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When he died my father took the shotgun, but he never used it, and it finally ended up with me. By then I'd moved to the Bay Area, where the gun wasn't of much use, but four years later, when I found out I'd be relocating in Oregon, I began to think about my grandfather, Canada geese and that old Ithaca wrapped in an army blanket in my storage closet. I asked a dapperly dressed young clerk at a fancy sporting goods store in San Francisco what he knew about Canada geese. He knew quite a lot, and he was optimistic about my chances of successfully hunting them in Oregon. Later I would realize that the farther you are from living geese, the more positive the hunting information about them is likely to be.
The clerk explained to me that the Canada goose population had been increasing dramatically for years. "It's partly because of good wildlife management policies—the development of game refuges—and partly because of agriculture," he said. "The birds get through the winters on surplus grain left out in fields all across the country. Why, there are more Canada geese in parts of North America now than there were when the Pilgrims arrived. You won't have any trouble getting all the geese you want up in Oregon. They're all over the place up there. Now, if you want a truly fine gun for them...."
"Thanks," I said, "but I have one."
A few months later, in a combination hardware and sporting goods store in southern Oregon, the rumpled, leather-skinned clerk who sold me a box of No. 2 shells said, "You want to know where to hunt geese? That's easy. Klamath Marsh. Hyatt Lake. Howard Prairie Lake. Emigrant Lake. Any lake. Where you hunted them before?"
"Well, anyway, it ain't so much where you hunt them as it is when and how. Geese got brains. They got eyes. And they can hear, too. You light a cigarette in a blind, and they'll see the smoke from half a mile away on a foggy morning—if they haven't already turned around and gone the other way when they heard you strike the match! Oh, you'll see honkers, thousands of 'em, but before you see them, they'll see you. Opening day's always your best bet, before they get their yearly education. Otherwise, you hide someplace you know they fly, you hide there in a good blind, and you wait, and maybe you get lucky. Sometimes they fly a mile high and go 500 miles in a day. Sometimes they sit out there on the water, and they don't go nowhere for two months, except of course for the a.m. and p.m. feed. But I'll tell you this much, son, don't you go counting on much. If you're no sky buster, and you use those shells for geese, that box right there ought to last you a while."
By the end of my first waterfowl season I knew the old man was right about everything. I also knew that I'd never again hunt on opening day or from a blind. I'd tried both. Opening day was a zoo, and hiding behind a blind was, for me, excruciatingly boring. But I did want to get one goose, and I was determined to get it by stalking. Why a goose? It had something to do with my memory of my grandfather. It also had something to do with the fact that Canada geese are big. Whether or not it makes any real sense, a large majority of fishermen would rather land one 20-pound salmon or steelhead than 100 one-pound trout, and a large majority of bird hunters are the same. But mostly, I wanted to get a Canada goose because it was so maddeningly difficult to do.
Four years passed, and I'd seen probably 10,000 honkers. But my aforementioned failure at the mountain lake was typical of how my hunting had gone. Of the 25 shells the old man had sold me for goose hunting, 23 remained. At that rate, they would last me another 46 years.