Delicious sights, sounds and turkey in southeastern Montana – May 1, 2014, Missoulian

May 1, 2014

Categories: Agriculture, News, Newspaper editorial

By Greg Tollefson

Once again, the last weekend in April found me in the southeast corner of Montana with my pal Homer on a sentimental journey to one of our favorite places on the planet, the Tongue River Valley. We make the long trip ostensibly because it’s wild turkey season, and hunting turkeys is a great way to explore the nooks and crannies of that under appreciated part of the state. This year, we were joined by friend Elrod, a fellow of broad professional and personal familiarity with Montana’s landscapes and wildlife. One place he had never visited, however, was the lush valley of the Tongue River, where century-old family ranches abut the wild lands of the Tongue River Breaks adjacent to the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation to the west and Tongue River Reservoir and the State of Wyoming to the south.

Just as we did last year, Homer and I, and Elrod this time, made a steep, bone-jarring drive up a ranch road to the crest of a ridge some 800 feet above the floor of the Tongue River Valley. We stepped out of the pickup and Homer artfully worked his box turkey call to imitate the eager rasping cries of a hen turkey. We listened for a reply of any male turkey interested in making the acquaintance of a new lady friend. The reply, when it comes, makes it obvious why male turkeys are called gobblers. That is exactly what they do.

At that first stop, a sliver of dawn had appeared on the eastern horizon, where the dark shapes of a tangled sprawling web of pine-studded coulees and ridges stretched off in silhouette to the north and south. The clear outline of Poker Jim Butte dominated the dark shapes, prompting Homer to inform us that the local folks loved to gather up there every summer when the Shakespeare in the Parks troupe showed up to perform a special Shakespeare on the butte. Stars peeked from among the scudding clouds and a slight breeze brought the rich aromas of sage, juniper and morning-dampened earth.

No lights were visible on the valley floor far below, and to the west we could only imagine what would appear in the distance come daylight. Beyond the Tongue River Valley and the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Indian Reservations lurked the Pryor Mountains, and beyond them the magnificent peaks of the Abasarokas and Beartooth. Far to the south, even in the darkness, the snow-clad peaks of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming glowed in the reflected light of the stars. And, like last year, from where we stood, not a single artificial light was visible in an expanse that covers hundreds of square miles.

No turkey responded to that attempt to generate interest on our first morning, so we proceeded to another spot where Homer leaned out the window and worked the call while we waited and listened. We repeated the drill with several stops as we moved farther and farther into the Tongue River Breaks until finally we were treated to a serious gobble in response.

That was the signal for Elrod to grab his shotgun and pack and begin to work very slowly and carefully toward the nearby ridgeline from where the sound had come.

“Good luck,” Homer whispered. He slipped the truck into gear, and we moved again. Soon, we heard another gobble in response to Homer’s call, and I set off into the now faint dawn to follow it.

That first day, all turkeys escaped unscathed. Despite that, we did not go without considerable excitement and pounding of hearts. Truth be told, I inadvertently caused missed opportunities for my companions by blundering onto the scene just as two turkeys were about to make independent and fatal mistakes in response to the artful wooing of my companions. Twice, I crashed the party and frightened the birds away.

So, the next morning, high on the same ridges above the Tongue River, Homer and Elrod were more than happy to send me off into the dark in response to the first gobble we heard from the woods. I watched the tailights of the pickup disappear over a rise and, suddenly, I was alone in the dark with an amorous turkey somewhere out there in front of me.

Except for screeching out a short hen call now and then, I sat nearly motionless. I listened to the gobbler’s occasional replies and the sounds of hen turkeys in the woods nearby.

I was so intent on the conversations going on between the turkeys and me that I lost track of time. Soon, it was light enough to see a spot of open sage and grass and the toe of a steep ponderosa-covered ridge directly in front of me. One of the turkeys out there was getting closer and closer.

I held my breath and tried not to move a muscle.

The gaudy tom turkey strutted right into view, flashing the showy fan of his tail feathers. He turned his bluish-red head and looked curiously in my direction without alarm or recognition. He took a few sidling steps right toward me and came into range.

The southeast corner of Montana where I spent those memorable days last weekend is a precious and breathtaking part of the landscape. Sparsely populated and a long way from anywhere, we generally pay little heed to what happens down that way. People who have not traveled off the main highways may think of it as an empty wasteland, but we who have experienced and savored its wild wonders know the beautiful truth. A few days in such a place can cleanse a soul, at least for a while.

Homer, Elrod and I may make the April visit to the Tongue River Country into an annual ritual. I have already been forgiven for bungling up their hunts. And you just never know when one of those wild turkeys is going to march right up to you.

By the way, that turkey is going to be delicious.


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