By Robert H. Cleveland Jr.
For John Ross and Paul Thomas of Jackson, the 2003-04 duck season had so far been just like the two previous years: terrible. Day after day, the two best friends and longtime hunting partners drove back from their honeyholes with a sour taste in their mouths.
Ducks were unusually scarce at their big Delta leases, and mallards seemed nonexistent. The lack of birds was by itself enough to drive them crazy, yet there was something more to add to their frustration.
“It was bad enough that we weren’t killing many ducks” Ross said, “but on the way back to camp we kept passing by these fields that were covered up in big white geese. First it was about 100, then 500 and finally thousands. We’ve always seen geese, but over the last two or three years, they’ve seemed to multiply.
“One day we were headed to camp after a morning wasted in the duck hole – we never fired a shot. Heck, we never saw a duck. We passed this field and it was almost solid white. I turned to Paul, laughed, and said ‘Bud, I think we’d be better off becoming goose hunters.’”
There was, Thomas promptly pointed out, a problem with this notion: They didn’t have a clue how to hunt the big birds
“I remember that that was on a Sunday in early January,” he recalled, “and we decided we’d drive back to Jackson, get on the Internet, read magazines and study everything we could about geese and how to kill them and then go back. That was in the 2002-03 season. And we spent the rest of January trying to kill geese.
“We weren’t very successful, but it was about the most entertaining thing I’d ever done. It was a comedy of errors; everything we did failed. But we were having fun, because we were always around a bunch of geese. A bunch? Heck, I mean thousands.”
Ross, Thomas and a growing bunch of hunting partners weren’t only having fun, though: They were learning.
And they kept right on learning through the next spring, summer and fall. After a little more post-opener education, they achieved productivity and started killing geese by the hundreds. That should suggest that taking a look at that education can make any wingshooter a better goose hunter.
“Every chance I got, I was logging on and searching out goose hunting information,” Ross noted. “You can get some good ideas doing that – get the good leads – but until you actually put it to work, you really don’t learn. Trial and error – that’s what you need.”
In the final month of the 2002-03 season, the hunters killed about 20 geese, most of them in one day. That was enough, though, to keep them interested. “We made a commitment to ourselves that if the duck hunting was as poor in 2003-04 as it had been being, we’d work on the geese instead,” Thomas said. “That summer, we went around our area of the Delta and talked to landowners where we’d seen the biggest concentrations of geese over the previous couple of winters. We got permission to hunt on about five or six places, and that soon grew to about 10.”
Those properties were spread across Tallahatchie, Leflore and Sunflower counties. “That meant we’d have a lot of areas to choose from,” Thomas continued. “The one thing we had learned in our short period of trying to hunt geese was that once they used up a field, they were gone. It also doesn’t take long for several thousand geese to leave a field depleted of any sign of vegetation, either.
“This was an important step for us, and is for anyone trying to become goose hunters. Farmers hate the geese, and most of them welcome hunters. Just get out and search and ask.”
With about five other enthusiasts, the two hunters spent spare money ordering varieties of goose decoys, mostly of the shell sort.
“We’d read about rags, but we figured what the heck – if we were going to spend that much time hunting geese, we needed the real deal,” Ross said. “Talk about wasting some money! We had about 100 different dekes when all we really needed was about 10. We spent a couple of thousand dollars learning that lesson.”
What Ross and Thomas learned, once the season started, was that 100 decoys, no matter how good they are, are nowhere near enough – not when you’re talking about hunting goose flocks that number in the thousands.
“I remember the first couple of times we had the dekes out, and the geese flew over,” Thomas recalled. “It was joke. We’d call, they’d come by – and keep right on going. They’d do a fly-by and then go land at the other end of the field. Once a good number of them got established in that corner of the field, we stopped getting the fly-bys. The arriving geese just kept right on going.
“But it just so happened there was a TV show on goose hunting on one of the outdoor sports channels that next week that featured a goose hunt in Texas. Those guys had maybe five or 10 shell decoys with bobbing heads, but each one of the 10 or 12 hunters drug these huge bags into the field. Each one of those bags must have had a hundred white rags. The narrator went on and on about how long it took for those guys to put them all out. They started at 4 a.m., and at sunrise they were just finishing. There must have been two acres of rags out there with the few real decoys used to spice it up.
“That was probably the turning point in our goose hunting. We spent that whole next week, as many as our friends as we could get to come, meeting at my house after work and working on rags. We went to a slew of second-hand stores and bought all the used white sheets we could get our hands on, and my wife bleached about 50 blue and yellow sheets until they were white.”
The men tore and cut the sheets into squares, and even dyed one corner of each black to resemble a head. But the cleverest move they made was to run with an idea that came from one of the hunting buddies.
“He’s a high school football official, and when he saw how many rags we were planning on making, he said it would take us forever to get them deployed,” Ross said. “He suggesting that we put some kind of weight inside the head and tie it or sew it, so we could throw them like he would one of his flags. It would make it easier to spread them and also give them some weight to hold them down in the wind. Smartest thing we did.”
They returned to the Delta the next weekend with about 300 rags, and after first ascertaining that there were still
no ducks in the area, they went goose hunting that Saturday morning.
“We figured we had them – but as usual, we were wrong,” Thomas said ruefully. “With 300 rags and eight of us hunting, we figured we’d get some good shooting. All we succeeded in doing was increasing the time the geese looked at us on their fly-bys. I think we might have killed four snows that morning. But we had thousands fly over and check us out.”
They were getting closer.
“We figured if 300 rags would make that much of a difference, we needed more,” Thomas continued. “By the time we went back the next week we had at least 900 rags or more. And it worked: That next weekend, we didn’t even go check the ducks. We went straight to this one goose field and set out the rags.
“It was a field that we hadn’t even thought about since we talked to the farmer back in the summer. He had planted it in beans, and had made the best crops he’d ever had, he said. I had left him my business card and he called me that week and asked if we were still interested in geese. He said he had thousands of them in a field about 100 yards from his house and the noise was driving him crazy. He begged us to come.”
That Friday night, Thomas and Ross drove by and talked to the farmer. He pointed to the areas where the geese had been working and told them that they were steadily moving away from the house, leaving the ground completely bare as they went.
“We drove straight from there to our camp about 40 miles away, gathered everybody who was there and interested, and then went back to the farm,” said Ross. “We put out rags for two hours then went back to camp and went to bed about 11. When we got there the next morning, right at sunrise, I was amazed at how it looked. We had so many rags out there, you’d have sworn it was snow.”
That day, all the hard work, all the frustrating learning sessions and practice on the goose calls finally paid off. “We hit the jackpot,” Ross recalled with a smile. “We had eight guys, and we killed over 100 snows, a few specks and even a Canada goose.”
“We even had this one goose that we didn’t recognize,” Thomas chimed in. “Turns out it was a Ross’ goose – so of course we let John claim it!”
As good as the hunt was, both hunters agree that it could have been better. “Had we known then all the things we learned in the following weeks as we kept hunting,” Thomas said, “we’d have limited that morning – easily.” That would have been 160 snow geese.
“We still didn’t have all the bases covered,” he continued. “We still were learning about setting up, where to get and how to hide. We still had to learn how to play the wind and so on.
“It was the best hunt we’ve ever had, but we starting having good days even when we weren’t in as good a concentration of geese. We learned a lot of little things that helped us tremendously. Nothing was as important as putting out a thousand rags, but every little thing helped.”
There’s no better way to improve your goose hunting than by learning from the mistakes of others. So let’s let Ross and Thomas aid us by rating the lessons they learned the hard way.
Since, as Ross said, most of the Delta fields are void of cover, finding a way to conceal yourself thoroughly is important.
“We each invested about $200 in a blind. Not only does it hide you, but also it breaks the wind and it is warm. You can lay on your back, which is important, because the fields are so flat. We each took a small pillow for our heads and after we got in the blinds, you can sort of wallow you out a hole to conform to your shape. It’s so comfortable, you have to worry about going to sleep. We used a shadowgrass pattern and put a little dirt over the blind.”
“This we got from an old man who used to live in Texas,” Ross noted. “When geese approach into the wind, they either land or flare within 30 to 50 yards of where the rag spread really begins to thicken. He told us that we needed to put our blinds just off the edge of the spread and to just toss a few scattered rags around our area.
“This was critical to us, because we were setting up in the middle of the spread, and we kept watching the geese land 100 yards away from us. After we moved to the edge and beyond, and were completely concealed in those blinds, we had geese landing on top of us. Once you get enough rags, get hidden and then positioned, you can kill geese.”
Having just enough hunters is a significant issue. “Seven is too few and 11 is too many,” Thomas pointed out. “Anywhere in between is a good number. We usually try to get 10 commitments, so we will have at least eight or nine show up. Anything less and it’s too much work putting out the rags; anything more and it’s hard to keep hidden, and reduces the shooting opportunities per hunter.”
“We were so anxious at first that as soon as we had geese in gun range, we came up shooting,” Thomas recalled. “It didn’t matter if it was 10 or 12 geese or 200 or 300 – we shot at the first ones that came close. That is a big mistake: We’d be lucky to get two or three shots before they’d have flared out of gun range.
“What we started doing was letting at least the first third of however many geese there were land before we came up shooting. That way, we had geese we could shoot flying and all those geese on the ground that had to get back up. There were times that we could even reload and still have time to shoot some of the risers.”
Since electronic calls aren’t allowed during the regular season, Thomas and Ross decided that they’d better get good at calling. The extended season during which the electronic gear can be used begins at the end of the season. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mandates this session as a conservation measure to help reduce light geese populations.
“We had bought an electronic caller to use during the extended season that first year,” Ross explained, “but we found out that was a waste of money in Mississippi. We were so looking forward to hunting in February and March, but it didn’t pan out. Even the few times we had geese in February, I think they’d been educated enough by the electronic callers that they flared. Then we were stuck with that caller.”
That left them to perfect the manual process. “We spent that whole summer practicing,” Thomas said. “Drove our families crazy. But in the Delta during the season, when the geese are on the move, you need to be vocal to get their attention; then, settle down, get softer and let the rags do the work.
“We worked hard on our calling and made everyone else who hunted with us get good before they could call.”
Even though they enjoy goose hunting, Ross and Thomas, like most waterfowlers, are devoted to ducks.
“We still are,” Ross said. “But you can’t be successful at goose hunting unless you commit to it. Given the choice, we’d rather sit in a duck blind and work mallards for a limit.”
Unfortunately, for the last two years, ducks have been few and far between. As a result, these hunters went after ducks only a couple of times last year.
The first year they had waited until mid-January and started hunting the geese. They figured they could learn the sport and then really hammer the big birds during the late extended season.
“That didn’t work too well,” Ross admitted, “because the geese just didn’t stick around. You have to hunt them in December and January if you really want to kill them. We learned real quick that the peak season for geese here is about the middle of December through early February.”
According to Scott Baker, waterfowl specialist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, there’s a reason why goose hunting is better during the regular season than during the no-limit snow goose season extension.
“By mid-February, the temperatures start to warm up, thanks to the wind turning and starting to come out of the Gulf of Mexico,” he explained. “When that happens, they start leaving and going north.
“The first couple of weeks in February may still see some large concentrations, but they disappear quickly after that.”
Thomas and his partners went into goose hunting under the premise that only specklebellies were good to eat.
“That’s wrong on so many levels,” Thomas asserted. “In the first place, we were raised with the idea that you should eat anything you shoot, or at least make sure it gets eaten. Second, they’re easy to clean. We had a lot of 100-bird hunts in January last year and we found that eight guys could breast them out in under an hour. And, third, snows can be delicious. We found three ways to use them that we like. First, we tenderize strips of breast, marinate them overnight in different concoctions, dry them and then deep-fry them – and they are wonderful.
“A second way is to tenderize them and cut them into small pieces and use them in gumbos,” the hunter continued. “But my favorite way, and this is good if you’ve got hundreds of them, is to take them to a deer processor and have them ground and made into smoked and summer sausage sticks. It’s as good as venison sausage.”
Ross too has a favorite recipe. “I smoke about 10 breasts slowly, then process them with some bacon, horseradish, salt, pepper, cream cheese, hot sauce and mayo and make a p?t?. It’s great as a dip or spread on crackers. You’ll be surprised how fast it disappears.”
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