By Al Schultz
It all started for me back in the early 80s during spring break in school.
Myself and a high school buddy or two would head off to eastern WA to call and hunt coyotes, often referred to as our annual “Varmint Safaris” (I was too young to drive, but my friend had just gotten his license). It was a way to hunt during the “off season” (the time between big game hunting seasons and the trout opener). Nowadays, 15 and 16 year-olds driving off across the state with guns to hunt might cause an uproar, but back then we did it often for ducks and geese, coyotes, deer, you name it! There was a brief hiatus from these spring trips after high school when I joined the military.
I was Honorably Discharged from the Marine Corps in 1989 and by the time the spring of 1990 rolled around I was again suffering from the dull-drums of the “off-season”. I had cabin fever in the worst way and needed to get outdoors! I recalled the spring coyote hunts I had taken while in high school and that during my fall elk hunt I had spotted numerous turkeys in my hunting area and the light bulb clicked on, I could hunt spring turkeys and coyotes! And so began the “cast and blast” trips, which I have participated in every year since 1990. I absolutely love “calling” animals, be it grunting and rattling for bucks, bugling and cow chirping for elk, clucks, purrs and cackles for turkeys, howling or rabbit screams for coyotes, squeals and rodent distress calls for bobcats, fawn bleats for cougars, and the feeding chuckle for duck and geese – you name it, I love to call and hunt it! Equally strong is my passion for fly fishing. Fortunately, Washington state has a lot of public land and a lot of quality fishing open in some cases year round, and in a lot of eastern WA, the lakes open a little earlier than the west side lakes. So that was how it began, and this year I decided to return to the place where it all started so many years before, none other than Grant County. Grant County is the mecca for coyotes, and it is home to Rocky Ford Creek, a trophy trout stream that fly fishermen and women have flocked to from across the US for decades. With plenty of public access, designated camping areas and rainbow trout in excess of 2 feet long on occasion, I could hardly wait to get the trailer stocked up and loaded with supplies for a much anticipated 2 week vacation. I arrived at the camping area at Rocky Ford near Ephrata, WA and set up camp. This time of year there were relatively few other campers, and once my trailer was leveled out and all set, I assembled my cane fly rod, grabbed a box of barbless Czech Nymphs (scuds) and set off down to my favorite fishing hole along the creek. In short order I hooked and landed my first 21 inch rainbow, releasing it after a quick photo and the die was cast, I was officially on vacation. My spring cast and blast trip was off and running! It was a bright, sunny, warm spring day, in contrast to the rain I had left behind in the Seattle/Tacoma area. The water was clear and I love sight casting to pods of huge trout, so I spent a blissful afternoon on the water catching and releasing several other huge trout. That evening I seasoned and grilled some antelope taken last fall for steak fajitas and listened as the coyotes serenaded me while I sat around my campfire.
Having had such a wonderful afternoon fly fishing for large trout, I was eager to go coyote calling the following morning. I got up early, fixed a pot of coffee, a couple of eggs and some bacon and set out across the sage in pursuit of those song dogs that had so wildly sang in the night. Unbelievably, on my first stand I called in two coyotes, one after the other using my Dan Thompson predator calls. This Cast and Blast trip was starting out to be incredible!
And so my first week went, I would call coyotes in the mornings and fly fish the afternoons, or vice-versa, and often “shed hunting” while wandering the sage in search of coyotes (I found some awesome deer sheds too). Over the course of that week I caught and released many large trout (the largest of which weighed a whopping 8 pounds!) either from Rocky Ford or from some of the nearby lakes that were open such as Lenore, Dry Falls, etc. In addition, over the course of the week I had called in and shot 5 coyotes with my Savage 110 chambered in 6.5x.284 Norma, topped with a Weaver Tactical 4×16 50mm scope. The fly fishing and the coyote calling had been epic! Because of that, I was a little reluctant to leave for the turkey woods and my annual turkey camp as the season opener fast approached. Having had so much fun “casting and blasting” into the trip at this point, it was difficult to pack up the trailer and head off to turkey camp, but I did. As each mile brought me closer to the site of my annual turkey camp of so many years, the scent of the pines from the turkey woods entered the cab and soon I was filled with the anticipation of what I was hoping would be another great turkey opener. Gone was my apprehension at leaving a wonderful, successful camp along Rocky Ford, now I was filled with excitement and anticipation for the next phase of my spring cast and blast trip, the turkey hunt. Turkey camp is an annual event, and a large group of us get together and spend the week camping, hunting, and just enjoying our friendship and large cookout style meals around the campfire. This year there was scheduled to be eleven of us in camp, some of us never get to see each other except when we congregate around this fire and I was certainly looking forward to seeing everyone once again.
I arrived and was not surprised to see that over the previous winter a storm had blown down a lot of timber forcing me to move the location of my annual camp to the opposite side of a large meadow. I spooked a herd of elk from the meadow as I arrived, but not before I was able to get a few pics of them. Once I located a nice level place for all of us to camp, I got my trailer situated, and then set out to cut and split a bunch of downed wood, stacking it neatly where our fire would be. Once everything was set, and the camp chores were done, I headed off to do some scouting in preparation and in anticipation for the upcoming turkey opener.
I drove around and just enjoyed the scenery. Spring had come early to this part of the state apparently, as the snow was nowhere in the quantities it had been in years past. Like the Rocky Ford area, this too was sunny and warm, although it tended to get cooler in the evenings. As I drove slowly down the old forest service roads, I spotted a large black bear feeding along an exposed slope, far up a steep timbered ridge. I stopped and photographed it then continued my drive. I stopped along the way to photograph some mule deer I spotted along another hill, and some whitetails I disturbed from the creek bottoms. This is one of the main reasons I so love to come to this “turkey camp”, the abundance of wildlife. It is not uncommon to slowly drive along and spot all manner of game, and it is a pleasant way to just spend an afternoon. Before my little drive was over, I had spotted a rare treat, a mountain goat bedded down on a mossy, rock cliff far up above, over-looking the Forest Service road. I pulled my truck over and took some photos of it as well, relishing the sight. Since 1990 this was the first mountain goat I had ever seen in this area. Could this trip get more incredible or what?! That evening, as I drove back towards my camp I stopped to videotape two tom turkeys that were fighting in a meadow not far from camp.
This season opener was definitely looking to be a great one! I spent much of the next day alternatively driving around and anxiously waiting for some of my cohorts to arrive. By the time the rest of the group had arrived, I had observed two separate flocks of turkey, seen eight different toms, and watched all manner of other wildlife. That evening around the fire, we celebrated our being reunited among friends, and welcome with the dawn a new turkey season. We prepared two whole seasoned venison roasts with fresh, coarsely chopped vegetables for dinner, and over a wonderful meal and cocktails caught up with each other around the campfire.
4:30 am opening morning came early. Myself and Scott (a fellow SWAT team member) had planned the night before to head out above the meadow where I had videotaped the two toms fighting the previous evening. I knew they couldn’t be roosted far from there. Because of how early it was becoming daylight this time of year we opted to skip preparing breakfast, instead settling for some cereal bars, granola and a bottle of water. By 5:00am we were in the woods, concealed in some hasty ground blinds I had taken the time to prepare the previous evening before everyone arrived (after I had videotaped the toms). Sure enough, shortly after we were set, the timber erupted with the sound of a “thunder” gobble. I suspected the tom was some 70 yards away or so above us. I played the reluctant hen and the tom gobbled incessantly. No sooner had I shot my bird, a beautiful, heavy, mature Merriam tom with inch long spurs, and a beard that was a full 8 inches long, another tom erupted into a gobble another 80 yards or so up the hill! This tom had hens with him and would strut and gobble but was not leaving the hens he had “in hand” for another “in the bush”. Unfortunately, as we stalked closer we got busted by the group and Scott lost the opportunity. By 9:00am on the opener we were back in camp and preparing breakfast, a camp favorite, scrambled eggs with chopped onions, peppers and mushrooms and fried thick cut bacon and toast with good black coffee! We enjoyed our breakfast around the fire and shared the events of the morning. Leo had set out by himself early in the morning and also gotten a tom on the ridge above camp. That night, as was our tradition we prepared one of the turkeys, in this case Leo’s, for the evening meal. Leo did the honors and pressure cooked the bird, and because of the size of our camp I added a whole pheasant taken on an upland bird hunt last December in Montana. The meal, as are all of our meals, was exquisite, and we celebrated into the evening, enjoying our friendship and just being outdoors, at our annual camp. Only 7 of the 11 of us actually hunted for turkeys on this trip and of the 7, three members got their birds over the course of this hunting camp. Before my trip had ended I had added a moose to the list of game animals observed and photographed. About the only down side to the trip was the amount of ticks that I had encountered in the turkey woods this year. I suspected there were so many because it had been so warm, but whatever the reason I pulled six of the little buggers off me, and Scott removed a few from himself as well, and another non-hunting friend, Robert, had also managed to acquire a tick or two while lounging near the fire!
When it was finally time to break camp and start returning to our “normal” lives, it was with some sadness. I for one wasn’t ready for the trip to end, it had been such an eventful vacation. I got the trailer ready and we went around and cleaned up the camp, making sure there were no coals in the fire pit as well. Then off we went, with me taking a slight detour from the others back to Rocky Ford for just one more day and night!
I highly encourage family’s to make a similar cast and blast trip their vacation! Other than the gas and food items, the trip cost nothing. The spring fishing is awesome, the weather was much nicer across eastern WA than it had been on the “wet-side”, and the “blasting” was awesome for coyotes and turkey. In addition, simply getting out and observing and interacting with nature and the wildlife was incredibly fun. I already lament the end of the trip and am longing for next year’s!