November 03, 2010
By Jon Wongrey
The Rockies provide more than jaw-dropping vistas--a mixed bag of darks can be found there too.
By Jon Wongrey
A pleasing scent, a heady odor familiar to waterfowlers the globe over, tugged at the land near Brighton, Colorado, where the great Rocky Mountains with their snowy peaks serve as the overseer.
There is another richness in Colorado not widely known: Geese! Canadas beyond imagination in a place a waterfowl hunter would not likely seek, especially in January when the wind comes tearing down from the mountain tops. But they are here: the Giant and the Greater Canadas along with the Lessers, Richardson's, Hutchinson's, Aleutians and the Tavernier's. From Alaska, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Montana, North and South Dakota, they come with their numbers swelling to over 300,000 at the height of the migration. This is in addition to the 30,000 resident nesters.
Things are good for Canada geese in Colorado, a small miracle considering how dismal it was for them in the 1950s in this the state of the blue spruce.
But back then they did not have someone to speak up for them. Until, through the influence of a single waterfowl hunter (his name now lost in the annals of waterfowling), who appealed to the Colorado Wildlife Department to close an area known as the North Central Zone, north of Denver, to the Wyoming border, west of what is now Interstate 25, to the Continental Divide. There were, at the time, a small number of Greater Canadas in various locations within this zone.
The Colorado Wildlife Department agreed and the season was closed for five years. This created a healthy flock and migratory Canada geese found a safe house for the duration of the closure. Soon numbers of Canada geese began to grow. The foundation had been laid.
When the hunting ban on the "no zone" was lifted, hunters were allowed to take only one bird. When Mark Beam, a happy sort of fellow with a cheek-to-cheek smile, showed up in 1980, the limit had climbed to two birds. Now the limit is three.
Mark came to Colorado from Illinois not as a waterfowl hunter but as a cabinet maker. When he left the Midwest he thought he had left waterfowl hunting, especially goose hunting, forever. Instead, he fell into a goose well--a seemingly bottomless hole, at that.
"There were some private clubs but there were also vast acres no one hunted," Mark recalled. "All you had to do was ask a farmer for permission to hunt. And usually you got it."
Continuing to work at the cabinet shop, Mark began to learn about front-range Canadas and he would soon take out his first guide party from Denver for a Saturday hunt, his day off. The hunters got nine Greater Canadas, and Stillwater Outfitters was born. The year was 1989. Mark was to become Colorado's first licensed waterfowl guide.
It was Christmas week in 1995 when I first met Mark for a hunt. The moon was fat and yellow like the fat on a corn-fed mallard's breast, and it rose each night to light a path for late-feeding geese. The nighttime temperature was in the 20s and climbed into the 60s by noon each day.
Dan Emich, a truck and used-boat dealer, was there as was Randy Jackson, seismic analyst who "thumped" the ground for oil and gas companies, and Bing, Mark's large chocolate Lab.
Those are the things I remember.
Now, I had not been back to Colorado for a decade. Dan and Randy were no longer there. Bing had since died. And the moon, while not yet plump, was fattening each night.
The night air was chilly, but each day I would hunt the temperature would rise into the low 70s. Graveyard stew, milk and light bread, was my meal. It was the first week in January 2006.
I had offloaded my commercial flight terminating at Denver's main airport and was standing at baggage claim when Shane, a young man of 35, said before shaking my hand, "You gotta have the sickness to hunt geese. Its gotta come from the heart. Do you have the fever?"
"I do. But right now all I want is a couple boxes of shells, a license, a state duck stamp, some food and a bed."
I was where I should be, because hunting Colorado's front-range geese is still phosphorescent€¦still glowing; still with a fire that predestines all waterfowlers.
I would not see Mark until the morning at a café.
Shane, born in Denver, was introduced to hunting by his daddy at age seven, and to this very day he cannot thank his daddy enough for getting him started.
Doves were young Shane's first targets. Then at age 13 he began to hunt waterfowl with a model 12-gauge Winchester shotgun. He still has that gun.
"Maybe one of these days I'll get to take my daddy on a flooded timber hunt for mallards," Shane said, emitting the true fever of a waterfowl hunter.
"It's a show," I said.
Shane had owned a trucking line hauling local freight. In 12 years he was making a grand living, but it wasn't quite what he wanted to do. "I had a stirring in my soul for something but I didn't quite know what it was," Shane said. "I wasn't miserable, but I was close to it."
It was also during those years that he began hunting as a client with Mark. As time progressed so did Shane's abilities to hunt and to call geese. In 2004, Shane and Mark formed a partnership.
My sleep was irregular that night even though I was in bad need of rest. I had left Belle, my seven-year-old black Lab at home, sick. I was uneasy about deserting her, but my wife said she would take her to the vet if it came to that. Just a dog? No! She is our dusky diamond.
I finally surrendered and got up to make a cup of motel coffee. It is a beverage I seldom drink. But perhaps the heavily caffeinated drink would "jump start" my organs before Shane arrived.
I had not run the heat in my room; I didn't have to. It was apparent that the outside temperature was warm and so I turned on the television and flipped until I found the weather channel. The weather girl was announcing that the outside temperature was 48 degrees and the high would crash the low 70s. An average winter day in Florida, but not in Colorado.
A prediction had boasted of snow showers and chilling weather earlier in the week. Yet it never came.
A knock on the door came and I must've looked ragged when I opened i
t to a wide-eyed young man on the go.
"Rough night, Jon?"
"Yeah, never been able to sleep much before a hunt."
"You gotta have it in you to hunt these geese," he said reaching out for my gun case. "You can bring the heavy coat if you want, but you won't have much need for it today. Feels more like chunkin' for largemouths instead of climbin' down into a pit blind." And in Shane's guts was a glow that outlasts the hunter.
The café was bright with lights and hunters wagging their tongues and working forks through salt and peppered eggs, greasy sausage and crisp bacon. Spoons were rattling coffee mugs and knives were lathering butter and jelly onto crisp toast.
Foiles Migrators Strait Meat Team was in the café and were down in this part of Colorado to hunt and film. Our meeting was brief, for it was sort of like an ambushed blue-winged teal bouncing in and out of the decoys with scattered shot on its tail.
My eyes bounced around until I found Mark at a table. He rose and we shook hands and spoke: "I'm 10 years older," I said and fluffed my ever whitening beard with my right hand.
Mark also said he was older.
Shane and I were to party up with Derrell Mays, David Wakefield and Johnny Dickman. Derrell and David were from California and Johnny was from Idaho. Yet they were long-time friends joined together by Canada geese.
In the darkness we seeded the field with lifelike decoys. Such are today's designs that sometimes you have to check the spread twice to make sure a live bird is not among the fakes.
Day was about to recover from night's infirmary and even now geese were leaving the cornfields to languish the day in a pond or a lake to moisten their gritty tongues and throats before returning to the fields to feed.
Shane and his yellow Lab, Gunner, were to my left. Derrell, Johnny and David were to my right in the earthen pit blind.
The blind temperature was quite nice and the outside temperature would rise rapidly as morning advanced.
With shotguns loaded in front of us, and each in his comfort zone, Shane got down to business and within 20 minutes the first flight of Colorado's front-range Canada geese were close but a bit too far to the right side to offer Shane and me a shot. It would be Derrell, Johnny and David's party.
Gunner was in his world of drama as the geese neared with yapping tongues.
"Get ready," Shane whispered ever so softly. Bellies began to ache with anticipation of that first morning shot. Will it be the last shot of the morning? Maybe the last shot was yesterday, even last year. Either way it gnaws at the very fiber of a waterfowler's gut.
"Take 'em!" Shane yelled. There are no other impacting words in a waterfowler's vocabulary than those two. No words more engaging and efficient.
Gunner's tail continued to swish back and forth. His muscles flexed.
The flock of five had its gathering unraveled by a sudden attrition of fiery hot steel. Three of its clan were in great distress and struck the dirt hard. A warm Colorado wind came to rumple their feathers.
Gunner was up and over the top without hesitation. The breeding€¦the instinct well anchored in ancestry. And back to Shane he came on the run with a smile blocked by a mouthful of goose. A Greater Canada, as were the others, with one weighing around 12 pounds.
The morning aged with three more Canadas meeting the foot of ruin while others flew high looking down on the decoys with contempt.
No sir, this would be no "rock 'em, sock 'em" goose shoot. Not this time. This had turned into a hunt. A hard fought struggle to get the geese down and into shooting range€¦to test the worth of a goose guide.
We had not wagged our tongues for sometime and for quite sometime we had not gotten a goose in a dead-for-sure killing range. We could've stretched a couple of shots, but it might have resulted in only wounding a bird. Noon would soon be at hand when Shane's cell phone rang.
"It's your wife," Shane said and handed over the small compact instrument.
My stomach clinched and my mind whirled.
"Belle is worse and I am going to have to take her to the vet," she said.
"How bad is worse?"
"Critical. She's in terrible pain."
My insides were torched with grief. Could it be that my black Lab was dying? I would not leave for home for two days. I didn't know if I could endure the wait, for this Lab hunts with me--unless I'm traveling by train--fishes with me, eats with me and sleeps in a tight curl between me and the headboard.
"Just keep me informed," I said and handed the phone back to Shane. Then I told my blind buddies the news. They could, as did Shane, see the fright in my blue eyes. They each assured me that Belle would beat back whatever it was that she had.
This she eventually did, but she did not wag her tail for a long time.
We were never given a reason for her sickness. But she for sure had been in a tight place.
The next goose Gunner raced to fetch was an Aleutian Canada goose. These birds had a fairly rough time of it in the 20th century when the arctic fox was introduced for fur farming on the maritime islands from the Alaska Peninsula westward along the Aleutian Chain. These ground-nesting geese had no natural defenses against the imported predators. In 1976 the Aleutian Canada goose was posted on the imperiled roll. It seems they have made somewhat of a healthy recovery and are again huntable birds.
A warm wind blew as winter's late-afternoon shadows cast across the field where we hunted and here and there small and large flocks of geese were en route to the cornfields.
The moon would soon appear and the first stars would come to stand sentry until morning's sheen returned.
I would hunt again with Shane the following morning with another trio of hunters and again it would be a hard-scrabble road, but geese we would get.
Colorado's front-range geese.