November 03, 2010
Georgia has long been famous for its quail hunting, Southern cooking and gracious hospitality. No matter where a visitor is from, he or she is made to feel welcome.
Perhaps the only famous person that hasn't visited here is George Washington--at least I've never seen a roadside marker confirming that ol' George slept here. Maybe I just missed the marker. What I didn't miss, however, was an opportunity to try the Peach State's unheard of goose hunting.
Recently my son, Tommy, and I traveled through the Georgia countryside with friend and fellow Florida Hunter Education Instructor, Bob McKenney, to meet another long-time friend and hunter, Don Story, of Jesup, Georgia, for a waterfowling excursion. Chris Martin had called me a few weeks before and invited us up to Griffin, Georgia, for the opening day of duck and goose season. Chris, a nationally known decoy carver, had assured me that it would be a trip that we wouldn't forget.
Having scouted the area, Chris had found ducks not far from his home on the Flint River and, as an added surprise, he had found geese that just couldn't be kept out of some nearby fields, no matter how hard the farmers tried.
Chris was quick to explain that since the 1960s, when Canada geese were transplanted from states north to Georgia, the flocks had thrived--just as in other parts of the country--to the point that they had become a problem. He attended the Waterfowl USA banquet the night before we arrived, and several of his friends told him of the destruction being caused by the geese. As he put it, they were begging us to help solve the problem before the geese ate them out of house and home.
The night before our hunt, we met with Chris at a friend's hunting lodge near Griffin where he had arranged for us to stay. He told us we would hunt in a field about an hour's drive north, so we needed to be up and moving by 4:30 a.m. to meet up with Darrel Dotson and Todd Dender for the drive north.
Although the alarm seemed to go off shortly after we went to sleep, the excitement of my 12-year-old prevented me from stealing a few more minutes of sleep. Soon we were dressed and on the road with black coffee and sweet rolls in hand.
Georgia harbors grand tradition for wonderful food and hospitality, not Canada goose hunting. Still, the geese are there, and a few Peach State hunters are taking advantage of recent seasons with modest but effective spreads.
Arriving at the farm before dawn, we got our gear and headed for the 10-acre pond where we were going to set up. At one end of the pond there was perfect natural cover for us to spread out and hide in.
As first light broke over the northern Georgia countryside, mallards sailed over the far end of the pond around the island. With a little subtle calling into Chris's hand-carved decoys, the birds' responded like they do in our dreams. One lone drake sailed off to the right, and Bob Mckenny downed him among the wooden blocks with one shot from his grandfather's 16 double gun loaded with Bismuth No. 6s. The next flight needed a little more persuading, but with the sweet notes of lovesick hens filling the air, they circled a few times and gave us a shot. Coming over the trees from behind, they split up as Chris dropped one in the decoys and I took a drake that was heading out past the island. In no time, Todd's lab had delivered the first one and was swimming hard for the last drake. "Good calling," Todd said. "We never had a chance to shoot at our end--by the time we saw them over the trees, they had turned on the afterburners and headed for the clouds."
The mallards would have been worth waiting for, but with a slowdown in the action we knew we needed to get into that goose field. So, we quickly packed up and headed for the field just a few hundred yards away.
Chris had placed the goose decoys out the night before, so all we had to do was lie down by the piles of hay and wait. We were spread out 50 yards apart among Chris's handmade silhouettes, a few shells and a few big-foots. The sky, was empty, however. After an hour of talking and joking, we all stood up and were laughing when suddenly "honk-honk-alonk" could be heard in the distance.
"Here they come boys," Chris said as we each tore off in a mad dash for our piles of hay. As everyone cut loose on goose calls, the geese appeared over the tall pines on the south end of the field. They circled as we moaned and clucked on the calls, then they locked up and turned into the wind like planes on final approach to the airport. Honking all the way, they rocked and sailed into the hillside and then began back-peddling as their massive wings slowed their progress. Two giant honkers sat down only 10 feet from Darrel, as Chris called the shot.
"Take 'em!" he yelled with a Georgia accent punctuated by shotgun blasts.
When the smoke cleared, none were prouder than the author's son Tommy (right) with his first goose--a Peach State giant Canada.
Half of the flock turned away and the other half flew over us. As we rose and shot, the big Canadas began falling like potato sacks all around us with loud thuds. One almost hit Darrel as he shot and then ducked for safety. Everybody was dropping big geese. Through all the chaos of geese honking and flapping their wings trying to get out of harm's way, we heard, "Daddy--I got one!" We laughed as my 12-year-old Tommy shouted and ran out to retrieve his first goose with a smile on his face as big as a Georgia peach. He was almost as proud as his father.
Bob Mckenny said, "If I hadn't been here to see it, I wouldn't have believed it." Most of the big birds had died in mid-air from the Bismuth 23⁄4-inch #2 shot. "Tom, you've made believers out of all of us about Bismuth."
As Todd and Tommy helped the dog retrieve, we stood in the Georgia countryside and took count of our shooting. A total of 10 huge geese were dropped by seven shooters. That's not bad at all. Poor Bob's old 16-gauge double had failed him, miss-firing both times due to firing pin problems. He said, "Every time I put the gun on a goose, it fell, and when I finally got to one that you guys hadn't hit, my gun failed me."
As he laughed, "That was some kind of shooting guys. You all just kept dropping them like you were shooting anti-aircraft guns." Beaming from ear to ear, Tommy walked around the field with his first goose like a kid with a new toy as we recounted the events to each other. "Now that's what it is all about, seeing your son happy and excited," said Chris.
"He's made our day, seeing him kill his first goose and then running around showing it off to all of us as if it were a crown jewel.'' Don Story, too, had killed his first goose, so we all had enjoyed a good morning hunt in an unlikely waterfowling state. As we picked up the decoys and headed for the trucks with geese in hand, the ditty, "Peach Picking Time in Georgia" could be heard throughout the field.
That night we all gathered at Chris's home in Griffith for a fried turkey and rice casserole dinner that Chris's lovely wife found time to prepare between her law school classes. While there, I had a chance to wander into Chris's shop and see all of his decoys in varying stages of development. On one shelf there were several outstanding bluewing teal that a customer from Texas had ordered. It has been rumored that one of them was thinking about migrating to Florida, but I can't confirm this. It turns out that those decoys were for a friend, Ken Leven, who works for Bismuth in Dallas, Texas.
All around the shop, there were beautifully carved and painted brant, widgeon, teal, wood ducks and mallards. I asked Chris how long he had been carving full-time and he said about 10 years. He also said that he had found a job that he loves and had a talent for that allows him to express himself in wood and, at the same time, be paid for it.
Chris Martin is one of the best-kept secrets in the State of Georgia. If you ever get the chance to see his work you will know what I mean.
Cat, Chris's young daughter, played with Tommy while we talked and soon she found her way to daddy's lap, asked about the geese and blew a call from time to time. It was a nice way to end the trip--with loving families and children all around.
Tommy and I hated to head for home, but we knew we would be back for next year's opening day with good friends at our side and new stories to tell in the Peach State. We will all remember the hospitality and kind people of Georgia that made us feel so welcome.
Tom Long is a freelance writer from Jacksonville, Florida, and is an avid waterfowler and Florida Hunter Education Instructor. He is also an NSCA Certified Level II Shooting Instructor and can be reached at 904/223-4844.
|PEACH STATE CANADAS
| If you plan a trip to the Peach State, don't overlook the possibility of a goose hunt. Georgia has a resident population of geese that is estimated to be around 45,000, with the largest concentration on the major reservoirs in the Piedmont area. Larger reservoirs like Sinclair, Juliette, West Point, Clark Hill and Lake Seminole have grassy areas around them that the geese love. Resident geese in Georgia will feed on open fields and farm ponds in the area. In north Georgia, geese can be found on Lake Hartwell and Lake Lanier near Atlanta.
Both Clark Hill Lake and Lake Juliette have planted fields that are maintained by the state for goose hunting. While Georgia may never have goose hunting like some other states, the total population of resident geese seems to be on the rise. Who knows, maybe some day we may be transplanting some of the Peach State geese back to the areas in the north.