It wasn't supposed to be this hard. We'd located the birds late in the afternoon the previous day, on one of those rare, warm December afternoons that make goose hunting almost pleasant. Thousands of geese were using a plowed-under beet field, and that's where the easy part ended.
I've yet to go on a goose hunt that didn't involve hard work. A half-hour before dawn the following morning, we pulled up on a deserted road and began off-loading equipment. Over the fence and onto our backs went bundles of impregnated cardboard goose silhouettes, three large coffin blinds, various camo gear bags, shells, shotguns and calls. Then the three of us trudged into the beet field looking for goose droppings—Bill and I hauling decoys; Ray and his ponderous Chesapeake, Ensign, bringing up the rear.
There's no such thing as a relaxed hunt when Bill's in charge. He walked with his eyes glued to the ground, kicking over the occasional clod of dirt, scouting for fresh goose poop. He bent down and scanned the earth from ground level. Then he stood up.
"Aha," he said, pointing.
That was our cue. Ray and I began frantically hammering our silhouettes into the semi-frozen dirt and trenching shallow ditches for the blinds, while Bill barked out marching orders. By the time we were putting the finishing touches on our set, the geese were already announcing the start of the day. We could hear them honking back and forth on the river, 500 yards away. Then, flock after flock, they lifted into the air, black skeins of birds wavering like giant strings of avian seaweed.
Bill and I started calling, while Ray and Ensign, on the far end of our spread, watched. I tried to time my calls to complement Bill's, but since he's a vastly superior caller, I compensate for my lack of talent by shrieking. It rarely works, but even so it wasn't long before we had birds flying directly over our decoys. With that many Canadas in the air, you can't decoy them all, but on every fourth or fifth wave a few iconoclasts would break off from the main flock and circle our set for a closer look. By morning's end, an even dozen of those birds—our combined limit—were pushing up daisies.
It's work to put up a goose spread, and you could, I suppose, hire a guide to do it for you. But why let someone else have all the fun? Misery loves company, and when it's 10 degrees and blowing sidewise on a late-season goose hunt, there's plenty of love to go around.
First, however, you have to find the geese. The home-court advantage never seems to extend to the waning days of the season. As soon as the shooting starts, the surviving local birds gather either in the precise center of the nearest reservoir or in the precise center of the nearest vast (and posted) grain field, where they'll stay until the shooting stops. Wouldn't you?
If you're lucky, however, you might be able to waylay a flock or two en route to their roosting and feeding spots. One day, Bill and I spied several flocks flying over a field Bill had permission to hunt, so with just a couple hours of daylight left, we packed our gear into his truck and drove into a sugar beet field for a look-see.
What we found wasn't encouraging. Black, plowed earth stretched as far as we could see, but there was a narrow ribbon of grass along one fenceline, and with no other workable alternatives, we decided to set up there. A half-hour later we were ready, and an hour after that we were still waiting for the first flock to arrive.
"Damn," Bill said pensively. He thought for a few seconds. "We gotta move," he announced.
Back into the truck went the silhouettes, full-bodied decoys, blinds, gear bags, shotguns, wing-wavers and shells. We hopped in, drove 400 yards to the west, hauled out the gear and set it up all over again. Several flocks flew by and ignored us. Then, just at dark, a half-dozen stragglers winged overhead and Bill killed two of them.
"See?" he said.
Schmoozing The Locals
There are two ways to find late-season geese. The first is to schmooze the locals. Bill is a silver-tongued devil, but since he practically lives with the geese during the last few weeks of the season, he's become something of a de facto local anyway. That suits me just fine; I couldn't sell a life jacket to a drowning man.
Even so, talking to the locals won't get you far in some parts of the country. That leaves scouting, which essentially means driving down twisting, rutted gravel roads while your passenger tries to train his binoculars on a distant flock of geese. Luckily, most of the birds in one area seem to feed in the same fields. In more enlightened states—North Dakota comes to mind—you're home free. If the land isn't posted, you can set up without landowner permission, although getting permission ahead of time is never a bad idea. In formerly enlightened states like Montana, where I live, you have to get landowner permission or you might well be shot on sight by the equally unenlightened landowner.
There is a bright spot on the horizon, however. Many states in the West and Midwest have walk-in access programs, in which the Fish and Game officials pay landowners to open their land to hunters. In most states it's wildly popular. Access fees are typically raised through resident and nonresident hunting license sales.
Once you've found a place to hunt, the hard work begins. Canadas seem almost casual at getting off the roost, and many don't begin to move until an hour or two past sunrise. But that's not something you can count on, and there are plenty of days when, for whatever reason, they start moving earlier. That means being in your blind and set up shortly after dawn.
And being ready to go that early means you'll be setting up your spread when it's pitch black, cold and, if you're unlucky like me, windy. It used to be worse. I wasn't hunting geese when portable blinds like the Final Approach and Eliminator were invented, but I was hunting ducks, and trust me, sometimes building the blind was the worst part of the whole early morning ordeal. In much of the West and Midwest, vast fields of clean-farmed wheat and corn make hidey-holes in the brush a rare commodity, but coffin blinds have pretty much solved that problem. Still, they almost always have to be brushed up with local vegetation, and if you're hunting in really low cover, such as plowed-under wheat or sugar beets, you'll have to trench them in.
But compared to what goose hunters used to have to deal with, the new generation of portable blinds are almost luxurious. Being enclosed in what amounts to a large camo sock does wonders for keeping the cold at bay, and the mesh head screens on most models allow unrestricted upper-body movement. Now, instead of calling with my head down and hidden under the bill of my hat, I can keep track of geese as they circle around behind me, flutter my hands around my call, even talk to my partners in the next blind over.
You still have to dress for the weather, though. A couple years ago, two friends and I, unable to locate a flock, decided as a last resort to hunt on a piece of state-owned land near a busy rural road. It was late in the afternoon, and a brisk wind was coming off the river a half-mile north of us. Once the geese started moving, we figured at least a few of them would fly over us.
We figured right, but we didn't count on the weather. By late afternoon the skies had turned ominously gray, and the coming storm brought a stiff wind and spitting snow. It was already very cold—this was mid-December—and by the time my friends Duncan and Bill had finished passing our decoys over a barbed-wire fence, I'd lost most of the feeling in my hands. Bill was worse off than either of us. Fiddling with stakes, the tangled string of a Wing-Waver and other details had forced him to work with his bare hands, and within a few minutes his fingers had simply stopped moving. I dug through my pack and found a pair of down mittens, which I had to help him put on.
I'm not sure our misery was worth it. We'd estimated the flights almost perfectly, which was small consolation since most birds wouldn't budge from their path a hundred yards or so to the west of our spread. Finally, a flock of six came in just off the deck. Bill shot a couple birds, as I recall, and Duncan and I got three between us. The remaining geese made a final mournful swing and then flew off into the gathering dusk. Bitter cold makes for great barroom conversation during the off-season, but when you're stuck in the middle of it, it's anything but romantic.
And so it goes. Geese, for all their wonderful natural insulation, can't stop water from freezing, and when the rivers they raft up on begin to close down, they head south for warmer climes. Then it's time to retire your gear to the garage, brush the mud off your coffin blinds and dream about the long, warm summer ahead.