The one area my hunting partners and I hunt holds a large amount of birds once the migration starts, but with those numbers comes extremely high hunting pressure. It seems that when the birds have moved in en masse and the crop fields are picked, every other field has a truck and hunting trailer in it. After the initial successes following the crops being removed, the birds get wise and begin to frequent those few fields that don’t allow hunters.
The area that we hunt has a subdivision that has a few decent sized ponds that attract the large amount of birds to roost. Luckily for us, our field is the first one they can hit outside of the subdivision, and it provides some great action in the beginning. Our field is generally one of the last to get picked, much to our luck. But as is prone to happen, after a few weeks of hunting here, we fall into a mid season lull as the geese move to their safe haven fields, avoiding us at all cost.
The 2016 season was no different, and to add to the mid season lull, the farmer began the practice of bailing the corn stubble, removing a decent amount of our cover in the field. This practice makes it difficult to brush up the blinds, making it hard for us to hide. Concealment is critical to hunting high pressured birds, so we looked towards our next opportunity; a measurable snow fall.
A measurable snowfall changes the game during the mid season lull. For starters, we can cover our layout blinds in snow covers, and also dig them into the snow. This allows us to lower their profile while the white covers blend in almost perfectly. As a side effect of a measurable snow, it seems to hit the “reset button” on bird behavior. What I mean by this is it seems that geese have completely forgotten which fields are dangerous and which ones are safe. Everything is white, and all looks the same, so the thought is that birds are unsure of where they have and haven’t been. Also, now their food sources are covered, so they switch to survival mode, and when they see other geese in a field (or our decoys) they draw into it like a magnet. To put it quite simply, when the conditions are right, it can be like opening day all over again.
The weather forecast for the weekend of December 11th was calling for a winter storm with a measurable snow fall of 6-8 inches Saturday night into Sunday morning. While there was already a small amount of snow on the ground, it wasn’t enough for us to successfully hide in. Myself, my cousin Colton, and long time hunting buddies Mark and Ben hunted all day Saturday, from sunrise to sunset, and struggled to shoot two geese shy of a full limit. To say it was tough hunting would be an understatement. The birds wouldn’t close the final distance, and continually flared at 50 yards. Our four snow cover clad layout blinds stuck out in the snow dusted mowed corn stubble field, and we just couldn’t fool the birds enough to get them to finish. As we picked up in the dark Saturday night, we made a game plan for Sunday morning based on what we witnessed all day. As we did this, snow flakes started falling, signalling the start of the much anticipated snow storm. We excitedly finalized our plans for the morning, and left the field anxious for what the morning would bring.
When my alarm blared loudly the next morning, I hurriedly shut it off to avoid waking my sleeping pregnant wife. I dressed quickly in the dark room, my clothes having been laid out ready to go the night before, and made my way to the living room. My two black labs followed in suit, and as I flipped on the living room light I could smell my coffee brewing in the kitchen. I dumped the dogs’ food in their respective dishes and they both eagerly ate. While they ate I walked to our back sliding door and flipped on the outdoor light to see how much snow we received overnight.
Much to my surprise and joy, we had at least 8 inches of fresh powder on the ground, and more was still falling. The dogs, having finished their breakfast, wanted out to do their morning business. I let them outside, and as I shut the door I heard my phone quack (yes, you read that right, the text tone for both of my hunting buddies is a mallard hen quacking) from it’s place charging on the kitchen counter. I walked over to it and saw a text from Mark on the screen asking
“You see what is outside?”
I smiled and responded to him, knowing he felt the excitement I did when I saw how much snow we got. I let the dogs in, and put Lola’s e-collar and vest on her, and as I did so her tail wagged uncontrollably knowing what it meant. We headed to the preloaded truck in the garage, and pulled out to get the guys.
After picking Ben, Colton, and Mark up, we grabbed the trailer and drove the twenty minute ride to the field. We chatted the whole ride about calling strategies, how we planned to set up for the wind, and as always some good natured ribbing of each other as we each sipped on coffee. When we arrived at the field and I pulled into it, Lola, who usually sleeps during truck rides, recognized the change in motion of the truck, the bumpiness of driving in a field, and she shot up and began panting and whining, excited to finally be in the field. We all laughed about how her “switch” was now on.
We pulled through the snow to the agreed upon set up location we had discussed the night before. We were closer to the subdivision than we were the day before, but still well outside of the 100 yard minimum distance required by law. To be safe I had brought my range finder and zipped the closest house, and the reading was 200 yards. Trust but verify. As an added safety measure we planned to set up facing away from the houses. Luckily for us the easterly wind was perfect for that sort of set up.
Mark unlocked the trailer and the four of us got to work. Everyone in our group understands the work that needs to be done, so there is no explanation required aside from where the blinds need to go for the wind. After unloading the decoy bags and blinds, Mark and Colton worked on blinds while Ben and I began setting up decoys. Mark and Colton dug the blinds into the snow with the snow covers on them. The process usually takes a half hour, but with the added difficulty of the snow that time increased to 45 minutes. With everything set how we envisioned, everyone got their personal gear out of the truck and I took it to the far end of the field (which I regretted on the walk back) and parked it.
The way we set up was using a fold in the field to further hide the profile of the blinds, with the wind at our backs and the 120 full body goose decoys in a loose “U” shape with the kill hole to our front. The geese would be coming from behind us, which isn’t ideal for observing but we knew that if they spotted the spread in the field, they would come in on a string. While we waited for the birds to begin moving (geese are lazy and wait for full sun up to start moving when it’s cold) we dusted snow off the decoys since the snow stopped. About 20 minutes after full sunrise, we could begin to hear the geese honking and making noise from the various ponds throughout the subdivision. We craned our necks to look behind us, anticipation running high. It’s at this moment, that doubt begins to creep in sometimes. Are they gonna just go east and not come out this way? Are the blinds hid good enough? Will they give us a chance? It’s too late to make changes because at any minute they will be coming out.
Colton was the first one to spot a group. He yelled excitedly, pointing towards the houses and saying,
“Six pack over the houses headed right for us.”
The rest of us looked towards the seemingly never ending rows or snow covered rooftops, and as he described, six geese were winging their way towards us. They looked as though they were barely clearing the rooftops. We all hunkered down in our blinds, and I started flapping the goose flag. Mark started clucking and honking on his short reed goose call, as did Colton. I turned in my blind to look behind us, still flapping the goose flag, and saw that the geese had slowed their wing beats and clearly were headed right for us. I folded up the flag, and tucked it under my layout blind; I wanted absolutely nothing to even have the chance to flare geese in this snow. I could hear the geese honking back at the boys calling.
“They are coming right for us boys.” I said as I put my call to my lips and began to join in the noise the guys were making. Ben did as well, and we sounded like an excited group of geese as I watched through the mesh of my blind as the geese passed over, wings cupped and necks craned down looking at the spread. I watched them as they swung to the end of the field and turned down wind, setting up to come back to us and land into the wind. They dipped lower, zeroed right in on the kill hole, honking all the way in. When the lead bird was backpedaling at 20 yards in the kill hole I yelled,
“Take ’em!” I threw the hood of my blind open and raised my shotgun in one motion, aiming for that lead bird that just now discovered it’s fatal mistake. Right before I pulled the trigger, someone beat me to it and the bird crumpled. I swung on the bird that was spinning out to my left in an attempt to escape, and fired. The bird folded and hit the ground in a shower of snow. I watched two birds of the original six making their escape, with four laying in the snow. The other three guys were hooting and hollering, reloading their guns as I sent Lola on her retrieves. She took off kicking snow in the air on her first run. Colton grabbed the two closest birds, and after Lola brought her first one back I sent her on the furthest bird.
Happy dog doing what she loves in the snow.
“Damn someone was quick draw McGraw on that lead bird.” I said as I jammed another shell into the magazine tube of my shotgun.
“Yeah that was me.” Ben said as he sat back in his blind, sipping on some still hot coffee. I should have known it was him; I’ve never seen someone who can clear a blind and fire as quickly and accurately as he can.
“Hey boys, they are all headed out now!” Mark said as he snuffed out his cigarette and got back in his blind. And boy he wasn’t kidding. Hundreds of honkers were pouring out of the subdivision now; all headed right for us. I dug the flag out from underneath my blind as we all sat back into our blinds. Once again Mark and Colton began working the goose calls as I flapped the goose flag at the incoming birds. A group of three geese broke off of the main group and headed on a beeline for our spread. They craned their necks downward as they passed overhead, following the same path the last group did for their final approach. Swinging downwind and setting up, they flipped upside down in the air, losing air in their wings to drop fast. Hunters call this “maple leafing” as they look like leaves falling. They closed the distance, feet dropped, wings locked for their landing. I glanced over at Lola, who was hidden in her blind, and she was shaking in anticipation, eyes locked on the birds. When they were at 20 yards, in front of everyone, I called the shot.
“Take ’em boys!” I flipped open my blind but instead of shooting I watched the other guys shoot. The geese flapped their wings hard, trying to gain altitude when they saw four men materialize out of the snow, and the boys opened fire. Two geese folded immediately, and the third turned to leave. Thinking it would make it I grabbed my gun since it swung towards my side. But before I pulled it up, a shot rang out and the bird folded. I looked over and saw Colton with his gun to his shoulder, bolt locked to the rear, with him having fired his last shot on the escapee. He grinned at me as he lowered his gun, and asked
“Why weren’t you shooting?” I laughed and heard Ben say,
“Damnit Ryan, why do you do that?” The guys say I always hold back on shooting, which is generally true when small groups like that come in, because it seems foolish for me to join in.
“Hell I figured you guys had it. Three geese and three shooters, should be a done deal.” Ben just shook his head as I sent Lola to do her work.
“Well Kid, we just need one more bird, it’s all on you.” Mark said as he put his empty gun in his blind. He calls me Kid as a nickname, even though we are the same age. Ben and Colton followed suit, in agreement on me closing out the full limit. Lola brought the second bird back as Colton went and picked up the last bird, to make quick work of pick up. Ben called out,
“Hey, four pack headed this way.” He pointed toward the houses again, and sure enough here came a low group of four winging their way towards us. Everyone settled in as I told Lola “kennel”, her command to get hidden in her blind. Ben had stolen the flag from me when I wasn’t looking and began flagging, while Colton and Mark once again took to the calls. I put my call to my lips, started calling, and Ben scolded me,
“Hey, you just focus on shooting, we got this.” Everyone closed their blinds, Ben hid the flag as the geese swung to our right, swinging wide and turning into the wind for their approach. My eyes focused on the lead bird, and I made my decision that one was the one I was gonna take. They were almost at ground level as they settled into the hole. The guys were calling and the lead bird was responding excitedly. My finger was resting on the safety of my gun, hand gripped around the grip of the shotgun, waiting for my moment in the hot seat. When the lead bird was feet down backpedaling in the spread, I flung my blind door open with my left hand while rasing my shotgun with my right. I settled my fiberoptic sight on the bird as it flapped furiously trying to get away. I flipped the safety off and fired, hitting the bird a bit back, not enough to drop it. I settled the sight on it again and fired a second shot, which folded the bird stone dead. The guys jumped up and cheered, with that one bird we had filled a full limit of two geese each. I sent Lola to get the last bird, as we patted each other on the back. Geese were still moving, they were seemingly never ending coming out of the subdivision.
Lola worked hard and deserved her own picture with her retrieves. Ben decided to photo bomb however.
Lola brought our last bird of the day in, head held high and tail wagging; truly proud of her accomplishment. I looked at my phone, and saw that only an hour and a half had passed since we first set up. Given the season we had had up to this point, this was a much needed outcome. The downside was that given that the season was coming to a close in a few weeks, and each of our busy schedules, this was our last opportunity to hunt together. Seemed a great way to end the 2016 season.
Ben, Mark, Colton, myself, and of course Lola, all smiles as we finished our 2016 season on a high note.