A January storm sends geese searching for food.
I woke to the buzzing of the alarm clock, but the sound that instantly caught my attention was the roar of the wind. It was tearing across the prairie and ripping through the barren leafless trees. Even the windows on the house were rattling from the pressure of the north wind.
It was mid-January in northeastern Kansas. Two days earlier, the temperature was in the upper 60s and a south wind was pushing high-flying Canada geese northward. The next day, that changed as an arctic cold front came barreling down from the north.
A day earlier, as the cold front made its appearance, I arrived at the cornfield a bit late and unprepared. The temperature had dropped to the low 30s, with 20 to 30 mph winds blowing from the north.
A partly cloudy sky showed myriad colors along the eastern horizon as I unloaded my equipment and began to make the first of two trips 250 yards west into the field. I set up my layout blind and placed 18 Canada goose decoys in a loose U-shape on the downwind side. Then I headed back to the road, moved my pickup and carried my backpack, shotgun and bag of 18 snow goose shells out into the field. A lot of snow geese often move through the area, so I was hopeful for a stray or maybe a small flock of the white ones.
It was nearly shooting time as I dumped the snow goose decoys 15 yards behind my blind. My shotgun was loaded and leaning against the blind so I'd be ready for early fliers -- or so I thought. After half of those decoys were set, I heard geese over the sound of the gusting wind. A large flock of small Canada geese with a half-dozen snows mixed in was nearly above me. I was bending over my snow goose decoys, so I remained motionless and watched. The Canadas kept going, but the snows began to drop down.
I looked over at my gun, 15 yards away, and was trying to figure a way to get to it quickly enough for a shot. The snow-white birds dropped to about 35 yards, and then began to drift. Knowing they would catch the wind and be far out of range if they spotted my movement, I still tried edging my way to my blind, but it was too late because they were already heading after the Canadas.
By the time I was finished with decoys and settled into my blind, it was almost 40 minutes into shooting time, but no more geese were drifting on the winds.
I stayed in the field until about 11 a.m., and I did see a few flocks of large Canadas and a string of snow geese, but they were too far north and had other fields in mind.
Eye of the Storm
At 5:10 a.m the second morning, as I prepared breakfast, I noticed the temperature: 28 degrees. The forecast called for falling temperatures, strong winds and scattered snow showers, so I hoped geese would be on the move and searching for food.
Thirty-five minutes later, after I had dressed and finished breakfast, the temperature had dropped to 25 degrees, and the wind continued to howl.
After I fed the dogs and took them for a short walk, the temperature had dipped to 22 degrees. Powered by 30 to 40 mph gusts, the windchill would be anything but comfortable, but I was bundled up and ready to go.
I pulled to a stop along the ditch, quickly grabbed my equipment, crossed the fence and began toting it out into the cornfield because I had no time to spare. Snow flurries were stinging the side of my face as they flew horizontally with the gusting wind.
After setting up my blind and brushing it in, I put the Canada goose shells out on motion stakes in a loose V spread. The wind was causing them to wobble, maybe too much, so I pushed some of the stakes as far as possible into the frozen ground. I then went back for the rest of my equipment and moved my pickup down the road.
The air was shrouded in a dark blanket of low, angry clouds, but a lighter shade of gray shone on the eastern horizon. I placed the 18 snow goose decoys upwind of my blind, as I had the day before. Even though the larger Canadas seem to avoid or keep some distance from snow geese, I was hoping the smaller Canadas would make another appearance, and maybe some snow geese as well.
My shotgun was loaded and ready in the blind and I was trying to keep a lookout for geese while setting the snow goose decoys. When I was about half finished with the white decoys, I noticed a low string of geese to the east. They were fighting the arctic winds, but were quickly moving my way.
After throwing a bag and a few cornstalks over the remaining decoys, I jumped into the blind as the flock of about 40 small Canadas zeroed in. It was then I realized that my calls weren't out and ready. A nylon cinch bag held them in my backpack. I tried to get at them, but there wasn't enough room to reach into the backpack without the possibility of bumping the blind door open. The wind was already trying to lift the doors as it rushed into the opening on the backside of the blind by my head.
In no time, the geese were 60 yards in front of me. All I could do was watch and hope the geese would be fooled by the silent trap. Their high-pitched honks carried over the roar of the wind as they closed the distance, but they started to drift to my right. They were at about 40 yards and just behind me when I considered trying to get up and pivot enough for a shot, but I knew they could quickly catch the wind and leave me with no chance at all. Instead, I remained in my hide and hoped the geese would make another pass. They didn't.
Success Served Cold
Convinced the first flock of the day wasn't going to circle back, I slowly raised my head from my blind. Immediately, I spied movement to the east as another flock of small black-necked geese zeroed in on my spread.
Frantically groping into my backpack, my hand found the bag containing my calls. As my left hand pulled the blind doors snug, my right hand found my shaved-reed call. I began to talk to the geese.
Wings already set, their voices grew more excited as they centered in on the feeding flock of fakes. So slowly now, they closed the distance as the wind tried to push them away.
When they reached 25 yards, I sat up and brought my 12-gauge pump to my shoulder.
However, the line down my ventilated rib was completely obstructed by the cinch bag holding the rest of my calls. The strings had somehow snagged my barrel.
Although snow geese and large Canada geese didn't find the author's decoy spread attractive, small Canadas were duped and provided an excellent hunt.
I shook my gun as I tried to rid the barrel of the bag, which drew the attention of the geese. As they turned and caught the wind, the bag came free of the gun. I swung the barrel swung onto a target. The goose crumpled at my shot. I swung to a second bird. My second shot produced a shudder, but the goose kept going. My third shot at the quickly departing goose seemed to find only empty air. Then I noticed the goose was losing altitude. It glided nearly 300 yards with the wind before dumping into the corn stubble.
I grabbed a few shells, jumped out of my blind and headed out for the long retrieve.
Quickly finding the first goose, I turned and angled toward the second. A long walk, followed by a short chase put a smile across my face as I held a pair of 4-pound Canada geese. Ice droplets dotted their tiny bills and feathers, but I no longer noticed the icy wind and frigid temperatures.
After propping up the fallen geese to serve as decoys, I finished setting the last of the snow goose shells and snuggled back into my blind. The wind continued to tear across the frozen field. Snow flurries whipped past. The temperature continued to drop, but no more birds came near during the next hour.
As the cold began to creep into my core, I finally saw what appeared to be a small flock of ducks coming off of the river a half-mile away. I soon realized it was another flock of small Canada geese. They had seen my decoys and were quickly closing the distance as the tail wind pushed them toward my setup.
The birds hooked into the wind, set wings and glided in as excited chatter answered my calls. With the geese feet down and hanging in the wind, I rose, picked a bird and pulled the trigger. The little Canada crashed to the stiff ground, finishing my Canada goose limit for the day.
Despite the worsening weather conditions, I decided against picking up because more birds were in the air. Strings of snow geese rode the wind like large snowflakes, but they were paying no attention to my meager spread. Some seemed destined for the open roost waters of a power plant cooling lake. Others were headed in the opposite direction, apparently looking for a feed field, but they were all flying in long strings with no stragglers or small groups breaking off -- typical frustrating snow geese even in these conditions.
Big Canada geese were also on the move, but they took a wide berth around my snow goose decoys. Mallards, with a few pintails mixed in, were searching for feed. The late duck season split had ended two days earlier, so I sat back and watched as hungry greenheads made pass after pass, eventually dumping into the field 100 yards away.
It's What We Do
At 11:15 a.m., I decided to pick up because the snow's intensity was growing, and I hadn't seen any snow geese for nearly an hour. Although the big Canada geese had kept their distance and none of the white geese had come near on that second day, my small spread of mixed decoys had done the job nicely for the small Canadas.
The winds were still howling when I finished loading my gear into my pickup, and during the 10-mile drive, the conditions were blizzard-like. The large numbers on a bank thermometer cried out: 13 degrees! It was 15 degrees colder than when I'd risen at 5 a.m.
If I had known it was going to be this icy and windy, would I have gotten up so early and gone out?
In a second! That's what true waterfowlers do.
Ron Peach of Kansas City, Mo., hunts ducks and geese as often as possible and in any weather.