I’d been going stir crazy for nearly a week, doing everything from trying to pretend that the impending goose season was “no big deal” to furiously writing some pretty awful haiku poetry. Then suddenly it was upon me; the open road, the sun shining on my left arm as I cruised with it draped out the driver’s side window, and the knowledge that in a few short hours I would be laughing with friends as we prepared for what for many of us is the unofficial kick-off to the fall season.
I drove through some very pretty country as I made my way from Mississauga up through Hockley into the Georgian Highlands, before eventually picking up Highway 6 in Chatsworth and continuing on to the farm. As I passed through Wiarton my friend Lucas flipped me a text and I read it while stopped at one of the three traffic lights in town. He had arrived just ahead of me and was assembling his layout blind. He also told me that he had an ice-cold beverage waiting for me when I arrived. Some friends just know. The trip had been good with little traffic, nice weather and it afforded me the opportunity to think and to listen to some music, including a new addition to my list of favourite hunting tunes, the album “Flood” from They Might Be Giants. I’ve had this CD since the mid 1990’s and it is just plain old eclectic awesomeness. I won’t make another hunting trip without it.
Anyways, we convened in the laneway, checked all our gear, laid out the blinds, calls, decoys and other necessary impediments that every goose hunter treks out into the fields and marshes with before loading it into Lucas’s Jeep. My sister and some of her friends showed up for a wedding that was taking place that weekend, and then a group of even more hunting buddies arrived for some planning, some good-natured arguing, some laughs and a bit of storytelling before we turned in. I still have that giddy, anticipatory sleep that goes with not really being able to wait for something. Some people get it at Christmas, or the first day at school, or something like that, but for me, I just can’t get to sleep the night before the first goose hunt of the year. My mind is filled with thoughts of what the day will hold and how the geese will behave, with a dash of worry that my alarm won’t go off and I’ll somehow sleep through the whole thing. This latter irrational fear usually results in me waking up twenty minutes before my alarm goes off, and Saturday, September 10th was no exception.
We met at the local gas station and laid out the final agenda. I and the three others with layout blinds would set up in a cut grain field with little perimeter cover, while the other six or eight guys would man another cut grain field just across the county road; their field had a good ditch and standing corn surrounding it. In the grainy breaking dawn we put out a couple of dozen shells and full body decoys and then ‘brushed up’ our blinds with some grain stubble, a task coincidentally that I’ll get better at with practice. I endured some heavy teasing from the other three, but the geese didn’t seem to mind once the flight started. In a line, Tack, myself, Lucas, and Rory faced west-south-west with both the flaming orange glow of a morning sun and a light September breeze coming over our left shoulders. The first thin skeins of geese appeared out of the north, flying high and showing no interest in our flagging our calling. Fully 200 birds traded past a height that advertised to every hunter around that those geese had no interest in detouring from their planned destination. Once, with heavy flagging and excited calling, we were able to peel a group of four off the tail end of one such high-flying flock; they rocked and glided into our setup and after Tack, lounging to my left, and I had finished two of those four stayed behind with us. It wasn’t great shooting for the first group of the season, but it was a start and my adrenaline was pumping. A group of about twenty birds barreled in from the west, and while we made an attempt to work them, it became immediately apparent that they were on a beeline down the pipe into the cut grain field that housed the rest of our group. Our compatriots scratched down eight birds after a frenzy of shots and my cousin Dane would later say that those birds finished just perfectly into the decoys. I love it when that happens, although unfortunately, it was the only group to drop in on the field being patrolled by the balance of our hunting party.
We saw more groups of geese, but never worked in a group that held more than six birds. Either through dumb luck or perfect planning (or perhaps a 70-30 combination of both) the geese that we were able to work were decoying perfectly and we called it a hunt more out of a desire to eat a giant Farmer’s Breakfast at Mom’s Restaurant in Ferndale than out of a lull in the action. In all we had eight birds on the ground just as the other party did, but we had the more frequent of the shooting. Some rusty shotgunning on my part, and a jammed shell that occurred as I only half-pumped my gun before trying to continue onto a pair of birds that were literally hanging in the air ten yards from my barrel kept my personal tally to two birds, but it was still a good kick off as I learned the nuances of layout blind hunting and worked to overcome some of the habits I’ve developed over the last 17 years of pass shooting geese from the sidelines of grain and corn fields. Lesson #1: unlike when you are pass shooting and you need to call geese all the way down, once a group cups their wings and floats into your layout blind spread, the call can go down and the guns can come up. If anything I rushed a couple of shots because I was still calling to birds that were committed when I really should have been putting both hands on my 870 and getting ready to come up firing. Oh well, as I’ve said before, it’s not always about quantity. Lesson #2: you can generally call more quietly to geese when you’re lying out in the decoys. While ear-splitting volume is good for hail work, tone, inflection, and cadence count when the gunning is close.
We scarfed down (or at least I scarfed down) a big breakfast and drove back up to the farm to dress out the sixteen geese and engage in the epic historical rite of retelling stories from a hunt that had concluded no less than 90 minutes before. My hands and my knife got filthy, but as strange as it sounds, it was nice getting a little mud and blood under my nails. It adds a tactile reality to going out and getting your own meat, some of which is destined for the meat grinder, while some of it has a date with my stock pot where it will become the backbone of my classic Stewed Canada Goose. In the end, it will all go where it ought to which is into our bellies.
We resolved to take a brief siesta and while one or two from the group would take a quick scout around the area for a spot to set up for the afternoon hunt, I made a quick jaunt into town to get the necessary requirements for dinner. Just as I came out of the grocery store, laden with potato chips, baloney for frying, bread for toasting, and Walla Walla sweet onions for caramelizing (more on that in tomorrow’s post) I heard the excited chatter of a gaggle of geese as they literally fell out of the sky and into Lion’s Head Harbour. As I watched the birds careen out of the azure blue sky and clumsily skid down into the equally blue water I couldn’t help reflecting back on the morning that had just passed. We could have shot better and we could have shot more, but really we couldn’t have asked for a better start to the 2011 waterfowl campaign. Little did we know how much better things were going to get on the afternoon hunt.