A Hunter’s Swan Song
by Hugh A Tague
I grew up on a small island that was part of the “Barrier Islands” of New Jersey. During the summer, the entire area became inundated with tourists. We had the cleanest, safest beaches on the east coast, an award-winning boardwalk, and both Philadelphia and New York City were within driving distance. The summers were great for making money. There were part-time and full-time jobs aplenty. But the winter-times were a whole different story. Not only did the tourists go home for the winter, most of the property owners also left for warmer places or lived inland, leaving the islands all but desolate in the winter months.
The islands, just as suggested, are surrounded by water; the Atlantic Ocean, on the east side, and the intercostals, or bays, on the west. The ends were dotted with inlets where the ocean met the bays. The intercostals were mostly marshlands, with canals and creeks and bays of saltwater and mud.
The mud was a constant in the marsh, and had the consistency of baby-poo! During low tide, twice a day, it didn’t smell much better than it looked. But still, these marshlands act as nurseries for fish and supported a host of wildlife, including almost every migratory duck there is: black ducks, mallards, pintail buffleheads, loons and coots. Even the somewhat rare-at-the-time wood duck, just to name some off the top of my head.
In the winter, there were precious few year-round jobs. Most natives worked two, maybe three during the summer, and collected unemployment in the winter. It wasn’t by choice; it was just the reality of living at the seashore year ’round.
Firearms were a passion of mine, as was nature. So hunting was a favorite hobby. With a lot of practice, I became pretty good at it. My love of nature helped me to track and locate animals. My passion for guns provided me with the knowledge to know the right tools for the job, if you will. For example, most duck and goose hunters use a 12 gauge shotgun. An excellent choice. There is a host of different shells, (ammo), to use, and it’s a great choice, most of the time. But duck and geese often fly just out of range of a 12 gauge. So I sometimes opted for a 10 gauge and was able to reach out just a little farther, giving me a slight advantage. It was a single shot and it was quite heavy, but I was a big boy, so I could handle the recoil. I was deadly accurate with it. I mostly used it for geese as they were much bigger than ducks and much smarter. They always stayed just out of range of the standard shotguns, even firing magnum rounds.
Goose season is what this story is all about. Well, more or less, as you will see. Anyway, my best friend’s name was Pete. Most of Pete’s family owned motels, and they made a decent living, but Pete was the furthest thing from a spoiled brat. While he did have a lot of the newest toys, and a few luxuries that most of us didn’t have, he was humble, and very nice guy. I certainly wouldn’t have hung around with him if he wasn’t.
So, Pete decided to take up hunting and, even though I wasn’t able to go deer hunting in early December, (due to work), I gave him some very good advice. On his first day of his first season, he landed a buck. As I stated earlier, he was great guy, so all that I knew was at his disposal.
Well, later that winter, goose season rolled around, and Pete wanted to learn how to hunt them. So naturally he came to me. He made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse. He would pay for ammo, gas, and supply a vehicle, if I were to take him goose hunting and teach him what I knew. Well, this was a no brainier! Not only would I save money, but I liked spending time with Pete, so we had a deal.
Another benefit was Pete’s family. Pete was Italian. His parents and grandparents were right from Italy. His grandfather didn’t even speak English. And boy, could these people cook!! Pete and I would go out hunting, early in the morning, and hunt for four to five hours, then go back to his house and have lunch. We would walk into their gigantic kitchen, and the women of the family were always cooking something delicious! My favorite was the fried cheese. Being of Irish decent, I had never before tried most of what they fed me, but I enjoyed every bite.
We always took our boots off outside after a long morning of walking through the baby-poo mud and wind-whipping in sub-zero temperatures. A dry, warm place to sit, and some home-cooked food was always a great distraction. If we had ducks or geese, Pete’s grandfather would take them off our hands right away. He would take them to the back and butcher them just like he did in the “Old Country.” This family was very traditional, and Pete and I were supplying the family with nature’s bounty. Something they all appreciated and respected. We were treated like princes coming back from a hunt, with food for the village. They took very good care of us, I suppose it was something like what it might feel like to be part of a Tuscan village in Italy and be appreciated for your work to feed the village. I remember and carry that great feeling with me to this day.
This one morning started like most others. We grabbed coffee and headed out to the marsh in Pete’s station wagon. Just before the inlet, in a small salt-pond, maybe fifty or sixty yards off the road, was a Canadian goose. The most common of geese to be encountered and the ones we almost always harvested. It was out in the open, so sneaking up would be tricky. I decided take this one myself, and Pete would be taking notes So I grabbed my 10-gauge and slowly began walking out to the target. I knew that the goose wouldn’t let me get too close, so I only walked when it wasn’t looking. Before long, I had closed the gap, and brought myself within 10-gauge range. I got down on one knee, and slowly raised my gun to my cheek. I looked down the barrel at my target and waited until it turned and walked away from me. You should always shoot waterfowl against the direction of its feathers. The bird’s feathers can, and will deflect shotgun pellets, causing you to lose the bird or worse wound it. When the time was just right, I squeezed off the shot, and the goose dropped straight to the ground. Pete was back at the car watching my every move through a pair of field binoculars. He was so excited. he said it was perfect, just like he had seen in videos and read in countless magazines.
With one in the bag, we headed over the draw bridge that connected the islands and went over to the inlet. We paid our toll at the top of the bridge and the toll-taker saw our hunting gear and wished us good luck hunting. They were really quite nice, no doubt just happy to talk to a human on some long winter days.
Just on the other side of the bridge, lay two, maybe three miles of marsh before the next town. The marsh of prime duck and goose hunting. I saw some fly overhead, so I told Pete to pull over and we will find a good place to sit and see if any fly low enough for us to take a shot. It was quite cold I had a wool hunting coat and pants on. The coat pockets full of ammo, a knife and a goose call. Of course, as always I had the all the important hip waders for walking through mud and water when necessary. We were well hidden behind a wall of high reeds, but still squadron after squadron of geese in “V” formation flew over us just out of reach of even our magnum rounds. Then finally the honking of the birds became louder so I peered out through the reeds and saw the next group coming directly for us was lower, defiantly in range of our shotguns. Pete had a 12 gauge automatic, loaded with three rounds and I had Old Betsy, my single shot ten gauge with one round in the chamber. I whispered to Pete, “On my count, we stand up you set your sight just ahead of one goose and fire.” After I counted to three, we did just that. Two birds fell from the sky. One was dead before it hit the ground, but the other went down just behind us in the inlet. I ran as fast as I could in my waders, reloading as I ran. There, in the inlet, was the bird floating up and down with the waves.
The inlets were almost always very rough and choppy because the bay or intercostals water current meet the ocean currents. Today was no exception. Inlets are also very deep. 20-30 feet at low tide, and double that or more at high tide, depending on the moon phase and the wind.
I was loaded and ready to make the kill shot. The goose was not swimming away, but was swimming toward the shore and myself. I carefully reached out with my shotgun extended, trying to use it to pull the bird in. Then it happened. I slipped off the muddy edge of the shore line and fell into the deep cold water of the inlet. A 30 lb. shotgun in my hand, I was on my way to the bottom for sure! But to my surprise I was not on my way to the bottom of the inlet. I was in fact, floating over each little wave with ease! I hadn’t so much as lost my hat! My arm around the goose, my shotgun still in hand, the bird had become a personal flotation device! Pete now was there. He held his shotgun out to me. I grabbed it and pulled myself and the goose ashore. I sat there for a second to catch my breath and I couldn’t believe what just happened.
With my now freezing hand around the beast’s long thick neck, I brought his head to my face. I stared into his eyes from across his beak. I saw a little blood in the corner of his eye and I remembered what got us to this point. Goose hunting. I released his neck and thought I would see what he would do next. If he were to take flight, I would simply bid him farewell and that would be that. He waddled off in Pete’s direction, and there next to Pete, was the other bird dead. He went right to the other goose and laid his head on top of the dead bird. As I sloshed over to him, I noticed a couple more places where the red was bleeding through the birds pure white feathers. I knew what I had to do next. I grabbed him by his neck and as quick as I could I twisted his head around three times and stretched his neck, breaking it. I then held its beak in my hand tight being sure to cover up the holes that it breathed through and I held the bird’s head to my chest until I knew he was gone.
This is not what I signed up for. I wondered how Pete was digesting all of this. He looked at me with a very inquisitive expression on his face and asked, “What kind of geese are these?” And just like that, I was snapped back to reality. Pete didn’t over think things, and I almost always do. I said that they were snow geese. But as I looked closer, I noticed that there were no black markings on the tips of their wings like most snow geese have. And the truth was, despite all my experience hunting waterfowl, I hadn’t ever harvested a snow goose until now. Typically snow geese are hunted in a field. Especially in a farmed or tilled field. I mostly hunted marshlands and usually shot Canadian geese. Our birds were all white, but that wasn’t unusual from pictures I had seen of snow geese, some had more black in them than others.
I began to strip off all the wet and muddy clothes I had on. And in my long johns and socks, I took the muddy things to the inlet and rinsed them in the sea water. Oddly enough, I wasn’t cold anymore. Pete took the geese and the rest of the equipment to the station wagon while I cleaned up. As I got close to it, I realized just how big our geese were. Pete had tied them to the roof of the wagon. I thought to my self, “Wow that’s a lot of duck!” We jumped in the car and headed back to Pete’s house. As we went over the bridge, the toll taker was quite impressed with our bounty and congratulated us.
As soon as we got to Pete’s house, I called my friends Jeff and Earl. I knew they were hunting near my house that was about 5-6 miles south of where Pete and I took our birds. I noticed that the geese were all heading in that direction and I wanted to brag a bit about our “giant snows.” I asked Jeff what was the biggest goose they got. He said about 14 lbs. That’s a good size Canadian for sure. I said, “We got you beat. We got two giant snow geese. One is 32 and the other 35 lbs.!” He said, “Really?” I’d like to see them!” I said, “Okay. We will be their in about 20 minutes.”
I changed in to some clean, dry clothes and we headed over. On the way through town, we definitely drew attention with almost 70 lbs. of duck strapped to the roof of the car! Mostly just people giving us the thumbs up. And of course we would wave back. We pulled up at Earl’s house. He and Jeff came out with their eyes bulging! Earl turned and went back in the house and emerged about a minute later with the Audubon Field Guide (bird identification manual).
He flipped through the book for a second or two and while pointing at a page said, “They’re swans.” Now I was bug-eyed! We cut them down and put them inside the wagon Good thing the game warden didn’t see us driving through town earlier with swans on the roof of the car! We took them back to Pete’s grandfather for butchering. Delicious Dark Meat! No sense wasting them. That would be a bigger crime then accidentally mistaking a swan for a snow goose.
Perhaps the best part of this story is what happened the next day when Jeff and Earl decided to hunt in the spot we got the swans. When they went over the bridge the toll taker noticed they had hunting gear on. He asked them if they were going duck hunting? Jeff said, “Yup!” He said, “Well good luck. These two guys came through here yesterday with two of the biggest ducks I have ever seen!”