Richard Kaplan

Some take for granted that not all areas of the country have opportunties for freelance hunters to be on the X

Most of my goose hunting success depends on my ability to run traffic over my decoys. I almost always hunt for geese in a harvested field within a mile of a heavily-used roosting area to ensure that a sufficient number of birds would fly over my decoy spread on their way elsewhere to feed. Over the years, I observed that under these conditions success in bringing geese into range depended on the weather, the look of my decoy spread, my calling abilities, and the capricious behavior of Branta canadensis maxima. My latest goose-hunting experience changed all that.

Because I live in an urban area, hold a 9-to-5 job, and spend most weekends during hunting season ferrying my kids between hockey arenas, I have no time to scout for locations where birds are feeding. My usual goose hunting spot is located in Wisconsin's storied Horicon Zone, about 150 miles from my house. I hunt there because the geese are concentrated at the Horicon Marsh consistently in October and November. Because of the distances involved and time constraints my trips to Horicon allow no time for scouting. My Horicon hunts consist of running traffic using the same fields I have hunted for the past ten years. I never knew what it was like to hunt a location where the geese actually want to be, the so-called "X."

A harmonic convergence occurred the week between Christmas and New Years 2006, that changed all that. I had the week off during the late part of the northern Illinois goose season and the kids did not have any hockey games or practices on the schedule.

We took advantage of this rare occurrence and piled in the 1994 Volvo for a trip to outer-suburbia that took us as far west as Rochelle, IL, about 80 miles west of where we live. I persuaded the kids to come along because I promised our destination that day would be that extraordinary piece of railroad real estate known as the Box, which happens to be the junction of the main lines to and from Chicago for the country's two major rail lines - the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. The experience there is like watching Thomas the Tank Engine on steroids.

In the back of my mind, however, was the ulterior motive for the trip. After some train spotting and a suitable lunch, during the trip back home, I would follow the back roads and scout the fields for flocks of feeding geese. Once spotted, my plan was to obtain permission from the landowner to hunt the "X" the following morning.

The temperature that day was in the 50s, the sun shone brightly, and, as luck would have it, we hadn't seen a goose all day. Just the week before, while driving home from a waterfowl hunting trip on the Mississippi River south of Burlington, Iowa, I had spotted thousands of geese feeding in harvested fields adjacent to Interstate 88, near DeKalb, IL. But today - nothing.

Birds will react better in areas theyre comfortable using on a regular basis

After we passed through DeKalb, on IL-38, it didn't take long before the ulterior motive for the trip became the real reason we had come this far. My jaw dropped as we spotted about 500 Canada geese lazing in a crescent-shaped sheet-water pond on a chopped corn field. A quick u-turn and another slow-speed drive-by to survey the spectacle of 500 geese no more than few hundred yards from the road confirmed what we had seen. I turned into the driveway closest to the field where the geese were working and hoped the house at the end of the path belonged to the guy who owned the adjacent land. Turns out it did and after promising the land owner that mine would be a one-time hunt (at his insistence) and that I would gladly give him a goose if I got my limit, he cheerfully granted me permission to hunt his field the next morning.

The alarm went off at 3:30 the next morning and by 4:00, I was on the road. Driving on Chicago's expressways that time of day, it takes only slightly over 90 minutes to cover the distance between the densely populated suburbs where I live and the transitional zone between newly-built bedroom communities and old-time farms. When I arrived at the field I eased off the highway and on to a grassy strip parallel to the road that led to the flooded low spot in the field. I lowered the window to survey the scene and immediately noticed that geese were still on the pond. What do I do now?

With the wind the way it was that morning, the only place to hunt without walking through the middle of the geese was on the downwind spit of land at the center of the crescent-shaped pond. I started lugging my decoys to the spot. The geese didn't like the intrusion and moved away from my side of the pond, but to my astonishment, did not take flight. I made about eight trips from the car to the spot I wanted to hunt and each time the geese noisily raised the alarm, but none flew away. After about 45 minutes of setting decoys and positioning my field blind, I climbed into my blind and waited for shooting time. A pack of coyotes, my competitors for geese that morning, also noticed my presence and yelped their disapproval from an unseen distance. Over the next 15 minutes or so, the 150 or 200 geese not 50 yards behind me, seemed to forget about me and settled in to welcome the dawn.

Adrenaline rush for a waterfowler

At about the same moment shooting time arrived, a lone goose approached directly in front of me, set its wings and glided in 10 yards over my blind to join its companions on the pond. In Illinois, the limit is two per day, so I decided not to take the single and wait for a group of two or more to come into the decoys before reminding my neighbors of my presence. Five minutes later, but this time off to my right, another single glided tantalizingly into range. Again I waited. Meanwhile, I never made a sound with my goose call. The geese behind me did all the calling and surprisingly, they honked and clucked more sparingly than me when calling to new arrivals. About 15 minutes later, my unwitting hunting partners called in the pair for which I had been waiting. The two geese set their wings about 50 yards in front of me and glided toward my blind about 15 yards off the deck. I raised up and had my pair on the ground at 7:30 in the morning, about 40 minutes after legal shooting time.

At the sound of my barrage, the flock behind me left in a panic and surprisingly, given the wind direction, none of them circled back above me. I gathered up the dead pair, put half a dozen full-body decoys on the iced-over pond directly behind my blind and began an experiment to see whether additional geese would land in the field. Didn't take long, about half an hour, and geese began to filter back in to the field. First in small groups, then progressively larger ones until, finally, groups of 10 to 25 birds would spot my decoys, hear a couple of soft clucks and grunts from me, and land within gun range.

As I packed up the car that morning, I considered what had just happened and realized it had been the single best goose hunt I've known. Never had I witnessed geese landing in my face with so little effort. Never before, I realized, had I hunted on the "X." Here are the lessons I took from that hunt.
  • Hunting the X is easier than running traffic.
  • Hunting the X takes less goose-calling talent and know-how than running traffic.
  • Hunting the X takes more preparation and time than running traffic.
  • Hunting the X yields more consistent results than running traffic.
It is obvious that hunting the "X" is a more effective way to hunt geese than running traffic. The trouble is, when one lives in an urban area and has only limited time to devote to hunting, how does one get the scouting done? I need to think about that one during the long off season.