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Think Big

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

"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?"

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.

A few years back, a company came out with the "Big Momma" blind, essentially a garage painted to look sort of like a goose. It required a trailer for transport, but once in the field, it comfortably housed two hunters. They'd burst out of a door whenever a goose set its wings within range. The blind proved too cumbersome for most, and it was discontinued after only a few years on the market.

Serious hunters persisted. In 1990, R.V. "Winnebago" Bailey thought he had the answer to many hunting hassles. Reached at his office in Castle Rock, Bailey, a former mining executive, recalls his brainstorm: "We had a 26-foot stretch limo that we weren't using very much anymore, and my wife and I got to talking that it might be kind of fun to make it into a giant goose blind."

Working together, the two fashioned an eight-foot head out of Styrofoam. Two canvas car covers (the stretch limo was too big for just one) were spray-painted into a semblance of a goose. "Of course, the closer you got, the more you could see what was going on," Bailey admits.

When the parade-sized, thirty-foot-long, fourteen-foot-high float was complete, Bailey had his driver -- outfitted in full formal chauffeur-wear -- drive it to a favorite hunting spot outside of Fort Collins. The immense head was transported in its own trailer. The top and bottom were united at a lush, goose-friendly location next to a river.

"I thought it would be neat to shoot out of the moon roof," Bailey recalls. Regrettably, state law prohibits discharging a firearm out of a vehicle. So next, he says, "I thought of putting the car up on blocks."

But that seemed too labor-intensive, even for guys accustomed to spending hours setting up hundreds of decoys in a perfect crescent-moon pattern. So the party settled for parking the goose limo next to their blinds. Then they waited.

The hunting got off to a slow start. At first the only thing that seemed attracted to the decoy was an airplane. "It kept circling and circling overhead; clearly, the pilot was wondering what that big bird on the ground was," Bailey recalls. "I felt like shooting at him."

Still, he swears the giant limo-bird eventually did its job. "You could see these geese off in the distance, and they saw the thing, and here they come...." He quickly filled his four-bird limit. "My biggest worry was that I'd hit one of those ten-pounders and it would fall and hit my decoy in the head and break it."

While certainly a breakthrough in mammoth goose-decoy inquiry, the setup proved too unwieldy for regular use. Soon after the Fort Collins trip, Bailey sold the limo. Today the giant head and goose-body skirt reside at his lodge in Canada.

Most goose-like blinds currently in use are considerably more modest in scale. Several companies sell a version that looks like a reclining lawn chair with a hollow magnum decoy hinged onto the back. The hunter sits with the goose shell perched over his head like a 1950s hair dryer. When a bird flies within range, he quickly flips the bird cover back, raises his gun and fires. But this invention, too, has its drawbacks: While many hunters are accustomed to the lounging position, not as many can shoot from it.


Patrick Maher first detected the need for a new colossal goose model about six years ago. A Minnesota native, Maher had attended the University of Wyoming and then moved to Denver as a young geologist. He made his fortune as an oilman before the big petrol bust of the 1980s, and when his oil company ran out of money a dozen years ago, he decided it was time to get out of the business altogether.

Today Maher has his hand in several ventures, but his real concern -- the thing that occupies most of his attention -- is the Canada goose. Generally speaking, he loves the birds. "They're so big, beautiful, majestic," he says. "It's quite an experience, a flock of birds circling your decoys, talking to them with your call, trying to bring them in."

 

More specifically, he enjoys their close proximity to his shotgun. And so, like many hunters before him, Maher has wrestled with the riddle of how to attract geese without prematurely revealing that he would like to kill them.

The problem, as he saw it, was twofold. The first part was adaptability. Maher does much of his hunting in Alberta, his wife's home, and for years he followed the lead of hunters there by constructing a blind with whatever was handy. "We were building all sorts of blinds with willows and grass and hay," he recalls. "It's a major construction project. Then you get out in the middle of a field and, well, the geese don't really like it." Worse, he adds, "a few years ago, Canadian farmers switched crops, to pea fields," which made the hay blinds even more obvious.

The second obstacle Maher encountered was his own creaky self: He wasn't getting any younger. The current model of giant goose blind "may be good for young people who don't mind lying down," he says, "but they're very restrictive. You can't move, and it's very difficult to shoot. Frankly, I wanted something more comfortable --something you could see well out of. And something that was warm."

So he started sketching. After a while, he showed his drawings to a plastics manufacturer. "It's nice," the guy told him. "Who's going to build it?"

"You are," Maher answered.

"No, I'm not," the man said, passing on phone numbers for two sculptors. The first one who answered Maher's call was Gary Staab, a world-renowned, Golden-based artist who sculpts dinosaurs and other prehistoric wildlife for such customers as the Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic.

At first, Staab was wary. "I know a lot of goose hunters," he says. "And most are pretty...weird." But Maher soon convinced him that his project was legit, and Staab eventually agreed to do the job. Plastics and production complications delayed the launch of a fully operational blind last year. But by this fall, everything was in place.

The final product turned out slightly different than Maher had originally envisioned. In the beginning, he'd pictured the big goose operating like an avian version of a bachelor-party cake. The hunter would sit inside a hollowed-out shell that resembled a napping goose. When the real geese hoved into range, he'd release a latch and the blind would split open down the middle. Then, like a dangerous dancing girl hired to entertain at a Cabela's Christmas party, the hunter would leap out, shotgun blazing.

The thin shell proved too flimsy for this concept to work, however, so Maher tinkered with the design. Ultimately, he settled on cutting two large squares out of the goose's back and hinging them like saloon doors -- a move both practical and aesthetically pleasing. "When you open the doors slowly, it's just like a goose opening its wings," he explains. "It's natural, and they just keep on a-coming."

A hole was cut into the back of the goose's head so that the hunter could look out; a folding steel chair with its legs sawed off was placed inside. The whole deal was set on a Lazy Susan that rested on a platform; another hole was cut in that so that the hunter's legs stuck out. By moving his feet from side to side, he could rotate the goose in a circle.

"It really is the cutting-edge of goose blinds," Maher says.


On the last day of November, Maher drove up to Fort Morgan. He'd arranged to meet up with another giant-goose-blind developer, Tom Hatfield, who'd begun tinkering with his own oversized goose-shaped blind about five years ago.

Like Maher, Hatfield has been forced to make improvements as he's gone along. His first model was practically medieval, an eighty-pound mound of vaguely goose-colored papier-mâché and chicken wire. "It was real ugly," he admits. "When I put it in the field, it looked like a pile of dirt with a head on it. Worked pretty well, though."

A couple of years ago, Hatfield decided to go to a vacuum-formed plastic shell, too. The current version is about nine feet long, although he says he'd like to make it bigger. The hunter sits in a chair with his head leaning against the back of the goose's neck, facing tailward; his feet rest inside the thorax. From a not-so-far distance, it looks as though the hunter is driving the wrong way inside an MG that happens to be painted like a Canada goose.

 

Hatfield insists the design works just fine as long as the hunter stays completely still. Privately, however, Maher is dubious of his competitor's claims. "He says it works pretty good, but I don't know," he says. "The geese can still see the hunter sitting there."

That night, Maher and Hatfield are joined by a friend of Hatfield's, who has driven in from the foothills to hang out with his buddy and bag a few geese using the latest in goose-blind technology. While the friend professes to be enthusiastic about both gargantuan geese, he is especially energized by the possibilities of Maher's design.

"You could add some padding inside," he says excitedly over dinner. "That'd be really nice. You add a heater, that's even better. And if you had some cup holders, I'd be home. It would be like sitting in my living room and opening the ceiling with a remote control and shooting the geese as they flew over my La-Z-Boy!"

The hunt begins at four the following morning. About 300 decoys are scattered across an old cornfield east of town, at even intervals throughout the spread. Then Maher and Hatfield set up their monster geese. The blinds tower over the regular decoys, looming beside the life-sized models like outsized Marphan-inflicted adults visiting a nursery school. The hunters climb inside and wait.

At about 7 a.m., the first geese begin flying by, their nasal blasts breaking the frigid morning air. The first wave, a classic 'V,' soars directly overhead. A few curious scouts take a cursory look at the odd, unevenly sized spread below -- and take a pass. So does the next wave. And the next.

In the following hour, thousands upon thousands of geese check out the spread. And reject it. It soon becomes painfully obvious that, at least on this morning, the discerning waterfowl of Morgan County will have nothing to do with their giant look-alikes. None drop close to shotgun range. Instead the birds choose to congregate on a field a half-mile away, which by nine that morning is looking like a goose Woodstock.

At 10 a.m., Maher and Hatfield decide to pack it in. The giant birds hang out of the men's pickup trucks like dismantled carnival rides. "Oh, well," says Maher. "At my age, it's just nice to be out there in the middle of the birds. It's a thrilling experience."


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