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04
Ron Henry Strait: Outfitters are giving goose hunting a softer touch for a more pleasurable experience
Web Posted: 10/03/2004 12:00 AM CDT


San Antonio Express-News

ALTAIR — Clifton Tyler's flashlight showed the group of seven gunners the way down the gravel road, across a dry irrigation ditch and then over a fence into the flooded rice field.

On his shoulders, veteran waterfowl outfitter Tyler toted two large sacks of decoys. At his feet was Astro, his golden lab.

A cool night wind swirled.

The starless sky said there was a heavy overcast, but we couldn't see it. The flap and whistle of bird wings came from somewhere in the pitch blackness.

Like the overcast, that was a good sign. And it wasn't raining, also a good sign.

The cloud cover came compliments of Ivan, the one-time hurricane that had meandered into East Texas and Louisiana the day before.

In the darkness, though, the most tangible benefit provided by nature came on a cool breeze from the northeast, another gift from Ivan.

Someone mentioned the lack of buzzing bugs that usually accompany an early season waterfowl hunt. Apparently, there were no mosquitoes anywhere on the prairie that morning, as far as we could hear.

Past the fence, we walked the curving line along a narrow levee path until Tyler stopped the troop train and derailed three of us into the ankle-deep water.

He dropped a sack of decoys for us. With the wave of a flashlight, he said, "Those are your blinds over there," and we stepped off into the water for the short walk to the blinds.

He continued down the path with the other hunters.

Within minutes, faint light crept over the pond, the teal came whistling in and the guns roared.

Waterfowl hunting was easier and more pleasant than I remembered.



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My waterfowling adventures have been mostly on goose hunts on the Texas rice prairies, a recreation that can involve a certain amount of hard labor.

That's the way I remember it, and the topic had come up by accident at Tyler's supper table the evening before the teal hunt.

The discussion turned to hunting in Texas, and mention was made that Texas Parks & Wildlife Department surveys show hunting is holding its own in the state, on average.

It was on the particulars of that fact that the conversation turned.

Deer hunting and dove hunting have shown slight gains in recent years, but waterfowl hunting is down.

Tyler thinks he knows why.

Someone mentioned the cost, but it's not because of the cost.

A day of waterfowling with plenty of opportunities to shoot costs about $150, which is a value in the hunting world.

There are other costs, but they're not much.

Hunters who already have a state combo license need a federal duck stamp ($15) and, by law, waterfowlers have to use non-toxic shot shells, which means lead shot shells are banned.

Non-toxic shot shells are more expensive, but, with a few exceptions, bag limits for waterfowlers are low, and they don't shoot as many shells as a dove or quail hunter, so the difference in ammunition spending is minimal.

Other gear, like waders and foul-weather suits, figure in, but a wade fisherman will have that equipment already and it's not very expensive if seen as a multi-use item.

So, it was asked, what's the hunter hang-up with waterfowling?

"It has the reputation of being work," Tyler said, referring specifically to goose hunting.



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A goose hunt starts about 3:30 a.m. with breakfast at 4 a.m. followed by a half-hour ride down back roads to the hunting field, where the hunter carries heavy gear through waste-deep water and/or across muddy frozen ground to where he will hunt.

It's not that a hunter has to sneak into the pasture early to lay low and get the jump on the geese.

As a matter of fact, the opposite is true. Hunters and outfitters get out in the field two hours before shooting time because they have to set out hundreds of decoys in what's called a rag spread, which means they have to drape hundreds of white plastic trash bags on the bent stalks of rice stubble.

The white plastic bags attract real geese coming off roost ponds at dawn and the hunters whack the incoming birds.

At least that's the idea, and it usually works.

The outfitter knows that a successful hunt depends on placing the spread, and he sees it as a necessary part of the hunt and the hunters as available labor.

The paying customer, on the other hand, sees it as 90 minutes of labor done in chest waders and heavy mud boots often packed with sticky clay. When the rags are spread, the hunter can be tired and sweaty as he lays down on the cold ground and awaits shooting light.

When the hunt is done, everybody pitches in and picks up the hundreds of rags and slogs out of the field.

Working the spread is a chore, but it also may be part of history in the commercial hunting industry.

Tyler and other outfitters are turning to what they call executive hunts. An executive hunt fee is higher, but hunters get more sleep and the labor is taken care of.

Scouts locate feeding birds the afternoon before the hunt, then go into the field during the night to lay out the rag spread.

Hunters arrive shortly before first light and are towed, gear and all, on a flat-bed trailer from the vehicles to the spread.

When the hunt is over, the trailer picks up the hunters and returns them to their vehicles.

The scouts return later to pick up the spread and move it to a new field.

The outfitter handles the chores and the hunters just hunt, which is the fun part of the trip.

The executive hunt for waterfowl is a substantive change in goose hunting and it is catching on.

Tyler sees it as a marketing tool.

I see it as a labor-saving device.

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