By Dick Mason
Observer Staff Writer
It is a new rite of spring in Northeast Oregon, one of camouflage and black face paint.
It is the first day of turkey hunting season, April 15.
Hunters will flock to forests in camouflage and black face paint to take one of the loudest of game animals Â— the Rio Grande turkey. They will do so with a vigor and fervor not always seen in elk and deer hunters.
Turkey hunters need little prompting before responding.
"After you have been cooped up all winter and to be able to get out there in the spring is absolutely awesome,'' said Kevin Loveland of La Grande.
Another La Grande turkey hunter, Phil Gillette, has a similar sentiment.
"Turkeys are the first thing many people hunt after being inside all winter. Having a chance to be out in the woods pursuing something is great,'' Gillette said.
Jonel Ricker of La Grande agrees that there is something special about a spring hunt.
"Traditional hunting seasons are in the fall. What you see in the spring is totally different,'' Ricker said.
He explained that in the fall leaves are brown and nature is shutting down for a winter slumber. In the spring, though, forests are green and virtual incubators.
"Activity is heightened. Everything is waking up,'' Ricker said.
Ricker sees more game animals of every variety in the spring than he ever does in the fall.
The excitement of hunts is heightened by the sound of turkeys calling throughout the forest.
"To hear the echoes (of turkeys) in the woods is incredible,'' Loveland said.
He noted that they start gobbling at daylight. Hunters also can "shock a gobble,'' causing turkeys to make sounds simply by inadvertently honking a horn or slamming a door.
Getting turkeys to gobble is not a challenge but bagging one is a test like few others. Turkeys are ever elusive because of vision off the eye charts vision.
Gillette said that turkeys have 13- power vision which allows them to see over long distances. Hunters must wear perfect camouflage to avoid detection.
Craig Lankford of La Grande believes that turkeys monitor his movements from distances of at least 100 yards.
"Once they spot me they always know what I'm doing,'' Lankford said.
Turkeys also have excellent memories, something they use to evade hunters.
"They will remember your call the next year if you are in the same place,'' Gillette said.
Hunters have to be careful to mix up their calls. Elk hunters don't always have to be so careful.
"With some elk you can be away for a half hour and come back and use the same call and the elk won't seem to remember it,'' Gillette said.
Turkeys have a good sense of smell but they do not use this sense to escape hunters.
"They don't associate smell with danger,'' Gillette said.
Almost all of the wild turkeys in Northeast Oregon are Rio Grandes. These birds are not native to Northeast Oregon. They were first successfully transplanted here in the 1980s. Population levels have since soared to the point where they can be found throughout the region and even are considered a nuisance in some places.
The abundance of turkeys may be one reason why people who might never otherwise hunt, will hunt for turkeys, Gillette said.
Lankford noted that he enjoys turkey hunting even when he is not successful. Unsuccessful hunts add to the anticipation of the next one.
"They would call it killing instead of hunting if you got a bird every time,'' Lankford said.
Lankford hunts with his sons Logan and Colby. He gets as much of a thrill out of calling turkeys for his sons as he does getting a turkey himself.
"I need someone to share the moment with,'' Lankford said. "To share the adrenaline rush with.''