By Don Kirk
“What is bad for snow geese is good for hunting–at least for now.”
“How far from here is the Alamo where Davy Crockett died fighting?,” I ask my longtime water fowling buddy Larry Cook as he laid a few feet away from me in the muck of a rice field. Cook lives in Dandridge, Tennessee where the famous frontier bear hunter first married, and I grew up in Morristown a few hundred yards from Davy’s boyhood home–a wayside tavern.
“Kirk, Texas has been free a long time–thanks largely to we Tennesseans,” said Cook.
“If you would stop talking so much, we might get on some of those snow geese flying our way.”
Cook’s eyes never left the sky as I continued to ponder the demise of my boyhood hero in the Lone Star State over 150 years ago.
An hour earlier our gang of hunters had helped host Tony Hurst and his chief guide put out hundreds of decoys. The sprawling set of snow goose decoys included lots of large, conventional, feeder style shell decoys, plus what had to be most of the plastic wind socks found in a four county radius of our hunting spot. When snow hunting in the rice country of southern Texas, every day that you hunt is a different experience and setting. Mobility is the catch word for staying a step head of these fickle geese.
Every hunt starts in the darkness of pre-dawn with all hands helping place out decoys. Everyone is expected to help put out the hundreds of decoys needed to attract the geese that would soon be flying overhead. After this chore was complete our party of hunters shared a thermos of coffee while Hurst and his guide huddled to formulate their game plan. The decoy spread was as nearly perfect as possible for luring a snow geese–a member of the webfoot family with an incredible reputation for ignoring those decoy spreads that they judge as less than perfect. In fact, of all of North America’s many species of waterfowl, snow geese easily rate as the most decoy shy of the bunch. Marching orders were not long in coming. Everyone was assigned a spot.
Our party included Larry Cook, John Cox, Walt Howell. A snow goose addict, Howell annually travels from his home in Maine to gun white geese with us. In seasons dating back to beginning of the 1990s we had often hunted for snow geese wintering in Texas, having come to know a number of the top guides operating in the Lone Star State. However, since discovering hunting at Paradise Hunting Club our of Garwood, Texas, we felt like we had found a home away from home for our snow goose outings.
Hurst and his guides operate a top notch snow goose hunting service. The area they hunt is not only blessed with a wintering flock of snow geese that easily tops the one million mark, but these men have been after these web feet long enough to master the fine details of consistently luring them within shotgun range–even under the least productive conditions the weather can conjure up for water fowlers.
As the eastern sky grew increasingly pale, we could hear noisy snow geese has they came to life at the roosting ponds located several miles beyond our location. At first the heavens had a few long strings of snow geese that were spotted winging skyward in the distance. With each passing minute the cloudless sky grew increasingly pregnant with these highly vocal geese.
For waterfowlers of the 21st century, snow goose hunting at places like Paradise Hunting Club is the closest we can get to hunting recorded in the old passages of writers like Nash Buckingham. His waterfowling chronicles written in the early 1900s tell of flights of wintering ducks and geese in such numbers that their passage blackened the sky. Until you have seen the hundreds of thousands of snow geese crowding the sky before where you lay in wait, it is almost impossible to describe the feeling such an experience gives.
We were hunting the very last days of the traditional snow goose gunning season–late January. In the Texas rice growing country since mid-November, by now the snow geese wintering in the area had almost eaten everything that was available when they arrived. When flying over head and seeing what appears to be other members of their species on the ground feeding, the highly gregarious snow goose rarely hesitates to join its kind. That is of course when they are comfortable with what they view from the sky. The mere hint of a hunter’s face reflecting light, or a shotgun barrel being repositioned, or anything else these birds do not like the looks of will flare off snow geese faster than you can say “shoo snows.”
Laying on the ground amidst our decoy spread we could see birds overhead, suspiciously working our decoy spread. The first customers to show real interested was a trio of blue geese, frequent companions of the far more numerous snows. These were three mature “eagle heads,” something of a trophy in the wacky world of snow goose hunting. It is common knowledge among snow goose hunters that no den full of mounted waterfowl is complete without at least one eagle head blue goose–the primo bird of goosedom.
In my opinion, these three blue geese were looking for trouble. They flew over our spread, then at 60 yards out, turned back into the wind facing us, and then lowered their flaps. It was going to be easy, almost too easy, but then our efforts where being captured on a video camera–the universal jinx to hunting efforts. At Hurst’s command to “get em,” we rose, firing volleys of steel BBB shot at the startled blues. All three of the geese pummeled to the ground before a video camera’s unblinking eye.
When we called it quits at 10:00 AM, our party had dropped a a very respectable bag of 30 snow geese. For the most part smaller groups of snow geese proved to be easier to lure into our decoy spread, a pattern that proved true during our three days of hunting. Larger groups of snow geese equate to more eyes. More eyes that constantly scan, searching for trouble. Time and time again when large flocks circle, then some hunter wise snow goose would see or sense something amiss with our decoys or about us that it did not like. When such a single bird flared off, the entire flock followed suit. If you think that because their population is a at record high that snow goose gunning, even in the best of hunting places such as we were at, is a cake walk, then you know nothing about going after these birds.
In recent years wildlife biologists have taken their closest look ever at snow geese, a currently exceedingly plentiful species of webfoot. Not only is there a record high number of snows, but most of these birds have dodged hunters for many years. Biologist speculate that the average age for a snow goose is between 8 and 12 years of age. Comparatively, Canada geese rarely exceed 8 years of age, with 4 to 6 years old being average. Ducks live to 3 to 4 years of age, and average 2 to 3 years old. Due to their longevity snow geese are hunted longer than any other species of waterfowl. An 8 to 12 year old snow goose has probably seen more decoys than any man alive, and has been shot at so many times that it is hardly a wonder that these birds are so wary and decoy/hunter shy.
A young man still in his late 20s, Hurst has guided snow goose hunters since his teens, first working for other outfitters, then founding his own lodge three years ago. Despite his youth, Hurst not only understands snow goose hunting better than anyone I have hunted with in the last 20 years, he also understands the needs of visiting hunters. Hurst’s operation is located approximately an hour east of Houston in the heart of country’s top rice producing region. He annually leases exclusive snow goose hunting rights to over 40,000 acres of territory. A table flat, almost treeless area, each hunting season this corner of the Lone Star State hosts well over a million wintering snow geese. He has access to enough hunting territory to rest prime areas long enough that the snow geese there do not become overeducated too quickly.
Hurst and his guides excel at creating inviting decoy spreads even wary snow geese can not resist. However, as important as a decoy spread is when hunting these birds, calling is just as vital. These guys understand the latter perfectly, and they rank among the most skilled snow goose callers in the business. Years ago it was almost universally believed that decoys were the key to reeling in snow geese, but as calling strategies have improved, its value has become more widely recognized. An excellent case in point is the US Fish and Wildlife Service relaxing of prohibitions on the use of electronic callers for hunting snow geese during the current special spring season.
It is hardly news that snow geese population levels continue to set new records high, a trend dating back to at least the 1980s. Many areas that never had snow geese now do, and those areas with wintering flocks inthe past see more and more of these webfeet each season. Wildlife biologists are alarmed that growing snow geese are ruining their nesting habitat. So far, even the special spring season in the US and Canada has not seemed to be help a very much, as these birds are so old they are very hunter wise. In a nutshell, snow geese are eating themselves out of house and home, and they are too smart for their own good.
At the end of the hunt we returned to the lodge a big home style lunch. I do not know about you, but when I am waterfowl hunting I do not mind sleeping with the dogs and freezing weather if there is plenty to shoot at—so long as the food is good tasting and plentiful. Hurst’s lodge is not only has first class accommodations, but he has lots of birds to shoot at. However, please indulge me while I wax for minute about the food we were served. It teetered on the edge of unbelievable. Each meal was a scrumptious treat–both in terms of quality and quantity–and feeding a table full of always hungry water fowlers is no small challenge.
Hurst’s father and mother are in charge of meals. Forgive me if I seem to go on and on about the food, but to be honest about it, I have never eaten better when on a water fowling trip. One evening we had T-bone steaks that were so tender you could cut them with a fork. Closing on this subject, I have to add that it would not be an overstatement on my part that I would go back just for the five-star meals!
The second day’s hunt started much the same as that of the first.. At 4:00 AM we were up moving about, downing coffee and eating breakfast before loading up to go to the rice paddies. Hurst has a large operation able to accommodate over 40 water fowlers at a time. Expect to hunt a different area daily. We needed the lights on our vehicles to illuminate the muddy rice field where we emptied large sacks of hard shell and plastic rag-style decoys. Under Hurst’s direction we placed out every single deke.
It was still dark when party put on our white parkas and nestled into the reclining benches Hurst provided us. One of the toughest parts about snow goose hunting for middle-aged water fowlers like us, is laying on your back in the mud where shooters are expected to spring forth like a jack-in-a-box at the command of a 20 year old guide. The problem is, there is not as much spring in 50 year old water fowler as there was 25 years ago. The reclining benches that Hurst provides enables hunters like us to sit in a comfort, in a ready shooting position. Using his benches we did not have to come up from an completely horizontal position, balance, and hope to get a shot off. Snow geese are challenging enough to kill when you do not have to come up from a static, incline position.
Snow geese rate as pretty tough birds to kill. A head shot is the most lethal, while body shots to snow geese are often fatal, but not enough so that your quarry is likely to fall within sight where it can be retrieved. I shot a full choke, Remington 1135 with a 30-inch barrel–an excellent choice for this type of hunting. Shooting steel BBB steel shot, I am very confident at 45- to 50-yard ranges, and often take birds at 60-yards. Shots of 30-yards are infrequent, and 70- to 75-yard shots are too frequent. It is a good idea to pack as many boxes of shot shells into you luggage as you can handle.
Hurst provides hunters with white parkas and makes sure you have plenty of decoys around you to help conceal you. Face masks are the hunters’ responsibility to have, as is sitting tight and motionless until the guide gives the command to shoot. Snow geese flying over decoys inspecting them safely from 100- to 200- elevations are keenly alert for movement or anything else that might be out of place or not to their liking. Fidgeting about, and staring directly skyward when snow geese are about too often are the most damaging things hunters do that reduces their opportunities to get shots.
When making a hunt with Hurst, you can count on seeing lots and lots of snow geese. You will be dazzled when seeing flocks from the well over a million of the white web feet are found in the region where he hunts. Snow goose numbers in the area begin building in early November, and peak in January. Before the sun is bright overhead, when hunting the last month of the season you can count on having 10 to 12 large flocks of these birds working your spread of decoys. It is a caliber of waterfowl shooting reminiscent of a century ago, and an experience that will be indelibly etched in your memory.
One of the special treats that occurred on this particular trip to Paradise Hunting Club was being there at the same time as the crew from a locally popular television show, Texas Outdoors, was there. Hosted by Reid Ryan, son of baseball’s legendary pitcher, Nolan Ryan, we found them to be most amiable hunting companions. However, I can say that hunting in front of a video camera does put a lot of pressure on guide, lodge owners and your shooting skills.
During our three-day stay at Paradise Hunting Club our group limited out each day, shot 100,000 rounds of shot shells, plus we each gained an average of five pounds. When packing for a snow goose hunting trip there, don’t even bother to include your Weight Watchers point chart!!