When goose hunter Neal Brooks says you’re in for a cold, early morning, he means every word of it.
“Well, it is 6:36 and it’s a brisky eight degrees,” Brooks told me one bitter, late January morning, as I arrived at the clubhouse of his Mazonia Hunt Club in Gardner, Ill., about an hour southwest of Chicago.
It’s actually a little generous to call it a clubhouse: We’re in a refurbished auto mechanics’ garage, which Brooks has made a bit cozier with hot coffee, old recliners and a cable hunting show on TV. On the walls is a menagerie of North American game trophies– ducks, pheasants, deer, elk – all stuffed.
This is the rendezvous point, where the hunters get the blood flowing before going out for game - in this case, Canada geese.
Brooks agreed to let me tag along on a hunt with a couple his clients, so I could hear how hunting informed the way they think about guns and shooting. As part of WBEZ’s “Our Guns,” reporters have been profiling local gun owners to document the range of relationships people have with firearms, at a time with politicians and activists debate gun laws in Washington and in statehouses across the country.
For hunters and sportsmen, the relationship to guns and shooting is often part family tradition, part politics and part fun.
Mike Blaske, 32, a logistics manager in Lockport, says his life as a hunter started when he was a boy, going out with his dad.
“So once I got old enough, my dad was looking for another hunting partner, and uh, took me when I was young, when I was about seven years old. And I didn’t have a gun or anything, but I sat in the blind and watched him,” Blaske said, as he got ready for the morning’s goose hunt.
Tradition and family, for some, are a big part of hunting.
“I recognized as a kid that if I was gonna see my father during hunting season ... I’d better be hunting with him,” said Scott Early, 63, a retired Chicago securities lawyer. Early’s backstory sounds familiar: his father, their hunting dogs and some elusive pheasant.
“Once you got started, no matter what you’re doing now, you’re gonna find a way to get back to it,” Early said. “It gets in your blood. And that’s where I am now.”
As the sun gets higher, everybody pulls on their camouflage outerwear and climbs into an SUV that takes us to the hunting site. The shotguns are stowed in the back of the truck, unloaded.
As we drive, I feel like I’m asking the obvious, but I want the hunters to tell me what their guns mean to them. Early raises an eyebrow at the question.
“That would be like saying, ‘How do you regard your golf clubs?’” he said. “The golf clubs are just a means to an end. For me, and I think, for a lotta hunters, the enjoyment you get is the process, as much as the result.”
We reach our destination. It’s a harvested corn field of stubbled stalks with a long, low hut near one edge, camouflaged by reeds.
This is the goose blind - where the hunters sit hidden in folding chairs, so as not to spook the geese and ruin their big shot. Everybody climbs in, loads their guns, and the waiting begins.
Early says he owns a handful of guns, but has only every purchased one himself; the others were handed down by relatives, or won at waterfowl conservation raffles.
The one with him today is a shotgun, covered in camouflage to match the blind, the kind of gun that’s made to handle extreme cold and take a beating.
And today, that’s good protection to have: The wind chill is about eight degrees below zero, according to our guide, Larry Juhl, who says he’s been hunting geese for nearly 60 years.
Juhl was out in the field even earlier than us (when it was even colder) to set out our decoys. There are about fifty of them, and they look remarkably like real geese. Juhl stands them huddled in little clusters around our blind, set up to look like they’re eating or sleeping or standing watch – a pattern designed to attract actual geese flying overhead.
“Because I flew helicopters in the Army, I have an appreciation for runways,” Juhl says, explaining exactly why his decoy spread is supposed to be so inviting to Canada geese. “And the last thing you want on a runway is something on it. You want it all to yourself.”
Goose hunters couple this with calling the geese, to create a scene that makes the animals want to land in this particular field. All of this work is what Early says makes him love the process.
“[S]eeing, in this case, a goose, lock its wings and come down and come in, and it’s a gorgeous, gorgeous sight,” he said. “And it’s like, you’ve done all this work, you’ve put all this patience and time in, and now it’s the fulfillment of it.”
But by around 9:30 a.m., the hunters are still unfulfilled.
“You ever had days where it was a good morning to sleep in?” Juhl asks rhetorically. “I think that’s what the geese are doing this morning.”
But the men swap hunting stories; they share jokes; they sip steaming hot coffee. At some point, the conversation turns toward politics.
Blaske, the other hunter, points out the shotgun he’s carrying isn’t all that different from the type of military-style assault rifles some people want banned.
“My gun - I could use - anybody could use a shotgun as a malicious weapon as well as a assault rifle,” Blaske said. “But, it’s not going to be used that way.”
For Blaske, his shotgun is practical. Think getting dinner on the table. But for Early, the ex-lawyer, it’s also constitutional. Think minutemen, anti-tyranny, the Second Amendment.
“It’s very easy to sound paranoid in that discussion, but the short answer to your question is, that’s the way the amendment was drafted, and it was drafted for a very good reason,” Early said. “Because the government knows that it has the citizenry who will not stand for what George Washington called the tyranny of government.”
This lofty talk about the U.S. Constitution gets me rethinking Early’s analogy - how his gun is like his golf clubs. I point out there is no national debate about golf clubs, but he says the similarity is in the attachment people have to their cherished possessions.
“And it may be personal attachment, because it’s been such a useful tool to you. It may be because it has sentimental value. It may be any number of reasons. But it’s not the kind of irrational, psychotic lust that a lot of people make it out to be,” Early said.
By mid-afternoon Early unloads his shotgun to call it a day. The SUV returns to take him back to the hunt club in town – skunked, with not a single Canada goose sighted.
“Our day was, on the one level, frustrating because we didn’t even see anything fly this morning,” he said. “But that’s why they call it hunting, and not shooting. You never know. And, as my father always used to say, You can’t shoot ‘em in the living room so you gotta come out and try.”