For Zach Burkhead, it was a case of simply being in the right place at the right time. Or maybe that’s the wrong place at the wrong time depending on how you look at it.
Because on a recent spring turkey hunt in North Texas — a state where Gov. Greg Abbott has made it clear that outdoor recreational pursuits like hunting and fishing are allowed to continue during the current COVID-19 outbreak — the tall, lanky young man bagged a little more than he bargained for on a springtime outing.
Before we go any further, let me answer a question: yes, we are related — he’s my oldest son.
Because of that, Zach — who is set to graduate from a nearby college in a few days with an aviation degree, minus the usual walk across the stage to receive a diploma — unfortunately looks a little bit too much like yours truly.
And like dear old dad, he’s also addicted to the outdoors lifestyle, having grown up roaming the woods and waters of North Texas and nearby southern Oklahoma with a shotgun, a bow, or a fishing rod in hand.
As permitted under the Lone Star State’s response to the coronavirus crisis, Zach ventured out last week to see if he could fill an unused turkey tag and put some wild protein on the Traeger out back.
He certainly looked the part as he headed out the door — Sitka Gear camo, a Mossy Oak bottomland vest, and enough turkey calls to lure in every longbeard this side of the Red River.
Unfortunately, the turkeys refused to cooperate on the spring afternoon in question, one where every yelp, cut, and purr was met with absolute silence in the warm, humid air bubbling across the landscape.
The gobblers, it seemed, were practicing their own version of social distancing and quarantined isolation.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, outdoor-writing papa — that’s me — is a bona fide weather geek, having spent a lifetime wishing I was a weatherman after a brush with a severe hurricane during my youth in the Baton Rouge area. In my best Ed Orgeron voice, “Geaux Tigers!”
No stranger to severe storm season in North Texas, I was keenly watching the weather where we live, knowing that the typical springtime collision of a moist air mass and a dry line were likely to set off a few scattered thunderstorms.
While not the classic outbreak of severe weather that spring seasons are known for in Texas and Oklahoma, there was a chance that a few of the storms could produce severe weather — high winds, hail, and maybe an isolated tornado or two.
When I looked out the window and saw storm clouds billowing up, I mentioned to my wife that she might want to text our son and alert him that thunderstorms were brewing. In the span of less than a half-hour, the dry line’s intrusion had turned sunny skies stormy as scattered supercells began to blow up and prompt severe weather warnings.
Unbeknownst me at the time, Zach was well aware of the weather’s sudden turn on an afternoon outing that quickly turned from turkey hunt to storm chase.
As the cumulonimbus clouds began billowing up, he wondered whether or not to abandon his hunting spot — he’s a weather-aware pilot and has years of watching dad go into “storm geek” mode on such afternoons.
As the wind picked up and heavy raindrops began to occasionally fall from the sky, he made the decision to stay put instead of trekking across open fields, thinking that the storm would skirt by not too far away from his position.
For a while, that decision seemed reasonable. Until, that is, a few pea-sized hailstones began to intermittently fall from the sky.
Moments later, Zach noticed a swirling motion at the base of the clouds, reached for his phone and began to film and take photos of a weak tornado developing less than a mile away. In the moments that followed, he captured the birth of a funnel cloud that would eventually make contact with the ground, prompt tornado warnings and provide a little afternoon excitement.
After a few minutes of being in “storm chasing” mode, Zach retreated for his truck and drove away, looking at the twister in his rearview mirror and knowing he had quite a story to tell — and with the photos to prove it.
When my son got home that evening, he shared the photos and the video with his mother and me, knowing that his pops has always wanted to see a tornado under such conditions — out in a sparsely populated rural region, touching down in an unused field and causing no damage or problems. But alas, that’s never happened for me despite a lifetime of spring afternoons spent mixing turkey hunts and the threat of severe weather.
But it did happen to my 20-something year old son, a story that he shared with friends with quips like “…a turkey hunt gone wrong,” “…a turkey hunt that didn’t end quite as planned,” and “…turkey season in Texas means you may have to dodge a tornado or two.”
That evening, his story and video were suddenly in demand as news hawks from various outlets began to discover his photos and video, reaching out to see if he’d be willing to share the images. By morning, the images and “turkey hunt gone wrong” experience were being shared across the globe on various news platforms.
Proof positive that sometimes, especially on a warm, humid springtime afternoon in Texas, a turkey hunter doesn’t always go home empty handed.
Even if no gobbler responded to an invite to the dinner table.