Apr 10, 2023
Thunder in the High Country
By Ryan Barnes
I stood looking up at the mountain I was about to ascend, my headlamp shining upon towering aspen and pine trees. Backpack strapped on, hiking boots laced up, shotgun slung around my shoulder- “Heartbreak Hill” was about to let me know just how far out of shape I’d let myself get. I looked over to my friend Scott Milgrove, who seemed to be assessing the same situation, the same thoughts running through his head. Scott and I grew up in the same elementary school classes, went to middle school together, and then on to high school. Our friendship centered upon hunting whatever we could find, and we snuck out of class to go whenever we could get away with it. We got pretty good, for better or worse.
For years Scott and I have hunted turkeys in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. We’ve always said we will find a new place to hunt. We never will. Scott found this place while hunting deer in high school. He told me it was “covered with turkeys,” so we got our tags that following Spring and decided we’d give it a chance. We soon discovered the turkeys move to feed right at the snowline in the Spring, much higher than it is in the Fall deer season, forcing us to hike an ungodly steep climb to get to the higher ground. After the first few trips up that mountain, Scott called it Heartbreak Hill, and Heartbreak Hill it has been ever since.
We both shot nice toms that first year. In fact, we shot them the same day, practically in the exact same spot, one in the morning and one in the evening. Both of us thought from that point we had found the holy grail of turkey hunting. We were mistaken. It would take us both a couple years before we would shoot another turkey there, and after hunting in other locations and in other states, it became clear that there was only one constant with turkey hunting in the West; you better be willing to hike.
If you were to have looked at me and Scott, you would probably think we were going on a three-day backpacking trip for elk rather than a single day turkey hunt. In my pack I had the aggressive quarter strut jake decoy, water, snacks, extra ammo, a coat and a spotting scope. My binoculars were already in their harness across my chest. Any hunting done in the high country requires high powered optics. From desert bighorns to turkeys, when you’re trying to identify game two ridgelines over, the naked eye doesn’t cut it. My counterpart’s pack was filled with similar utilities. He had the hen decoy, his daily hunting pleasures, and whatever else he thought he might need. We began our hike up the mountain.
A break to catch our breath.
If we happened to catch a burst of energy, we might hike a hundred yards and then stop. From our starting point to the open flat we like to hunt, it's about a 1,400-foot climb, leaving us hunting around 6,000 feet in the air. We always know we’re getting close when the grade begins to flatten out. At that point the locator call comes out, typically an owl hooter. On that day, we didn’t need it.
As Scott and I caught our breath, a gobble ripped through the pines. It sounded like a tom already up and moving. We were only about 200 yards away from the sagebrush flat on which we like to set up. The sun was beginning to crest which meant we had about thirty minutes to get into position. Then another gobble rang out from even higher up the mountain. We crept slowly through the remainder of the trees and into the sagebrush opening.
You can find turkeys in the dark timber and running around in the trees in the low hills. But hunting above the treeline, in the cliffs and the short scrub brush where they find cover, is where you find success. The higher they are, the fewer the predators. We were trying to be the predators willing to hunt that high, chasing them where it’s noticeably harder to fill your lungs.
Scott and I set up the decoys and backed up next to a rock outcropping. When you finally have a moment to sit down and look when you’re that high up, you can appreciate just how impressive it is. Sitting on top of square miles of forests and canyons and creeks you feel small, but your soul feels big. I didn’t have much time to sit and appreciate nature’s art before another gobble belted out to our right. It was the first tom we heard on our hike. Scott is a much better turkey caller than I am. He reached into his binocular harness for a diaphragm call. I adjusted my position as he let out the first few yelps of the morning. He paused. After another yelping and cutting sequence from Scott, a gobble sang out from behind our left shoulders. Our attention had been focused on the tom gobbling to our right. I was sitting on the left side, so I looked at Scott who gave me a nod that said, “You have first shot you lucky bugger.”
Another gobble shook the sage. Then I saw him through my binoculars. Bobbing in and out of the sagebrush was that beautiful, disgusting, remarkable, repulsive blue and red head. I slowly raised my barrel and the waiting game began. As the tom got closer, he began strutting, dragging his wing tips across the ground, looking absolutely magnificent with his long beard, full fan, and daggers for spurs.
The tom quickly closed the gap, now just a few yards from our decoys. I was seconds away from shooting when Scott grabbed my attention with a slight whistle through his front teeth. Slowly looking back at him, he motioned his head back to the right. There was the first tom we’d heard, just as impressive as the other. Puffing himself out in full strut, spitting and drumming to let the world know how majestic he really looked. Scott and I looked at one another like, “Is there really a chance this is going to happen?”. He had his gun on the right tom, I had mine on the left. I lowered my face mask and barely whispered, “You have a shot?”
“On three. One. Two. Three.”
In whatever time 1500 feet-per-second travels 20 yards, we doubled up. I ran to mine. Scott, a bit more poised, assessed the situation and then walked over to his. We grabbed our birds and held them up to show each other. Like kids showing off a new toy to a friend on the playground. Our elation filled the air. I looked at my tom- black feathers with hues of green and purple, a beautiful fan, all the traits a turkey hunter wants. Scott was holding his turkey’s fan up and looking over the art his tom had to display.
When we got back to the truck, I dug into my tool box. I pulled out a tape measure to satisfy vanity. My bird’s beard measured seven inches and Scott’s measured almost eight. Both our bird’s spurs were close to two inches, though I think Scott tells people they were two and a half. We figured they were around two or three year old birds, maybe older. We didn’t know and didn’t care, we were happy. Hunts like that make the early mornings, the burning lungs, sore legs, and the brutal hikes worth it to share another moment in the high country that reminded us why we love it so high up there.
About the Author
Ryan Barnes is a passionate outdoorsman, who loves the arts of wingshooting and angling and the joy of turning that art into words. Since he was a boy he’s looked for any excuse to find himself outdoors with friends and family. Now, he looks for any excuse to find the finer details in those outdoor escapes and capture them in the written word.