A Flight Of Innocents

For years this hunter tried vainly to bag a Canada goose, but when his chance came, he got triple trouble
November 22, 1982

It was about 40 minutes after dawn on a December morning. The clouded sky was a pale gray, and the wind whistled in icy blasts out of the north. Flat on my stomach, gun cradled carefully in my arms, I inched forward, pushing as best I could with the toes of my boots, pulling as best I could with my elbows over a rutted surface of frozen mud. My objective was nearly a quarter mile away, and, with luck, in 20 minutes or half an hour I would be there. By then my hands, feet, elbows, knees, stomach and face would be frozen numb, but I could deal with that when the time came. I wanted a goose, and this, I thought, was almost surely going to be my morning.

I had scouted Canada geese at a lake in the Cascades near my home in Ashland, Ore. for two weeks. All day the geese, at least 200 of them, would stay rafted up in the middle of the lake, so far from shore that they looked to the naked eye like nothing more than a long black line against the muddied, choppy water. The only thing that could induce them to fly was the approach of a boat, and several times I'd watched hunters roar out from shore at top speed, motors howling, trailing white wakes and thin clouds of blue exhaust. But this strategy was not only illegal, it was also futile. Before the men got anywhere near shotgun range, the birds would lift off the water, their strident honking clearly heard even above the roar of the motors.

Actually, the geese were lovely to hear, and to watch. The huge birds rose with an ease and speed that remains surprising, no matter how often one has seen their powerful, measured wingbeats lifting them away. Once they were out of danger, they broke up into as many as eight separate flocks, each forming a V as it steadily climbed. The Vs were somewhat ill-shaped at first, but as the flocks gained altitude, the lines became as straight as if they had been drawn with a ruler.

Whenever the geese were forced off the water in the daytime they would circle the lake for 20 minutes or more, at an altitude of at least 500 feet, and then either come down to it again—providing both the shore and water were clear—or, if they sensed danger, veer away to find temporary refuge at another lake, smaller, higher in the mountains, a few miles to the north.

After watching these birds for two weeks, I knew that my best hope was to stalk them on the flats adjacent to the lake, which was the only way I cared to hunt them anyway, and that only their morning feeding went according to inviolate schedule. No matter what the weather or where they had spent the night, half an hour after sunrise the flocks appeared out of the eastern sky, circled the pine-bordered stubble field for eight or 10 minutes and, their wings set and necks stretched into the wind, settled in for breakfast.

I had deep respect for the geese, but I did want to bag one—was, in fact, absolutely determined to get one and only one—to prove to myself that I could do it. Through October and most of November I had hoped to kill one for Thanksgiving dinner. With Thanksgiving past, my goal became Christmas, which was now barely a week away. If I didn't succeed in time for that, there would be New Year's Day, just before the season closed. Then, as they say, there always would be next year. This, in truth, was my fourth season of trying.

The geese were out there on the field now, honking and eating. With my face smeared with mud (I'd had to break through the frozen surface with my knife to get it), dressed in various shades of brown to match the foot-high grass and stubble and well concealed by a large rotting log at the edge of the forest, I had watched them circle and come in to feed.

I had chosen my angle of approach carefully after walking all the way around the field several times and across it from every possible angle. First I had considered the problem from a hunter's point of view, and then I tried hard to put myself in the geese's place, to regard the area as a hungry but necessarily cautious goose would. That's not easy, because on the basis of my own observations and experiences I rate the average Canada goose to be 50% more intelligent than the average hunter.

Between me and the nearest birds were eight small hillocks—symmetrical mounds about three feet high and 10 feet in diameter. How or why they were formed I have no idea. It was about 20 yards from the rotting log to the first hillock, and now I'd made it that far. The seven that remained were spaced irregularly but in such a pattern that I could stay concealed until I was within about 50 yards of the perimeter of the geese's normal feeding area. Twenty-five to 30 yards is ideal shotgun range, and I was certain that with surprise on my side I would be within 40 yards before the geese would begin to react. They could get going in a hurry, but they weren't that fast—nothing was that fast—and before they were 20 feet off the ground I would be exactly where I had to be.

It's surprising how fatiguing crawling on your belly can be. The unfamiliarity of moving that way more than the physical effort involved causes the strain. As I slithered around the first hillock toward the second, my shoulder and thigh muscles were already tiring. My knees hurt too, simply from being dragged across the hard, cold earth. I was wearing ski gloves so that my fingers would be nimble enough to work the gun when I made my charge, but my hands were cold anyway. The mud on my face had dried and hardened like plaster, but with that the odor had thankfully diminished. When I'd smeared my face with the mud back by the rotting log, I'd noticed a decidedly unpleasant smell. Only then did I remember that cattle sometimes grazed the area in summer.

Just as I reached the second hillock, at the very moment I settled in for a minute's relaxation, the frozen surface gave way underneath me and I found myself belly down in cold, wet mud. The hillock had blocked the wind off, reducing the chill factor considerably, so the protected spot hadn't hardened up quite solidly enough to support 170 pounds of irrational man.

When I rolled over to try to get out of the mess, all I did was to break through the surface again, on my back this time, and coat that side of me with more icy mud.

One more roll and I was free, once again on solid ground on my stomach. Holding my breath, I listened. The geese were still out there feeding, apparently undisturbed. Although their muted honking sounded no closer than it had before, I couldn't risk raising my head to look.

About 20 minutes later I was behind the last hillock. My nose was running and my head ached. The mud that caked me from head to foot had hardened into something like a body cast, and I had never been so cold in my life, not even after slipping off a ledge and falling into a steelhead river in February when the water temperature was 33°.

But I had made it, and I hadn't spooked the geese. I could still hear their contented honking as they fed, though it seemed no louder than it had from the edge of the woods. I thought the numbing cold had affected my hearing.

Stiff muscles straining with the suddenness of my movement, I pushed to my feet and charged over the hillock, ran hard down the other side, pressing the safety off and raising the gun. And what did I see? About 200 geese, well scattered in groups on the grassy field, every one of them looking back at me, and the nearest one at least 100 yards away.

It dawned on me that they'd been aware of my presence all along. As I had crawled slowly toward them, suffering every foot of the way, they had grazed steadily off in the same direction, maintaining a safe distance between us.

As they took off, I kept running. Even with frozen feet and legs I'm not so slow, but I never got within 60 yards of any of them, too far to even consider wasting a shell. I slowed to a jog, then to a walk, and finally I stood and watched the geese climb and form their Vs and circle, honking down at me all the while. As always, it was something lovely to see.

An hour later I was home, soaking in a hot bath. I stayed in it a long time, thinking about my obsession.

I'd taken up hunting pretty much by accident. When I was a boy my grandfather shot pheasants and rabbits in the hills of western Pennsylvania with a double-barreled, two-triggered, 12-gauge Ithaca. What he genuinely loved, though, was his yearly expedition in pursuit of Canada geese. Every winter, he and his friends spent a week hunting geese somewhere on the Atlantic coast, and grandfather talked of little else for a couple of months after returning from these trips. I think they were the highlights of his life.

When he died my father took the shotgun, but he never used it, and it finally ended up with me. By then I'd moved to the Bay Area, where the gun wasn't of much use, but four years later, when I found out I'd be relocating in Oregon, I began to think about my grandfather, Canada geese and that old Ithaca wrapped in an army blanket in my storage closet. I asked a dapperly dressed young clerk at a fancy sporting goods store in San Francisco what he knew about Canada geese. He knew quite a lot, and he was optimistic about my chances of successfully hunting them in Oregon. Later I would realize that the farther you are from living geese, the more positive the hunting information about them is likely to be.

The clerk explained to me that the Canada goose population had been increasing dramatically for years. "It's partly because of good wildlife management policies—the development of game refuges—and partly because of agriculture," he said. "The birds get through the winters on surplus grain left out in fields all across the country. Why, there are more Canada geese in parts of North America now than there were when the Pilgrims arrived. You won't have any trouble getting all the geese you want up in Oregon. They're all over the place up there. Now, if you want a truly fine gun for them...."

"Thanks," I said, "but I have one."

A few months later, in a combination hardware and sporting goods store in southern Oregon, the rumpled, leather-skinned clerk who sold me a box of No. 2 shells said, "You want to know where to hunt geese? That's easy. Klamath Marsh. Hyatt Lake. Howard Prairie Lake. Emigrant Lake. Any lake. Where you hunted them before?"

"Nowhere."

"Never?"

"That's right."

"Well, anyway, it ain't so much where you hunt them as it is when and how. Geese got brains. They got eyes. And they can hear, too. You light a cigarette in a blind, and they'll see the smoke from half a mile away on a foggy morning—if they haven't already turned around and gone the other way when they heard you strike the match! Oh, you'll see honkers, thousands of 'em, but before you see them, they'll see you. Opening day's always your best bet, before they get their yearly education. Otherwise, you hide someplace you know they fly, you hide there in a good blind, and you wait, and maybe you get lucky. Sometimes they fly a mile high and go 500 miles in a day. Sometimes they sit out there on the water, and they don't go nowhere for two months, except of course for the a.m. and p.m. feed. But I'll tell you this much, son, don't you go counting on much. If you're no sky buster, and you use those shells for geese, that box right there ought to last you a while."

By the end of my first waterfowl season I knew the old man was right about everything. I also knew that I'd never again hunt on opening day or from a blind. I'd tried both. Opening day was a zoo, and hiding behind a blind was, for me, excruciatingly boring. But I did want to get one goose, and I was determined to get it by stalking. Why a goose? It had something to do with my memory of my grandfather. It also had something to do with the fact that Canada geese are big. Whether or not it makes any real sense, a large majority of fishermen would rather land one 20-pound salmon or steelhead than 100 one-pound trout, and a large majority of bird hunters are the same. But mostly, I wanted to get a Canada goose because it was so maddeningly difficult to do.

Four years passed, and I'd seen probably 10,000 honkers. But my aforementioned failure at the mountain lake was typical of how my hunting had gone. Of the 25 shells the old man had sold me for goose hunting, 23 remained. At that rate, they would last me another 46 years.

The two shots I had made had come on a foggy day toward the end of my third season. Walking back toward the car after yet another unsuccessful stalk, I suddenly heard geese honking somewhere behind me and not far off. I knelt at once and stayed that way, motionless, holding my gun in my right hand and the collar of my German shorthair, Otto, in my left. Within seconds a flock of 40 or 50 birds was streaming directly overhead, about 20 yards up and barely visible at that height in the fog. I picked out a bird, stood and fired both barrels at it. Though it was the sort of passing shot that good goose hunters probably fantasize about, I missed twice.

Eight months later, on an Indian summer evening in October that was so warm I'd played nine holes of golf before dinner, I was loading my clubs into the trunk of my car when I heard faint honking. When I looked up, there was the biggest flock of Canada geese I'd ever seen, the biggest flock I'd ever heard about, at least 1,000 birds, possibly 1,500, in two huge overlapping Vs, the lines sharp and black against the cloudless early evening sky. And they were high, 2,000 feet or more, so that they could barely be heard unless you listened for them.

They were headed southeast, directly toward the reservoir five miles out of town, and before they disappeared from view it seemed to me that they'd dropped several hundred feet in elevation. Though I didn't see them begin to circle, I was fairly sure they were going to put in at the reservoir for the night.

Driving home, I was as excited as I'd ever been about anything related to hunting or fishing. Canada geese are known to be unpredictable in their migrations, but these were at least a month ahead of schedule. With the reservoir at its lowest level of the year—drained off for irrigation throughout the summer and not yet replaced by the runoff from storms—hunting would be very difficult. I would be out there the next morning anyway.

The three of us started toward the reservoir at 6:30 a.m.—my wife, Hilde, Otto and me. Otto was along in case the miracle happened. If I should hit a goose here, chances were better than even it would come down in the water, and having Otto retrieve it was more appealing than having to swim myself.

Hilde loves the outdoors and wildlife as much as anyone I've ever known, so she was excited about the huge flock, too. If we did find the geese and if I did attempt one of my patented slithering stalks, she would stay a safe distance behind with the dog, so he wouldn't give me away by an involuntary whine or yelp. Otto's only serious fault as a hunting dog was his nearly uncontrollable excitability around flocks of waterfowl.

I was ready, but I certainly wasn't taking my chances very seriously, especially after we arrived at the reservoir and saw that the hunting conditions were even worse than I'd imagined. The water was so low that if the geese were there, they would either be on the water or feeding a few yards from it.

It was cool, clear and windless. I let Otto run out ahead for the first 10 minutes, to dissipate a little of his energy. After Hilde and I had walked about half a mile I called Otto back to heel. We were coming to a small bay. We approached cautiously and discovered that there were three mallards, two drakes and a hen, about 25 yards away at the edge of the water. "I might as well try for them," I whispered to Hilde.

"Won't you scare the geese?"

"I'll scare the geese sooner or later anyhow," I said. "If they're here, we'll get a good look at them. Besides, we haven't had pressed duck for a long time, and I need some mallard flank feathers for tying dry flies."

For once things went perfectly. I charged over the bank and a few yards down the other side, stopped and brought the gun up as the birds took off. With the sun behind me they were easy targets, even for me. Both drakes came down and stayed where they landed. The hen, quacking loudly, sailed across the reservoir, low over the water, as the shots echoed dully off the distant hills. Otto made the retrieves, and coming out of the water his coat was as slick as an otter's.

There was no sign of the geese, though. Up ahead of us a small bunch of mallards, a larger flock of blue bills and, farther on, 10 or a dozen teal had been spooked, and they all flew off in the same direction the mallard hen had taken.

I was so sure that there wouldn't be any geese—or much of anything else, except perhaps a heron or a careless pair of mergansers—that I let Otto run free. I kept my eyes on him, though, and I saw that when he trotted up to the top of the rise that protected a larger bay he cocked his ears and crept forward a few steps before freezing on a kind of confused point. He was 40 or 50 yards ahead, and I whistled him back softly.

For the hell of it I loaded my gun with No. 2 goose shells and then walked up and over the rise without making any attempt at stealth. About 200 yards down the other side, the bay was covered with Canada geese.

I was aware that suddenly I was running, and that all those geese, necks stretched upward to full length, white cheek patches clear in the early morning light, were looking back at me and softly honking. A few of the birds closest to shore flapped their wings as if about to fly, stretched their necks in my direction, then looked at one another and settled back down.

I sprinted hard, the gun clutched in my left hand, my heavy boots pounding down the hill. When I was halfway to the bay, only 100 yards away, not a single bird had lifted off the water. Most of them were swimming slowly toward the mouth of the bay, and all of them were honking loudly.

In my excitement I had failed to notice that there were geese on shore, too. I didn't realize they were there almost until I was running through them, nearly tripping over them. They were honking as they scattered like huge barnyard chickens before me. Even though I saw them there, could probably have dropped the gun and tackled one, I was too excited to stop. The birds on the water had turned around and were swimming back toward me now.

Finally the geese surrounding me on shore began to fly, and when I stopped, about 20 yards from the water, those out there took off too. I stood there amazed in the middle of a rising cloud of hundreds and hundreds of geese. The honking came from all directions, along with the sound of the powerful beating of their wings, and I actually felt a warm rush of pungent air from the wings of the nearest birds as they lifted off.

The gun was up, safety off, but I had the presence of mind not to fire into the flock. In front of me and directly overhead the air was black with geese. I swung the gun to the right and sighted in on a lone bird about 35 yards out, at the edge of everything. At the moment I pulled the trigger two geese appeared behind the one I was shooting at; all three of them dropped into the shallow water a few feet from shore.

Almost as the birds hit, Otto was into the water to retrieve. Hilde was beside me now. And that was when I realized something else: There was no panic in these birds, not even after I had fired a 12-gauge shotgun. All they did was circle above us, a miraculous mass of life, of beating wings and long black necks and smooth gray undersides.

The only way to describe their honking is to say that it was pure. It was absolutely innocent. It lasted three or four minutes, and then the geese began to climb in one long undulating line. Their direction was southeast, toward the dark mountains that were outlined against the bright horizon. We heard them for several more minutes and saw them for a long time after their honking had faded away.

I doubt that many hunters have killed three honkers with a single shot. I was ashamed of having done it, even though it had been an honest mistake.

We walked back to the car with the dead geese and the mallards. Hilde carried the gun and I carried the birds. Otto walked beside me, sniffing at the birds. They were heavy.

It was a while before Hilde and I began to talk about the geese. We decided that they must have come down nonstop from some remote lake in Canada. It was likely they'd never been hunted before, or at least not for a long time, certainly not that year. They were truly wild, and I know that it was the first time in my life that I'd ever seen truly wild geese.

It appeared they were headed south for California, as likely as not the Sacramento Valley, and it wasn't pleasant to imagine what was waiting for them there. All we could hope was that I had begun to educate them.

We happened to have a camera in the car. For some reason—habit, I suppose, or a desire to establish the reality of the experience—I felt obliged to take a few pictures of the geese. I've never shown the photos to anyone; I never even look at them myself, because they certainly don't represent what I want to remember about that October morning.

Ten years have passed, and the photos, probably faded by now, are stored in a bottom desk drawer underneath a box containing 22 No. 2 shotgun shells.

ILLUSTRATIONLARRY WINBORG ILLUSTRATIONLARRY WINBORGCaked with mud for camouflage, he crawled slowly along the cold ground. ILLUSTRATIONLARRY WINBORGThe usually excitable Otto froze on a confused kind of point. ILLUSTRATIONLARRY WINBORGOtto had the birds as soon as they hit the water. ILLUSTRATIONLARRY WINBORGAs he ran along the shore, a cloud of hundreds of geese rose, warming the air with their wings as they lifted off.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)