I haven’t hunted African plains game, and may never get the chance.
I am a neophyte by most standards in that I possess less than a decade in the turkey woods, although I am a full convert to that particular aspect of our religion.
My deer hunting experience is of less than a score of years, which is as much an accident of birth and the public policy at the time of my hunting certification as it is a function of my love of stalking the ghosts of the fall woods.
Small game was once a deep passion, although a shortage of suitable hounds and a personal disinclination as I grow older to spend time in cold winds and deep snow has dulled my desire to chase grouse and rabbits. Perhaps the acquisition of a sleek beagle may rekindle those fires, but for now they smolder low.
Moose hunting, while available, has always played second fiddle to deer hunting for me.
Predator hunting, while exciting and raw, often lacks the payoff of promised game meat for the eating.
Elk, bears of all fashions, antelope, and the like are all unavailable to me, for reasons of logistics, time, and finances respectively.
What the list above details are two things. First, there is a literal glut of riches available to the North American sportsman. Secondly, at least for me, is that all of the above opportunities finish behind the pursuit of waterfowl as the act that most defines my hunting experience.
My dad is a deer hunter. He loves the ducks dropping in and the geese turning and cycling down into a set up as much as I do, but if you asked him what he’d rather be doing, he would say deer hunting every time. I’ve had similar conversations with a couple of my cousins and friends and they all fall on the side of deer hunting, although there are a few that are fast becoming converts to the hallowed tradition of chasing wild turkeys.
Perhaps it is my instinctual desire to dissent from the group, perhaps it is my relative lack of success in killing deer and turkeys, or maybe, like the Grinch, my head isn’t screwed on just right. Whatever the case may be, hunting ducks and geese tops my list of preferred hunting trips, although that’s a lot like trying to rate pizza versus ice cream versus sex. I suppose you could prioritize them if you wanted to, but you really would never turn any of them down. Hunting is like that.
It is true that I love waterfowling above all else, and frankly, what isn’t there to love? Sure the weather can be awful, but at the end of the day, you don’t have to go out in it if you don’t really want to. Yet time and time again, a multitude of duck and goose hunters are out in the most tragically terrible weather, getting frost-nipped, wind-whipped, and generally cold, soaked and miserable. And why is that, you ask? Two reasons: first the ducks and geese don’t seem to care; in fact it seems that often the hunting gets better the worse the climate is. But the secret, untold second reason is that waterfowlers need that lousy weather to make them feel like they are truly ‘hunting’. Just as deer hunters need the fall colours and the cool in the air, and houndsmen need the bay of a dog to set the atmosphere, so it is with the men and women that chase after webbed feet and billed birds. I’ve had good shoots on bluebird days, but the best ones that I recall had some pretty drizzly, damp and all around unpleasant weather. It just made it ‘feel’ right.
Another niche that I fit cozily into when it comes to duck and goose hunting is the calling. Although a strong argument can be made on behalf of a gobbler, few other animals respond to calling and decoys like waterfowl do. All my life I have been intrigued by the language of animals (and languages in general, but that’s another story), and the way that hunting allows me to more or less ‘talk’ with ducks and geese is a thrill that I simply cannot get enough of. Listening to the birds as they work, and watching their body language as they respond positively and negatively to the sounds you are feeding them is both education and exhilaration. My favourite memory from calling waterfowl came on a breezy, cool, sunny day in late September. Our camp group was working a small flock of about nine geese, and they were making wide circles as they eyed up our spread. As they made what turned out to be their second-last pass, I made a low moan on my call, and to my astonishment, one of the geese mimicked it exactly. Not similarly, not comparably, but precisely the same note, tone, and duration. Naturally, I made the same call again (which may shock those of my friends who accuse me of never making the same sound twice) and the goose answered back again with the same sound. So back and forth for five or six more sequences this goose and I made the same sounds. It would call then I would call the same note back, and as their broad circle tightened and then straightened into a final approach I had a ripple of adrenaline course through me. I was talking this bird, and the group that was with it, right into where we needed them to be. And that was the point. We took home five or six out of the group, and while I scratched down one of them, I can’t say for sure if the bird I got was the one that was communicating with me, or whether that bird was even in the bag at all. But it didn’t matter of course, because aside from the feeling of accomplishment that comes from tricking a supremely evolved specimen of wildlife into a trap, I knew that for even a few short minutes I was intentionally communicating with a wild animal using their language, which was beyond anything I had done or experienced before.
I consider waterfowl to be some of the most delicious wild game meat I’ve ever eaten. And I’m going to go so far as to be on record say something that some may find controversial. Geese are delicious too. Now I’ve heard from reputable sources that speckled-belly goose meat is the height of epicurean delights, and I’ve had some of the best roasted ducks out there (although the orgasmically tasty canvasback has long eluded me) but foremost I think Canada geese get a bad reputation when it comes to the plate. Now before I continue I will say this; I have eaten some absolutely atrocious Canada goose meat, but that particular platter was filled with birds that were primarily “suburban geese”, and I don’t mean geese with mortgages and family sedans. I was hunting with a friend on a farm that was just barely beyond the city limits of Guelph. I believe we were legally hunting by about 50 yards. We were helping out a farmer that my friend knew, and he had often complained of the geese, so we took a trip out to thin the numbers a bit. Upon scouting we found that the birds were spending most of their day at a local public park about three kilometers away. We shot three or four and upon consuming them the next day, I can safely say I have never eaten any wild game as unpleasant as those few birds. Although I think they were eating some grain on this farm, I attribute most of their flavour to them eating chemically fertilized grass and what I can only assume was their own feces for most of their days. Really “wild” geese, the kind that truly migrate and spend limited time in urban/suburban areas have never troubled me with their flavour. In fact, a good late season goose with a layer of corn and grain fed fat on them is so darn good roasted and stuffed with apples, lemons, and rosemary that I could never think of skinning them for their breast and leg meat. Early season geese aren’t as succulent in terms of that, and they usually are still a bit “pinny” as we say, so more often than not that meat goes into the grinder, which isn’t a bad way to enjoy the fruits of a goose hunt either. Last year we took a pin-feathered mallard drake that was not even two hours expired (talk about fresh organic!) and made a great little appetizer by butterflying the breasts and then pan frying them with the whole, skinned legs. We rarely go hungry during duck and goose season.
The atmosphere of the goose hunt itself also endears it further to me. I do enjoy the silent solitude of deer and turkey hunting, but silence is mandated by the nature of the prey. Deer, and to an even greater extent, wild turkeys have incredibly acute hearing. I’m not disputing the hearing of a duck or a goose, but I find the waterfowl hunting experience just slightly more gregarious for those doing the hunting. First off, we almost always do this a pretty large group. Five or more at a minimum. It is just too labour intensive with decoys, blinds, guns, ammunition and the assorted paraphernalia to not have many hands to make the work light. In fact some of us take it much lighter than others. Secondly this group mentality makes it easy to have a good time. We often just stand in a ditch or along a well-concealed fencerow and half-shout jokes and barbs at each other. We tell amusing stories about our spouses, friends of friends, or the hunting companions that have gone before us, some of whom have sadly departed. We laugh and giggle until we weep, we try out each other’s calls, and we generally have a raucous time, all the while eyeing the horizon and the heavens for birds. When we miss, we taunt and deride each other’s failures as human-beings, and when we succeed everyone claims the credit simultaneously, particularly if one of the many birds that hit the ground is wearing jewelry.
Since some of us purchased layout blinds, the experience has changed only slightly. We still do all of the above, we just do it from a reclined position.
I could wax poetic about the time-honoured history of waterfowling in North America, about how it built economies and industries, of how it nearly died as a tradition in the early 1900’s, and how it has staged a comeback. I could tell the indigenous inhabitants of North America’s legends related to ducks and geese that I have learned. I could write about the powers of survival possessed by ducks and geese (powers that I have read about, heard about, and witnessed personally). I could go on at length about the conservation successes originated by Delta Waterfowl and Ducks Unlimited, and I could lecture on our need to be even better conservationists to preserve our privilege to keep hunting ducks and geese. There is just so much to tell of and to write about. I’ve had more hunts than I can literally remember, and I’m not even 35 yet. Think of the stories I have and that everyone else has that go untold; those that hunker in saw grass blinds, corn rows, flooded rice, and sinkboxes.
I haven’t even talked about retrievers yet.
In the end though what I say is likely just things that have been said before and known of for ages. For my part I don’t need convincing. As someone who loves and studied history, there is just far too much tradition, both personal and in the preceding years for me to ignore.
For those that do need convincing though, think about those histories while you are making your own. And going forward, when you watch them lock up and drop in, as you thumb off the safety, rise and shout “Take ‘em!” or “Now!” or “Cut ‘em!” or whatever it is that you’ve made your war-cry, make sure that you commit those ones to your memory too.
Because when the hunt is over, that’s all we get to hang on to. Until the next day out duck hunting that is.