Think Big

When it comes to attracting geese, hunters are flying blind.

"In many ways, geese can be very smart," notes Tom Remington, avian research leader for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "For example, here in Fort Collins, when the students leave CSU for the holidays, the geese flock onto the campus. But when the students return, the geese leave."

On the other hand, he acknowledges, "At times, there's nothing dumber than a goose. Like when you shoot one, and the others in the flock keep coming in. There seems to be something motivating them besides survival."

The point, of course, is that geese spend the majority of their lives flying someplace between smart and dumb -- doing their best to navigate circumstances for which they are often unprepared. As Remington points out, "When you think about their evolutionary history, what would have programmed regular geese to be afraid of big fake geese?"

Birds of a feather: Tom Hatfield in his giant goose decoy.
Birds of a feather: Tom Hatfield in his giant goose decoy.

For the moment, the answer appears to be "nothing...yet." Which explains how it is that on a sub-freezing morning, I can sit inside a huge plastic goose and fully believe that the birds flying overhead won't be alarmed by the fact that, of the dozens of decoys spread out below, three happen to be the size of Volkswagen Beetles and have Sorel boots sticking out of their bottoms.

There's an old joke about fly fishermen: New flies are not made to attract fish; they're made to attract fly fishermen. The sport creates an endless craving for new equipment, on the assumption that no matter how ridiculous something looks or how much it costs, anything that might possibly attract a trout to your line is worth buying.

Goose hunters are the fly fishermen of hunting. "I don't want to use the word 'fanatical,'" says Mark Beam, who's been guiding goose-hunting expeditions out of Brighton for a dozen years. "Because that would make me a fanatic, which I don't think I am. Obsessive, maybe."

Still, Beam agrees it's fair to say that most serious goose hunters have issues. "The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem," he says. "But goose hunters don't even want to admit it. Every one of them has a shed full of stuff in the backyard that they've tried but doesn't work."

"It's an equipment-intensive sport," explains Remington. "And you have lots of time to sit there and stare at your spread."

On paper, the goose-hunting challenge seems uncomplicated: You must convince the birds to fly close enough so that you can shoot them. But the hordes of belligerent, diarrheal flocks that have taken over the city's park system notwithstanding, convincing birds to fly within range is far more difficult than it sounds, and over the years there have been plenty of innovations designed to tempt geese out of the sky.

Some of these are surprisingly low-tech -- more litter than innovation. Tossing diapers, garbage bags and paper plates onto a field to simulate a flock of snow geese, for example. Other methods are barely more sophisticated: Many hunters tie socks to sticks and wave them around in an attempt to simulate flapping goose wings.

When geese are involved, the distinction between hunting and humiliation is a fine one. Several years ago, Herter's, a respected North Carolina purveyor of outdoor gear, came out with the latest in goose attractants: a full-body suit designed to make its wearer look as much like a Canada goose as humanly possible. "You now become part of your decoy spread," the company's 1998 catalogue promised seductively. "The suit turns you into a magnum-sized decoy and lets you add motion to your spread by flapping and waddling around."

Goose hunters have been known to shoot at birds from grain elevators and leap out of plywood shelters that are painted to look like cows grazing in a field; however, a Herter's buyer admits that the $99.99 Goose Suit Canadian Decoy was an idea whose time had perhaps not yet arrived. "It sold some," he says, "but it wasn't received very well in hunting circles as a viable goose-hunting accessory."

Translation: "It was embarrassing," he says. "We used to have guys wear it at trade shows, but I would never wear one. It seems if a hunter wore it once in front of his buddies, it was usually the last time. We discontinued it after two seasons. That was plenty."

Once you've lured some geese within birdshot range, the next trick is to keep from scaring them off. Hunters have taxed their brains looking for better ways to render themselves invisible to overhead flocks. Beam remembers one friend who designed a blind entirely out of mirrors. The idea was that if the mirrors faithfully reflected the ground around them, the blind itself would be invisible. But the hunter neglected to consider the sun, whose reflection, rather than lulling the geese into an unsuspecting landing, instead drove them away in a blind panic.

Waterfowl seem to take the presence of colossal facsimiles more or less in stride, however. (An old Garrison Keillor monologue imagined what the birds thought as they flew overhead: "There's a duck down there; I can see it clearly. The lake seems a little smaller than last year....") And so, given the goose hunter's perpetual search for any gimmick that might make a difference, it was probably only a matter of time before someone hit on the idea of making a bird large enough to hide in. Giant hollow geese surmounted both of the hunter's hurdles, handling both concealment and attraction in a combined decoy/blind.

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