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Professor Snow Goose

Memories and dreams, I maintain, often are the best trophies of a hunt. They nourish the soul long after you finished that last venison tenderloin.

You also take home lessons from every hunt.

Sometimes the lessons are about what not to do next time — don't forget the rain gear, first-aid kit, extra shells, warm socks.

Other lessons may be positive experiences that you integrate into your repertoire to increase your skills and enjoyment in the field. I just had a big dose of that kind of lesson.

I grew up on an island in Lake Erie. Every fall ducks by the tens of thousand would funnel past the island, creating some great hunting.

Back in the 50s and 60s, we also saw geese around Lake Erie, mostly Canadas that would fly out from Jack Miner's sanctuary in Ontario and never come near the American side of the Detroit River.

We occasionally saw flights of snow geese passing by far overhead. Only once did one flock ever come down. Forced down by a fog, they exploded out of a fog bank right in front of our duck blind.

At first we thought they were swans. By the time we figured out what they were, it was too late to shoot. But the sight of those bright white birds popping out a fog bank burned an unforgettable image in my mind.

From that encounter I learned about snow geese as a rare curiosity.

Since moving to California, I have learned about snow geese as a dominant feature of the landscape, as a million or more winter in the Sacramento Valley.

Sitting out in a duck blind, as wave after wave of white geese, honking loudly, pass by overhead, almost always out of range, snow geese will drive you nuts. They seduce you into trying to call them when you should be concentrating on shootable mallards.

Because of their size and numbers, I believe more ammunition is spent taking passing shots at snow geese, and with a lower percentage of success, than any other species.

Mesmerized by the snows, you start adding more and more white goose decoys to your set hoping that some will drop down into range. It never seems to be enough.

I don't think I've ever killed more than one or two white geese a year in 20 years sitting out the in the flooded California rice fields … until this month, when I was lucky to go out snow goose hunting with Blake's Guide Service, the premier snow goose hunting outfitter in the northern Sacramento valley.

Our party of four met our guide, Kenny Begley, at 5:30 a.m. on a foggy road just off Interstate 5 near the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.

After checking our licenses, we followed Begley's truck several miles into the fog. From the parking spot it was 300-yard walk along a slightly raised dike in a muddy, but not flooded, rice field.

We saw a large swath of white in the field we were approaching.

"We use 1,300 to 1,500 full-body snow decoys," Begley said nonchalantly.

Anything less, he said, would dramatically reduce the chances for success. There goes my set of 35 white goose decoys.

As our party settled into the sunken blind, Begley began what could be described as Snow Goose Hunting 101.

Most duck blinds in the Sacramento Valley are metal boxes sunken into a higher dike running through a rice field. They have covers to keep them from filling up with water, but most times when you use the blind for hunting, the cover comes off and the top is left open. This, Begley said, was a mistake.

This blind had an inverted V-shaped cover made from marsh grass and rice stalks woven into a metal frame. It formed a canopy over your head that would open out in either direction, but you had to peer out through the holes in the grass.

"We can start out in the early light with this fog with the back up and the front down, if you sit very still," Begley said. "But, even in the fog, after an hour or so, the front screen has to go up, too. Geese have keen eyesight.

"No talking, even when the cover is up. Geese have very good hearing. The only language spoken here until I say to take them is goose."

How many times have you been in blinds with guys who want to jabber.

At first light a pintail sailed by and bit the clay. (If you read my last column you will understand why this was nothing to write home about.)

There were plenty of geese in the air above us, but they were either invisible in the fog or wispy ghosts sweeping by. Even with restricted visibility, Begley ordered the front and back screens up and began calling earnestly.

As we soon learned, snow geese seem to have two positive calls — loud, and fast and loud, like an excited small dog barking. With one call, Begley created enough racket to make that massive flock of decoys come alive.

Like snowflakes, white geese began descending through the fog in response to Begley's calling. They would pop out of the fog and cruise over the decoys, slowly working their way down.

As they approached, many would go silent, except for one or two lead birds making a soft, cooing call, which Begley explained was a warning call.

Suffice to say that by noon, all four hunters had their limits of three white geese — 11 snows and one Ross's goose — and geese were swarming around us. We could have shot twice that many.

We posed for pictures. It was a great day with some good friends and an outstanding guide — a professor of goose studies who has changed my whole approach to goose hunting.

Be forewarned: If you want to go goose hunting with me from this day hence, we will be putting out a lot of decoys, we will be quiet, except for a lot of calling, and we will be heavily camouflaged. I have learned my lesson.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy.

To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.