Last year I had amazing luck hunting Canada geese late in the season. I went out without any real knowledge and over four days in the field I bungled my way into bringing home three geese.
Now, I know that three geese does not seem like a lot to anyone who is really into this stuff. Three geese over four days means that on any given day I was going home with no more than ⅕ my limit. There were no rows of geese to lay out for the camera. But, for me, one goose was and is a huge success.
For starters, I live in a house with two roommates and we do our best to split the fridge and freezer space. Geese are big birds. Any more than one or two geese at once and I would be well over my allotted space (which is already a fairly constant occurrence–sorry roommates!)
But second, I was going out trying to hunt geese without any gear or experience. I didn’t have decoys or a proper blind. I was out there just hoping that I could put myself in the right spot where an unlucky bird might pass low enough for me to get a shot at it. And somehow I had pretty decent success, though it was quite unconventional.
By whatever grace, last season I was fortunate enough to bring home a goose nearly every time I went out. This year I went to the same places and employed the same strategies, but in three days I came up with goose eggs (the figurative sort).
Beyond that, these were just some of the most frustrating days of hunting that I have ever had. I was in the same spots but I never even had a half-decent shot. Certainly no two years of hunting are going to be the same, but why were things so much worse this year? I have a couple theories.
One reason could be that last winter in Colorado was incredibly mild. Last year, in the final couple weeks of Canada goose season, there were huge flocks of geese moving all over the front range. This year there were still birds moving, but many, many fewer–possibly pushed farther south by the heavier snows and bitter cold spells of this winter.
The second big reason is that my favorite goose spot was not in as good shape this year. This spot is a State Wildlife Area in the center of a bunch of corn fields. I didn’t notice the difference when I first showed up this year, but I should have. Somewhat shamefully, it took me nearly an entire day to realize the difference from the previous season–there wasn’t any corn on the ground!
Last year, the field was left with the broken stalks from the season, and stray corn cobs littered the ground. There’s a huge roost just south of the field, where thousands of geese spend the night, so when there is corn to be had there, the birds will often pop over for a bite, or at least fly by low enough for a decently camouflaged hunter to get a pass shot.
I sat there for an entire day wondering why the geese were avoiding me so much more than the year before. But of course they were. There was no corn on the ground to tempt them down, and this field alone, among all the surrounding farmland, often housed folks desperate to take a shot at a passing bird that they had no chance of bringing down.
Which brings me to one of my biggest problems with public land hunting on the front range: the boundaries of these little parcels makes the whole thing feel very artificial. Nakagawa State Wildlife Area is my sweet spot for geese. There, it’s out there now. It’s the spot I’ve been describing. I have a couple other places that I like, but that is where I got my first goose, and there is a huge population of geese that roost just south of it. On the days when I never get a shot, I just watch them come and go by the hundreds from their roost on the South Platte. And that is what makes it feel so fake.
A big part of why I first started hunting is that I wanted to connect to something deep, atavistic, and primal. The first hunt in which I interacted with an animal that I was trying to kill I felt something stir inside me. I was engaged in nature in a way that I never had been before. I was an active part of the food chain. This animal was running from me not out of base instinct, but because I was trying to kill and eat it.
For me that feeling simply isn’t the same in a case like this. That piece of the South Platte River that all those geese hang out on is owned by a private hunting club. They have it fenced and posted. Where the road crosses the river I can look down from my car and see huge hordes of geese on the sandbars in the center of the river. I see this each morning as I drive to the spot and each evening when I leave. But I can spend an entire day waiting, hidden, in a field no more than a half mile away without a single bird flying my way.
It breaks the experience to be so restricted. I know where the birds are. If I were free to stalk them to their roost, or even to get within a few hundred yards, I know that I could harvest a few as they approached or left. But I can’t. I am stuck in that field, watching them come and go, without any means to get closer to them. Any feeling of connection to the earth or a primal way of life is shattered by this boundary.
Instead of feeling like a primal man, I feel like a fool. I sit, shivering, in a ditch and read a book. When I hear geese honking in flight I move into position, sometimes even covering my second ear and holding my shotgun, so that if a group were to choose to fly over me, I could remain perfectly still during their approach. But this never happens. They know my field is death for them, and they avoid it as such.
My day is long and dull. As the last minutes of legal light approach, I pack my things and walk back to the car. I usually get quite a bit of reading done in a day–at least there is that. In my three days I never had a chance to shoot at a goose, but at least I got something done, I suppose.
It is time for my hunting season to end. I have hunted hard. I have learned a great deal, I have taught some, and I have brought home many meals. But I am tired of the cold mornings and the long pursuit. I am ready for a break. I am ready to begin preparing for the next season, and surer pursuits. For spring is around the corner. It is time to begin planning my garden, and soon the many delicious plants of the forest will begin to peek out from under the duff.