Creeped Out

Snow geese are hard enough to hunt in November. By this time of year, the birds have seen and heard it all.

Cockroaches get hip to our methods of massacring them and develop defenses.Bacteria do the same. Then brilliant folks in lab coats get their dander up, spit on their hands and spend months of painstaking labor in laboratories peering into microscopes, mixing deadly concoctions and checking results.

Finally — EUREKA! — they discover a new method of massacring these creatures. Then we have another go at them. We spray up a storm with new chemicals. We gulp new antibiotics.

Consequently, millions of man’s natural foes undergo agonizing deaths. Then they get hip again — and the cycle repeats.

These musings occupied me while crouching in a muddy blind near Welch while watching flock after flock after flock of geese wing overhead as we beckoned from below with scores of outrageously expensive decoys and the most heartfelt pleadings issued by the most virtuoso callers, along with electronic beckonings.

We should have known better. Much like cockroaches and bacteria, geese have long gotten hip to our methods of massacring them.

But unlike the folks in the white lab coats, no corresponding diligence in concocting more effective methods of slaughter has been forthcoming from the folks in the camo coats — electronic calls, longer seasons and robo decoys notwithstanding. In the big scheme of things, all our goose-beckoning gadgets and trinkets haven’t appreciably lowered, or even dented, goose numbers.

We insist on sitting in blinds expecting geese to commit suicide by barreling into our decoys like dos gris, or flapping slowly overhead at 20 yards like bec croche and cormorants.

We might see flashes of this in November or with a heavy fog or with a horrendous front.

But by February, it’s almost hopeless, and it seems to get more hopeless (for us, the hunters) every year.

As luck would have it, Doc Fontaine’s appointed hours at his “time-share” style goose lease/lodge generally falls in February. The duck, trout and skiing action is over by then, so he invites the gang over for a “goose hunt.” And every year, like lemmings, we drive over en masse. After 10 years of this ritual, we know better than to think we’ll shoot many geese.

“SPECKS!” Pelayo rasped and pointed with his chin while mouthing his speck call. My musings ceased as I focused on the action. Chris and I hunched down deeper in the blind while Doc’s cousin, Artie, went to work with his speck call. Soon he and Pelayo had an interesting din going. What a crazy sound these geese make, or at least the yo-yos who try to call them make.

Best of all, it was only a pair of white-fronted geese, thus considered decoyable. And they seemed interested. They saw the spread in the muddy rice stubble, and the wingbeats slowed. Our hour and a half vigil was quickly forgotten as Pelayo and Artie’s calling grew more frantic and the specks quickly closed the distance. What a sight. Here’s what it’s all about.

Amazingly, these geese seemed bent, not just on a look-see, but on LANDING! We duck hunters have to watch ourselves here. The temptation is to jump up and start blasting when they’re still 150 yards out. And sure enough, I almost blew it, but Pelayo yanked me down in time. You see that landing gear going down, and it’s generally time to start blasting.

But not with late-season specks. This pair landed about a hundred yards out as we cursed and fumed under our breath. The sneaky swine!

I felt a sharp tug at my elbow, and looked over at Chris, who was pointing a gloved finger eastward. Another pair of specs had been a few hundred yards behind these and on the same course. Pelayo and Artie commenced with that silly whistling racket, and again the geese responded with exciting body language.

We were on an evening hunt, when geese tend to spread out in smaller groups and are slightly more likely to decoy. There’s obviously something to that, I thought, while watching them start to glide in. just like when we’d hunt Fat City, The Bengal, The Keg and Zachary’s. Chicks in big groups were hopeless. Singles and pairs were the ticket.

My heart pounded in my ears as the specks glided right over their warier brethren and made a course for the dekes.

They seemed on top of us — HUGE! But Artie, the most experienced in these matters, made no motion to rise, so I controlled my impetuosity. After a few seconds that seemed like hours, he finally rose. Pelayo, Chris and I followed an instant later, and the blasting started.

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! The first shots went off as a volley. One speck did that backward spin of theirs that indicates a fatal hit, but the other merely staggered and tried rising skyward.

We were on him like white on rice. Four BB shot loads smacked him like the volley from a firing squad with machine guns. Bonnie and Clyde got off easier. He crumpled and plopped noisily into the mud. After the whooping and high-fiving, we settled back down as the procession of blues and snows continued overhead along with my musing.

From the goose gene-pool we take out the young, the stupid, the imbeciles who decoy, and are creating a species of super-goose in the process. And MILLIONS of them! Blue and snow goose (same species, like a black leopard or jaguar and his spotted brother) populations have tripled in the last two decades. Some sources say the mid-continent population (the ones that winter in Louisiana and Texas) has exploded to 7 million. Other sources say 5 or 6 million.

Whatever. There’s a bunch of them, as any waterfowler in western Louisiana has noticed recently. The story’s a bit different in eastern Louisiana. The flocks in the eastern Biloxi marsh and Mississippi Delta seem to be getting thinner. And who can blame them?

With all that tasty grain growing between North Dakota and Bunkie and from Katy to Crowley, who wants to wing it down to the Mississippi mudflats to root for duck-potato tubers or to Mud Grass island to pluck cordgrass shoots from a burned marsh? They ain’t crazy.

Lumping geese with cockroaches and bacteria might seen sacrilegious. But up in Canada, they’re regarded with all the esteem of nutria in Louisiana. Turns out that thousands of acres of “wetlands” along the western coast of Hudson Bay are vanishing much like ours. The infestation of snow geese is responsible. Just like nutria, they eat the shoots and roots of the marsh vegetation; salinization and tides do the rest.

More ominously, these same wetlands serve as nesting grounds for scores of other shorebirds and waterfowl — including pintail and greenwinged teal. Some wildlife wizards point to snow-goose voracity for low pintail populations lately. Time for a solution, I say.

The crop field about half a mile away from the blind we occupied on Doc’s lease sure seemed like a good place to start. What must have been several thousand snows had crammed into it. As shooting hour passed and we trudged away with our two specks, Chris inquired: “Is that part of this lease? Why don’t we set up there?”

“No blinds over there,” Artie huffed. “There used to never be any geese over there. It was a pasture.”

“So what!?” Chris huffed back.

“They’re there NOW!” Pelayo snorted.

“Who needs blinds, anyway!” I blurted. “I say we creep them tomorrow!”

I knew Artie would balk, but I also knew he’d be much more amenable in about two hours as the festivities cranked up at the camp.

“Can’t wait to dig into your gumbo, Artie!” I said slapping him on the back while winking and nodding at Pelayo and Chris. “Been looking forward to it all week, my man. Makes this whole trip for me!”

“Same here!” whooped Pelayo. “No beating Artie’s speck and sausage gumbo! And don’t worry, I brought plenty merlot to go with it — a classy brand too. Set me back about $7 a bottle!”

A few years ago on a deer hunt (an absolute cakewalk as all are up there) to northern Missouri, my wife’s cousins came back one morning with the back of the pick-up piled up with snow geese.

“Man!’” I snapped. “Y’all didn’t tell me y’all had goose blinds set up!”

“Blinds?” laughed Nick. “No blinds, man. We crept up on these geese along a fencerow. Only way to hunt ’em around here. We ain’t about to waste our time sitting in blinds.”

Apparently my cousins-in-law are not alone. I saw a survey taken in neighboring Illinois showing that 40 percent of that state’s goose-hunters employed “creeping” as their primary method of goose hunting.

And here, it seems to me, is hunting in the most genuine sense of the term. After all, Webster defines it as: “To pursue for food or sport. To pursue or chase relentlessly.”

By the time we were scooping Artie’s (too gummy) rice into our gumbo-bowls, even Doc had come around to our creeping scheme.

“Shoot man,” Chris kept saying while slapping him on the back almost spilling Doc’s scotch. “You blind hunters should welcome our creep. We’ll stir the geese up. Break up the big flocks. Get ’em flying, maybe over your blinds —and it’s all perfectly legal again!”

Best of all, we got to sleep late. No need for a sunrise creep. At 9 a.m. as we surveyed the scene and plotted our stalk, geese still filled the field — a blanket of white, a glorious cacophony of honking.

As luck would have it, a brushy ditch weaved from the gravel road to a brushy section of field that looked to be no more than 30 or 40 yards from the very edge of the geese. No doubt some sentries were staked nearby, but the bachiris bushes and wax myrtles, however short, would shield us as we crept in on our bellies like Apaches.

We’d just started the stalk when honking alerted us, and we looked up to see a flight of about a dozen making a descent precisely where our stalk planned on terminating and our shooting planned on starting. Another flock was lighting 50 yards farther out. Now the din of honks was heavenly, mainly because this time they didn’t sound like taunts, as they do when flying overhead out of range.

The ditch was high from recent rains, but we’d planned for it by wearing hip-boots instead of the knee boats more customary for waterfowling in this section of Louisiana. We cut the distance relentlessly — and “in pursuit,” just as Webster defines it.

The honks were getting louder as we trudged along, my mouth parched as my heart thundered in my rib cage. We crept along for about 200 yards, hunched over, low to the water. The din was almost deafening. My heart felt like it was pounding from my ears.

Chris looked over with wide eyes, stifling an excited laugh. Pelayo had the look of a leopard about to pounce. Nothing like stalking to get the predatory juices really flowing. It brought back memories of squirrel hunts, as we crept along, avoiding branches, avoiding quick movements while closing on the swaying branches up ahead.

Geese are among the few creatures we in the South can actually stalk (hunt) rather than wait out. I’d almost forgotten what bona-fide hunting was like.

Now I remembered. I could feel the rush through my veins. I could see the thrill on the faces around me. I wanted desperately to take a peek. I knew they had to be close. But a look at them might take me right over the edge.

Another hundred yards, and I peeked through the briars that hugged the ditch bank. The geese were about 70 yards away. Just barely out of range for our No. 2 magnums. But a heart-stopping sight nonetheless.

I looked over, and Chris and Pelayo were making excited signals to each other. Chris jerking his chin up and down while mouthing what looked like, “LET’S SHOOT!!” And Pelayo nodding energetically, baring his teeth in a ferocious grimace while gripping Chris’ arm.

For the last stretch of the stalk, we hunkered down to where my chin was barely touching the water and cold water started seeping into the back of my hip boots. We’d gone barely another 30 yards when I looked up at movement.

Some geese were directly overhead, circling in to land. Their last circle put them right over us, no more than 20 yards above us. Amazingly they didn’t see us, or mistook us for cows.

We knew our luck couldn’t hold if any more were coming behind them so we all scrambled and slipped up the muddy side of the ditch to shoot. We were crawling through the bushes when the entire flock erupted with a racket I simply can’t describe.

Chris and Pelayo beat me to the draw, emptying their guns into the flapping madness as I fumbled with the safety. Geese were falling as I finally slapped the trigger, not really aiming anymore than I manage to aim when a huge flock of teal roars in.

BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!

I shot crazily into the wall of feathers, and saw two backflip and start falling.

“Got two!” Pelayo roared from somewhere beside me. “Same here!” Chris whooped.

It’s truly amazing how quickly that many geese can rise and flap away. We stood there gaping and shaking, finally whooping, finally high-fiving.

After our wits returned, we tromped out with knees knocking and mouths parched to retrieve six dead geese. Maybe we’d been aiming well after all.

While getting back in the truck, we heard shots coming from the direction of Doc’s blind.

“If they come back with any snows, they’d better thank us,” Pelayo chuckled.

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