Last year I learned what all the fuss is about. I learned why some guys travel cross-country—heck, out of country—to shoot at birds. I learned to appreciate those rare moments before dawn when all the work’s done—when blinds are arranged just so and when, even though you can’t see them, you know the decoys are spread before you in the darkness in just the right pattern for this wind on this day. And I learned to soak up the bond found among men chatting it up amid sips of warm coffee before shooting light.
Full disclosure: I’m not a waterfowler; didn’t grow up doing it, didn’t grow up dreaming about it.
If it didn’t have horns I never saw the point. I mean, they’re just birds, right? Oh, sure, sometimes the shooting can be hot and heavy. But in my limited experience I’d never seen the kind that would lure me back time and again.
Then I traveled to Manitoba to hunt Canada geese, mainly because every waterfowler worth his salty waders told me I had to experience such a hunt at least once.
Big Birds, Big Limits
“Here, we need to fill out these blinds like this,” said John Vaca as he stuffed a handful of alfalfa into one of the many loops on a layout blind before sunrise the next morning. He’s a pro-staffer with Final Approach, and he discovered this spot a couple hours north of Winnipeg on Lake Manitoba a few years ago.
“These things have lots of loops—fill ’em all up,” he said as he tossed a blind my way and spun on his heel. “We’re gonna be laid out in a line here,” he said, pointing toward a row of cut crops illuminated by the headlamps of the trucks. “We need to look like we belong here. There’re 11 of us, so it’s got to look good. So some guys work on that, the rest of you start grabbing decoys—we’re spreading them in front of us. I want the birds to come in over our heads and land in front of us.”
I shined my headlamp in the trailer. What hunter doesn’t like gadgets? I thought. Here’s a truckload of ’em. There was also a load of work, which explained why we started early. But we were done 30 minutes before legal light, which gave us time to shuck and jive, and wonder what the day would bring. Someone pointed to the North Star.
We were getting antsy about the time someone said, “Wait, what’s that? One’s coming in. Is it time? Who’s got a watch? Can we start shooting?”
“Yep,” came a reply.We buttoned up about the time a solitary honker glided into our setup, and paid the price for it. John Mullet, senior product manager of Bushnell Outdoor Accessories, which owns Final Approach, fired one lone shot, then climbed out of his blind to retrieve the bird. I sat up and watched him among the decoys, backlit by the rising sun—a beautiful picture. “Dude, get your camera,” I said to myself.
Vaca craned his neck to see behind us: “They’re comin, boys,” he clamored as he waved the flag in his hand to be sure the flock saw us, then hunkered down and blew one of the calls on his lanyard loaded with leg bands from across the continent. Soon, a flight of Canadas swooped in from behind us and cupped their wings. “Take ’em,” yelled Vaca. And the shooting began.
It didn’t end for 90 minutes, because, as Vaca had promised, the birds kept coming. No sooner did we shoot at one flock and reload before another was above us, seemingly begging to join their brethren in the decoys. I had a blast, literally, but I’m not sure I accounted for many birds at first.
Then I got smart: I thumbed the Speed Unload lever on the Browning Maxus in my hands, shucked out the BB load of steel and replaced it with a 3-inch load of Winchester Supreme Elite HD—the good stuff. The next flock seemed to hang around forever, and the shooting was intense.
As it ended, one bird glided toward the horizon without gaining altitude, which elicited a string of vain shots: Boom! Boom-boom! I joined the broadside, and was surprised when the bird fell. Did I do that? Thereafter I stoked my gun with the good stuff.
Another string of fire seemed to last forever. Boom! Boom-boom! Boom! As geese thumped to the ground I heard someone shout, “There’s a drake woodie!”
A great chorus of “Oohhs” and “Ahhs” accompanied intensified shooting: Boom-boom! Boom! Boom-boom!
I watched in amazement as the bird flew our gauntlet. The little bugger had come in low from our left, flying the length of our line amid flak from Browning anti-aircraft guns. After having a rather easy time hitting giant Canadas for the past hour, it seemed no one could hit the little guy. Boom! Boom-boom! Boom! I began to wonder whether I should root for the bird. It gained and lost altitude with seemingly radar-like prescience to avoid the dreaded shot. Then, at the end of the line, when all thought the drake was safe, Mullett spun on his haunches and dropped it over his right shoulder.
“Hooray!” we shouted in unison. “We got the drake! We got the drake!”
“Let’s see it,” someone said. There, in the palm of Mullett’s hand, laid a most beautiful bird.
“Wow. Look at the colors. What’s he doing up here? How’d you hit him, John? He was practically behind you.”
It was time to celebrate, to honor the little bird that thought it could. And it was time to celebrate the geese, too, to take stock of our haul. These were giant geese, the real McCoy, not the resident mall carp that stop traffic in suburbia.
After one more volley we’d hit our limit, which is five geese per man, per day. There were 11 of us. And we’d hit our 55-bird limit in 1 hour, 45 minutes.
I wish I could say we did the same thing the next morning, but the birds didn’t cooperate and I soon became drowsy. I stretched out high and dry inside my layout blind, even though our line lay amid a row of tall, marshy grass between two crop fields, and caught some shuteye. Between sporadic bits of excitement, I left my ear plugs in, buttoned up, closed my eyes and listened to faint talk and occasional honks, popping up every now and then to fire at the few birds that cupped and dropped.
Morning No. 3, however, was business as usual, which is to say it was a doozy. Like I said, the limit here is five geese per man, per day. Our 11-man crew limited out in 45 minutes. I soaked it all in, finally understanding the fascination with such sport. Back at the lodge, it was as if 11 of us had returned to elk camp with 6x6 bulls. The talking and the chuckling didn’t stop until each of us sat alone on airliners headed for home.
A handful of us hunted black bears, too, during our stay. From a previous trip here I knew they were thick as thieves, so I knew I could count on seeing one or two on stand, even if I didn’t shoot one. I figured that’d beat fishing or watching Canadian football.
Still, I had to wonder about my sanity as I climbed into my stand amid a steady rain with my Browning Maxus now stoked with 3-inch Rackmaster slugs. It’s not the way I would prefer to hunt bears at dark over bait, but hey, I was hunting bears. How bad could it be?
A narrative of the first evening answers that question.
Late in the evening nothing was stirring in the rain and it was too dark to put the shotgun bead on anything black anyway, so I stood up to stretch. That’s when I saw a bear in the brush behind the bait barrel. I figured I’d watch a show until our big, dark-haired Viking-like outfitter, Blair Olafson, came to get me.
In short order the bruin pushed over the barrel and did its best Russian bear circus tricks atop it. It was intent on getting something to eat until a big boar lumbered into the setup and looked right at me. The little fella skedaddled; I was stuck in the tree, in the dark. All the bears here—despite what outfitters will tell you—know exactly where the stands are located. I figure the little ones haven’t been shot at, so while they know sometimes a human sits aloft and watches them, they’ve yet to dodge bullets so they don’t worry. And I figure the big ones are smart enough to think they can take a chance because, hey, they’ve made it long enough to grow big. Still, it’s no turkey shoot; you won’t kill any bear over bait without equal doses of patience and luck. Fact is, these bears are not intimidated one bit by the presence of humans.