On Saturday I had said to my 7 year old son, my hunting buddy, that we should go camping the following evening, which was supposed to be reasonably warm, in the thirties, and get up early to call coyotes on public access land in farm country about an hour away. I had Monday off because of the federal holiday. But on the Lord’s Day, I was tired after preaching twice and driving nearly 150 miles, and I just wasn’t up to getting out all the camping equipment and pitching an incomplete tent in the dark. Plus, while he and I were both reading theology while sitting on the back porch, and I was smoking a cigar, we saw hundreds of Canada geese flying in formation overhead. We both simultaneously arrived at the idea to hunt geese on the following morning instead of coyotes (much tastier.) There is also a convenient location nearby to hunt geese, Schilling Wildlife Management Area, at the confluence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers. I could hardly sleep in anticipation. At around four o’clock, I rose and used the bathroom. I boiled some water for coffee. When it was a quarter to five, I quietly went into my buddy’s room and whispered, “Do you want to go hunting?” He immediately sat up and nodded his head in agreement, and made his way to wash up in the bathroom. I tried the same with my eldest daughter, but she barely budged. So my buddy and I managed to find enough camouflage clothing, and our hunting gear. We ate leftover homemade bread pudding for breakfast while I drank strong coffee poured from my French Press. I threw the duck decoys and my shotgun in the truck, and we were on our way. (Geese will be attracted to duck decoys, because seeing ducks around tells them it’s a safe area.) We decided to bring our German pointer. Even though he wouldn’t be much use for ducks, it would be nice to have him there in case we wanted to go after some partridge and quail in the afternoon, and he would appreciate getting a little exercise.
We slapped together a few sandwiches, grabbed some water bottles, and were on our way to Schilling. First we drove to the confluence of the Platte and Missouri rivers. It’s a spot frequented by waterfowl, though the sheer strength of the river current makes it difficult to set up decoys or retrieve game. We turned back to the other side of Schilling. When we got there we checked out a pond that we had in mind. It was too dark to see very well. But tossing a few wooden boards out on the pond convinced us that it was still frozen solid, not the best place to set up our decoys. We went back to the confluence. We waited for a while, and I finished my coffee. Within one hour to sunrise, we began to hear the honking of Canada geese. We put on our waders. My buddy was trying on his new waders from Cabela’s for the first time, the waders to replace the ones we mysteriously lost on our last outing. I chained up the pointer to the truck, so that he could not disturb our goose hunt.
At seven-twenty seven, one half hour before sunrise, we were ready to go. I loaded up with three three and a half inch shells full of number two steel shot. We were locked and loaded, and headed toward the mighty Missouri. We passed the spot where we had set up our decoys last time, and spotted a flock of Canada geese on the river, about one hundred fifty yards from the bank. I immediately got the idea that we could sit in the vicinity of this flock instead of setting up our duck decoys. Live geese are better to attract geese than plastic ducks! I wished my dog back at the truck would shut up. He thought we had left him forever. The flock of geese were out of the range of my shotgun, but if we creeped up slowly and didn’t spook them, we could set up by the river under a big fallen log that lay on the bank of the river, with good cover, and perhaps some geese would fly overhead. My buddy stalked quietly, and I felt proud to see him show some woodsman skill in the way that he followed me to the cover. He was well camouflaged in his coat and hat. We got to where we had a good view of the flock of geese. What better learning opportunity could there be, than to quietly spy our game, to learn their habits and behavior? We sat quietly. My buddy was perfectly still. Not five minutes later, a few geese were flying from the north. I concealed myself under the log and got up to my knees to be prepared to fire if they came close enough. They turned toward the river and I held my fire. Two geese came flying from the Iowa side of the river toward us, and flew right above our heads. I led the first goose with my twelve gauge, and pulled the trigger. A second later I heard a great “smack” on the river. I didn’t see the goose drop because I was focused on shooting the second one too. I pumped my action, and pulled the trigger a second time. “Click”, nothing happened. I realized that in my excitement I had failed to pump the action hard enough to extract the first empty three and a half inch magnum shell. I had reinserted the empty shell into the action. Now I vigorously pumped twice, extracted the empty shell, and the remaining live shell, too. I grabbed three shells from my bandoleer and reloaded. At that moment I looked to see the goose that I had downed. It was on the river, toward the center, its neck erect and head alive. I fired twice. The second shot killed it. The head was no longer visible. I must have hit it. I watched helplessly as the goose floated toward the fast-moving current of the middle of the Missouri river. I began to run in the same direction, downstream, along the bank. I called to my buddy but he didn’t need to be told what I was doing. He was following close after. The geese were active this morning. They kept flying overhead as I was trying to keep an eye on the downed bird floating down the river. They were a bit too high, but I must have fired nine times. My confidence was up after hitting the one. While I was firing at the birds, I had left my dog’s collar unbuckled. He took off, and we never saw the collar again, with its brand new medallions for a dog license and rabies vaccination. The prized game bird floated as we ran downstream, until finally it was out of sight, hidden by the glare of the morning sun rising over the Iowa horizon. My buddy insisted that we should make every effort to go and find it, and so we agreed to take a bridge from Nebraska to Iowa to see if we could find it, if perchance it had floated to the opposite bank and been stopped by something. I thought it was worth a try, and besides, it would be fun. But I didn’t even know how to get to the Iowa side.
We stopped back in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, at the police station to get general directions on where to find the nearest bridge over the river. When we crossed the river, it was quite a chore to find out how to actually get to the river bank. “There is no public access”, I was told by a woman at a farmhouse where we asked for directions. Not letting that deter us, we found a service road right in front of a bridge leading back over the river. We got off the highway, and drove along a gravel road to a muddy spot rutted with tire tracks. That was the end of our driving. We got out, and headed out on foot, in our boots (without the waders.) I reasoned that the waders would be too uncomfortable for walking, and that if we found the goose I could get myself wet for the short period of time it would take to get it out of the river without endangering myself as a prolonged exposure might. By this time the temperature was about thirty degrees, it was sunny, and we felt quite warm. We didn’t wear our coats when we set out. We hiked from our improvised parking spot to the river. The riverbed was covered by jagged rock. The pointer sometimes stayed with us, but mostly not. We sometimes walked on the jagged rocks on the river bank, and sometimes up on the bank among the trees, alternating as the path seemed easier. I was glad to be wearing my old trusty gore text Danner boots, the ones that got me through survival and evasion training sixteen years ago. I had flashbacks of that training as we made our way over the rocks and fallen timber. After traveling for two miles, we were tired. We sat down as I pulled two salami sandwiches and two water bottles from my cargo pockets. My buddy was smiling the whole way. Along the way he was throwing rocks and sticks into the river, shucking corn cobs, and stuffing goose and turkey feathers in his pocket for safe-keeping. We were having an adventure, hiking along the Missouri river, looking for my downed goose. He would not have had it any other way. We decided that we were not going to find the goose, so we backtracked. Meanwhile the pointer had managed to get himself lost. He came to us as we trekked back through woods and on the edge of cornrows. (I was not carrying any firearm as this was Iowa, and I am only licensed to hunt in Nebraska.) He regained us twice, and got lost again. We made it back to the truck about five hours after we had begun our hike. My buddy was as content as could be. We napped for forty minutes under the hot Iowa sun, removing our long sleeve shirts and keeping the door open in the warm fifty degree noon weather. The dog never returned. I began to worry that he had collapsed of heat exhaustion, frantic about having lost us. I had called, clapped, and honked the horn of the truck to call him. Now my buddy and I took off on foot to find the dog. He had lost his collar, and if anything would happen to him, we would never find out. It took about a half a mile trek back south along the river, and finally he came limping out, tired, his paws sore and bleeding from looking for us. That dog never did learn to stick close by. I poured some water out of a bottle for him to lap up, and dowsed his head and back with the rest. Finally we had him, and we headed back to the truck. I threw the dog in the truck and we headed home. It’s a true blessing to have a hunting buddy who will push me and encourage me to press on, my seven-year old son. We had seen hundreds of majestic Canada geese, shot one way overhead, and trekked for miles along the Missouri river today. What an adventure. We can’t wait to do it again.