SOUTH OF CASPER – The goose blinds were built to match a grassy field – fall alfalfa perhaps. They resembled thatch roofs in the Caribbean.
But on a snowy, sub-zero January day in Wyoming, they weren’t going to blend in. So their creator and owner, Brian Woodward, covered each of the five curved blinds with white sheets, and carefully instructed us to cover them with snow.
The sheets weren’t pure white, he said. They would look almost purple in the sun, which geese could see from the sky.
By sun up, we heard the distinct honking of thousands of geese as they moved from fields to the river and back again, bursting into the sky in waves and settling back down.
Five of us lay in wait in those homemade blinds, makeshift trap doors hiding our bodies with only our heads peeking out the top.
Once fairly rare due to overhunting and loss of habitat, goose populations in Wyoming are now at or near record levels. They have adapted well to living on golf courses and in urban areas, even making them pests in some larger cities. Hunters can shoot up to five a day, though barriers like limited access and pricey gear often prevent most from reaching their limit.
Woodward recognized how hard it can be to find areas to hunt and so this winter took dozens of hunters ages 12 to 70 to a parcel of leased land to chase birds in the snow. For those willing to invest in finding a place to hunt, the birds offer one last opportunity to put meat in your freezer before spring turkey season begins.
To say Woodward, 49, likes hunting geese would be like saying he helped start the Wyoming Walleye Stampede because he enjoys fishing. He owns a trailer full of dozens of goose decoys – full body ones that look like geese standing and eating, shells that look like they’re laying down and a handful of calls that hang around his neck. He spent so much time clipping mesh onto a series of five goose blinds he nearly gave himself carpal tunnel.
Two years ago, he invested in a lease along the North Platte River. For about four months of the year, he has a stretch of alfalfa field to hunker down in and hunt.
Woodward knows the number of waterfowl hunters in the country is decreasing, and he also knows it’s in part because of access. So when he got the lease, he decided he would do his part.
“I have a lot of friends who fish and game hunt and bird hunt but the bird hunting access is difficult,” he said. “Bringing them out is more about the comradery and giving people the opportunity to go.”
Casper hunter Jon Cobb was among those tucked in Woodward’s blinds that early Saturday morning. He had hunted geese on and off for 20 years. It can be hard to find places to go, he said. He lives on a ranch south of town, and the goose hunting can be decent there early in the season, but it’s nothing like going with Woodward.
“More people should probably hunt, but you get into the problem of where do you go and where can you go,” he said. “So much of the places geese are at are private property.”
That’s what makes Woodward so unique. Instead of bringing a handful of his closest buddies out each time, or just going alone, he takes as large a variety as possible.
Goose hunter numbers in Wyoming have stayed relatively stable for the last decade, at the same time as they’re dropping across the country, said Nate Huck, a migratory game bird biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Gear is expensive, he said, particularly collecting enough decoys to fill a field.
“It can be done with a lot less gear on the rivers, but then there’s kind of, in terms of learning how to waterfowl hunt, there’s a general knowledge you can only get over time,” he said. “It can be discouraging when you can’t figure out where birds are because you simply don’t know.”
Many fields like where Woodward hunts are leased, restricting access to the general public.
As geese populations expand across Wyoming and the West, hunting is a tool wildlife managers use to try to control the numbers.
Wyoming hosts two goose populations, the Rocky Mountain and Hi-Line. Some of them are permanent residents in Wyoming, some migrate through on their way to places further south.
“I don’t think there’s enough hunters to get in front of them if you wanted to reduce the population,” Huck said. “But habitat and water conditions largely drive their numbers.”
Back in the alfalfa field, geese started flocking to our decoys. They glided down, two, six or even a dozen at a time.
Woodward called out when it was time to shoot. The five of us flung open our trap doors and aimed.
Woodward’s yellow Labrador, Scooter, ran into the field each time to retrieve the fallen birds. Many goose hunts result in one or two harvested. We were more successful that day.
As we left the field in the snow and wind, we looked to our right and watched as thousands of Canada geese settled in a field. They dotted the ground like a small boulders.
The season closed soon after for Woodward’s area. But he plans to be back next year, another round of hunters in tow.