My first goose came after a plethora of blunders. There’s a reason that folks typically learn to hunt with a mentor. But it only took me a couple days to figure out where I was making mistakes and bring one home. Hopefully my stories will speed that process up for you.
When I started this season I didn’t buy a duck stamp. I didn’t own a shotgun and I had no idea how to hunt waterfowl. On the first day of 2018 I went out and bought myself a shotgun with the intent to hunt rabbits and upland birds, then maybe waterfowl down the road. In my mind waterfowl hunting was a huge affair with lots of additional equipment needed (camouflage, decoys, retrievers, etc.) But that all changed the first time I went out looking for pheasants.
I went out to explore some of the State Wildlife Areas in northeastern Colorado that purport to have pheasant, rabbit, and squirrels. These are large pieces of public land mostly on the banks of the South Platte river. They have plenty of habitat and if you have the freedom to hunt mid-week like I do, they are typically empty. The closest one is about 90 minutes from where I live, but that’s an easy drive if it gets you 1000+ acres of land to hunt all by yourself.
On my first pheasant hunt out in Jean K. Tool SWA I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I spent an entire day zig-zagging through thick brush without seeing any game. I was allowed to shoot at. What I did find, was excellent waterfowl hunting. I found two good roosts and many times throughout the day burned with frustration as Canada geese flew low over my head, as if they could tell that I hadn’t yet bought my duck stamp. I went home empty-handed that day, but I had a brain full of good information.
The next week I came back to the same spot, this time armed with my duck stamps and a shotgun full of steel. But I showed up too late and got into position too noisily. While walking out to the ambush I had picked out on my previous visit I scared up all the geese roosting in the middle of the river. They took off well ahead of me, swinging over my head well out of range. That’s alright, I thought, I’ll just sit down under this old cottonwood and wait for them to come back.
I spent several hours that morning waiting under that tree, every now and then putting down my book to find the source of a barrage of honks. Through these hours I had a couple opportunities to shoot as geese flew overhead, well within what I thought my range was. But for some reason I couldn’t hit them. After a few tries I assumed that I must be overestimating my effective range and gave up on pass shooting.Frustrated, I took to wandering.
I made my way through the willow clumps along the beach following game trails, my footsteps quiet in the soft sand. A quarter mile or so downriver I came to the edge of a large beach. Just before leaving the concealment of the thick brush I heard a honking overhead. Turning, I spotted a group of four or five geese flying just above me. I knelt and kept still, my face pointed down, but surely they saw me. To my surprise, the group made a quick circle and landed on the beach. This was it.
I dropped my backpack at the edge of the brush and started making my way quickly and quietly toward the geese, ducked low to hide myself behind a low ridge of sand. When I got within twenty yards of the ridge I could just see one of the geese, its black head peeking out above the sand. I dropped to my belly and crawled the rest of the way to the three-foot hump of sand that would be my cover.
I slowly lifted my head above the rise and found my target. The goose was probably thirty yards away, its head lifted, looking around, but unable to pick me out against the backdrop of trees. I put the bead of my shotgun over the goose’s head and squeezed the trigger. The gun roared and suddenly eight geese were scrambling down the beach trying to lift off into the north wind. One of the geese seemed to pop up from nowhere about twenty yards away from me. I swung to this goose and fire again. Buffeted, it kept running, but its wind was broken. It stopped and laid its head down on the sand while the rest of the group flew off.
And here’s where I begin to make mistakes. I don’t know what happened to the first goose I shot at, but I clearly didn’t inflict much damage, as it took off and got away just fine. The second goose was down and still, so I approached. Because it had laid its head in the sand I assumed it was dead, but it took off running down the beach. I fired at it again, aiming for the head. This time the pellets clearly found their mark. The bird slowed, stumbling forward. This time, I decided, I would leave it to die, rather than risking scaring it off again. It climbed atop a small hump of sand and slid down out of view.
I reloaded my shotgun and glanced back at my backpack, sitting in the open fifty yards away. When I looked back, the goose was in the water, ten yards downstream. I ran as fast as I could to grab my bag, but when I got back to the river I couldn’t find the bird. I ran downstream as fast as I could, but it was nowhere to be found. I cursed myself–those are both mistakes you’ve made before. Down rush up to an animal that you’ve hit, lest it take off for some cover from which you cannot retrieve it. And never take your eye off your quarry. Sure, I was on public land and thus worried about my pack, but I hadn’t seen another hunter all day, and my bag would have been fine.
I returned to the beach where I’d lost the bird. There was plenty of blood on the ground, the second shot was surely enough to put the bird down. If only I’d done better. I got too excited and made old mistakes–and because of that a goose I lost a goose to the river.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. I’d scared off all the geese that used those roosts for one day at least.
I came back the next week better prepared. I had done some research and realized that the shot I was using the week before was intended for ducks. It was steel shot with a picture of a goose on the box, and I just hadn’t done my research. No wonder my pass shots weren’t working. I hoped I hadn’t maimed any geese. This time I returned with to boxes of high-velocity BB shot, the heaviest stuff available in the area (everywhere was sold out of BBB, and even this stuff took three store visits to find).
I was feeling good when I left the house. I woke up at 4:30 so that I would fix last week’s error and be out in plenty of time. But before I arrived I knew this wasn’t going to be my day. The past two times I had been out to this location the wind had been from the north. The piece of land I was hunting sits on the north side of the river, making it perfect for getting geese as they leave their roost into a north wind. But as I approached Fort Morgan I noticed a cloud of steam pushing to the northeast. The winds today were from the southwest, which would mean the geese would be able to take off right over the river and never give me a decent shot.
Oh well, I thought. I’ve already driven 90 minutes to get here, I might as well get out there and hope that I can get a decent shot at one coming back to the roost later in the day. Maybe the wind will even change, who knows?
I parked my car and hiked the mile out to my spot in the darkness, giving the river a wide berth to keep from startling the geese on their roost. But this was just not my day. I found my ambush location and settled in as a pale twilight began to grow across the eastern sky. As the reds, oranges, and purples played across the horizon I decided to have a glance at the roost and see what was out there. I snuck forward and poked my head up just high enough to get my binoculars above the tall grass. In pale light I could see the sandbar in the middle of the river but the geese weren’t there. Where could they be?
Frustrated, I hiked down to the beach where I’d shot the goose the previous week to check the other roost. As soon as I made my way onto the sand it was clear what’d happened. There was a large array of duck decoys out on the water. I followed the tracks of their sled back–they ran right along the river and just past my spot.
The next few hours were spent sitting in a blind I’d found and reading Meat Eater by Steven Rinella, occasionally pausing to rub my hands, do a few sets of push ups, or go for a walk–anything to bring my core temperature up a couple degrees. As the geese began to move more it became clear this arrangement was not going to work. The duck hunters down the road shot at every duck and goose that they saw regardless of range and pretty soon there weren’t a whole lot of geese passing by.
I left in the early afternoon. I’d gotten myself really set on bringing home a goose and I was very disappointed. I sat in my car in the parking lot for a while trying to decide what to do. I could go home and enjoy the rest of the day in a warm house, which didn’t sound so bad. Or I could follow a hunch a bit farther west and spend the rest of the day shivering someplace else. I opted for the latter.
For some reason that day there weren’t a whole lot of geese in the area. I drove past a field where the week before I’d seen thousands of them, and this time there were at best a couple hundred. Living in Boulder, I’d been noticing more and more of them closer to the mountains. So that was my hunch: maybe they’re moving west–let’s head on over to an SWA outside Greeley and see what happens.
This new spot was about an hour away. It’s just a couple of cornfields about a mile north of the South Platte river. I found it empty when I got there and without a whole lot of optimism I trudged out onto the farm and sat down in an irrigation ditch to look at my phone.
The sun dropped in the sky, the shadows grew longer, and I sat, cold and bored. On the way to the SWA the crosses the river, and from the bridge I was able to see thousands of geese roosting happily along the shores and atop sandbars, but as it grew later in the day I began to doubt that they’d cease their lounging and make another move.
With around 30 minutes to sunset, there arose from the river a cacophony of honks. The geese were started and took flight all at once, breaking into groups and heading in all directions. I laid flat on my back in an irrigation ditch and honked pitifully on my new goose call, sounding nothing like a Canada goose. But something was smiling on me that day and in spite of my incompetence, I watched as a group flew overhead, circled, and landed in the cornfield next to me.
Now, they may have landed in the field, but that was still a solid 200 yards from my position. I vowed not to make any of the mistakes of the previous week and started moving toward them. I left my pack and ran down the irrigation ditch as fast as I could while bent fully double. I had a chance at these geese, but there was not a lot of time.
I got as close as I could in the ditch, but it was much too far. My watch told me there were 20 minutes left for me to get a goose. Plenty of time. I slid out of the ditch on my stomach and began crawling my way across the field as low and quick as I could.
Every now and then a goose would pop its head up and honk, then more of them would pop their heads up. They knew I was there, but they must not have known what I was, because each time they spooked a little I just laid flat for a minute and they went back to forage. Meanwhile more geese landed to join the flock all the time.
I continued crawling across the field, my hands growing numb, but after a while it seemed like I just wasn’t making any progress toward them. I checked my watch: one minute to sunset. I wasn’t as close as I wanted to be, but this was going to have to work. I stood up quickly and ran ten steps toward the flock. They all began to take to the air. I picked one out and fired, the shotgun slamming back against my shoulder. The geese turned and flew off into the fading light, but one of them was left behind.
The goose lay on the ground, but its head was up. When I got within twenty yards it started to run away, its path perpendicular to mine. I raised my shotgun and fired. The goose toppled forward with the impact. By the time I reached it, it was dead.
I was elated on the drive home that night. This was my first goose. Bringing home one goose may not seem like much, but to me it was everything. I’d figured out how to do it by myself. My tactics were unorthodox, and certainly not the most effective, but I’d followed my instincts to this moment and brought home something delicious to share with my friends.