By James Card
When Fred Zink and Joe Robinson came of age during the 1980s, one of North America's greatest wildlife comebacks was well under way. Canada goose numbers were exploding, especially in the Midwest, where transplanted flocks of resident geese were experiencing exponential growth. As teenagers, Zink and Robinson became skilled hunters of these increasingly abundant waterfowl, and over time their lives became intertwined with Canada geese. Now, decades later as grown men with children of their own, they are lying in a harvested cornfield between Toledo and Detroit and staring at the gray winter sky, watching for geese.
We are in layout blinds covered with cornstalks, which not only provide us with camouflage but also insulation against the subzero wind chill. In the distance are faint Vs of geese that are too far away to call or flag. Sunset and the end of shooting time draw near.
And suddenly it happens. A large formation of geese appears silently over the treetops of a nearby shelterbelt, returning to feed from their day roost on Lake Erie. Robinson waves his black-and-white T-flag up and down, sounding like an umbrella ripping apart in a hurricane. Zink brings his goose call to his lips and makes only a few soft clucks. Less is more when calling late-season geese. The flock turns toward us and Joe slips back into his layout blind.
Closing the distance across the field, the geese glide on cupped wings, their large black webbed feet stretched out before them, appearing as if they may land on our chests.
"Take 'em," Zink barks.
Eight geese are intercepted by heavy charges of steel shot and tumble to earth. As gun smoke wafts in the frigid air, more geese appear over the tree line.
"What's shooting time?" Zink hollers.
Robinson checks his watch. "One minute left."
The newcomers are safe. We retrieve our geese and lay them side by side in the snow. Five of them bear aluminum bands. One goose is smaller and special. It's an interior subspecies and part of the Southern James Bay Population, a nice addition to our bag of giant Canadas—the omnipresent resident geese that continue to populate new territory across America's heartland.
"When I was a kid, there were a lot of divers—bluebills, canvasbacks, and redheads—but there weren't a lot of geese around," Robinson recalled as we scouted in his pickup earlier that afternoon.
"Where I grew up in Ohio—and across much of the Midwest—you'd get your picture in the newspaper if you shot a Canada goose," Zink added. "It wasn't until I was in high school that Ohio had a resident population of Canada geese worth hunting."
While the two old friends followed different career paths, Canada geese figured prominently in both of their professions. Robinson went the academic route and got a degree in natural resources management and is now a wildlife biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. His job includes banding some 1,000 geese a year.
Zink was a maverick. He bought a tape recorder, microphones, and extension cords and recorded and studied conversations among Canada geese in his area. He went on to win several goose-calling contests, and then he developed a line of his own goose calls because he wasn't satisfied with those made by others. Along the way, he also worked as a guide, produced a number of duck and goose hunting videos, and became one of the most sought-after experts in the waterfowling arena.
Now they've both hit 40 and flecks of gray appear in their beard stubble. They've seen many changes, both to the land and the people. The Detroit-Toledo corridor along Lake Erie is rich in waterfowling heritage but has been hit hard economically. Many people rely on auto industry jobs, and with the recession, the area has fallen on tough times. We drove past homes that were foreclosed, abandoned, or for sale at disheartening prices.
"More people seem to be hunting this year because of the high unemployment rate. They have more time to hunt and are out trying to kill a few ducks, geese, or deer to help feed their families," Robinson said.
"It's the way the economy is," Zink added. "People already have the equipment and they don't want to just sit on the couch. They might not go to Cancun for a week but they're sure going to go goose or duck hunting."
Going airborne with the mid-winter waterfowl survey
The pilot's name was Kevin Jacobs, and he looked the part of an experienced aviator—lean, calculating, practical, and alert. I immediately felt comfortable with him at the yoke of the Cessna 182 as we lifted off to conduct part of the annual Mid-Winter Waterfowl Survey. Small plane crashes are the leading cause of occupational deaths among wildlife biologists (according to a study published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin). If Joe Robinson was worried, he certainly didn't show it. Annual waterfowl surveys are just another part of his job, a way to collect much-needed data on waterfowl numbers so government agencies can make management decisions grounded in science, not speculation.
First conducted in 1935, the Mid-Winter Waterfowl Survey is the longest-running wildlife census of its kind. The survey takes places during the first weeks of January, when waterfowl are typically most concentrated. Cruising just a few hundred feet above the frigid waters of Lake Erie and the Detroit River, we tallied nearly 30,000 canvasbacks; thousands of scaup and Canada geese; and hundreds of swans, goldeneyes, mergansers, and black ducks.
Other than a little minor turbulence, our aerial waterfowl count went smoothly. But only 12 days later, on January 17, 2010, Vernon "Ray" Bentley, a pilot-biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and his colleague David Pitkin were killed in a plane crash near Corvallis, Oregon. They were returning from an aerial waterfowl survey.
The language of late-season geese
"A nice thing about the late goose season is you don't have to get up at four in the morning," Robinson says as we set decoys well after sunrise. "The geese won't be flying until later, so you can sleep in, have breakfast, and then go out at about 8:30 and set up."
Having access to this particular field is a testament to my host's persistence. The lady who owns the farm turned Robinson down the first time he asked her for permission. So over the next few years he dropped by her place periodically just to be neighborly. Eventually she realized that he was a decent guy and finally gave him the green light to hunt the coveted field.
Our spread is divided by a brush-choked creek with half the decoys set behind us and the other half out front. The decoys are a mix of Greenhead Gear life-size feeders and active-posture birds, replicating a hungry flock plundering some previously undiscovered corn. Kneeling next to our layout blinds knotted with cornstalks, Zink points out some far-off geese in the overcast sky.
"Typically, geese on the ground don't start calling to geese in the air until they get about 75 yards away. They don't say a word; they just go about their business. They might make a few murmurs, clucks, and moans, but these calls are soft and monotone and not aggressive. So I don't call at all until geese have set up about 75 yards out, and I only call them with sharp clucks to keep them in line," he says. "As soon as I see a bird's wingtips move I start clucking, trying to sound like a single goose. If he locks back up, I quit calling. If he doesn't, I cluck a little sharper. I keep a call to my lips the whole time a flock is approaching, but as long as the geese are coming in our direction and they are gliding, I don't blow the call."
A formation of geese crests a nearby shelterbelt, and Robinson rakes the flag through the air to catch their attention. The flock turns sharply toward us, and we scramble back into our blinds. All is quiet except for the crinkling sound of snowflakes falling on the blinds and cornstalks. Zink waits until the flock is less than a football field away before letting loose a series of sharp clucks, giving voice to our decoys.
The geese sweep down on us with deceptive speed. We pop out of our layout blinds like jack-in-the-boxes and come up firing, sending four geese plummeting to the snow-covered ground. Robinson's black Lab, Dixie, charges out from her cornstalk-shrouded hideout, tackles a grounded goose, and trots back with her chin held high.
More geese appear on the horizon, crossing over a string of distant power lines and heading our way. We watch through the mesh cover of our blinds' flip-top canopies as several flocks converge over the field. Zink begins clucking like a nervous goose about to get its food taken away by bullies.
A flurry of shooting ensues as several flocks decoy in rapid succession from different directions. We fire simultaneously at larger groups of geese and take turns on singles and pairs. Plastic shell hulls smoke in the snow as we rack fresh shells into our autoloaders. Dixie fetches up the geese by their downy gray breasts between incoming flights. Other flocks are too smart, flying just close enough to make us squirm inside our blinds before they drift away. By the time we decide to break for lunch, a total of 13 geese are collecting snowflakes in the corn stubble next to our blinds.
"The most important part of calling any waterfowl is reading the birds' body language and knowing how to react to it. Blowing a call is not calling in birds. You have to know how to communicate with them. Late-season geese are very well educated," Zink says as we gather the decoys. "They've been through the gauntlet."