Thundering Snowbird

“GAARROBBLE!” The turkey roared not 50 yards out ahead of me. It was that misty time between darkness and full sunrise in the mountains. I was set up on a ridge top comprised of a mix of hardwood trees and pine. The underbrush was mostly Manzanita interspersed with small pine trees and Aspens but they were all covered with a foot of new snow. I looked to the decoy that I had set up about 15 yards from the tree that I was sitting under. “If he comes in he has to see it.” I thought to myself.  “GAARROBBLE-OBBLE-OBBLE!” The bird fired off again and again. This bird was hot! And ready to come in to my set-up. I hoped.

 If you ask turkey hunters what type of weather they have hunted turkeys in you’ll get a lot of answers such as, “I have hunted these birds in all sorts of weather conditions. Rain, lightening storms, wind storms, and the three of them all together!” You don’t ever hear about hunter’s hunting turkeys in a snow storm. It’s just not a reality for many hunters around the country unless you happen to live in a mountainous state such as California, Colorado, Wyoming,  or Washington. I happen to live in South Lake Tahoe California and have some secret spots in the lower foothills at an elevation of about 4500 feet.  So occasionally, or for the last three seasons, it has snowed on those locations and I have had to adapt my normal bad weather hunting strategies to bag one of these big ‘ol Rio Grande snow birds.

 On a normal bad weather turkey hunt a hunter usually depends on their water proof camo, water proof turkey calls and unyielding patience to ignore the drips on your head get the job done. It’s different in a bad snow storm situation. You’re not just preparing to bag a bird. You’re preparing to bag a bird and to survive the elements at hand. 

Sitting in snow, in temperatures that are in the teens can be quite dangerous if you’re not ready for those conditions. Warm camouflage, warm boots, warm gloves that can defeat the elements are absolutely necessary. Sorry folks, but netted camo bug suits just aren’t going to cut it here in the mountains. You have to be able and ready to fend off the ultimate enemy to a mountain turkey hunter, hypothermia. If you become hypothermic in the mountains, there is a good chance that you might just slip into the void less sleep and never wake up. It’s a serious matter. You have to be prepared and that means first and foremost, dressing warm and avoiding the matter completely.

 I had hunted this bird for the past two seasons. Last season was in the snow, same as this one. He was as smart as they come and he had this strange ability to come in unnoticed and depart unseen. I called him “Phantom Tom” because I never really got to see him. I heard him plenty. And I heard him fire off just yards from my set-up every time but he never offered me any kind of shot! He was smart, and this time was no exception.

 I could hear Phantom Tom (PT) really well as I sat there under that pine tree in a foot of snow. It seems that sound travels faster when it snows. Or maybe all the other noise is just quieter. But PT’s gobble seemed amplified. There was a gusto to his gobble, like he was putting all that he had into each gobble. He was gobbling from the gut. He was gobbling from an inner passion for a hen. Any hen. 

 I began my first calling sequence. A series of quiet tree yelps. He gobbled like mad. I waited 10 minutes and called again, a few tree yelps followed by a few yelps and cuts. He fired off some more gobbles. I began to yelp again and he cut me off with a double gobble. This bird was hot. I was fired up. I didn’t even feel the cold anymore. I knew it was Phantom Tom because he was the only gobbler who roosted on this ridge. I anxiously waited for him to fly down, come strutting into my set-up, kick the Primos B-Mobile decoy’s butt, pop his head up and give me that perfect shot that we all dream about. It didn’t happen. Phantom Tom outsmarted me again. After fly down he came towards my set-up but he seemed to just circle me while gobbling. Again he stayed just out of sight, circling and gobbling, until finally leaving me depressed and confused, crossing over the ridge onto private land. Maybe he’s not the dominant bird in the area and got spooked by the strutting decoy. I don’t care. If that’s the case, then next time I’ll put out a lonely hen and see what that does. I’m after a thundering mountain snow bird that’s evaded me for three years and given me memories that are precious. I feel like it’s not just a hunt anymore. It’s more a relationship now. A type of hero/nemesis relationship where one can’t function without the other. But with a lot of luck, I’m hoping to break up with that bird this season.

I had many more encounters with PT but he always seemed to outsmart me. To always be one step ahead of me. This got me to thinking about the behavior of these snow birds. Over the past three years I have had to turkey hunt in snowy conditions, and I have observed that the behavior of the turkeys isn’t much different than the turkeys in milder climes. However, they are a bit more timid on the ground, they wake up later on the roost, and they like to keep their distance.  I’m pretty sure that the colder weather and ungainly footing offered by the deep snow keeps these birds on the roost longer. And I think that their timid-ness on the ground might be due to feeling more exposed against the white background. I have also noticed that turkeys don’t seem to mind snow up to about a foot deep, but once the snow get’s deeper than that it tends to push the birds out of the area. That’s what I’m experiencing this season so far. The season just started here in California with more snow than ever. There is currently two feet of snow over the area that PT normally calls home and I haven’t heard him gobble as of yet but I’m hoping that I get the opportunity to break up with this wily old bird soon.  I don’t know if this will happen or not, but I do know that whatever it is that makes these birds slightly different than the rest, it definitely gives them more of an edge on us hunters.


About thereverentoutdoors

I am a pastor in the Lutheran church who loves the outdoors and all that it provides; food, joy, peace, contentment
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