Known for their white tip fans and bubbly gobble, the Merriam’s wild turkey is found in the western U.S., with the bulk of the population in the rugged lands between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean. This western gobbler was named after American biologist and ethnologist, Clinton Hart Merriam (1855-1942), who was one of the founders of the National Geographic Society and what is now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Fortunately for hunters, the Merriam’s often lives on large tracts of national forest and other federally owned lands, thus providing plenty of opportunity for public land access.

Merriam’s numbers are strong and even increasing throughout its range, including much of the Pacific Northwest. As one of the four subspecies of the wild turkey grand slam—the others being the Osceola, Eastern, and Rio Grande—many hunters travel great distances for a chance at a Merriam’s. Though they have a reputation for being less wary than their eastern cousins, killing a Merriam’s still requires good calling, knowledge of the landscape, and an excellent hide. Here is everything else you need to know to identify and hunt the Merriam’s wild turkey.

jake merriam's turkeys
Three Merriam’s jakes gobble back in the open country of Eastern Montana. Ryan Chelius


Generally speaking, an adult Merriam’s gobbler is similar in size to an Eastern wild turkey, though, weighing slightly less on average. The Merriam’s is longer-legged, with notoriously shorter spurs and a shorter beard than an Eastern gobbler. The primary identifier of the Merriam’s is white tail tips and rumps feathers. On the body, the Merriam’s features a dark coloration, accentuated by iridescent blue, purplish, and bronze highlights. Where populations of Merriam’s and Easterns overlap, like central Kansas, these white tips/rump feathers may appear buff (think butterscotch) in color. Hen Merriam’s wild turkeys are brownish-black, and, like the gobbler, exhibit more white than black in the wing barring.

Range and Habitat

The Merriam’s is closely associated with the Rocky Mountain Region, with large populations found from northern Montana south to the mountains of New Mexico. From the Rockies, populations spill into Arizona, California, Utah, and Idaho, with representatives transplanted into eastern Washington and eastern Oregon. East of the Rockies, Merriam’s can be found, often in excellent numbers, clear to the Missouri River Valley throughout places such as South Dakota’s Black Hills and northern Nebraska’s Niobrara River Valley.

More than Easterns or Osceolas, Merriam’s are nomadic wanderers. They often travel long distances between flying down and flying back up to roost. Common Merriam’s habitat includes cottonwood-stretched river valleys, piney ridgetops, open grasslands, and expansive scrub oak flats.

Population Status

The Merriam’s wild turkey population ranges between 330,000 and 400,000 individuals. However, factoring in the aforementioned hybridization with both Easterns and/or Rio Grandes, populations may be higher. Most Merriam’s populations throughout the West are stable, with many increasing. However, habitat loss due to logging, wildfires, human development, changes in land use practices, and extended drought conditions certainly have a negative, albeit often localized, impact on Merriam’s stocks.

Matt Rice from Vista Outdoors with a Montana Merriam's turkey.
Matt Rice from Vista Outdoors with a Montana Merriam’s turkey. Ryan Chelius

Hunting Tactics for Merriam’s Wild Turkey

Although all turkey hunting is similar, different subspecies and areas require different tactics. Below are three key factors to consider when chasing open country gobblers.

Leave the Decoys and Bring a Fan

Merriam’s wild turkeys often live in open country, which means you should be ready to hike long distances. Instead of lugging around a full-size decoy, bring a fan from an old gobbler. The fan is much lighter, and fired-up toms can’t resist checking out a gobbler trying to steal their hens. This gives you more mobility and a very exciting experience when that old tom decides to come charging in.

Use the Terrain

Typically, with Merriam’s, you’re not going to call back and forth a dozen times like a lovesick Easterner. Here, it’s all about maneuverability, or getting between him and where you think he’s going to go. Use the terrain or the lay of the land to your advantage. Stay below the ridge top, careful not to silhouette or expose yourself. Use features like washes or timber edges when you make your move. If you’re familiar with the lay of the land, all the better to make your approach. If not, guess, but be safe doing it. Then, use a locator call to figure out where the bird is, followed by the same series of soft yelps.

Turn Up the Volume

The West, where the Merriam’s call home, is big, open, and often windy. As such, you’ll want a call that will reach far. Glass or crystal-topped pot calls are fantastic for this, as are big box calls like Quaker Boy’s painfully loud (but realistic) Boat Paddle box calls. Given the situation, don’t be shy about turning up the volume. Once you locate a bird, use the terrain, get in close, and then get softer.

Cooking Tips for Merriam’s Wild Turkey

Once plucked or breasted out, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to tell Merriam’s from Eastern from Osceola and Rio Grande. With all wild turkeys, being gentle is the key to culinary success. If roasting a bird whole, baste frequently, dress with bacon while in the oven, or use a roasting bag for the best results. Legs and thighs can be deboned, and the meat seasoned in stock prior to pressure canning.

You can never go wrong with turkey breast strips deep-fried a golden brown and served with a homemade jalapeno ranch dipping sauce. Oh, and tater tots. You can also check out seven other great wild turkey recipes.