On the Wings of Spring
By Gary Lewis
We joined the hunt in progress a few miles outside of Klamath Falls. Brad Douglas parked the Expedition a quarter mile away. A field of white decoys shimmered in the afternoon sun. Then on the horizon, white snow goose wings winked against the sky, and a mass of birds seemed to lift out of the marsh, then tip and descend over the faux flock.
A single goose tumbled and then another and two hundred geese beat higher. Then we heard the shots on the wind.
We crossed the field as the hunters stepped from their coffin blinds to pick up their geese. Outfitter Darren Roe sent Georgie to retrieve a goose from the river. Kurt Ploetz had already bagged his limit. I took his place while he began to plan dinner.
There were birds on the horizon again. We shut the doors and peered at the sky through the straw that concealed us.
Before us, five dozen Dave Smith specklebelly decoys turned on their stakes and ten dozen snow geese dekes – full-bodies, shells and socks – rippled with the wind.
Sixty geese winged low over the river behind us, then tipped and wheeled, feet down on their final approach. "Take ‘em," Darren shouted. The 20-gauge Benelli thumped and a Ross goose folded in front of me. To my right, Darren and the others found their targets.
Spring (Almost) Goose Hunting
In the Klamath Basin, they're calling this the spring goose season, but technically, it's a late-winter hunt, focused on snow geese, Ross and the greater white-fronted goose. From late February into the second week of March, ODFW biologists use hunters to shift crop damage pressure from private croplands to the refuges in the Klamath Basin.
In the fall, white geese and white-fronted geese (a.k.a. specklebellies or specks) wend their way south to winter in California, New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana. In January, they start their way back north and many birds stop off in the Klamath Basin for two months or so.
There are 300,000 excess white-fronted geese above management objective for the basin," Roe said. Not to mention the snow geese.
"The farmers' fields are just starting to green-up and get their new growth and the birds hit it and just keep grinding it down and the crops don't get a chance," Roe said. "These birds are feeding on anything from winter wheat to alfalfa and orchard grass hay. All that protein is important to their northern migration, but there is a lot of protein on the refuge."
Game managers are trying to encourage the birds to stay on the refuge. With one day left in the season, it seemed the geese needed more encouragement.
Encouragement for Wayward Waterfowl
At five in the morning, we headed east to Dairy. When Darren switched off the engine, we could hear thousands of geese gabbling in the dark. We set the decoys – specks to the right side and snows on the left, with a big 'landing zone' in the middle, then worked the next two hours breaking ice to give the birds open water.
For the first several hours skeins of white geese and specks drifted across the sky, too high to shoot. Time and again, specks or snows set their wings to drop in then wheeled out without giving us a shot. At lunchtime, we uprooted the snow geese socks which might have seemed suspect without a breeze to animate them.
Caleb Coaty, of Klamath Falls, joined us for the afternoon hunt. We dozed in our blinds. A tiny bird picked its way through the tules, finding its food in the safety of the reeds. We inspected each other from three feet away.
We were saying goodbye to waterfowl season and hello to spring. It was my second goose hunt of the season; for Roe, it was his 117th day in the marsh. Roe had positioned me at the point of the tules where I had the best view and the best shot.
"Four birds coming," I whispered. "Specks." We lowered our heads into the tules and watched between the reeds. They swung wide and then circled, lower now, at the extreme limit of the 20-gauge's range. Four specks circled again, but one seemed to distrust our setup and broke away. The other three tipped in and spread their wings.
My gun came up, stock welded to cheek, bead on its mark. Caleb's gun spoke second and Darren dropped the third bird as it turned. One skeptical speck sailed away toward the refuge with all the encouragement he needed.