November 03, 2010
Hunting Generations of Canada goose hunters have made memories at Wisconsin's waterfowling jewel.
For anyone much younger than me, it might be hard to believe these are the good old days of goose hunting. But back in the 1950s and 1960s in our part of Wisconsin, harvesting a goose -- a Canada goose -- was truly something special. Oh, there might be a bird or two randomly taken on the Sheboygan Marsh each year. But stories of such feats were usually more rumor than fact. And there were always a few guys fortunate enough to spot and successfully sneak a feeding or resting flock coming off the Lake Michigan migratory corridor. But for eastern Wisconsin's typical stay-at-home duck hunter, a Canada goose was a trophy that, with luck, would come along once in a wildfowler's lifetime, unless that is, he got a chance to hunt the Horicon.
Back then, as it still is today, the strictly federally regulated hunt in the Horicon Zone was based on a quota. The rich guys, or the lucky guys, depending upon how you looked at it, hunted the zone by leasing farmland on the edge of the refuge where they could shoot one bird per day. The average Joe applied through a highly subscribed lottery for an assigned date in one of the blinds managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that ringed the federal portion of the marsh.
A Moment in the Sun
I think I was 12 or 13 years old when early one evening, while still dressed in his house painter's work clothes, I watched Dad's work-weary eyes light up as he tore open the government-brown envelope. "The hunt (for my Uncle, Gramps and Dad) is on for two weeks from Saturday," he happily announced.
And what a glorious early October day it proved to be! It started out kind of foggy and gray as I pedaled the old Schwinn downtown early that morning for the weekly checking of my paper route at the offices of the Sheboygan Press. Fat with my $5.50 payday, I made my usual stop at the Kresge store soda fountain to treat myself to a Cherry Coke.
Stepping outside after sucking the last drop of juice from the crushed ice, I found a bright sun fast-burning through the remaining haze, lighting up the full-colored maples lining the streets and avenues along the ride home.
All of early autumn's splendor aside, my mind and heart were with my three heroes. Oh, how I wished I was with them! I was anxious too, thinking it would be at least late afternoon before I'd learn how their hunt unfolded.
As I wheeled into our drive, I was totally surprised to find Dad's Chevy already parked at the garage. Pulling into the backyard, I was greeted with a sight I'll never forget. With Mom's back to me as she squinted through the venerable Brownie's viewfinder, there stood the three proud hunters.
Dad and Uncle Bill, both broad-shouldered, meat-and-potato-bellied six-footers, dressed alike in their Jones-style duck caps and gaudy flannel shirts that contrasted mightily with their tattered hunting coats and hippers, were the bookends in the scene. Gramps, skinny, a bit shaky and definitely showing his age, dressed in buckle galoshes, faded blue work bibs, flannel shirt and trademark turtleneck and topped off with his always nattily side-cocked Kromer, was the meat in the picture's sandwich. All three had a thick-necked goose grasped firmly in their fist, and were grinning not unlike kids at Christmas as they posed for the camera. They were obviously enjoying the first-time-ever experience and the special memory they'd made.
Their story still thrills me today.
After a tense pre-dawn drive through a thick ground fog, they finally reached the refuge headquarters, and got directions to their assigned blind. Both Dad and Unc kept close tabs on Gramps as they made their way, still under cover of darkness, through a field of muddy corn stubble. Once situated on the bench of the simple, open-topped box blind, they settled in to await first light and eventual shooting time, still shrouded in a misty blanket of low-hanging fog.
Judging by their gabbling, the geese, and plenty of them, weren't more than a half-mile away. Excitement built as the guys' gray world brightened and the distant goose music built to a fever pitch, eventually exploding in a deafening roar -- one unlike anything they'd ever heard before -- as the first flights took wing in a thunderous rush. Then they were surrounded by a world of geese, audible, but still unseen. As the birds' powerful wings thrashed and ripped at the heavy air, their resonant calls set the hunters' guts on edge.
There was gunfire in the distance. Then more birds winging overhead, still invisible. The sun finally started to brighten their gray-shrouded world and the cloak of fog started to lift, relaxing its heavy grip on the damp earth. The hunters almost couldn't believe their hard-strained eyes as a trio of honkers simply materialized, quartering toward them well within gun range. It happened so fast there was no time for discussion.
Without a spoken word, the three rose in unison. Their guns sprayed loads of deuces skyward. And all three geese folded, smacking the stubble D.O.A.
It was with true awe the guys humbly recounted the dreamlike sequence.
I pursued more details about the shooting, but couldn't get any. Dad and Uncle Bill did the real damage, I suspect. But they never did say. Gramps, quite poor of both eyesight and hearing, was living large that day. Something that was rare for the proud, but failing old-timer. No one was going to chance ruining his time in the sun.
A Run and Tackle
My first real crack at Horicon came a couple years later. Dad had again drawn a blind.
Only two gunners were allowed, and then with only six shells each. Shooting hours were from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m.
Dad insisted on taking my younger brother, Jerry, along. Because Jerry wouldn't be shooting, Dad, being the silver-tongued devil he thought he was, figured he'd have no trouble talking the feds into making an exception to the two-man rule.
It was touch and go with the guys at the refuge headquarters, and I was nervous. Dad was getting agitated, and I didn't want him to blow my opportunity. It was close, but the head-shaking feds finally relented. Little brother could tag along if we kept him outside of the blind. Dad was still reluctant, but grudgingly agreed. I was selfishly distraught.
From daybreak until 8:30 a.m., in spite of Jerry's persistent squirming, wave after endless wave of geese sailed low over our blind. The shooting, had it been allowed, would have been easy, even for me. But come 9 a.m., the bright blue Indian summer sky was completely devoid of geese. We loaded our guns, but with only two shells each, although for apparently no good reason.
It was nice enough sitting around on the calm, unseasonably warm day.
The great lunch Mom had packed helped pass the time, as did the impromptu sport of swatting late-season mosquitoes. But as far as getting a crack at a goose, well, things looked bleak.
At the start of our last hour, a few birds finally started to stir, pretty much just trading back and forth over the waters of the nearby refuge. But then the odd single, pair or small flock would turn and head out to feed, some passing temptingly close to our hide. Those six shells were burning a hole in my mind's pocket, and I started pestering Dad. "Heck, let's at least give 'em a try!" I moaned.
With only 20 minutes to go, he finally relented. I was first to take a whack at 'em. But all I got was quickly rid of five loads. Dad tried some long crossers twice, but disgustedly came up empty, giving me an "I told you so" look each time.
As if in a football game, we were down to two minutes on the clock when magically, a Kamikaze single came winging by low from my side. I fired and whiffed again. For me, it was game over. But Dad instantly followed, rocking the then climbing goose with his first shot, then crunching it solidly with his sixth and last shell, sending it crashing into the tulies 60 yards off. It was a shot of shots.
Jerry was off the ground, trotting after the goose. Although he was younger, even then he was far faster than me. Yet, I managed to sprint past him, running on adrenaline no doubt, in time to throw a full-body tackle on the still heads-up goose.
Although not mine, it was definitely "our" prize.
I was at once happy and disappointed. As I went to bed that evening, with the indescribable but wonderful sounds of 100,000 madly honking geese still throbbing in my brain, I remember it occurring to me that the real good news was that I still had my first honker to look forward to. And I was fine with that.
A Goose With Gramps
Another two years passed before I got drawn for a tag that would allow me to hunt from a rented blind on private land near the refuge. The waiting lines for the best of these blinds were always long on weekends. So, with my parents' permission, my new driver's license in my pocket, and Gramps riding shotgun, I punched school that weekday morning and headed toward Bill Jenkins' farm along Highway 49.
We were plenty early that day and had the pick of the litter as far as Mr. Jenkins' blinds were concerned. Having observed it doing plenty of business on a scouting trip the previous weekend, I promptly chose the hilltop blind.
Given the wind that day, I realized too late that it was the wrong choice.
The geese -- a lot of geese -- were passing low over the blind down on the flat. The late-arriving hunter who occupied it had his bird in no time.
We continued to stick it out, but to no avail. I was getting pretty uptight when the stranger motioned for us to join him. Gramps was always sort of a loner and really not too hot on the idea. But after a little pleading, he reluctantly agreed.
The guy was really overly friendly as he slid to one end of the blind to make room. I took the other end with Gramps uncomfortably stuck in the middle. After seeing our friend's gun was still locked and loaded, I asked him why. "Well, I thought (hoped was more like it) that you might need some help, lad. Be glad to back you up if you'd like," he replied.
Not a man of many words, and not one who could even hear another's real well, the fire still burned in Grandpa, who piped up loudly and clearly in response. "No he doesn't, and he wouldn't like!" Much younger and not expecting such an emphatic response from the old-timer, the stranger frowned, but wisely kept his mouth shut.
Anyone's first goose is a memory-maker. Mine was a life-changing experience. Angling toward us from the southeast, the loner tried to pass at 35 to 40 yards. I could see its breast muscles flexing as it pumped overhead, then watched as the load of No. 2s cut a swath of gray feathers just behind the black of the neck. The 9-pounder slapped the frozen earth with a resounding thud, short-hopped, and lay still. By the time I'd tagged the goose, Gramps, no doubt as relieved as he was proud, was out of the blind with all of our gear.
Savoring the moment, obviously, had not occurred to him. It was special though, in that it was the last day Grandpa Gordon and I ever spent afield together.
Evolving Honker Hunters
The geese that visited the Horicon continued to flourish. As they did their concentrations spread out from the marsh proper, to utilize roosting waters such as Green Lake and Lake Puckaway to the west. Hunting opportunity was expanded proportionately. Those opting for the new West Central Zone out around the lake country would get four tags per year that could be used one a day. For three or four buddies working together, this added up to two or three weekends of quality gunning each season. By combining our resources, our gang built a rig of more than 20-dozen shell decoys that we effectively used to learn the pleasures of hunting field-feeding geese. No longer satisfied with pass shooting, we were intent on taking our birds over the spread, or not at all. We enjoyed the scouting, the calling, the decoy placement and even the time spent asking permission to hunt private ground. All of it made us better hunters. But more than anything, we enjoyed sharing our hunts with family and friends.
My Dad, Ken, and Dave's dad, Bob, had pretty much given up on waterfowling by that time. But we talked both out of retirement to sample a field hunt. We had done our homework and were set up on a hill-topped field near Markesan. There were nine of us total -- our biggest group ever -- laid out in a line along a heavily grassed fencerow that was shade-shrouded by the still standing corn at our backs to the east. In front of us, to our west, was our relatively massive spread of shell decoys, enticingly visible on the short-clipped field of corn stubble.
Both Dave and I felt it was a perfect setup. That we ever totally agreed on anything was rare. That we did that day was an omen.
The strung-out band of geese materialized high over the woodlot in the section to our south. As they winged northward, with the ample chow in our stubble field no doubt weighing heavily on their pea-brained minds, the birds lost
altitude to the natural elevation. On they came, numbering more than 50 strong, in a ragged V-formation, and on a flight path that paralleled our line of gunners. With the geese no doubt keying on our decoys, all it took was our amateurish greeting call to turn them. As if they'd practiced their formation flying, the whole flock leaned on their left ailerons and rolled to the right.
|Hirt Spans a Lifetime of Fowling|
Although the title 'S No Geese Like Snow Geese'¦ suggests the author only details pursuits of light geese, Wisconsin waterfowl hunter Jack Hirt ranges far and wide in the 206 pages of his hardback book. Hirt shares a lifetime of hunting memories, from eiders in Maine to pintails in Mexico to geese in Argentina. Most of the book, however, is centered on the pleasures of hunts with family, friends and retrievers for ducks and geese across the United States. Available at www.ihuntbooks.com.
On they came in a line confronting ours, coasting on tight-locked wings, gear down and eerily silent.
My heart was pounding in my throat as I called the shot. All hell broke loose. The geese exploded into a clamoring, honking chorus as they clawed for air on their powerful wings, struggling to abort the landing. Guns spoke, and birds crumpled. Some crashed hard into the crisp-stalked standing corn. Others pounded the stubble with a resounding splat. When the smoke cleared the nine of us had cleanly taken the same number of birds.
It was our most spectacular volley ever.
Although there were high fives all around, the grins on Dad's and Bob's faces, as they needlessly thanked us, said it all. Though appreciated at the time, it wasn't until it was too late, as Dave and I have learned in time, that we should have been thanking them.
A Hunt for the Generations
Hunting Horicon came full circle for me in 1987, the year my oldest son, Billy, was first able to hunt. Ever since he began to show a serious interest in the outdoors as a youngster, it had been my dream that Billy, his Grandpa Kenny, and I would some day share a successful Horicon hunt. The icing on the cake would be seeing Shamus, my then fast-aging yellow dog -- the dog the boy had grown up with -- retrieve the lad's first goose.
With his intensive zone permit in hand, Billy, Gramps (my father), the old dog and I set out pre-dawn that mid-October Saturday. Our plan was to drive around the perimeter of the marsh, trying to find a good blind to rent for an afternoon hunt.
We were rolling west on Highway 49 as it divides the heart of the federal refuge just at sunrise, and pulled over to enjoy that special show only a couple hundred thousand honkers can put on. As the swarms of rising geese blackened the clear blue sky, Grandpa instructed Billy, "Look hard now. Look for the goose with your name on it."
"Let's hurry on. Let's go find us a blind," Gramps piped up, his sense of urgency bringing us back to reality.
And so we did. Turning south on a county road that roughly parallels the refuge line east of Waupun, we motored only a couple miles before pulling into a familiar farmyard, its driveway marked by an oversized goose silhouette advertising simply, "Blinds." I'd hunted there years before, and the landowner recognized me. Firmly grabbing my hand as only a dairyman can he urged, "Hurry on down to the fenceline blind east of the tracks.
You know the one. The birds'll be comin' off good for a while yet. Stop by and settle up with me later."
Not believing our good fortune, we were outta there in a cloud of dust. Only minutes later, we were settling into the basic snow fence-ringed blind.
With geese already winging our way I instructed Billy to load up the long-barreled 1100.
Even at that age, the youngster was a capable shot. Short, but stocky and muscular, he'd fired a ton of target loads through the big autoloader that was nearly as long as Billy was tall. Though we hadn't talked about it, the 3-inch steel BBs, and their heavier recoil were a concern to both of us. I prayed for his success early on, knowing that a series of misses would not only shatter his psyche, but likely cause gun handling problems as well.
Fortunately, it all proved a non-issue.
We hadn't been in the blind for more than five minutes when we spotted a trio of honkers coming head on, low enough for a shot. When I called it, Billy popped up, swung on the out-sized leader like he'd done it 1,000 times before, and yanked the trigger. The little guy rocked with the unfelt recoil and the goose shuddered, but kept pumping. Following up with a second blast before I could tell him to, the big goose locked its wings and banked left, falling out of formation on a dead-bird-glide that ended in a crash landing 70 yards out into the cattails. Looking at Shamus, I could see he had the mark. He made his typical short work of the retrieve, bounding through the thick, muck-bottomed cover with the enthusiasm of a pup, returning to deliver the bird, (as if he knew), right to Billy.
I looked at Dad. We looked at the boy/man. There were smiles all around.
As there was, no doubt, from above. Billy's namesake, my Grandpa Bill Gordon Sr., was surely with us in spirit -- every bit as much as he had been with me for my first Horicon honker, more than 20 years earlier.
Jack Hirt is a frequent Wildfowl contributor from Glenbeulah, Wis. This story is an excerpt from Hirt's book, 'S No Geese Like Snow Geese. For more information, go to www.ihuntbooks.com.