Snow geese, a sight to behold

I once knew a man who introduced me to myself. His name was Tony. He owned a buffalo farm here in Charlotte and a chain of some of the finest restaurants in Vermont.

I was a host in one of his restaurants and happily greeted our customers.

I had just left a short-lived career as a stockbroker and was struggling to find my purpose. I had learned that I had been pursuing the image of a financial paragon, when reality came crashing down on me and I saw what I was doing for what it was—artificial egoism.

Occasionally Tony would come in to our restaurant, and in larger-than-life fashion (I think he was a reincarnated buffalo) he would always recognize me and pat me on the back with gusto.

Over time our friendship grew. He would always ask me about my greatest passion: waterfowl hunting. He remembered what I told him, and the next time I saw him we would start our conversation where we left off.

Tony loved to hunt, but his intention was different from mine at the time. I was young and full of vinegar. I hunted to bag limits of waterfowl. He hunted for a spiritual connection. His approach to this passion of mine rubbed off on me and caused me to begin to question why I hunted.

Eventually he hired me as a guide to take him and a few of his cronies out for a goose hunt. I was working for another guide at the time, and he set up a hunt in a field where literally thousands of snow geese had been feeding the evening before. Eight of us spent four hours in the dark, setting up Texas rag-style windsock decoys—2,000 of them. Our palms bled from shoving the wooden dowels, which acted as flagpoles for the windsocks, into the hard clay of Addison County.

We retreated to a wood line on the edge of the field and covered ourselves with shrubbery for camouflage. As the sun began to rise over the distant mountains, we heard a dull roar from the northwest. It was an odd sound, like that of a train whistle but in basso profundo. As the sound got closer it started to sound like if 10,000 pigs tried to bark like a dog.

“Snows! Here they come!” came the shout from somewhere down the line.

A little background information should be inserted here. Snow geese had been granted a “Conservation Order” status under the Clinton administration. This meant that the population had grown so large that the habitat on which they depend for food is being degraded to a point that it could not support the one and a half million birds in the flyway. The US Fish & Wildlife Service was directed to reduce the population by relaxing daily bag limits, adding a second season in the spring, liberalizing the number of shots a hunter is allowed to have in their shotgun, and allowing electronic game callers. At the time, this meant that each hunter could shoot 15 birds in a single day’s hunt.

Multiply that by eight hunters and it was legal to shoot as many as 120 birds.

Now it is important to understand that, while numbers like that are never actually harvested here in the Champlain Valley, they do occasionally happen in the Mississippi flyway, where the population is more than double our flyway.

Well, the birds came. And it was a sight I will never forget. We managed to decoy the entire Dead Creek Refuge—14,000 birds in all.

Snow geese fly in a cylindrical landing pattern that looks like a reverse cyclone we called “the toilet bowl flush.” The mature geese stay up high and let the juveniles land first. They’ve seen this movie before. If the “juvies” land and are not shot, the mature birds will begin to trickle down into the funnel.

When 14,000 birds are hanging overhead, their calling is so loud that you can’t hear the person next to you shouting. And they can’t hear the gunshots.

Within minutes we had over 40 birds on the ground.

Tony stood up, his imposing figure announcing to the birds and us that he was finished. He proclaimed, “That’s enough,” in a calm but deliberate manner. He was the client, and when the client says he’s had enough, it stops.

In that moment, I had an epiphany. Hunting was not about getting my bag limit every time. It was about “enough.”

Tony Perry passed away this winter on his ranch in Colorado, in the presence of his loving wife and family. After a miraculously entertaining and rich life he had finally had “enough” to satisfy his spiritual bag limit.

On Sunday, June 4, I will be honoring this great man’s life by attending a memorial service at Shelburne Farms. I will thank him for teaching me how to hunt.

Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred Hunter, a nonprofit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature, and raises funds for Traditions Outdoor Mentoring, which mentors at-risk young men in outdoor pursuits.