White Christmas

When conditions are right, snow and specks will rain from the skies.

Alligators have absolutely nothing to do with goose hunting. Nonetheless, it was during the commercial alligator season when my co-duck-oholic friend, Shane Wiggins, and I talked about hunting geese during the upcoming season. Perhaps, it was the Louisiana heat and humidity that was getting to us after loading nearly 50 alligators onto the buyer’s truck. Or maybe it was just the prospect of taking a limit of teal during the early season a couple weeks away.

Whatever it was, we had it bad. We were ready to quit fooling around with reptiles and start getting serious about feathers.

Shane was much more pro-active than me, and as a Christmas present booked us for a late-December goose hunt.

The Tuesday before Christmas, he called full of excitement and asked me if I would mind changing our scheduled hunt date from Dec. 30 to Dec. 23. He had received a call from our guide, David Smith, who told Shane that the snows and specks had really been working one of his fields, and the weather was going to be perfect. What’s more, he wanted us to have a good hunt, and this might just be one of the best opportunities of the year.

Shane went on to convince me that this may be just the hunt we were talking about during alligator season. Shane knew how to set the hook, when he finished our phone conversation with, “David said to bring lots of shells.”

The forecaster predicted the mercury to hover in the 30s and 40s with 20-degree wind chills for the next several days. For those of us who resided below I-10, we also could expect mixed rain, sleet and snow.

“Excellent,” I replied. “I’m jazzed.”

And with that, we made plans for Shane to pick me up at 2 a.m. on the day of the hunt for the 2-1/2 hour drive to Jennings. Our guide would meet us there at 4:45 a.m. From Jennings, we would drive west to Welch, and then head north of I-10 to a rice field he had leased.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep. At around midnight, with eyes wide open, I lay there helplessly pleading to the Good Lord.

“Lord,” I said, “I gotta get some sleep. Shane’s gonna be here in two hours.”

It pays to be in good standing with the Almighty because when the alarm went off, I felt like I had a full eight hours — I was ready.

The first thing I noticed when I walked outside to load my gear into Shane’s truck was that it was cold — frigid cold. It had been a long time since I had hunted in weather remotely like this, and I really wondered if my 48-year-old bones were still up to it.

This wasn’t my first goose rodeo, but it was my first with Shane. We both have duck leases in St. Mary Parish and both normally head to the Gueydan/Lake Arthur area each year for at least one goose hunt. But this was my first goose hunt where snow and blue goose wind-socks would be used in a Texas-style spread.

Our hunting party consisted of 10 hunters and my chocolate Lab Brie. Like with most guides worried about ensuring his hunters have a good shoot, Smith didn’t want the additional worry of a disobedient dog ruining the hunt. Therefore, he questioned Shane that Tuesday as to my dog’s demeanor. Shane reassured him that all would be fine.

Following a quick training session for those of us who never put out wind-socks, we commenced with the work at hand. We all could hear geese in the field next to the one where we were putting the socks. It still amazes me how loud they are — so loud, in fact, that you sometimes have to raise your voice to converse with the guy right next to you.

Brie never budged an inch, and put to rest any further questions that may have come up concerning an out-of-control dog.

The long blind was situated between two harvested rice fields, and was butted up next to the levee that divided them. The “Fast Grass” panels Smith used for camo allowed the blind to blend in with the levee grasses.

One field was flooded and the other was dry. The flooded side was the field that contained geese. There must have been a thousand on the far side of it.

Once everyone was situated in the blind, our guide went outside of it and walked along the levee until he was mid-blind. Like a preacher speaking to his congregation, he said, “If y’all don’t mind, I’d like to open up our hunt in prayer.”

With all of our heads bowed, he blessed our hunt. Next, in teacher-like fashion, he set down the hunt’s safety rules and gave us a few goose shooting pointers.

Lastly, since three of our gunners were youths, he said, “Guys, were going to see a lot of geese this morning, and everyone is going to have a chance to shoot. We’re going to let these young boys take the first shot, O.K.? If they miss, y’all open up. Now let’s have a good hunt.”

I knew right then that Smith ran a first-class operation. Before he got back into the blind, he went out into the flooded field and spooked up the geese that had been roosting overnight there for two reasons.

First, if he left them there, when legal shooting light came, every goose flying would have decoyed to them, not allowing us a shot.

Second, he knew that these geese would trickle back in all morning as they had been doing for the past several days prior to our hunt.

The sound of those birds rising was deafening. I could see silhouettes in the sky, but in the darkness that’s all they were.

One of the first things I noticed as we waited for legal shooting light was Smith’s duck decoy spread of perhaps five dozen decoys were all greenheads. Not one hen.

“Mallards, and ducks in general, see colors,” he said. “I give away the hen decoys and use strictly the greenheads. The color helps attract the ducks to my spread.”

Our first opportunity came just after legal shooting light when several snows began to work our spread. Once they committed and hovered above our blind, our guide hollered, “Take ’em!”

With that, the boys opened up with their 20 gauges and blasted away. We desperately followed up afterwards, but it was too late.

On the next pass, we fared a little better. A flock of six specklebellies began to work, and two committed and then flared and then committed again.

Once again, Smith gave the signal, and we had at them. One of the geese folded, and the other one was hit and glided into the far side of the flooded field. Brie’s first retrieve of the day would be a blind over the levee on a crippled goose about 150 yards away.

With every eye in the blind trained on her, she was about to do what she had done hundreds of times on ducks, but only had one goose previous to this hunt under her belt.

“Brie, back!” I commanded, and got her on-line over the levee. It would take one more slight adjustment, so I hit my whistle with a short blast and she stopped on a dime.

“Brie, over!” I commanded.

When she spotted the goose, it was on. Brie hit the bird like a linebacker would a receiver on a short pass over the middle. At 64 pounds, Brie isn’t big as Labs go, and it was a job getting the monstrous specklebelly back to the blind. Undaunted by the hefty work, she was ready for more action.

When a lone snow decided it was going to commit suicide and worked right over the top of the blind, I watched while half the blind opened up. The problem was no one wanted to help assist with the suicide. The way I figure it, if you multiply five times at least two shots apiece, that is a lot of steel in the air — close to 10 bucks worth I figured, since everyone was using BBB or T-shot loads.

On the next two opportunities, we managed another speck and a snow. Both were classic in that Smith’s calling nurtured them in close enough for relatively good shots, followed by Brie’s solid retriever work.

We even had a few passes of ducks that gave us screaming flybys in full afterburner.

As the morning progressed, the snows worked less and the specklebellies tended to flare off at the last minute, just when we thought they were committing.

The temperature was falling, and I noticed the geese weren’t the only things not committing. Our party of 10 hunters began to dwindle as 8:30 a.m. approached. It was bitter cold, and one by one they were heading to the truck for warmth.

I could hear one of the young boy’s daddy asking, “Son, are you ready to go? It’s cold.”

“No, Daddy, I want to hunt geese,” he replied.

“That’s a man,” I thought to myself.

By 10 a.m., all that were left were the guide, Shane, Brie and me. We were able to add one more snow goose to our total, and Brie finished up our morning with a blind retrieve that sent her into another field.

By 11 a.m., we hadn’t fired a shot in over an hour, and our guide asked us what we wanted to do. He clearly was disappointed, and asked if we wanted to make the afternoon hunt. He suggested we head into Welch and all talk about it. I had no complaints.

All of the hunters with the exception of Shane and me had had enough. They decided to pack it in.

We had lunch at the Cajun Tales restaurant in Welch. I don’t believe I have ever tasted a better bowl of hot chicken-and-sausage gumbo. In fact, there is nothing better than a hot bowl of gumbo on a cold day in Cajun Country. What’s more, this gave me an opportunity to talk with Smith about his goose-hunting methods.

According to Smith geese need four things.

“They need a place to feed, a place to preen, a place to rest and a place to roost,” Smith said. “They are pressure-sensitive. What I like to do is hunt the edges and leave sanctuary on the fields, thus reducing some of the pressure.

“There are a large number of other sections in the area I hunt that are also hunted. If you do what others do, you can expect the same results.”

Smith likes to do things differently, because his reputation is at stake. One of those things is he conditions his fields. Smith told us there actually is very little waste grain rice on the harvested fields. He works with the farmers he leases from, and following the harvest, they cross the field in several strategic locations using a disc plow. This allows grass to grow, and that is what attracts the geese to his fields.

After lunch, we walked through the field, stopping in several places where he could show us how it had been conditioned. The geese had stomped down and literally rooted up all of the grass that came up after late summer.

I asked why he thought the specklebellies flared and why the snows didn’t work very well.

“Sometimes you should change in the middle of the hunt. Sometimes with snows it’s not the spread that’s the problem, it’s what they don’t hear. With the specks working, we probably should have picked up the wind-socks. It’s hard sometimes to make a call and change up in the middle of the hunt — especially with birds flying.”

On our way home, Brie slept soundly on the back seat of Shane’s extended cab as we reveled in our day’s hunt. In a few hours, it would be Christmas Eve. What’s more, one day later, we would have our first white Christmas in more than 50 years.


David Smith can be contacted at (337) 546-6492

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