Your eyes accustomed to the gloom, you set decoys in a darkness that really isn’t. In the standing corn behind you that will, moments from now, serve as your blind, there’s movement—a rustle, then another. You ready yourself for the masked bandit face, and are greeted instead by a grey muzzle and the enthusiastic panting known only to pre-hunt Labrador retrievers and their owners. To the east, the pink glow that heralds the Ohio sunrise changes first to red, and then orange.
Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?Your brain, still tethered hopelessly to Spring, awaits a gobble that doesn’t come. It’s not, however, the fault of the barred owls, each of the pair giving their all before night surrenders to the coming of day.
“Geese!” Down the line, it comes as a whispered hiss, a one-word command that means ready and quiet. You listen, ears straining to catch the faintest sound. And it comes, a rise and fall. Both melodic and broken, the deeper resonant tones mingling with the high-pitched barks and yelps of the young. Wrists turn as watches are checked and checked again, white-toothed smiles against the greenish dim signaling it’s time.
Silhouettes appear on the horizon, strong wings scudding against the brightening sky. The acrylic call feels cool against your lips as you prepare yourself for the hunter’s equivalent of the annual first pitch. In the stillness that is dawn, the initial notes are an explosion—an auditory tempest quickly joined by others down the line. The silhouettes veer, changing course, drawn into the cone of sound as if it were a tractor beam. Against your leg, the lab shakes in anticipation. He’s heard it, too.
Unlike those of November, these birds perform no wide, tentative circles, but rather commit without hesitation to the 14 puesdo-geese arranged in the winter wheat not 25 yards in front of where you wait huddled in the stalks. “Now!” is the only word spoken, again in a whisper-hiss, and four guns rise together, the hollow booms echoing off the short timber at the edge of the field. Five birds fold and thud to the ground, then a sixth, and a seventh. The flattened grass beside you is now empty, the lab already on her way to the first. It’s over, the survivors a smoky smudge to the west, and the season officially open. It’s September 1.
Two hours later, and the scene has changed. Replacing the Canadas are scores of rocket-propelled swept-wing saber shapes. Down the length of yet another cut winter wheat field, the guns boom and pound, each adding to the throbbing tempo that is the opening day of dove season. Birds fall and birds don’t amid smiles, dogs, and the rekindling of gone-too-long friendships. The heat and the humidity, the mosquitoes and the all-too-obvious no-see-ums are forgotten.
That evening, as the sun drops behind the oaks ####### the shoreline of a Portage County impoundment known simply as West Branch, we set a match to the Coleman twin-mantle and lightly hook ‘crawlers on stinger hooked-armed leadhead jigs. Our quarry? Shallow water, sand flat walleyes, with the occasional channel ‘cat and rogue white bass thrown in, as if things weren’t interesting enough.
Two o’clock, and it’s a welcome cot in the Canvas Hilton pitched the night before the opener in a quiet corner of the state park adjoining the lake. Sleep comes easy, aided by the same Who cooks for you query that broke open the day. Deeper in the timber, a longbearded gobbler shifts on his roost before he, too, closes yet another chapter.