2023 California Rio Recap
I’ve been spoiled. This was my third trip to hunt Rios on a friend’s cattle ranch in Central California. We were blessed with beautiful weather. And I killed birds in 2021 and 2022. Hell, between six of us, we killed eight birds throughout two opening weekends. We were spoiled, indeed. This year, I hunted alone with the landowner, my good-friend-become-family-member, Leann. And while we got after the birds hard, neither of us sealed the deal.
Every old timer I’ve ever talked hunting with has said to me at least once, “Well, that’s why they call it huntin’ and not killin’.” Usually, it’s after recapping a hunt gone wrong, or a hunt that never materialized because there just wasn’t an animal to kill. The saying is cliche, for sure. But cliches are cliche for a reason. We have to find joy in hunting because the killing doesn’t come at the desired frequency. That was the case with my 2023 California Rio hunt.
The birds were weird and some unforeseen sabotage killed our chances of killing a bird.
(Scene from the ranch a week or so before I arrived to hunt.)
“This is the most rain and snow we’ve seen in 15 years.” Leann sent that text along with a picture of her ranch covered in snow. The Sierra Nevada foothills received record precipitation this year and winter hung on much longer than usual. It made for beautiful scenery, the hills were lush and green. But it didn’t help the hunting.
In 2021 and 2022, we started our mornings with temps in the 50s that rose into the 60s and 70s. I remember falling asleep in the sun just before Brett and I killed my 2022 gobbler. No dice this year. Leann and I bundled up each morning to accommodate temps in the low 30s. After a winter full of duck and deer hunting, I was sick of sitting in the cold, haha.
Apart from our comfort, the weather seemed to mess with the birds. Their patterns were completely different than the previous two years – as if they were still transitioning from winter to spring patterns instead of already making the change. Gobbles were few. And they didn’t follow their usual fly-down schtick. We witnessed this while scouting, and it was fine. We’d adapt. Then opening morning came and we got a big surprise.
Opening Day Sabotage
(Leann roosting birds at sunset.)
A fellow that faked his way through turkey hunting had permission to hunt the ranch before we began our yearly pilgrimage to the turkey-hunting promised land. I say faked because he said things to the landowner like, “I know I’d do better if I just sat still, but I can’t help but chase them around the mountain.” That’s a direct quote. I wish I was kidding. And by chase, I don’t mean run n’ gun. I mean literally run after them.
Now, this feller was told multiple times not to show up on opening weekend because we’d be hunting the ranch. He knew the deal. So, imagine our surprise when we saw headlights coming down the road, then shining on the roost tree we set up on as they parked. It was 20 minutes before shooting light. “Who’s that?” I said to Leann, knowing full well who it was. Maybe I was in denial so I wasn’t immediately furious. She hustled across the pasture to talk to the guy. I’m not sure how, but he was surprised to see Leann.
Leann chatted with him and his wife, and they acted ignorant. To keep the peace, Leann told them where we’d be and said he could hunt where we weren’t. She hustled back into our setup, then the birds flew down. They, of course, went in the opposite direction than we expected.
I knew we could get around and above the birds to cut them off. But we’d have to go in the direction we believed the guy and his wife went. We weren’t sure if they’d gotten out of the truck yet, but I wasn’t willing to risk it. There was no sense in getting shot by some cowboy while hunting a bird. So, we sat still and waited. It ended up that they’d never gotten out of the truck. They drove off about the time it was impossible for us to hustle out in front of the turkeys and cut them off.
We hunted hard for the rest of the day, but the birds went quiet. We got high and glassed, but never found them again until they went up to roost. Lucky for us, it was in the same tree.
Hope in Getting Ahead
(This little guy watched us get snookered by the gobblers.)
The next morning we ran a similar program; we just moved up the hill a little bit to account for them pitching down higher or walking up the hill. But they pitched low and henned up fast. We watched them walk in the opposite direction into the buck brush about 200 yards from us. Leann and I looked at each other and chuckled. Then, once they were out of sight, we got on our horse and hustled.
We dropped down into a low pasture and sprinted to get out in front of the birds. Luckily, they kept gobbling so we could locate them as we moved. Once we were far enough ahead of them, we gained ground back uphill and set up. There are lots of gulleys and drainages interspersed with open pastures in this part of the Sierra. We set up about 30 yards from the edge of a gulley, hoping to call them up to the edge and get a shot. I called a little and they responded. They were coming…or so it seemed. I called again, and it still sounded like they were coming. Then I shut up to see what they’d do. Silence. I gave it about five minutes and called again. They answered, but they were headed up and in the opposite direction, back from where they came. Our glimmer of hope from getting ahead was squashed. We tried finding them again but couldn’t get back on them.
Yo-Yo Fest 2023
(Leann and I the evening after Yo-Yo Fest 2023.)
The next morning, after trying to kill our usual birds off of the roost, we hunted another part of the ranch. We’d been hearing a bird in that area and decided we needed a change of scenery. Perched on the top of a few drainages, we stood listening. It was about 9:30am, and two birds started gobbling. We moved on them.
Using another drainage gulley, we created an edge for ourselves and I called. Two birds start moving toward us from the same direction. I looked at Leann and we nodded at each other. It was finally happening. Then gobblers did what gobblers do; they started walking away. I called and they’d moved off. Then they came closer. Then they moved off again. They yo-yo’d for the better part of an hour until they finally shut up. We got aggressive and moved closer without giving ourselves up, but they never talked again. Breakfast and fresh coffee sounded really good about that time, so we headed in for some nourishment.
“You Can’t Kill Dead Birds”
(Here's me imagining that I'm going to kill a bird the same way I did last year.)
California regs allow you to hunt from 30 minutes before sunrise until 5pm during spring gobbler season. We took full advantage of that during the previous two opening weekends. In year one, I killed a bird around 1:30pm and Butch, Brett’s dad, killed one around 3pm. In year two, Brett and I each killed a bird around 3:30pm on separate days. All of these birds were killed in what we call “the back pasture.” It’s a low pasture on the back side of the ranch. Birds just seemed to want to be there in the afternoon, and it was easy to fire them up to make an aggressive move.
I expected that to be the case this year. But, of course, it wasn’t. The birds weren’t doing the same things. In my mind, I saw the previous hunts and thought we could just replay them. But you can’t kill dead birds. The back pasture wouldn’t produce this year even if I wanted it to. Lord knows I tried to make it work. I spent my remaining hunting hours glassing from the hill above the back pasture, waiting for a bird to amble toward it. He never came.
The Joy in Hunting Turkeys
(The Sierra Nevada is an incredible setting for chasing gobblers.)
Gobblers are fickle sonsabitches. We all know what we’re getting ourselves into every morning that we set out after them. They tease us; they fool us; and they keep us coming back for more. I find more joy in fooling around with gobblers than I do in just about any other kind of hunting. And doing it in such a beautiful place is a huge bonus. I had a great tip even though I walked away birdless. I can’t wait to do it all again next year.