Don't let the goose hunting in this waterfowl-rich region overshadow the great gunning for ducks. There's room -- and time -- for both this month. (November 2009)
The good news is that a memorable Texas goose hunt is worth its weight in gold. The bad news is that to get to that pot of gold requires sleep deprivation, working in the dark and heading home red-eyed and exhausted.
A 3 a.m. rendezvous in a hotel parking lot usually is not a good thing, but that's where one of my hunting excursions began last season. And after about three hours' sleep, getting up at 2:30 a.m. for a goose hunt sounded ludicrous, especially when the hotel phone rang with that dreaded wake-up call.
There is nothing easy about goose hunting. It usually involves getting up extra early just so there is plenty of time to travel to a specific "hot" field, where you can then do something really crazy like set out 500 to 1,000 decoys.
Last season, one of my goose hunts was on a section of flooded land north of Winnie. The other was out of Bay City. The one in Winnie was with Rian Glasscock. Several of us hunted that morning and got easy limits of speckle-bellied geese with several snows mixed in. We even shot some ducks. What made that particular hunt so easy was that Glasscock had gone through the trouble of setting out a few hundred decoys the night before. Having the dekes already placed is a real luxury. The icing on the cake was that it was only a mile or so away from a goose roost holding thousands of birds.
The Bay City hunt was totally different. When guide Randy Triplett said we had about 800 decoys to set out, I staggered backward a few steps. Oh brother!
But like all good goose guides, he followed up the decoy news with a pretty good pep talk -- sort of like a football coach before a big game.
"We're going to be hunting on a field that was loaded with geese yesterday," he said, as six of us stood there in the dark against a howling north wind. "We've got a lot of young birds, so that should set up some great decoying. We're not far from a roost pond. Hopefully, all those birds will come our way once they begin moving."
I've been goose hunting for years. And I've learned to lock in on certain words that guides deliver before a hunt. One of which is "hopefully." Another one is "help," as in needing some to set up a decoy spread.
Nothing is guaranteed when you're going after geese, especially snows, aka white crows. They are totally unpredictable. They are smart; they move in big flocks. But if you're where they want to be, the shooting can be a barrel burner. Conversely, if you're not on the hotspot, it's a bust. A bore. A total waste of your valuable time.
On the other hand, I've seen many a goose hunt salvaged by specklebellies. This has been a great year for specks. The limit is two per person. Specks are much more gullible than snows. They react to calls like mallards and gadwalls. They don't normally move in huge numbers like snows. And when they commit to your spread they are a true pleasure to watch as they circle in on cupped wings and orange feet.
On a hunt with Glasscock near Winnie, six of us got our limits of specks with ease. And after we quit shooting them, they proceeded to come in and land in the decoys like nobody's business.
On the Bay City hunt, we got our specks. But the snows were a different story.
By the way, setting up roughly 800 decoys was easy. Triplett has some sort of new decoy that's shaped like a white bag and is attached to a plastic goose head that's mounted on a thin metal stake. You just walk around and stick them in the ground by the dozens. With a little bit of wind the paper body fills up with air and flutters back and forth like the real deal. We were able to set up a huge spread in less than 20 minutes.
Triplett, who owns Third Coast Outfitters of Texas, had us set up in a dry rice field. We lay up against a levee under white parkas.
The first flight of snows, about a hundred or so, came in low against the wind. Just about the time we were ready to shoot, a group of duck hunters on a nearby flooded field opened up with a volley of shots. Our birds flared and that's pretty much how the rest of the morning went. Every time we had a flight of snows snookered into Triple-T shotshell range, the duck hunters would open up. But even at that we managed to get our specks and several young snows.
"There is never a surefire deal when going after snows," said Triplett, after the hunt. "But this is one that I would have bet on. I figured this would be one of those 40- to 50-bird hunts."
That's goose hunting for you. And one thing is certain: You never know until you go.
Getting the jump on hunter-wary geese is sometimes easier than you might think.
A classic example of that is a hunt I made last season along the Upper Texas Coast. A light fog was rolling in from the rumbling surf under a gusting south wind that morning. Mike Cooper and I were watching small flights of geese glide down low over the flooded Coastal Prairie. Yapping and carrying on, they headed to a huge buildup of snows and blues, about a half-mile off the beach.
We had been slowly running across the flat and featureless brown grass of the Coastal Prairie on an ATV. The fog would move in, then be blown out. The key to our hunt was in spotting small flights of geese moving through the fog.
"Let's throw some camouflage over the four-wheeler and set up under their flight line," said Cooper, a Port Arthur-based hunter who keeps pretty close tabs on where the geese are on his lease near Sabine Lake. "As flat as this prairie is, we'll probably be better off splitting up and then kneeling down behind clumps of grass."
I headed south; he went east. It didn't take long before the geese began to drop down through the fog within easy shotgun range. I heard a two-shot volley, and I looked over toward Copper's low silhouette just in time to see a single snow tumble from the sky. Cooper's black Lab, Kate, took off -- bounding across the shallow water and grass.
The distant pop of Cooper's 12-gauge was enough to get the attention of several hundred geese feeding about 300 yards between the beach and me. They got up and headed into the fog and wind. I could hear the yelps and chattering and knew they were close. I pulled the camouflaged hood low over my head, crouched low in the grass, and looked up past the brim of my cap. Out of the fog came the entire flock of geese. Hundreds of snows and blues were on the deck and right over my head. Tha
t's a scene I'll never forget. Especially when the BB shot from my Winchester Hi-Velocity steel loads folded a pair of big snows. They came down with a solid Ka-wop and big splash on the prairie, not 10 yards in front of me.
There are three things that make a goose hunt for snows and blues work just about anytime, anywhere in Texas. They are location, fog and numbers of birds. The key is being able to set up between where the birds are roosting and where they want to feed. Throw in a little fog and you're good to go. And if you hit it just right you don't even need to do any calling or set up decoys.
But getting those elements in line can be a real test. Often it takes a pretty good effort, plus you need to be in a position to cut loose from work or other obligations on any given day.
On one hunt last year, we set up in thick fog. We hunted without decoys and did no calling; it was all ambush tactics. The geese that we put on the ground, lots of them, didn't know we were there beneath the fog until our shotguns started knocking them out of the sky.
There is nothing better than a hunt where you can get a combination of geese and ducks. A few years back, I had the pleasure of hunting with Bobby and Alice Vaughan in China. That's China, Texas, located a few miles west of Beaumont. The Vaughans are a husband-and-wife team that is big-time into waterfowling. They were members of the China Hunting Club back then, and Bobby was the man in charge. That meant he had access to the best hunting fields.
One morning, the three of us headed across a flooded rice field well before shooting time. We set up in a huge blind that was surrounded by hundreds of floating duck and goose decoys. We ended up with about 25 geese, as well as limits of ducks that included pintails, mallards, teal and widgeons.
The great thing about their blinds was that they were well built, with comfortable benches. But they were also well camouflaged with lots of brush. Most of the time the ducks and geese that came in to the decoys never knew we were there.
As we get later into this hunting season, the use of blinds and decoys gets a little tricky. By then, the birds are more than a little skittish. It's also a time when ambush tactics work best. I made a hunt with a couple of buddies out of Port O'Connor last season. We were with guide Dwayne Lowrey, one of the best waterfowling guides on the Texas Coast. We loaded up in his airboat and headed out across Espiritu Santo Bay. Our destination was Matagorda Island where we would set up on shallow estuary lakes.
Lowrey is a guide who really does his homework. By that I mean he's got good, well-camouflaged pit blinds and lots of them. If one area doesn't produce ducks, he'll move to another. That's one key reason he's so successful.
On one particular hunt last season, he put us on easy limits of ducks, and we even put down a few lesser Canada geese. The first pit blinds we set up in didn't produce a duck. After about an hour of that lack of action, we picked up our decoy spread and headed to another lake, about a half-mile away. Apparently, that's where all the birds wanted to be on that particular morning. We set up makeshift blinds by sticking clumps of brush in the ground to make four one-man blinds. We sat on 5-gallon buckets and blasted away at ducks and geese. It was one of those great hunts that you just never forget!
"The key to being successful on any hunt for ducks and geese," said Lowrey, "is to have multiple places to set up. For geese, that means leasing lots of land where the birds are going to be holding. With ducks along the coast, you need to have access to lots of marsh ponds. Hunting the marsh is the best way to stay on ducks and geese. But to get there you need good transportation. That's why I use a big and fast airboat. It'll haul lots of gear, hunters and dogs."
Camouflage is also a huge part of successful waterfowling on the Texas prairies near Houston. The art of blending in is the key to putting numbers of birds on the ground. I'm not too big on hunting out of the conventional box blinds. That's mainly because they stick out like a sore thumb. Pit blinds are the way to go. They're especially effective when used in a marsh where there isn't much brush or tall grass.
Lowrey is a master at building and camouflaging blinds in the many estuary lakes off Texas' big bays. They are low profile, and so when properly brushed up you can't even tell they are blinds until you're right on top of them. Something else Lowrey does is carry along bundles of brush for setting up makeshift blinds. The brush is tall enough so that a hunter can sit on a 5-gallon bucket and still not be too high above the water and grass. He'll also carry fresh brush for his existing pit blinds.
"You can't have too much brush on a blind," said Lowrey. "Maintaining blinds is not easy. In fact, it's a work in progress throughout the season. A lot of hunters will stomp down grass and brush around a blind. After a few hunts, it'll stick out and flare the birds. On every hunt I'll try to take at least a few clumps of brush to add to the blinds."
When goose hunting in a rice field, you're almost always better off leaning up against a levee. Believe me, that's a pretty comfortable way to blend in with the available vegetation.
Terry Harris, who worked as a goose guide for many seasons on the Upper Texas Prairie and Marsh would dig holes for his hunters' legs. His blinds were very simple but highly effective. He would use four sticks and mesh camo to form one-man blinds. He would put the sticks in the ground and drape sheets of camo around them. The hunters would sit on the ground and put their legs in the holes. When geese were working the spread you simply leaned forward for a low profile. We actually had geese land within a few feet of those blinds.
I've also seen hay and rice straw used to conceal hunters. You can stack hay around pit blinds. I've got some buddies that use layout blinds for duck and goose hunting. Hay is tossed out around and over the layouts. That's one of the absolute best ways to hunt waterfowl on dry land, like in the soybean or rice fields so common in this area.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
For details on duck hunts with guide Dwayne Lowrey, call (832) 597-6609.
For more information on Bay City goose hunting, go to the Web site www.thirdcoastoutfitters.com.