At just $650, this sleek yet humble side-by-side boasts attractive design, light weight, superb handling, and is tough as nails.
Published by Project Upland February 21st, 2020. Read it here.
At just $650, this sleek yet humble side-by-side boasts attractive design, light weight, superb handling, and is tough as nails.
Published by Project Upland February 21st, 2020. Read it here.
The sun sets early in the deep canyons of Kelly Creek in the Idaho wilderness; the opulent evening glow casting an amber hue upon considerable granite outcrops and emerald pools below. Rugged ridges and peaks reach skyward looming over the river, defying its brazen attempts to break free of their control. Diminutive yellow stoneflies flitter sparsely through the cooling evening air, seemingly slowed by the rich, evergreen scent of western cedar and grand fir.
Angling pressure was picking up late in the week and the fish were feeling it. I typically fish regular fly rod and reel, but my suspicions of stressed trout led me to reach for my tenkara rod. I wanted the ability to present a flawless drift in the hard-to-reach pockets overlooked by others. The rod I brought was a bit overkill at twelve feet with a heavy spine, but the reach was a must for dropping flies into midstream eddies and flow seams. Additionally, the rod was fresh off my dryer at home and I wanted to get a feel for its capabilities before heading to Alaska to try it on salmon.
Tenkara angling, in its purest form, is a Japanese traditional fly-fishing method developed on small, mountain trout streams, using a fix-length rod, a fixed-length line tied to the end, and a small wet-fly or “kebari” that is dead-drifted in the sweet spots. Basically, cane pole fly-fishing. Traditional tenkara carries great history and detail on methods and gear, which is available in other literature and worth the read. The two truly defining features of tenkara angling are its simplicity and ease.
Fly-fishing is easily perceived as far too complex for newcomers and youngsters. The myriad fly rods and reels, line choices and fly patterns, not to mention their hefty price tags, are frequently beyond attainable on cash and time budgets. One can make a successful career on second hand and hand-built fly rods, but tenkara angling requires the bare minimum in gear, is deadly effective and can be learned at virtually any age.
My first rise of the evening came on a voluptuous, blonde elk hair caddis as it floated the seam where riffle met pool. A scrappy fourteen-inch cutthroat pounced with conviction, almost with vengeance, and put a sweet bend in the top third of my heavy tenkara rod. As the evening wore on and rises became few, I scoured the drainage in search of sunlit reaches. In the canyon streams, the bite tends to wane as the mountains force the river into the evening shadows. East-west oriented reaches carry daylight and fish activity a little longer into the evening.
My final reach of the night was a boulder-strewn field of pocket-water with a few small runs that have produced well for me in the past. I switched to a behemoth of a foam bug called a “Chubby Chernobyl” to draw some attention. Sizing up a large eddy formed behind a car-sized boulder, melding into a soft run with deep, swift flanks, I could envision where the fish were lying. Gently dropping the Chubby along the flow seam between the eddy and the sweep around the river-right side of the boulder invoked an explosion of ferocity and a firm hookset deep into the jaw of a sixteen-inch cutthroat.
Playing the fish to net, my admiration of the profound lateral reddening painted against the thick gold, speckled body and the blaze orange under-jaw cuts lit a fire of anxiety in anticipation of the next catch. The fish returned softly from the net into the cold, clear water.
A flip of the rod landed another cast in the same general vicinity, the size-8 Chubby immediately met with a repeat performance. It simply couldn’t get any better than this before dark. Completely at peace, I collapsed the rod and slogged for the rig.
I rig my tenkara rods with sections of old floating fly line cut to approximately the maximum length of the rod, and a fluorocarbon leader between two and four feet. I continue to use typical dry and wet fly patterns, a departure from true tenkara angling, and largely referred to as “fixed-line fly-fishing”.
Opportunities to fish high mountain wild trout near Walla Walla are fewer as many of our headwater streams are closed to fishing to protect spawning and rearing salmon and steelhead (which I support completely), but the Tucannon and South Fork Walla Walla Rivers are fishable. Some friends visited from Virginia this past summer with their seven-year-old son, William, a fishing prodigy. William had his heart set on visiting the local streams, so these are the creeks we visited.
Having never touched a fly rod, I handed William a Rhodo series rod from Tenkara USA. It’s a very small, delicate action rod built for tight mountain streams and small, native trout. With the briefest of instruction, he took to it like a seasoned pro. Pointing to a log pushing the current from shore and forming a deep pocket with an eddy on the downstream side, I advised William to drop the fly behind the log at the point where water broke around it. On the third attempt, a small rainbow rocketed from below the log in a burst of zeal that caused it to whiff the fly completely. But it didn’t miss the second time.
We fished the area for a while, enticing a half dozen little guys to take a fly before moving on to repeat the performance elsewhere. William masterfully cast a tiny Adams to feisty six-inch rainbows, and the incidental Chinook salmon fry. His first western fishing trip and he quickly and excitedly checked the box on these two native fishes, caught on the fly, nonetheless.
I began fly-fishing at age 12 and rarely pick up any other rod. I have enough gear to keep a fly shop in business. Yet, the first time I fished with a tenkara rod, I found its simplicity and minimalism utterly liberating. Young or old, novice or pro, you can realize the art and effectiveness of fly-fishing while channeling a centuries old tradition, and for a fraction of the cost relative to regular rods and reels. And the possibilities range far beyond trout and freshwater. For additional tips, techniques and stories on gear and fishing of all species, check out Tenkara Angler on the web. You’ll be hooked.
“Any day catching wild trout on the fly is a good day”
I said to my buddy Jim as we traversed a bedrock cascade on one of our favorite mountain trout streams. It had been a couple years since I visited my Virginia home town, so we capitalized on my impromptu June arrival to carry on a tradition of fishing this particular stream.
Adjusting my Tenkara USA Rhodo to 9-feet, 9-inches, I set my sights on a pocket where the stream dropped over solid granite. The water was incredibly low for June, resembling the trickle of early fall. The pools were mirror-flat and crystal clear forcing us to endure a painful crawl across cobble streambed to approach without spooking fish.
Clinging to an algae-stained granite slab angling into the stream and forcing the flow to the far bank, my knees made relieving purchase on a soft jade mat of moss, cool and moist with river water. A gentle cast landed a small, blonde elk hair caddis with an olive body at the head of the cascade feeding the deep, emerald pool.
The caddis bobbed through the narrow cut between granite slabs, dappled by sunlight fighting its way through an eastern hemlock canopy. As the caddis rounded a large hunk of sandstone, an explosion led to my first fish of the morning. With the rod stuck high, I guided the 8-inch fish to shore and photographed its varied hues. The rosy speckles with the sapphire halo, the worm-like striations across its back and the fiery glow of its belly tugged at my soul.
I cut my fly-fishing teeth on Appalachian brook trout over 25 years ago and still find them challenging in tight cover and low flow. And they still hold high rank as one of the most beautiful specimens of the salmonid family, in my humble and biased opinion.
In the west, some of the best days fishing wild trout have come from Idaho where big flies entice ravenous cutthroat in steep river canyons. On evening in particular, the sun kissed the mountaintop on its descent, casting a rich glow across the river and illuminating a dense mayfly hatch. Perched atop large riverside boulders, my buddy Chas and I were casting Chubby Chernobyl dry flies (Chubby) the size of a hummingbird to fish that were thrashing the water as though they had never eaten before.
A sweat-soaked straw hat shaded my face as I stripped and launched each cast in the evening heat. Hotter yet were the 16- to 18-inch cutthroat holding in eddies and along flow seams, erupting on the fluffy white flies like a champagne bottle blowing its cork. Evenings like this spent stalking these luxuriant bars of finning Idaho gold remain forever engraved in in our memory of good days.
Another Idaho trip, I rigged up my tenkara rod with a Chubby and drifted it down a riffle into the head of a massive pool. The riffle filtered into a run before the flow encountered a house-sized boulder and turning 90-degrees. Dead-drifting the fly perfectly along flow seams fooled big fish where they had been educated by a generous number of anglers previously.
You know when you get that “any moment” feeling when the drift is just right? At that moment, the brilliant, buttery glow of a cutthroat would rise from beneath and roll on the fly, hooking perfectly in the corner of the jaw. The throb of a heavy cutthroat against a tenkara rod in fast water feels nothing short of a spiritual experience.
Mountain streams tend to wash away the burdens of the day and fortify the soul. Songbirds, deer, chipmunk and squirrel, the roar of the stream and humidity of the transpiring forest canopy engulf our worries. We find ourselves lost in our natural habitat, having escaped reality, if only for a brief time. Mountain time is timeless, yet tangible. Cleansing. A reset for bruised souls amid hardship like a pandemic and social unrest.
Wild trout and mountain streams are everyone’s resource in which to seek joy and solace, July being a prime month. Be it the Minam, Lostine, Wallowa, or somewhere further flung in Montana, California or Appalachia, John Gierach could not have said it better – there is no shortage of good days on wild trout water. We could all use a few more good days.
You recognize the name, but shrug with indifference at its mention. In mint condition, their shotguns compare not to the finer side-by-sides of the past. They sell for pennies on the dollar relative to the spendy, yet (occasionally) affordable names like Fox and L.C. Smith, and may as well be a door prize for simply viewing a Parker. Although less glamorous, the single-shot Harrington and Richardson (H&R) shotgun may arguably be one of the simplest and most prominent firearms to grace American hunting and shooting history.
H&R boasts an ornate heritage dating back to the inception of the company in 1871 as Wesson and Herrington in Worcester, MA. Established by Gilbert H. Harrington and William A. Richardson, the manufacturer we know as H&R was not so named until 1877. Harrington supposedly bought out Dan Wesson’s investment and re-branded with Richardson, carrying the H&R name and parent operation through 1986. Their doors remained closed until 1991 when a new company started under the name H&R 1871.
H&R was known into the 1880s for their revolvers, but evolved quickly to manufacture shotguns and rifles with dozens of different models. But the name as I and many others have come to know is married to their single-shot shotguns.
In 1901, H&R produced their first single-shot, the Model 1900. A series of small-bore .410 single-shots followed, chambered in two-inch in 1911, the Model 1915 chambered in 2.5-inch, then a three-inch chambering in 1937. It appears the more commonly known “Topper” model name did not appear until the 1940s.
The H&R Topper Model 158 (Topper 158) was manufactured between approximately 1962 and 1973, becoming the shotgun many of today’s hunters associate with the H&R name. While this model was chambered in everything from .17 to .300 magnum caliber, smooth bores appear to be most common.
The Topper 158, like its predecessors, carried a hardwood stock, but the rubber butt pad didn’t appear before this model, according to vintage advertising. Their actions were color case hardened, boasting a beautiful tiger-like, almost holographic striping. Twelve, 16, 20 gauge and .410 bores were available with barrel length ranging from 28- to 36-inches and housing an immaculate shell ejector. The 28-inch barrel package weighed a scant 5.5 pounds. The forearms on early models were held tight to the barrel with a center screw, which was changed to a sleeker clip-in mechanism in 1971.
These guns may not have been dazzling, but their reputation as lightweight, reliable and affordable, led to hundreds of thousands of sales while in production. Original cost for a standard Topper shotgun was listed at $28.50 in 1957, and the Topper 158 at $36.95 in 1971, according to vintage advertising.
Present day value for a used Topper 158 in excellent conditions runs between $150-225, but monetary value does little justice for the antiquity of these “working class” scatterguns. But as W.E. (Bill) Goforth said in his in-depth volume on the H&R company, firearms enthusiasts are led to “…the belief that the value of a collectible firearm is measured by its cost.” This dismisses historical relevance, allowing monetary value alone to determine the “worth” of a firearm, exemplified by H&R.
Aside from monetary or historical significance, sentimental value can eclipse all. I inherited my father’s Topper 158 as a child and carried it after gray squirrels through the deciduous forest. I recently discovered a photo of my father taken at his parent’s home around 1981. He knelt in the yard clutching his one-year-old youngest son (me) and a gray squirrel, the Topper 158 leaning against the fence in the background. The photo triggered a desire to rescue and restore the gun as a piece of my father’s legacy. A shotgun built for everyone and fitting of his humble, reliable personality.
The christening of the old 12-bore with renewed fashion came a nation away from its Virginia origin with a passing shot at a Eurasian collared dove. A bird I doubt my father had ever heard of. Memories overlaid by time rushed to the surface, cued by the thump of the light-weight single-barrel driving against my shoulder.
With such talk of commonplace style and mechanics, it may be surprising that in 1880, H&R became the sole American licensee for the manufacture of quality English Anson & Deely double-barrel boxlock shotguns, manufacturing approximately 3,500 of various “grades” between 1882 and 1885. Not to belittle the company’s contribution to the U.S. armed forces over the years.
In November of 2000, the Marlin Firearms Company purchased the assets of H&R 1871, Inc. Presently marketing its products under the brand names of Harrington & Richardson® and New England Firearms®, H&R 1871 is currently the largest manufacturer of single shot shotguns and rifles in the world1. So why are single shot scatterguns so uncommonly seen afield? With a wealth of quality doubles and auto-loaders on the market, it seems hunters value the opportunity of additional rounds.
The H&R name and Topper 158 have claimed their worthy place in American firearms history and the story continues with current Topper models. Still produced under the Harrington and Richardson name, the Topper Deluxe Classic sports a vented sight rib, screw-in choke tubes and checkered American walnut stock.
Various vintage Topper 158 and youth models can be found around $100 if you are willing to watch auctions and make some minor repairs. Cheap enough to determine for yourself the wingshooting “worth” of H&Rs classic single-shot.
Published in the East Oregonian, July 16th 2021
If you’re a fly-fisherman, think back on your first trout on the fly. Can you remember it? Turns out I cannot, but I do recall my teenage years spent trying to crack the code on mountain brook trout in Appalachia. While my casting skill left much to be desired, habitat selection may have had more influence on my struggle to coax a fish to the fly. Thirty years later, mountain trout streams take me back to basics such that the last time I carried a western-style fly rod and reel into a headwater stream was probably 2016.
These days I seek elevation and skinny water with only a handful of flies of usually one or two patterns, and a tenkara rod. Whether the fishing is actually easy or just second nature to me now remains to be determined, but one thing has remained constant. The elk hair caddis. This classic pattern stands as a staple in the fly box of trout anglers worldwide, mine included. It’s effectiveness has made this the first, and often the only fly I use on mountain streams.
So, how did this fly earn its reputation? There are approximately 7,000 known caddis species, which hatch generally April through October in the northern hemisphere. The dry fly (adult) pattern is often effective through November with peak hatch months typically being June through September. The October caddis hatch is well known in some areas, including locally, for remarkable densities of colossal flies that may be mistaken for large moths. Fishing a giant October caddis can redefine “epic” as feisty fish feast to fatten up for winter on the filet mignon of insect forage.
Tied with a black, brown, or olive body, ribbed with copper or tensile or not at all, and topped with hair as black as moose or bright as a bull elk’s rump, the pattern is universally effective. The same olive elk hair caddis once duped native brookies in several Virginia mountain streams only days before it landed me the Bitterroot Slam of rainbow, brook, brown, cutthroat, and cut-bow on my drive back to Washington. That was July 2020, and that fly now hangs on my pickup’s driver-side sun visor as a constant reminder of an exceptional few days on the headwaters draining our major eastern and western mountain ranges.
Given the fly’s popularity, effectiveness, and commonplace existence as a renown fly pattern, one of the most curious facts about the fly is that it has been on the scene barely over 60 years. The simplicity of the elk hair caddis pattern led me to assume it has been around since the beginning of modern fly-fishing at the latest.
Seemingly one of the earliest possible fishing methods, one may assume that fly-fishing was common as early as 1653 with the first publishing of Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler. Surprisingly. One of the first records of fishing flies includes a group of about a dozen salmon streamers tied in Ireland in 1789, possibly older than the first color illustration of flies, according to the American Museum of Fly Fishing. Even more surprising, the first elk hair caddis is credited to Al Troth, tied in 1957, far later than many other classics like the Adams, which turned up around 1922. Little did Troth know that his caddis pattern would go on to imitate virtually any species of caddis, as well as some stoneflies. A truly revolutionary fly.
Dry-fly fishing – fishing flies on the water surface – is thought to be the pinnacle of trout angling. Norman McClean’s A River Runs Through It, centered in Missoula, Montana, sensationalized fly-fishing, invigorating the fishing world to take up the sport. McClean’s wit suggested purity in fishing dry flies through biblical reference, saying “Our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly-fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly-fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.” While anyone can fish dry-flies, sans the pretention, there are arguably few other flies or fly-fishing methods that compare to charming wild trout with an elk hair caddis.
A creamy puff of elk rump bobs carelessly on a dead-drift, cascading into the head of a mountain stream pool. Unable to resist the temptation, a muscly rainbow with a cotton-candy pink lateral stripe rockets to the surface, engulfing the fly in an eager splash as it drifts over the emerald depths. A quick flip of the wrist sets the hook, and the fight ensures. Admiring the remarkable hues of salmonid perfection from the clear, cold cascades is what dreams are made of. Dreams that can be reality for anyone willing to chase them with an elk hair caddis, July being a fine month on streams like the Wallowa River, Umatilla, and Walla Walla.
Published in the East Oregonian, August 18th 2021
My decoy spread, offset slightly to my left, lit up like little gray beacons as the morning sun cast its golden glow. A light breeze kicked up, spurred by the sunrays piercing the cool air of early fall. Aside from the emerald foliage of the occasional tree, the Palouse was decorated in the usual varied tones of beige, canary, and bronze.
Camo-clad, sitting along a forgotten fencerow, I waited for the first flight to descend upon the grain field and gathering of imposter fowl. A robust doe whitetail with her speckled fawn leisurely fed from a grassy draw bottom. Suddenly, movement to my right revealed a few gray birds swooping in, head-on to the decoys. With a smooth swing of grandpa’s old pump gun, the morning hunt was underway.
Pop quiz – what am I hunting? Okay, you read the title and know it’s doves, but that scene could easily play out for waterfowl with a tweak to the decoy setup and a little water in the picture. No waterfowl hunter would dream of sheltering in a layout blind without a few decoys out front, but decoys for doves?
Pass-shooting doves is an American sporting tradition and the mourning dove is the most widespread and abundant game bird in North America. Every year hunters harvest more than 20 million birds nationwide. A typical hunt might be characterized by old five-gallon buckets for seats placed in the shade of a tree alongside or separating grain fields and water sources.
Tucked in the shadows, friends and family enjoy quiet small talk as early autumn heat wavers up from the parched landscape. No fancy gear or even camo required. Action can be fast and furious, but also slow when birds are sparse or keeping their distance. That’s where decoys enter the scene.
Doves tend to follow trees or obvious terrain features when moving among food and water sources. At these sources, doves perch on exposed tree branches or anything else with overhead visibility to survey for predators before descending to feed or drink. Decoys can be set to attract doves to a location advantageous to the hunter, influencing their flight path and encouraging more birds to fly within shooting distance. With a few simple considerations, your decoy spread can do more than keep you company on the hunt.
Identifying your shooting position is the foundation of setting decoying. Decoys should be placed 10-20 yards from your shooting position to ensure the shooter remains hidden from approaching birds. Offset the decoys from your shooting position at about 10 o’clock for the right-handed shooter, and two o’clock for the left-handed shooter. The goal is to encourage crossing shots rather than lure the birds in head-on to the shooter.
Next to location, setting visible decoys is crucial. Tree cover can be sparse in the shrub-steppe and harvested fields. A wire or T-shaped bar about 10-feet high to elevate decoys can easily be constructed at home with PVC, pipe or rebar. A few decoys sitting side-by-side mimics doves perching on a powerline, which typically attracts others. If hunting your own land or an area where you can set up something semi-permanent, the T-bar or wire span can be left and used year after year. Options with more mobility, like telescopic T-bars for easy packing into public land, can be found online.
Another option is to make an actual tree perch that can be cut and pruned to an ideal structure for decoy attachment, and placed near food, water, and even gravel sources. Doves will also use them naturally, which may provide an advantage.
When placing decoys on the ground, set them 20-30 feet from the elevated decoys and pair them up with a few feet between pairs, generally facing into the wind. Dove pairs often travel together, and pairing decoys on the ground gives the spread a more natural appearance. This does not mean placing each pair perfectly side-by-side, but set in relative proximity to one another to give the decoys the look of feeding together.
Non-mobile (static) decoys work well on their own, but another option is to include a spinning-wing decoy to animate your spread. Doves approach an animated, spinning-wing decoy head-on most often, which can aid in setting up that text-book crossing shot. Later in the season as doves become wary, the additional movement of the spinning-wing decoy is more convincing to the cynical eye of our most frequently hunted bird species. When you get right down to it, mourning doves offer one of the most versatile wingshooting opportunities of all upland birds, and decoying doves can be done simply, with minimal gear. If you have never used decoys, doves offer an easy, affordable opportunity to get started. Static decoys are easy to find and can lure birds even without being elevated. Whether trying something new or simply honing your decoying skills this fall, setting decoys for doves can enhance your wingshooting experience.
Published in the Backcountry Journal, Fall 2021 Edition
“The meager acreage is nothing special, absurdly steep and completely land-locked, save for a river crossing. Scarcely worth the effort for a half-day hunt among the larger state and federal tracts with easier access in the region…
This superlative morning of my 30 years pursuing deer, we spotted 11 bucks in a tiny, remote canyon. A beautiful muley to show for the effort. Tagged out on unlikely ground, owed entirely to the good fortune of a bedded whitetail, our nation’s public lands, and blessings from the man upstairs.”
Published December 2022 in the Walla Walla Union Bulletin.
“Still and sunny are rarely simultaneous conditions that present a coveted winter morning in the Walla Walla Valley. Freezing fog often forms thorny ice spikes on the grasses and broken-down fencerows, and limits visibility to feet at times. When enshrouded in fog, the landscape feels like a scene from “north of the wall” in Game of Thrones. “White Walkers” could appear at any moment, seen first by the eerie glow of their piercing blue eyes through the frozen mist.
Beneath the fog on a still morning, the Palouse can be deafeningly quiet. The ominous croak of a midnight-black raven can be heard for miles. The slightest whisp of wind sends the big bunchgrasses into a cracking sway like the crinkling of a mylar balloon. And while the frosty, foggy days feel as though they have locked the landscape down for eternity, a mere hour of sun can free the Palouse from the grips of the icy chains.”
“I pulled the stock and barrels of the sleek Ruger “Red Label” twelve-gauge over/under from the green, leather-lined canvas case. It had been a little over a year since the fine double gun had seen the light of day, and nearly two years since it saw an upland bird season. It was odd to see it in my hands instead of Marvin’s.
As I stepped away from the truck, memories surface of the hunt prior in this same cover. Marvin and his bird dog, Felix, accompanied me beneath the pines and honey locust as we roused a staggering number of collared doves. Marvin carried the Red Label on every one of our upland hunts over the years, and our last collared dove hunt turned out to be our final hunt. Two short months later, the cancer that Marvin had nearly beaten finally bested him.
“Let’s see how I do with this thing” I spoke into the wind, as if Marvin was there with me.”
Read the rest of the story and find the recipe for a sweet Whiskey-Plum Glaze for your gamebird grilling in the Fall/Winter 2022 Harvesting Nature Magazine!
Published in the Pheasants Forever Journal Winter 2023 edition.
In 2022, Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever, Chapter #258, started a Women on the Wing program to diversify the Chapter’s outreach and opportunities. The initiate was wildly successful and contributed to the Chapter winning the Pheasants Forever National Award for Education and Outreach. I am extremely proud to be an active member and officer of Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever!
As I neared the river, a fog bank appeared on the horizon – an impenetrable wall set along the highway corridor. It was disheartening to watch a beautiful January day disappear in the rearview as the sun-shrouding humidity swallowed me whole, but the foggy conditions were arguably better for jump-shooting waterfowl. Sunlight glinting from gun barrels and glasses betray me as I sneak through riparian grasses and timber.
Pulling onto the road shoulder, I prepared for the approximate half-mile hike into a serpentine river reach that is occupied by a healthy flock of mallards nearly every time I visit. I donned my camouflage rain jacket, evergreen wool Stetson and mittens, and strapped my camera bag to my back. It felt odd to carry the Red Label over/under without a setter leading the hunt, but the feel of the gun and the zipping sound it made when sliding from the case were comforting. A sign of good things to come.
The hike was peaceful. Juncos and sparrows flitted through the frosted kochia thickets, which stood in dark contrast to the golden cereal rye encircling them. A magpie cawed in the trees along the river. An eagle was perched in a prime location to keep watch on the water. Its large silhouette appeared raven-black through the mist. Somewhere up ahead, a single string of excited quacks caused me to pause and cock my head, like a hungry coyote listening to the scurry of a field mouse. About three hundred yards stood between me and the ducks.
The final one hundred yards was onerous. I followed a deer trail, which dipped into a frozen puddle that was flanked by crackling mats of reed canary grass. The ducks could not see me, but they would certainly hear me if I were careless, even with the ambient babble of the river at their feet.
Deliberate foot placement carried me around the icy water’s edge, avoiding downed tree limbs, and placing steps where the grass was heavily matted and unlikely to crackle. The ducks remained silent as I crept – the kind of silence that gets into my head when a gameplan nears fruition.
Maybe they already flushed, I thought. No, they didn’t. You would have heard them. Keep moving.
At the head of the long, frozen puddle, I dropped my camera bag and eased toward the river. Ten minutes passed as I tactfully stepped through common reeds that threatened to sway with the slightest bump and send a deafening “rrrriiipp” through the silence when contacted by synthetic fabrics.
Ahead was a sizable tree with low limbs, which I belly-crawled beneath the last time I tried this spot. I turned toward it, crossed behind a small willow patch, and instantly caught a glimpse of five drake mallards sitting on the backwater across the river. The sight of the ducks caused me to freeze. An act meant to avoid detection but often results in alerting game. A deer or another innocuous critter would not have stopped.
Turning toward the creek and taking two crouched steps sent at least twenty mallards skyward on a straightaway departure. They jumped about thirty yards out and quickly expanded that distance to fifty yards. I never bothered to shoulder the gun.
Cracking the breach on the Red Label, I plucked the shells while chuckling quietly and pondering what I might do differently next time. I may have blown the ducks out of the country, but at least I could forget about precariously tip-toeing my way out.
Once back across the icy expanse, I veered right toward the river again. My plan was to slip through an opening ahead and disappear into the tree cover for a still hunt. My path wound through kochia and poison hemlock that was alive with songbirds. Pausing briefly, I picked up the Nikon from where it hung against my chest and focused in on a Junco. It contrasted beautifully against the frosted weed skeletons, but my inability to remain still resulted in blurred images. Another mistake to laugh off as I moved closer to the river.
Moments later, I recognized a kingfisher perched statuesque in a tree above the water. My camera lens was only a two hundred millimeter – not nearly enough for the distance between us. How to maneuver closer?
Edging toward the river allowed me to close enough distance, but as I focused the camera, the kingfisher left its limb and vanished into thin air. Impeccable timing. Something I experience continually when trying to photograph, well, everything mobile and possessing free will.
An audible laugh erupted at the kingfisher’s timely departure. I had been so intent on snagging the photo that I paid little attention to my proximity to the river. My attention was suddenly redirected by a half dozen mallards lifting from the water, and again, I laughed out loud. A comedy of errors resulted from trying to capitalize on too many opportunities and failing at all of them for not devoting appropriate attention to a single task. One would think that after thirty years of repeating this mistake, I would have corrected my behavior by now. The definition of “insanity” comes to mind.
As the mallards departed, I turned toward the river to see a massive great blue heron lift off. My hand was on the camera when twenty more mallards blew up, but instead of the usual straight away exit over water, they flew left-to-right over land and in close proximity.
Realizing the shot opportunity triggered instinctive action to raise my gun. I singled out a drake and squeezed the trigger. While swinging on a second bird, I spied the drake drop from the flock. I engaged the safety and made haste to where the duck had fallen.
Mouthwatering recipes, namely confit, flashed through my mind as I hoisted the handsome bird and admired its plumage. The pattern and color complexity quickly captivated me – chocolate brown, emerald green, charcoal gray with black pepper flecks, and that iridescent violet flare across the wing. Simply stunning.
The foggy river scene with the contrasting shapes and gray-brown palette of weeds, grasses, and trees, provided a superb backdrop for burning the memory into immortal electrons – what would have been film in a past life. Satisfied that I had sufficiently captured the light and scene, I gathered my shotgun and bounty and strolled the river’s edge toward the truck to the melody of songbirds, and the soothing roll of water on its path to the ocean.
Published April 15th, 2023 in the La Grande Observer
One rainy fall morning, I found myself sitting quietly in an old hay shack on the edge of an alfalfa field. My friend Dan sat to my right. A calico barn cat desperate for friendship perched upon a hay bale to my left. As dawn cracked, the sound of raindrops pinging on the rusted tin roof was disrupted by a cacophony of turkey “yelps” from their roost far above us in a pine stand. The cat continued preening, uninterested, but Dan and I glanced at each other in curious anticipation.
Moments later, over one hundred Rio Grande turkeys sailed down from the roost into the alfalfa field before us. Video of the hunt shows turkeys gliding in from the pines for nearly five minutes. The discordant “kee-kee” and “yelp” calls from a flock that large were defeating as the birds gathered before eventually spreading across the emerald alfalfa carpet where they engaged in synchronized feeding.
Having never successfully hunted turkeys, it was hard to maintain my composure with that many birds front and center. A large jake (a juvenile male) finally separated from the flock, allowing a safe shot. Upon squeezing the trigger, it was unclear which, the cat or the shot wad, left the shack in the biggest hurry – the cat having launched from the haystack so quickly that it virtually vanished into thin air. At that moment, the largest flock of turkeys I had ever seen before or since lifted off, leaving the jake behind to bless my dinner table.
That parcel has produced most of my wild turkeys over the years, regularly holding flocks with greater than thirty birds during the fall and winter. This is common across the nation in areas with patchwork landscapes of agriculture, forest, and grasslands or pasture, making it hard to believe that the wild turkey was once pushed to the brink of extinction in North America.
According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, approximately 10 million wild turkeys roamed North America at the time of European settlement – a fine food source for settlers. Like most “game species” known today, turkeys were hunted year-round without regulation for subsistence and the market.
As the eastern colonies grew and settlers moved across America, timber was cleared for agriculture and community development. The cumulative impact of hunting and habitat loss decimated and isolated wild turkey populations.
“Connecticut had lost its wild turkeys by 1813. Vermont held out until 1842 and other states followed. By 1920, the wild turkey was lost from 18 of the original 39 states and Ontario, Canada, in its supposed ancestral range.“
North American wild turkey populations plummeted below an estimated 250,000 by the 1930s, but pending legislation and the Great Depression would serve the wild turkey well.
In 1900, the first iteration of the Lacey Act regulated market hunting by prohibiting trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that were illegally harvested, possessed, transported, or sold. This Act, in concert with early wildlife management regulations, reduced the overall hunting impact on turkey populations.
The Great Depression fell upon America in 1929, and over the following decade, homesteads and small farms were vacated as 14 million people sought work in cities and factories. With fields left fallow, natural succession converted former cropland to grasslands and shrublands. This natural landscape change resulted in the rebirth of wild turkey habitat.
Another keystone piece of legislation – the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 – established a conservation fund via excise tax placed on the sale of sporting goods and ammunition. These funds were used as seed money to establish large-scale conservation efforts. State fish and game agencies began trap-and-transport programs to reestablish turkeys throughout their native range. “By 1952, bird numbers nationwide had grown to 320,000.”
By 1973, the national wild turkey population estimate was about 1.3 million birds. At that time, the National Wild Turkey Federation was founded with the mission of “wild turkey conservation and the preservation of North America’s hunting heritage.”
These and other conservation efforts have resulted in the recovery of wild turkeys with over 6 million estimated across 49 US States and five subspecies in 2014 – Eastern (4.5-4.7 million), Osceola or Florida (115,000), Rio Grande (853,000), Merriam’s (260,000), and Gould’s (1,200). This incredible recovery since 1973 is no simple coincidence with the founding of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Sitting quietly, tucked into the brush at the bottom of a canyon, I listened to the excited gobbles of seven Rio Grande toms echo between the canyon walls. A young but robust bird with an exceptional beard was en route, lured by my feeble attempts to mimic a hen turkey yelp. Moments later, I stroked the bird’s iridescent plumage in the evening sunlight while the other toms and a dozen hens made their way back up the canyon. The wild turkey is perhaps one of the greatest conservation successes in North America. Moments like this make me proud of our continental conservation model, and thankful for the opportunity to hunt one of this nation’s greatest game birds.
If you have not hunted wild turkeys, now is the time to join the ranks in one of America’s oldest hunting traditions.
 History of the Wild Turkey in North America. James Earl Kennamer, Mary C. Kennamer, and Ron Brenneman. National Wild Turkey Federation Bulletin No. 15.
 Wild turkeys: A conservation (and hunting) success story (usatoday.com)