Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On the Entertainment Value of a First Bird Hunt

Recently I was privileged to have my first experience hunting waterfowl. Rather unfairly, I had previously not thought of it as “hunting” simply because of the size of the game (does size really matter?), being smaller than the deer or elk I had stalked years ago. For this reason, I’d often been puzzled by the plethora of bird hunting gear available in rows and rows of merchandise at the local sporting goods store. I noticed it, but pretty much walked past it, thinking it a strange and bewildering set of tools for some other mysterious pastime other than “hunting.” I now no longer think this, having seen all of this equipment in action.

The hunting area was surprisingly close to the city, approximately an hour’s drive away from the metropolitan area. Several men lease the rights to hunt birds there from the land owner, and I was the guest of one of those lease participants (a generous man that I know from church). When we arrived at the hunting “lodge” (some sturdy structures with a deck that really seem to take the "roughing it" edge out of hunting), I was struck by how quiet and peaceful it was there. The meadows stretched off in each direction, punctuated by ponds that geese and ducks had collected on. From this distance I could see several permanent “blinds” that had been constructed to hide hunters from birds’ on “final approach to runway 35R.”

Without hesitation, each hunter fanned out in different directions to place themselves in an advantageous shooting position. As I had never done this before, I assumed one should walk toward the animals, weapon at the ready. It wasn’t long before a pair of geese flew toward me from the nearby pond, emitting their familiar honks. Elated over the opportunity to “bag” my first birds ever, I drew up and fired twice with precise and confident targeting...to no avail. For some reason, I must have mistakenly thought I was shooting my rifle for a moment. BB’s just don’t fly that high into the air. After both misses, I lowered my shotgun back down to my side, knowing there was no way to hide the embarrassment of having created the noise, but will have nothing to carry back to the lodge to show for it. When the exact same sequence played itself out not ten minutes later, I finally was able to decipher what the goose’s honks actually meant; the rough translation being - “I’m out of range, ‘ya stupid fool!” (Why they sounded French, I have no idea).

For the evening, I was soothed by the whistling breeze and silent fields. This is, until the hosted turned on the television to watch the football game. Blasphemy! A TV at camp? Where am I, Mars? The food was plentiful and so was the booze. All eventually migrated to our respective sleeping bags, dismayed at how soon we’d have to wake up for the morning hunt. Fortunately, I was able to get sound asleep before the real snorers hit the sack (in truth, I have no idea whether any snored; I was sleeping too hard).

Now I must tell you... at 0500 the alarm sound was particularly rude. Arising without fanfare, we sauntered out into the black of the morning darkness carrying bags of goose decoys along with our guns. My host was adorned with a collection of goose calls around his neck, resembling the bone necklace of some Indonesian shaman. I noted secretly how we might soon reverse evolution when all the gear slung around our necks no longer allows us to walk upright. We set out the decoys so as to resemble a brood of geese that had found a random place to “safely” congregate. How should geese look in their staff meeting, anyway? Is there a moderator? Who is running the PowerPoint slides? That seemed to over-think it. So I arranged my geese decoys to appear deep in concentration during a competitive, high stakes, Texas Hold’em poker tournament.

Finding tall grass to sleep...um...I mean... “watch vigilantly” for incoming game in, I sat comfortably as dawn approached. The fog was thick enough, as the sun rose, that the goose honking I heard all around seemed to come from no direction in particular. Eventually the sky cleared slightly and we could see what was flying. Most abundant, and flying rather low, were the species of geese who’s last season day to shoot them had been the day before. Clearly they are better at circulating important memos than my company is. It was plain that these Speckle-bellied geese had checked the calendar and now intended to mock us in unison. In addition, the geese that were in season that day had read the specifications of my firearm and knew it’s effective range (apparently better than I did, according to the previous days results), flying just close enough to be snide in their taunts. Nothing tarnishes a morning like having a bird flip you the middle feather.

The goal was, using his goose calls, for my host to call these geese over to where our decoys were holding their union leadership elections. He was setup in tall grass about 100 yards away from me (or “far enough away so that if we accidentally shoot at each other, it won’t hurt.”), and I could hear him use those calls with their various sounds. They nearly diverted the course of two geese at one point, but then the birds turned and flew away when they spotted the “Remington” logo on my camouflage ball cap (darn corporate brand logos!). When a diverse flock of geese flew over the field, I heard him cycle through all the calls whistles around his neck. “What respiratory discipline it must take to use all those in quick succession,” I thought, “without wheezing.” When none of the geese banked toward our artificial goose block party, I felt sorry for him. “Sheesh!” I silently mused, “all that and no one answered him? Surely SOMEone will respond to all that effort.”... mmmMMMMMOOOOOooo, answered the cows from the other side of the canal. It was difficult to watch for birds after that with the tears fogging up my vision.

With nothing to show for our morning efforts, we walked back to the lodge to confess our “wild goose chase” (is that where that phrase comes from?). Lunchtime was spent firmly establishing and ascribing fault to all the various other factors unrelated to our hunting prowess. When full bellies became convinced it was time to head home, we began to pack up the gear. I asked if there was still time for me to walk down to the pond and examine the legendary, plush blinds that had been built near the water. Being assured there was time enough for this brief hike, I walked down along the fence line, carrying my shotgun with me (of course). The ponds were devoid of any birds and there was no expectation of seeing any fly over. I merely wanted to see for myself these hiding places that rivaled most ten year olds boys tree forts (“Blind 2 has an espresso machine, blind 3 has the hot tub, but blind 4 has the whiskey...” I was told).

Exactly as you wouldn’t expect, my short trek spooked up two geese hiding in the tall grass and I shot them both as they attempted to fly away. Walking back to the lodge, my hunting companions celebrated with me in the sight of carrying my prizes. It was my first time to bird hunt and, while I didn’t expect to do very well, I didn’t want to come up blank either. A bird processing facility, on the way home, reduced the creatures down to their respective meats that will make an honored contribution to our meals at home. I’ve spoken before about the important connection made between quarry and feast, and the blessings of responsibly participating the ecological life-cycle of legal game. For game birds, this was my first time. It bore fruit, and I’m looking forward to the next opportunity.

Being a guest to a generous host, I have no expectation of a return trip to this particular property. However, the whole experience was reminiscent enough of the outings with my father growing up wherein prayer and ubiquitous lessons concerning God and his creations set the tone for the entire hunt, that I feel a great motivation to seek opportunities to take my boys out for such an event. Bird hunting, like other hunting forms, has the potential to hold all those wonderful principles I learned from my father, and convey them to my boys in the process as well.

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