March 18, 2021
By John Gordon
Sharply pitched barks resonated through the Texas night, coming from thousands upon thousands of snow and blue geese riding a late October wind. The man stopped what he was doing and threw open the house door to hear their long-awaited calls. Soon, they would be feeding in the fields and the hunters would be waiting, another season chasing light geese dominating their free time.
Snow and blue geese have been following this pattern for decades—breeding in the far Canadian north and wintering where rice is plentiful and other crops linger far behind. And with that migration came the hunters, dedicated marsh men willing to face rough conditions to add light geese to the bag. They crawled and sneaked, braving thick mud, mosquitoes and prolific snakes inhabiting Texas coastal habitats. Then the rice boom came to the prairies and deltas farther inland and light goose hunting changed forever.
Rice farmers had it good, for a while. Low lying lands that didn’t lend themselves well to growing corn or soybeans were perfect for a burgeoning rice demand. Flat prairie fields soon sprouted water-holding levees catching abundant rainfall and drowning weeds in the rice. Then the geese ventured up from the marsh, devouring rice and filling the fields by the hundreds of thousands. Hunters took quick notice and laid plans to ambush the birds. But how to go about it?
How could they attract geese into gunning range that gathered in such huge numbers?
Jim Nelson of Baytown, TX, and friends started experimenting with decoy options in the early 1950’s. What they found worked best was torn white sheets draped over the rice stubble, mimicking the geese without a lot of weight and bulk. They also found the best hide was to become a decoy by covering up in white sheets and hiding in the spread. It worked so well that national attention from Life magazine chronicled their exploits in 1953. Decoying light geese was born!
West Side Warriors
While snow goose hunting tactics were developing east of Houston, the west side guides in towns like Eagle Lake, Garwood and Katy would turn it into a thriving business. People and geese flocked to the oceans of rice that shimmered in the Texas heat, where less-than-perfect harvesting methods left plenty of waste grain behind for hungry birds. Guides had been taking advantage of the abundant ducks and people willing to pay to hunt them for years, but would they pay to hunt geese? Why yes, they would!
Author Rob Sawyer wrote “A Hundred Years of Texas Waterfowl Hunting” several years ago, chronicling many of the characters that established light goose hunting as a viable business southwest of Houston. Sawyer’s book, which he wrote because there were no books on Texas waterfowl hunting history, tells the stories of Jimmy Reel and Marvin Tyler, among others. These men introduced the world to the white spreads and rice stubble that opened the door to a new form of waterfowl hunting—decoying light geese.
“Reel was 11 years old when he fired into a flock of ducks he snuck up on at his father’s farm in Arkansas,” said Sawyer. “He killed 18. His father told him to never pot shoot ducks again and whipped young Jimmy.” However, that experience hooked the boy on duck hunting for good and he organized his first duck club at age 14.
The Great Depression years of the 1930’s found James Richard “Jimmy” Reel riding the rails across country, hitching train rides and looking for work for two years. Reel “fell off” the train in Eagle Lake, Texas, a town built on the rice trade and teeming with ducks, geese and sandhill cranes. Reel had accidentally found a home.
One of Reel’s biggest contributions to snow goose hunting was originally meant for ducks. During the 1950’s through the 1970’s, people heard about Reel’s famous white spread hunting that decoyed huge numbers of snows, pintails and mallards. Writers came from all over the U.S. to hunt with Reel and he was sponsored by Peters Ammunition. Everyone thought there was magic in Reel’s calling and decoys, but he knew better. It was the roost ponds.
Reel had watched the duck numbers dwindle in the 1930’s and 40’s as agricultural drainage took away critical prairie pond habitat. Reel had a hunch that flooding fallow and harvested rice fields in the winter and leaving those areas undisturbed during the season would guarantee birds would hang around the area. He was right. Ducks piled in to his “roosts” by the thousands every day. So did the geese, staying on ponds at night and branching out to feed on plentiful waste grains in the day. The roost pond became an outfitter staple, and every commercial goose hunting operation maintained several.
While Jimmy Reel certainly hunted and harvested big numbers of light geese, he was really a duck hunter at heart. Reel met a guy that truly loved the goose hunting game and quickly put him in charge of all the goose hunts. That man was Marvin Tyler.
Tyler started guiding with Reel at the Lower Lake Club around 1950. They saw the huge flocks of geese and wanted to hunt them. East side hunters like Jim Nelson had figured out the best way to draw them in close—white sheets and newspapers draped over rice stubble. Word had spread west and Tyler embraced the “rag” spread method and formed his Blue Goose Hunting Club and Marvin’s Restaurant in the tiny Altair, TX, community. The dedicated goose hunting day operation was born.
With Reel as a partner up until the mid-60’s, Tyler grew his Blue Goose operation through word of mouth. “He knew that hunters knew other hunters,” said Mike Lanier who started guiding for Marvin Tyler as a teen aged boy in the early 70’s. “That was his best advertising, putting guys on great hunts and them telling their friends. Marvin was a great goose hunter and a great man, people loved to hunt with him.”
Tyler used his restaurant as a goose hunting tactic. He allowed all the local farmers to wine and dine at his place on credit, often trading out bills owed for hunting on their lands. Tyler knew it was only a matter of time before geese showed up to feed on a tract and he made sure that farmer would let him hunt those flocks. He kept his hunters in the best locations, and they continued to come back to hunt year after year.
Marketing his operation was easy for the likeable Tyler. He knew how to treat people and invited writers from around the country on the first Monday of every season for the Outdoor Sportswriters Association, providing food and lodging for upwards of 40 journalists. Their articles propelled his business to new heights and the legend of Marvin Tyler, goose hunter, grew. Pictures of his hunters covered in white bed sheets laying among hundreds of white cloth decoys circulated in numerous publications. But the lid was soon to be blown off Texas snow goose hunting in 1969.
In November of that year, the American Sportsman television program came to Eagle Lake to feature a hunt with Tyler, actor Andy Griffith and golfer Sam Snead. The hunting action was fast and furious and when the program aired, sportsmen and women descended on Eagle Lake, doubling and then tripling Tyler’s business. Eight guides became 25 and 10,000 leased acres became 100,000. Guiding goose hunters became a way of life along with farming in places like Garwood, El Campo, Bay City and Katy, Texas. Eagle Lake was dubbed “Goose Hunting Capital of the World,” a sign proclaiming such still stands on the outskirts of town today.
The Next Generation of Snow Men
Time waits for no man and Jimmy Reel and Marvin Tyler got older. They sold their outfits to younger men, most of whom had guided for them in the past. New outfits sprung up as well with booming light goose populations feeding the hunter demand. Guys that grew up on the prairies now controlled them from a hunting standpoint, none bigger than Larry Gore.
A whole new generation of light goose hunters made ELKPO (Eagle Lake and Katy Prairie Outfitters) a household name in the 1980’s. They were the biggest outfit in a business full of big outfits, based in Katy, TX, and meeting their hunters at The Kountry Kitchen in Katy. The place was electric during the season with hunters scarfing down eggs, bacon and coffee while holding excited conversations about the coming hunts. This was waterfowl hunting central in Texas, nothing else came close.
Gore is not a native Texan, he was transplanted to Texas in 1973 the way a lot of kids came to Houston; his dad was in the oil business. Gore loved to hunt and had a business mind and by chance he was given the opportunity to run a mock shooting preserve for a high school project. He saw the potential in it and began leasing small properties around Katy, TX. Back in his home state of Wyoming, guides were known as outfitters. So, Katy Prairie Outfitters was born in 1979.
Gore assembled some of the top guides around. Many he met while hunting with Lyle Jordan’s Texas Safaris. He made some smart moves; befriending Houston Chronicle outdoors editor Bob Brister was one of the best. The Chronicle ran a weekly waterfowl hunting report in their Thursday and Sunday editions and Gore and his crew were fixtures in the copy. Hunters from Houston lived by that report, getting ready for weekend hunts on Thursday evening.
By the late 1980’s, Gore had expanded to include lands around Eagle Lake, some 50,000 acres in all with 35 to 40 guides on the roster. Snow goose hunting as big business had arrived. But it was never as easy as it seemed.
“I was spending a lot of money per season right off the top to secure enough good property to run my operation,” Gore recalled. “You needed upwards of 50,000 acres to ensure good hunting. And the roost ponds were a must, without those you didn’t keep geese near your farms. In dry years that had to be drained and pumped again as thousands of geese sleeping on them would foul the waters to the point that disease could set in. There was always a lot to be done to make it happen.”
Gore’s philosophy was simple. “If the Lord’s going to give me the opportunity then it was up to me to give my hunters a quality experience at a reasonable price,” he recalled. “And everyone made money from the hotels and restaurants to the guides and the farmers. We had over 1 million geese and several hundred thousand ducks in the area and people came from all over the world to hunt. Today, a lot of the geese have moved east but, in those days, we were the place to be. It was a lot of fun, met a lot of great people.”
One of Gore’s top guides was Doug Pike who wrote for the Houston Chronicle for 23 years. It’s hard to overstate what the Chronicle outdoors section meant to the hunters and fishermen of Houston in the 80’s through the mid-2000’s. The articles penned by Bob Brister, Joe Doggett, Shannon Tompkins and Pike made or broke hunting and fishing operations from Galveston Bay all the way to the King Ranch in deep south Texas.
“I got into waterfowl hunting through friends who hunted with Lyle Jordan,” Pike said. “My dad wasn’t a hunter, so I was lucky to know guys who were. This was the mid-to-late 70’s and the hunting near the Texas coast was phenomenal. I didn’t begin guiding until the early 80’s and by then I had become primarily a goose hunter. All the guides in those days were goose hunters first and everything else second. You had to be. The big draw was geese. That’s what everyone was coming to hunt. People had ducks in their back yard.”
Pike hunted with clients from all over the world, even a dude they dubbed “Green Hornet.”
“He was Italian, came to Houston from Italy with a servant to hunt geese,” Pike remembered. “They were quite the pair and neither one spoke English. When we got to the field, the Hornet wasn’t carrying anything. He loaded his partner down with guns and gear, made him hump everything out and back. They were nice guys though, paid in cash and tipped well. You just never knew who you were going to be hunting with in those days.”
Another client wanted to hunt over his own decoys and told Pike that he needed to go to a local sporting goods store and pick them up. “I asked the guy how many he bought, figuring we would just add them to my spread,” said Pike. “His reply was ‘all they had.’ So, I went to the place and jam packed my pickup full of decoys, literally every snow goose decoy they had on the shelf. We hunted with his decoys and I asked him how he was going to get them home and he replied that he wasn’t. He gave me those decoys as a tip.”
Pike even received a four-legged tip once. “I was hunting with a veterinarian who brought a young dog out, he was maybe 7 or 8 months old. I didn’t have a dog at the time and when the hunt was over, he handed me that dog’s leash and left him with me. Turned out to be a pretty good dog!”
The Conservation Transformation
Despite all that hunting, by the end of the twentieth century, light goose populations had exploded. Season limits had blown up to 20 geese per hunter per day, an unrealistic figure that was seldom ever reached on a morning hunt. Both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and their counterparts in Canada thought that drastic measures would have to be taken to thin the light geese who were destroying their tundra breeding grounds.
The solution was known as the Light Goose Conservation Order. This order allowed hunting for snow and blue geese during spring migration, no limits, unplugged shotguns and electronic callers. Guides and hunters rejoiced; spring hunting had been outlawed decades before, so this new opportunity was embraced heartily. What it also did was bring a new breed of snow goose hunter into the fold, those with plenty of youth and energy on their side.
T & T
Two such hunters are Tony Vandemore and Tyson Keller. When they were young, they had flexible schedules and they were willing to take on snow geese on a grand scale. They were also both on the Avery Outdoors Pro-Staff, at that time in the early 2000’s one of the top groups of hunters and brand ambassadors in the business. The pair didn’t know each other well, Vandemore hailed from Missouri and Keller from South Dakota. But they were soon to be approached with a proposition that would change their lives forever.
Greenhead Gear decoys, an Avery division, was getting started in 2003. The idea behind the brand was ultra-realistic decoys based on carvings from world champions. Starting with duck species, Canada geese were soon added to the line. What the market lacked was a full-bodied snow and blue decoy. There had been a few brands that built one, but they didn’t market them aggressively. The prevailing thought was that hunters needed so many light goose decoys that they would never run spreads of all full-bodies, even if they were much more effective.
Avery Outdoors owner Tom Matthews thought that hunters would embrace the full-body snow if they could be shown to make a huge difference in success on the wary geese. Fred Zink, call maker and Finisher layout blind inventor, had been working with Matthews developing the GHG decoy line. Zink also had a popular DVD series on the market called “24-7.” If GHG could make a snow and blue full body, were there some guys out there willing to do the work of putting out over 1,000 full-bodies every hunt for a season and document it all on film?
The answer was yes! Vandemore and Keller joined forces with several other Avery staffers and hit the road, grinding through all kinds of weather but putting snows and blues on the ground in big numbers. Once the video footage hit the shelves, GHG couldn’t make enough of their full-bodied light geese to fill demand. And this was well before social media. Imagine what kind of buzz those guys would generate now.
Vandemore and Keller attracted so much attention that Zink gave them their own DVD title, “Snow Storm, 24-7” that continued where the other filming left off. This gave them a platform to show other hunters how they did it, from setting spreads to designing electronic calling systems and using spread motion to draw light geese into point blank range. And GHG gave them their own decoy, a 5/8ths shell called the “T & T” that gave full-body performance in a more portable package.
Today, Tony Vandemore continues to hunt light geese hard at his famed Habitat Flats outfitting service in Missouri. He and Zink recently reunited for an episode of Ducks Unlimited Television, hunting with DU volunteers from Delaware.
“Most of the time I tell guys when they get here, If I’m going to be guiding them, that they’ve got the worst snow guide in the country because I’m greedy,” Vandemore said on the episode. “I don’t care about singles, pairs, none of that. I want the big spins with as many geese as possible as close as they will get. You get burned a lot doing that, but I just want to get them close, I owe them that much. If I’m going to beat them, I want it to be fair.”
Tyson Keller is still hunting light geese with extreme passion, but he stays away from the spotlight now. However, he was glad to be a part of ultimately changing the way snow geese are hunted today.
“I have been a big Canada goose hunter as long as I can remember,” Keller said. “And we used very realistic setups for Canada geese and hunted snows with bags on sticks. It just didn’t make any sense. So, when the opportunity came along to be part of this grand experiment, I jumped at the chance.”
And they continued to evolve their gear way above and beyond what everyone else was doing. “We had two 24-foot trailers packed with up to 1900 full-bodies, 4 electronic calling systems, and we were some of the first hunters to add a lot of motion in the spreads. We adapted the first rotary machines made for ducks by attaching windsocks to them. The juvenile birds just ate them up.”
Keller still hunts light geese 3 to 4 weeks each spring, catching the traveling flights heading north whenever possible. “I have a wife and a son now, I can’t spend all my time chasing birds around,” he said with a smile. “I wouldn’t trade those days for anything though, I met so many great people and learned so much. It was all worth it, it was all a great experience.”
Waterfowl hunters are a crazy breed to begin with. It’s not sane to want to leave a warm bed on a cold morning to try and shoot a bird. And within that fraternity are the light goose fanatics, those that take it all to the extreme, hunting the most demanding geese in the world with smiles on their faces. Your teeth get kicked in nine out of ten and the frustration can build to epic levels. But it’s that one hunt, the day when everything lines up and the birds cooperate that makes it all worthwhile. Don’t believe it? Just ask the snow men.