By Dennis Smith
It’s mid-April and nearly dawn when you and the boys nurse your truck along the dusty two-track that separates miles of rolling sage and arid sand hills from the narrow, fertile strip of marsh and woodland bordering the banks of the South Platte River in eastern Colorado. You slow the truck to a quiet stop, roll down the driver’s side window and blow into an owl hooter, mimicking the stuttering call of a great horned owl. You call twice, then listen. You hear nothing but the whisper of spring breezes through the creaking cottonwood boughs.
Like gargantuan, arthritically-deformed hands, the knotted limbs of giant plains cottonwoods stretch grotesque, bony fingers into the moonlit sky. River mist and ground fog drift through an understory of braided river channels, marshy pocket meadows and impossibly tangled thickets of salt cedar, juniper and thorny Russian olive. Lightening-burnt stumps and piles of leg-breaking deadfalls litter the ground underfoot like the remains of a bombed-out medieval forest. Stagnant, poison-green ponds and warm-water sloughs lie hidden from view in ancient cattail bogs. If ever there was a place for Hattie the Swamp Witch to build a shack, this would be it.
It’s also where Rio Grande turkeys like to hang out. You hoot again on the owl call and this time the shrill gobble of a tom turkey shatters the predawn silence. Then another, and another. It’s a well-known peculiarity of roosting tom turkeys that they’ll reflexively gobble back at loud, sudden noises for much the same reason canines howl at the sound of train whistles or sirens. Turkey hunters use this quirky behavior to locate roosting flocks at dusk and dawn.
The flock is on your side of the river and not far off. You leave the truck right where it is, strap on packs and bows, shoulder the camera bag, grab a decoy and slip quietly into the woods. It’s coming on daylight when you set the blinds up in front of a juniper patch and scratch out a few soft hen clucks on a cedar box call. A tom answers immediately, sending shivers of anticipation through the three of you. A few more clucks on the box call and two more toms gobble back. All three of them are headed your way.
It’s impossible to explain the giddy, hair-raising rush of excitement you feel when you realize your hasty little plan is actually going to work out just as you imagined, but there they are — tails fanned, strutting and twirling in full on, puffed up display. You focus your lens on the turkey trio, fully expecting an arrow to zing from the boys’ blind at any second. But the shot never comes; they’re having too much fun watching the dance.
Dennis is a freelance outdoors writer and photographer whose work appears nationally. He lives in Loveland.