The High Plains Offer Good Canada Goose Shooting -- If You're Willing To Work Through the Distractions To Get To Them
We had been hunting Canadas on several hundred acres of corn stubble, land opened by an agreement between the state and the landowner specifically for hunting. There are hundreds of thousands of acres of similar plots stretching across Montana and North Dakota, and, despite the inevitable grumbling that follows any government program, I've found such plots good more often than not. In this case, my friend Bill had done all the legwork, scouting flights and lining up access ahead of time. All the better for lazy me.
We'd driven in on the far side of the field, towing Bill's trailer full of silhouette decoys behind us. Two hours later, we decided to exit through a different gate, one that was closer to the county road. I walked down to open the gate while Bill finished loading decoys, camo netting and a pile of dead geese.
A wing-waver silhouette can help lure in the geese.
Wire gates are a study in shade-tree engineering. They're ubiquitous out West. Although I've probably opened ten thousand, I've yet to find one I liked. I didn't like this one, either.
It was almost as high as I am tall, stretched taut as a violin string, and 20 feet across, bad news from every angle. The worst thing you can do with a wire gate is let it get away; but the moment I pried off the wire latch, it shot out of my hands like a giant slinky, windmilling through the air and landing in a jumble of hopelessly twisted wire and wooden fence posts.
Fifteen minutes of futile detangling attempts later, we heard a door slam and the farmer stalked up, his feed cap yanked angrily over his eyes. He waved me out of the way and began sorting through the strands of barbed wire with his thick fingers, picking them apart one by one. Then he stretched out the gate, jerked his thumb at Bill to drive through and shoved the gate back in my hands before stomping away.
"Sorry," I called after him.
So much for hospitality in the Wild West. Not all the locals are as lively as that guy, but there are plenty of geese that will talk to you if you hit the right notes. The major drainages of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, which run through Montana and merge just over the border in North Dakota, provide natural staging areas in both states. North Dakota has the added advantage of several huge Missouri River impoundments. But it is corn that draws Canadas.
In the west, water is the lifeblood of agriculture. Rivers provide irrigation for water-loving crops like corn and sugar beets, and in December, when the crops have been harvested, the geese arrive -- first by the hundreds, then by the tens of thousands. Of course, they don't all arrive at once and they don't all arrive in the same place, which means that, no matter how many geese there may potentially be, you have to find them first.
Bill and I have an agreement: I take him bird hunting over my pointers and he takes me waterfowl hunting over his retrievers. But Bill isn't living up to his end, because he doesn't own a retriever. I milk his sense of guilt and get one or two goose trips and a handful of duck hunts out of him every season.
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Concealed from prying eyes.
Instead, Bill has a pointer, Jimmy, who is about as useless in a goose blind as I am in a one-legged sack race. But Lord, Jimmy loves to run. A day or so after the gate incident we drove onto a vast plateau of alfalfa stubble which Bill had determined the birds were flying over on their way to nearby cornfields. Bill dropped the tail gate, threw our sacks of decoys on the ground and let Jimmy out to stretch his legs. Jimmy poked around the truck, peed on a bush and seemed to be behaving himself. But by the time we had set out the last of our silhouettes, he had disappeared.
I stared at the horizon, extending across miles of pool-table-flat crop land in every direction. How could he have run out of sight so quickly?
"Damn!" Bill explained.
I volunteered to look for him, but 20 minutes of driving produced not a glimpse of the pure-white dog. I drove back shaking my head and handed Bill the keys. Bill tore off in a cloud of dust, and a few minutes later I watched his truck stop at a distant spread another group of hunters had set up, then intermittently disappear into one ravine, only to appear in the next ravine over. From time to time I'd hear the faint, furious blast of a whistle. Finally, Bill chugged back up again. Jimmy was in the front seat, as pleased as he can be. Bill shot out of the truck and started barking orders, then pointed to the west. Sure enough, I could see several dark, wavering lines of geese. I grabbed my gun and trotted over to my coffin blind, zipped myself in and started flagging while Bill ditched his truck in a ravine and then raced back to his blind, the calls around his neck jangling.
But the first flock flared just on the edge of range. Here, a half day's flight from the Canadian border, you'd think the geese would be gullible, but that's rarely the case. I don't know how many times they'd been shot at before they got to us, but they certainly saw something they didn't like and decided to take the high road -- 80 yards up, much too far for a shot. Flock after flock veered away and to the south, where from time to time we heard the distant pop of gunfire. Finally, a small flock came in low over the stubble and Bill dumped a pair of them. The remaining birds balled up in panic and then slid away, honking mournfully.
On the high prairies, where what passes for cover might be grass or corn stubble a scant few inches high, camouflage is everything. Bill, who has an anal streak to begin with, is obsessive about grassing in his ground blinds and coffins, but as much as I hate to agree with him, he's probably right. A blind has to look like a small and insignificant rise in the topography, not a sudden hump surrounded by plastic dekes, no matter how photographically precise their plumage. Bill has a bag of prairie grass he's painstakingly tied in clumps and dyed in shades or brown, gray and black, which we tie to his coffin blinds and intersperse with any other vegetation that's handy. Sometimes there's not much to work with. But when done right, the effect is amazing -- the blinds virtually melt into the ground. On one trip, a magpie landed on Bill's coffin, hopped up his chest and peered, perplexed, under the brim of his c
amo hat before Bill took a swipe at it, a split second too late.
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Hailing far-away geese.
The previous afternoon, we'd set up along a fence line in grass that was only marginally denser than the ankle-high alfalfa and corn stubble that surrounded us. We'd seen the birds circling above during a scouting foray the evening before, which is as much a part of goose hunting as calling in birds and pulling the trigger.
Scouting with Bill is never boring. He races down back roads, gravel flying, until he spots a flock, then stops and digs out his binoculars from the drifts of camo clothing, calls, photography equipment and candy bar wrappers on the front seat. Wind blasts through the driver's-side window, which Bill never closes. Between bursts of invective he scans his list of area farmers. Some men have little black books filled with the names of girlfriends; Bill's little black book is filled with names like Orville and Vern.
But you have to give the guy credit; he knows how to work a room. As far as I know, he's never been a salesman, but he's a natural. At lunch at the local café, or at the 5:30 a.m. breakfast in a room tacked on the back of the corner grocery store, he strikes up conversations with farmers he's never met like they were brothers separated at birth, and before I know it, they're telling us where the birds are. He's been hunting out here long enough that by now almost everybody seems to know him. And by golly, after being worked over by Bill, they don't seem to mind a bit if we try our luck on their place. Which is how we found the fence line.
From the slit in the hood of a coffin blind, you can see the birds coming from a mile away -- first a faint, bee-like cluster as they lift off the river, then a dark, wavering line, and finally individual birds. But what gets my heart pounding is the noise -- the cacophony of a hundred geese calling, joined to the calls Bill and I send up into the blue prairie skies after them, blowing so hard that sometimes I have to pause to rest my lips and throat.
With decoys on my left and a barren fence line that stretched for a mile or more to my right, it seemed there was no way the birds could miss seeing us. Flock after flock lifted off the river and flew directly over our setup. Before us were dozens of silhouettes, as well as a wing-waver that I have my doubts about but Bill loves, especially since he's designated me the official wing-waver operator. So, between toots on my new call, I yanked on a string that snaked out from inside my blind, between my feet and into the decoys. Dutifully, the wing-waver waved, an avian siren signaling all's well to the homesick sailors above. I would have rather called, but maybe that was the point. Bill has heard me call.
Several large flocks flew over but never dropped within range. Finally, a half-dozen birds flew in on the tails of a departing flock, 50 yards off the deck. Bill went to work on his call while I yanked frantically on my string. At a hundred yards they cupped their wings and began dropping into our spread, slipping the air to lose elevation, silent as they focused on our decoys. At 50 yards I began to tense up, waiting for the pre-arranged signal from Bill telling me to shoot. At 30 I still hadn't heard from him. At 20 yards he opened up.
This wasn't the way we'd planned it, but by God I can take a hint. I threw back the hood on my blind and slid to my butt, my 870 coming up to my cheek. By now, the geese looked like B-52's and were scrambling for altitude. I fired once and a bird crumpled and fell. Bill fired again and another bird joined the one he'd already laid to rest. And then suddenly it was quiet again and both of us were smiling.
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Author, goose and trusty 870.
You never know what you're going to get into out here. Bill and I have shot everything from mallards to cacklers to Greater Canadas, which the birds we've just shot may well be. They're huge -- probably 10 to 12 pounds each. Lessers? Greaters? Beats me. All I know is, they're beautiful.
In December and January, there may be no colder place on earth than the high prairies, and the rivers, where the geese roost at night can get so frigid that it surprises me the birds don't freeze into avian statuary. But up above, on the stubble fields above the bottomlands, it can be relatively warm and occasionally downright balmy. That trip was one of those days. By the time Bill and I had set out our decoys, we were both sweating, and by the time we picked them up again and loaded them on his trailer, it had finally cooled enough to be comfortable. Our next trip wouldn't be so pleasant.
When next we visited this country on a two-day hunt, Bill pulled into the far side of a cornfield and began tossing bags of decoys off his trailer, periodically beating his frozen hands against his thighs. We hadn't scouted this field, but it was obvious we didn't have to. From one end to another it was covered with frozen goose poop and the fossil-like tracks of Canadas pressed into the rock-hard mud. Bill decided we'd set up our blinds right here.
"Here?" I said. I stared at the ankle-deep goose poop around my feet.
I've pretty much given up trying to help Bill set out decoys -- I've yet to place them in a way that seems to suit him -- so I resigned myself to chipping out a level place in the frozen poop and erecting our coffin blinds. By the time I got them grassed-in, we could hear the birds stirring on the river, and Bill was rushing about putting the finishing touches on the spread before diving into his truck and racing to hide it in a clump of trees a quarter mile away. Ten minutes later he came shuffling back, chuffing out steam.
And then we waited. It seemed to take a long time for the birds to stop talking and start moving, but when they did, they just kept coming. I yanked on the wing-waver to beat the band, interspersing my calls with Bill's. Flock after flock sailed directly into our decoys, and at one time we had four birds hit the earth almost simultaneously. That was a huge ego boost for me. Bill, who, despite his ugly-as-sin 870, is one of the best wingshots I've hunted with, took it all in stride. But I am not one of the best wingshots anybody has ever hunted with, and I wanted to hoop and holler and dance around the decoys. By 10 a.m. the smoke had cleared, and we had eight geese between us -- the best day, Bill told me, he'd had all season. It was a short-lived euphoria. Across the field, a wire gate was waiting. But right then, all I could think about was