Mystery Meat Thanksgiving
Hunters often face the unique challenge of finding unlabeled or missing-label packages of meat in their freezer which are generally known as “mystery meat.” If one is a diversified hunter, this might be deer, wild hog, wild turkey, Canada geese, duck, swan, rabbit, squirrel, or raccoon. Faced with the high price of commercial turkeys this year, I dug deep and found a package labeled “Goose Cooked, 2017.”
This package had to be one of the smaller species of geese. Since it was cooked, this meant that I had cooked several at once and frozen the excess bird wrapped in plastic bags and aluminum foil for some future use. When I dug it out of the depths of the freezer, I decided that its time had come, particularly as my Thanksgiving dinner guest would be Bill Krantz who had accompanied me on a number of my waterfowl hunts in Georgia and elsewhere. Thawing, reheating, and cooking a goose that had been frozen since 2017 presented no problems for me as I had cooked a commercial Butterball turkey that had been frozen for over fifteen years a few years back, and it had turned out fine. I also had no doubt that while I was in the Army I had been served birds that had been frozen for decades along with the World War II era C-rations that we were still consuming in the 1970s. As a Geologist and resident of Alaska, I also knew of people eating frozen Pleistocene wooly mammoth meat that was some 10,000 years old. Thinking about the potential hunts that this goose might have come from, the possibilities were that this was a speckle-belly goose from Louisiana, or a snow goose from either Canada or North Carolina or perhaps a North Carolina brant. All of these had been memorable hunts done with Mortimer, a flintlock 12-gauge cylinder-bored shotgun made by Davide Pedersoli. I considered that the most likely possibility was that this was a North Carolina snow goose. Most reports of snow goose hunting are from the Western states, but significant numbers also work the Eastern Flyway. During very severe winters they may even winter as far south as Central Georgia where I now live, but most commonly do not venture much further south that North Carolina in any great numbers. Of all geese, snows like to migrate in huge flocks and attracting these birds often requires a trailer loads of decoys. The migration of these flocks attracts immediate attention as the cackling birds pass over head, forming the largest flocks of waterfowl that many hunters have ever seen. Their numbers grew to the point where they were destroying their Arctic nesting habitat, and Spring goose seasons were opened to help keep their population under control. Although they fly over mountains during their migration across the continent from Alaska and Canada to North Carolina, they feel most at home in the flatland prairies of the Midwest, and the billiard-table flat fields of coastal North Carolina where they will eagerly feed on emerging vegetation, particularly planted crops.
Outfitters who specialize in this type of hunting take fairly large groups of people to effectively hunt their huge spreads of decoys. A typical tactic is to locate where they are feeding, set up their decoys outside of this area and call the boiling mass of white birds to them using mouth and electronic calls. In the spring the fields are covered in wet, clingy soil that yields deep ruts, and great care must be taken to keep the support vehicles from getting stuck and the hunters from getting so mud-bound that they can no longer trudge out to their blinds in their waders.
Some of the best goose hunting weather is when it is spitting rain or snow, which is not the best for the flintlock water fowler. Flip open or covered blinds may sometimes be sledded out on the muddy fields. Each outfitter is constantly attempting to come up with some means of keeping his sports somewhat sheltered while still providing reasonable shooting opportunities while chasing a constantly moving target as the flocks move around the temporary and permanent ponds dotting the flat landscape. Constant scouting is necessary to find the geese and successfully hunt them.
Snow geese overfly areas where there are permanently position blinds on wildlife refuges, but only rarely will they drop down to shotgun range. If they do not see their fellows in the hundreds speckling the dark fields below, they cannot often be coaxed to descent from their typical flying altitude of one to several thousand feet. Yes, you can see them and you can certainly hear them, but nothing outside of cannon can reach them.
The hunter arrives. He is assembled with his party and the guides after meeting in the parking lot of the motel and everyone is loaded up to caravan out to wherever the guide has picked out for the day’s activities in order to arrive 30 minutes before daybreak. It is blowing and spitting snow, and the cased guns are protected as well as they might be. There are two four-wheel drive pickups for the hunters and guides and another pulling the trailer with the rag, full-bodied, and mechanical decoys which must be all put out before sunrise. While an open landing area is left in the middle of the spread, everyone is given a bundle of decoys to unfold and put out while the guides tow the cockroach-shaped layout blinds into position. Ultimately the decoys are put out, and the hunters are re-united with their guns. They then bed themselves down in their lay-out blinds as comfortably as possible to watch the sunrise that colors the scudding clouds with rose-colored tents as the clouds began to break.
With the sun and increased visibility, the level of noise increases as flocks of snows, seen as boiling white clouds, noisily rise and settle down again. Anticipation grows and the electronic calls are started and the mechanical decoys activated. The question on everyone’s mind is, “Will they fly this way?” The answer is “Patience. We will get at least some geese. Let the flock build before you shoot. Don’t shoot until I give the signal.”
Mortimer, now out of its case, primed with FFg black powder for maximum damp resistance and with the lock covered by a mule’s knee is loaded and ready. My load consists of 1 1/4-ounce by volume of HeviShot which is averaging about a no. 4 in size contained in a plastic wad sitting on top of a charge of Cream of Wheat, a felt, and card wad propelled by 100-grains of FFg. This is the most weather resistant load that I have developed for this shotgun that has proven successful on larger geese and swan. This gun and load know each other. They have killed before, and can do so again – even from a cylinder-bored gun.
Will the geese come? It is now full daylight, and no geese yet. Finally after a number of false starts a flock of some 50 birds or so rises, gain altitude, and heads towards us. “These may work,” the guide says. “Don’t anybody move.” The flock dips, readjusts, makes a quarter turn, and then strikes out towards our spread. Me and Mortimer are ready. We have been ready for more than an hour. The unfamiliar confines of the lay-out blind and cold have stiffened my entire body. A welcome shot of adrenalin pulses through my body as the birds approach. I purposefully do not look up.
Finally, the much anticipated command comes. “Shoot.”
The birds are milling, churning, and rising as gun barrels probe the air looking for a target. The problem is too many targets. Which one? Which way is it flying? Where is it going to be when my shot reaches it? Most hunter have to resist the impulse to blast away to exhaust their unplugged magazines as quickly as possible with the apparent expectation that some shot has got to hit something somewhere.
With one shot, I don’t have that option. One shot. One bird. In Manitoba, Mortimer had taken four snow and one blue goose with as many shots. It had also taken a limit of two speckle-belly geese with two shots. It was once more time to do it again.
Spotting movement on the ground, the flock milled and clamored to gain altitude, with each bird seeking its own path to safely. I sat up, freed the long barrel from inside the blind, picked out my bird, cocked the gun, pulled the brown barrel until the ivory bead was past its neck and head, and pulled the trigger. The flint scraped hot metal off the frizzen as the pan opened and the red hot fragments impacted against the waiting powder grains flashing the pan. A jet of flame burst through the touch hole into the powder sub-chamber which now propelled burning fragments into the rest of the charge starting the shot column down its journey through the 38-inch barrel.
More powder ignited along the way building pressure until ultimately the wad column cleared the muzzle. The heavy shot with its added momentum now pulled out of the shot cup as the lighter lagging components fell behind. The shot hit the goose and it fell dead in the air. Shooting continued on both sides of me. While they shoot, I cleared the gun and using premeasured charges stored in plastic tubes reloaded Mortimer to get ready for the next flight. This sequence will be repeated several more times during the hunt, but we have done it. Mortimer and I have shot North Carolina snows.
Once again, I eat, and remember the origin of this Thanksgiving dinner shared with a friend.
If you live in the East you can contract with guides and hunt snow geese in North Carolina and Virginia in both spring and fall. These guides hunt every day they have parties, and now is a good time to contract for a spring hunt or perhaps book a January hunt when ducks, swan, and snows are all in season. However, they must be hunted under the usual waterfowl regulations with plugged guns, manual calling, etc. For more information about these hunts refer to my books “X-Treme Muzzleloading” and my e-book, “Hunting with Muzzleloading Shotguns and Smoothbore Muskets” which is available from Amazon.com and other electronic book outlets worldwide.