Cowboy Canadas

There are geese From the Dakotas to the Rockies...and plenty of places to hunt them.

Gunning over the dekes.

That left me with a couple dozen decoys still to set out. I have something of a laissez-faire toward decoy placement; as far as I'm concerned, where ever I put them is exactly where they're supposed to be. I made nice little family groups of decoys around our blinds. I figured they'd look like they were talking to each other.


Bill pulled up a few minutes later with the Jimster in the front seat, where he stayed for the rest of the morning.


Not long afterward we heard shooting in the distance. In goose-hunting circles, anyone who isn't with your party is a son of a bitch. A pair of sons of bitches had set up several hundred yards away, one of the hazards of hunting on land open to everybody. We glared. They were in position to intercept every flock that came our way. Unfortunately for them, no flocks came our way.

It was hard to believe. With the river, a major staging area, less than two miles behind us, the geese would have had to fly directly over our heads to their roost, but nothing was moving. The vast and blue western skies are lonesome indeed when the geese aren't flying. Where had they gone? Taken a cab?


This kind of bad luck means one thing to Bill: a change in venue. So we packed up the entire set--decoys, blinds, wing-wavers, the whole nine yards--and moved them 400 yards west. With just an hour of daylight left, the rapid redeployment took on aspects of a Chinese fire drill. Decoys flew out of the back of Bill's Toyota. I raced out into the dim light dragging the ground blinds behind me. Bill rammed silhouettes into the frozen ground as fast as he could haul them in place. Finally, scant minutes before the close of legal shooting time, a half dozen stragglers winged by, which Bill managed to turn. I wisely kept my call in my coat. Bill killed one bird from the flock; I missed.

Unlike public lands, which are often managed for wildlife, walk-in lands are a lot like private lands everywhere--some of them are good and some aren't worth hunting on. It is a rare landowner who does hands-on habitat enhancement, and the area descriptions in state publications are usually more hypothetical than real, so it's well worth your while to scout out several areas ahead of time. Fortunately, geese are more concerned with food than cover, so scouting consists primarily of driving the roads until you spot a flock, then lining up access. This is Bill's job, and I repay his diligence by taking him into the uplands after Huns and blue grouse. As you might imagine, I'm a popular guy with the Jimster.

Still, timing is everything. In our field of operations, geese move in sometime after mid November, but during a warm fall--and we've been seeing more and more of those--they may not arrive until December, if at all. Miserable, freezing weather gets the birds off the dime, so when the thermometer bottoms out, we drive onto the high prairies expecting great things.

Two winters ago we arrived at a plot of state (public) land a couple hours before sunset. It must have been pushing zero, and with a steady gale from the north, the frigid wind cut to the bone. There's not much you can do when it's that cold. I had on everything I owned, and still my hands were freezing. Bill's friend Duncan and I began hauling bags of decoys from Bill's truck and tossing them over a barbed wire fence while Bill shed his gloves and began hammering them in place just a few dozen yards from the road.

Flagging for attention.

It was slow going. At one point Bill helplessly held up his hands. His fingers had simply stopped working. I scrambled for my pack and dug out a spare pair of mittens, which I had to help him put on. He hopped around for a minute or two with his mittened hands shoved under his armpits while Duncan and I tried to chip away shallow trenches for the three coffin blinds we'd dragged into place. I was concerned about Bill's fingers; since I had no intention of taking off my gloves, he was going to need enough circulation in his hands to work his call.

I looked around. We were on a patch of weedy dirt and less than 100 yards from the road. Yet the birds seemed to love the place. We'd watched geese trade overhead for the last hour, and had hardly crawled into our blinds when the first flock came in, just off the deck and heading straight for the decoys. Bill kept up a steady chatter on his call and I chipped in with a muffled honk or two. At 30 yards out the birds sensed they'd been had, but by then it was too late. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Bill throwing his blind open and quickly followed suit. Two birds dropped over Bill and Duncan and I killed one apiece. The geese kept coming, but by then it was almost too dark too shoot and Duncan and I were too cold to care. By the time we'd gone through the laborious process of gathering up decoys, blinds, dead geese and guns, all I could think about was crawling into my warm bed back at the motel.

Elsewhere in the country geese typically stage on reservoirs, but in much of the west and Dakotas the reservoirs have long since frozen by the time the bulk of the flights wing their way south from Canada. Rivers are where the action is, and the bigger they are, the longer they take to freeze. Tailwater streams--streams below dams--can also be good. I've known goose and duck hunters who kill time between flights by fly-fishing for trout. But, as I mentioned earlier, the secret to this type of hunting is to find the birds first and worry about the amenities later.

On our last trip of the season last year, the birds and the amenities coincided on several hundred acres of plowed dirt that--happy days!--just happened to be enrolled in the Block Management Program. Bill's friend Ray and his Chesapeake Bay retriever, Ensign, came along for the ride. We had hardly set the first dozen decoys in place when a lone bird started circling the decoys, honking furiously. We ignored him for a few minutes, but I was getting itchy. What if it was the only bird we saw? On the next swing, Ray and I both raised our shotguns, but I shot first and the bird fell stone dead thirty yards out. Ensign trotted out to make the retrieve. At 100-plus pounds, Ensign no longer runs to do anything.

I needn't have worried about the birds, though; that morning we were in the money. Flock after flock poured off the river and over our heads. Every 20 minutes or so a few would break off the main formation and swing down over our decoys for a closer look, several of which saw their trans-continental migrations end in a swarm of hot steel. Even I

don't miss many birds when they're hovering 20 yards above me.

Conclusion

Packing up our gear put a quick end to our festive mood, however. Walking through half-frozen mud while hauling 50 pounds of decoys over one shoulder and 40 pounds of dead geese over the other brings you down to earth in hurry. At least we weren't freezing. When I got to the truck, I glanced in the rear view mirror and noticed a damp ring around the collar of my polypro t-shirt. What, sweat? I hadn't seen anything like that since October, six long weeks before. Now it was December, and chances were none of us would see anything like it for the rest of the winter.

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