July 18, 2018
By Scott Haugen
They're still coming, stay down," whispered Kyle Smith. "One more point and they'll be right on top of us!"
Hunkered below Kyle amid fallen yellow beach grass, I dared not move. Though I so wanted to see the captivating approach of the magnificent emperor geese, â€¨I didn't want to be the one to blow things.
"Here they come, get readyâ€¦" Sensing the excitement in Kyle's voice, I knew the birds were close. My camera was on as I was hoping to capture the action. Through the blades of grass I could see Kyle's hand firmly clutch his gun. When his finger slid toward the safety, I knew the birds were near.
Kyle raised up, I simultaneously did the same. But there was no shot. Faster than either of us had anticipated, the geese flared, and Kyle brought his gun down.
"I just didn't want to chance it," Kyle piped, a distant look on his face. "I probably should have shot, I just didn't want to blow it and risk crippling one."
It was a good choice, one that would be hard for any hunter, even a veteran like Kyle, to make. "There will be more birds," he shared with optimism in his voice as we tucked back into the dead grass.
In less than 15 minutes another flock of emperors was on the way, following the same path as the first two birds. This flock flew higher, and followed the shores of Cold Bay, Alaska, in predictable fashion. We spotted them over a mile away, as they rounded a distant point of land. They stayed in sight the entire time, and when they saw the small spread of decoys on the rocky beach, they turned right for them.
"I'm going for the back one," Kyle confirmed as the flock neared, their striking plumage illuminated by the giant, dropping sun.
But as the flock worked closer, their action resembled the unrhythmic flight pattern of cacklers. By the time they reached the decoys, the emperors were at eye level, but in a tight line. One shot could have dropped multiple birds, and Kyle had no choice but to watch them fly by.
"That's 0-2â€¦this isn't going to be as easy as I thought," Kyle stated, without cracking a smile.
Moments later another flock came down the beach, this one from the opposite direction. As they dipped toward the decoys, the flock separated, giving Kyle a clear shot at the last bird. The goose started to fold at the shot, but quickly regained power before coasting toward the open bay.
Kyle rushed to the shoreline, hoping to swat the goose on the water with a final payload, but it was too far. Waving his arms as he ran down the beach, Kyle caught the attention of Jeff Wasley, who was waiting in the bay with his boat.
The tide was going out, so Kyle had to cover a lot of beach to reach where Wasley could reach him with the boat. Minutes later, the two hunters and the boat were a tiny dot in the distance from where I remained on shore, as they searched for the prized goose in the vast, open water.
While sitting on the beach, staring at the beautifully hand-painted emperor goose decoys, faint calls caught my attention. It was another flock of emperors, headed my way, with another flock tight behind them. Both flocks passed right over me, so I snapped as many photos as possible. As quickly as they came and went, a flock of four geese materialized from behind. By the time I saw them, their wings were cupped and they were nearly on the beach with the decoys.
It was then I heard a distant shot, followed by a motor starting up and kicking into high gear. Nosing the boat to shore, Wasley gave me a thumbs up. When Kyle held up his beautiful emperor goose, the one he'd knocked down from shore, I could see why.
"I'll be right back, I'm going to get Gina," Wasley shouted over the motor as he quickly turned the boat into the surf and back out to sea. Gina is Kyle's wife, both Alaskan residents, and she also held a prized emperor goose tag. While Kyle was embarking upon his emperor hunt, Gina was in a layout boat, hunting Pacific common eider and other prized sea ducks in the bay.
"Look at this thing," Kyle smiled, holding out his goose. It appeared to be an adult female, the white on it's head strikingly illuminating. It's orange feet were so brightly colored, they seemed to glow. The scaled feathers and light, rosy bill were more stunning than I'd even imagined. Staring at the grand bird, Kyle and I admired it for several minutes.
As Kyle punched his tag and we awaited Gina's arrival, I couldn't help but wonder if I'd ever have the opportunity to hunt these magnificent birds. As a kid I dreamed of one day hunting emperor geese, but by the time I was old enough, in the mid 1980s, the season was closed. My wife and I lived in Alaska most of the 1990s, but still the emperor season remained closed.
I'd seen these geese many times in recent years, both on Kodiak Island and near Egegik, and admired them. Like many avid waterfowl hunters, I wondered if there would ever be another season for these cherished birds.
In the fall of 2017, Alaska's emperor goose season did open for the first time in some 30 years. Though it was only open to residents, and strict quotas were in place, it was a start, and every serious waterfowler had their eyes on it.
Mike Petrula, a waterfowl biologist of over 20 years with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, made clear there was no straight answer when asked what caused the decline in emperor geese. "It's one of those wildlife mysteries that wasn't noticed until more intense surveys could be done," Petrula said. "These geese winter in Alaska and their annual survival is low due to harsh conditions and their challenging lifestyle. Predation could also play a role."
Even today, precise counts on emperor geese can't be made as they are with other geese, due to the places they live, how spread out they are, and a lack of funding. "It's a very unique situation," Petrula confirms. "We have a bird that has not been hunted in 30 years, and they are not in very easy places to access, even for residents. On the other hand, we only have 8,000-9,000 residents who buy duck stamps each year, and most of them hunt early in the season, typically for the first few weekends."
While index numbers have been the focal point of recent emperor goose studies, there's no doubt these birds have rebounded. "The management plan was set so that once the three-year average of emperor geese was estimated to be 80,000 birds, then there would be a fall season," shares Jeff Wasley, owner and operator of Four Flyways Outfitters (608-385-4580). Wasley is more than a lifelong waterfowl hunter. In addition to being one of the best duck hunters I've hunted with and one of the most passionate when it comes to waterfowl conservation, he's also a former biologist, having worked throughout much of Alaska. He knows the state and its valued resources incredibly well, and is one of the most knowledgeable waterfowl hunters I've met, anywhere.
"Three or four years ago there really started being some big production, with broods of four to five goslings making it to Cold Bay," adds Wasley. "We have about 7,000 emperors that winter here, based on the last count I'm aware of, and a lot of birds pass through here and Izembek Lagoon every fall."
Wasley knew the season was coming, and started paying closer attention to emperor geese over the last few years, noting their behaviors and flight patterns. He knew he'd soon be guiding clients on these prized goose hunts. However, the 2017 resident-only emperor goose season in Alaska came and went, with more non-resident bearing interest than residents, or so it seemed.
One thousand emperor goose tags were issued to residents for the 2017 season, on a registration permit system. By mid-December 2017, only 103 geese were reported by hunters. "We were surprised that out of the 1,000 goose quota, so few were reported," shared Petrula. "Of these, 11 came from Izembek Lagoon, 67 from the Bristol Bay area and none from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta." More emperors were taken in other hunt zones. Hunters were under a mandatory reporting deadline upon harvest, and seasons were still going in some areas at the time of this writing.
"People, even residents, don't realize how costly it is to hunt remote parts of Alaska," clarifies Wasley, when asked why he thought hunter participation was so low. "Even for residents who got a tag, they had to fly to a remote place where emperor geese are, had to get access to a boat, decoys, find a place to stay, get food, and be ready to get weathered in for extended periods. It's far from easy when going about it on your own."
This is why Wasley started preparing to guide hunters once the emperor season finally opened. "It's like a big game hunt, but for birds," Wasley clarified. "Some hunters will likely only hunt for one of these geese in their lifetime, and I want to help them fulfill their dream." He even invested in a big, fancy boat when preparing for guiding emperor goose hunters, a bill that will likely take many seasons to pay off, but it's a boat that will help hunters find success and be safe the entire hunt.
Wasley laid eyes on his first emperor goose in 2002, and since then has seen thousands of them throughout Alaska. His passion for hunting coveted ducks and geese, including emperors, is contagious. Husband and wife team, Kyle and Gina Smith, sought out Wasley to help them fill their emperor tags.
"We'd hunted with Jeff before, on Saint Paul Island for king eiders, and knew we'd hunt with him again one day," noted Kyle. "And, here we are, two years later, going after emperor geese. Who would have believed it?"
Though Wasley had only two emperor tags to fill in camp that week, it wasn't until day four that the weather broke, allowing Kyle and Gina to get after their geese for the first time. In the mean time, we all hunted more protected waters, each taking limits of Pacific black brant while hunting from layout boats over decoys, a mix of trophy harlequin, long-tailed ducks, black scoter, red-breasted mergansers and even common and king eiders. When we couldn't waterfowl hunt due to severe winds, Wasley drove us to beaches where we hunted for glass floats, small glass balls that fisherman used to keep nets and long lines afloat. Between all of us, we hauled over 500 glass floats back to camp. One afternoon when the winds were raging, Wasley took us to protected valleys where we hiked and enjoyed great hunting for willow ptarmigan.
"If the weather isn't right, you can't hunt emperor geese," notes Wasley. "Emperors live in rugged habitat, and your gear has to be top-notch. You also have to know how to navigate in rough waters. This isn't your weekend goose hunt at the local pond, this is remote Alaska, which can be unforgiving."
Emperor geese are also called beach geese by the locals. The geese spend most of their time along the beaches, picking at kelp and searching for clams, snails and other animal matter. In early fall they can be seen on the tundra, foraging for various berries. But late in the season, November and December, is when you want to hunt emperors, when they are fully feathered. That's when Kyle and Gina Smith hunted them, and both shot trophy birds worthy of the wall.
As the tide continued dropping, Kyle moved the small spread of emperor decoys closer to water's edge. By the time Wasley arrived with Gina, all was in order.
"We're hoping they come from that direction," pointed Kyle as he explained to his wife what he'd seen. "That way the sun will be at our back, and it'll be easier to pick out an adult bird."
No sooner had we nestled into the long, dead grass when a flock of emperors approached from the east, but they swung wide. The flock behind them did the same thing. Then a flock of four nearly landed in the decoys, silently slipping in from behind us. Yet to fire a shot, Gina was patient, and it paid off.
When a string of emperors undulated over the distant shoreline, Gina got ready. Momentarily the flock vanished behind a rise, and when they appeared they were right on top of the decoys. Gina swung on the flock, waiting for a bird to separate, and when it did, she dropped it in the splashing surf. Soon the husband and wife team were exchanging hugs and kisses, as they just accomplished what so many waterfowl hunters will only dream of.
There's much mystery and intrigue surrounding emperor geese. Every serious waterfowler wants to hunt emperors, but in reality, few likely ever will. Yet, there is a chance. This year, the state of Alaska issued 25 non-resident emperor goose tags through a lottery (the deadline was in December if you want to try for '19...if the season stays open).
"Beyond this initial lottery drawing, there are no long-term plans," as far as future hunting opportunities, says Petrula. "We are learning as we go, along with the hunters, and there's no question there's a lot of interest from non-residents."
"They're a majestic bird, and the land and the elements in which we hunt them in remote Alaska are all part of what makes the emperor experience even more thrilling," said Wasley.
Toss in some exceptional black brant hunting, sea ducks, eiders and glass floats picked from the beach, and hunters will truly appreciate all that encapsulates what emperor goose hunting in Alaska is all about.