THE LO­CALS

EV­ERY SEPTEM­BER IN NORTH CAROLINA, A SU­PER­TIGHT GROUP OF HUNT­ING BUD­DIES DE­VOTES EV­ERY FREE SEC­OND THEY HAVE TO SCOUT­ING, CHAS­ING, AND SHOOT­ING BIRDS THAT A LOT OF HUN­TERS COULDN’T CARE LESS ABOUT—RES­I­DENT CANADA GEESE

Field and Stream - - CONTENTS - By t. ed­ward nick­ens

Ev­ery fall, this band of hunt­ing bud­dies goes wild for a bird that few care for—the res­i­dent honker.

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.

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. 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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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

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.

a dozen de­coys and turns into a goose hunter. We know who the young guns are out here, our com­pe­ti­tion.”

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 corn- field 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.

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 noshoot 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. 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.

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.

“Bull” GABE WHITE Wing a bird and the man won’t give up till it’s found. Ever. “De­tail Man” JOSH EDDINGS Be­cause ev­ery band of bud­dies needs a voice of rea­son. “Ain’t Right” JOHN WEBB The jokester, 24/7. But time to shoot, he brings the thun­der.

“The Closer” CULLEN PORTS Could talk his way onto Fort Knox if there were geese to kill. “Coun­try Boy” TRAVIS GRIMES Fam­ily farmer who fights to get time off from the trac­tor. “The Com­man­der” JOSH PEL­LETIER In a fam­ily of equals, some­one has to call...

Truck Stop Each fall, Cullen Ports and his buds drive thou­sands of miles scout­ing for geese.

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