April 07, 2020
Sports Column

Gunners enjoy bird bonanza Planning, luck helps group bag variety of ducks, geese, grouse

Huffing and puffing like an old steam engine, each exhalation forming a white cloud in the cold, predawn air, I loaded heavy tubs of goose decoys into the back of my truck. A steady plume of exhaust smoke rose from the tailpipe and the defroster whined as it worked to overcome a thick layer of frost stubbornly clinging to every window. As Mike Wallace turned his pickup into the driveway, the headlights panned across white blades of grass. Even during the third week of October, 24 degrees is a bit brisk to adjust to before daylight.

Less than a minute later, Jim Stout arrived and our honker-hunting trio was complete. We hurriedly transferred all their gear into my vehicle, a sort of three-man acrobatic dance routine under the garage floodlights. Then we stuffed in a bag of silhouettes and another box of shell decoys and clambered into the warm cab. Since the heater finally melted a softball-size hole in the otherwise opaque windshield, we hit the road. Fifteen minutes later I pulled onto a field road and skirted a hedgerow along a cut barley field where Canada geese from a nearby roost pond had been enjoying their morning repast for the previous two days.

Illuminating with the headlights a stretch of field where I had spotted geese while scouting, I got out and wandered around in search of a spot with a heavy concentration of feathers and droppings. Less than 30 yards from the tree line and a bit to the left of the truck, I found an area beat right down and with plenty of sign. Our traveling troupe quickly donned headlamps and got to work unloading and setting up our blind and decoy spread. Having repeated this routine many times, each hunter knew his assignment and within a quarter-hour a large “j” pattern of full-body, silhouette, and shell decoys were set up. In the hook of the “j” was a flyer decoy on a pole, wings spread as if landing, to entice the approaching honkers to alight into the open space of the curve. Our three-man bale blind, a camo replica of the huge rolls of hay polka-dotting regional farmland, was set as the dot on the “j,” within 25 yards of the farthest fake waterfowl.

After transferring our guns and gear into the portable blind, Jim drove the truck to the next field and parked it out of sight among some trees, and Mike and I made final adjustments to the decoys. Once Jim arrived back from hiding the vehicle, we climbed into the blind, uncased our guns, dug out ammo and calls, and assembled our goose flag to wave at passing flocks too far away to hear a call. With about five minutes before legal shooting time, we were anxiously chatting, establishing shooting zones for each of us, scanning the sky line in the dim dawn, and listening intently for that first distant honk that always kick starts the adrenaline for a goose gunner.

Suddenly, with the sound of a giant piece of paper ripping, at least a dozen ducks buzzed our decoys, bringing all conversation to a halt. Making a high bank the flock swung for another pass, hoping to spot feathered friends among our plastic dekes, and winged within 15 yards – taunting us two minutes before legal gunning. I had just mentioned that ducks always fly before geese and Jim had made a disparaging but true reference to the parentage of those particular ducks when a distant Her-Onk refocused our attention. From the direction of the roost pond, more geese chimed in, and far off on the pink hazy horizon, small dots appeared in the sky.

With geese in the air, the hands on my watch went into slow motion, but finally when we could actually visualize seven sets of wing beats, it was time to load up and not a second too soon. At 400 yards without one call or wave of a flag, the big honkers saw the decoys and set their wings for a long, gliding approach. At 100 yards the birds slid off path to the far outside, so I gave a few low, contented clucks and groans on my call to imitate contented feeding geese on the ground. Four honkers responded at once, and feet down, wings backstroking, they settled to land 20 yards in front of the blind.

Calling the shot I flipped the top of the hay bale open while the geese were still about four feet off the ground, and we all stood and shouldered our scatterguns. Each of us sighted and fired and three birds tumbled from the air. Then Jim and Mike combined to cartwheel the fourth goose attempting to make a hasty exit to their side. Mike and I quickly headed out to pick up the downed birds, and I had just covered the short distance and grabbed one of the big Canadas when Jim hollered from the blind that there were more birds in the air winging our way.

Scampering back to the hedgerow, we hid our four birds under the brush, clambered inside the blind, and reloaded our guns. Peeking through the camo mesh viewing slot, we saw five geese gliding toward our decoys as if on a homing beacon. As the big honkers extended their feet at 25 yards out, Jim and I popped up, picked one bird each, and filled our two-bird limit. In less than 10 minutes we had six geese and it wasn’t 6:30 yet. In fact it took more time to pick up and repack our rigging than the hunt took. There have been a good many mornings when things didn’t run so smoothly, so we were elated and ready for more action.

Sneak and shoot

Within 15 minutes of our location was a moderate-size stream that we visited regularly during the season to float for ducks, set out decoys in a bogan, or to jump shoot. We detoured to my house long enough to unload goose gear, pick up waders and duck ammo, and call another hunting buddy, Tom Tardiff, to join us for a jump shoot. Our first stop was at an old remote gravel pit that ran next to a secluded section of the stream. Spreading out about 100 yards apart along an old tote road that paralleled the waterway, we all began to sneak through the woods toward the brook.

When this game plan works to perfection, one hunter spots birds feeding and resting on rocks in the shallows and sneaks close enough for a shot. Escaping ducks take to the air heading upstream or down, sometimes both directions, and the other hunters sneaking into the shoreline often get passing shots as the hard-flying waterfowl wing past. I was less than 25 yards from the stream, sneaking from brush to tree, when I heard mallards quacking and gabbling contentedly. Dropping to my knees I moved forward, and as brush thinned I went to a belly crawl until I could see several iridescent green heads through the thin leaf cover.

Gathering myself, I leaped up and took two quick steps into the open shouldering my Browning Auto-5 12 gauge as I cleared the overhanging tree branches. I’d hit the mother lode! More than two dozen mallards and black ducks filled the air with flailing wings and excited quacking, and my shotgun soon added to the ruckus. I dropped a big redleg black duck and a greenhead with my first two shots, and when a late-rising female mallard took flight from a back eddy, I winged her. As I reloaded and went splashing after the wing-tipped Susie, my buddies were banging away at passing ducks in both directions.

When Mike, Jim, and I met back at the truck we had eight ducks between us, but Tom was nowhere to be seen. Our trio was admiring the mature drake mallards and rehashing events when a shotgun went off up the road a ways. Soon after, Tom appeared from the woods line with a mallard in one hand and a partridge in the other and a big grin on his face. Geese, ducks, and now grouse; this was turning into a real bird-hunting bonanza.

Farther downstream we organized another sneak-and-shoot attack and picked up five more ducks and two new species, a wood duck and a ring-necked duck. A small farm pond was our next target. As we were driving there along a field road through a fair-sized woodlot, Tom spotted another partridge in a roadside apple tree. Mike went back with Tom and lo and behold there were two grouse on the branches and another pair under the tree. When all the smoke cleared, we had two more brush biddies in our game bag.

Our gunning fortunes and expanding species list remained favorable as we surrounded and snuck up on the woods-shrouded waterhole. Although no big ducks were in residence, when feathered wings filled the air, all were part of a huge flock of green- and blue-winged teal. These small, fast, erratic-flying waterfowl are a true gunning challenge and despite our firepower only four green and one blue-winged teal remained behind. Still, it was a real thrill to pick the tiny targets out of a cloud of rising teal veering in all directions.

Timberdoodle time

By the time we got back to town, it was still only 11 a.m., but Tom had to be home by lunch and Jim was driving back to Bangor that afternoon. We cleaned, wrapped, and divvied up the birds, sorted out our gear, and parted ways still jabbering back and forth about our bountiful and diverse outing. Over lunch at a local restaurant, Mike wondered aloud if any woodcock were still hanging around the local covers. His sly grin hinted at just what he was thinking; we were going to try for a sort of waterfowl and wild upland bird grand slam.

An hour later Mike and Madie, his German shorthair pointer, picked me up and we headed for a likely woodcock cover. For two hours, except for a short water break for the dog, we worked the thick alder, tamarack, and fir patch with moderate success. Birds were scarce, but Madie’s keen nose ferreted out five timberdoodle that held long enough for shots and two birds that gave wild flushes. Mike and I scratched down three woodcock and an unexpected bonus of two partridge that the dog pointed along a forested edge of the brushy cover. It was the perfect ending to an unexpected and unplanned daylong bird bonanza that began as just a goose hunt.

To cap the hunt, Mike, Madie, and I joined two other hunting buddies at a nearby game farm, where Mike guides, handles dogs, and wrangles birds, for a forenoon pheasant hunt. Our wild waterfowl and upland bird weekend not only provided us with outdoor camaraderie and multiple unique memories, but a lot of tasty tablefare as well. Any Maine sportsman who bird hunts can accomplish the same multi-species day with a bit of planning, determination, and a little luck. New challenges are a wonderful incentive for veteran outdoorsmen, so try your own mixed hunt this month while all the birds are still present and populous.

Outdoor feature writer Bill Graves can be reached via e-mail at bgravesoutdoors@ainop.com

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