Snowed In

Make your field look like Montana in January for limits of big, wary geese.

By Todd Masson
Successful hunters are fanatical about their clothing.

Sometime around late summer, they begin scouring the latest edition of the Cabela’s catalog to see if Realtree has invented a new camo line that looks even more like the terrain they hunt.

Before winter’s first frost, they don camo with images of bright leaves and strips of green grass to blend in with the still-vibrant flora.

After the outer winds of winter’s first breaths sweep over the bayou, they switch to camo lines with patchy browns and greys.

Blending in can make the difference between a trophy on the wall, or watching the buck or duck of your dreams evaporate into the horizon, promising itself never to be so careless again.

Clint Matthew isn’t nearly so meticulous. Though he hunts in fields of tan stubble and chocolate-colored mud, Matthew leaves his home before sunrise every morning looking like Frosty the Snowman. Over his perfectly patterned camo shirt and pants, he wraps a white robe and on his head he ties a white Fruit of the Loom T-shirt.

The only woods Matthew would blend in with are in Candy Land’s Marshmallow Forest.

But Matthew’s desire is not to blend in, but rather to stand out. He’s as much a decoy as any of the 2,000 rags, silhouettes and wind socks he places in his 40-acre field.

Matthew is a dying breed, a goose nut who still does things the hard way. Today, many hunters have gotten away from rag spreads in favor of hunting from comfortable pit blinds overlooking full-bodied decoys that stand erect and lifeless in the field throughout the season.

But Matthew has bucked the trend, confident that rag spreads bring in the geese when no other technique will work.

It’s that last word — work — that has made rag spreads less and less popular over the years. To put it simply, setting up an effective rag spread is impossible without bucketsful of elbow grease.

Matthew employs two guides who go to the field at 3 a.m., and begin preparing it for hunters who will arrive at 6 a.m.

It takes that long to set up, and almost that long to pick up.

“We put out 200 silhouettes, 400 wind socks and 1,500 rags,” Matthew said.

It might sound like overkill, but it’s not. Flocks of real geese in fields often number in the tens of thousands.

Putting out thousands of rags and decoys is indeed a ton of work, and it may all go for naught. If the wind doesn’t blow or it blows too much, or the birds are ornery — a character trait for which snows and blues are notorious — then the rag spread accomplished nothing more than increasing the cardiovascular health of those who constructed it.

That’s why many goose hunters have ditched the whole concept, content to kill what birds they can over static spreads.

In Matthew’s mind, that’s not an option. The 48-year-old has spent the better part of his life with his feet in rubber boots, walking the flooded fields of Kaplan, the buckle of Louisiana’s rice belt. Since he was 10, he’s been hunting and anecdotally studying the giant birds that migrate from the Arctic to fill their bellies with the rice kernels the farmers miss and the stubbly refuse their combines leave behind.

For hundreds of years, the annual arrival of the geese has been a sentinel of winter, their honks a siren to Acadiana residents that the harvest is ripe, but lean times are looming.

The migration is as certain as the falling of the leaves. Regardless of weather conditions, white-fronted geese, called specklebellies locally, make their grand appearance in mid October, and two to three weeks later, their snow and blue cousins fill the clear nights in numbers that are truly staggering.

Matthew still gets giddy with anticipation. After the birds arrive, he’ll stop at goose-filled fields, and just admire the birds. He’ll study their interaction, their comings and goings, and how they behave in the field.

He enjoys watching the birds for the aesthetic value they present, but he, of course, has ulterior motives. Matthew is a hunter, a goose fanatic. The edges of the fields are his classroom, the fields his chalkboard, and the geese themselves are the instructors.

That’s why Matthew takes the time to spread rags where he hunts. He knows the possible returns are well worth the investment.

During a particular December hunt, the returns were in the form of geese that would serve as Christmas-dinner centerpieces for each of the five hunters involved.

With guns draped on shoulders and hands full of shell boxes, they trudged down a levee between two rice fields. A thin but opaque cloud deck obscured any view of the stars, which were surely twinkling in the inky pre-dawn blackness above.

A light breeze — 3 or 4 knots at most — puffed at the hunters’ backs as they walked. It was more than was forecast, but less than Matthew was hoping for.

Ahead, the hunters could see two lights bouncing across the field like fireflies on a summer night.

A few more steps brought the outer edge of the rags into view, and the hunters abandoned the levee, entered the field and angled toward the spread.

Already a couple of hours into their workday, guides James Florstedt and Spence Doucet continued their labors, lamps strapped to their heads. The rags were spread in a giant teardrop formation, with white, severely angled chairs spread in a half-moon at the farthest downwind spot, the belly of the teardrop.

Like artists brushing the final strokes, Florstedt and Doucet stuck spindle-legged wind-sock decoys into the ground, interspersed amongst the spread.

All the while, the anticipation of the hunters built to indescribable levels as the honks of snow geese and the sweet songs of specklebellies — loo-loo-loo — rained down from unseen birds overhead.

Before long, the spread pleased the guides, and they settled into their chairs at the middle of the crescent.

Legal shooting time was five minutes away, and the sky was giving hints of brightening.

“Load your guns,” Matthew called out.

The hunters eagerly obeyed the order.

“Most of the geese probably won’t fly until 8 o’clock,” Matthew had explained the night before. “We’ll get a few specks before then, but don’t get nervous if you don’t see many geese in the sky early.”

As it turned out, there wasn’t much time to get nervous before the first geese of the morning made an appearance. Overhead, several large V’s pierced the sky, like arrows shot by a giant archer.

The high flocks sang out in an exhilarating cacophony, and the three guides answered, but it was clear the geese had intentions of heading elsewhere.

With the hunters watching the impressive flocks, Matthew spied a pair of darker-colored geese on the near horizon.

He instantly hit his Chien Callie speck call.

“Loo-loo-loo, loo-loo-loo.”

Florstedt and Doucet joined in with clucks.

The birds responded immediately by locking their wings to lose altitude. A couple of the hunters lowered their hands to feel for their guns, which were lying next to them on the dew-soaked rice stubble. All stared mesmerized at the approaching geese that were answering every call of the guides.

The giant birds coasted over the spread, and continued their lyrical conversation with the mock geese down below. With their wings locked, they twisted and contorted their bodies to lose altitude as quickly as possible.

By now, the hunters could tell these were young geese — as evidenced by the lack of bars on their bellies — and they were behaving as such. They were as gullible as they were eager to get in the field.

They wouldn’t have the opportunity to gain much wisdom.

“Shoot!” Matthew hollered, and the hunters rose to the sitting position, the guns to their shoulders.

Even with Matthew’s shout and the movement of the hunters, the birds continued to course downward, their wings locked and cupped.

Eight shotgun barrels roared, and the two birds fell like footballs.

The hunters quickly retrieved them, and before they could get back to their seats, Matthew announced the approach of more specks coming in, seemingly, from the ozone layer. These would prove to be cagey, and they exited the area after making a couple of circles.

Though the skies were cloudy — Matthew’s favorite hunting condition — the cloud deck was high enough to allow the birds to fly at great altitudes. In general, that lowers the percentage of birds that will commit to any type of decoy spread, including a rag spread, Matthew said.

“When you’ve got a high sky, the birds fly higher, and they have to spend more time circling to lose altitude,” he said. “All that time, they’re staring down at your spread, looking for anything that doesn’t look right. The more time they have to study it, the more suspicious they’re going to get.

“If they’re flying low, they don’t have very long to look at your spread before they’re in range.”

That proved true with a flock of 10 that approached 20 minutes later. The birds, led by an old goose with a nearly solid black belly, came in low, and locked their wings almost instantly in response to the calling. They circled twice to lose altitude, and were quickly within gun range.

Matthew waited to call the shot, however, because more birds were circling just over the lower flock.

The hunters were about to wet their pants, lying on their backs in chairs in the field, watching the flock of 10 fly in loose circles and hearing them answering the calls just a few yards over their heads.

Finally, mercifully, Matthew called the shot. Six geese rained from the sky, including the lead bird with the black belly.

Throughout the course of the hunt, the specks were enraptured by the giant rag spread. None flared, and only a few moseyed off after showing initial interest. The rest coasted in just as peacefully as if they were angels floating down from heaven.

The snows, however, would lock their wings and then flap off when still 100 yards above the field.

The reason, Matthew said, was the lack of wind.

“Light and variable winds are the worst situation you can have,” he said. “When you set out a rag spread what you’re actually setting is a wind spread. The wind makes everything move, and it looks like live geese.

“If there’s no wind, then everything’s still, and live geese in a field are never still.”

Matthew said 10 to 15 m.p.h. winds are ideal.

“If the wind is too hard, everything is just flapping,” he said. “All the stuff makes noise, and there’s just too much movement.”

Given his druthers, though, he’d rather too much wind than no wind.

But the hunters he took on the nearly windless day in December might argue that point. They had constant action from the specks, and didn’t begrudge the snows at all.

The action for snows and blues should get better as the season rolls along, even as the speck hunting slows down a bit.

“When the (snow) geese start eating everything out of the fields, then they get easier to hunt because their food sources are limited,” Matthew explained. “If they see a bunch of geese in a field, they think there must be food there.”

Specks, on the other hand, get a little tougher to hunt because they’ve been shot at all season. The young birds have already been harvested, and the older, cagier birds have learned what’s real and what ain’t.

But even these birds can be suckers for rag spreads, since there aren’t as many hunters using them as years ago.

Matthew sets up his spreads in one of three ways.

If there’s absolutely no wind, he opts for a donut arrangement in which the rags and decoys are placed in a rough circle, with about a 20-yard-diameter hole in the middle to serve as a landing area.

His ideal set-up is a giant teardrop shape in which the hunters are on the downwind side of the spread.

If he’s got a large group of hunters, he’ll use a horseshoe pattern with the hunters, again, on the downwind side of the spread.

Since the rag spreads cover so much territory, it’s important to give the geese an obvious landing zone that’s in close proximity to the hunters.

Obviously Matthew likes to set his spread in a field that the geese are using, but a hunter can only lease so much land. So as an alternative, Matthew sets his spreads on fields that are as close to a body of geese as possible.

“If I set my spread in a 40-acre field, I’ve got access to all the geese that are within a one-mile radius of that field,” he said. “The geese can see that spread from one mile away.

“You’re not bringing the geese to the field, you’re bringing them to the spread. You can get geese to come in any type of field.”

Matthew has proven that fact time and time again. One year he had great success hunting a plowed field.

But even a perfectly placed spread in the perfect field won’t provide success if those lying in that field can’t call effectively.

In fact, Matthew estimates that success in goose hunting is 80 percent calling.

“With specks, it takes years to learn (how to be an effective caller),” he said. “When you see a flock coming, you have to get a conversation going with them. You have to get a tune going to get them to trust you.”

That tune is almost like a serenade that hypnotizes the geese, and gets them to coast in like they’re kites being reeled in with an invisible string.

Boisterous calling isn’t necessary, and in fact can be harmful, in Matthew’s opinion.

“When a flock is settling down in a field, only one or two (of the geese) call,” he said. “The rest are feeding.

“People think they need to make all that noise, like the geese do when they’re spooked out of a field, but geese don’t make that noise when they’re relaxed and feeding. They only make that noise when they’re spooked.”

Sometimes Matthew’s calling and rag spreads are such an effective combination that tornadoes of snow geese will descend from the skies and light in the field with the hunters. It’s often difficult in those situations to determine when to call the shot because birds are constantly pouring in.

More typically, though, Matthew calls the shot when the birds are 30 yards overhead.

To ensure he’s got effective killing power at that range, Matthew shoots a 10 gauge, but hunters with 12 gauges will do fine if they shoot 3 1/2-inch loads.

Hunters with actions that limit them to 3- or 2 3/4-inch shells should shoot nothing but Hevi-Shot, in Matthew’s opinion.

“If all you can shoot is 2 3/4-inch steel, you’re going to struggle,” he said. “Those big birds are hard to kill.

“Steel is very fast coming out of the barrel, but it’s light so it loses it’s speed quickly, especially when you’re shooting straight up in the air. Once it slows down, that’s it; it’s not going to kill anything.

“If you’re going to go through the trouble and expense of hiring a guide or putting out rags to hunt geese, you might as well pay a little bit extra for the Hevi-Shot.”

And what the heck. Throw in a few more dollars for a white robe and Fruit of the Loom T-shirt. n

Clint Matthew can be reached at 337-643-2645.