The Rios of Fall

Fall turkey hunting the Walla Walla Valley is as fine an experience as it gets!

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Published in the Walla Walla Union Bulletin, September 22nd, 2019.

The grandeur of a wild turkey in full strut, spitting, drumming and gobbling their hormone-crazed heads off lures the masses of anxious hunters, wrought with spring fever. Spring is an amazing season to hit the woods with colorful tree and flower buds and the first green grasses of the warm season. The chill in the early morning air quickly vacates as golden sun rays breach the eastern horizon. Then there are hunters like myself, who don’t buy into the farce of calling spring turkeys. Autumn is our season of conviction and pursuit of all things upland. Fall may represent the annual cycle of senescence, but the season also holds rejuvenation, calm and terrific turkey hunting.

A heavy November fog hung in the pines, cloaking the forty-some birds in their evergreen roost, high above my brushy ground cover. Turkeys had flocked up for winter, and like clockwork, entered their routine of roosting in a small pine strip along the Touchet River. Soft yelps and clucks wafting from the canopy were barely audible above the babbling river, but soon evolved into a boisterous cacophony as the sun fought to tear through the fallen ceiling. Having never mastered the art of calling turkeys, I sat quietly, awaiting the birds’ vacation from roost.

As visibility increased to about thirty yards, the inharmonious ruckus from overhead fell silent. Had I moved? Had they heard me? My mind raced with the paranoid cogitations of a turkey hunter familiar with failure. And as abruptly as the birds had fallen silent, the pines erupted. Turkeys spewed from all angles in unison, hidden entirely by fog; their heavy wing beats showering the understory with the mist deposited among the trees. A short glide carried them to a nearby wheat field where tender green sprouts topped the breakfast menu. Time to move.

Eastern, Rio Grande and Merriam’s subspecies of wild turkey are found in Washington, none of which are native to the state. Efforts to introduce wild turkeys into Washington began in the early 1900s with present populations possibly containing descendant genetics of those transplanted since about 1960, but an aggressive transplant program from the mid-1980s dramatically increased the state’s wild turkey populations. Presently, the Eastern subspecies can be found in the lower Cascade region, Merriam’s in northeast and central Washington down through Yakima, and the Rio Grande occurs largely in the southeast counties along the Snake River.

The Rio Grande subspecies (Rio) was selected for southeast Washington to match the turkey to the habitat most closely associated with its south-central U.S. native range. Rios prefer to nest within a quarter mile of perennial water and select winter roost and forage areas in wooded streamside habitats. Grasses, forbs, fruits from shrubs like serviceberry and golden currant, and insects make up the Rio diet. Although not expressly stated in literature, turkeys often select conifers for roosting. While turkeys are notoriously difficult to call in spring, having a basic understanding of fall habitat and forage preferences is more than half the battle for fall hunting success.

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Many of the perennial stream corridors in the Walla Walla River watershed are characterized by narrow riparian strips with a mix of trees and shrubs, flanked by dry land crops. Fall flocks can generally be patterned to roosting and feeding in these areas. Spotting a large flock is relatively easy, and in my experience, they generally remain within an approximate one-mile radius of their preferred winter habitat.

Once a flock is located, spot-and-stalk tactics similar to deer hunting can prove tremendously successful for fall Rios. Using the terrain and other cover to conceal movement as you close the distance on a feeding flock, it seems safety in numbers allows these otherwise paranoid fowl to unwind.

Creeping toward the wheat field using brush and trees as cover, I managed to avoid visual detection as the Rios fed. Although acting in predator mode, I was captivated by the sweet sound of the resuming discordant orchestra of yelps, clucks and purrs. Cover grew thin as I gained elevation on the hillside below the wheat field, so I hit the deck, slithering through mud and grasses to reach a final ambush behind a fence-side rose thicket.

Peeping through the rose on the right flank of the thicket, I spied a small group of hens separating from the main flock and feeding toward me. With movements largely concealed by the rose, I eased my grandpa’s old Ithaca Model 37 pump across a fence wire and selected a large hen. But a turkey’s vision is incredibly keen. Busted.

Remaining stone still, my gut crawled into my throat as heads popped up, necks stretched high, and alarm “puts” began to wave through the handful of birds. With eyes closed, forcing shallow breaths, I awaited the disheartening sound of the flock vacating the county, but much to my surprise, the hen clique began to calm. Cracking an eyelid, I saw the distant turkeys paying no attention to the alarmed hens. Barring mass hysteria, the hens relaxed and began feeding again. Settling the Ithaca bead, I notched another fall turkey tag.

Although Rios appear drab gray from a distance, close inspection reveals marvelous plumage. When viewed from various angles, back and wing feathers boast rich hues of copper, emerald, and auburn. The tail fan is tipped with an elegant tawny band, and jakes and gobblers sport brilliant pinkish-orange blotches on the neck and head. While some turkey hunters are driven afield in search of beards and spurs, the overall spectacle that is a wild turkey, not to mention the table fare, is trophy enough for this upland hunter.

Phantom of the Uplands

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I must admit I am my mother’s son, and apparently that of her mother as well. Both enjoy collecting beautiful things to display, as well as practical materials that may be of use at some unknown (and inexplicable) point in time. I am not a collector, per se, but I am guilty of keeping things like useless wood scraps and old nails and bolts. And I just can’t bring myself to discard antlers, handsome game hides or upland bird plumage.

Art is a recurring theme among my tales and reflections of venturing into our natural world. Whether wielding a fly-rod or chasing my setters across the autumn bunchgrass, the poetry of interaction with our ecosystem, and the brilliance of the autumn canvas, upland bird plumage and the rich colors of high mountain trout always provide fodder for my pen. I find the beauty in these things so significant that I feel responsible for somehow preserving the memories of fin and feather through practical application and admiration.

 While I enjoy crafting varied upland bird displays and shadow boxes to perpetually capture experiences, a friend of mine takes the artistic side of the uplands to a new level.

I met Janet Marshman during my graduate school days at James Madison University’s Edith J. Carrier Arboretum. I was a staff arborist and Janet arrived as a welcome volunteer. And it wasn’t long before her talents turned up in our visitor center.

Channeling her creative side, Janet decided once upon a time to make a drama-style mask as a birthday present for her sister-in-law, an art teacher. Clearly impressed, she encouraged Janet to sell her masks. Running with the idea, Janet sold her first lot to an art gallery in Charlottesville, Virginia. That was 1983.

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Upon learning of my hunting and fishing hobbies, Janet asked if I had anything furred or feathered that I could part with. And, given my tendency to hang on to such items, I returned with a variety of material from whitetail and mountain goat hide to eastern fox squirrel tails and thought nothing more of it. Until the day Janet presented me with a shadow box containing a mask made largely of moose hide, tree bark, shelf fungi and lichens. Its natural beauty was so striking, the shadow box was one of the few “natural displays” that made the living room wall after I got married.

When asked why she appreciates natural items like fungi, Janet replied “There is so much beauty in natural materials.”

Fungi and lichens are among the common “fauna” I have noticed in Janet’s masks over the years. But what draws her to these materials so readily?

“I love fungi, lichens, moss, and textures of bark. The colors are often muted and blend well with colors of feathers, but provide variation in texture to the mask.”

While Janet’s affinity to use natural materials has always spoken to me, her tastes and innovation dive far deeper and include mechanical and electronic items like sprockets, wires and mother boards, even digital camera parts used for her husband, Frank, who once owned a camera repair service. Abstract, eclectic, organic.

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She never took it full-time, but has sold at shows across the eastern U.S. from New Orleans to Philadelphia, and regularly donates to charitable causes. Interestingly, somewhere in there she took a 20-year hiatus to raise her family. An experience that she claims brought her “…visual maturity and creativity into bloom” and contributed to the depth and intricacy of her later pieces.

Janet has collaborated costume design with the James Madison University dance theater. Her masks have been on display in various galleries and restaurants, as well as the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. She has even won a Halloween contest or two. But she doesn’t stop there, keeping her fingers in photography, sculpture and mixed-media.

“I believe a true artist continues to grow in their art and see things differently. I don’t believe in finding a niche and staying there.” Janet says.

This past winter I sent Janet a few pheasant capes, only to unexpectedly have them partially returned in March, stunningly crafted in dramatic whimsy. Her use of lichens, rooster tail and body feathers, corn husks, dried brome, and river birch bark delivered multiple complex layers of the environment in such a way to compliment themselves to their utmost potential.

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Clearly, I feel a bond with Janet’s masks; her tie of my passions to true artistic talent and conception. She captures my eternal desire to immortalize the memory of those who have blessed my home and table.

Additionally, Janet’s creativity exemplifies the beauty and elegance of our natural world, cast in the glow of perfect complement between flora and fauna. Her masks emphasize the intrinsic value of the natural world to human existence and emotion, portrayed through the eyes of an esteemed artist and her theatrical design.