When The Goose Gods Frown
September 23, 2010
Mother Nature does her best to keep the birds from coming in.
Bobby shows off his trophy, one of the few geese that came in range. Note the sprouted (green) wheat in the stubble that was the cause of much of the difficulty.
Someday I'm going to learn that when the Saskatchewan weather forecaster says "clear, warm and sunny with southerly winds at five kilometers per hour" for the area of the province where I hunt, instead of getting out of bed at what the military calls "O dark 30," I'll simply turn over and go back to sleep.
Certainly it would be a lot more productive than getting up, loading the truck with decoys, blinds and dogs and heading off over the prairie for an hour and a half of hard labor on a forced march around a wheat stubble field setting out decoys and blinds in the faint, forlorn hope that a goose will be stupid enough to blunder close enough for a shot. I say "someday" only because, in the words of Alexander Pope, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast." It should be obvious that even with 35 years of experience hunting geese that particular lesson has yet to sink in.
Mornings have never been my best time even under the most favorable of conditions and at 0400 hours, the usual hour of reveille in our goose camp, my metabolism hits bottom. I have always had a lot of sympathy for Irving Berlin's ode to sleeping in, "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" and the vow in the lyrics that, "Someday I'm going to murder the bugler." During the time that I collected a paycheck from Uncle Sam, I always dreamt of having my duty hours commence at the start of the afternoon watch (1200 hours, or noon) and conclude at the end of the second dog watch (2000 hours or 8 p.m.).
In civilian life, I have endeavored as much as possible to make that happen. However, three things have conspired against achieving that goal. But the fact that the business world stubbornly refuses to follow that schedule is not nearly as important as that for two and a half months of the year, the quarry I'm hunting doesn't abide by those hours and the other is that neither do my dogs. Anyway, when the alarm clock goes off at 4 a.m. (my nephew and hunting partner has one that doesn't chime or beep but rather, plays reveille, and I hope it breaks and soon) my resistance is at very low ebb indeed and I want nothing more than to be left alone. This explains why, despite knowing better, I was getting dressed, ready to go hunting in the face of clear and unlimited visibility, windless weather.
When It's Time To Stay Home
The only weather in this area of the province that could possibly be worse for goose hunters is rain. When it is wet, it becomes almost impossible to get around, even with four-wheel drive. My brother once likened driving on the roads and in the fields after a significant rain to driving in lard. It is not an exaggeration. This was amply illustrated a few years ago during a wet cycle when, on the way back from a morning's hunt, we met the local school bus, which was coming sideways up the hill toward us. This year, it was raining as we drove into our hunting camp. It was not an auspicious omen.
I had approached this year's goose hunt with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. I knew the hunt would be either spectacular or an absolute gut-buster. I have learned a few things in the 35 years I've been chasing white-fronted geese, also known as specklebellies, in this area. One is that when there is an abundance of food present, getting under the birds is frequently a crapshoot. There was an overabundance of food available this year.
Roughly a month before we arrived, a widespread and wicked hailstorm hit the area.
It goes without saying that the shotguns were unloaded, cased and in the truck by this time. Had they not been secured, we would have had plenty of shooting. Coming across the field hazing the flock in our direction was Bob. When we failed to fire any shots, as he arrived at the truck panting from the efforts of his goose round-up, I swear he had a look of total disgust on his face. If a dog is capable of communicating that he was washing his paws of this entire sorry lot of hunters, Bobby did.
Bob with the "albatross" at which he declines to even look.
We tried to tell him that it was not our fault, that the goose gods had stacked the odds against us but he was having none of it. He demanded to be let onto the foam pad in his crate in the truck and he made it clear he only wanted a bowl of cool water for company.
It wasn't as though we weren't trying to overcome the obstacles Mother Nature had strewn in our path. We tried every goose hunting method we'd learned in 35 years--big decoy spreads, small spreads including a tiny one of only 18 fully flocked specks, motion decoys, flags, calling. Nothing made any difference.
We had had success in previous years when hunting conditions were tough with kites but there wasn't enough wind to get a kite off the ground this time.
Forced New Tactics
Suspecting that the hay bale blinds might be scaring the birds, we set up a blind in a field where geese had been feeding after they returned to the river in the morning. Sure enough, that night, no geese returned to the field. Instead, they fed in a field about a quarter of a mile away. Okay. That's it. It's the blinds. So, in desperation, we did something I swore I'd never do again, which was dig pits. The reason for this aversion to pit digging is because the soil in the area, when it dries, would support the landing of a B-52 and it sticks tighter than malicious gossip.
The following morning, we went to the field where we had dug the pits and witnessed the same spectacle we had seen for the previous two days. Hundreds of thousands of geese came off the river but not one came within a thousand yards of effective shotgun range.
Adding insult to injury, when we picked up and left, we returned to the field where we had left the hay bale blind to retrieve it. While not exactly sitting around it, a large flock of geese was feeding in the field and in order to get to where they were feeding, they would have had to have passed directly over the hay bale blind well within range.
In retrospect, I may have been responsible for jinxing things when I shot a sandhill crane on the first morning because I needed a photo for another writing assignment. Sandhills resemble the albatross in some ways--big, goofy-looking things on land but graceful in flight--so perhaps shooting one also carries the
curse visited upon the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge's poem: "Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down...All in a hot and copper sky...Day after day, day after day, we stuck, nor breath nor motion; as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean."
If that is what happened, the albatross finally "dropt" away the last day as we were treated to overcast skies, a tiny bit of wind and a respectable shoot. Bobby forgave our earlier repeated failures and the hunt served as a reminder, once again, why even in a goose hunting paradise like Saskatchewan in the middle of the fall migration, this is called goose hunting, not goose shooting.