Location: Shilappoo Wildlife Refuge, Vancouver, WA
Conditions: Clear, light wind out of North, Northwest
Shots fired: 0
Birds taken: 0
Thursday morning, Sept. 10, 2015 marked the preview of waterfowl season here in Washington. Early goose season is a 7-day period about a month prior to the regular duck season when we get a chance to hunt the big local western Canada geese – honkers we call them. They’re the B-17s among waterfowl: big, beautiful, easy to hit, but difficult to bring down.
The local population in our area at this time of year roam between roosts just inshore of the Columbia River and the fields of harvested corn and wheat in the river basin.
I teamed up on opening day with hunting chum Tim. Since we have not made the effort to gain access to private land we scouted a couple of spots on the public land surrounding Lake Vancouver, which is also known as the Shillapoo Wildlife Area. Managers of this area allow local farmers to plant corn and wheat on some fields here to support populations of geese, ducks, and the pheasant they release in the refuge during the fall pheasant season.
The previous year we had found a wheat field that had been knocked down well before the season. That year we had set up in a makeshift blind and some chairs among the blackberry brambles in the southeast corner. It had not been ideal, but we did get a couple of close looks at some honkers and unloaded on a lone one flying above us, missing it entirely. We finally bagged one, a wounded bird hiding in an adjacent field that we did not spot until we were packing out. (Unfortunately, other hunters, who sky-busted at geese working our spread, marred our second hunt that season.)
We had scouted the area during the preceding week and found that the field we had used the year before was now covered in corn. We optimistically assumed the corn would come down before our hunt and sure enough the field was harvested the day before opening day, with the farmers leaving 5 rows of 5-stalk-wide standing corn across the field separated by 50- to 80-yard-wide rows of 6-inch stalks and a litter of corn bits, the perfect feeding set-up for our honkers. It was probably as good as it would get for us. Although I hunt the area I still don’t know Shillapoo all that well, something I’ve vowed to work on this year.
I had seen several other hunters throughout the week scouting the spot so we got up early and headed out, not knowing if someone had already grabbed it. We were the first there and quickly began to set up our decoys. We have a dozen full-bodies and 2-dozen silhouettes. We placed the sentries upwind on the sides and the feeders and resters downwind, thinking that birds committed to land would prefer looking at the feeders as they descend. We also set up three silhouettes on the other side of the corn row to alert other hunters of our presence in the field. We dumped the rest of our gear in the corn row between the fields and hoofed back to the truck for a little coffee.
I’m always grateful to have a little time between set-up and legal shoot time to settle down and enjoy the morning. This was a beautiful one, with a sliver of moon rising in the Eastern sky flanked by bright Venus. It was cool but not cold so light pants, a T-shirt and a light hunting jacket was all we needed. That’s the great thing about early goose season. You don’t need to be decked out in waders and cold-weather gear. It just feels more relaxed.
Later another hunter showed up and started getting ready to hunt the same field. I like honesty and clarity and prefer to be friendly with other hunters so I started to talk to him. We showed him where we set up and he told us where he planned to be, about 150 yards east of us on the other end of the field, something that felt a little too close. So I volunteered this: We won’t shoot at any birds working the field unless they are committed and landing in our spread. He offered to do the same. On an opening day it’s very likely the geese will be flying low enough for us to try to take overhead shots and with the big honkers it’s very tempting, but this hunters’ agreement would keep us trusting in our set-up.
A short while later another hunter showed up and started to unpack. We started talking to him as well. He had an idea of where he wanted to go but did not seem too clear on whether the field, much farther away from the road, had been harvested. So we invited him, Justin, to join us. (He probably regretted it!) He added his 2-dozen shell decoys to our spread and we made our camp in the corn row. Just like that, and it was legal shooting time.
It did not take long before we could hear the popping of shotguns in the distance, knowing other hunters were getting their chance at some birds. Soon, flocks of honkers began to appear in the sky in groups of 4-20. Our season had begun.
Call of the Goose
While we watched the Eastern sky grow lighter I asked Justin to blow a goose call. Wow, his call sounded a lot like a honker. A two-note moan followed by a honk. I took out my $20 goose call and gave it a blow. Mine has a one-note moan followed by a higher honk, almost between the noise a honker makes and a cackler, which we see a lot of here later in the season. I’ve had success with my party horn, mainly calling in stray geese, but it was obvious after hearing Justin’s call, it’s time to up my game for early goose. If you have any suggestions for a good honker call let me know in the comments below.
Be Ready at All Times
Since this was our first hunt of the season we must have been a little rusty and nonchalant. My final hunt of preceding season had been a lightning fast duck hunt, one in which we could have blasted through a two-man limit in an hour or so. In a good duck hunt if you miss a bird because you weren’t ready a few more will come along in a short period of time. Not so in this spot. As was my experience the year before, we would get one or two opportunities and that’s it.
Our first one came as a group of birds approached us from the north northeast, upwind of us. We were in north-south corn row and had positioned our spread to the west of us, where there was more open ground. My thought was that the geese might feel a little more wary of landing between rows of corn as it limits their visibility. The flock of about 20 birds approached and to our surprise descended low to take a look at the three silhouettes we had placed in the harvested corridor on the west side of us – essentially behind us! We watched as about half of them skimmed over the top of the decoys about 15 feet off the ground, just 20 yards from us. They were not really committed to land but they were giving it a good, low look. We thought they would certain wheel over and attempt to land in our spread to the east. Instead, they turned the other way, stayed low and dropped towards the hunter on the other side of the field. Pop, pop, pop. We saw two birds drop as the flock abandoned their landing spot and climbed back towards the north.
We had kept our word and not attempted a shot on uncommitted birds, although honestly had I been in position on the East side of the corn I could justify taking a shot at a bird that low and close. That was part of the problem. We needed to anticipate that the geese would take an interest in the decoys on both sides of our corn row. Lesson learned, but a promise kept.
The next opportunity came as that same hunter was packing out. I walked out to greet him on the path leading out of the field and to congratulate him on his take. He had two honkers but the third took a direct hit, fought through it and climbed away into the sky. As I said goodbye and began walking back to our set-up I heard the calls of birds. Just over my shoulder to the Southeast and lower than tree height came four geese, right over our heads. With no hunters’ agreement to honor this time they would have been tempting targets, especially at the end of the day. The problem was when I went out to talk to the other hunter I left my gun in the blind. Tim and Justin weren’t near theirs either. I don’t think any of us anticipated geese flying right over us as we walked around in the open. We tucked into the corn as they passed and started calling at them, but it was too late and they kept going.
We certainly did not skybust and we honored our agreements in the field, but both instances presented gray areas. Had we been in position for the first group would we have shot or waited to see what they would do? I think we would have waited for a true commitment from the birds. The second group, at then end of the hunt, likely would have been dodging shot. They were low enough for a clean kill when we’re loaded with BBs. Based on what the other hunter had said about hitting one and watching it fly away, we may have just wounded a couple as well. In all instances I would prefer a clean kill and have vowed this season to not take overhead shots unless the birds are low enough for me to see their eyes.
Pull the Silhouettes When the Sun Hits Them
About an hour after sunrise we had a small flock fly in off the river to take a close look at our set-up. They were streaming right at us and Justin was blowing some re-assuring calls in their direction, increasing intensity as they approached. I chimed in with a few honks and it was starting to look very promising. As they approached the field and got close to the decoys a couple of the lead birds swerved and the flock turned away. Something spooked them. I looked out over the field and noticed that when I placed the silhouettes in the morning I had not angled the sun-facing broad side toward the ground slightly. These broad sides, although painted with an ultra-flat paint, still flash direct sunlight intensely. I strolled out and started angling the silhouettes so they would not reflect directly at incoming birds.
A short while later another flock, approaching from a different direction, did the same thing, spooking as they approached. We pulled all the silhouettes and stashed them in the corn with us. By this time, though, there were few birds in the air.
Open Thy Wallet and Get Better Goose Decoys
Our homemade silhouette decoys have never attracted a flock of geese to land near them so I’m calling that project a bust. On our drive home I looked at Tim and said that instead of investing $200 into layout blinds, why don’t we get some better decoys for goose. I’d now rather have a handful of good full-bodies supplemented with shells, which are easier to haul in and out.
The hunt continues…