by Scott Sadil
You have to understand: I’m not much of a hunter.
Okay, let me be frank: I’ve never killed anything with a gun.
There may be a story to all of that, considering that both my father and grandfather were serious bird hunters in Nebraska before emigrating to California – but the telling detail here is that I’ve never carried a gun afield.
You don’t catch fish, I often say, without your fly in the water.
It’s not that I’m opposed, in any way, to such sport. In fact, I’m often tempted – especially by the lure, or maybe it’s the romance, of hunting birds. I live in a state still blessed with more than its fair share of geese, duck, chukar, quail – even grouse up in the mountains. And I always remember the tone in my father’s voice the day I asked to use the old Remington pump stashed in his closet, so that I could go with my friend, Scot Harrison, a fan of clay pigeons, and at least learn how to shoot a shotgun, and my father began talking about hunting geese with his father near the cabin Grandpa had built on the North Platte.
“I don’t know what you think about that kind of thing,” said my father, glancing over at me, a typical SoCal surfer dude, sunbleached hair to his shoulders, a hint of scorn for anything that didn’t entail waves and riding them. “Pheasant were fun; you had to be quick and accurate. But when you were in a blind and calling in geese, that was a different kind of excitement – something you never forget.”
Seemed he liked it real well.
But it’s turkey that stir my blood.
We run into them a lot in spring, either while trying, usually futilely, for one last winter steelhead, or while tempting the early-season weather in trout country east of the Cascades. In fall you can find them in crazy numbers; up in a canyon across the Columbia, I’ve driven along a favorite steelhead river, blown out from recent rains, and counted nearly a dozen different flocks, big gangs of birds, both in the oak woodlands and feeding across cabin lawns.
My pal Joe Kelly actually does hunt – and now and then he gets his tom. Often in spring, in fact, he considers bringing along a gun when we use his raft to float the lower couple of dozen miles of our home trout stream.
So far, it hasn’t happened.
This past weekend might have been worth a try.
We launched on Friday under threatening skies. The river was off color from recent rains, but not so bad that we didn’t stick a steady dose of decent trout throughout the morning. There were swallows wheeling and diving above the riffles. Adult salmonflies, big as dried cayenne peppers, hung in stands of faded straw-colored reeds, the big bugs all but dormant as temperatures dropped, the clouds darkened, the heavens began to spit rain.
Then the river began to rise.
By morning it was completely blown, the color of coffee with a dousing of cream, wavelets lapping loudly up into the alders. But the canyon walls were the brightest of greens, the tongues of eroded talus and scree festooned with wildflowers, and mallards and geese and mergansers, many of them hovering around nests, watched with cautious interest as we passed downstream. Above them, a large flock of bighorn sheep grazed calmly on the fresh spring grass.
Good to be out and fishing, I always say.
We pitched our tents the second night in the grass beneath a big open canvas tent left in a grove of black locust by the Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) — some kind of noxious-weed eradication job. In the evening we hiked up to a nest of bald eagles built in a dead conifer left standing by recent fires. Lots of other birds in the riparian zone: kingfishers, western kingbirds, a Lewis’ woodpecker, the brilliant western tanager.
And in the morning we heard gobbling toms.
Joe got up first and spotted two jakes on the two-track beyond a field of winter wheat. After coffee we heard more gobbling; we set out following two big toms that ended up displaying in the midst of a half-dozen jakes, as though the females were already elsewhere on their eggs and the toms were making sure the youngsters knew who the bosses were. Joe gobbled a couple of times and received immediate replies. We never got within shooting range – but I suspect we would have tried a lot harder had we had a gun along.
Next spring? We’ll see. We had plenty of time to talk about it as we rode the swollen river down to the mouth, passing through rapids flattened by the high flow, the steep drops transformed into wave trains that spilled lightly into the inflated raft.
Gray’s Angling Editor Scott Sadil likes to maintain a fresh store of secondary turkey tail feathers, from wild birds, for tying the wings of the old-time Alder Fly.