A Hunt Dedicated To My Dad
by: Tom Armbrust
Leaving Chicago’s O’Hare Airport bound for Houston, and then on to Eagle Lake, Texas, for our annual goose hunt would not be quite the same. My father had just passed away a few days before the trips departure. So many grand memories were passing through my mind.
My most memorable memory was the first time my dad let me shoot his 12 GA double shotgun when we were hunting ducks. I must have been about ten years old and my father always took my brother, Mike, and me hunting. We were putting out mallard decoys in a flooded cornfield at dawn. Soon the sky would be alive with birds, and pa could sure coax them in with his “Mallard Tone” call. After killing a clean double, he handed me his shotgun. He told me this fine old English gun was passed down from his father to his older brother, and then on to him. He said it had put hundreds of ducks in the bag. “Son”, he said, “it’s your turn to try and shoot some greenheads.” He told me to wait until some birds landed in with the decoys. Then he would pitch an ear of corn into the water to scare them into flight. Our Springer spaniel, King, looked on with anticipation for a retrieve.
Dad started calling and it seemed as if every dang duck in the country was coming with their landing gear down. In one quick motion, dad flung the ear of corn into the mob of ducks and cried “take em!” In my excitement, I touched off both triggers of the “old cannon” at the same second. The heavy recoil of the 12 GA’s double discharge of two and a half ounces of shot knocked me backwards into knee-deep cold water. Dad, with a hearty laugh, pulled me from the cold water and said, “You did fine! But you better go back to the car so you don’t freeze to death.” The only one not amused was our dog, as he gave me that look like “how the heck could you miss all of those birds?” All I had to show for it was one Susie. That duck hunt started a wonderful hunting relationship between my father and I for the next 27 years.
As our jet touched down and the brakes were applied, my daydreams were brought back to reality. I guess I would just have to accept the idea that my dad was gone. Anyway, next the mad dash from the airport with the rental car to Eagle Lake, about an 85 mile trip. We were soon leaving the heavy traffic and large population of Houston behind. As we headed west along I-10, farm buildings and a windmill here and there started popping up. The country is flat, dotted with old weathered fence posts and barbed wire, stretching for miles and miles out of sight. It was great to see live oaks with their green leaves, and the different types of cactus in the area, even a palmetto tree or two. Mesquite is common in the area, growing along fence lines and choking out other kinds of trees and scrub brush. Cattle graze here and there on the sparse prairie grass. I was amazed at the large size and different breeds of cattle in this area, the Brahma being the largest and most menacing breed.
Another point of interest is the Atwater National Prairie Chicken Wildlife Refuge. On a drive through the refuge’s miles of gravel roads, we viewed many wild birds and animals—hawks, buzzards, owls, quail, dove and different kinds of song birds. We also saw deer and havalina, but the prairie chicken is the bird that the refuge is home to.
Finally, we arrived at the Sportsman’s Motel by midnight. As I coasted into my parking spot with the car engine shut off, I was hoping not to awaken my hunting buddies who were already there. Well, no such luck, as I stumbled over my cot into the dark room and almost raised the dead! We unloaded our gear out of the car into the room. Within a matter of minutes our tidy room was cluttered with our hunting gear. A number of shotguns line the wall, gun cases thrown aside. A couple of cases of shotshell “ammo” had been torn into and loose shells were scattered around the room for the next morning’s hunt. The boxes were later carefully reorganized. Hip boots and “cammo” hunting clothes are piled in the corner of our room. It seemed like my head had just hit the pillow when we heard our guide, Dennis Sbrusch, pounding on our door at 4 a.m., yelling for us to get up.
We had a quick cup of coffee, then a forty mile drive south to goose country. Now the fun starts. First, hundreds of white plastic rags about three foot square are scattered around a feeding field by the guide and a helper. Next, in close pursuit, a number of hunters fluff up the rags to make them appear as lifelike as possible. They attach them to an eighteen inch high piece of quarter inch dowel rod with a rubber band. This is done with the hope of enticing passing flocks of geese into gun range. Normally, this would not be a bad duty, except that the task is done in total darkness in unfamiliar territory. We had three new fellows in our group, yet they did a fine job. Over the years, I have stumbled over uneven ground, fell flat on my face in mud, and did a swan dive into a drainage canal ditch full of water. What fun!
One of the most thrilling parts of the hunt is the morning darkness and gloom starting to burn off by the first light of dawn. It seems as if a whole world of nature’s life is about to be reborn. We could hear all those strange sounds, cries of curlew, pelican and a familiar sound of wild geese in the distance. We also could hear sandhill cranes, which have a wonderful sound all their own, almost like that of a cat purring.
The hunters lay flat on their backs, dressed in knee-length white parkas, among the white rag spread. I was so comfortable this first morning that I was about asleep as the warm sun was coming up. The peaceful early morning quiet was broken by our guide, Porky Stephens, yelling “take em!”, and I was suddenly awakened by the booming of 12 GA shotguns. Five geese were dropped from the first passing flock without any help from me. After this first barrage the geese just about stopped flying.
A few small flocks of birds were passing about a half- mile from the rag spread, passing over a tree line. This would be just the ticket for my hunting buddy, Norm, and I with our big 10 GA shotguns. Our guide calls this flight line shooting (we call it pass shooting), but the result is the same. We are pass shooting at high birds with big guns and large sizes of non-toxic shot (we were using size BBB and T Winchester “Super Steel” steel shot). I was surprised at how high we were dropping geese stone dead, sometimes at sixty yards up! Usually, it was just a couple of pellets in the breast or a broken wind that brought the bird down. These large steel pellets, with a high muzzle velocity of 1350 to 1400 FPS (feet per second) retain their downrange velocity well unlike the smaller steel pellets. Plus, they put enough pellet energy on the bird to kill it out to sixty yards and beyond.
I was shooting the new “Browning BPS” 10 GA pump shotgun with a 28 inch barrel which weighs in at 9-3/4 pounds. The choke tube is a “Clearview” extended ported choke with .035 constriction and a full taper section. The pump action is glass-smooth, and three quick shots are not a problem at all. In fact, just a couple of weeks before the trip, I blew a perfect round of skeet by missing my last target with this same gun. This isn’t too bad, considering most of our fellows think the 10 GA gun is a ‘canon’, and just too heavy to swing. A 12 GA magnum weighs about 1-1/2 pounds less and throws about 27 less BBB pellets per shot charge. Our guide told us that he feels the 10 GA is a real goose killing machine. But George, “Big G”, our host who sponsored the trip and uses a 20 GA Remington 870 Magnum says “Tom just thinks it’s a miracle gun!” We would soon find out.
Next morning, “Big G”, Dennis’s boy, Matt, and I had a tussle with a sandhill crane. We were using some large live oak trees for a blind to conceal us from passing cranes. These birds are very wary and usually stay wide of a rag spread. Our luck was about to change as a small flock was approaching. As they swung past us, George dropped a crane with his 20 GA, and I shot three “blanks” with the “Big 10”. George couldn’t pass this chance up, as he said, “What happened to the miracle gun?” But a problem developed, as the crane we dropped was crippled and landed about 150 yards away in tall grass. “Big G” told Matt to go get what he thought was the dead crane. Boy, was this kid in for a surprise! He was off in a dash and I was close behind with my camera. As Matt stopped a few feet short of his quarry, the crane sprang up, flapping its huge six foot wing span and hissing at us. George is yelling at us to ring its neck, yet Matt is only armed with his trusty Daisy “Red Ryder” BB gun. A couple of shots at the crane with this BB gun just made the bird more aggressive. Matt said, “Bang him up side of the head,” which was a wonderful idea. A final lunge and Matt was the victor. The long neck was draped over his shoulder and the long legs were dragging on the ground behind him. The kid came trudging up with a smile from ear to ear, saying, “look, ‘Big G’, we got him!” I detected a smile with a warm glow from George’s face.
Our hunters in the spread had 21 geese that morning, but Norm still wanted a crack at some cranes. We were stalking a small bunch of birds along a canal ditch when Norm stopped to relieve himself. Of course, any hunter knows it never fails when you have your fly open; four cranes came out over the tree line just to his right. Watching him empty his gun with his drawers at half-mast was quite a sight! But not a bird was dropped until my 10 GA went into action. As the birds were crossing a long ways out, my first shot dropped two birds’ dead with one shot. Well, that blew my cool and I muffed the last two shots. Norm and I started to roar with laughter. We were having a great time! These hunting trips turn grown men into boys once again. We leave our problems and work a long way behind us.
Before I go on, I need to stop and provide a little history behind this goose hunting area so that the whole picture is clear. Before irrigation came to Eagle Lake, most of the area was dry and used for grazing cattle on its sparse grass. Once the land became blessed with irrigation, crops could then be grown. I was told that almost all of the rice imported into this country before World War II came from the Orient. Needless to say, once the war got started, this source of rice came to a screeching halt. Rice seemed like a logical choice and it boomed because of this nation’s war created shortage.
With the rice now came migrating flocks of ducks and geese to their new found wintering and feeding grounds. Their numbers just kept growing, until now an estimated 3.5 million geese winter in this part of the country.
Dennis and Porky, our guides, tell how the early hunters like Jimmy Reel tied paper plates, newspapers, bed sheets, table cloths, baby diapers, and finally, light white plastic rags on sticks to simulate snow geese feeding in a rice field. As the number of goose hunters rose, and hunting pressure mounted, the birds got more wary and much harder to decoy into gun range. This is how commercial guides got their start, as well as more rags were now needed to attract the geese. Sometimes as many as 1000 rags are used in a spred, plus many full bodied decoys. We were also told of the big shoots where many cases of ammo were carried into a field and more than 100 birds were downed in a morning hunt.
Now let’s talk about eating in goose country. While on the trip, for two evening dinners, we were treated like royalty. First, our host was Louis Cranek, his son, Cotton, and Cotton’s wife, Connie. They are cattle ranchers and rice farmers in Garwood, Texas. I am not sure if they are fourth or fifth generation, but they have been there for a long spell. They own or lease most of the land that we shoot geese on. The barbecue that they put on for their hunters and friends has become an annual event with us.
As we walked into their house that night, the aroma was simply out of this world! A quarter of beef from their own stock is on the spit roasting, plus venison and feral pig. There are also homemade baked beans with bacon and a tangy sauce, which is an old family recipe. If that’s not enough, homemade bread and fresh apple pie for dessert! We spent the night talking about bygone days and how the rag spread and goose shooting got started during World War II. Louis has a special charm for stories, and told us how he shot his first two Canada geese when he was ten years old, using a bolt action .410 bore shotgun and 2-1/2 inch shells with No 4 shot. Louis said, “Those big geese were heavy, around 20 pounds, for a small boy to carry. Dragging them all the way home a couple of miles, I was proud to show them to my father.”
They also showed us the monster mule deer bucks (the racks were huge) that they had harvested while hunting in West Texas and Colorado. Cotton showed us the various riding and roping trophies and beautiful belt buckles his children had won in various rodeo competitions in the area. Southern hospitality was sure shown to us at the barbecue. The people were so friendly, going out of their way to show us a great time. Cotton said, “That show, The Walton’s, we are sort of like that with close family ties and always lending a helpful hand to a fellow farmer in need. We could have talked for hours more, but we had to end it and get ready for the next day’s hunt. For sure, though, it was a great time and a grand evening.
The second big evening dinner consisted of our own geese that we shot. Doug and Janie Schwemm of the Sportsman’s Restaurant cooked us up an excellent goose dinner the following evening, Cajun style. I have eaten many wild game dishes in different parts of the country, but this special treat was by far the best in my memory. The birds simply melted in your mouth with a delicious spicy, tangy flavor. They used stuffing and celery to fill the cavity, plus there was wild rice with thick brown gravy served on the side. I recommend this fine eating place, as an excellent menu is available for the hearty appetite, plus a catering service right to your home.
Well, we were down to our last morning hunt. Where does the time go when you are having a great time? Dennis really seemed pumped up about this shoot, as he had seen many birds in this field the evening before. His instincts told him to set up in this field. Our guides have many years of hunting experience under their belts, and they do a first class job with their many clients. One does not realize the hard work a guide goes through to provide a good hunt. They daily put on many miles of driving, scouting for birds. Then it’s up the next morning by 3 a.m. with little sleep to get the rag spread set up by dawn. Then, when the hunt is over, they have to pick up the spread, lug dead birds out of the field, plus still find any crippled birds with some dog work. Finally, they have to then check in and register the birds they killed that day. And then the cycle starts all over again! Porky, a crop duster, is a big help. He has no trouble finding geese due to his birds eye view in the air. Plus his knowledge of all the rice farmers is a great advantage and knowing every inch of this Texas goose country. Porky’s wife, Gay, also runs the picking house in Garwood and does a fine job picking and dressing birds for the hunters.
Now back to our last day’s hunt. At first light, many geese were on the wing and looking the spread over. Hundreds of birds were settling into the rice to feed about three hundred yards in front of us (darn it!). Dennis watched as birds would just not come into the rag spred. Then he finally yelled, “Grab your guns, take off your white, and head for that levee dike ahead.” He was our drill sergeant, “GO! GO! Get your butts up into that ditch and keep your faces down! Don’t shoot until the geese get directly overhead,” he yelled.
A heavy concentration of birds started working us over, and many flocks passed over our guns between fifty and sixty yards away. This is flight line shooting at its best. Five of us, with three new goose hunters not familiar to that type of shooting, downed 31 geese in less than one hour. I was in heaven shooting the big Browning 10 GA. I killed two high doubles and had two birds falling at once, making an impressive “thud” when they hit the ground. One heck of a shot if I do say so myself! Now, Tully, Big G’s faithful black lab who is going on eleven years old, and I went out to pick up some late and long falls on geese. A couple of these birds had fallen one-third of a mile from our shooting position. I can’t begin to tell you the admiration I have for this dog. He will still watch each bird with great enthusiasm and tremble with excitement at each and every shot. His nose is still good at finding birds in a heavy jungle of cover. The dog’s pace has slowed down the last couple of seasons, so George said that he might have to retire him after next year. His black whiskers are turning white below his chin and I think to myself, where has the time gone? Tully has retrieved hundreds of ducks and geese over his last ten years in action both at the Bull Valley Hunt Club back home and in Canada and Texas.
I consider myself very lucky and blessed to have gotten a pup out of Tully’s litter three years ago. I named him Bear. Bear takes after his old man as he is a fine hunter. We have enjoyed many fine hours in the field and marsh together. I guess I am kind of sentimental, but it will just not be the same hunting someday without my old partner, Tully.
While we are on the topic of dogs, one afternoon Cotton had his new dog, a chocolate lab, out with us for dove hunting along the Colorado River. The little gray speedsters were flying along the river bank and hitting the sand bars for grit. The dog had to make three water retrieves after birds that we dropped into the river. Cotton was very proud of the dog, as this was his first time fetching game birds, plus the fact that the noise of his shot gun did not bother the dog at all. Cotton said that if he works hard with the dog training him this year, he will be ready for geese next fall.
Our final afternoon was spent trying our best to shoot a frustrating shotgun game called Hunters’ Clays or Sporting Clays. We blasted away at the Three Amigos Club, near El Campo, Texas. Whoever thought of this game really had in their minds to give the shotgun shooter a good workout? Clay targets are thrown from a variety of angles and distances. They appear out of heavy brush in a split second, or come at the hunter high over their head from a high tower. The station I enjoyed the most was the “Running Rabbits.” The targets come past you at a ninety degree angle bouncing over uneven terrain, sometimes taking a hop four feet into the air just about the time you slap the trigger. What amazed me most was how many times the shot charge struck way behind the fast-moving and bouncing target! Distance from the target was about 25 yards, so one can imagine how far most hunters shoot behind flight line geese at twice the distance. Ron, one of the hunters, made the comment that he would pay $100 to shoot that crazy game. It has got to be the closest thing going that simulated field shooting and keeps a hunter’s eye and timing in shape for hunting season.
Well, it was down to our last evening together. We spent it eating a fine dinner and having lots of good conversation. This part of the trip was very hard for me. It is difficult for me to say goodbye to our close friends that are 1200 miles away, and that we usually only see once each year. These people treat you just like you are part of their family and make you feel so welcome. We all exchanged hearty hand shakes and hugs. I just hated the thought of leaving.
I was going home with a heavy heart. But now it was time to be a comfort to my mother and brother after the passing of my father. “Big G” turned and looked at me saying, “It was good for you to make this trip, your father would have wanted it that way. I give a lot of credit and thanks to “Big G” for making this trip possible and doing all of the hard work and planning to put it all together.”
As long as there is the clamor of passing geese, quacking ducks, and a good lab making a long retrieve, or the slipping on of hip boots, rowing duck boats, hearing duck calls, and witnessing beautiful sunrises and sunsets, my father will always be alive in my mind and in my heart. I thank him for raising me to enjoy God’s breathtaking beauty outdoors. I am so glad he taught me how to hunt, and gave me the opportunity to experience so much fun and satisfaction.
I’m sure he is watching every shot I make!