Living in a gobbler paradise

April 07, 2005 11:00 pm
A wild turkey tom, left, and a pair of hens. (Illustration courtesy of National Wild Turkey Federation).
A wild turkey tom, left, and a pair of hens. (Illustration courtesy of National Wild Turkey Federation).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Paul Schon sat silent and still, his back braced against a pine, while 20 or so wild turkeys pranced through the forest, oblivious to him and the 12-gauge shotgun in his hands and the tag in his pocket that said he could shoot any male turkey he saw.

An hour passed.

Schon watched as the flock, which included a pair of trophy males ("toms") with long beards and iridescent tail feathers, ambled away, out of range.

Schon's index finger had not touched the shotgun's trigger.

He drove home, back to Baker City.

With his unfired gun.

With his unused tag.

Without a turkey.

And he was happy.

"I never could get a shot," Schon said Tuesday, recalling that hunt near Halfway several years ago. "But I got to watch them, and I learned a lot about them.

"It was great."

Schon, 51, has hunted wild turkeys for 20 years, and he actually likes it when the turkeys win.

Sure he enjoys munching a juicy drumstick now and again.

But Schon said vivid memories, which are all that he harvested during that hour he spent among the pines, with turkeys all around, are equally fulfilling.

"Just being out there is what I care about," he said. "Sometimes you see deer and elk, and the grouse are doing their mating dance. If the conditions are right there might be mushrooms, and if you want you can pick a mess of them."

Which is not to imply that Schon intends to bring his mushroom bucket but leave his shotgun at home when Oregon's statewide turkey-hunting season starts April 15.

He said he has killed a couple dozen gobblers over the past two decades.

And if he gets two clear shots this year, he will take his limit of two tom turkeys before the season ends May 31.

But even if the turkeys best him (or perhaps baste is the better verb), Schon is certain he'll have fun.

He always has relished the hunting more than the shooting.

"The thrill of it to me is just to get them to gobble and come to you," Schon said. "Your heart pounds — or mine does, anyway."

Bringing the birds to Baker

That pulse-quickening gobble of an approaching tom is a much more common sound in Baker County today than it was in the mid-1980s, when Schon started pursuing the big birds.

He said he first hunted turkeys farther west in the Blue Mountains, around Heppner.

At that time, Schon said, turkeys were about as rare in Baker County as tornadoes.

But most every year since 1988, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), with help from the National Wild Turkey Federation, has trapped turkeys in Southwestern Oregon, where the birds are plentiful, and released them in Baker County.

During the past 17 years ODFW, with help from the Baker County Longbeards, the local chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, has let loose 707 turkeys in the county, including 91 in 2004, said George Keister, district wildlife biologist at ODFW's Baker City office.

The turkeys seem to have taken to Baker County.

"There's birds all over," Schon said. "They're pretty well scattered.

"But there's also a lot more hunters."

Keister said ODFW freed turkeys in several parts of the county, including Auburn, about 10 miles southwest of Baker City; in the Burnt River Canyon between Durkee and Bridgeport; and in Baker County's Panhandle near Halfway.

The Panhandle, in fact, has become Baker County's prime turkey-hunting destination, both Keister and Schon said.

Turkeys are so plentiful there that a few years ago ODFW conducted its first trap-and-transplant operation in Baker County, capturing several dozen turkeys in Pine Valley and releasing them elsewhere.

There are two main reasons for the Panhandle's turkey abundance, Keister said.

First, wild turkeys from Idaho have migrated to the Halfway country for more than a decade, and those birds have supplemented Oregon's turkey transplants.

(The Idaho turkeys are the Merriam's subspecies, which is slightly different from the Rio Grande, the only type of turkey ODFW has released in Oregon.)

Second, the Halfway area contains some of the county's best turkey habitat, Keister said, with plenty of the streamside trees and shrubs the birds depend on for food during winter.

Schon said the abundance of birds isn't the only reason he prefers to hunt the Panhandle.

He grew up in Halfway.

"I know that country so well," he said.

What Schon admits he doesn't know so well is the wild turkey.

The birds have trimmed his ego many times.

"You think you've got 'em figured out and then they do something different," Schon said.

The wild turkey's main advantages are its eyes and ears, he said. Put simply, the bird can see and hear better than the hunter can.

"Any movement and they'll spot you pretty quick," he said.

Schon also hunts elk, an animal renowned for its ability to leave hunters muttering to themselves.

He said a tom turkey can be every bit as cunning as a wily old bull elk.

And unlike an elk, a turkey can flee by air or ground.

"They can cover a lot of ground when they run," Schon said.

Turkeys can run at 25 mph, and fly at 55 mph, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation.

On the plus side, Schon points out, even a grizzled old tom rarely tops 30 pounds — a much easier-to-haul load than an 800-pound elk.

Ultimately, he said, turkeys test hunters' patience as much as their skill with a bird call or a shotgun.

Schon said he uses a call to mimic the sounds of a hen — one of the best ways to attract amorous toms.

"If you can get 'em to gobble you know where they're at," he said. "But that doesn't mean you can get them to where you can shoot."