A Memorable Anniversary For This WaterFower.
Laying amongst a pile of family photos was a Christmas letter from 1956; one of those that people enclose with their holiday cards that details their family's highs and lows of the past year. According to this one it was the year I became an Eagle Scout, and when, the day after Thanksgiving, I shot my first goose.
World Champion goose caller and guide Sean Mann calling and flagging geese near Wye Landing, Maryland.
It all came back in a rush. Dinner with my elderly great aunt and uncle was over and my dad and I were heading across Southern Illinois into goose country. Lights twinkled from farm houses as we turned from the hard road onto gravel south of Miller City, Illinois. Goose hunters in 1956 hunted at "Cairo," (pronounced Kay-Ro, the other in Egypt is pronounced Kai-Ro) but the hunting was really 15 miles northwest of Cairo, Illinois, around Olive Branch and Miller City. Known in those days as the "Goose Capital of the World," the hunting was in the fields surrounding the Horseshoe Lake refuge.
Horseshoe Lake was formed when the Mississippi River was in its infancy, and is an old ox-bow that was cut off as the river shifted its channel a mile-and-a-half to the west. In the 1920s, the Illinois Department of Conservation purchased the island in the middle and most of the lake, 3,500 acres in all. Improvements were added enabling the lake to hold water year 'round, and the island put into grain crops.
Historically, Canada geese had wintered on the sand bars and islands in the river, but soon began concentrating on Horseshoe Lake because of the calm water and plentiful food: But there was a down side. Increasingly hunters were taking large numbers of geese, and it all came to a head in the mid 1940s when the goose season was closed following only five days of hunting. In those five days more than 5,000 geese were bagged, causing the closure of the season. The following year the entire Mississippi flyway was closed to goose hunting, and in 1947 President Truman and the Governor of Illinois proclaimed the 18,000 acres surrounding the lake closed to hunting. By 1956, some 170,000 geese were in Southern Illinois.
We arrived in darkness at the home of John Marlin, whose "club" we would hunt the next two days. He quickly introduced us to Bud Dillman, who guided for Marlin and who offered rooms and breakfast to goose hunters. As a growing lad I recall lacing into a hearty plate of home-made sausage, and then wondered at my thirst the whole day.
Heavily laden clouds covered the moon, making it nearly pitch dark when we alighted from a tractor-borne wagon. Headlamps in those days were for miners, and hunters traveled light with gun and shells; a thermos of hot chocolate or coffee was a sometimes thing, normally becoming a casualty when the glass liner broke at the slightest jolt. Bill Collins, who introduced himself as our guide, had directed us from the wagon and forward across a harvested corn field. Through the pre-dawn gloom muted by the gray clouds, we quickly sighted some silhouette decoys and soon Collins kicked the corn stalks from the top of our pit.
Collins had served in the Army during the second World War, and as we awaited shooting time, he described his near fatal wounding in the Battle of the Bulge: Such were the men who raised the likes of me in the post-war years.
The night before I had shown my wooden goose call, a Cajun, to Bud Dillman, who simply said, "We don't use those . . . we call by mouth," which he followed with a throaty demonstration. I took my call, but it stayed put in my canvas hunting coat as Collins greeted the first geese of the day. His repertoire of sounds were impressive.
Swarms of Canadas.
As if engraved on my brain, I still hear Collins say, "He's right behind us." I arose and to this day can see that old single goose hanging on outstretched wings barely 10 feet off the ground. It was really my dad's shot, but the impetuousness of youth had my 16 gauge Model 12 to my shoulder in an instant and down came my goose. Nearly to the day he died at nearly 94, he reminded me that I shot very close to his right ear, and it rang for a couple of weeks. It really was his shot, but in the kind way he conducted his life, he was proud as any parent at my feat. For the uninitiated, it was one of those perfect shots where my eye and total concentration were on the bird with no thought of the gun. Only with age and knowledge do we start thinking about our shooting, and marksmanship plummets.
Over the two days we hunted, my goose was our only trophy. As the darkness began to envelope the land on that Friday, we dropped our goose to be picked, cleaned and shipped home in dry ice via Railway Express. In a cabin that seemed to creak and sway with our footsteps, and lighted by a single kerosene lamp, sat an elderly black woman in a rocking chair. In her lap, breast up, lay a plump goose that she was picking, one handful of down at a time. No mechanized poultry picking machine, just the practiced pull and drop. Surrounding her were what seemed dozens of geese to be picked. It was a Dickensonian scene of Americana.
Fast forward through hunts, college, moves, jobs, 21 years service in the Army and a second career as a writer, and I found myself laying in harvested Alberta pea field nestled in a layout blind. Next to me was Sean Mann. I began my writing career telling yarns about duck and goose calls, and when Sean began making his trademark Eastern Shoremann goose call, we met and became fast friends. He went on to become a three-time world champion caller, a champion of champions and collected enough trophies to sink a ship. For 15 years we guided for Bill Clark near Chestertown, Maryland. With the moratorium of goose hunting on the Maryland's Eastern Shore, Mann turned to Canada where he opened a guide service. During his first year or so he invited me to join him for a week to enjoy the spectacular hunting in Alberta. Over the years, it has become a tradition to join him on the prairies.
So it was that in early September 2006, laying in a pea field, I mentioned that the day after Thanksgiving this year I would celebrate the golden anniversary of taking my very first goose. "We've got to really celebrate that!" Mann explained. I agreed, and hoped it would come true.
The Monday before Thanksgiving I received an email from Mann. How things have changed. I recall the drama of my dad's long-distance call to confirm our reservation at Marlin's asking if I was ready to go on Friday. The answer was an emphatic yes!
Wye Landing is a public boat ramp on the Wye River that flows into Chesapeake Bay. Bordering the river is a farm Mann leases. "We don't really have any geese nearby, and most of them come over high," Mann said. "For whatever reason, they like this place, and while we don't get every flock, we have enough come down to make for good shooting," Mann said as we walked the 200 yards to the pit.
Reminiscent of my first goose hunt, we used nothing but silhouettes. "They look good to the geese, and there is never a problem of frost or moisture on them," Mann said. How different these Real Geese silhouettes looked compared to the decoys of my baptism. Southern Illinois silhouettes were all of one pattern, heads upright like a flock that had just been frightened out of their skin, and ready to take flight. "You know the drill," Mann said, referring to my many hunts with him in Alberta as I watched his philosophy of decoy setting mature. He uses what he calls a lazy X that runs legs of Real Geese silhouettes out from the pit or blinds giving the geese plenty of places to land, and that doesn't require wholesale change should the wind shift. "It's a very early Eastern Shore rig that Bunky Ewing, who I started guiding for when I was in high school, showed me. It works as well today as it did then," Mann said.
The sun was well up when a flight of six geese came down the river. Mann's siren song and judicious use of his black flag soon had them circling, then committing. "There they are," Mann said, "Pick one!" I chose a quartering gander and dropped him with a single load of 3-inch Kent's Tungsten Matrix ones. As luck would have it, my Winchester Model 12 Heavy Duck gun was made about the same time as the 16-gauge Model 12 I used 50 years ago near Horseshoe Lake. The 16 is long gone in a trade, but both were of the early 1950 vintage. The old Heavy Duck gun was made in 1954, and that shotgun and the Browning Auto-5 were the guns of choice of Southern Illinois guides. With a solid, matte rib and loaded with Kent's Tungsten Matrix or bismuth, it's one of my favorite waterfowl guns. The full-choke measures .036, and it will drop anything I center in the tight pattern.
Seldom does one have the opportunity to enjoy a morning solely with a friend. No other hunters, no paying customers who expect a limit, just Sean and I talked about hunting, calling, our families and the recent passing of our fathers who showed us the joys of hunting. Yes, a second small flock dropped into the decoys, and I took my legal two-goose limit. We headed home by 10 a.m., as the day warmed and the geese settled into their mid-day slumber.
Hunting is more than just a limit, more than how many birds can I kill, it is a storehouse of memories, those of father teaching child, the child learning the skills of calling and setting decoys, and in maturity learning that enjoying the experience is the true reward. I treasure the times I hunted with my father, and equally treasure times with the likes of Sean Mann and the other great guides and personalities I've been privileged to know and call friends. Two friends sharing a special time, a special hunt and bagging that special 50th anniversary golden goose, it just isn't any better.