Boom! Boom boom!
A specklebelly goose fell into the water 20 yards ahead of me and David, belly up, feet bicycling. It was a glorious event in what had otherwise been a very slow Sunday at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge. It was Nov. 15, the heart of the doldrums, but what we had in front of us was one of the best-eating birds on the planet, the speck, a.k.a., "Ribeye in the Sky."
Good shot, I thought. But was it mine?
I don't know what it is about me and geese at Delevan. I can shoot the little buggers. But I never seem to be able to close the deal by myself. And honestly, it bugs me. Read more...
My first goose was a spectacular example of this: I was hunting with Boyfriend at Delevan in January 2007 - near the end of my first season. Someone in a neighboring blind shot at a snow goose and hit it, but not hard enough. The bird locked its wings and, unfortunately for it, sailed right past me and Boyfriend.
Boyfriend shot it first. He hit it, but it didn't go down. Then I shot it. The right wing pinwheeled and the bird went down. It was just the fifth bird I'd ever shot, and I claimed it shamelessly.
Well, mostly shamelessly. I knew I couldn't be totally proud of this. It wasn't really mine.
A year later I was back at Delevan solo on a bright and very windy Wednesday in January 2008. Wind is your friend in waterfowling. It stirs up the birds, and it slows their flight substantially, making them much easier to shoot.
Except back then, I was still a pretty poor shot.
I shot at a lot of geese that day, and I'm pretty sure I even hit one. But not well enough to bring it down.
Late in the afternoon, I was shifting to a new spot in my pond when I saw an obviously wounded snow goose sail in front of me and land in an unoccupied neighboring pond.
Hell, I'll take that, I thought to myself.
The only problem was that between me and the other pond was a canal of unknown depth. Crossing it could be risky. As I was pondering whether it was worth walking a long way to get to a crossing, two other hunters came up the road on the other side of the canal, finished with their day's hunt.
I couldn't yell to them because the wind was so strong it was pointless. But I pointed at the snow goose that I could see on the water. They nodded, grabbed it, and hurled it across the canal to me.
How's that for totally shameless? Like I'd actually shot the thing.
Another year later - now January 2009 - I hunted Delevan on closing day with Boyfriend and our friend David. David was a reader, and when he heard I'd been felled by appendicitis two weeks before the end of the duck season, he offered to share his reservation on closing day so I wouldn't totally miss out.
David and Boyfriend were hitting the geese like crazy that day, but not me. I hadn't hit a single goose all year long. Finally, maybe an hour before sunset, two snow geese were coming in, headed straight for David and Boyfriend.
I was hidden in a clump of tules off to the side.
Man, I haven't gotten a goose all year, I thought to myself, and without a second thought, stood and shot one. Didn't really stop to think that Boyfriend was about to shoot it (which is actually really funny, in retrospect, because I am always yelling at him for Bogarting my shots, especially in pheasant hunting).
David stoned his goose, but of course I just winged mine, which sailed a hundred yards away. I started to give chase, but after charging about 20 yards through sucking mud (oh yeah, this was just like two weeks after surgery), I was gasping for breath. David and his dog, Coal Pit, had to go get my bird for me, which was 300 yards away by the time they got to it. David fired the coup de grace.
This brings us to my hunt at Delevan with David a week ago.
It was a horribly slow day with precious few ducks flying. Then this lone speck came flying over us, high in the sky. David called. The bird answered. David called again. The bird answered again. He was hooked.
The bird swung around, finally coming in low enough for us to shoot. When he swung past David, he was still a bit too far out. But he banked toward me, and David hollered, "Take him!"
I stood, fired and missed. I corrected my lead and fired again, but this time there was a boom behind me, at almost the exact same time I pulled my trigger. David had fired too. There was no way he was letting this hard-fought bird get away.
The speck tumbled, dead before he hit the water.
When Coal Pit brought him to us, the bird's head was bleeding profusely. Head shot.
David gave the bird to me, which was gracious. I accepted it with that familiar queasy feeling. Was it really mine?
When I got home, I had to know.
I knew David was using really large shot, and I was using Hevi-Shot 4s - powerful, but small. It would be easy to see who'd hit him.
I plucked the goose's outer feathers, leaving the bird covered in down. I dipped him into a pot of steaming water laden with melted paraffin, swirled him around, then dropped him in a basin of cold water to cool the wax. I waited, not long enough really, and began pulling off the wax - and with it, the down - to reveal the bird's skin.
Huge holes, everywhere. David's shot.
Under the bird's left wing were two tiny shot holes. Mine. Not enough to knock that bird down.
Then I did something I never do: I plucked the head. I had to know.
David had hit him hard enough to knock him down without any help from me. His wing was shattered, and the shot had penetrated deep. But if it had just been me shooting, would this bird have died?
I pulled feathers away, looking for the hole. Big or small? David's or mine?
I found it. It was small. It'd been my shot to the head.
Relief. I had not begged, borrowed or stolen this goose. I'd killed him.
Of course, David had killed him too. When I gutted the bird, I found a tear in the heart where one of David's shots had ripped through.
But this was the closest I'd come to getting a goose on my own at Delevan.
Why do I obsess on this? Honestly, I'm not as insecure about my shooting as I was a year ago. My season so far has been marked by some lovely shots - the kind that kill instantly and leave the meat in excellent condition. The beautiful spoonie drake I got at Delevan yesterday went down with shots in the neck and tail, with nary a single wound to mar the breast meat. My woodie with Hellen three weeks ago? Head shot. My wigeon on opening weekend? Head shot.
But there's just something about geese. I probably won't relax about it until I truly get one on my own - no asterisks - just so I know I can do it.
That's really one of the huge things that drives me in every aspect of hunting at this stage in my development - my fourth year: Can I do it?
Once I know I can do something - whether it's my first limit, my first double, my first deer, my first solo goose - I can mentally cross it off my list, satisfied that I am capable.
What happens then? I relax, ready to focus on what I enjoy most, rather than worrying about passing tests administered by the ruler-wielding teacher who seems to sit on my right shoulder, whispering doubts about my abilities into my ear.
I'm really ready for that wretch to go away.
© Holly A. Heyser 2009
Sunday, November 22, 2009
Boom! Boom boom!