Anonymous. November 4, 1891. Omaha Daily Bee 21(139): 8. From Outing.
Rare Sport in Nebraska.
Skill and Patience Tested in Wild Goose Shooting.
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE GAME.
Remarkable Caution and Phenomenal Memory Displayed—Experience on the Loup and Niobrara Rivers.
There is, perhaps, no spot known on the continent in which the skill and patience of the sportsman are more severely tested than in shooting wild geese, says a writer in Outing. Indeed, man's intelligence is more nearly matched by these birds than by any other wild creature. The displays of their instinct would surpass belief were they not authenticated beyond possible question. It is in evidence that flocks, both large and small, following a chosen leader, though enveloped for days in impenetrable fogs, will yet hold steadily on their course along the Atlantic coast and land without difficulty at the place intended, when the captain of a vessel, endowed with what we call the superior intelligence of man and supplied with every aid which science can furnish, errs in his reckoning, frequently becomes bewildered and comes to land fifty miles from the point he had expected to reach.
The memory of the wild goose is phenomenal. They appear to keep in mind from year to year specific localities, shunning them if they have been found dangerous, and making use of them in the course of their semi-annual flights. Back of Gaspe, in Canada, is a singular elevation in the landscape. It is a conspicuous landmark, and is of importance to guides and hunters who visit that wild region. But the geese make use of it, too, for it has long been observed that when they reach this spot in their autumnal flight they invariably change their course from west to south. The young birds are often obstinate in their desire to continue on to the westward, but the older ones, so soon as they are above or abreast of this landmark, invariably turn southward, and if the young do not promptly follow, turn and circle around them and compel them to take the course desired.
Geese belong to the great family of migratory birds, living in the north during the summer months and spending the winter in the south. During their spring flight northward they stop for some little time, and in their autumnal southward journeys for several months, on the broad wheat fields and corn fields of many of our western states, where they frequently gather in such numbers that any statement concerning them which should be even approximately true would be regarded as an exaggeration by persons who have not been there. It is a very conservative remark, however, to say that they are found in some places in Nebraska in flocks of thousands and tens of thousands. In many sections, notably the northwestern portion of the state, the residents do not estimate the size of a flock by numbers, but by indicating how large a space they would occupy when at rest. I was spending a night with a farmer, near whose sod house I had been shooting mallard duck. Just before dark he came in and asked if I would like to try my hand on geese, adding that a good-sized flock has just alighted on the lake not so far away. I inquired how many he thought there were, and his reply was, "About four acres I reckon."
But while their number is legion, comparatively few are ever brought to bag by the average sportsman. It requires a careful study of their habits, together with a patience almost Job-like to enable one to get near enough so that his kill as a marksman will be of enough vail. I have known men whose record in bagging other game was quite remarkable, to come in after a morning of hard work without so much as a feather to show for it. But geese will outwit any man who has not had an experience with them covering more than one season, and even those who think they have learned all about the habits of the goose will be surprised at new evidences of intelligence coming constantly to their notice.
I once had an aggravating experience of this kind. I had been, for a week or two, shooting duck along the Loup river in Nebraska and had enjoyed several good dinners on roast goose without having given much attention to that sort of game. But while shooting duck and curlew I noticed a broad sand bar on the opposite side of the river where large numbers of geese spent the night. They were out of my reach and I had no boat with which to cross the stream. Some five miles below the house was a railway bridge. One afternoon I took a liberal supply of ammunition and telling my companion I would probably not return until near midnight I crossed the bridge and started up the other bank.
Some distance away at my right a solitary sod shanty stood on a ridge of land which projected into a region of low land or "draw" like a promontory jutting into a lake. There were no other houses within a distance of many miles, save the one where I had been stopping. I went over and inquired of the woman who answered my rap on the rough door for what length of time the geese had been accustomed to spend the night on the bar.
"'Bout six weeks, I reckon," was her reply.
"Where do they come in?" said I.
"Over that brush." And she pointed to the willows which marked the line between the sand of the river and the grass-covered prairie.
"Do they always come in there?"
"And do they go out the same way?"
I knew, of course, that geese travel in a beaten track through the air with as much regularity as the moose of Nova Scotia follow a forest path, or as people who live in a city take to the sidewalks, but I wanted to know if these people had noticed it.
Continuing, I asked if her husband had shot many of the birds.
"No, he hain't got no gun."
"Do hunters come in here much?"
"I hain't seen none afore this year?"
"Where do the geese feed?"
"'Bout ten miles to the northeast'ard, I reckon; on Smith's wheat stubble."
"What time do they leave the river in the afternoon?"
"'Bout 4, allus."
This showed the accuracy of her observation, for these birds have regular hours for feeding. They are always to be found on the wheat fields from 8 to 20 in the forenoon and from 4 in the afternoon until sunset, and they could not be more punctual in starting for their meals if each one carried a chronometer. Looking at my watch, I saw that it was now nearly half past 3, so I walked over toward the river, where I concealed my self among the tall weeds and waited. It was as I expected. Promptly at 4 o'clock the birds rose like a huge cloud and with a fearful clattering and "honking" flew away toward the stubble field. The I began operations, feeling so certain of the success of my plan that I clapped my hands in glee, as Napoleon did at Waterloo just before Blucher's arrival, and as it proved, with quite as little occasion.
On the broad sand bar were large numbers of logs and stumps and roots of trees, which had been brought down by the spring freshets and had become stranded there with the subsiding waters. I expected to use one of these for a blind from which I could pour hot shot into the column as the geese came back at night. But I failed to find anything to suit my purpose exactly, and so I placed two stumps together, moving each one for the purpose perhaps say five or six feet. I was very careful not to disturb anything else, and the sand all about had been trodden so hard by the geese that I left no footprints. I was familiar with the construction of blinds, and felt sure that this one would not be noticed by the birds. Indeed, I am confident that any person accustomed to pass that way at morning and at night would not have detected anything unusual. Then I went back to the shore again to hide myself among the weeds.
I knew the birds would send out one or more scouts in advance to see if all was right. This is one of their marked peculiarities. If they have alighted in safety at a given spot for a hundred times they will not again revisit it until some of their number have examined and reported that all is well. Scores and scores of times have I seen this illustrated, and it is a recognized fact among sportsmen. It was for the scouts that I was now waiting. Just before sunset four stalwart old fellows came down from the northeast to reconnoitre and report. They flew about over the sand bars for a while, till one of them noticed the misplaced stumps. Then they began a chattering which was kept up for about five minutes. Following this they alighted at a safe distance from the blind, and, with their long necks upraised, stood perfectly still for at least a quarter of an hour, evidently watching the suspicious stumps. By and by they raised and flew around the place several times at a great height, until suddenly one of the number gave a peculiar "honk," and as fast as their wings could carry them they went back over the willows and up into the northeastern sky. I knew they had not seen me, but I suspected something was wrong, though I still thought I should bag some game. Hurrying across the bar, I took my position behind the stumps and placed a dozen heavily charged shells on the sand ready for instant use after the first shot should empty my gun. Then I waited—and waited—and waited. Daylight faded into dusk and the dusk deepened into darkness, until at length the moon shone brightly and the stars rained down their lustre on the scene.
Eight o'clock came, and 9, and 10, and half-past 10, 11—and not a solitary bird came over the willows or alighted on the sand. Nor did they come at all. They had not left the region, for I heard them as they came in countless throngs and took their places by the river side more than a half mile distant, where they had never been known to settle before. I was completely outwitted, and shouldering my gun I started homeward muttering, "Oh, you geese! you deserve to live, for you are smarter than I."
There is a point in northwestern Nebraska where another large stream unites with the Niobrara river. For half a mile above their junction there stretches a wide tract of elms and water oaks among which tall grasses grow to a height of four or five feet. Both rivers have broad sand bars, and in reaching them from either direction the birds are likely to pass over this wooded tract. As they are so soon to alight they do not fly very high, and, in fact, they seem to think that if they are a little way above the tree tops they are out of danger. It was my fortune to discover this, and one morning soon afterward my companion and I took our stations in the grass. The first birds that attempted to pass fell easily, at short range, and when the multitude of them rose, flock by flock from the river beds, a large number passed directly over where we were hidden and we had rare sport for an hour in bringing them down. We had far more than we could carry back to camp, and were compelled to send for a team to bring up the game.
One method frequently made us of is to don a suit of clothing very nearly the color of the sand in the river beds and take a position on the sand bar on a moonlight night. In such case those who are to do the shooting should send a person beyond where the flock are resting for the night to discharge a gun and set them in motion. Like most birds they can see but poorly at night, and after being disturbed this way will break into squads and fly back and forth up and down the river for a long time, and the sportsman has an admirable opportunity to bag a large number as they attempt to pass him. It is essential in such cases, however, that he have a good retriever, otherwise he will lose many of the birds which fall into the river and, whether dead or wounded, are soon beyond his reach.
Taken in all there is perhaps no sport which is more exhilarating or more likely to be enjoyed after one has had a little experience than that of shooting the wild goose.