September 24, 2010
So who decides when it's time to take 'em?
The flock of honkers came low and late out of the shadows, just before sundown. They should have caught us in the open. It had been a lovely October evening on the Alberta prairies, and the four of us had lingered in our open layout blinds, reluctant to give up the day. Our Canadian friend, George Kueber, was just about to pull the plug on the hunt and was, in fact, beginning to apologize for the no-show geese he had seen using the field that morning.
Determining who calls the shots -- literally -- is a critical decision.
"Just when you think you know it all," he was saying, "they bugger off, eh? Well, boys, they should've been here by€¦"
"Geese!" Jerry Hawkins hissed. "Straight out and on the deck!"
Hawkins and the other hunter, Mike Sweeney, my friends from Spokane, Wash., have accompanied me on my annual autumn pilgrimage to the Killam, Alberta, area for the past couple of years. We have hunted together stateside long and often, but they had only been hunting geese with me from layout blinds in Canada for a few years.
Four blind covers slammed shut, and four hunters tucked their chins and slid lower than necessary, camouflage cap bills pulled down. Inside my hide, I tapped my safety nervously, made a slight adjustment to the placement of the old 870 and began the deep-breathing routine I customarily use to calm my jitters when geese are coming.
"Come on, come on, come on," I pleaded between breaths. I have been hunting these birds for 50 years now, but I still get discombobulated when a flock is locked in.
Next to me, Sweeney rustled. "Who's making the call?" he asked rather loudly. Sweeney has a gravelly voice and is a little deafer than the rest of us. His idea of a whisper is a louder-than-normal speaking voice.
"George will," I said.
"Does he know that?" Sweeney asked. "What if he thinks you're making the call?"
"I think it's my turn to make the call," Hawkins complained from Sweeney's other side.
He wasn't very quiet, either, considering the geese were closing quickly.
"You called the last one," Sweeney insisted. "It's my turn."
Novice hunters sometimes lose their composure and rise up to shoot before the birds are in shotgun range. Likewise, new waterfowlers have been known to wait too long and blow the opportunity.
I wanted to sit up and scream at both of them, but I didn't dare. The geese -- 12 of them -- were a few seconds away.
"Hey George," I whispered, "Are you calling the shot?"
No response. The geese were so close their honks were drowning me out.
The big birds veered slightly to our left at 70 yards to get the wind in their faces, then turned slowly back and crossed in front of us. They strung out perfectly from the first blind to the last, 5 feet of air between their big webbed feet and the stubble. The last time we had been in a similar situation, I had waited too long to make the call, and what should have been a barnburner resulted in one kill and a lot of complaining.
"Take 'em!" I said loudly, surprising even myself as my spring-loaded blind popped open and I sat up. Four geese folded instantly. Another barrage sent three more down. Then another flurry, and two more were flopping in the stubble.
There was a chorus of whoops, followed by, "You said I could say 'Take 'em," Hawkins complained.
"It was my turn," Sweeney chided.
"Nice shooting. Nice call," Kueber said. "I couldn't remember whose turn it was."
"Thanks," I said. "I couldn't remember, either, but they were prime. We probably could have had them all."
I knew we had lucked out. Normally a mix-up like that results in a blown opportunity. I have been on way too many goose hunts when a lack of communication prior to the first flock has been the difference in a lot of plucking and just a little. On this trip, the fall migration was late and our birds had come hard. In previous years, an occasional screw-up had been no big deal, but this year, we had scratched out single-digit kills on every hunt. As things turned out, in fact, the nine honkers we had just taken were the best we did in a single day.
Not For a Novice
I have seen some hilarious/pathetic/unbelievable "Take 'em!" calls in my 50 years afield.
When a waterfowl hunter cries "Take 'em!" there's no turning back.
The reasons are many. Probably the biggest mistake is assigning the responsibility for making the call to a novice. In most other sports, allowing a newbie to decide, for example, where to fish or which trail to take just isn't done. In goose hunting, however, "saying when" seems like such a no-brainer the honor is sometimes bestowed on one who is not qualified. Letting someone else make the call is like saying "You are OK. We like you. We trust your judgment. You are now one of this exclusive fraternity." It's nice, but really dumb, and I am as guilty of doing it as anyone. There are too many things to factor in for a first-timer or even a second- or third-timer to make a good call -- things like wind and distance and approach speed and nerves and how long it takes to get in shooting position.
The biggest error for an inexperienced hunter is making the call too soon. For someone used to hunting only ducks, a Canada goose is huge. What looks like a bird in range is often more than 70 yards away. I vividly remember hunting with three college friends in the winter wheat fields off the Columbia River near Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State. We were new at the game and on three separate occasions had been frustrated by an inability to adequately conceal ourselves in the green fields. Finally, one of our party scrounged up some old AstroTurf. We took several big pieces
with us, lugged them into the field and hid beneath them.
It began to snow, and we were soon covered, as was the rest of the field. It was a perfect setup, and at 9 a.m., right on cue, a huge flock of lesser Canadas worked toward us.
"I'll say when, I'll say when," said the procurer of the AstroTurf, who had cut a viewing "window" in his hide. "You guys keep your heads down."
The geese -- at least 200 of them -- dipped lower and lower, chattering insanely. This was it.
"Take 'em!" came the call.
We flung the covering from our bodies and sat up, and the mass of geese flared wildly -- at 100 yards. One of the guys took a shot anyway, but even with our lack of experience, we knew they were out of range.
"Well, that was different," the shooter finally said to the embarrassed fellow who had made the call. "I should have brought my ought-six."
Another common error in calling the shot is a result of a goose's deceptive speed. Those big, powerful wingbeats look slow, but they can get the birds there in a hurry.
Although disappointing at the time, one of the funniest things I ever saw in a goose field happened a couple of years ago. I was a guest of a farmer friend who had also invited his new son-in-law to hunt with us from layout blinds in a plowed potato field. Cover, of course, was non-existent. The best we could do was bombard our blinds with dirt clods in hopes of spreading a little dust and removing a little shine.
It was the young man's first field goose hunt, and following three unsuccessful attempts to get a flock to commit, he talked his father-in-law into letting him make the call. I think he figured some of the birds we had passed on were shootable. Indeed, some had been close enough, but the shots would have been awkward, requiring us to sit up, turn around and shoot with our knees behind us -- potentially dangerous and not very effective.
Contortions like that can result in loaded guns pointing in directions they shouldn't be pointing. Nevertheless, my friend was embarrassed by the lack of action after promising a good shoot and told the son-in-law he could make the next call.
Calling the shot is just one component of a successful hunt, whether it is conducted in a grain field or from a blind over water.
Wouldn't you know it? The next flight of geese -- the largest of the morning by far -- appeared as specks over the trees on the far horizon and winged straight down the pipe to our decoys. It seemed to take forever for them to cross the fenceline to our field, but they came on a string, dropping ever lower and seeming to pick up speed. At 40 yards, they were 20 feet up. No call. At 30 yards, their landing gear came down. Still no call. At 10 yards, they were backpedaling. Whoosh! Whoosh! Too close, too close, I was thinking.
Then they were over us.
The young man's blind swung open, and the flock flared and climbed quickly out of range behind us. He hadn't uttered a sound, but had turned awkwardly on his side and was looking back. His eyes appeared almost pure white, as large as half-dollars.
"Why didn't you call it?" my friend asked. His son-in-law turned his head and stared blankly, still looking like a deer caught in the headlights. "I-I-I d-don't know," he stammered. "It-it-it wasn't what I expected."
Probably, that's part of the problem: A lot of times, geese do not do what you thought they were going to do. Therefore, ego should not have anything to do with who makes the call.
Congeniality should not have anything to do with it, either, nor should a sense of fairness.
The person who makes the call should be the same person each time -- the one with the most experience. Even if he is not always right, he will at least be more or less consistent.
The only exception is when you are the guest. In that case, it's out of your hands unless you are offered the responsibility.
The part of making the call that gives me the most fits personally comes when the birds are inclined to circle. Do I take them if they are in range or let them come around again, hopefully lower?
The decision has a lot to do with the type of birds, too. I'll almost always let Canada geese and mallards circle, and I'll almost always make the call on bluebills, specklebellies and snows if they're in range. No matter what I do, there will always be complaints if everyone doesn't get a good shot.
"You should have called it on the first pass," or "You should have let them come around one more time."
The man who has been goose hunting hundreds of times is better prepared to judge all the variables of speed and distance, better prepared to read the flock. He is more likely to make sure everyone has shooting when conditions are perfect, but he is not afraid to call the shot if the birds are off to one side or the other and obviously not coming to the X.
Better that someone gets a shot than no one.
Years ago in Oregon, I hunted with three very fine goose hunters and guides -- Bill Saunders, Ron Latchaw and Tim Grounds. They were making a video and would not shoot unless the birds were committed. There were so many geese, I'm sure we could have been out of the field in an hour had we taken the easier passing opportunities. Most hunters would have. It struck me that I was with three of the best goose hunters in the United States, but there were no egos involved. Grounds was designated to make the call, and that's the way it was.
And that's the way it should be. I need to share that epiphany with Hawkins and Sweeney.
Alan Liere of Spokane, Wash., has accumulated more than enough waterfowling experience to make the call.