We were laying there on our backs in the stubble of a barley field, staring at the fading stars of dawn, when they arrived: Long strings of Canada geese, cackling and yodeling to each other on their way to the river.
The strings grew into great clouds of geese, flying this way and that over the field. They were here to eat waste grain left by the farmer. We were here for them.
A gaggle of lifelike decoys perched all around our coffin blinds, and Tony, our guide, chortled and barked up at the live geese with his calls. “Out in front! Down low,” Tony hissed. Jim and I saw them, a line of about a dozen geese sailing in toward the decoys, wings locked.
Tony shouted, “Take ’em, boys!” and Jim and I let loose. Still smarting from my sharptail grouse hunt two days before — I’d become flustered at a flock and shot wildly — I calmed down and chose one goose, tracked it with the barrel and killed it with one shot. Mild surprise. I looked up. The other geese were still in range! I tracked another and killed that one with a single shot as well. A double — and it was just barely dawn!
The hunting remained hot the whole morning, and I wound up shooting five geese, including my first-ever giant Canada goose, which weighed nearly 13 pounds. I could have killed my limit of eight, but whiffed on a few gimme shots. Even so, I’d never shot five geese in a day before.
Welcome back to Silverback Lodge.
A year ago, I said I would not return to Canada to hunt ducks and geese. While the hunting had been good and lodge comfortable, it was just too tough to transport the birds back home to my kitchen. And, then as now, I view myself as a cook who hunts, not a hunter who cooks. So why the change of heart?
This time I decided to drive from California to Manitoba, not fly. United Airlines was the root of my frustration in last year’s trip, and Holly just had a wallet-wrenching experience taking birds back from her hunt in North Dakota. Besides, I’d been due for a long road trip anyhow. My friend Jim, who hunted with me in Canada last year, went with me, making the drive a lot easier.
We started with a hunt for sharptail grouse in North Dakota, and by the time we headed north to Canada, we’d already driven more than 1,600 miles. Ever wonder what happens to the front of your car when you drive that long?
That’s Bud. He was a grasshopper before he met his end at the front of Jim’s Tundra, no doubt while we were driving 80 miles an hour somewhere. If you look closely, you will see Charlie, also a grasshopper, behind him. We lost Charlie somewhere around Nebraska, but Bud may still be stuck in the grill. Suffice to say we killed a lot of bugs on this trip.
Once we got into Canada, we soon learned that Canadians don’t drive like we do. Their speed limits are impossibly slow — 62 miles per hour on a highway?! How to they get anywhere? I made sure Jim drove, as I think my head would have exploded had I driven even close to that pace.
Finally, we got to the lodge. It was as we left it last year. Gail and Tony Ducharme were there, as was their daughter Chantelle and uncle Reggie and the whole crew. We met our hunting companions right away — two pairs of guys from Illinois, all serious hunters and good people. Thankfully there would be no repeat of the arrogant aristocrats from last year.
That goose hunt we started with fulfilled a wish Jim and I had had the previous year: We all shoot plenty of ducks in California each season, but neither Jim nor Holly nor I see many Canada geese where we hunt. And I definitely wanted to take some home to mess around with in the kitchen.
We did of course hunt ducks with Silverback, and for the most part the shooting was spectacular. Jim and I both shot our limits the second day, and we even managed to bring down some canvasbacks and redheads — two ducks I rarely see in California. Jim got himself a blue-winged teal, too, while I shot the only drake mallard of the trip.
Interestingly, this mallard had plenty of fat on it, almost like the California birds we’re used to. Last year we shot clouds of mallards, but they were all so scrawny they were pretty much useless in the kitchen. Those, apparently, were Northern mallards that had just arrived. Starving, they descended on our decoys desperate for food. My mallard this year was a resident. Big difference.
The last day was slow, but I still managed to kill four birds, including a nice redhead. The highlight of that day, however, was our “pet” hen teal. She landed in our decoys before shooting time, and we decided to let her live because we wanted larger ducks. At one point, right around dawn, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.
Sorry it’s blurry, but what you are seeing is the live hen teal hanging around with a hen teal decoy — the live bird is on the right. Very cute. With such a quiet morning, it was nice to have someone wandering around in our decoys, quacking all the while. A hen teal’s quack sounds disturbingly like the laugh of Salacious Crumb, the icky little creature that sat on Jabba the Hut’s shoulder. (There’s audio of teal here.) Pretty funny.
All told, Jim and I had a great time. The Ducharmes even resolved my nitpick about handling the birds by building a plucking shed, complete with sink, big pot of wax and a plucking machine. Way better than last year.
Everything about this experience was better, and I really think being on the road, and not in the air, had much to do with it. A road trip is a journey, a getaway, an experience where you slough off your daily routine, and, hopefully, your constant connection to the electronic world. It forces you to slow down.
On the road you see both the seasons and the terrain change as you travel mile after mile — the Great Basin, the Rockies, the Great Plains. Last year we stepped from Sacramento to St. Ambroise in a matter of hours. It was jarring, to say the least.
Yes, driving so far does take time. We covered 4,500 miles in all, mostly because an oil boom in Montana and the Dakotas has every motel booked every night all along a 400-mile stretch of highway; on the way home, Jim and I drove underneath it all, down to Omaha, Nebraska. It took us two nights to get to North Dakota, and two nights back, although it might have taken us three nights had we not ground through 1,1oo miles from Sioux City, Iowa, to Salt Lake City, Utah, in one day.
We were away from home for 11 days. That’s a long time in this day and age. But I’d better get used to it. I just got a look at the first draft of my book’s cover. We now have an official title: “Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast.” And God willing, the book should be out in spring. That means a book tour, and that means I’ll be on the road again.
I can’t wait.