Many people say that once the temperature drops to single digits, 10 degrees, more or less, no longer makes any difference. I tend to disagree. The difference between 5-above and 5-below zero can be very noticeable. Especially if you add 20 mph winds.
At any rate, the final day of the 2019-2020 Illinois goose season was brutally cold. The conditions were exactly as I just described. The temperature was 7 degrees and fell to below zero as the day progressed, and the wind was straight out of the North. A pure Arctic deepfreeze had descended upon the Midwest. But my goose hunting partner, Kevin Brunstein, and I were not going to let the weather knock us out of the last day of the season.
Kevin lives in Jacksonville, Illinois and regularly checks on the several hundred Canada geese that winter on that city's lake. He studies and maps their feeding patterns and has permission to hunt in many of the key cornfields that attract this flock at mealtime. With four inches of fresh snow, we were both looking forward to a good, but very cold, finale.
We use a combination of full-body goose decoys scattered among several dozen field shells. This setup works well all the time, but is markedly more productive with snow on the ground. As small bunches of geese leave the lake to feed, they can see our decoys in the white field from more than a mile away. And once they decide to hit a field to feed, it does not take them long to get there.
Our plan was relatively simple. We would put our decoy spread in a highly visible location in the field, facing into the wind. Kevin and I both use flags to get the birds' attention. We wear snow camo and lie down between rows of corn stalks, just upwind of and facing the decoys. The natural tendency of the geese is to land into the wind and usually they will glide over live geese or decoys on the ground, setting down just ahead of them. We will be lying exactly where they intend to land.
Kevin's scouting had documented that the cold temps were keeping the geese grounded during the morning hours. Just after noon we began putting out our decoys. It was a bitterly cold task and we went to the truck to thaw out as soon as the decoys were placed.
We decided the truck was the place to be until things started to happen. Kevin told me the stories of his hunts in this field from the previous week. He had hunted here twice in the past few days. This field is only 10 minutes from his house, but over 90 minutes from mine, so he is able to do evening hunts alone very frequently. That is what makes him such an expert on the geese in this area.
At about 2:15 p.m. Kevin saw a small group of geese fly north over the lake. I saw nothing, but I knew he was serious. A short time later he said it was time to get cold and we headed across the field to our icy beds. I could hear geese coming long before I could see them. It was a crystal clear afternoon and the snow was blinding. I had to wear sunglasses during the hunt to keep from squinting.
The first couple of small bunches that came out swung about a mile to our east. We called and flagged, but they obviously had some other field in mind for supper. Finally, a group of five came out heading right for us. "Showtime," Kevin said, as he began to flag.
It seemed like the geese never flapped their wings from the moment I saw them. They were riding the cold wind, and without a doubt they were coming to our field. "Let 'em come," Kevin said softly as they made their first pass. They flew directly over us, about 80 yards up. "Be ready on their next circle," he coached.
The geese made a wide swing and then headed back into the wind. They were much lower now, but also considerably further away from my position. As the small flock glided over Kevin I told him to shoot. He dropped a huge Canada goose and the rest flew away. "Nice shot!" I yelled. "Yeah. All of about 20 yards," my partner responded. Kevin retrieved his goose and turned into a decoy. "More comin'," he said as he dived back into his spot.
There were lots of geese up now. Groups of a couple up to flocks of a hundred or more began pouring off the lake in all directions. "This big bunch is coming here," Brunstein said as he pointed.
"Those are not Canadas," I told him. "They're Specks." Specks, or Speckled Bellied geese, are smaller and much more vocal than are Canada geese.
Now things got interesting in a hurry. The flock of about 50 Specks were literally hovering over our field in a cacophony of calling as several Canada geese were making attempts to land in and around our decoys. There were geese stacked up at many different levels above us. I had lost sight of the Specks, but was working a single Canada in close.
Kevin could not see my goose, but he had the Specks broken up and looking to set down. My goose was on its glidepath at 50 yards, coming right at me. I heard Kevin utter a phrase I dare not put in print as I saw the shadow of goose trying to land between us. That goose spooked as I sat up to shoot the Canada I had been working.
"Holy cow!" Brunstein exclaimed. "A Speckled Belly was going land right here! I couldn't shoot 'cause it was right between us!"
"Oh, by the way," he added, "good shot."
We did not move, but lay back down and continued flagging. The next geese over the field also tried to land. Two of them did ... belly up.
We had our last-day limit, but we were frozen. My coldest parts were my face and my flagging hand. We quickly gathered our decoys and headed for some hot chocolate. Even though we topped off a good goose season with a great hunt, our entire conversation as we drove back to Kevin's house was about what we would do better next year.
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