location. Using the cover of thick oaks and giant rocks we tucked ourselves into the side of huge granite boulder.
Fisher got back on all three of his calls pretty hard, but the toms gobbled back and began moving towards us. The boss hen was not happy believing that another hen had moved into her area and let us know that she was "puttin' mad" at Fisher. To our surprise while looking off to our left another hen popped up about 15 yards below us and began putting at what she felt was something different. That hen didn't putt loudly, but it was enough to alert the toms and all of sudden the creek bottom became silent. The hen looked right at us, turned around and began feeding again, but it took another 5 minutes for the gobbles to begin after the alert had been sounded by that extra hen.
It was now 8:30 a.m. and the hens finally left the toms, but the gobblers stayed in their strutting grounds and were very vocal. Fisher stayed with his mix of calls and eased up a bit on his soft purrs and subtle yelps and an occasional cluck. Finally the toms were moving our way and the first tom stepped unexpectedly out of a patch of live oak just 15 yards out. Fisher whispered "shoot", but I couldn't see anything but that bird's head and it was not lit up. Fearing it might be another hen, I didn't shoot and waited for a big tom to step out. Fisher had a better angle on the first bird but this hunter opted to take a longer shot at a much bigger tom that had just moved into range of Federal Premium Magnum Turkey Load # 4 copper plated shot.
That gobbler never knew what hit him as he dropped in his tracks, while the other two gobblers winged up the side of the mountain and immediately started gobbling! The tom was a mature 2 or 3 year old bird, sporting a beard just over 9-inches and 1-inch spurs, a very fine Merriam's on any turkey hunter's grand slam list.
While the spring turkey season for shotgun hunting has closed there are still opportunities to hunt turkey with bow and arrow as the season will run through May 20. Fisher had showed this hunting editor a fine ranch and talked about the other ranches and hunting options that Mike Berry Guide Service (661) 397-7008 offers. Berry has priced his hunts well within budget for most hunters and has some excellent ranches under hunt lease to provide a wide variety of hunting experience. Berry's new web site is under construction and should be up and on line shortly.
Editor's note: Merriam's turkey were introduced into the mountains of Kern County as part of a program to establish a huntable population that was restarted back in 1959. In addition to the Merriam's species, Rio Grande and the California hybrid have also been released in this region, but according to biologists, the Merriam's species is seldom found below the 3,500 ft. elevation. The first (wild) turkey hunt in California was a one-day hunt in San Luis Obispo County in 1968.
THE GUIDE, HUNTER AND TROPHY MERRIAM'S GOBBLER — Guide Leo Fisher, of Mike Berry Guide Service, called in this Merriam's turkey for WON hunting editor Jim Niemiec while hunting a cattle ranch that adjoins the Sequoia National Forest just east of the Greenhorn Mountains. There are just a few good areas in Southern California to hunt the Merriam's species of turkey and this guide service has a good population of birds to hunt. PHOTO COURTESY OF MIKE BERRY GUIDE SERVICE