The bird, when wounded, pours forth its last breath in notes most beautifully loud and clear.
Travels in Siberia
Josh Neuwiller has found his calling. It's geese.
Licking his chops like a jazz trumpeter, Neuwiller takes a great gulp of air and presses his Eastern Shoreman goose call to his lips. The three-time junior world goose-calling champ is small and thin, reedy as the cattails in a goose blind. He peers birdlike through a thatch of long, brown hair and blows urgent hailings on the polished rosewood instrument—deep, throaty yawps, err-ONK!; excited clucks, ruck-rick-ruck-rick!!; and wild, baleful cries, er-raawwwk!!!—that gust and tangle and sail off. "To imitate geese, you have to think the way they think," he says. "You have to be your own goose."
Until now a goose call was often nothing more than a noisemaker used to lure passing geese into shooting range. In Neuwiller's hands it's a musical instrument. "Josh is going to be the best goose caller there ever was," predicts Sean Mann, winner of the 1985 and '86 world championships, held every year in Easton, Md. "He's a young Miles Davis." Indeed, to watch the 17-year-old Neuwiller massage grunts and groans and growls out of his Shoreman is to witness the birth of goose-call cool.
If Neuwiller is Davis, the Eastern Shoreman is his trumpet. "The Shoreman has some notes in it that other calls just don't have," says Bill Privott, who won the world title in 1983 and '84. "It sounds more goosey to me." Goose hunters are flocking to buy the Shoreman because its sound carries over tremendous distances, and it doesn't stick the way a standard tube call does. "The Eastern Shoreman is the most significant contribution to goose hunting since corn," Mann says. He may be prejudiced. He did, after all, invent it.
Most of Mann's calls are turned from either bird's-eye or fiddleback maple(they cost $150) or cocobolo rosewood ($175). But he also makes calls using whatever wood comes to hand, whatever inspires him. "I try to use natural materials," he says, though he has recently come out with a $50 plastic version of the Eastern Shoreman called the Express. "It produces every syllable of Canada-goose language," Mann insists. "It's a Berlitz course in goose."
Neuwiller's language lab lies off Mill Creek, a marshy rivulet near his home on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "You've got to listen to a lot of geese to speak goose," he says. "I've listened to them my whole life." He sits on the bank a couple of hours a day mimicking moans and murmurs.
It takes a superb ear and perfect pitch to win the goose-calling world championship. And that's what Neuwiller brought to November's contest in the Easton High auditorium. He was trying to become the youngest champ in the 18-year history of the event.
For verisimilitude, most of the 62 contestants, who this year were all men, wore camouflage hats and jackets. Each caller stood alone onstage in a fake blind of cedar boughs, cattails and wax-myrtle branches. Each caller had 90 seconds to perform a five-part solo. The recital began with the bright, clear single honks of the greeting call, followed by the free-for-all feeding call; the whisper-soft lay-down call; the half-pleading, half-wheedling comeback call; and, finally, the low, seductive landing call. "A goose would never win a goose-calling contest," says Mann. "It could never get the routine down right."
Mann was cut after the first of three rounds; Neuwiller flapped into the finals in third place. He only got better. Swaying in the reeds like a Hindu snake charmer, he played call after call with relaxed, easy clarity. The goose music flowed effortlessly, pulsing forward even in the pauses when he wasn't making a sound. During Neuwiller's feeding call, the entire auditorium seemed to fill with squawking Canada geese. The large and attentive crowd gave him a thunderous ovation.
When the scores of all three rounds were tallied, Neuwiller was tied for first with 1991 winner Allen McCree. In the honk-off Neuwiller appeared to have lost his nerve, if not his lip. He also lost the title. "The goose got caught in my throat," he said later. In other words, he choked.
Mann didn't seem bothered by his protègè's loss. He and Neuwiller embraced, then wandered off, honking on their calls like a couple of contented geese.
In a Maryland blind Neuwiller (center) joined Blair Baltus (left) and Mann in a goose-call chorus.