I was fortunate enough to meet quite a few people who taught me things that helped me along the trail in a variety of ways. Frank taught me some Bass techniques that I use to this day. Brett taught me how to clean the hot springs. Martin taught me to cook in a pit. And Grizz taught me to how to cure buds on the plant. The list is long. I could do this all day.
Among the many people whose paths I crossed that were well versed in wilderness lore, none stands out so much as the hardcore outdoorsmen Rusty and Mark. The last time I saw Mark before he passed away, he was traveling the Wild and Scenic Verde River on foot with his son Matt. His aim was to impart some of his knowledge to his son. I was lucky enough to be hanging around. Among other things, Mark taught me to make minnow traps out of liquor bottles and how to rig a catfish line for strong current.
It was mid-September and the previous week was a nightmare of late season monsoons and high winds. Rusty and I had been up on the Mogollon at our respective summer hideaways and the storms blew us both home to the river on my thirty seventh birthday. It was the third year that Rusty and I happened to descend from the high country on the same day. Mark and Matt hit camp later that afternoon. FBI Al was there, as were Grizz and Lee. Grizz brought a spare tent that he gave me, knowing I liked to switch up frequently to avoid notice. I remember it was orange and blue and looked like it should have said Miami Dolphins on it.
The same storms that had plagued Rusty and I had flooded Mark and Matt on their way downstream and they lost their tent. I gave the Miami Dolphins tent to them, and they set up camp at the edge of the river. They told us they tried to eat a skunk on the way down, but even though they were careful to remove the scent glands intact, the meat was too gamey to tolerate. When they left, they passed the six foot dome tent on to Goat and his girl. Grizz, Lee, Rusty, and I were a little higher up in the hackberries.
Just before dusk that first night, we were in the hackberry camp sharing Rusty's brandy and the fine smoke Grizz had when Mark came back from the waterfall we called the showers and told us there was a wounded buzzard flopping around down there. Barb, a nearby camper, said the bird had shown up about three days before and had a broken wing. It had presumably been injured in the storm and sought the shelter of the island below the showers.
A vulture with a broken wing on an island in the desert doesn't have much of a chance. We all knew somebody should go down and end the creature's suffering. Rusty volunteered and headed off with his Ruger Olympic .22 pistol. When he returned, Mark told Matt to go clean and skin it for practice. When he had done so, he brought it back to show Mark his work. He had done a fine job, but for some reason he left the feet on.
It looked like a stretched out chicken carcass, not nearly as big as I had expected. Somebody said it looked good enough to eat. “Maybe” Mark said, and sent Matt back down to retrieve the liver for inspection while we admired the bird. Mark explained that when eating carnivores, its important to check the liver for spots and proper color.
The liver checked out ok. We all had a look and learned something. Looking around, there were obviously too many people for the buzzard to feed, so I volunteered to wrangle a couple of the spotted bass that live in the pools above the showers. Those pools were always good for a quick 2-4 fish before they quit biting. That was my lunch spot for years on the Verde. Al was skeptical that we could be so productive in such a short time, but Rusty knew. He had showed me the sweet spots. I headed to the pools and Al went for his pole.
As I hoped, I caught three small bass after five casts of a white crappie lure and Al caught two. Al helped clean them, and we returned to camp with the booty. He fileted the larger two and I chopped the smaller ones into bone-in steaks. I remember looking at the little pieces of meat produced by the filet process and thinking it was a waste of the fish's life to yield so little food. Back then I prepared all my bass and catfish cutting through them, perpendicular to the backbone in two inch widths. You have to deal with the bones, but there is no waste. Al didn't know. Everybody filets fish like he did. He was fast too. Impressive. I showed him how I do it, and told him why. We both learned something.
Mark had parted out the bird and parboiled it in Cayenne. While I fried the bass, Lee fileted and battered a couple of catfish he had on the stringer and Mark lathered the vulture with BBQ sauce and applied it to the grill. We had quite a feast. Barb and Ken passed around plates of fajitas, and everybody got to taste the vulture.
I was going to just try a small piece but it was so good, I had a wing and a thigh. It was like the juiciest turkey I ever had. I was left wondering if they're called Turkey Buzzards because they are so tasty.