There’s nothing like it, that feeling of cold, dry air hitting your lungs in the high deserts of northeastern California.
Up here at 4,500 feet above sea level, the air this time of year is so pure and chilled, it’s like breathing frozen menthol.
I took a big, heady hit of it when I stepped out of my pickup before dawn. My boots crunched through the frozen top layer of snow. On these moonless early mornings far from city lights, every star in the Milky Way seems close enough to touch.
But I didn’t drive four hours north of Sacramento to stargaze in the cold.
I was here to hunt Canada geese. Big ones, which fill the public wildlife refuges of northeastern California this time of year.
You just have to be something of a masochist to hunt them. You risk frostbite. You may not even see a goose, let alone shoot one.
A couple of weeks earlier, I had hunted on a morning in 3-below-zero cold. In the dark, my two hunting partners and I hiked through the snow for about a mile, pulling sleds weighed heavy with decoys and gear. In the dark, we slid our goose decoys over a frozen pond, cracking jokes about how it was like some weird, goose-y version of shuffleboard.
When the sun finally rose, I saw that my buddy’s beard was frosted with ice from his breath and sweat.
The geese never flew our way. We never fired a shot.
In years past, I’ve hunted that refuge on mornings when ice pellets were pushed along by bitter 40-mph gusts. When I got home, I felt like I’d stuck my face in an industrial sandblaster.
Yet I crave these mornings more than any others. On hot summer days, I often catch myself daydreaming about spectacular sunrises over snowy grain fields and frozen ponds, and that refreshing, brain-clearing cold. In my daydreams, I hear honks from far-off flights of geese getting louder, and that unmistakable thump when a 15-pound honker crashes, stone dead, on a frozen pond.
I always feel a little sad when I look in my freezer and find no more packs of Canada goose meat to sear, slow-cook or cure. “Corned” honker breasts, I discovered, make incredible Reuben sandwiches. I crave shredded meat from their slow-cooked legs and thighs and wings. You should try my Canada goose breakfast burritos. They’re fantastic.
Sure, I could hunt geese in much warmer climes closer to Sacramento, but my heart is up here. I grew up in the shadow of Mount Shasta. I’ve hunted ducks and geese with my dad in these refuges since I was a little boy. It’s in my DNA.
And, no, I’m not going to tell you the precise location of this particular morning’s goose hunt. Waterfowl hunters are fiercely protective of their favorite spots. I’m no exception.
When I arrived on this most recent morning, my hunting partners were already far out in a wheat field, setting up decoys and building our blind.
In the 15-degree cold, I slipped on my jacket, a third pair of socks and my neoprene gloves and chest waders. I set my gun and gear in my 5-foot camouflage sled.
Gaddy, my chocolate lab, bounded happily ahead as I pulled the sled across the snow, following my buddy’s tracks in the light of my headlamp.
After a mile or so, I spotted the headlamp lights of my two friends. They were pushing hard plastic stakes attached to nearly 100 Canada goose decoys through 6 inches of snow and frozen soil. In a nearby ditch, they’d already begun building a blind big enough to cover the three of us and our two dogs.
After I helped set out what was left of the decoys and had gathered grass and brush for the blind, I slipped on a white poncho over my coat to blend into the snow. I shucked three shells into my pump shotgun.
There wasn’t much else to do but wait, watch the sunrise, and try not to let my buddies hear my teeth chatter.
A couple of hours later, we heard what we’d been waiting for: honks in the distance.
One friend and I began blowing into our Canada goose calls, hoping to catch the approaching flock’s attention. It worked. A group of about a dozen geese turned for our decoys. They made a pass behind our blind, but were out of shotgun range. We let out another long series of hoots, clucks and groans.
That got ’em. They made a final turn, and dropped into shooting range before cruising over our heads.
We stood up and let out a barrage of shotgun fire. Two geese plummeted from the sky in a poof of feathers. Gaddy was soon marching back to the blind, tail wagging, with a massive honker in her jaws.
It wasn’t mine, though.
I had missed badly. I repeated the poor shooting performance on the next flock that came in, though my buddies dropped a bird each.
Their hunt was over. In a matter of minutes, they’d maxed out on the region’s two-goose daily bag limit. But they graciously let me keep hunting. I didn’t have to wait too long to find my shotgun’s swing. I knocked down a solo goose that flew in and picked another honker out of a large flock.
We posed for pictures and began picking up our stuff. Our thighs and shoulders burned on the long trip back to our pickups, our sleds weighed down by some 90 pounds of dead geese.
By that time, the cold had worn off. Or maybe I was having so much fun I just didn’t feel it.