Andrew Hetherington

The Locals: Chasing Early-Season Canada Geese

A supertight group of buddies devotes every free second to chasing birds that a lot of hunters overlook—resident Canada geese

It all started as an internet date, back in 2005. Josh Pelletier posted a photo of greenwing teal on a local duck hunting chat board, and up popped a direct message from a total stranger: “You don’t know me,” wrote Cullen Ports, “but I can tell exactly where you killed those ducks. Careful.” They met a few days later over a beer at Hooters. It was like a match on Duck Tinder. They’ve been tight ever since, and from there the gang took shape.

Pelletier knew a pretty cool guy from college, Josh Eddings. That made three. Travis Grimes married Pelletier’s sister-in-law, who had been a debutante with Gabe White’s wife, so add those two to the mix for a hunting party of five—about as many folks that can crowd into a blind and not flare ducks.

And then there’s John Webb.

“No one knows how in the hell we inherited John Webb,” White says.

Six it is.

Six friends who hunt, fish, and golf together. Their families vacation together. They watch one another’s kids. They even run a small nonprofit, Combat Warriors, guiding soldiers on local hunting and fishing trips. A half dozen buddies tight as ticks, and maybe not so different from close friends all over, with one possible exception: Come September, these guys fully commit to an exhausting, highly coordinated, monthlong regimen of scouting and hunting resident Canada geese that flock up in vast North Carolina farmfields. And they shoot them by the truckload.

canadian geese bird hunting truck gear kits
The guys unloading their kits to prepare for the hunt ahead.Andrew Hetherington

Like many other states, North Carolina throws out half the rulebook during its 30-day September goose season. For a month, nonmigratory resident birds can be hunted with unplugged shotguns and electronic calls; shooting hours are extended a half hour past sunset, and there’s a liberal 15-bird limit. On any given day in September, most of the crew is on the road before dawn, scouting peanuts, corn, soybeans, and swamp roosts across a million acres of the state. They log close to 10,000 scouting miles. They track down farmers, knock on doors, pump every contact they can think of to find birds and lock down fields. They text constantly in a 24/7 group message string that will grow to thousands of texts.

canadian geese bird hunting buddies group texting
They text constantly in a 24/7 group message string that will grow to thousands of texts.Andrew Hetherington

My birds haven’t moved. Cut corn yesterday so any day now.

2 peanut fields I have are so tight we need tennis rackets but I’m working on both.

Gabe can you ride Delman Road?

I’m near Whitman. Geese in the air I’m chasin.

Cullen what’s the report north of bull town, ring in man WTH are you doin.

His hungry children can wait. We need long nose geese to kill.

In fact, much of the group’s success comes from its enviable closeness; chasing local geese over the last eight years has forged deep relationships. “In the last year,” Ports says, “every one of us has brought a new baby home, and every one of us visited the others to see their baby. It’s crazy how some of our deepest relationships in this world are based on hunting, but that’s how it has evolved. We all have shared values. We know we have something special going on.”

Last year, I hooked up with the gang for the full September season. I wanted to see what it took to excel in the increasingly competitive game of resident goose hunting. At month’s end I walked away with a new appreciation for the ties that bind the hearts of hunters. That and 40 pounds of goose breasts.

canadian geese hunting callers
A strand of goose calls used by Josh Eddings.Andrew Hetherington

Pile It On

The geese first appear over the treeline, 600 yards away, one giant wad of ragged lines. In minutes the 200 birds have broken into four smaller flocks, and there are geese behind us, over us, in front, and to the sides. We don’t move a muscle. Nellie and Scout thump their tails excitedly in the corn duff, but the dogs can’t hear what we’re thinking: A couple hundred resident Canadas honking overhead is the last thing we want to see.

Three times the birds circle as we clench shotguns and pray: Please, please, please. Then, one by one, the flocks peel off and set their wings for the next field over. Ninety seconds tick by while every single goose is sucked away, and the sky overhead empties. We lie in the blinds, heartsick. Days of scouting, hours of effort, and we may as well go get a biscuit.

Eddings hollers from inside his field blind: “I. Hate. Big. Groups.”

“That many eyeballs,” White says from the layout next to mine. “It wasn’t going to happen.”

Just then the blind at the end of the line bursts open. Pelletier unfolds his lanky frame, stomps the cornstalks off his body, and paces off 50 yards downwind. He’s the de facto leader of this band of hunters, a biologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a Zink/Avian-X pro staffer, and he doesn’t take failure lightly. He paces. He throws cornstalks into the wind. He glowers.

“Dude hates to lose,” White says. “He’ll freaking drive us nuts obsessing over what went wrong. Glad I’m not riding home with him.”

canadian geese bird hunting scouting ford f250
“All the effort, the patience, and the miles pay off. Over the past eight years, the group has averaged 250 geese a season.”Andrew Hetherington

The fact that it takes work to dial in on resident Canadas may come as a surprise to some. These birds have long been disrespected as golf-course geese and sky carp. They deserve some of that scorn, nesting in skanky city ponds and waddling around mall parking lots to scavenge trash. But in sprawling agricultural landscapes such as eastern North Carolina, resident Canadas are a wild and wary bunch.

“It’s not like Nebraska where there’s a new flock every five days,” Ports says. “These birds know every rock in every field. We’ve been hunting some of the same flocks for five years, and by now they know us by name. Resident geese used to be the dumbest animals on the planet, but those days are over.”

Killing such homegrown birds requires a helicopter mom’s approach. The group is in near constant contact, so as soon as birds are spotted, somebody will call somebody who knows somebody. Within 15 minutes of a flock’s landing, the group typically has a landowner’s name and address figured out. With the birds found, they rescout to pinpoint landing zones and wait till weather conditions and flock movements are perfect before bringing in a trailer of layout blinds and full-body decoys.

“Trying to pull resident geese 150 yards is like trying to pull them 3 miles,” Pelletier says. “If you want to kill 20 or 30 geese, you need to be where they were putting their feet down the past three days.”

Just as important is knowing exactly when to pull the trigger on a hunt. This time of year, farmers are heavy into harvest, and freshly cut fields crop up constantly. Geese are shifting from smaller family groups to larger wintering flocks, and feeding dynamics and preferred fields can change in a matter of hours. The group’s 24/7 text chatter keeps eyeballs on multiple options, monitoring the flocks so they can make the call to hunt as bird numbers max out before the entire flock moves elsewhere to feed.

canadian geese hunting buddies shooting
The group fires at a flock of Canada geese.Andrew Hetherington

All the effort, the patience, and the miles pay off. Over the past eight years, the group has averaged 250 geese a season. A good day’s bag is 25. Their one-day record, with a few other friends in the mix, is an astonishing 105 Canada geese piled up in a sweet potato field. And on most days, the guys are back at work by midmorning.

Challenging Times

Of course, every family has its squabbles. Early on one scouting morning Pelletier monitors four guys on the prowl across six counties. It’s just a few minutes after daylight, and he’s on the phone, riding Ports hard. “Have you gone to the Brown farm yet?” Pelletier asks him. “What?! Lock it down, man. Take a fruit basket. Whatever you got to do. There’s a lot of geese in that field.” He hangs up but never takes his eyes off the phone. “Where’s John Webb?” Pelletier wonders aloud. “What is his deal?”

He punches in a text. What’s happening John what are you doing?

No response. The phone rings. It’s White. He’s been on the phone with Webb, who is an hour to the east, looking for a turnaround on the interstate so he can take up the chase on geese flying in the opposite direction. Pelletier fires off another text to see if anyone can give him a hand.

“Bickering back and forth,” Eddings tells me later. “That’s the only way we know we like each other.”

pelletier notebook geese hunting tracking notes
Pelletier has carried this small green notebook for four years, keeping detailed scouting and hunting notes.Andrew Hetherington

As we watch his field in the early light, Pelletier pulls out a small green notebook. For the past four years he has kept detailed scouting and hunting notes. He jots down field locations, climate conditions, and tick marks for every single bird or group of geese that he sees, how many are in the group, what time they appeared over the trees, and from which direction they were flying. Every hunt. Every scouting trip. Every time.

“Anybody can put out a few decoys and maybe draw a few birds, but that’s not what we’re about,” he explains. “Folks like to see big flights, but I look for waves of five or 10 birds coming in a few minutes apart. If 40 come in at once and you drop 10, all that means is that you educate 30, and they’ll give you a big circle the rest of the year.” It requires discipline, but the group has let 80 geese land in the decoys without firing a shot.

And these days, goose hunters must hunt smarter than ever. More and more hunters are taking a swipe at the growing numbers of resident Canadas. “Five years ago,” Ports tells me, “I’d ask a farmer for permission to shoot the 200 geese wearing his peanuts out and he’d say, ‘I got geese?’ Now, everybody and their cousin buys a dozen decoys and turns into a goose hunter. We know who the young guns are out here, our competition.”

canadian geese bird hunting haul
Every hunt ends with a quick photo session—careful to leave out any details that could help their competition.Andrew Hetherington

The competition is always on their minds, not only because they have to beat them to the birds, but so they can crow a bit about their successes. Every hunt ends with a quick photo session, and the Instagram posts go up in a matter of minutes—showing goose piles carefully arranged so every head can be counted, but without treelines or background buildings that could suggest location.

“There’s a couple of groups we have to stay ahead of,” Grimes says one morning as he eyeballs truck lights arcing across a nearby field while we pull decoys from the trailer. “It’s getting harder, and our lives aren’t getting any simpler with kids and jobs and more responsibilities. But I think that’s why we like it so much. Nobody is on their own in this deal. We’re all in it together.”

Out of the Park

Even a farm-country resident Canada won’t turn down an easy meal. That’s why we find ourselves pulling on knee boots at 5 a.m. one morning, beside the Dumpsters behind a Dollar Tree parking lot.

Pelletier spotted the flock first—cupping over a Walmart, a McDonald’s off their right wing tips, and lighting into a 10-acre cornfield where a scrubby ditch lay along the exact eastern border of the city limits.

Found em. There are 878 gajillion. Someone with a computer call me. Could be dicey.

Jp send me screen shot of field so I can gps.

See that bushy ditch? Could be close enough to make it work.

Hero or zero. Let’s watch it.

For a week and a half, Eddings kept his eyes on the birds, watching the numbers build. When the total crested 200, the boys made the call.

It was perfectly safe—but still. Eddings talked to locals and zoomed in on Google Earth to make sure we could set up far enough away from occupied vehicles. Pelletier researched the field on a county GIS website to confirm that it was out of the city’s jurisdiction, and called the city police department, the county sheriff, and the state game department to make sure we would be on the up and up. All of that took the better part of a day. No one could come up with a reason that we couldn’t drop the hammer on Dollar Tree geese.

The hunt was on.

canadian geese hunting decoy spread
The guys set up their decoy spread to sure in the flocks.Andrew Hetherington

In the predawn there are peculiar logistics. We have to fine-tune the decoy spread to turn the geese away from the Dollar Tree and persuade them to set their wings outside a couple of self-declared no-shoot zones, due to houses 500 yards away. And we need to get them low enough to take before any cripples can sail across the plane of the city-limits line, 5 feet behind the ditch where we hide. The game warden who comes to check us is so impressed by the attention to detail that he jumps in the ditch with us to enjoy the show. Several small flocks spill into the field. We whoop and holler with each Canada that thumps the ground, amazed that it all came together.

A CrossFit class in neon spandex watches the last few volleys during warm-ups behind the shopping center. We walk out of the field with 22 perfectly legal Canada geese, double-timing to the trucks to get the decoys up and the trailer loaded before the morning Dollar Tree shift shows up for work.

“You know who else goes this crazy over resident geese?” Eddings asks as we scramble up a brier bank to the parking lot. “Exactly nobody.”

There’s more to this September madness than bragging rights on Instagram. I witness it on another hunt, in a sloppy mud pit of a huge cornfield that is a far cry from the civilized Dollar Tree scene. We pile up 21 geese—a pretty good few hours, by these guys’ standards—but one shot is a goose for the books. With a half dozen guns blazing, it’s sometimes difficult to tell who hits what, and on our last volley a wounded goose sails into the woods 300 yards away.

Ports lines up his yellow Lab, Scout, and sends him on the mark. The retriever has been on nearly every one of the group’s September hunts. He’s traveled on the group’s annual road trip to North Dakota, and he was waiting at the house when Ports brought each of his two children home from the hospital. But now the dog is 10 years old, slowed by an old car-strike injury, and almost immediately, Ports is having second thoughts. Retrieves on big-field giant Canadas can be extremely long, and resident birds grow heavy. Ports told me earlier that this was probably Scout’s last season on geese.

pointer dog fetch canadian geese
A determined lab carries a downed goose back to its owner.Andrew Hetherington

Now he wonders if he’s pushed his dog across the line.

No one says a word, but we all stare at the wood’s edge, hearts in our throats. Suddenly, Scout emerges from the trees, goose tight in his jaws. He struggles across a mud-sloppy field but closes the distance. Tears roll down Ports’s cheeks. Everyone looks on. Most of these guys have dogs. They know the deal. White steps over and simply claps him on the back. No words. None needed. It’s the language of brothers.

Open the Floodgates

In mid September, Tropical Storm Julia dumps 10 inches of rain on eastern North Carolina. The gang’s goose grounds—and family homes—are ground zero for the floods. The texts go out all night long.

My boat just blew 1/2 down the driveway.

Bad here. 3 inches of water in the garage. Gabe you dry?

18 inches of rain. Siding’s coming off now.

River sposed to crest at 32 ft.

You boys in my prayers.

Farmfields are rivers. White’s hometown is practically underwater. No one has time to hunt; everyone has a friend or family member dealing with damage from the storm. And there’s little to chase since most goose flocks are busted up and scattered. Then, a week after the storm, a text report comes in: Webb’s cousin saw a small flock cupping into a peanut field behind Webb’s parent’s house.

Suddenly, the text string is on fire. Pelletier whips the boys into a scouting frenzy to figure out where the geese are roosting. Webb watches the field for five days as the numbers tick up to 100, 200, and keep climbing. When he figures there are 250 geese feeding in the field, they make the call. After the storm-blasted lull, the guys are ready to shoot.

So, an hour after sunrise, with not a goose in sight, the heckling begins in earnest. No smartphones now. They’re giving Webb an earful in real time.

“Where are they, John?”

“We in the right field, John?”

“Zero hour, John.”

“When it’s your find,” Webb tells me through a wad of sunflower seeds, “this is a rough crowd.” He hollers down the line: “Y’all have some faith!”

Another 10 minutes.

“Should we just take up, John?”

“Nice scout, John.”

I hear Nellie’s tail thumping in the cornstalks 10 seconds before I hear the birds.

“Uh-huh!” Webb hollers.

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Pelletier flags a flock.Andrew Hetherington

Ports and Pelletier throw up a rolling thunder of cackles and honks. White and I flag like mad. A single flock of 150 birds skirts a treeline 400 yards away and never breaks stride. We wallow so deeply in disappointment that it takes a second to notice: Nellie’s tail never stops thumping.

The next flock clears the treeline at half the distance of the first, and there’s just enough time to shimmy down in the layout blinds. The first 30 honkers dump air at 75 yards, and when we pull out of the blinds they are 20 yards from our feet. Geese fold like black blankets and crash to the ground. The air above is flecked with hundreds of drifting feathers. Whoops and shouts ring out from a half dozen layouts.

“What do you say now, you freaking haters!” Webb jokes. “I take cash and credit!”

Nellie and Scout vault into action. It’s been the toughest year these guys can recall—staying on top of geese through monster storms, six infants, old dogs, grown-up jobs. Now they trade backslaps, six young men shoulder to shoulder in the dirt, all for one, as the sky is dotted with resident geese on the run, honking like wild.