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  • April 2nd, 2012

Goosed

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.

 30-

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1 Comment

  1. really

    April 10th, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    Reply

    Incredible post! Goosed | Joel Vance certainly tends to make my afternoon a little brighter 😀 Keep on alongside the exceptional posts! Thanks, really



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