Stubble Field Anticipation in a Tip-up Goose Blind
By Gary Lewis
A whispered prayer to bring geese out of the west? It seemed presumptuous somehow, but not entirely out of place on a hunt two days before Christmas.
That day the mercury registered minus-1 degrees Fahrenheit and there was 18 inches of snow on the ground in Sisters, Oregon.
First I stuck my Toyota in Sykes's driveway. Then Sykes buried his Dodge to the hubs while we were setting the decoys. We needed some intervention, divine or not quite so. Sykes's father-in-law, Keith Cyrus, had to rescue us with the backhoe. Still, no geese showed against the leaden sky.
With the decoys spread in front of us, the walls spread out behind, we looked like a nativity scene – three wise men and three drummer boys. Except we bore Hevi-Shot and steel instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Above the tops of the trees, I saw a long, ragged wedge of Canada geese, wending its way out of the west, black Vs against the sky.
"Everybody down," Sykes said. "Don't even look over the wall."
The birds came on, low over the trees, crossing the line of fence, over the bare snow, toward our flock of 30 plastic impostors.
Sykes didn't even put the call to his lips. "They're coming," he said. "They're almost here. Don't move until I say." Paxton's eyes were big as saucers. "They're going to be right in front of us. Now. Take 'em!"
When we stood to our feet, the birds put on the brakes, ten yards out then presented their profiles to the guns. 'Pick out a bird, focus on his head, on his eye,' I told myself. That one! My gun thumped. Beside me, Paxton shot. Sykes was shooting, two barrels from his 20-gauge. One goose for Sykes. To my right, Ten Gauge Bill pounded away. Paxton picked out a bird and knocked it down with his second shot, his first honker.
Lindsay, Sam and Paxton bolted from the blind to retrieve our birds. There were six on the ground.
An hour passed and the snow began to fall again. With the snow came a heat wave. Up to four degrees Fahrenheit.
Sykes turned to us, a glimmer of realization in his eyes. "Oh guys, I forgot to say the waterfowl prayer. Do you mind if I...?"
Sykes whispered the invocation (I'd repeat it here, except readers all over Oregon would repeat it aloud and geese would crash through plate glass windows).
The words drifted into the still of the morning and were answered by faint honks from the northwest. Birds glided in on muffled wings and we wise men and drummer boys knelt behind snow-white walls. We ended up with three out of that flock.
So it was, eleven months later – in November – when we set up the white walls and spread the decoys leaving a landing zone 20 yards in front of the blind. Out there in the snow and stubble there were tracks of our quarry, Canada geese. We expected them any moment.
A light breeze blew in our faces. Any birds that might decide to take advantage of our frozen stubble field setup would wheel behind us for the feet-down approach.
"The fields are frozen," Sykes pointed out the obvious. "So the birds have to thaw the feed before they eat it. That's why they lay on it first, to warm it up with their bodies then back up and eat." Hence, the resting decoys among the feeders.
"About that waterfowl prayer..." I reminded Sykes. "Let's do that early this time."
"Lord, forgive us for the..."
Out over a line of trees, 400 yards away, a ragged V of birds appeared, low and raucous on their morning feeding flight. We eased down behind the walls of the blind, pulled hats low over our eyes and listened as Sykes offered up a greeting call as if in entreaty. The birds turned in for a look then kept flying. We watched them land in the next field.
Another wave of geese was on the tree line. Four of them. These passed low as Sykes switched to a feeding moan. Behind us now, they tipped and turned. Slowing, they spread their wings and dropped into the decoys. We held our fire as another group swung in behind, landing gear down. "Now, boys. Take 'em."
We let the birds on the ground go and picked out geese from the flock off our left shoulders as they turned to present against the sky in front. ‘Pick one out,' I told myself, Fourth one back. ‘Squeeze, follow through.' Sykes's gun thumped and my 20-gauge was drowned in the sound of Matt's 3-1/2-inch 12-gauge loads. Parker swung Charlene and picked out a goose. Bill swung his camera.
Four honkers folded and Sykes and Parker went forth to retrieve.
Another wave of geese swept by, tipping in for a look. Taking note of the two-leggers dashing among their plastic brethren, they towered and turned.
To the north, a flock of 60-some honkers beat by, visible against the tops of the pines. Sykes swiveled and pointed. "There. You see it? There's a snow goose in the middle of all those Canadians."
Singles and pairs drifted in and inspected our flock. We let them look. Parker scanned the skyline and called out approaching birds.
High above, a flock passed and then began a long, slow turn and descent. "Keep your heads down, don't even look," Sykes warned. He watched from below the rim of his hat and tolled softly on his short reed call.
The birds, behind us now, made their final approach off our left shoulders, wings wide, feet down. "Take ‘em. Take ‘em. Take ‘em."
Like ponderous aircraft, the birds changed direction. It all seemed to happen in slow motion, 20 yards out. I picked a bird out, while 12 gauges thumped on either side.
Our harvest of five birds lost momentum and tumbled, while the rest of the flock climbed out of range. We picked up our trophies and collected the decoys, while two more groups of birds tried to land on our heads.
Goose hunting will continue through January, February and into March in some areas. Check the Bird Hunting Regulations for details. To control populations and curtail damage to golf courses and crops, the limits are liberal.
For adrenaline-laced anticipation in camouflage, I know no better place than a stubble field blind and no better time to procure the main ingredients to a goose dinner than right now.
If you see Sykes you might ask him to repeat the waterfowl prayer for you. But be sure you do it outside.