Getting the Christmas Goose

Tonto co-owner Eric Flatt is out hunting for his family’s annual Christmas goose. If you’ve never hunted geese and wonder how it’s done, here’s a fascinating recounting:

I go almost every year to shoot my Christmas Goose at a hunt club called Cibola Sportsman’s Club in Cibola, AZ, on the Colorado river about 30 minutes south of Blythe. You actually cross into California and then drop back across the mighty river into Arizona.

The Cibola preserve, just south of where we hunt, is protected and is a winter home for thousands of geese and ducks. So, when the geese come off the preserve and fly to the fields to eat, BANG, this is where we hunt. There are a ton of deer, coyotes, fox, bobcat, etc, too.

We wake up way before sunrise, around 4:30 a.m. to have breakfast and get our gear together. We check in at the club office and find out which blind and which field location we will be in. Our guide is Bob Fields, the state champion goose caller year after year.

So, we get out into the field, find our blind. It’s dark, mind you, and it’s damn cold. The blinds are big concrete rectangles tanks set into the ground. The top of the blind is even with the top of the ground. There is a padded bench seat and a propane heater inside. The top of the blind rolls closed over you and is covered with a camouflage-type cloth we can see through. We turn our radios on, load our guns and wait for sunrise.

Surrounding the blinds are ponds of low-level water and fields of alfalfa. A couple hundred plastic geese decoys are put out. The guide sets in a separate smaller blind along side his trusty Labrador retriever. As it starts to get light, we see and hear thousands of birds flying high above, mostly heading north to feed in the crop fields. There are also geese flying in from Canada or Alaska. They fly virtually nonstop to get here, so I usually pick my time to hunt around the full moon because that’s usually when they’re flying.

So, birds are moving, and this is where the fun begins. Bob watches the sky and the birds until he sees a group that looks interested or is coming close to us. We slide the tops closed and pick a hole or two look through. Bob starts blowing loud goose calls. It is a long honking process and the geese talk back. This communication continues between the two until the geese get with in range, and he basically works the birds to set them down right on top of us.

When he feels right, he calls out over the radio, “Take ’em!” That’s when we slide the doors open and the shooting begins. Geese are extremely durable birds, so the only way to take them down is to shoot them in the head or neck. To do this you need to lead them by a good foot. I have had geese right on top of me and I shot them three times in the belly, and they just look at me and fly off like nothing happened. The feathers are so dense, it’s hard for the pellets to penetrate.

The doors fly open and we pick a bird, release the safety and shoot once, pump, shoot, pump another round and shoot again. We’re allowed to have three rounds in our shotgun. Pretty much everyone uses a 12-gauge or 10-gauge shotgun. Nothing smaller works. For ammo, we mainly use a shotgun shell that contains Bismuth or Tungsten steel shot (it is very hard steel and has great penetration) and is a high brass shell, which means it has extra gunpowder in it. The more the gunpowder, the faster the flight. The new shells I bought fly at 1,750 FPS (feet per second). That’s damn fast. Most shells shoot 1,200 FPS.

So, blam, a goose goes down (hopefully) and you watch to see what the rest in the sky are doing while you quickly reload three more shells. Most of the time the geese turn on their turbo chargers and they are out of there. But … sometimes they circle around again and come back in confused. Then the shooting starts all over again. So, birds are down and the dog is released to do the retrieval. If it is in the water, the guide sends him out to those birds first. The dog brings them back and we check to make sure the bird is dead. If not, it is a quick ring of the neck, and lights out.

The birds are placed next to the blind you wait until another bunch comes in and the cycle repeats. Sounds easy and exciting right? Doesn’t always work that way. Some years we only get one group to come in all day. Other years I’ve had lots of birds coming in, but no one can seem to shoot straight and harvest zero birds. That’s why they call it “hunting” and not “taking!”

We also shoot ducks if they are coming in and no geese are around. But our main intent is giant honkers. We hunt till noon or so, head back to the club, clean our birds at the cleaning station (just gut them), pack them in the cooler and head home. Then the real fun begins: Plucking all those feathers.

I have gotten pretty good at this over the years and have a great technique. You get a large pot of water and add a little dish soap. Bring it up to a boil and dunk the bird in for about 30 seconds. Pull it out (not the best smell), let it cool and get to plucking. The soap helps the water to penetrate to the skin and the 30-second hot bath is just enough to lightly cook or firm up the skin. This make the feathers pull right out. Then it’s off to the sink for a good rinse and then a salt-water brine over night.

The next day I give it another good rinse and dry it, and it’s ready to be prepared for the feast. This is only one of two ways to get a goose. The other is just to go to the store and buy one that has been raised on a farm and comes shrink-wrapped and ready to cook. But that just doesn’t sound like any fun to me, and it certainly doesn’t taste the same on Christmas day!

Happy holidays from your local hunter,

Eric Flatt