November 21, 2017
Northern California is the best place in the nation to hunt Aleutian cackling geese, whether you hunt them coming or going.
Amid the deafening sound of high-pitched honking, a downward spiral began to form. "Get ready, here they come," noted John Corbett.
Peeking through the grass in my layout blind, I was in awe of the thousands of geese haphazardly milling about overhead.
In seconds the birds, which were flying in every direction, took formation, and circled as they slowly lost elevation.
"Let the first ones land, so the rest keep coming down," shouted John over the calling birds.
Echo, my 3-year-old pudelpointer, had never experienced this many geese at once. But she held steady, lying tight to my blind, covered in camo material.
It seemed to take forever for the birds to reach the decoys. Small groups joined the descending funnel, like cars merging from an on-ramp.
Eventually, all the fringes of the flock were clean, and the birds closest to us started dropping their landing gear. They were committed, all 5,000 geese.
As the first birds hit the ground, I feared Echo would break, but she didn't. Through a tiny opening near my feet, I could see geese walking in the decoys.
When a thick, white neck ring of an Aleutian cackler reflected in the morning sun, my pulse raced. My lifelong dream of taking an Aleutian cackling goose was about to become reality.
"Take 'em!" John shouted, catching me by surprise. I was so fixated on the magnificent bird in front of me, I paid no attention to the remainder of the flock landing out of my narrow view.
After popping open the doors of the blind, my Weatherby Element was emptied faster than I knew possible.
There were so many geese, I had time to quickly reload and empty again. John did the same, as did our buddy, Brad Smith. When the volley was over, we had over a dozen birds on the ground, and Echo was in heaven.
By morning's end I'd be admiring my 10-bird limit. And over dinner that night, Brad, John and I made plans for the following morning's hunt.
THE GREAT COMEBACK
That hunt took place in the middle of last February, near Eureka, Calif. John is a full-time guide, and has been hunting waterfowl for 46 years.
"We couldn't hunt the area for Canada geese for nearly 20 years, as Humboldt County was closed to all Canada goose hunting. This was to protect the dwindling numbers of Aleutian cacklers, so hunters didn't confuse them with other subspecies of Canada geese. But now it's wide-open," Corbett explained.
Brad Smith is the owner of Pacific Outfitters, a specialty chain of outdoor sporting goods stores specializing in meeting the needs of enthusiasts in this part of the state.
Smith is also an avid waterfowl hunter and has hunted with Corbett since boyhood.
In addition to retail, Pacific Outfitter offers a complete line of guided journeys.
On this winter goose hunt, my best and only logical option if I wanted to check an Aleutian goose from my bucket list was to go on a guided hunt.
This special, three-week season happens only on private land, making it hard for hunters outside the area to find a place to hunt.
A small subspecies of Canada geese, Aleutian cacklers are one of the greatest conservation success stories of our time.
In 1967 only a few hundred birds were thought to exist, and the birds were placed on the endangered species list.
This was largely due to predation by Arctic foxes, which were raised for fur farming and released in the nesting grounds of the geese on many of Alaska's Aleutian Islands.
Trapping of the fox on the many islands, along with an extended hunting closure, allowed the Aleutian cacklers to repopulate.
Also, winter habitat improvement in multiple areas of California played a large part in the bird's comeback.
"They are quite the conservation success story," noted Smith as we snapped pictures after our first day's hunt. "Forty years ago we thought these birds might go extinct, and today hunters can enjoy a 10-bird daily limit."
Not only were these little geese a joy to watch decoy, but they were some of the best eating geese I've ever had.
Come home with 20 geese, and though they only average about four pounds each, you have a lot of meat.
They are considered by many serious goose hunters to be the most strikingly marked of all the Canada goose subspecies.
THE FIRST ROUND
Starting in early November, the first opportunity arises for hunters seeking Aleutian cacklers. "Two weeks after the duck season opens, the goose season opens," confirmed Corbett. "Last year the goose season opened on Nov. 7, and ran for 84 days, until the last day of duck season."
Corbett noted that a lot of geese arrive in October in the coastal valleys of Humboldt County, and graze on the green grass.
"That first few weeks of the early season can be great hunting for Aleutians, with an occasional Western Canada goose being picked up. In this area, there's a one bird a day limit on the Western subspecies of Canada geese, so they're more of an incidental take among duck hunters and Aleutian cackler hunters."
But the Aleutians are in thick by the early November opener, and that's what people come for.
"The birds stage here for a month or more, before picking up and heading toward Modesto, where they live on big, protected pasture lands for several weeks before returning to our area," Corbett explained. "A lot of birds gather here in the first season as they make their way down from Alaska, which makes for great hunting."
While some Aleutian geese do winter-over in Humboldt County and surrounding areas, there aren't near the numbers there in November and then again in February.
During the months between, Corbett pursues black brant on the coast, his favorite waterfowl to hunt.
Since the February hunt is restricted to private lands, the November and early December hunting is the time to seek out a public land hunting opportunity.
"The Humboldt Bay Refuge is a great place to start," advised Corbett. "Here, the refuge is open two days a week during the regular goose season. Hunters show up and put their name in a hat, then there's a drawing. If your number is drawn, you pick one of 14 blinds to hunt from. A lot of geese hang out in this area, as it's a prime habitat for feeding and roosting."
Corbett noted that there are other state properties designated for public-land use throughout Humboldt County, but that hunters should do their research prior to showing up.
Making calls to district biologists can eliminate the guesswork of whether birds are congregating in high enough numbers to warrant traveling a long distance to hunt.
By mid-February, nearly all the Aleutian geese in California congregate in Humboldt County, where they stage until early April.
From there, their non-stop flight north, across the ocean to the nesting grounds on the Aleutian Islands, commences. Aleutian populations are estimated to be around 200,000 birds, and to see this many birds gathered in one place is a sight to behold.
"Beginning in early February the Aleutian geese are gathering in huge numbers in Humboldt County," said Corbett. "They spend the night on the water, then raid cattle fields by day. They do so much damage to the green, growing grass this time of year, that a special season was established with the objective being to keep the geese off the prime cattle pastures."
In other words, this 21-day season was put in place as a way of damage control for Aleutian geese that wreak havoc on prime pastureland.
You put 5,000 or 10,000 birds in a field for a few hours and the damage they can do is mind boggling.
"This late-season hunt is only conducted on private land, unlike earlier in the season where these geese can be hunted on public land," Corbett clarified.
"I like going with big decoy spreads this time of year," shared Corbett. "A lot of people prefer smaller spreads, thinking that fewer decoys leaves less room for error. I think just the opposite, as I want to simulate a huge flock using a field, in order to draw in big flocks from a distance."
Each morning of our two-day hunt we set out over 20 dozen full-body goose decoys.
I couldn't help but notice on many of the decoys I handled, the hand-painted, white neck rings, cheek patches and rumps.
White shows up from a long distance, especially when the sun hits it, and it was this attention to detail that showed me how dedicated Corbett is to hunting these birds, and that no detail is too minor.
By this late in the season, these birds have been hunted a lot. And like all members of the cackler family, the larger the flocks they congregate in, the harder it can be to pull them into a decoy spread.
That is why Corbett takes special care of his decoys and carefully places every one of them in proper position.
If we were inside the blinds and a decoy didn't look right, or one got knocked over by the dog retrieving a goose, Corbett didn't hesitate fixing it.
"Just one out-of-place decoy can make the difference, for if one bird in the flock sees something it doesn't like, it can turn the whole flock away," he noted.
Coming from Oregon's Willamette Valley, where I'd been hunting big, Western Canada geese all season, I was prepared to bring some big loads. But Corbett suggested otherwise.
"These are small birds, not much bigger than a mallard, and we'll be shooting them over the decoys, inside 30 yards, so just bring 3-inch No. 2 shots," he recommended. It was great advice.
Since you're usually hunting in layout blinds, and the pastures can be muddy due to rain and cattle use, rain gear is a must.
It's not a bad idea to wear light chest waders, then hose them off when you're done.
Corbett does very little calling.
"A good-looking decoy spread is way more effective than calling," explained Corbett. "This country is so flat, the birds have usually made up their minds whether or not they're coming to your decoys before they get within earshot of your calls. High pitched calls can be good to coerce small, wary flocks, but those are the exception rather than the rule in the late season."
If you're looking for a world-class goose hunting opportunity, consider chasing Aleutians in Humboldt Country.
The adventure of this hunt is something all waterfowlers should experience, and if you're like me, you'll be planning your next trip before the first hunt's over.
EDITOR'S NOTE: For signed copies of Scott & Tiffany Haugen's popular cookbook Cooking Game Birds, send $20 (free S&H), to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489 or order online at www.scotthaugen.com.