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The World According to Bill Saunders

Wildfowl interviews the goose calling and waterfowl guiding legend.

The World According to Bill Saunders

Bill Saunders gets to say he’s made a living out there doing just what he dreamed about. Today, for us hunters of waterfowl, he gets to say a few more things too. (Photo By: Jeff Moore)

Bill Saunders’ beard beard is turning a little gray around the edges these days. Understandable. He’s been in the field grinding it out for the last three decades as a full-time waterfowl guide, not to mention one of America’s top-shelf call makers.

Signs of experience show. And by all indications, Bill is wearing them well. Quietly confident and gritty as ever, he’ll be the first to tell you why the Canadas didn’t finish for you today, why the true measure of a waterfowler isn’t about piles or likes. And why he’ll be the first one in the blind tomorrow morning.

The World According to Bill Saunders

Wildfowl: Let’s not start at your very beginning. When did you first feel that you were an influence in the waterfowling world?

Bill Saunders: You know, honestly, I still feel like I’m 19, at least in my brain sometimes. So I don’t feel like I’m, for lack of a better way of saying it, a “big deal” or “influence.” A lot of times, I feel like I’m still one of the guys coming up in the ranks...until I look in the mirror.

When did I feel like an influence? Probably one of the first calling contests I won. At the time there was no other measure of being a waterfowler. It feels good and you can tell you get a different level of respect from your peers and other waterfowlers.

WF: Did it propel you?

BS: I just wanted to keep bettering myself, in everything.

WF: You are one of the few call makers who is also a full-time professional guide. Is that an edge?

BS: Being a guide and making calls, I always felt I may have had a leg up on the other guys.  Because you know, I am out here grinding, man! Not to say others don’t.  But I’m doing it for a living. And if I’m not successful, I’m out of a job and I don’t want a real job. That would suck. But hey, it always put me in touch with what the birds wanted.

bill saunders holding snow geese in field
In addition to being a recognized competition goose caller and call maker, Bill Saunders is making a living as a waterfowl hunting guide. (Photo By: Jeff Moore)

WF: But how does that seep into your calls?

BS: I’ll say this—there are sounds and calls for calling customers. There are sounds and calls for calling judges. And there are sounds and calls for killing geese.

And I’ve always been a hunter first.  When you’re hunting tough birds, you’re gonna have to sound a little bit different.

WF: And the variety of calls you make helps that too?

BS: The whole reason I started building calls was because of the need to match the voices of the birds I was hunting.  When I started, there wasn’t a call dedicated for calling Lessers or Cacklers or Tavs, or Aleutians or any of the sub-species. Tim Grounds’ Half- Breed had a higher scratch but that was about it. And all the models, first and foremost, match the sounds of the birds hunted and because everybody is looking for something different. And then finally, waterfowlers are like walleye fishermen. I need to have every plug there is in my box cause you never know what day that one is gonna get bit.

WF: So what trends are you now seeing out there?

BS: The trend right now: Everyone wants a super easy blowing goose call. You could fart in it and make it honk. And I get it. Everyone wants to sound good. Like they’re on stage, like 5 million geese. On the stage, that is fine. In the end, with the lighter-tuned stuff, you’re asking the geese, “Hey come on over here. I’m asking you to come on over.” And with something harder-tuned, you’re telling them, “Get your ass over here. NOW!” That’s the difference between a light-tuned call and something that takes a little more air, something that’s a little more difficult to run.

WF: You make 28 different calls. What’s on your lanyard right now?

BS: I run an old Hensley lanyard which only has two drops on it. And I have on my goose lanyard my Traffic, maple-burled mouthpiece and acrylic insert, #0000, that I use 99.9 % of the time. And the other goose call is a prototype of a new honker call. On my duck lanyard, I have a Fox duck call and a Clutch duck call. Both acrylic calls. One with a wood barrel.

WF: Your most popular goose call is still the Traffic?

BS: The Traffic and probably The Big Spin.

WF: What’s their greater appeal?

BS: The Traffic is iconic. Been around. Just works. Just kills them. A sound, a yap you just don’t get with our other calls. The Big Spin is an easier blowing Traffic

WF: What would you say about the musical quality in goose calling?

BS: Well yeah. I’ve been around guys that are tone deaf in operating a call (laughs). You have to be able to listen to a goose and know when you run that call, it’s sounding like what’s coming out of the real bird. That takes an ear. We’ll call it a musical ear. You have to have that. But I go through this with everybody…you can’t just sing a song and think they’ll come to it. You got to command those birds. You got to have power.

In contests, music comes into play. Because you have to play a pleasing “song” for the judges. Good flow. A melody. No sour notes.

WF: So how does one improve his calling ear?

BS: Well, you got to be around birds. And you got to listen to how birds react to the calling birds. A lot of that just doesn’t happen anymore. Spend the time. A lot of callers learn how to call by watching other callers on the internet now. That’s not how you do it. Witness and participation. That’s the only way.

WF: You’re known by a lot of people as someone who doesn’t call a lot out in the field. Can you talk a bit about restraint in calling?

BS: Yes, there’s different styles. My style is trying to be as realistic as possible. I mean if a goose is coming at you, and he’s doing exactly what you want him to, why would I call at him? I’ve always looked at calling as one of my tools—or a secret weapon or something. Therefore, I don’t always want to show them all my cards. Don’t want to use all my weapons on them if I don’t have to. If you listen to me, yeah, I don’t call a lot. I can. And will at times. But if I can feel like I can get it done with less, I will. Because next time I run into the same birds we’ve shot at before, if I showed them all my calling, they’ll be harder to get. It’s a level of educating birds.

WF: Speaking of learning, what kinds of new hunters are you seeing out there?

BS: I’m seeing a lot of guys who are really into it. A lot of guys who are doing it the right way. And a lot who are doing it the wrong way.

WF: I imagine some of those on the internet will look at you as a bit “Old School.” How does “Old School” play in this world of internet instructions and Instagram posts?

BS: “Old school” to me is someone who has experience. Instagram followers doesn’t equal experience, doesn’t equal time in the field, doesn’t equal calling titles. Don’t get me wrong. I like social media. It’s fun.  Shows how everyone’s doing. I love the real side of things. But there’s too much fake. Most of the guys who’ve been around for a while can see through the fake and know. But the up and comers…the new waterfowlers…who I think don’t see through it and so they buy into it.

WF: This year was the first year the State of Washington allowed electronic callers in your Spring Snow Goose season. Did you go out and use them? How did that feel as a long-time reed goose call maker?

BS: I thought it was f*cking awesome. I’ve had experience in e-callers elsewhere and it was not a giant surprise. But our e-caller season was as good as anywhere.  Of course, the e-caller was the game changer. Hands down the best thing they could have done to help us shoot them. I knew it would be that way.

Just like calling with reed calls, there’s a science to the e-caller. Everybody thinks “just turn it on and here they come.” No!

A lot of people didn’t know this, but I was so successful this year because there were some times I wouldn’t even turn the e-caller on. I would leave it off until I felt I needed it. Comes back to educating the flock.

goose hunters in a goose pit
Saunders suggests sometimes the best goose calling strategy is not calling at all. (Photo By: Jeff Moore)

WF: You really want to share that secret?

BS: You can tell them. You know, we’re always secretive and we don’t want people to know what we’re doing. But in the end… you’ve still got to go out there and have the desire and drive to do it day in and day out. 110%.

WF: That’s the Bill Saunders way?

BS: The thing I still tell my guides: Chess not checkers. That’s Old School. That’s experience. That’s witness and participation. I’m playing chess when everyone else is playing checkers.

WF: Let’s talk more on those Snow Geese. Where you hunt, in Eastern Washington, are you witnessing changes in their behavior?

BS: Well, goose habits/goose hunting in the Basin have definitely changed. 15 years ago, if you were able to shoot a snow, it was a really big deal. Now, I bet they outnumber our Canadas 10 to 1. Everyone says they’ve pushed Canadas out of the traditional places. The dark geese are kinda off the beaten path now. Off the traditional roosts. We still have good numbers of Canada geese…but it’s just not what it used to be. But who really knows where they’re at?

big flock of snow geese snow goose hunting
Snow goose populations are shifting into Eastern Washington providing new opportunities to hunt them. (Photo By: Jeff Moore)

WF: And what about the other waterfowl—the Sandhill Crane?  You’ve made a call for them. How did that come about?

BS: Came about from my Pro Staff. Namely the guys who hunt where there’s a lot of crane hunting, in Texas. They were asking for a call that was, again, easier to operate and realistic-sounding. But coming back to the musical ear comment, if you ever listen to them, there’s a tone that is similar to a goose. In the end, I was able to make a really uncomplicated call. I got to give it to the pro staff guys in Texas…They really helped me with the REX.

WF: And the reviews?

BS: Terrific. It fits the bill for what they’ve been asking for.


WF: Let’s switch to guiding. After almost 30 years, is it getting any easier?

BS: Ahhh…yeah. The equipment is definitely better—clothing, calls, decoys. I am smarter. Like the old adage: Hunt smarter. Not harder. Birds can still be definitely tougher than they have been. You know, we should have started this interview like I started every seminar. I simply said, ‘Everything that I’m going to tell you….. at one point or another ….I’ll be able to contradict.’  So when we talk about hunting, I need to get across I’m talking in general. But overall, yeah it’s getting easier.

WF: As far as the guides or pro staff who work for you, what do you look for?

BS: When I started my guide service, (Big Guns Waterfowl Outfitters) I wanted my guides to be as close to a reflection of hunting with me as it could be. As it grew, things changed. All the other guides brought something special. But today, my main things are: Are you honest? Are you a hard worker? Are you respectful of the game? Do you have the attributes that I think I have? If you have those, we’re gonna get along fine. Those are the guys I want. It’s worked for me all these years. I am sure it’s worked for others too.

WF: You’ve often said that one of your mentors was Tim Grounds. How does one find the right mentor? Or any at all?

BS: Exactly the conversation we just had.  When I looked at Tim, he had a passion for the sport.  He was a guide. Sean Mann, same thing. Like anything else, you want to surround yourself with people who are like-minded, successful in the field. And besides, they were the only people who would talk to me. (Laughing). I was obsessed.

WF: Finally, what’s the best thing about being Bill Saunders?

BS: That I get to go walleye fishing whenever I want…

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