Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hunted Hard Makes for Hard Hunting

I’ve long held a theory that when there aren’t many of a given species of animal around, those animals in reality become easier to hunt.  Harder to find, but once found, relatively simpler to hunt.

When early goose opened up, I got a text from a friend of mine that a crew of guys had been really putting the hurt on the geese in our preferred hunting area.  Working them hard, shooting lots of them, and generally giving the geese a crash course in how to avoid decoys, calling, and putting a stack of pressure on them.  For a long time, our crew was the group putting the heavy pounding on the geese, but with abundance comes competition.  I’ve never minded a little bit of competition.

We stood out in the laneway until nearly midnight telling stories, laughing, and planning the day to come.  It was warm and windy, but the morning forecast told of rain coming.  Five o’clock came around awful quick and when I heard my alarm going off, the background noise outside was of pounding rain and rumbling thunder.  A flash of lightning or two made me think of rolling over and snoozing away.  Unfortunately (or fortunately) the gang was meeting in my kitchen, so I really had no choice but to suit up.

We stood in the kitchen in our gear watching rain teem down and we decided that we were going to brave the elements.  At about the time we pulled into the field, the rain had basically diminished into a thin mist, but it was still grey and foggy as we put out the decoys, and as we hunkered down in the grass along a fence that separated a pasture field from cut canola we shot each other some worried glances.  This was option “D” for us, and none of us were sure that the birds would co-operate.  Those worries were put to rest in short order.

Within ten minutes of getting situated, a small group started winging directly our way.  We hardly had to call them, and a few moans and soft clucks had the geese locked up and dropping in.  We shot adequately, but did leave a long retrieve or two for ourselves.  Every ten minutes or so for another ninety minutes they came in like that, and while our shooting (or at least mine) definitely had some early season rust on it, we put a dozen in the truck bed before 9am.  The last group of the morning hunt made me especially happy.  We were asleep at the switch and by the time we saw them they were floating down into the middle of a cut field on the other side of the road.  Rory, Tack, and I got aggressive on the calling and, to my surprise the birds picked up and started climbing.  They made a narrow clearance over the hydro lines next to the road and then started floating down again, this time about forty yards out from our ‘sweet spot’.  With good work on the low end of the calls we drifted the group into range, taking down the last geese of our morning.  A few photos and a celebratory meat-lovers omelet made me happy to be hunting again.

A dozen geese and a few happy hunters
L-R: Wayne, Rory, Tack, Jason, myself, Barry, (not pictured, Rob)

Feeling lucky, or foolhardy, those of us with layout blinds made a run on the same field for the afternoon.  We set up more to the middle and heavily grassed in the blinds.  Looking back at the blinds from our anticipated landing zone, I had to admit that they looked pretty fine.

Four hours and a couple of naps later, we had seen exactly one flock, and it had no interest of even looking our way, even though we flagged and called sweetly to them.  It was one of the only times that I’ve ever hunted that the geese did not come off the water in the evening to go to the fields.  One group to the northwest got one goose.  Hardly any were flying at all.

The only plausible solution to such a fruitless afternoon hunt was to make the spiciest possible meal from some of the geese we had shot in the morning.  Using fresh jalapenos, herb and garlic cream cheese, and browned cubed goose breast meat I presented my fellow hunters with a plate of cripplingly spicy deliciousness.  They complained and moaned, but it all got eaten.  Again it was nearly midnight when the lights went out and the stories stopped.  Some of our intrepid cohort went into town for a wedding dance.  None of that motley crew made it out for a shoot in the morning.

For those of us not inebriated, the next morning was significantly sunnier, but also crisper with a wind that blew hard and often from the northwest.  We set up in gloaming light, but a blazing fireball rose above the horizon soon enough.

Now, I hesitate to read the mind of geese, but I can safely say we saw thousands of them that morning and almost all of them had not the slightest inkling of landing in our setup, which this time had us secreted away in a copse of trees found in the middle of a freshly cut grain field.  When we stood in the shadow and overhanging limbs of the sparse trees we were as well hidden as one could ask.  Unfortunately, as we stood about in the field edge talking on the subject of women (I think) three geese…the only three geese we saw that morning below an altitude of one hundred yards…checked our spread briefly and then departed upward.  No one even managed a shot.  The other 997 geese we saw that morning were all flying high, fast, and due south.  No flagging, calling, decoys, or the prayers of us desperate heathen hunters seemed to interest them one iota.  It was my hope that all the smart local birds were in that army of geese marching down the peninsula, because the way I’d been hearing it the flats we hunt had been shot hard for four consecutive days and it was getting such that even the most persistent hunters were tasting diminished success or outright failure.  Geese hung back and circled at distances that would make the most shameless sky-buster blush.  They were just being downright ornery and tough as hell to work.  I had a walloping huge plate of bacon and eggs to drown my sorrows at being so handily defeated that morning by a bird with a chestnut-sized brain.

But despite the hard-slogging, we were hunting again and as we laughed and were cruel to one another’s failings and faults, it didn’t really matter how much we shot or didn’t shoot.  There was a time when we valued our experiences in body count, but the bloom has been off that particular rose for some time now, and although I won’t speak for a goose, I think I can speak for my hunting chums when I say that we get a thrill from watching the birds work, from calling them in and seeing success in our set up, and from hamming it up with each other during the downtime.  Since I know Rory reads this, I’ll pump his tires by telling the Internet that he’s a crack shot with a crab apple and that he’s fortunate I have a sense of humour.  In two weeks we do it all again for geese and ducks, and this time with the added bonus of a new mourning dove season in our neck of the woods.  I can’t say with certainty that we’ll have more success or less, but we’ll have a time trying and it may even breed a story or two for this medium.

Still, I hope to hell that the birds play nice for an afternoon or two, because I can only write about pretty mornings, food, and defeat so often.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Fits & Starts, Tinkering & Fixing…and then Waiting

With just a few short days remaining until I get into my goose season here in Ontario and with it the unofficial “start of fall” for me, I’m just pacing around the house like a tiger in a cage.  I constantly wander around thinking about the upcoming hunt, planning for different weather contingencies, practicing my calling, and prepping and re-prepping my equipment.  I can’t do anything productive, and since I can’t do anything productive, I’ll just write about it.

A couple of weekends ago I went all out.  Using black potting soil I mixed up a few litres of mud and smeared them all over my layout blind.  Then when the mud dried, I went out and swept it all off.  Then I forgot that my blind was still deployed in my backyard and it rained on my blind for three days.  Now my blind isn’t shiny and new looking, but it does smell like rain and mud, and it leaves dirty stains on my clothes every time I pick it up.  Which are good things.  There is also a blind-shaped patch of dead grass on my back lawn.

Once my blind dried in my garage for three days, I tightened up all the screws, oiled all the previously wet hinges, and sewed a couple of seams (that’s right I can sew).  This sundry tinkering and busy work was a nice distraction for about two hours.  Then I sat in the blind to make sure I hadn’t made anything worse with my brainless fiddling and my hunger to get out in the field tripled.

I packed all the gear, minus my gun and shells, in my car, and then was forced to unpack it to go buy groceries.  Now I’ve packed it again and if necessary, my family can go hungry…because I’m not unpacking it again until it is time to put the equipment to use.

And put it to use I shall.  I spoke with some buddies today and the prognosis for the hunt is good; lots of geese milling around, a good selection of places to set up, and a whole lot of competition for the fields we want to hunt.  Since I have various and sundry goose hunting acquaintances, I have also been tantalized with pictures and stories of the various early season hunts they have been enjoying success with.  Even my cousin sent me a picture of a short hunt they had on their opening morning.  A smoldering desire to get out in the field is now a full blown inferno and it has made me so wretchedly unproductive that my career, marriage, and financial security are all in jeopardy.

Okay, so maybe not but you get the idea.

I had long hoped that this would be something that would improve as I grew older.  As a much younger person I used to be literally unable to sleep, such was the anticipation, and this really didn’t pose much of a problem when the next day held nothing other than hunting, napping, and eating.  But now I am nominally an adult, and as such I have responsibilities (or so they tell me).  I am accountable to a boss, several dozen clients, and perhaps most importantly a spouse and two young boys.  Shirking my duties because of hunting-anticipation-related-insomnia (which should be a clinically recognized condition, even though I just made it up) frankly isn’t an option.  Yet, I think I have diagnosed why this condition has not only failed to cure itself, but is actually becoming more and more debilitating.  It is because the frequency and duration of my hunting trips has become finite.  As child and teenager, I could (with adult accompaniment) go hunting pretty much whenever a mentor could take me, which was honestly quite often and very much encouraged (with the exception of deer camp, that rite of passage was reserved for a later, more hotly anticipated date).  Now, with the demands on my time being exerted by work and family, the prospect of time in the fields and forests is even more keenly anticipated.

I’m not from a particularly demonstrative family when it comes to emotions, but I feel as though my father, uncles, and other hunting mentors must have similar emotional responses to our family tradition of hunting.  It is just that none of them had a forum such as this (or perhaps the inclination at all) to speak about such childlike giddiness.

But I don’t mind, because in some respects the expectancy and desire have become part and parcel with my hunting experience.  Not only are the actual times spent in the field alone or with friends special, but the ways I pass the dreary days and weeks before hunting, what with all the toying with gear, and make the best laid plans, and yes even babbling inanely about how much I enjoy the anticipation, have all become part of the fabric of my hunting experience.

It is just what I do now.

So tomorrow, when 5pm rolls around, and the interminable meetings and prioritized tasks of my day job have been put mercifully to rest for another weekend then I will roll down the highway, listen to loud music, and practice train notes and push moans on my goose call every time I stop at a red light.  Because those things are part of the hunt for me.

Then I’ll arrive at the farm and I’ll lay out my clothes and equipment in a utilitarian (and ever so slightly superstitious) fashion.  Because those things are part of the hunt for me.

My cousins and hunting buddies will arrive and we’ll plan the morning’s agenda.  We may have a beverage or two and we’ll laugh a fair bit.  Because those things are part of the hunt for me and maybe it is for them too.

Then we’ll hunt, and we’ll eat, and then we’ll wake up and hunt some more.  And then, when it is all done, we’ll have the memories and we’ll have the best laid plans for the next trip in just a few short weeks.  The geese will be a little smarter and a little fewer (I hope) and we’ll be a little older, a little heavier, and a lot happier. And it is because we’ll be hunting together again, and that makes the anticipation, and the puttering around, and the all the mindless distractions we use to make ourselves happy in the off-season seem like distant foggy memories.

The return of hunting season just does that, and I am more than ready for it.