Geologists have it all wrong. Oh yeah, I sort of believe their theory on how the earth was transformed – continental plates colliding, pushing up great mountain ranges. And then there’s that ice age/glacier thing. I just don’t buy their suggestion that it took millions of years for these mountains to form. I’m positive that it’s happening at a much more rapid pace. In fact, I’ve seen significant changes in my lifetime.
When I was 18, the Blue Mountains were relatively flat. I could pretty much hop and skip over any ridge and lope down any draw with little effort. Even those peaks in the nearby Eagle Cap Wilderness weren’t much of an obstacle. Laughing to myself, I used to wonder who that guy was that labeled these peaks. Anyone could see these were just hills with a couple of lazy, old mountain goats for ornaments.Now I’m 57 and I’ve seen an incredible up-thrust in the Blue Mountain ranges. Draws have turned into canyons, ridges have turned into gut-busting nightmares and those peaks in the “Cap,” well, they make me shudder. All these geographical changes in my favorite hunting areas have forced me to switch to other means of travel. Fortunately, my wife brought horses into our marriage 35 years ago.
At first, I thought horses were just a farmy sort of exercise — poke hay in one end and shovel manure out the other. It was, indeed, a great fitness program — tuning the pecs, the ceps and the glutes. Then I discovered these brutes were great for packing game out of the woods and getting me up to scenic vistas. Throwing a heavy-boned elk on their backs and sending them down a long, narrow trail was also a good way to get even for those hot summer days pitching hay bales in the barn.
Then turkeys were released in Eastern Oregon and my wife and I have often used horses to hunt these critters ever since. Horses can get you into some great turkey hunting if you’re knowledgeable about the area you hunt. You’ll likely see fewer hunters and the birds are often more approachable.
After heavy, winter snows blanket Eastern Oregon highlands, it can take a considerable amount of spring sun to melt this accumulation — especially in shaded pockets along north-facing slopes. If a primary access road happens to course along one of these shady spots it can be well into turkey season before it melts, allowing motorized passage. Huge areas of prime turkey habitat can be blocked to road hunters by lingering drifts in strategic locations.
The Wallowa and Grande Ronde River drainages are good examples. If the terrain is right, one can trailer up to a snow-blocked road, horse around a few drifts and climb to a seasonal wilderness of sunlit ridges and flower-dappled meadows. The only souls sharing this peace with you is the hordes of elk and deer and ridge-running turkeys.
While hunting and photographing wild turkeys for many years I’ve come to realize that wild turkeys come in two basic flavors. There are those that spend their entire lives in some barnyard or pasture — eeking out a living from bird feeder to haystack. And then there’s some that seem to have a special itch — a sort of wander lust. For some largely misunderstood reason, many birds will bypass lush meadows and move up through deep snow and onto high ridges with little forage. And these are the turkeys my wife and I enjoy hunting.
Actually, high-altitude turkeys aren’t too difficult to hunt. You may need to cover a good deal of ground to find them. Traveling in smaller groups, these birds are usually quite lonely, unlike the downslope, pasture birds that often travel in larger flocks and tend to see other birds in their daily routine. Farm gobblers with hens are usually difficult to call in as they don’t want to leave their harems. But, the mountain birds are often looking for friends and a hunter can sometimes call in the whole flock of hens with the gobbler in tow.
Many hunters do a good deal of scouting before turkey season opens – often practicing their calls to roadside gobblers. Before “D” day, nearly every male turkey has heard just about every call Cabela’s has ever made. High mountain birds, however, don’t get to experience this parade, due to their solitude. They’ll often fall for any reasonable replica of Miss Turkey.
Same as the “buddy” system that archery hunters use on elk, hunting in tandem can work well on turkeys. For a wise, old tom that comes in and hangs up just out of shotgun range, putting a quiet hunter between the bird and the caller can often put drumsticks on the plate.
For me, saddling up on a frosty, spring morning and riding old Scout to a high meadow is a most pleasing aspect of a successful hunt — whether lead met feathers or not. Enjoying the distant whisper of a river in the canyon depths below, in concert with the chant of a free-spirited gobbler, is truly a sensory image that will linger far into my aged memories.
As one gets older, and the lines on my topo map get closer, it’s difficult to accept the changes around you. By the time I’m 70, the Blues will likely resemble the Grand Tetons. Around a hot campfire someday, I’ll likely share with my grandsons the geological and biological changes that have occurred in my lifetime — how the hills got steeper, the air thinner and the elk got faster. Perhaps they’ll see things differently, but I pray they’ll get the chance to experience the smell of horse leather, the ascent to a high-mountain meadow and the pursuit of a timberline tom.