Archive for April, 2012

  • Blog
  • April 25th, 2012

Slapstick Comedy Is Not Dead

 By Joel M. Vance

             It was the Mona Lisa with a mustache painted on her.  It was Michelangelo’s David wearing a bikini.  It was “La Boheme” performed by Homer and Jethro.

            Enchantment and low comedy.  A man catching a large bass with his ankle.  You should have been there.  I was. The long pool was shrouded with tall trees.  A rank of rocky ledges guarded the left-hand bank and a wooded bench ran along the right side.

            Four casts into the pool a one-pound largemouth intercepted my spinner and threw it back at me as it cleared the water.  Then I caught a six-inch bass which also slipped the hook.

            Obviously time for hook sharpening.  Or for lunch.  I opted for lunch.

            The NFL season was opening and most of America, at least the male half, was home watching one bunch of glandularly-disturbed human beings pound knots on another bunch, similarly over muscled. 

            Me?  I was sitting on a log listening to jays gripe with my mind as empty as a desert at noon.  I finished the last of my chips and soda, stuffed the trash in the fanny pack, and suited up again. 

            Four casts into a deep pool, the lure stopped with that heavy feeling that usually signals you’ve hooked a log.  I’d already caught a half-dozen branches and a fist-sized rock, so it was about time for a full grown log.

            I started reeling my way toward the log when I noticed the log was moving.  It then moved rather rapidly away from me, down the pool, and the reel drag sang like the bankside cicadas. 

            I gulped because I go years between catching large fish.  And I remembered the dull hooks that I hadn’t sharpened because my hone was where it always is–at home on a shelf instead of in my wader pocket where it belongs. 

            The fish bulled around in the deep water, like a big channel catfish and I figured that’s what it was.  An eminently edible catfish.  No catch and release on catfish.  They were born to be eaten.  They are the chickens of the stream. 

            Then the fish rolled at the surface and I saw the dark lateral line of a largemouth bass.  A LARGE largemouth bass.  That lateral line seemed to go on forever, like the center line on a Kansas highway. 

            I put more pressure on, praying that the line wouldn’t break.  It charged me, just like a wounded grizzly.  It covered a dozen feet between us and went right between my legs, just as I frantically lifted one leg to avoid it. 

            Buster Keaton never did slapstick any better.  My wading boot caught the line and the fish swam a loop around it like a rodeo cowboy throwing a pigging string loop on a calf.  The weight of the fish threw me off balance and I went over backward, a torrent of water spilling into my chest waders. 

            There I was, sitting in two feet of water with a five-pound bass attached to my leg by about 18 inches of monofilament.  I scooted backward on my rear end, dragging the bass with me.  Thanks to the miracle of modern fishing line which has the tensile strength of steel and the diameter of spider web, I didn’t lose that bass.  I dragged it into a couple of inches of water, managed to lip it.  The spinner fell out of its mouth.

            It was that close to being lost.

            My first thought was there’s no one here to see it.  The big fish glared at me.  He was heavy, had to go five pounds (it since has grown to just under nine pounds).  I briefly entertained the uncharitable thought that I would keep the fish just so I could brag it up in front of witnesses.

            But then it would be merely a big dead bass, never to be caught again (and I couldn’t make it grow as time passed).  I sighed and eased the fish into the water and let go of its lip.  It vanished in the murky water.  “I know where you live!” I shouted after it.

            My fishing fever had cooled.  There is a time to quit and when you’ve landed a nine pound bass, even if it was with your left leg, is the time (okay, five pounds).  Dramatic correctness demands it.

            But I thought I’d make another cast or two and, once again, there was a heavy stop and the weight of something big and nearly immovable.  It would slip one way, then the other, tugging and throbbing against the line.  Felt even bigger than the nine…er, five pound bass.  I led it to shallow water.

            A two-pound flat rock slid into the shallows and came to rest on the bottom.  I backed the hook out of a hole in the rock and reeled the lure to the rod tip.   I considered keeping the rock because it was the biggest one I’d ever landed, but decided enough was enough.

            Two bass, one truly impressive rock, the kind any rock angler would be proud to have mounted on the rec room wall.  A memorable day…except I’ve managed to forget the rock part and inflate the size of the bass when I tell the story, which is every time I can back someone into a corner. 

            Let me tell you about this nine pound bass I caught….


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  • Blog
  • April 18th, 2012

Woman of Steel

By Joel M. Vance

              I know how Lois Lane would have felt had she managed to get Clark Kent to the altar.  It would have been trying to be married to the Man of Steel and it is, for me, trying being married to the Woman of Steel.

             Oh, I don’t mean that she can leap tall buildings in a single bound, not even small ranchers.  But let her come within hailing distance of a metal detector and she sets off alarms as if she were Grandma bin Laden.  She has had two hip replacements and most airport security people refuse to believe that anyone could walk around with a few ounces of metal in their hip region that isn’t a miniaturized AK 47.  Marty is the darling of the wand wavers.  She has spent more time with her arms extended than Pat Robertson at a prayer meeting.

                 This is not Mama Osama; it’s Marty Vance, nee Leist, born and raised in Macon, Missouri, where the closest thing to a terrorist was the bruising fullback on the Macon Tiger football team.  Tell that to the folks at Lambert-St. Louis airport where she is regarded as the Mother of All Security Nightmares.

                Marty once was your average Midwestern housewife, sailing through security screening like Grandma Moses with a wooden cane.  Now?  You’d think she was wearing a jilbab inscribed “Up With The Jihad!” and brandishing a cylindrical object topped with a sputtering fuse.  The security guards flock to her like small birds to an owl.

            Maybe it has to do with becoming a grandmother.  After all, we know that grandmothers are among the most dangerous Islamist radicals, especially those posing as white Protestant Midwestern women. 

            If I sound sour it’s because I pass through those metal detectors with impunity and anyone looking at me will see that I’m a grumpy old, anti-political government-hater.  I’m obvious trouble on the hoof, but they don’t even make me take off my Reeboks which, for all they know, could contain handwritten instructions from the late Osama bin Laden on how to sabotage American fast food emporiums, thus bringing the nation to its knees by the afternoon of the first day without a McFix.            

                 Marty is the most complete innocent flying today.  Once she left a pair of scissors in her purse which set off many bells and whistles.  While they were wanding her, looking as if they would rather be beating her with the electronic staffs, an Arnold Swarzenegger look-alike got me to one side and grilled me about “the scissors in your purse.” 

            “I may look odd,” I said.  “But I don’t carry a purse.”

            “Your wife’s,” he growled, looking at me the way I look at fresh vomit on the sidewalk.  He was not, I would have to say, user-friendly.

            “I don’t know anything about scissors,” I said, sensing the cell door swinging shut.  He held them in front of my nose and said, “You can go back past security and start over or we’ll confiscate them.”  Unspoken was the implicit statement: “Or we can just haul you off now and you’ll never be seen again.”

            Well, they were simple small scissors, probably $1.98 at Dollar General, so I said, “Keep ‘em.”

            Marty rejoined me, having grudgingly been passed through the check point.  “You did what!” she exclaimed when I told her I’d given away her scissors.  “I’ve had those things for 20 years.”            

            Later, in full view of any security folk who cared to draw a Glock and practice swift justice, she held out a pair of folding scissors.  “Well, they didn’t find these!” she exclaimed with satisfaction.   I looked for a nearby rock to crawl under.  She got away with it but, in moments of domestic stress, I still hear about the heirloom scissors I gave away.

            I know airport security is essential to keep planes from becoming manned ICBMs, but I suspect your average terrorist, no matter how brain-damaged, will look for an easier target than an airplane: trains, busses and sports venues come to mind, not to mention container ships and a host of stationary targets.  Lest you think I’m inviting terrorism on targets other than the plane I’m riding in, I’m merely repeating what others have said.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where folks congregate in less-than-secure surroundings.

            Airport security has become a trial for the traveler.  At an outdoor writers’ conference I picked up a wilderness survival kit, a rudimentary collection of items designed to keep the backcountry emergency at bay, including a bite-sized Snickers bar (Snickers is the answer to the vicissitudes of the outdoors, like a charging grizzly bear or an avalanche). 

                There was a stub of candle and a couple of matches to light it.  The whole was sealed in a plastic bag.  Airport security, convinced those two matches were the entrée to airborne conflagration, slit the little plastic pouch open and removed the matches, thus rendering the candle useless if I happened to be trapped in a blizzard 150 miles from Nome.  At least they didn’t eat the Snickers.

                 I read a complaint about onerous security at London’s Heathrow Airport.  Perhaps it has changed since last I was there, but I found the security folks British-nice.  The Brits made me feel comfortable about being grilled and searched.

            “Well, I hope you’re having a good day and we’ll get you on your way right off, you know.  Just a spot of checking, if you don’t mind….”  And they prattled on and on apologetically, meanwhile checking out everything from dental fillings to potentially lethal body orifices. 

            I felt like saying, “Gee, I sure enjoyed chatting with you fellows.  Maybe we could get together for a pint after work.”  But then that was before a clown tried to set his Buster Browns on fire. Perhaps they have taken a short course in Lambert Airport hostility since then. 

              The only time in recent years that Marty has been able to board an airplane without intensive security scrutiny was when she dislocated one of her bionic hips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota and had to be airlifted out.

            Forest Service pilots slid her stretcher into their floatplane and off they went, no metal detector ot aggressive questions. 

            But I don’t think I’ll recommend to Marty that she dislocate a hip so we can get to our plane quicker.  She’s still upset about me giving away her scissors.


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  • Blog
  • April 10th, 2012

Get the Lead Out

 By Joel M. Vance

            Should upland bird hunters be required to use non-toxic shot and should lead ammunition be banned altogether?  To most hunters the mere suggestion equates to arguing that guns should be banned.  Them is fighting words.

            Hunters don’t take kindly to suggested changes in the way they do things—but then hardcore hunters resisted breech-loading firearms for a long time before the muzzleloader receded into history.

            That lead is a poison is not in question.  In 1894, outdoor writer/explorer/hunter George Bird Grinnell wrote about how eating spent lead shot kills waterfowl.  Even before that, in 1876 there was an account of pheasants dying from eating shot.  So, we’ve known for more than a century that we’re firing poison onto the landscape.

            Only now has there been a serious attempt to ban lead shot for upland hunting, although it has been banned for use on waterfowl for three decades.  The most recent attempt to extend the ban to all lead shot was denied by the Environmental Protection Agency.  The Center for Biological Diversity had petitioned for a total ban on lead shot.

            The CBD is accused of being an anti-hunting, anti-gun organization.  Neither its mission statement or anything else on its web site mentions hunting.  It exists to lobby for protection of endangered species.  In a statement a spokesman said, “The Center…recognizes that fishing and hunting provide millions of Americans with an important connection to the natural world.  Substantial proportions of our staffs, boards and memberships are avid anglers and/or hunters.”

            More pertinent to hunters is an hard-to-argue-with publication titled Ingestion of Lead from Spent Ammunition.  It’s 383 pages of documentation on the effects of lead on both wildlife and humans, the results of a conference among many scientists which was co-sponsored by Boise State University, the Peregrine Fund, the Tufts Center for Conservation Medicine and the U.S. Geological Survey.

            Every hunter pondering the question of lead vs. non-toxic should at least read the summary of findings and every sportsman’s group should have a copy, available from The Peregrine Fund, 5668 West Flying Hawk Lane, Boise, Idaho $20.  You also can read articles at 

            Cynthia Giles, EPA’s assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance, said, “Lead….is one of the most dangerous neurotoxins in the environment.”  She was commenting on an EPA penalty of $7 million against the Doe Run Resources Corporation in Missouri, among the world’s largest lead mining operations and the largest in the United States.

            Doe Run also will have to spend an estimated $65 million to clean up its decades-long mess in eastern Missouri.  Doe Run’s Herculaneum smelter releases an estimated 30 tons of lead particulate into the air every year.  

            The effect of that on indigenous wildlife is unknown, but there’s no doubt that lead does

kill wildlife.  Birds pick up the shot when they’re feeding, either by accident or by thinking it is food.  And they die.  Lead shot has been banned for waterfowl hunting since 1981 and while there still is a substantial group of waterfowl hunters who maintain that more ducks and geese are crippled by non-toxic shot than are saved from poisoning, the ban on lead is part of hunting now.

            Waterfowls are particularly susceptible to ingesting lead shot because it’s concentrated where they concentrate—in favored duck marshes, shot over for generations.  But how about the pheasant or quail hunters who roam the uplands, shooting only occasionally, scattering spent shot thinly?

            Good science shows that no seed-eating bird is immune from ingesting lead shot and even scavengers like, for example, the endangered California condor, can be poisoned by eating lead-contaminated meat.  The most notable upland lead threat is in dove hunting where an army of hunters unloads a barrage of ammo over the same fields until either the doves or the ammo is gone. 

            Doves do die from ingesting spent lead shot, many of them—that has been documented in a number of studies for at least 10 years.  In Texas where an estimated 300,000-plus hunters kill more than six million doves annually, some 30 percent of the national bag, Texas Parks and Wildlife is doing a study of more than 1,000 one-shot killed doves to see how effective non-toxic shot is compared to lead.  One Texas hunter, writing on a Texas hunting/fishing forum, says he’s perfectly happy using No. 7 steel on doves.

            Biologists collect doves killed by hunters and examine the gizzards to see if they contain ingested lead shot pellets.  They already know that one pellet will sicken a dove, two or more likely will kill it—so if the gizzard has a couple of pellets in it the dove likely would have died from poisoning if it hadn’t been shot.

            The bottom line of all the studies so far is that if lead pellets are available, some doves will eat them and those doves will die.  The flip side is that if those pellets are non-toxic the doves will not die.  On that evidence alone, the question is whether hunter/conservationists are willing to sacrifice their lead shot to save an unknown number of doves (or whether they should be forced to).

            At present, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approves a dozen non-toxic shot alternatives.  Other than familiar steel (which actually is iron), there is bismuth, closest to lead in density, two alternatives of iron combined with something else, and seven variations of tungsten.  Search “non-toxic rifle bullets” and Google will give you many alternatives and sources for lead-free rifle bullets.

            We’ve been discussing the effects on wildlife and you may think the choice is “do we sacrifice the use of lead for the salvation of some animals?”  But it’s well beyond that.  Studies prove that even a lead bullet shot into a deer will fragment into many pieces not just at the site of the wound, but almost body-wide.  And many of those fragments are so small that they will not be noticed—in other words they may be eaten….by people, you and me.

            There are “acceptable” levels of almost every toxin such as dioxin or chlordane or other chemicals we’ve tinkered with over the years.  There are none for lead.  It’s poisonous in microscopic amounts.  Does that mean a pellet swallowed is a fatal dose?  Not to a human….but it’s cumulative over the life of the human.

            If you dig out the lead pellets in birds you’ve shot, you may think you’ve eliminated the lead but you haven’t.  Tiny amounts of lead residue remain.  Rub a piece of lead on a piece of paper and you’ll leave a streak, just as a projectile does in flesh. Multiply those tiny leftovers  by a lifetime of eating supposedly healthy, good-for-you wild meat and you might well be accumulating a substantial bank account of lead in your system.

            Lead in a person mimics calcium.  So in older people, those with elevated lead levels, the lead begins to replace the calcium lost through the aging process.  In kids lead is a notorious culprit in slow development.  Think of the horror stories of kids in ghetto housing who have snacked on chips of old lead-based paint.  It’s not some Charles Dickens fiction.  It happens.

            So, as admirable as wild game donation programs are, the donated meat could be contaminated, however slightly, with lead.  Do you want your donated meat to have the potential to poison somebody’s kids?  Do you want to poison your own by feeding them lead-laced meat?  It would be a simple regulation to require that all donated game must be shot with non-toxic ammo. 

            I’m not trying to scare you or be the mouthpiece for the greenies, the tree-hugging anti-hunters, anti-gun crowd.  I’m trying to make you think.  This is not an anti-hunting or anti-gun situation, no matter what arguments there are saying that.  It is a matter of health and it is a solvable one.

            There is a route toward a solution.  The first step is to admit there is a problem.  Once that’s done, the next step is to work toward a solution, agreeing where there is agreement, working out the disagreements one at a time and on a timetable that imposes a minimum of discomfort to everyone involved—ammo manufacturers and hunters..

            Copper or other substitute bullets are available to replace lead for big game.  Steel shot already is an acceptable substitute for lead for most upland game.  Non-toxic alternatives that won’t damage older gun barrels would have to decline substantially in price to be attractive, but they exist and are available.

            It certainly could be done, albeit amid much grumbling and anger.  We’ve gotten vehicles that get much better gas mileage (incidentally, using gas without lead) but some never will accept that they can’t use their gas hogs.  Most go along with the idea, especially when it’s economically pleasant to do so.

            Paradoxically, the Army has begun issuing non-toxic ammunition to troops in Afghanistan.  It seems ironic that we would use non-toxic ammo to avoid poisoning people we’re trying to kill, but don’t mandate it to protect our own. 

            The EPA rejected the petition to ban lead, citing the Toxic Substances Control Act which it says prohibits it from regulating ammunition.  However, a House of Representatives committee reported on the intent of the act.  The House interpretation of the act specifically prohibits the EPA from regulating ammunition, meaning it cannot ban ammunition per se…but the Committee also said, ““the Committee does not exclude from regulation under the bill chemical components of ammunition which could be hazardous because of their chemical properties.”  In other words, the EPA can’t ban ammo, but can ban LEAD from ammo since lead is a chemical component of lead shot and lead bullets. 

            Some 30 outdoor groups, including the Congressional Sportsman’s Foundation, oppose a ban on fishing uses such as lead sinkers and split shot, saying that it isn’t the job of the EPA to regulate fishing and that it should be left to the state wildlife agencies.

            And that is a valid point in most cases where political interference with wildlife regulations has been notoriously corrupt through the years.  But it also is unfortunately true that wildlife agencies are extremely reluctant to pass any regulations that could be viewed as anti-angler or anti-hunter—witness that most still enthusiastically endorse the Share the Harvest programs without any caveat about lead residues in the meat.

            It would take an environmental ruling, either from EPA or the courts, to accomplish a ban on lead in ammo and fishing tackle, because it doesn’t appear likely to happen through Congressional action, and with few exceptions the state wildlife agencies also are playing dog in the manger.

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  • Blog
  • April 2nd, 2012


By Joel M. Vance

 The 1961 Philadelphia Phillies lost 23 straight games, setting a record that no one talks about while eating a Philly cheese steak sandwich.  The hapless Washington Generals, victims of the Harlem Globetrotters, supposedly lost 8,829 games in a row, but they weren’t getting paid to win.  Prairie View College holds the unenviable loss record in college football at 80.

            Joel Vance and Canada goose hunting?  Well, I’m still working on a record, one that I would be happy to stop extending.  It has been more than 50 years since I last shot a Canada goose.  Not for lack of trying.  I have hunted Canada geese, buoyed by reports of enough birds that you could walk across their backs and never touch the ground.  Their gabble was, so I was told, deafening.  Bring shells, lots of shells.

            The folks who tell you to bring plenty of shells are the same ones who later say, “I can’t understand it—last week it was terrific.” I have seen distant geese far out of range.  I have read books, blown my nose, hummed old country ballads counted backward from 100, fallen asleep. I imagined a red god who looked like the Soup Nazi on the Seinfeld television show who, instead of snarling “No soup for you!” said, “No goose for you!”

            There is no more succulent table fare than roasted or smoked Canada goose.  Sliced thin, coated with wasabi sauce, yesterday’s migrant is today’s gourmet treat.  Or so they tell me.  A guy has to shoot one first. 

            My late and wonderful friend Dave Mackey had a 10-acre lake in north Missouri.  When the first norther blows in, the bass sull and it’s time to think avian.  Wood ducks nest locally and the fringe of trees on the inaccessible side of the lake provide them with raw material for housing.

            Migrant ducks spot the lake and drift in for a spot of R and R, feeding on the small stand of corn that Dave planted for his quail, gabbling in the duck weed.  But duck hunting presents a problem—the lower end of the lake, where migrants congregate to slurp duckweed, is too shallow for a boat.  Beneath six inches of water there is about two feet of north Missouri gumbo bottom.  Wading to retrieve decoys is like negotiating a half-acre of foot-deep wet concrete.

            So, duck hunting takes on the aspect of Marine boot camp.  But Canada geese favor the deeper end of the lake where I can launch a half-dozen decoys and get them back without blowing a stress test.  The big problem is being there when the geese are.  I pray for an invasion of Giant Canada geese, the fabled Branta Canadensis maxima, a creature as fabled as the unicorn only better tasting.

The Giant Canada goose is a mythical creature come to life.  It is the largest of at least 10 subspecies of the familiar white-cheeked, black-headed birds and resident-nests, rather than migrating to the far North.  The lustiest top out about 15 pounds, far beefier than migrants which weigh about eight pounds.

            Once maximas nested on ledges far above the Missouri River.  Lewis and Clark saw them and probably shot some to treat their jolly boatmen to something better than deer jerky and hardtack biscuits.  The geese later served as live decoys for market hunters until live decoys were outlawed in 1935. 

            Descendents of the live decoy flock served as seed for a restoration no one thought possible.  Harold Hanson, a biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey first rediscovered maximas in the 1960s and then pioneered the idea of restoring resident-nesting flocks of the big birds.  The Mayo Brothers, famed doctors with a hospital in Rochester, Minnesota, had a flock of what proved to be maximas and those birds, trapped when they were molting and thus flightless, provided seed stock for other flocks.

            Missouri’s Conservation Department had decided in the late 1950s to outwit nest predators by encouraging geese to use galvanized washtubs, fastened to the top of posts set into the water on the state’s numerous farm ponds.  Pretty soon farm ponds all over the Show-Me State had sprouted the tubs like summer algae and baby geese were everywhere.

            The Missouri experiment began at the Trimble Wildlife Area north of Kansas City with 24 geese which grew to a flock of 650 by 1969.  Studies showed that predation loss was only two percent with the washtub-hatched geese.  Trimble itself became the victim of a Corps of Engineers lake project, but the geese have adapted to washtub nests in the lake itself.

            Within a few years great big geese were fouling urban golf courses with droppings and nesting pairs were challenging joggers, pedestrians and homeowners.  If anything, the giants are smarter than other birds and most humans, and quickly learned where they were at risk from hunters and not at risk from urbanites.  One pair nested for several years on a window ledge in a St. Louis suburb.

            The baby geese, light as feathers, leaped from their lofty nests and fluttered to ground like so many autumn leaves, bounced and then followed their parents two blocks to a park lake, through heavy traffic.  Somehow they made it.

            The mid-America flock has grown to nearly 300,000 from those few remnant birds, so you’d think I could manage to connect with one via a load of bismuth shot once in a while.  Not to be—I haven’t shot a Canada goose since my father and I hunted near then-new Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the early 1950s.

            We were in a pit blind and a flock of six or eight geese blotted the sky.  I figured if I couldn’t see the sky for Goose they were close enough to shoot so I did.  One bird faltered and then tumbled, thumping the ground close enough to the pit that we felt the vibration. 

            My mother prepared that goose for Christmas dinner with a recipe that later appeared in Cy Littlebee’s Guide to Cooking Game, a legendary Missouri wild game cookbook.  “Miz Ann Vance, from around Macon which is around mighty fine goose hunting country,” said Cy, “likes a garlic dressing with her wild goose.”

            My mother boiled the giblets until they were tender, removed the skin from the gizzard and heart and minced the various organs.  She combined that with three quarts of stale bread, two large garlic cloves minced, one large onion finely minced, a half-teaspoon of oregano, a teaspoon of ground sage, salt and pepper, stuffed the goose with this dressing (moistened with the giblet juice) and roasted it at 325 degrees for four hours covered, a half hour uncovered.  It was a Christmas goose at a time when I was barely out of the believing-in-Santa-Claus stage of life.  It restored my faith in the jolly St. Nick.

One year we visited our son-in-law and daughter in Minnesota.  It was Dec. 23, the day before the day before Christmas and, coincidentally, the next-to-last day before the Canada goose season closed.  I had a hunting permit and a federal waterfowl stamp, unsullied by a half-dozen fruitless trips to the Missouri swamps. 

            New Prague is a couple miles away and local Giant Canada geese use the city sewage lagoon as a resting place, giving a bit of second thought to how the birds would be on the table.  You are what you eat, so they say.

            I’d occasionally seen V’s of geese wavering past as they looked for a feeding or roosting area, but never had seen them coasting into the field beside Ron and Carrie’s place…until Christmas came early. I was sipping a hot chocolate and pondering what I was going to get for Christmas.  I hoped for a shotgun, but a couple pair of socks was more realistic.

            It was near sunset and I stood in the trees on a little knoll behind their corncrib, looking out at a cornstubble field.  Then I heard a distant cry, a Canada goose on the wing.  I can’t hear much of anything anymore, especially if someone is trying to get me to do something I don’t want to do, but I can hear geese halfway to Saskatchewan.  Other geese joined until we had a veritable Ode to Joy.  Beethoven would have been proud.

            They lifted off the sewage lagoon and formed a shimmering arrow that aimed directly at me.  I stood transfixed as a half-hundred Canada geese landed, by ones and twos and half-dozens, some within a few feet of me.  “Tomorrow,” I murmured.  “We meet at dawn.”

            I bought a state stamp and a box of steel shot at the local convenience store and borrowed Ron’s shotgun.  “I don’t know if you can shoot steel shot out of that or not,” Ron said worriedly.  I fixed him with a father-in-law glare.  “That is not an option,” I said.  “I’m going to shoot a Christmas goose.”

            The geese were gone the next morning, possibly back to frolic in the effluent, but I figured they would return to roost and feed at dusk.  Sewage lagoons may offer daytime refuge, but it’s like hiding out in an outhouse.  Even a goose has standards.  That  evening the geese overflew Ron’s field, headed south, possibly to my Missouri wetland, their derisive calls drifting down from far out of range.    

On another hunt I was at Dave Mackey’s lake, several hundred miles to the south, armed with the same blind optimism that led Custer over that last hill.  I spent all afternoon building two rude blinds on an exposed point.  The decoys bobbed in a slight chop, nodding their heads as if approving of what we were doing.  My blind, when I looked at it with a critical eye, would not have fooled the most retarded Canada goose, but I crouched in the blind, imitating a stump.

According to theory the flock would come to roost in waves not seen since John James Audubon traveled up the Missouri River, shooting birds with gusto.  Audubon was the first birdwatcher–he liked to watch them die, much to the chagrin of later generations of Little Old Ladies in Tennis Shoes.

            Storm clouds huddled to the west, gathering like angry rednecks in the parking lot of a roadhouse just before a fight.  Three geese wavered across the trees to the north and skirted the edge of the lake, far out of gun range, their hoarse cries mocking.  My decoys looked ashamed and my goose call sounded more pathetic than enticing.  The sun and the geese vanished.  As I trudged back to the truck we could hear the chatter from a thousand geese about a half-mile away.  They had roosted on a neighbor’s lake.

            I said,  “I’ll bet they’re back here in the morning.”  Just like Custer’s scouts said, “Hell, general, I’ll bet you can whup up on them Injuns big time!”

            At 5 a.m. there was a steady rain, just a degree or two warmer than sleet.  My truck tobogganed down a hill toward the lake and I hoped I could get it back out when I left, laden with geese.  “You know what four-wheel drive is for, don’t you?” asked a friend once.  “It’s so you can go farther before you get hopelessly stuck.”

            I slogged to my blind in the dark, carrying a bucket to sit on, gun slung over my shoulder, muzzle down to keep water out of the barrel.  Rain drummed on my poncho hood and icy droplets slithered down my face.  

            Legal shooting a half-hour before sunrise was a joke.  There was no sunrise.  I couldn’t see five feet in front of me.  Perhaps if I had been attacked by a Branta Canadensis maxima I could have clubbed it to death with the butt of my Model 12, but short of a physical encounter I was running blind.

            The sky didn’t lighten as the clock advanced—it just became less dense.  I heard a goose calling over the drumming rain somewhere on the lake.  I thought This is it!  The end of misery and strife!  I blinked rain out of my eyes. 

            There they were!  Geese huddled against the lake dam, a black blob in a dark background.  One stretched its wings, enjoying the lovely weather.  My decoys bobbed in a slight chop.  They seemed to be getting into the game.  I grunted into the Olt bugle: “Heh!  Heh! Heh!”  Food over here!  Love, companionship, your heart’s delight, a high base load of No. 2 shot…..

            I changed to a goose yodel: “Look!  Luh-oook!”  They looked, all right.  They looked and looked and then they lifted off amid a raucous gabble and swung over the trees far across the lake and flew back to the neighbor’s lake.

You know the old adage: “You can lead a goose to water, but you can’t shoot him.”  Truer words were never made up on the spot.  The phrase “As full of waste grain as a Christmas goose” sprang to mind, but I wouldn’t know about Christmas geese.

            I unloaded my gun, picked up my bucket and I slogged back to the truck.

            We bought a roasting chicken for Christmas dinner.


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