We’d been working on the farm last month when we noticed the large flock of resident Canada geese using the wheat field to the north. The farmer was visibly perturbed that the birds had imprinted on his field and he knew that later this year he would have a problem when he tilled it under and the winter wheat sprouts began to pop up out of the fertile soil. Two hundred geese can do a lot of damage to a seeded field.
Some local folks, who walked the road every day for exercise, looked upon the birds as harmless and beautiful. To the farmer they were a nuisance, destroying his livelihood and making it more difficult to bring his grains to market, where they would be turned into bread and beer that the walking people enjoyed when they returned home.
To my merry band of Sacred Hunters, the geese were a majestic resource.
Personally, of all the animals on earth, I feel the strongest kinship with the goose. Maybe it’s that some people perceive both of us a nuisance, while others see us as wondrous and communicative beings. I enjoy talking to the geese and have learned more than twenty distinctly different vocalizations.
Some folks may think that hunters are only focused on one thing, killing. This is an oversimplification of a profoundly deep experience.
As dawn begins to fade from its dark blues and purples into the pastel hues of salmon, sage and helio, we listen intently for the waking honks of the flock roosting on the bay. The occasional “Her-Onk” echoes over the brightening gold landscape. We tuck our heads down into the layout blinds, camouflaged in wheat stalks. We are surrounded by full-body decoys with velvet-flocked heads in multiple positions, each displaying a specific posture to an incoming flock.
When we finally decide that they may not show up for a while, we decide to pour a cup of french roast coffee with maple syrup out of the shiny thermos with the Ducks Unlimited logo on it. One of my closest hunting partners, J0hn, offers up the ubiquitous cruellers. It’s an annual ritual to watch the sun come up and share laughter, donuts and coffee with my crew. As another hunting partner, Larry, passes the chrome-plated cup to me, we both hear the sound. “Herrrrrp.”
It is too close.
There is a bird in the air and he sees us sitting upright and sharing our breakfast. “Busted!” I proclaim, as he glides over us from behind and pumps his powerful wings, carrying him to the distant horizon.
“Let’s hope he doesn’t go to the bay flock and tell them what he saw!” says another hunting buddy, Chris. We must be more careful. Coffee and donuts are stored beneath the fabric doors of the blind and we slink back down into our camo caves.
Fifteen minutes pass and we start thinking that maybe he did tattle on us. We begin to relax again when our mentee, Zack, spots a flock of a dozen against the trees to the north. They are not calling. “Flag ‘Em!” I whisper. My friend, Chris, begins to wave the goose shaped black, brown and white flag with zestful enthusiasm, flapping the wings as if to imitate a bird landing in the spread. “No calling,” I whisper again. “When they get in close enough, let’s hit ‘em with a feeding murmur and a gentle spit cluck or two, OK?”
The birds turn, a good ½ mile away and begin a beeline for our field. In less than a minute they are a mere 300 yards out, cupping their mighty wings and waffling air through their primaries, dropping altitude. “One more flag sequence, then set it down,” I instruct Chris. He does a quick 3 flaps and sets the flag on the ground.
They are now 150 yards out and my heart is pounding through my chest. I can feel it in my ears, thumping with excitement.
“Feeding murmur and gentle clucks” I command the troops. As if we were sitting at the Old Brick Store, conversing with the locals, the birds begin to talk back to us. “Her-her-onk Er-er-er-er” they reply. Black patent leather feet drop from their bodies, like aircraft dropping their landing gear.
“Get ready gentlemen!” I call out.
As the giant geese begin to back pedal at the foot of the decoy spread, I say to myself “Great Spirit, please help us to shoot straight.”
I call out loud “Take ‘Em!” and the valley erupts in the percussive rhythm of hunting history. We are here to participate in the cycle of life.
6 birds are down. We rush out of our blinds to pick them up as the remainder of the flock lights out for the lake, sounding the alarm. We watch them fly over the horizon and drop down toward the bay.
Before they disappear over the hill Larry calls out “More geese! 3 o’clock!” We scurry back to the blinds and jump in. The birds are to the East this time, in the rising sun, and hard to distinguish just above the tree line. “Don’t bother flagging” I say. “They’ve already caught our motion. They’re talking a lot. Let’s give it back to them.”
We all begin a symphony of clucks, moans, hail calls and murmurs. It sounds like Grand Central at rush hour. They are pumping their massive wings and aiming right at us. When they are 200 yards out they begin to break off to the south. We pick up the tempo and volume of the calling to a callback cadence. I feel like my cheeks are going to pop as I blow my call from deep within using my diaphragm as I was taught by my opera training mentor (that’s a whole ‘nother story).
Before they reach the foot of the small mountain to the south, they turn decisively. Are they going away or toward us? It’s hard to tell.
After a few seconds it is apparent that they are getting larger not smaller. “Stand up and flag the heck outta ‘em, Chris!” I say. He crawls out of his blind as my friend, Larry, leans hard on his call and hammers out a screaming callback series. “OK. Now get down and let ‘em come in!” The flock of 20 birds circles us twice, checking out every detail of our spread. They are talking the whole time, questioning our sincerity. We call back at them in a cacophony of clucks, moans and murmurs. After the second pass, the lead bird circles north and drops his feet. He is committed. The rest of the flock follow suit.
Suddenly they swing right and look like they’re going to leave, but wait, no….they are simply approaching from the starboard. They will swing in front of us from right to left. Larry says “That’s my favorite shot.” They begin to cup and glide right into the sweet spot. Larry says “Whenever you’re ready to call it Bradley” as if to chide me that I may be waiting too long. But I am waiting for the flock to pass far enough in front of us that the far left shooter will still have a shot. Then, in a split second, I realize that I must call the shot NOW!
“Take ‘Em” I shout.
Bodies spring into action from beneath the wheat sheathed blinds. Guns pop up into the sky
This time 7 birds are down. We gather them among cheers and whoops and we hear Chris say “Did you see that? Larry shot a triple!” Zack says “Carleton shot a double. I shot one and John shot one. That means that you, Chris, missed!” I chime in. “I think that Chris and I were shooting at the same bird.” Zack insists “No, I think he missed!” Everyone looks at Chris and the silence is deafening. Chris states proudly “I think I shot all those birds with just 3 shots!” We all laugh.
Our rule is no matter who shoots, we all share, as long as no one shoots another man’s limit. And none of it will go to waste.
Within an hour we have harvested 18 birds among the 5 of us and we all agree that “that is enough.” This will take us a long time to clean the birds. We use all the parts. I make a goose liver pate’ out of the livers – sort of a poor man’s foie’ gras – and a chunky country pate with the hearts and gizzards. We smoke the breasts and make smoked andouille-style sausage out of the leg meat. The coyotes think that what we leave them is skimpy and unfair.
As we are picking up, one lone goose comes gliding in, as if he is choosing to join his peers in the transformation. I rush back to my blind and grab my gun. As he passes over the blinds, I take him cleanly with one shot and he drops to the ground with a thud.
I walk up to him with respect and admiration.
For a brief moment I am deeply connected to the spirit of this magnificent creature, our lives inextricably linked to one another. To live we must take the life of other beings, sentient or otherwise. “Even the trees and leaves have spirits. For when one Indian takes of the Earth, he does so with remorse and the knowledge that he must do so to sustain his people.”
As I approach him I see he has an aluminum band on his leg, designating that he has met mankind at least once before. I kneel down and put my hand on his chest. He is expiring. As I look into his eyes I say “Thank you brother.” As his spirit passes into mine, I pray.