I keep running into Bill Saunders. The first time was on a turkey hunt in southeastern Washington where I was desperately trying to break my turkey-hunting jinx. Having struck out three years in a row on my own, I had finally opted for a guide, contacting Mike Franklin of Pacific Wings Waterfowl Adventures out of West Richland, Washington. Mike, a fine goose and turkey hunter in his own right, a man who regularly uses stuffed fowl for decoys and puts the birds in your lap, put me in the care of Bill, his number-one guide. One the second morning out, I bagged a Rio Grande gobbler he had called to within 25 feet.
In turkey camp the first evening, it became obvious to me that although Bill liked to hunt turkeys and loved to hunt waterfowl, what he really loved was the calling – particularly geese. Indeed, even as we sat around a coffee pot in the dimming light listening to turkeys shock-gobble from the pines, Bill was fiddling with his goose call. When a flock of honkers flew over, he was on them immediately, causing the high-flyers to hiccup as they searched for the beckoning flock below. It happened twice, and each time Bill seemed to light up when the birds responded. “Did you see that? Did you see that? They want me,” he chuckled through his typically wry humor.
|The next time I ran into Bill was two years later on a goose hunt in southern Oregon. This was an early-season bonus shoot organized by Ron Latschaw of Final Approach. On that outing, Bill was one of three callers, and right from the outset it was obvious he had been keeping up with his homework. So effective was his calling, it got to a point where I began to feel sorry for the honkers. In one amazing sequence, he actually called a settling flock out of a field a quarter-mile away, kept them airborne when they were ready to touch down and brought them all the way across an expanse of tempting oat stubble to land them in our decoys. When I complimented him on his calling, Bill just shrugged. “Sometimes they don’t know what they want to do until you tell them,” he said dryly.For the next two days of that hunt, Bill “told them what they wanted.” His buddies on that trip often criticized him good naturedly for what they perceived as his inattention to detail – not placing a decoy just so or not getting the wind just right. Bill merely shrugged, lay back in his blind and made beautiful goose music. “You gotta give ‘em a chance,” he said softly with a wink. I didn’t know if he was talking about his buddies or the geese..
That same winter, my son, Matthew, came home for three weeks of hunting with the old man. Matt had been with the Coast Guard for 12 years at the time, most recently in Puerto Rico, and he hadn’t hefted a shotgun for the last two. His arrival was not during prime duck weather as the northerns hadn’t arrived yet and the locals were spooky, but I wanted to get him out so I contacted Mike Franklin at Pacific Wings. As luck would have it, he hooked me up with Bill again.
“I’m not promising anything,” Bill told me. “The Wigeon Hole has been good to me this year, but we probably won’t see many mallards.” I assured him we would happily take what we could get.
As things turned out, the Wigeon Hole was exceptional. With Bill calling, we shot mixed bag limits, including a banded mallard drake, in less than two hours. At 8:00 a.m. we began to slowly pick up, enjoying one of those rare bluebird days when the ducks just keep coming.
When he began guiding for Pacific Wings, Bill figured he had reached the pinnacle. “It doesn’t get any better than this, I was thinking,” Bill told me. He still feels that way and is perfectly happy with the guiding arrangement he now has with Franklin and Pacific Wings. “I’m doing what I want to do,” he said. “Personally, I think it’s a noble profession. I’ll let someone else run the business. From early high school on, all I ever wanted to do was be a waterfowl guide. When my friends were messing around with cars, I was messing with a goose or duck call – I was a bird huntin’ nerd.”
“I had a stack of Wildfowl magazines a yard deep in my locker at school, and I’d go out by myself and listen to the waterfowl and try to put a call with a situation. If the birds were excited, I wanted to know why. If they were content, I wanted to know the call that went with it. All my techniques come from hunting – watching and listening to the birds.”
I did not know just how much Bill Saunders had listened to the birds until I met up with him and his father, Bill Sr., on a summer fishing trip in the Columbia Basin. A month earlier, Bill had participated in the Pacific Flyway Regional Calling Contest, and event I had been asked to help judge. Hidden behind a curtain on stage, we judges had no idea who was up, but when the competition was over, Bill Saunders was a unanimous pick, winning everything he entered – Washington Individual Goose, Regional Individual Goose and Team Goose. For the latter, he was paired with Dave Smith of Oregon, another very fine caller.
While dunking nightcrawler-tipped jigs for walleye in Hendricks Lake, I found the time and circumstance to learn more about this 29-year-old man than I had in the previous four encounters. His father, for example, told me that during the first five years after high school his son did not miss a single day of the waterfowl season.
“That’s got to be a record of some sort,” Bill Sr. laughed. “He had a night job, so it just seemed to him the natural thing to do. Even when he was in junior high, on weekends I’d take him out to the pond in the morning and pick him up after dark. He was possessed.”
Bill shot his first duck – a wigeon – in Middleton, Idaho, with a 16-gauge double-barreled Fox. He wore the empty hull around his neck for a year. His first goose, a snow, didn’t come until he was 16.
“I called that bird in,” Bill remembers, and you can tell by the way he says it that it was a significant life event. “It was awesome – to call in something that size. I did it with a Coast-to-Coast Lohman.”
The elder Saunders recalled how his son would sit alone in the reloading room at home listening to calling tapes while he cranked out shells. Bill was doing quite a bit of competitive trap shooting at the time, and he did very well. “We always had plenty of Christmas turkeys and hams he’d won at the range,” Bill Sr. told me.
Now that Bill is also making his own duck and goose calls, he finds there is no longer an off season. “I was trying to get out the door to come here fishing,” he said, “and I had a half dozen phone calls – guys wanting me to listen to them blow one of my calls over the phone or guys wanting me to demonstrate what it was supposed to sound like. It’s crazy, but I love it.”
Bill said that people are always asking him what contest he won with this or that call. “They’ve got the wrong attitude,” he told me. “I’m a meat hunter. I only do the contests because I want to promote my calls and good pit calling. I want to get the birds. This goose-hunting game is about witness and participation. Good, competitive goose calling is more consistent with what you’d do in the field. Competitive duck calling is sometimes unrealistic, I think. For example, you’ll never hear a real duck give a 20-note ringing hail.” He went on to say that the biggest mistake in goose calling is calling too much. “Birds are pretty quiet when they’re content,” he said. “All you really need to do is give signs of life. You can always rattle off a 40-note sequence to break up a flock if you think they’re getting away from you.”
|His comment made me ask Bill why callers such as Tim Grounds seemed to always call long and loud. “It’s a different situation,” Bill said. “Where Tim hunts, there’s a two-bird limit and a seasonal quota. The bits are sometimes lined up 400 yards apart – lots of competition. Quiet calling just won’t do it under those circumstances because everyone else is blasting you out. If you’re just sitting there, your shooters are going to go home skunked.” Then he added, “We don’t really appreciate how good we have it out west. We can shoot geese for a hundred days or more with daily limits ranging from three to five geese.” He smiled. “That’s a lot of practice.”
That Bill has done it on his own is undeniable, but he still thinks Tim Grounds has had the biggest impact on goose calling and has done more to promote the sport than anyone. “He opened my eyes to a lot of things about calling,” Bill said. “He’s still the man.”
Despite his admiration for Tim Grounds, Bill Saunders, by his own admission does not want to be known as second best. If he and Dave Smith win the team-calling championship at the Pacific Flyway Waterfowl Festival, Bill hopes to travel to Easton, Maryland, and enter the individual competition in the World Contest. I wouldn’t bet against him.