April 09, 2021
Following a tough year in which many of the best-laid plans seemed to fall through, this adventure was coming together perfectly. Early March found us at the Black Duck Lodge just outside Stuttgart, Arkansas, on a snow goose safari to test the new Browning Maxus ll 12 gauge. We met up with Matt Ekren’s crew from Dirty Bird Outfitters, a bunch of guys with a formidable reputation for being in the right place at the right time and putting birds on the ground.
Is there any better deal for a waterfowler than getting to hunt clear into March? We get to extend our magazine tubes, our bag limits and our hunting season, all while visiting the epicenter of all that is waterfowling culture — the beating heart of the Mississippi flyway. The lodge is right on the Bayou Meto, the best place on earth to chase mallards in flooded timber.
But we were here for geese, not greenheads. If ever there is a need for a shotgun that is reliable and soft-kicking, it's on a snow goose hunt. Hiding in the blood and the mud and chopped up crops, chaff and rice, the field dirt that is never-ending. Hunting from layout blinds is tough on any gun, and firing from awkward ground positions can impact how guns cycle. And instead of firing a handful of shells, you'll likely be running through boxes — and possibly cases.
Wildfowl publisher Laden Force, who helped organize this adventure, happens to know his way around a gun and had strapped Briley extended mag tubes on our new 12 gauges. Aftermarket parts engineered by folks different from the manufacturer can sometimes cause hiccups. Since everything was being filmed, I was relieved to quickly see that this would not be a problem with the Maxus ll, and the Briley team had clearly gotten things right. The new guns would quickly get the Wildfowl Seal of Approval, and are among the softest-kicking and cleanest running autoloaders I’ve had the privilege of shooting. In the snow goose conservation season — which typically starts when all normal duck and goose seasons end — bag limits are off and shooting hours are even tweaked to give hunters an advantage as populations of lessers in our flyways are still greatly in excess of biologists’ target goals for these tough birds that have moon-scaped part of their arctic breeding grounds.
All over the US, most hunters this time of year start thinking about chasing turkeys in hopes of shooting one bird. We, on the other hand, were looking for a no-limits lights-out goose-nado. Visions in our heads for months in advance were of being underneath thousands of snow geese spinning downward to start a big feed. That’s the dream. But in truth, only about one in four days of snow goose hunting turns into something special — and that's only if you are with a good outfit. When it happens though, you will never forget it. Our hopes on this trip were rightfully high. An arctic blast in late February had reportedly stalled the migration for weeks, and we were hoping to meet up on March 4 and intercept those bottlenecked birds.
We had a crew of killers, foremost among them the renowned trap shooter Foster Bartholow, a most amiable member of the Browning family and a serious snow goose hunter. Big Jim McConville from Ohio made a celebrity appearance. A national sales manager for Wildfowl, “Jimmy Mack” is among the most avid waterfowlers that walk the earth. The Force was with us, and as an industry veteran at a young age, Laden would work hard to capture all of it on film between every rain-out mag-dump he could join in. He is Wildfowl’s publisher and an architect of the North American Whitetail empire, but foremost a north Missouri country boy who chases feathers at any opportunity. Aaron Oelger was on hand to join the fun and make new friends, another seasoned outdoorsman who has been there and done that. Aaron heads up marketing for Hodgdon reloading and gunpowder, the largest such entity. He would become a big fan of snow goose meat on this trip.
And that’s exactly what we were hoping for — lots of reloading, gunpowder in the air and meat on the ground. But we were informed upon arrival exactly what every destination-bound waterfowler does not want to hear: the birds had mostly left. Migrators in Missouri and Kansas that had been crushed by the cold, sent south again to Arkansas in a reverse migration, had rushed north in mass exodus again the minute the first few thawing days hit at the end of February. In a strange twist, this time they took all the young birds with them.
We would be stuck hunting the stragglers, the final crumbs of the migration, and the big flocks of immature birds we prayed for from the south would not happen. But we would score a tremendous hunt anyway.
Snow goose hunters pray to hit a juvenile migration. You see, snow geese can live over 20 years — four times the lifespan of a trophy whitetail buck — and that makes them all but impossible to fool. But the youngsters are less than a year old. Nature designed the migration so the stronger, older birds go north first, seeking the most food and prime nesting spots. The ‘juvies’ linger, gaining strength and eating, unconcerned with moving north quickly to breed.
That creates the window of decoy-able younger birds for the hunter, better-eating immature geese that can be fooled even when there is no wind to force their landing. That's true even if you don’t possess 10,000 decoys spread visible from space. This time, they were mostly gone, yet it would not spell doom for our trip. Something this old bird hunter had never seen was about to unfold, and we were holding the right tool for the job!
I first fired a Browning Maxus on a Manitoba goose hunt 10 years prior, and was impressed with the light-in-the-hands feel of the gun, and how well the group shot it overall. That is always a great tell about a gun’s design — if people can universally run it well, including some in the group who maybe had not shot a whole lot.
Browning has taken a terrific gun and improved it — a lot! And while it's easy to have a crush on a gun you've killed dozens of geese with over a few days, it makes it so much nicer for a gun writer when the thing just works. We put way more rounds through these guns than they were even designed for by using those extended tubes.
It doesn’t hurt that the Maxus is easily one of the best-looking synthetic stocked guns out there, with its burnt bronze Cerakote finish giving it a soft golden sheen, coupled with gorgeous highlights on the receiver on the Wicked Wing models. Browning has never bought into the “strictly functional” mentality and always has an eye toward aesthetics in its designs, knowing hunters want to hold a gun they enjoy looking at as much as shooting.
And I’ll be honest. The goose band replica screw-in chokes are a really nice touch.
The Powerdrive gas system is the core of the Maxus auto. In an uncharacteristic boast for a conservative company with arguably the best history of innovation in firearms, the Browning website says it “outperforms every other shotgun built.” With exhaust ports that dump gases faster on heavy loads, the new model’s piston has a 20-percent longer stroke for better reliability with light loads. An enclosed seal (patented) design keeps powder residue out of the action for cleaner operation.
We made it a point to never clean these guns, so we saw it in action hunting day after day in tough conditions, firing high-capacity with hot waterfowl loads, and we can testify. This gun runs. At 7 pounds, it's lightweight yet doesn’t punish the shooter.
A few points of interest on the new Maxus ll:
- Comes in many Realtree and Mossy Oak patterns, plus the Wicked Wing Vintage Tan, and other designs along with wood configurations
- Burnt Bronze Cerakote camo receiver finish, Burnt Bronze Cerakote barrel finish on some models
- New SoftFlex Cheek Pad increases shooting comfort
- New oversize bolt release and bolt handle
- New composite stock can be trimmed and is shim adjustable for cast, drop and length of pull
- New rubber overmolding on stock and forearm add grip in all conditions
- New screw-on magazine cap
- New trigger guard is ramped for easier loading
- Nickel Teflon Coating on the bolt, bolt slide, shell carrier, bolt release and bolt handle protect and add lubricity
- Lightweight magazine tube reduces weight
- Chrome chamber and bore increase durability and corrosion resistance
- Fiber-optic front sight and ivory mid-bead
- ABS hard case included
- Three extended Invector-Plus Goose Band choke tubes included (F, M, IC)
Dawn broke that first morning with a whimper. It wasn't goosy at all with zero wind and an overcast 30 degrees with no birds murmuring through the air. I was anxious. Had we brought this group together at a serious time and expense for nothing? But a half-hour into sunrise several small groups worked their way to us and in no time we had a dozen birds on the ground. Most of the birds were stark-white adults, the tough ones to lure.
We all enjoyed watching groups of specklebelly geese work in and finish feet down over the massive feed zone. We were running only 12 dozen full bodies on a windless day, and still killing geese. A small decoy spread, and I asked Matt Ekren about it.
“Everyone else is throwing everything at them and you can actually stand out with a smaller spread,” he explained. “They are looking for reasons to not come in.”
Which is why we were hiding off to the side, not in the spread where the birds would be looking. We decoyed and shot at about 50-75 percent of the birds we saw. I have never seen anything like it. Normally, 99 percent of snow geese ignore you.
It was remarkable. We killed 25 in morning and 15 more in evening, burning through the Browning Wicked Blend, a mix of steel and Bismuth BBs and 1s in both 3” and 3.5”. The next morning was more overcast and much slower despite good wind and cold, and we still killed over 20 due to the Dirty Bird crew posting us up on a flight line.
The last day was a treat, with ideal sunny, windy and cool conditions, but clearly the birds were mostly gone. But again, we would have great success for the low number of birds in the area. I deliberately alternated 3.5” shells and 3” shells through the Maxus to see if it would cause problems, and it did not. Foster coached our Winnercomm videographer Adam Hansen to his first goose ever, one he took home for the wall.
Crop dusters were throwing lazy loops on the horizon like drunken fighter pilots as our last day wound down, and we left sunburned. Mission complete! We’d enjoyed one last session busting white geese, learning plenty along the way: We shot many snows over guide Will Jeffries specklebelly goose hand-calling, which made a clear impact.
I hate it when a gun comes along that I just have to buy after field testing it, and my wife is never thrilled either, but it's safe to say that my safe is where this one is headed.
Learn more about the Maxus at browning.com, and check out the coming article in WILDFOWL magazine this fall.