"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.
Photo: James Card, DU
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.
Flagging is almost as important as calling when hunting late-season honkers. (Photo: James Card, DU)
"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."