The Long Goose

   04.01.15

The Long Goose

Winter dawn comes slow and noisy in the southeast Texas rice country not far from the town of Eagle Lake. It’s muddy and flat, mostly gray at sunrise, and geese by the uncountable thousands take charge in a deafening din that must be heard to be believed.

The first big wedges of snow geese were stirring in the distance over roosting water that morning, while ducks darted overhead and single geese circled and dipped into our massive white-rag decoy spread. Eight of us plus two guides lay on our backs in white smocks to mimic the rag decoys. We were motionless and ready to shoot. But guide Dennis Sbrush said he’d wait to call first shots until a huge wedge of geese had spread out across our line of hunters.

We watched a spectacle of waking waterfowl grow restless in the distance. While we waited, solo geese and little clutches of ducks zipped scant yards above us. Easy shots, but we wanted big flocks.

With each guide sat a retriever. One was a barrel-chest 100-pound black Labrador, the other a golden retriever nearly as big. I had Belle, my diminutive 38-pound English springer spaniel, a fraction the size of her canine competition. While rural honesty bowed to Texas hospitality, the guides and some goose hunters in our spread smiled and softly chuckled about Belle. “Cute” was what one man said about springers early that morning as we set out hundreds of rag decoys.

Belle was three, and while she’d never even seen a goose, she was long experienced on ducks and had hunted everything with wings in a dozen states by the time she’d arrived in Texas. Still, there was doubt about what she’d do with an oversize snow–and what about cripples?

Those thoughts were gone as goose talk grew louder and more birds filled the sky. On my back, shotgun across my chest, Belle sat beside me in the crook of my arm. As dawn light improved and geese got more active, her stubby tail excitedly wagged non-stop, thumping and tickling my underarm.

Then, suddenly, a giant flight of geese worked toward us, hundreds of snows filled the air in wedges and Vs, little knots of birds and clusters. As they neared, they circled, and family groups began to land. One bird flew directly over Belle. Muscles tight, she watched the bird sail within arm’s reach above us. Her eyes were lasers on the bird–head pointed straight, then up and around as the goose passed over. By watching her head I knew the bird landed scant feet behind us. She stood, as chase instinct took charge.

“Sit!” I ordered softly.

She did, and turned to watch more incoming geese, which kept circling and dropping. Finally, when the sky was dark with cupped wings just 20 yards above us, Sbrush hollered, “Take ‘em.”

Ten shotguns rose, and the air filled with squawking and falling geese. The dogs were not tethered and broke to retrieve snows as they hit the ground. Belle fetched a close one fast, brought it back, and then eyed another farther one as it fell. The goose was hit hard, and Belle was right under it. But Arctic-strong wings of the snow fought against gravity, and the bird leveled off 30 feet above ground, heading away fast, Belle running flat out below and behind it.

In the shooting confusion I’d not seen Belle give chase until she and the goose were 200 yards out, heading hard toward a tree line over a quarter mile away. I found my whistle, blew it sharply to call her back. But she ignored it, doing instead what she was bred and trained to do.

The goose sailed over the trees, and Belle disappeared as a small black dot hundreds of yards away into the distance. I stood there despondent in the middle of a massive muddy Texas rice field, with no dog.

“Get down, more geese,” one of the guides barked, and I obeyed.

The birds kept coming, and we kept shooting, but my heart wasn’t in it. Every time I tried to leave the spread for Belle, more geese showed. So I stayed with the hunt.

Finally 20 minutes later, I came to the realization my dog was gone, lost somewhere in coyote-infested Texas, 1,000 miles from home, and I had no idea what to do about it.

About that time Sbrush yelled matter-of-factly, “Hey, McNally, here comes your dog.”

I stood and looked to the tree line, and she came at a snappy trot, bouncing through water and mud, head high, with a dead snow goose in her mouth.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” someone said.

“Helluva retrieve,” Sbrush chimed in, as Belle delivered the bird to my hand.

She was all wet and wiggly, wearing a happy springer face and ready to go again. I just patted her head, and smiled, as more incoming geese filled the Texas sky.

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