Yes, this is where they make the bologna. I had it for supper, in fact--a Lebanon bologna and cheese sandwich on white bread with mustard for $1.09, purchased at the Mobil gas station next to the Rodeway Inn on Route 72 where I spent the night, if you can call it spending the night when they wake you up at 4 a.m.
All for the love of a goose.
My hosts were Chuck Elder and Scott Walters, a couple of young go-getters from the Altoona area who guide hunters for wild geese and ducks around the state, as well as for upland game on Elder's regulated shooting area. Why would a waterfowler from duck- and goose-rich Maryland make a 2 1/2-hour pilgrimage to Pennsylvania to hunt geese?
Well, they do make a fine, inexpensive bologna sandwich here. And there's something refreshing about goose hunting in a place where it's still so fresh and new. In Maryland, Canada goose hunting became such a commercial enterprise by the 1980s, when Eastern Shoremen turned it into a $40 million-a-year trade, it lost much of its wonder.
Not so yet in Pennsylvania, where migratory geese historically were just a passing oddity. Only in recent years, with the explosion in numbers of year-round resident Canadas in pockets across the state, have Pennsylvanians taken up goose-hunting in earnest.
You could hear the excitement in Elder's voice when he called last summer to encourage me to make the trek. We could expect an abundance of geese, he said.
What he didn't say was that we'd be hunting a public wildlife management area, but he didn't know that yet. Elder leases farmland for goose hunting around Lebanon, but the key to the big resident population of Canadas that stays there is Middle Creek WMA, a 400-acre lake surrounded by state-farmed wheat and corn fields where thousands of geese find all they need to thrive.
Middle Creek offers limited public hunting four days a week in 25 blinds scattered around the fields. The competition is keen, with names being drawn in a lottery before the season. Elder applied for eight years without success before giving up. Walter hung in and this year, his name finally was drawn. Under the rules, he and his hunting party were to be at Middle Creek's Visitor Center at 5 a.m. for a drawing to determine which blind they'd hunt, which explains the 4 a.m. wakeup call. It could have been worse. Walters had to finish at his regular job in Huntingdon, where he is a correctional officer, then get up at 1 a.m. to make the long drive to join us downstate.
"It won't bother Scott," said Elder. "He's like me--whatever it takes. We both know you're going to have to put in some serious windshield time if you're going to put your clients under birds."
The ranger behind the desk spun the lottery cage and the ball that dropped down bore the number 2. "Blind two," he said. "You shouldn't be unhappy with that."
A few minutes later we were trudging across a freshly planted winter wheat field, laden with four dozen decoys, following dim flashlight beams in the dark to a place we'd never been. We could hear the distant honks of roosting geese. We wondered how they'd fly, if they'd fly, how to set the decoys, which way the wind would blow. It was all a wild mystery, which is how goose hunting should be.
We finally found the pit blind, which wasn't easy since it was a very good one, well concealed with a cover of camouflage netting, and set the decoys in small groups around it--"family groups," Elder called them. "Everybody else sets up a U-shape with a hole in the middle for the geese to decoy into. We'll try something different."
After two quarter-mile trips back and forth to the truck, we had everything in place. It was 6:05 a.m., 41 minutes till sunrise and 11 minutes till the start of legal shooting time, a half-hour before sunrise. We checked our packs and made sure we each had the right number of shells. To keep the public-land hunt from turning into a bloodbath that scares away all the geese, the state limits each gunner to 10 shells, with a daily bag limit of one bird per person instead of the generous five-bird limit that applies on private land.
"Let's load up," said Elder at 6:16. "We'd look pretty stupid standing here with empty guns if a flock came in."
It didn't, of course. Geese aren't like ducks, which fly best at the very break of day. They're lazier. But with a smudgy dark sky looming, fog in the valleys and a building breeze riding the advancing front of Hurricane Floyd, we all had confidence they would fly eventually.
The first small flock lifted off the lake about 7 a.m. You could hear the change in the goose talk as they prepared to fly, their soft muttering switching to animated chatter, then the low, dark silhouettes of big birds against a chiarascuro sky.
"Six birds!" said Elder. "Get down!"
Five went by, but one, a young bird by the look of it, broke off, spun and returned for a closer look at our decoys. Elder and Walters tooted on goose calls and waved black flags from beneath the camouflage netting to simulate movement in the decoy spread. But the bird went on.
"Oh well," said Elder, pulling back the cover on the pit so we could stand up and look around. We were still standing there, gabbing away, five minutes later when the goose, having surveyed the surrounding countryside, made its way silently back.
"Get your gun!" said Walter, who was first to see it soaring in over our heads, wings set, bound for a landing in the middle of the decoy spread.
I grabbed for the old Remington, raised it, swung, touched the trigger and dropped the goose with one shot. Later, both Elder and Walters managed to do likewise with single birds that broke off small flocks. The birds flew all morning just as you would want them to, in small groups, easy to decoy. We were done at 8:30. And that's the story of our goose-hunting foray in Lebanon, where they make the good bologna, and goose hunting is still an adventure.
Chuck Elder guides for geese, ducks and upland game. Check his Web site at www.raystown.net or call 814-635-2828.