Hunting Zeppelins

Ducks are fast. On the rare occasions that they’re slow, I can’t hit them to save my life. How do you lead a bird on a crossing shot when he’s at one-quarter speed?

Four blind mates and I answered this question in Texas earlier this year with a resounding “I don’t know.” A bull sprig attempted suicide by floating behind our blind at close range like dandelion fuzz in a light breeze, only to escape unharmed after we all emptied our guns.

To me, ducks’ speed is an enormous part of their charm. The action is fast. Success is a bright burst of light. Failure can be so absurd that all you can do is laugh.

This is part of why I don’t gravitate toward goose hunting – geese coming in have all the charm of zeppelins, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t go out of my way to shoot zeppelins.

Admittedly, another reason I don’t love goose hunting is probably that the vast majority of my goose hunts have absolutely sucked. As in “no geese were harmed in the writing of this column.”

I’ve seen photos of good goose hunts. I’m not talking about the pictures of hunters bolted to the ground by six specklebellies in one hand and four snows in the other (that’s a perfect goose hunt in California). I’m talking about those images of 30 geese descending on a thicket of layout blinds, half a dozen with feet about to touch the ground, the rest so committed that you know they are SCREWED, no matter how much the guys in those blinds shoot like I do. A sight picture like that in real life might be sufficient to sway me.

I have not seen it yet. But I came close enough last month that I might be starting to get it.

It was the last day of the spring goose season in our region of California, and we went out with our favorite guide, R.J. Waldron, whose repartee flies the speed of buffleheads and just as far under the radar if you don’t keep up. The past couple days had been windless and lackluster, and on this warmish morning, the wind was flirting with us just enough to arouse irrational hope.

The first specklebellies that flew by stoked that hope. We held stock still in our Tyvek suits, white clown paint on our faces, as the birds sloooooowly circled into, and out of, our vision. When they were just far enough behind us to be out of sight, that curlicue squeal seemed so loud and so close that R.J.’s call would just have to come. My heart thudded as I mentally rehearsed how I’d grab my gun and SLAY one of those birds so decisively that the whole line of hunters would cheer.

Then that sound drifted farther away and I remembered why I hate goose hunting. “Are they gone?” I whispered to my boyfriend, who seemed to be better positioned to see them.

“Yeah.”

Then, inexplicably, a lone speck came floating in right in front of us. Coming, coming, coming. Floating. Dropping. Hearts pounding – all of them had to be. Still coming.

This is when the bird is supposed to break away to perpetuate my disappointment. But he kept coming.

“Kill him!” R.J. barked. By the time I got my bead on him, he was already falling. Not my shot, but wow, so THAT’s what it looks like and feels like when a goose is coming in. I liked it.

And that’s how the morning went, with small groups of specks and snows drifting in, sometimes playing the circling game, sometimes just slipping gently in front of us, almost always losing at least one or two comrades in the volley. One time all four hit the ground.

I fired only 13 shots that morning, and I could probably claim four or five birds (soooo hard to tell when you’re gang shooting). That’s a pretty solid hunt.

With one lone-bird exception in which some decoys were seriously harmed – not by me! – none of these birds that day was feet down. It wasn’t that kind of day.

But it was close enough that that I got it:Goose hunting is slow seduction. It is your racing heart – not your racing hands – that is the attraction. And I think I’d like to feel that again.

Holly A. Heyser is the editor of California Waterfowl Magazine. A hunter, forager, writer and photographer, she lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at hollyheyser.com.

Holly A. Heyser

Holly A. Heyser is a hunter, forager, writer, food photographer and college journalism lecturer. She writes a blog about hunting at http://norcalcazadora.blogspot.com.and shoots food photos for boyfriend Hank Shaw, who writes a blog about wild food at http://honest-food.net.

Website: norcalcazadora.blogspot.com
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