It was about 40 minutes after dawn on a December morning. The clouded sky was a pale gray, and the wind whistled in icy blasts out of the north. Flat on my stomach, gun cradled carefully in my arms, I inched forward, pushing as best I could with the toes of my boots, pulling as best I could with my elbows over a rutted surface of frozen mud. My objective was nearly a quarter mile away, and, with luck, in 20 minutes or half an hour I would be there. By then my hands, feet, elbows, knees, stomach and face would be frozen numb, but I could deal with that when the time came. I wanted a goose, and this, I thought, was almost surely going to be my morning.
I had scouted Canada geese at a lake in the Cascades near my home in Ashland, Ore. for two weeks. All day the geese, at least 200 of them, would stay rafted up in the middle of the lake, so far from shore that they looked to the naked eye like nothing more than a long black line against the muddied, choppy water. The only thing that could induce them to fly was the approach of a boat, and several times I'd watched hunters roar out from shore at top speed, motors howling, trailing white wakes and thin clouds of blue exhaust. But this strategy was not only illegal, it was also futile. Before the men got anywhere near shotgun range, the birds would lift off the water, their strident honking clearly heard even above the roar of the motors.
Actually, the geese were lovely to hear, and to watch. The huge birds rose with an ease and speed that remains surprising, no matter how often one has seen their powerful, measured wingbeats lifting them away. Once they were out of danger, they broke up into as many as eight separate flocks, each forming a V as it steadily climbed. The Vs were somewhat ill-shaped at first, but as the flocks gained altitude, the lines became as straight as if they had been drawn with a ruler.
Whenever the geese were forced off the water in the daytime they would circle the lake for 20 minutes or more, at an altitude of at least 500 feet, and then either come down to it again—providing both the shore and water were clear—or, if they sensed danger, veer away to find temporary refuge at another lake, smaller, higher in the mountains, a few miles to the north.
After watching these birds for two weeks, I knew that my best hope was to stalk them on the flats adjacent to the lake, which was the only way I cared to hunt them anyway, and that only their morning feeding went according to inviolate schedule. No matter what the weather or where they had spent the night, half an hour after sunrise the flocks appeared out of the eastern sky, circled the pine-bordered stubble field for eight or 10 minutes and, their wings set and necks stretched into the wind, settled in for breakfast.
I had deep respect for the geese, but I did want to bag one—was, in fact, absolutely determined to get one and only one—to prove to myself that I could do it. Through October and most of November I had hoped to kill one for Thanksgiving dinner. With Thanksgiving past, my goal became Christmas, which was now barely a week away. If I didn't succeed in time for that, there would be New Year's Day, just before the season closed. Then, as they say, there always would be next year. This, in truth, was my fourth season of trying.
The geese were out there on the field now, honking and eating. With my face smeared with mud (I'd had to break through the frozen surface with my knife to get it), dressed in various shades of brown to match the foot-high grass and stubble and well concealed by a large rotting log at the edge of the forest, I had watched them circle and come in to feed.
I had chosen my angle of approach carefully after walking all the way around the field several times and across it from every possible angle. First I had considered the problem from a hunter's point of view, and then I tried hard to put myself in the geese's place, to regard the area as a hungry but necessarily cautious goose would. That's not easy, because on the basis of my own observations and experiences I rate the average Canada goose to be 50% more intelligent than the average hunter.
Between me and the nearest birds were eight small hillocks—symmetrical mounds about three feet high and 10 feet in diameter. How or why they were formed I have no idea. It was about 20 yards from the rotting log to the first hillock, and now I'd made it that far. The seven that remained were spaced irregularly but in such a pattern that I could stay concealed until I was within about 50 yards of the perimeter of the geese's normal feeding area. Twenty-five to 30 yards is ideal shotgun range, and I was certain that with surprise on my side I would be within 40 yards before the geese would begin to react. They could get going in a hurry, but they weren't that fast—nothing was that fast—and before they were 20 feet off the ground I would be exactly where I had to be.
It's surprising how fatiguing crawling on your belly can be. The unfamiliarity of moving that way more than the physical effort involved causes the strain. As I slithered around the first hillock toward the second, my shoulder and thigh muscles were already tiring. My knees hurt too, simply from being dragged across the hard, cold earth. I was wearing ski gloves so that my fingers would be nimble enough to work the gun when I made my charge, but my hands were cold anyway. The mud on my face had dried and hardened like plaster, but with that the odor had thankfully diminished. When I'd smeared my face with the mud back by the rotting log, I'd noticed a decidedly unpleasant smell. Only then did I remember that cattle sometimes grazed the area in summer.