Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

November 24, 1895. Omaha Sunday Bee p. 18.

Shooting Along the Platte.

Now and In the Wondrous Days of the Olden Time.

Wild Geese in Countless Hordes.

Clarks and Its Famous Men—Anser Canadensis and His Snowy Confrere—A One Day's Shoot on the Tortuous Stream.

The most royal sport of the whole twelvemonth with the shotgun is now at its height—goose shooting on the Platte. Since Nebraska was marked down on the maps as the great American desert the Platte river has been one of the most famous goose grounds in the whole world. The bird has been widely distributed over this country and has furnished grant sport in every state lying between the two oceans, but in no locality have they been more numerous or furnished better or more thrilling or a greater variety of shooting than the country traversed by this erratic and legendary river. In the spring ten or fifteen years ago they came up from the south in countless millions—the lordly Canada, the white and speckled front—and crowded the sandbars and dotted sloping shores and greening fields along this wondrous stream from source to mouth, and furnished such sport as could be found in no other part of the country. In the fall they came down from the north in a veritable stream of white and gray, and, lingering here until the very climax of wintry weather forced them on toward the temperate gulf states, made such sport as the modern gunner only encounters in his dreams or ancient literature. Though fair shooting is yet to be found at different points along the Platte, nothing can give an adequate idea of the myriads of geese which once settled down in its shallow waters and swarmed its shores. In the vernal season the white geese bore down here in such hordes as to almost startle the beholder. Like lines of summer clouds, they streamed along the distant sandhills, stood like banks of snow upon the sands and tender shoots of the measureless prairie, filled the channels or floated lightly in the sloughs, like the foam along a violently storm-beaten ocean's shore. Their clanging cackle, intermingled with the sonorous honk of the Canadian, could be heard for miles.

After a long winter's arduous work at your desk in office or store, what is sweeter to the ear when your vacation days come and you find yourself at the opening of the budding year upon some favored hunting ground, than the far-reaching honk! ahonk! honk! of the wild goose? Do you recall any sound that awakens such a train of tender, yet exciting thought as this deep-toned and musical sound comes to you from the distant sky, or above your camp in the darkness of the night, or from every quarter of the compass as you crouch in pit or blind in the morning when the birds lazily rise from their roosting places along the bars and with measured wing-stroke start a-field for the scattered kernels of the huskers' corn, for the tender grasses in the pasture lands or the wheat in the stubble?

And then in the evening when the avalanches of white and gray return for water and rest within the boisterous shores of the river? There they come, over the glowering sandhills from the distant fields and pastures, line after line, cloud after cloud. Up they go, as they approach the river's valley, massing denser and denser, preparing to descend upon wave and bar in their own peculiar and amusing way. Once over the middle of the broad and scattered stream they seem to hang stationary a moment, then with every throat sounding its thrilling note, down they come tumbling, gyrating, darting, pitching and falling to within a few yards of the water, when they right themselves, form in a long line, skim gracefully up or down stream for a hundred yards or more, then settle like softly falling autumn leaves within the Platte's crystal and cooling depths.

Fond recollections, indeed, must the recountal of these sights and sounds bring to many a sportsman's heart, for, as I said before, there are no sounds of such wondrous sweetness to the gunner's ear as the honk and the cackle of the wild goose.

  • "Sailing in the solemn midnight, underneath the frosty moon,
  • I can hear the clanging pinions of each shadowy platoon,
  • Near the winged hosts, commotion, marching to the distant ocean,
  • File on file, rank on rank, speeding to some reedy bank,
  • Oozy fens or marshes gray, far up Baffin's icy bay.
  • Honking, clamoring in their flight under the black clouds of coming night."

While geese have been known to breed in the sloughs at different points along the Platte and the Republican, it has only been in isolated cases. Their natural breeding grounds are in the far north, so far in fact that they are seldom in danger of molestation from their most destructive enemy, man. In a measure, the same statement holds good with most of the wild fowl family, and at no distant day I will give the readers of these columns my idea of the breeding of these birds. When the summer months have faded away and November rolls round with her hoar frosts, her mellow-tempered and sunny days, with her cold and wind and gloomy alternating, we hear the familiar honk of old Anser Canadensis and gazing skyward our anxious vision is rewarded by the sight of the harrow-shapen flock, headed by some white collared old veteran, coming down from the north. While the sight and the sound sets our blood a-tingling, they also warn us that it is a good time to see that our coal sheds and cellars are well filled, that the days of gentle winds and golden weather are fast reaching their end. And then again when the same thing occurs in blustery March, we know the goose is the sure forerunner of warm rains, of spring grass, budding flowers, blackbirds, meadowlarks and soothing warmth.

But to go back to the Platte and its glories in a wild goose way. Ever since that showery April, at the close of the rebellion, back in '65, when C.B. Hartwell opened the junction ranch on the old Military road, has the vicinity been one of the most famous points, as it is yet today, for wild goose shooting. From Hartwell's settlement sprang the thriving little village of Clarks, named in honor of Hon. S.H.H. Clarks, then the superintendent of the Union Pacific railroad, now its receiver, and from its very inception has this station been a favorite headquarters for sportsmen from not only all over the west, but the entire country. Thousands of shooters have stopped and lingered here, and millions and millions of geese shipped hence as the fruits of their expeditions up or down the river, or from rolling field and pasture extending for miles and miles both to the north and to the south. Here is the celebrated hostelry of Uncle George West, with its cleanly and sumptuous bed chambers, its excellent table, genial service, and its incomparable host. No man along the Platte is better or more favorably known than Uncle George. He has presided there for years and years and his name is revered by the true goose hunter in all parts of the broad land. And Uncle George is not the only man known here. Clarks is also the home of the redoubtable Sam Richmond, the champion goose killer of the Platte valley, the master of wild fowl and hunting lore, a crack shot with rifle, shot gun or mouth, and one of the most affable, courteous and companionable men to be met with in 10,000 miles of travel. I wish you could see Sam as he crouches behind ice cake or driftwood on a bar, or peers warily from a pit in the fields. He is of medium stature, with blue eyes and brown hair, wiry and athletic, with a face bronzed by almost constant exposure, and in his shooting togs, close-fitting dun wammus, mackintoshes and slouch hat, he is the very ideal of a goose hunter. He knows the best feeding grounds and the birds' favorite bars, just when they will leave and when they will return, how the wind should be and how it ought not to be, where to build your blind and where to set out your decoys—in fact, there is no trick of the trade that Sam isn't up to and a day's shoot with him always means a bag of birds. he is a protege of Uncle George's and has lived with him a good many years. But it is neither Uncle George nor Sam, either, that makes Clarks such a famous resort for the geese. Here the unfettered Platte rushes and gurgles and sings along as if under a magician's spell, with the soft autumn or spring breezes dancing over its frothy surface and the yellow sunshine kissing ragged, willowy shores, rolling wave and sandy bar into radiant smiles. Down goes the broad river through one of the grandest corn countries in the world, on it goes with mighty impetuosity, wild, lovely and fascinating in its sweep of noisy grandeur.

But the Platte is not always the same. It is a wonderful stream, perplexing and little understood. Two weeks ago its broad bed at Clarks was as dry as a floor, today it is a savage river, a gleaming, glittering expanse of water, the dim artery of all the vast country beyond, of more than a mile wide and across which you can wade without danger at any point. It is simply a broad wilderness of rushing narrow channels, sand bars and eddying pools, with willow-bordered and gully-river banks.

Barrister Myron Learned and his guest, Mr. Sidney Warner, of Minneapolis, and Charlie Metz and myself spent a day out there recently and under the guidance of the redoubtable Richmond, we enjoyed ourselves in a superlative way.

Early in the morning we drove down the Platte for a distance of three miles, where Sam had a couple of blinds built on a couple of much frequented bars. These blinds were about one mile apart, and while Metz and I and Sam occupied the lower one, Learned and the Minneapolitan took the upper. The birds were leaving the bars for the fields while we were lugging out our decoys and traps, and by the time we got snugly fixed, anywhere from a dozen to a score of long lines of departing birds could be descried against the background sky. There were hundreds of them and they were all Canadas.

That there was an abundance of birds there was no denying, but lovers of the field most all know that plenty of game does not always imply plenty of shooting, any more than plenty of shooting always implies a big bag of game. Nowheres have I observed this truth more forcibly exemplified than on the Platte. In the old days goose shooting did not require the nicety of preparation and extreme caution it does nowadays, although it was always advisable to be well hidden while waiting for a shot along their line of flight. Ten years ago an old fence, a bunch of standing corn, clump of sumac bushes or a small washout was sufficient, but now your blind must be carefully and artistically arranged and your shooting hole deep and well concealed.

All morning we waited and watched, but not a feather of returning birds did we see until the sun had reached the noonday mark, when Suddenly Sam made a dive for the blind, exclaiming as he did so:

"There they come!"

Metz and I were quickly crouching on the wet sands beside him, but peer as hard and eagerly through the network of brush and reeds as we might, nothing awarded our strained vision.

Honk! ahhonk! ahhonk! honk; honk! honk! is the thrilling sound, though, that greets our hearing, and we feel that Sam knew what he was talking about. The next moment we catch sight of them—a long line, with measured wing flap, is approaching from over the low sandhills to the south. With palpitating hearts, though as still as graven images, we crouch and wait. On they come, straight for us.

"They will decoy sure," whispers Sam.

What a rapturous moment. We could hardly control our impatience, but the birds came steadily on, the grizzled old gander in the lead, almost constantly sounding his satisfying honk, while the rest of the flock mildly responded.

"Hear 'em talk," chuckles Colonel Richmond.

Now they begin to rise perceptibly as they clear the always dangerous shore line. Their sharp eyes are on our decoys and they cup their wings and begin to come down. Closer and closer they come, until we could plainly see their white throats and bead-like eyes. Now they drop their sable legs, and whiff! whiff! whiff! heavily fan their wings. They are about to light and our time haas arrived. As a single man we leap to our feet. I gave the old gander a load in the breast, but with a startled honk he begins to go up instead of coming down. I give him the other barrel and like a collapsed balloon he lets go, and over and over, tumbles to the bar. Two heavy splashes in the water has already told me that Sam and Charlie have not been idle.

We got a bird apiece, although each man got in both barrels. But that was a plenty. Three magnificent Canadas, aggregating at least forty pounds of fat wild goose. Could true sportsmen ask for more?

But that was not all. The same flock swung off up the river, and four birds, separating from the rest, in spite of the lesson we had just taught them, lower their ashen bodies and go into Learned and Warner's decoys, and they, too, make a kill—one each.

There would be little in rehearsing all the scenes of the afternoon. Suffice it to say that there were three other flocks came into us and we did our duty to each. About 4 o'clock we left the bar and went to a neighboring pasture, and there, in the rose-colored twilight, from behind a barricade of sunflower stalks and wisps of prairie grass, we added two more birds to our already respectable bag.