Tales told on a turkey hunt in Northwest Colorado

Some of the most cherished trophies from a hunt are the stories that are shared.

“I have a friend who shot his turkey. He went up to it, put his tag on it, turned away to do something, and when he turned back around, the bird was up on its feet,” says John “everyone-calls-me-Catfish” Arthurs, in a hushed whisper.

“No way,” whispers youth turkey hunter JP Price. “What’d he do?”

“He ran after it and tackled it,” Catfish says with a laugh. “Can you imagine if it had gotten away and another hunter shot a turkey that was already tagged?”

JP’s shoulders begin to shake as he tries, without little success, to contain his laughter.

Colorado Parks & Wildlife provides young hunters like JP with mentored turkey hunts on private lands around Douglas Mountain in Northwest Colorado.

“The main thing is to get them introduced to these outdoor activities and get them started,” says Assistant Area Wildlife Manager and hunt organizer Mike Swaro. “Any opportunity we have to get kids out and interested, we jump all over it.”

A key to success is a team of volunteers willing to give their time and energy to foster a hunting ethic in the next generation.

“God gives us each gifts,” Catfish says. “When you start using those gifts for other people …” With a catch in his voice, he pauses, suppresses the tears welling in his eyes, then continues. “That’s when I started taking kids.”

Each child Catfish has mentored has a story, and many are heartbreaking.

He took one young woman out a few months after her father had died. Her dad had promised to teach her how to archery hunt, says Catfish. After the hunt Catfish asked his wife, Cathy Arthurs, if it was OK to give away the ladies Hoyt compound bow they’d just purchased.

Cathy didn’t hesitate: “Yes.”

She said yes to another of Catfish’s hunting ideas on Halloween night 2017. Catfish was watching kids on the annual hunt for candy when he noticed a boy in an unusual camo rigged Action Trackchair motoring past.

“’Take a look at that wheelchair,’ I said to Cathy. ‘I could take him turkey hunting.’ She agreed,” Catfish recalls.

He introduced himself to the boy — Jeremiah Price, who prefers to be called JP — and his mother. Catfish shared some of his photos from previous hunts and asked, “Would you like to go turkey hunting in the spring? His eyes just lit-up.”

Afflicted with Duchenne muscular dystrophy — a disease that causes progressive weakening of the muscles and leads to death — JP had been confined to a wheelchair between March and August of 2017.

The community of Craig and Moffat County came together to raise more than $12,000 to help buy the specialty mobility device, which allows JP to stand, fish and hunt like any other child his age.

The youth turkey hunt adventure began with a half-day orientation on a Friday afternoon in April, prior to two days of hunting. CPW experts and experienced turkey hunters, like Catfish, offered young hunters and their guardians tips on turkey biology and behavior.

“The spring turkey hunt is the best, because the turkeys are gobbling, and there’s a lot more action,” Catfish says.

Class time was followed by shotgun shooting practice at Bears Ears Shooting Range to give young hunters an opportunity to drill on gun safety and practice the tight shotgun pattern needed to kill a turkey.

“Turkey hunters must be extremely vigilant; everyone’s dressed in camouflage, and most people are calling to bring in the gobblers,” says Renzo DelPiccolo, area wildlife manager for CPW in Montrose. “So, hunters need to pay that much more attention to the target — what’s in front of and beyond it. “

Catfish and the other guides had cautioned the young hunters — and their parents — that their prey — Merriam’s turkeys — have keen hearing and eyesight, so it was also important to be patient.

It’s not easy for active teens to keep quiet and still for hours at a time. The world narrows, the senses focus and little things become more noticeable.

The first morning of his hunt, JP’s camo face net began to itch.

“Geez, I hate this thing,” he whispered.

In the quiet of the early morning, another hunter handed him some face paint. With a grin, the teen pulled the mask off and began to camo up.

JP’s dad, Yancy Price, was up before 2 a.m. to get himself and his son ready for the trip west of Craig, made before sunrise to allow hunters, guides and parents to settle into place before dawn.

An experienced hunter, Yancy has learned to take a mid-morning nap when the action slows, and this hunt was no exception.

“Hey JP,” whispers Catfish. “You want me to gobble — see if we can hear a bird and wake your dad up?”

Quiet laughter. “Sure.”

“GOBBLE, GOBBLE … GOBBLE, GOBBLE.” Catfish’s call burst from inside the hunting blind, eliciting an excited gobble from a male turkey protecting his territory.

From under the bill of his camouflage baseball cap, Yancy whispered, “I’m an elk hunter; that don’t work on me.”

But the tom turkey’s gobble had caught everyone’s attention, including Yancy, who slowly sat up to stretch before tipping the bill of his hat back.

He looked toward his son.

“What happened to your face?” he asked in surprise.

Without missing a beat, JP replied, “Turkey pox. Do you think they’re contagious?”

A tom turkey gave JP an opportunity for a shot, but the tangle of shooting sticks and the Action Trackchair interfered with his aim.

“I really wish I’d gotten him,” JP tells Catfish. With a grin Catfish replies, “We’ll get him later.”

Later that morning, all the youth hunters and their teams met at a ranch for lunch and fishing.

The children fished in private ponds stocked with trout. Each caught the biggest fish of their lives, or, at least, that’s one of the tales Catfish is likely to tell on the next turkey hunt.

That morning two hunters — Logan Coleman and Kalob More — had been successful. The next day, two more hunters — Ethan Hampton and Paiyten Myers — bagged their turkeys.

On day two, Yancy rigged a makeshift shooting platform, and they cleared extra space in the blind so JP could better swivel his chair to line up a shot.

“I’ve hunted turkeys for 41 years, and I’ve never seen one jump up on a fence post, strut and gobble like that big tom did for JP on the second day. He thought he was king of the world,” says Catfish.

JP made four shots. The tom’s turkey’s luck didn’t run out before JP ran out of shells.

Swaro says CPW is grateful to the volunteers and private landowners who make these hunts possible. In turn, Catfish, the youth hunters and their guardians are grateful to CPW for offering such an opportunity.

“It’s those kids that have never been in the woods or have had an opportunity to hunt or kids without fathers, it gives me a pleasure to take them out,” says Catfish.

Catfish had to teach himself to hunt. He shot too low on his first turkey.

“You have to aim for the neck where the head meets the body. I knocked him over. He got up and flew off,” Catfish says with a laugh. “I was hooked from that first bird, on hunting and the stories. That’s where it’s at.”

Contact Sasha Nelson at 970-875-1794 or snelson@CraigDailyPress.com.