Tuesday, September 27, 2011

When a Plan Comes Together

Angry clouds and teeming rain were my constant companions as I made the drive from Mississauga to Lion’s Head.  The opening of duck season, and the re-opening (after a five day hiatus) of goose season, loomed a mere 12 hours away.   We call it the “Double Opener Weekend” and it is cause for celebration and anticipation in our little group of diehard waterfowlers.  The weather was dirty, and the tiny engine of my Pontiac commuter car whirred loud in protest as I lashed it onward against crosswinds and standing water on Highway #6.  I already knew that this was to be the last Double Opener Weekend for the little hatchback, and it was stuffed to the gills with a layout blind, boots, snacks, beverages, and the various and sundry clothing, accessories, and bric-a-brac that weighs down a waterfowler’s vehicle and lays waste to their fuel economy.

I was battling the onset of a head cold and felt the pressure and fullness of it growing around my eyes and nose.  The barometer was playing see-saw and my sinuses and ears were alternating between drained and bursting for the duration of the three hour tour up to the camp.  I gnawed on jalapeno beef jerky and sipped fresh orange juice (a flavor sensation if there ever was one!) before stopping in to have a friend’s wife trim what meager hair I have remaining.  I sat and had a visit with them and their two children, before I stole my friend from his home and made my way to the cabin with him.

The cabin was raucous with the sounds of over twenty grown men laughing and telling stories, all shouting to be heard and trading innocuous verbal jabs at one another’s flaws, spouses, jobs, education, and hunting abilities.  The remains of what was once a few pizzas sat on a table while the rest of the spread consisted of chips and dip.  We shared drinks, cigars, stories, jokes, and remembrances, and we eventually devised the plans for the morning hunt.  Everywhere you looked there was wide-eyed joy and anticipation, good times, and that vague generalization known as “male bonding”.  I had been unable to attend last year and as I stood with one of my fellow hunters, each with a heavy arm around the other’s shoulder I was asked “Did you miss this?!”  My answer?

“Absolutely…but I won’t miss it again.”

5am arrived much too quickly and as my alarm hummed low, I shrugged on my hunting clothes and drove to the pre-determined meeting place.  I was to join the group with the layout blinds in the same fields we had hunted two weeks before.  The rain had stopped overnight but now low clouds promised a dim, grey start to this part of the waterfowl season.  We began to setup the blinds under clammy, cool skies and looked to get settled in.  The slightest hint of a south wind was blowing, and we expected the geese to swing in from the north.  What we did not expect was the pair of geese to come dropping in while we stood there grassing the blinds.  We dove into the blinds (my shotgun was not even loaded) and watched as the birds glided into the pocket.  One flared off and the other decided to leave as soon as his feet touched terra-firma.  As he climbed up out of the decoy spread, my cousin Dane’s shotgun barked once and the goose fell to the field, dead in the air.  We exercised a bit more haste in camouflaging the blinds and before long a single goose began to work the spread.  Again, Dane made a clean, single-shot kill as the bird circled to his left.  Shortly after that a group of four began to make for the spread.  Rory and I were in the central positions with Dane and Lucas hunting the ends of the line, and Rory and I scratched down three of the four birds.  Then, miraculously, the sun came out.  It was a good sign for the weekend’s weather to come, but a bad sign for the rest of the morning hunt.  As the sun’s strength grew and the clouds that had greeted the morning were chased off, large flocks of birds began to make wide swings away from our setup.  We called and flagged and called some more, but birds would circle high, showing lots of desire to be in the field, but also craning their necks from side to side and eyeing up the whole decoy spread before sliding off to other pastures.  We presumed that even though the blinds were reasonably well camouflaged, we could not hide the increasingly long shadows that the profiles of the blinds were casting into the decoy spread.  I find it no coincidence that all the birds were finishing perfectly under an overcast sky and circling high and flaring away in the sunshine.  One more group came just a little too close and we took one more bird from that group.  Coffee and a warm breakfast were calling so we packed up the gear and made for Mom’s Restaurant.

Saturday Morning's Take (L-R: Rory, myself, Dane)
We reconnoitered at Mom’s over home fries, eggs, bacon, sausages, and French toast, where we heard the stories from one group of our guys that had gone to hunt a fence line ditch nearby had managed two geese, while another small group that had gone to hunt a local creek and had taken in four mallards.  Not a stellar morning by any stretch, but still a good haul considering every group had made a run for breakfast by 8:30am.  Breakfast, as usual, was delicious and peppered with more laughter and tall tales.  Many of the breakfast laughs seem to be at my expense, but when you are as handsome and talented as I, you expect the jealous barbs of the less fortunate.

In the afternoon, after we had dressed out the morning’s take and done a bit of camp clean up, we decided to check out a couple of local ponds and creeks to see if any mallards were loitering around in them.  At our first stop we found a group of about ten milling about and we managed to bring six of them to hand, after Levi made his first water retrieves of his fledgling hunting career.  Of the four that escaped, we tracked their progress to a small pond just across the road, where we managed a further two.  That was plenty for us, which was good because we didn’t find any other ducks on that tour of the countryside.  A stop at a local cornfield brought interesting news as well.  The farmer had cut a sixty yard swath of corn out of the middle of the field and it had turned into a veritable runway/landing strip for geese and ducks.  At least 300 birds packed the length and width of the open area.  It was a spot ripe for a standing corn hunt.
The fruits of pond-jumping on Saturday afternoon
Back at the camp we cleaned out the ducks and I was tasked with their preparation for a late lunch.  Seasoned with salt, pepper, and steak seasoning before being generously pan seared, the freshest ducks imaginable made their transition from swimming in ponds to swimming in our bellies in a little less than two hours.  That is about as real “organic” as you can come by in my humble opinion.  We washed those birds down with some homemade chili from a large pot that Lucas Hunter had brought before calling the landowner, obtaining permission to hunt the cornfield (others had also asked to hunt there as well so in his own words, “first come, first served”) and then saddled up early for the afternoon hunt.  We wanted to make sure we got there first as it looked a very promising spot.  We did arrive first and set up a pretty nice spread of decoys before we lined up inside the standing corn, all facing north, with the wind at our backs.
Saturday Evening's Set-up
For an hour or so nothing was flying.  But soon enough the birds began to work.  The first couple of groups of geese swung out to the south before making a wide swoop and coming in from the north.  We got a couple from the early flocks, and didn’t exactly cover ourselves in glory on a single that was gliding in before he decided at the last minute that he’d go elsewhere.  The video is below.

Hastings and Rory went over to a nearby pond and kicked up a large flock of ducks and they began working our spread, circling five or six times (as ducks are apt to do) before swooping in to land.  We got five or six from that group, with a couple of guys making some pretty heroic shots.  Another goose or two came to hand and during a lull in the action I experienced two things that I had never seen before.

The first was when a hawk tried to dive bomb a pair of geese that were working their way towards our spread.  The hawk (of indeterminate species) had been cruising around the top of the corn rows for some time and as the pair of geese circled and began their final approach the bird of prey lunged up at the trailing goose, which expertly shed altitude to avoid the strike.  The hawk gave a short pursuit as the geese went into full acceleration, but the raptor gave up in seconds.  Of course this predatory action put the geese off the spread and we couldn’t plead them back.

The other thing that happened left me in awe, and is one of those stories that sounds like it is completely made up.  A single drake mallard came bombing into the spread at a speed that I’d never seen a duck attain.  I heard the bird first as it came in literally two feet over my head (and inches above the top of the corn) as the wind riffling through the drake’s wings made a sound that a surface to air missile.  I swear that as long as I’m living I won’t forget that sound.  It actually, genuinely scared me.  By the time I regained composure and made the target, it was beyond the outer edge of the spread.  It obviously startled a few of the guys too because no one could make a killing shot on it.  No one that is, except Tack’s dad Doug.  As the bird climbed and sped away from the spread Doug made a perfect shot to fold the bird up stone dead on the climb.  A chorus of cheers and congrats rained down on Doug and he quietly and reverently picked up the bird before slipping casually back into the corn rows.

More groups came in and we shot and we shot.  I ran out of shells; did I mention I had cracked a new box of 25 Kent Fasteel BB’s that morning?  Well I had.  With a half hour still to go until shooting light closed we called it an evening.  We had some immediate laughs and storytelling as we took some photos and packed up once more; dinner was waiting in the form of the morning’s haul of goose meat already cut into strips, with some marinating in Italian salad dressing and the remainder soaking a mesquite barbecue sauce.  These were all waiting to be rolled in thick cut, apple-smoked, peppercorn crusted bacon.  There was also some coleslaw, some French fries, and the remainder of the chili.  And maybe a beverage or two.
Yours truly watching the northern sky on Satruday afternoon

Donavon with a mallard on Saturday afternoon
We made our way back to the camp, and while some did the butchering others prepared the food.  Stillness descended over the camp once the food came out, and hungry men filled their bellies.  The evening was more subdued than the prior night, with an air of satisfied calm at the great day of hunting dominating.  Hunters said their piece and slowly shuffled off to bed, but not before we resolved to send a skeleton crew back to the same field in the morning.  As I drifted off to bed I could still hear the honks of geese and the reports of shotguns in the back of my mind; I love it when those are my last thoughts before falling into a slumber borne of an early morning and all-day hunting.  The weather could not have been any better, the birds had flown well, and the shooting had been above average; it was truly one of our best days of hunting as a group.

Sunday morning was a non-event.  Not much was flying and we had the sense that we’d shot enough geese and ducks for the weekend.  The day broke foggy with a great sunrise, but by 8am we had one goose to show for our efforts.
A foggy morning's walk into the field
No one was upset.  We’d achieved everything we had set out to do; we’d had some laughs, spent time together as friends, and had a hunt that was one of the best we’d had for a Double Opener Weekend.  Camp clean up chores followed fast on the heels of another epic Mom’s Restaurant breakfast.  There were high fives and handshakes all around before we put down the bear mats and closed up camp.  By mid-afternoon on Sunday I was back on the road to Cambridge in need of a nap, a shave, and a car wash.  In a year’s time we’ll be back at it again; I hope the future can only hold a hunting weekend as good.

I might be overstretching my anticipations by hoping for a better one.

**All photos and video courtesy of Lucas Hunter**

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Closing Time-Sunday Morning’s Hunt

I woke up Sunday morning with a complex mixture of anticipation, exhaustion, and disappointment.  The exhaustion stemmed from hardly sleeping the night before; it was hard enough to get to sleep as I was dreaming about decoying geese…the nighttime congestion from inhaling dust off the old feather pillows on the bed made it tough to maintain even a couple of hours of consistent sleep and I awoke often all phlegmy and coughing.  The disappointment came from knowing that after that morning’s hunt I’d have to pack up and head home.  The anticipation?  Well I was hunting so I could only look hopefully forward to another great day in the fields.

The night before had been a low key affair and after we all cleaned the geese and got them stowed in the freezer, I fried up some baloney, toasted some bread, and caramelized some sweet Walla Walla onions for everyone.  With a spritz of ballpark mustard and a melting piece of singles cheese, well let’s just say there were no leftovers.  Wash all that down with a cold beer and I’d defy you to find any simpler, more viscerally delicious way to wrap up an evening.  I had a slightly heated debate about economics with Rory’s girlfriend, but in the end she agreed to disagree.  (She’s feisty there Rory…hold onto her!)  All lights were out by 11pm or so, because we’d all had a long day of goose hunting, which can be surprisingly tiring given how much fun it is.

That Sunday morning we had decided to tackle a pasture field that the evening before had held well over 300 geese.  There was no ditch and no stubble so we opted to stow the layout blinds and make our stand along the grassy perimeter of a page wire fence.  This is how we’d done it for many seasons before, and we’d have to rely on good calling, good decoy placement, and a little luck to have the birds drop in within range.  Sitting very, very still would also be helpful and is usually recommended.

We got no help from the wind, as it stubbornly refused to blow at any kind of real strength, but we set out the spread and fanned out along the fence line.  What whisper of a breeze there was blew into our backs as we all faced south.  The plan was to have the geese drop over our heads, circle out over the pasture and finish towards us.  Of course, the geese need to co-operate in that respect as well, which is sometimes problematic.

A low ground fog crept along and the day broke with a tepid gray that hinted at drizzle.  We set up and settled in; I’d decided to hunt “the shoulder” and sat at the far left side of the line, almost beyond the left edge of the decoys.  Any geese taxiing into the spread would be approaching a veritable wall of guns as we had seven shooters spread out along a 100 yard section of that fence.  It goes without saying that for safety’s sake everyone was to shoot in the same direction.  Before long, the sun broke bright and electric pink through the low clouds and what menacing rain there could have been stayed to the northwest.

Although some geese traded around, none worked the set with any real interest and our flagging and calling met with initial indifference.  Then it happened again; a bunch of birds dropped into a field nearly a kilometer away and all we could do was sit and watch as they drew every flock from miles around to them.  At one point you could look at any of the four compass points and see dozens of birds flying in from every direction which is a good indication of the kind of surplus of geese that are now resident in the Bruce Peninsula area.  And good lord, the sounds.  For this humble writer the sound of scads of geese yapping and honking from all around you is glorious music, and second in terms of natural spectacle only to what I like to call the “goose hurricane” which is when you are lucky enough to be set up in a field (or marsh, I guess) where you have nothing above you but dozens or hundreds of geese spinning, circling, and pitching in willy-nilly.  It looks literally like a washing cycle full of geese and I’ve been privileged enough to see it on a half-dozen occasions or more.  But I digress.

Hastings went down with Levi to kick the big flock up from the field they were in and with much excited calling and flagging we did manage to turn a few small groups in our direction, but they lacked the commitment we had seen in the geese of the previous day and we only managed to take down four more geese to round out our weekend total for the group at large to 30.  In retrospect the pasture field we were staking out was probably as much to blame for our lack of success as anything else.  It was a veritable goose sanctuary from a geographic sense with no ditch, no field cover or stubble and only sparse grass bunched up along the fence line.  No predator human or otherwise could really achieve much in the way of success when faced with natural obstacles such as those.  But we took lemons and made lemonade so to speak; besides we were hunting so who could complain?

As is usually the case a group came in about ten feet over our heads while we had all the decoys half in their bags and guns unloaded, and this occurrence, as anyone who knows goose hunting is aware of, is the starkest proof that Murphy’s Law is a scientifically real thing.  Following that we once again trekked out for breakfast and then up to the farm to dress out these last birds.  All of those four that we had gotten this morning came home with me and now reside in my freezer waiting to be browned and used as stewing meat.  I can almost taste it now.  After tidying up the farm house I packed up and headed south on Highway #6 for home; then the disappointment came back.

All the local lads up there had plans for another evening hunt, but family duties (and my job in the GTA) required my attention and prompt return home; it is safe to say that if I hunted that evening, I would not have made it in to work for Monday morning…it’s just too much driving, and I’d be much too tempted to go on another hunt Monday morning.  But nonetheless there is no hopelessness without hope, and I couldn’t stop grinning about the laughs and memories we’d all just shared and I broke into another anticipatory shiver as I thought about the return visit for when the duck season opens on September 24th.  It sounds like a cliché (and it probably is) but at that moment I’d really rather have been hunting.  Or to put it another way, goose hunting trips are like potato chips.

Having just one is not enough.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fun in the Sun: Saturday Afternoon

I arrived back from grocery pick up after the morning hunt just in time to find everyone back at the farm and ready to go; they told me to hurry up and get my gear together for the afternoon trip.

While I double-checked to make sure that I had not forgotten anything, Tack laid down the plan.  There were three cut grain fields bordering the highway just outside of town and while no geese had been feeding in them yet, they were primed for a hunt.  We had a skeleton crew for the afternoon, with just six of us heading out.  I’ve never had a lot of success in afternoon hunts during the early season, but as the proverb goes “make hay while the sun shines”.  I was up there to hunt, and hunt I would.  It was very hot out with little in the way of a breeze though, so rather than load up with camo, I opted instead for the oh-so-fashionable t-shirt and shorts with rubber boots look.  We packed up the trucks and Lucas, Hastings, Dane, Jason, myself, Tack and Tack’s dog Levi headed for the fields.  Rory was going to show, but later decided not to.

Levi looking keen to get going
This was Levi’s first hunt, so Tack set his blind up towards the back and facing near perpendicular to our line of blinds, opting only to shoot at birds that were outside the pocket we had created with our decoys.  Levi, wearing a coat of the golden yellow that blended seamlessly with the grain stubble, crouched down in the grass next to Tack’s blind even hopping in with Tack once or twice (Levi’s not too big just yet, and Tack is rail-thin so it wasn’t as cramped as you’d think).  This pup had been in training for just under a year, but we all had high hopes for him.  He’d turn out to be the highlight of the day.

As we put the finishing touches on our setup and settled into our blinds, I became aware of two potential challenges for this hunt.  First, even though we had gone a couple of hundred yards out into the middle of the north grain field, the east edge of the field was still close enough to the highway that the noise of cars driving on it made hearing geese at a distance difficult.  The second was a challenge and a mixed blessing.  A slight breeze had picked up and was blowing out of the east, which allowed us to set up facing away from the highway and thus negating any risk that we’d have to shoot our shotguns towards the roadway (even at a couple of hundred yards it is never a good idea to be popping off towards traffic…I’ve still seen some hunters do it though).  As some of you have likely inferred though, facing west on an afternoon hunt on a sunny day poses its own issues.  We brushed the blinds up extra heavily and settled in with the mid-afternoon sun beating down directly on our faces.  It was just about 3pm.  For over two hours we lounged in the sun, making jokes, telling stories, and generally having fun at one another’s expense.  No geese flew.

Yours truly getting too much sun before the action started

Lucas and Jason relaxing in the sun
I was sitting back listening to some nonsense story being shared by a couple of the guys when Jason, who was laying in the stubble at the far left of the set-up, shouted something along the lines of “[expletive]!  There’s geese right there!”

Sure enough a group of about a dozen geese was gliding in from behind us.  Between the highway noise, our overly-relaxed demeanours, and the fact that no one had really thought to look behind us, we were caught with our blinds open, some of us had our guns unloaded, and Lucas literally had his pants down (it was hot and he was stripping off a layer inside his blind when the geese showed up).  The geese were obviously aware that something was not right as we covered up, loaded guns, and tried to turn the geese back.  With some comeback calls we were able to swing the birds and they began to filter into the decoys.  But about 10 yards outside of the sweet spot the geese changed their mind and flared off to the south, settling into another field that was being cut to the southwest.  Now we had to compete with the real thing just a few hundred yards from us, which is always frustrating.  Not that it mattered for the next hour or so, as nothing was really flying.  Just near to 6pm, and after I had gotten a very nasty sunburn on my cheeks and ears, we had another group work or decoys, and this time we were ready for them.  Unfortunately a mix up on who was calling the shot led to some of us opening up on them just a bit outside of where we should have, and we only scratched down one, and this bird glided down into some tall grass towards the field’s northwest corner.  The rest joined the live birds in the southwest field.

Cue Levi.  He was live to the action and with very little prompting began chasing down the escapee.  With no hesitation at all he tackled the goose and began to bring it back to hand from a distance of well over a hundred yards.  We all whooped and clapped as the dog (one that is really just barely past being a puppy) bounded back towards us with the goose gripped by the breast.  A dog has never received so much praise for a retrieve, and it was a first retrieve to remember.  Tack was obviously proud, as any owner would be, and we remarked that if we didn’t pop another cap all afternoon that retrieve made the day a winner; it will be a treasured memory for certain.  Turns out, though, there was more action to come, and it was made clear who was calling the shot in the future.

But at first it looked like the live decoys a field over were going to skunk our hunt on us.  We saw a lot of geese, hundreds really, but all of them had their vectors set on the field full of live geese.  Almost every group didn’t even bother to give our fakes a glance.  I’ll tell you this though, I learned more in two hours of just listening to how wild geese on the ground call to flying birds than I ever have listening to instructional CDs or videos.  It was unreal how good the real sounded and I will freely admit to the crushing inadequacy I felt while I listened to the gaggle of geese summon basically every bird we laid eyes on their field.  Eventually though, the farmer who was working the field kicked them up with his combine and with birds in the air we were able to use some flagging and pleading calls to get them to swing our way.  Between about 6:45pm and 7:30 when we decided to pack it in, we had four flights of about five or six birds per group come our way and we got nine more birds out of them in total.

I was especially happy to hammer down on one flight that tried to set down about 90 yards outside our setup.  They circled and didn’t want to commit but we put some nasty ground calling on them and they picked up and tried to land right on the bullseye.  Geese skirting the edges of spreads had been a problem for a while for me, but about two-years ago I found that by aggressively auto-clucking (basically doing a rapid fire duck feeding chatter on my goose call) I could get most groups to stop their descent and slide on over to where I needed them to be.  It’s a pretty mean sounding noise and I don’t fully understand how it works, since I’ve not heard much that resembles it coming from live geese but I’ve called in and killed a lot more geese than I would normally have since I started doing it, although other hunters prefer to use a train note or aggressive push-moans to achieve the same effect.  To each their own I always say.

But the real story wasn’t our calling, or how we shot, or how well the geese worked.  The highlights all went to Levi.  He made a couple more good retrieves, and it was obvious that he was both getting tired and also obviously having a blast being out hunting.  His tail thumped the back of my legs more than once as he bounded excitedly back and forth while we packed up; he was just a happy dog out having a good time, which is always nice to see.

Levi and the ten geese from the evening of Saturday, September 10th, 2011

The shadows were getting long as we took some photos and packed up the gear.  My thanks go out to Lucas Hunter for the photos accompanying this post; he’s a pretty talented photographer and photo editor with just enough modesty to make the images he generates all the more impressive.  After a quick tour around the area to scout out a field for the morning, we cleaned the geese and enjoyed a beer in the hollow behind the farm in a looming, still dusk that gave way to a brilliant full moon and sky full of late-summer (or should I say early fall?) stars.  As we stood around sipping brews, chuckling and telling stories, I took a few steps away from the group to enjoy a moment or two of semi-peaceful reflection in the open field under the moon and stars.  Distantly a coyote yipped and somewhere far out of sight more big Canada geese loafed on the calm waters of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron.  We’d be after them again in the morning, hoping to add to the count that we had in the bag from the day that was just then coming to a close.  My absence was noted and someone shouted to me to come back and join in the camaraderie once more.

Who am I to say no to that?

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Right Way to Open a Goose Season-Saturday Morning’s Hunt

I’d been going stir crazy for nearly a week, doing everything from trying to pretend that the impending goose season was “no big deal” to furiously writing some pretty awful haiku poetry.  Then suddenly it was upon me; the open road, the sun shining on my left arm as I cruised with it draped out the driver’s side window, and the knowledge that in a few short hours I would be laughing with friends as we prepared for what for many of us is the unofficial kick-off to the fall season.

I drove through some very pretty country as I made my way from Mississauga up through Hockley into the Georgian Highlands, before eventually picking up Highway 6 in Chatsworth and continuing on to the farm.  As I passed through Wiarton my friend Lucas flipped me a text and I read it while stopped at one of the three traffic lights in town.  He had arrived just ahead of me and was assembling his layout blind.  He also told me that he had an ice-cold beverage waiting for me when I arrived.  Some friends just know.  The trip had been good with little traffic, nice weather and it afforded me the opportunity to think and to listen to some music, including a new addition to my list of favourite hunting tunes, the album “Flood” from They Might Be Giants.  I’ve had this CD since the mid 1990’s and it is just plain old eclectic awesomeness.  I won’t make another hunting trip without it.

Anyways, we convened in the laneway, checked all our gear, laid out the blinds, calls, decoys and other necessary impediments that every goose hunter treks out into the fields and marshes with before loading it into Lucas’s Jeep.  My sister and some of her friends showed up for a wedding that was taking place that weekend, and then a group of even more hunting buddies arrived for some planning, some good-natured arguing, some laughs and a bit of storytelling before we turned in.  I still have that giddy, anticipatory sleep that goes with not really being able to wait for something.  Some people get it at Christmas, or the first day at school, or something like that, but for me, I just can’t get to sleep the night before the first goose hunt of the year.  My mind is filled with thoughts of what the day will hold and how the geese will behave, with a dash of worry that my alarm won’t go off and I’ll somehow sleep through the whole thing.  This latter irrational fear usually results in me waking up twenty minutes before my alarm goes off, and Saturday, September 10th was no exception.

We met at the local gas station and laid out the final agenda.  I and the three others with layout blinds would set up in a cut grain field with little perimeter cover, while the other six or eight guys would man another cut grain field just across the county road; their field had a good ditch and standing corn surrounding it.  In the grainy breaking dawn we put out a couple of dozen shells and full body decoys and then ‘brushed up’ our blinds with some grain stubble, a task coincidentally that I’ll get better at with practice.  I endured some heavy teasing from the other three, but the geese didn’t seem to mind once the flight started.  In a line, Tack, myself, Lucas, and Rory faced west-south-west with both the flaming orange glow of a morning sun and a light September breeze coming over our left shoulders.  The first thin skeins of geese appeared out of the north, flying high and showing no interest in our flagging our calling.  Fully 200 birds traded past a height that advertised to every hunter around that those geese had no interest in detouring from their planned destination.  Once, with heavy flagging and excited calling, we were able to peel a group of four off the tail end of one such high-flying flock; they rocked and glided into our setup and after Tack, lounging to my left, and I had finished two of those four stayed behind with us.  It wasn’t great shooting for the first group of the season, but it was a start and my adrenaline was pumping.  A group of about twenty birds barreled in from the west, and while we made an attempt to work them, it became immediately apparent that they were on a beeline down the pipe into the cut grain field that housed the rest of our group.  Our compatriots scratched down eight birds after a frenzy of shots and my cousin Dane would later say that those birds finished just perfectly into the decoys.  I love it when that happens, although unfortunately, it was the only group to drop in on the field being patrolled by the balance of our hunting party.

We saw more groups of geese, but never worked in a group that held more than six birds.  Either through dumb luck or perfect planning (or perhaps a 70-30 combination of both) the geese that we were able to work were decoying perfectly and we called it a hunt more out of a desire to eat a giant Farmer’s Breakfast at Mom’s Restaurant in Ferndale than out of a lull in the action.  In all we had eight birds on the ground just as the other party did, but we had the more frequent of the shooting.  Some rusty shotgunning on my part, and a jammed shell that occurred as I only half-pumped my gun before trying to continue onto a pair of birds that were literally hanging in the air ten yards from my barrel kept my personal tally to two birds, but it was still a good kick off as I learned the nuances of layout blind hunting and worked to overcome some of the habits I’ve developed over the last 17 years of pass shooting geese from the sidelines of grain and corn fields.  Lesson #1: unlike when you are pass shooting and you need to call geese all the way down, once a group cups their wings and floats into your layout blind spread, the call can go down and the guns can come up.  If anything I rushed a couple of shots because I was still calling to birds that were committed when I really should have been putting both hands on my 870 and getting ready to come up firing.  Oh well, as I’ve said before, it’s not always about quantity.  Lesson #2: you can generally call more quietly to geese when you’re lying out in the decoys.  While ear-splitting volume is good for hail work, tone, inflection, and cadence count when the gunning is close.

We scarfed down (or at least I scarfed down) a big breakfast and drove back up to the farm to dress out the sixteen geese and engage in the epic historical rite of retelling stories from a hunt that had concluded no less than 90 minutes before.  My hands and my knife got filthy, but as strange as it sounds, it was nice getting a little mud and blood under my nails.  It adds a tactile reality to going out and getting your own meat, some of which is destined for the meat grinder, while some of it has a date with my stock pot where it will become the backbone of my classic Stewed Canada Goose.  In the end, it will all go where it ought to which is into our bellies.

We resolved to take a brief siesta and while one or two from the group would take a quick scout around the area for a spot to set up for the afternoon hunt, I made a quick jaunt into town to get the necessary requirements for dinner.  Just as I came out of the grocery store, laden with potato chips, baloney for frying, bread for toasting, and Walla Walla sweet onions for caramelizing (more on that in tomorrow’s post) I heard the excited chatter of a gaggle of geese as they literally fell out of the sky and into Lion’s Head Harbour.  As I watched the birds careen out of the azure blue sky and clumsily skid down into the equally blue water I couldn’t help reflecting back on the morning that had just passed.  We could have shot better and we could have shot more, but really we couldn’t have asked for a better start to the 2011 waterfowl campaign.  Little did we know how much better things were going to get on the afternoon hunt.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Everybody Loves a Haiku, Right?

So for some inexplicable reason I turned to haiku poetry as a way to calm my overly taut nerves in advance of the goose hunting opener here in Southern Ontario.  For those unfamiliar with the concept, haiku is a traditional style of Japanese poetry that for North Americans roughly translates into three lines totaling 17 syllables in a 5/7/5 syllable style.  While there is some debate over traditional haiku versus Westernized haiku, and so on (check the Wikipedia page for haiku if you want more on that) it is generally accepted that a 17 syllable poem in 5/7/5 style is a haiku.  They don’t have to rhyme.

It was actually a pretty good idea, as reading the meditative, naturalistic stanzas of Issa and Basho put me in a serene state of mind.  That was until I decided that while there are many classic hunting stories, and maybe even a couple of poems (or dirty limericks) about hunting, there was a real shortage of haiku poetry that paid tribute to the pursuit of hunting.  So despite what my better judgment told me to do, I wrote a few haikus of my own.  Some are beautiful if you ask me, but others are downright dumb.

A Preliminary Haiku of Apology
Now you shall have to
Suffer through these, that is if
You be brave enough.

Goose Season Opens
Goose season opens,
I sit alone at my desk.

The First Flight
The first flight of birds
Sneaks up on me in the blind.
My nap is cut short.

Deer Hunting is Hard
Deer hunting is hard,
If you fail to grasp that a
Deer can outsmart you.

How Many Miles
For how many miles
Will the wingbeats be heard? I
Missed that grouse badly.

Cold Water
An old leaky boot
Makes the walk back to the truck
Unbearably long.

Floating on Air
A goose on approach
Floats in the air serenely
Before the guns bark.

A Haiku on False Hope
It is strange how the
Shooting continues after
The ducks have flown off.

I could go on like this for hours (because when you write terrible haikus, it really isn’t that hard to be ultra-productive) but I’m sure you’ve all had enough for now.  I may concoct a few more of these crimes against poetry this weekend while I’m chasing Canada geese all over the Bruce Peninsula, and although you may not want to see them…I’ll commit them to the blogosphere upon my return.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

All Goose Hunters are Liars

I’m writing this in response to the aggregate of some not-so-flattering feedback I received from some individuals who are obviously a more sophisticated and accomplished group of waterfowlers than I am.  The one, most articulate, of them sent me an email deriding me as a ‘fraudulent, amateurish, lying hack”.  Yes, that is a direct quote.  Fair enough…I’ve always said that if you write enough you’re bound to piss someone off eventually.  With a provocative title like the one above, I’m already anticipating even more backlash from the waterfowl powers-that-be.  But here goes anyways.

Yes, it is the truth: all goose hunters are liars.  I’m well-positioned to make this statement because I am an experienced goose hunter and an even more experienced and adept liar.  One does not inevitably breed the other (i.e. while all goose hunters are liars, not all are adept liars…likewise not all adept liars are goose hunters, although by virtue of their skill they already meet more than half the criteria to be labeled a goose hunter) but generally if you meet a person one day at the gas station and they have mud on their waders, corn stubble stuck through their belt loops, and they have a lanyard of short reed goose calls and aluminum leg bands around their neck, odds are good that he (or she, I don’t discriminate when it comes to fibbers) has been goose hunting.  Odds are even better that they are about to lie to you about something as they fill their pick-up truck (a truck that will no doubt be towing the ubiquitous trailer of morbidly expensive gear, of course).

Most of the lies that spew from the mouth of a goose hunter are benign, loving lies designed to either make the listener feel better about themselves or to make the liar in question seem like less of a lunatic/outcast/failure/success/etc.  But this much is for sure, if a goose hunter tells you something, don’t trust it any further than you could throw said goose hunter.  A goose hunter will lie about any number of hunting-related topics, the first category of which is the type of harmless lies told by someone who is either exceedingly proud or exceedingly ashamed of their pursuit.  While the material of the lies may differ, the fact that they are deceptions is constant.  A goose hunter will lie about the cost of their goose call; a proud one will inflate the price, an ashamed one will decrease the price.  A goose hunter will lie about the store where they buy their equipment, lest you begin to frequent the establishment and deplete the stock.  A goose hunter will lie about the size and velocity of the shotgun shells they shoot, and they will most assuredly lie about the shell’s pattern density and efficacy downrange, for various, poorly understood reasons.  A goose hunter will also lie rampantly about their own shooting ability; if a goose hunter states that they are a crack shot, they are likely terrible.  If a goose hunter tells you they miss a lot of geese and that they need to hit the sporting clays range, rest-assured that they will shoot most of the birds that day, thus affording the lying scoundrel all of your undivided adulation.

The second category of lies that a goose hunter will tell you are what I like to call ‘tactical lies’.  This type of fabrication is specifically employed to ensure that a goose hunter denies you vital information while simultaneously attempting to extract facts from you.  **Note: this is not a type of lie exclusively practiced by goose hunters.  In fact, I have met many turkey hunters, duck hunters, deer hunters, and even anglers that employ their own subtle variations of the ‘tactical lie’.  In my experience though, no one does it quite as well as the goose hunting segment of the population.  Ask a goose hunter what time the first flight is at, and then automatically subtract 90 minutes from it.  This lie is designed to misinform other hunters of when the liar will actually be afield, in the hopes that the hunter in question can get first crack those early morning geese.  Ask a goose hunter what the best part of a field or marsh to be set up in is and they will tell you a location that may be good, but one that is more likely just a spot that is far enough away from their intended blind so as to assure that there will be no worry over competition for birds.  Ask them what call works best for them, and I can guarantee you they will demonstrate for you a sound that will most definitely not help you kill more geese; it may even drive geese away from you and inevitably towards the liar’s own mellow, magical brand of goose-music.  Tactical lies stem from a selfish, ill-spirited streak that innately exists in all goose hunters.  This streak precludes a goose hunter from ever actually forming a truly trustworthy relationship; befriend a goose hunter at your own risk, and woe unto the poor deluded individual who actually gets married to a goose hunter, for they will be subjected to the most heinous of goose-hunting’s lies: the lies of convenience.

Lies of convenience are reserved exclusively for spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, various and sundry conjugal partners (because let’s face it, there is no person alive that is sexier than a goose hunter), and live-in roommates.  Lies of convenience are also sometimes used (sparingly) on teachers, parents, non-hunting friends, and employers.  These are the most basic, but also the most effective of the goose hunter’s entire arsenal of lies.  If the hunting is bad, a goose hunter will tell you it was great; this will ensure that no one ever says that goose hunting is boring and pointless and therefore not worthy of continued pursuit.   If the hunting was great, they will understate the brilliance of the day in order to ensure that they can say that they will be ‘making up for a bad day’ when they go on their next goose hunting trip.  If they shot poorly, they will say they shot well, so as to save their ego from the ridicule of being considered unskilled.  If they shot brilliantly they’ll use false modesty as their guide so that they can have more time in the marsh for ‘practicing’.  And so forth.

It is a truly confusing world in which the goose hunter dwells; a world in which black is white, up is down, success if failure, and the only constant is that the geese will fly whenever they feel like it.  But these are the facts, I promise you.

Which ultimately brings us to the following, cyclically logical conclusion.  I, Shawn West, am a goose hunter.  Therefore, I am by definition a liar.  I am asserting to you that everything I have written above is the truth, but then again, as a goose hunter, I’m inclined (and some would say compelled) to lie to you.  So what do you make of all this?  How do you reconcile the above paragraphs and their seemingly authoritative statement of the facts?  Maybe I’m using a tactical lie to dissuade others from joining in on my little slice of waterfowling paradise and crowding me.  Perhaps I truly am a fraudulent hack with no business writing about the subject matter.  Or is it possible that I’m just using this forum to have some fun with a topic (i.e. hunting) that was always meant to be fun in the first place, before some self-appointed authorities started determining what information about goose hunting was worthy of discussion in the public forum?

Who knows?  After all, would I lie?