Rags to Riches

Snow-goose hunting has grown from a curiosity to a mulitmillion-dollar industry.

Field & Stream Online Editors

For two hours, I sat and shivered in the coastal marsh of southeast Texas, a musty bedsheet over my shoulders and my high school buddy fouling the air with what he called "goose music."

"Shut up, man. Goose hunting sucks," I barked that winter morning in 1973. The slick barrel of my brand-new 12-gauge Wingmaster was pitting and rusting before my eyes. Thousands of snow geese traded from roost to feeding field-half a mile away and on private property.

We hadn't fired a shot, and neither of us was old enough to carry a flask. The flame of enthusiasm grew dim. Then, to no credit of ours, a bird actually turned.

"Lay off the call," I whispered. "This one might do it."

The goose was young and gullible, not unlike us, and attracted to the soggy, crumpled newspaper pages scattered over 2 acres of muddy marsh.

I crouched deeper into the muck and peeked around the bill of my cap. Icy water drizzled down my neck. The gray-feathered goose floated directly overhead.

For all our bragging about what great bird hunters we were, we had never actually experienced a real goose in range until that moment. If we were both going to shoot, I wasn't going to be last.

The gunstock hung in my sheet and settled about midway down my biceps. So what? I swung the bead what seemed an appropriate distance ahead of the gliding goose and fired.

The awkward angle and heavy recoil rocked me. My arm felt as if it had been hit with a shovel. The mud beneath my back was softer-and deeper-than I had expected on the way down. The young goose and I both learned a valuable lesson, one that didn't seriously hurt either of us.

**Ghost Hunter Origins **
Throughout the 1800s and midway into the next century, a few hundred thousand lesser snow geese migrated almost directly between Canadian nesting grounds and wintering areas along the Gulf coast. Prior to development of "staging" reservoirs throughout the Midwest from the 1950s into the 1970s, most geese attempted to overfly the continent nonstop. Along the migration, weaker birds literally fell dead from the sky.

The reservoir system afforded geese and other migratory species an opportunity to rest along the way. More birds survived, more returned north to breed, and the goose population quickly exploded, first to more than a million birds. Then to 2 million. At its peak, the population was more than 6 million by some counts. The change dramatically affected waterfowlers, most of whom had previously recognized snow geese only as tiny, noisy specks high in the air.

Before the Central Flyway had a name, hunters down its length focused almost exclusively on flocks of ducks that "blacked out the sun when they got up in the morning," says Lyle Jordan, who left his family's rice-farming business in Katy, Texas, in the early 1960s to become one of the area's first snow-goose hunting outfitters.

Jordan started Texas Safaris, a goose hunting club that lasted for 26 years under his watch. Snow-goose hunting was a curiosity for local waterfowlers then, a change of pace from hunting pintails, mallards, and teal over prairie potholes created by migrating buffalo during the 19th century. Fast-growing oil and petrochemical companies around Houston also hired Jordan to entertain customers and investors fascinated by the big, smart birds and the unique way that they were hunted.

Early on, spreads of newspapers, paper plates, and white cardboard squares would fool geese, but these soon gave way to cloth decoys-first baby diapers and then torn bedsheets. It was during that "linen period" that hunters realized a white sheet or parka concealed them better than any available camouflage pattern. These flowing white covers earned the men the nickname "ghost hunters."

Tough Guides
In the coastal marsh southeast of Houston, during goose hunting's infancy, was the sawling Barrow Ranch, which offered an inexpensive public day-hunting opportunity. I hunted there during my physical prime and remain convinced that this place was the original Hell, its fires extinguished with mud and saltwater delivered by mosquitoes.

"There would be cars lined up for miles waiting to get in," says Forrest West, who hunted the Barrow through the early years, and whose Los Patos Outfitters is still in operation today. "The farther you could get in there, the fewer other hunters you'd find. We'd just drive until we got stuck, then get out and walk as far as we could and hunt there. You worried about getting your car out later, after the hunt."

Like West, who learned to mouth-call geese from old market hunters around Buras, Louisiana, many of the early outfitters started as guides. Top outfitters paid a premium for talented callers and shooters, who in turn helped attract more business. If nothing else, goose guides were a physically fit bunch. I answered to a 3:30 a.m. alarm as a professional prairie baby-sitter throughout the 1980s and into the '90s.

No one used four-wheelers then. If you wanted something in the field, you picked it up, threw it over a shoulder, and carried it. That went for customers, too.

Most clients didn't mind toting dry, fluffy rags into a field and helping to turn them into a flock of fake geese. It made them feel as though they'd contributed somehow when, in truth, the greatest contribution to any successful goose hunt, then or now, has everything to do with location. As much as they enjoyed being a part of putting out a spread, hunters hated lugging the same load, soaking wet, back to the pickup. Guides invariably left the field with the heaviest sack over one shoulder and 20 or 30 dead geese draped over the other. Back then, federal game wardens didn't mind if the guide carried everyone's geese on the same strap. Neither did the hunters.

Our first big break was banquet cloth, cheap plastic table coverings with thin cloth bottoms that were sold in 100-yard rolls and easily cut into 3-foot squares. One man could carry more than 300 plastic rags, each as light as feathers, in a standard decoy sack. However, you still needed to dry the rags afterward, because even the strongest guides couldn't lug a bag of wet ones across 1/4 mile of shin-deep mud twice a day. One drying method was to spread the pieces across the backyard and hope a strong gust didn't relocate them across the neighbors' fence.

A better place was the local Laundromat, where for 50¿¿ you could tumble dry a few hundred rags at a time on the "no heat" setting of a big commercial dryer. You could throw most of your wet clothes into the dryer, too. Lint traps filled quickly with soybean stubble, rice hulls, spiders, and grasshoppers to create miniature prairie ecosystems. We got away with it until one guide tried to speed the process by jacking up the heat.

In four minutes, he turned 300 soggy rags into a single, gooey sheet of melted plastic that plugged every vent hole in the spinning drum. That was the only Laundromat in town, and a handwritten sign taped to the door explained in plain English that goose hunting guides were no longer welcome.

Quirky Hunters
Around the same time, a young man named Larry Gore was finding his way around the mud and stubble. More interested in the business side of waterfowling than in dragging wet rags, Gore started Eagle Lake & Katy Prairie Outfitters in 1978. Today, he hosts more duck and goose hunters annually than any other outfitter in Texas.

I guided for Gore, whose operation attracted hunters from around the world, and saw some unusual characters pass through the Kountry Kitchen restaurant, where we met most mornings. We gave the real oddballs nicknames to help us remember.

The man we called the Green Hornet came all the way from Italy to hunt flocks of 100,000 or more snow geese. While he waited in the car, engine and heater running, he sent his personal servant into the restaurant to complete paperwork and secure a cup of coffee. I insisted that this mystery hunter come in and add his own signature to the release form. Besides bringing all the hunters together for a routine safety speech, those early meetings gave guides a chance to size up their hunters.

In order to create the huge illusion necessary to fool snow geese, the tradition was that each hunter carry a bag of rags or decoys. The Green Hornet would have no part of such manual labor. Instead he loaded his helper with two sacks of decoys, two over/under shotguns, a shell bag, and a picnic basket.

During the hunt, the assistant's job was to reload empty shotguns and provide timely snacks from the basket. Around 8 a.m. a cold rain fell. Without exchanging a word, the dutiful servant removed his jacket and draped it over the Green Hornet's shoulders. Neither man spoke English, and I never did figure out their relationship. They paid cash, though, and tipped generously, which made them welcome in any guide's spread.

Expensive Real Estate
It was Gore's generation of outfitters who first dealt closely with landowners. Most of the earlier outfitters either owned land outright, hunted on family property, or had personal relationships with the farmers. Waterfowl hunting rights on the Gulf Coast prairie first gained value shortly after World War II, when farmers traded gate keys for hard-to-get tractor and diesel engine parts.

"When I got into this business, you could lease land for $1 to $5 an acre depending on where it was," Gore says. "Hunters battled with the farmers over water and farming practices and had to take what they got." As rice prices fell, landowners and farmers developed an interest in hunters' dollars.

"You're looking at a minimum of $10 an acre these days," says Gore, "even more around Katy, because it's so close to Houston. Some people are paying $30 to $50 per acre to sublease prime acreage with crops and water."

Rice production now is about half what it once was, but that reduction in farming hasn't dissuaded the snow geese. Instead, it has only served to concentrate the birds. And on the remaining prairie, outfitters and farmers have created more roost areas to discourage the geese from traveling great distances for food. Management is an integral part of waterfowl hunting these days, and an expensive one. Costs for pumping water and plowing fields at precisely the right time, without which a potentially great hunting area might never attract a single snow goose, can be nearly as much as the lease itself. Because management is so costly and the "product" so elusive ("You can't make geese do anything," says Gore), many outfitters only last a few seasons. The annual "Waterf0 or more snow geese. While he waited in the car, engine and heater running, he sent his personal servant into the restaurant to complete paperwork and secure a cup of coffee. I insisted that this mystery hunter come in and add his own signature to the release form. Besides bringing all the hunters together for a routine safety speech, those early meetings gave guides a chance to size up their hunters.

In order to create the huge illusion necessary to fool snow geese, the tradition was that each hunter carry a bag of rags or decoys. The Green Hornet would have no part of such manual labor. Instead he loaded his helper with two sacks of decoys, two over/under shotguns, a shell bag, and a picnic basket.

During the hunt, the assistant's job was to reload empty shotguns and provide timely snacks from the basket. Around 8 a.m. a cold rain fell. Without exchanging a word, the dutiful servant removed his jacket and draped it over the Green Hornet's shoulders. Neither man spoke English, and I never did figure out their relationship. They paid cash, though, and tipped generously, which made them welcome in any guide's spread.

Expensive Real Estate
It was Gore's generation of outfitters who first dealt closely with landowners. Most of the earlier outfitters either owned land outright, hunted on family property, or had personal relationships with the farmers. Waterfowl hunting rights on the Gulf Coast prairie first gained value shortly after World War II, when farmers traded gate keys for hard-to-get tractor and diesel engine parts.

"When I got into this business, you could lease land for $1 to $5 an acre depending on where it was," Gore says. "Hunters battled with the farmers over water and farming practices and had to take what they got." As rice prices fell, landowners and farmers developed an interest in hunters' dollars.

"You're looking at a minimum of $10 an acre these days," says Gore, "even more around Katy, because it's so close to Houston. Some people are paying $30 to $50 per acre to sublease prime acreage with crops and water."

Rice production now is about half what it once was, but that reduction in farming hasn't dissuaded the snow geese. Instead, it has only served to concentrate the birds. And on the remaining prairie, outfitters and farmers have created more roost areas to discourage the geese from traveling great distances for food. Management is an integral part of waterfowl hunting these days, and an expensive one. Costs for pumping water and plowing fields at precisely the right time, without which a potentially great hunting area might never attract a single snow goose, can be nearly as much as the lease itself. Because management is so costly and the "product" so elusive ("You can't make geese do anything," says Gore), many outfitters only last a few seasons. The annual "Waterf