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From Rags to Riches

By Larry Hodge

The Texas rag spread that revolutionized snow goose hunting celebrates it 50th birthday.

Each fall, the millions of snow geese that migrate down the Central Flyway pass over varied landscapes — mountains, plains and valleys. One aspect of the scenery repeats, however. From Canada to Mexico, snow geese are greeted with arrays of white plastic “rag” decoys placed in feeding fields by hunters hoping to lure geese within range. First used in Texas by guides Marvin Tyler and Jimmy Reel of Eagle Lake 50 years ago, the Texas rag spread is now the standard snow goose hunting technique almost everywhere.

Few people alive today have hunted snow geese any way other than over rag spreads. Marvin Tyler has. “In the early years, people would surround a rice field, and someone would walk out there and scare them up,” Tyler recalls.

Changes in agriculture sparked a change in goose behavior and in hunting methods. “Until after World War II, rice was cut with sickles and put up in shocks to dry,” Tyler explains. The shocks then were hauled to a stationary threshing machine. This harvesting method left little waste grain in fields, and geese had no reason to spend the winter in the rice-growing area. “Then combines came into use, and they left waste grain scattered all over the fields,” says Tyler. More food attracted more geese and improved their survival and nesting success, and the snow goose population began to grow.

Then one more critical element fell into place. “Geese had to have water to roost on before they would stay here for the winter, although we didn’t know that at first,” Tyler says. “A local landowner, David Wintermann, and Jimmy Reel started putting water on harvested rice fields to attract ducks, and geese started using those fields to roost on. It took time, but more geese started staying here all winter.”

Tyler observed that geese would feed in a field until dark, then fly to a roost pond for the night. The next morning the geese usually would return to the same field to feed. “We based our hunting on that routine,” Tyler says. Tyler owned a restaurant and waterfowl guiding business at the crossroads community of Altair just west of Eagle Lake, and in 1951 he and his partner, Jimmy Reel, got the idea of using white tablecloths and napkins from the restaurant as goose decoys. It worked.

“Young geese would see the spread and come to it in singles and doubles,” Tyler says. “At first we just used the rag spreads for fun hunts. A couple of years later we began using them on commercial hunts. Some hunters had full-body decoys out. I saw a bunch of geese coming and put out about 50 white rags. The geese started coming immediately. It was the first time we ever limited on snow geese.”

Once they knew the method worked, Tyler and Reel began searching for the ideal material for the rags. “We used tablecloths, napkins, diapers, whatever,” Tyler says. “We used white paper sacks with a little sand in them with the top twisted to look like a goose’s head. We used sheets of newsprint. We cut bedsheets into pieces — we’d spend all summer doing that. Jimmy Reel used paper plates, but it was hard work running down 500 plates scattered by the wind.”

Using tablecloths and napkins from his restaurant got Tyler in hot water with the Martin Linen Company, which didn’t appreciate getting a muddy, soggy mess to launder. “The representative told me they had a storeroom full of soiled sheets, aprons and napkins,” Tyler says with a laugh. “He said he would bring me all of those I wanted, just please to not use their good ones in the field.” Tyler bought the soiled cloths and put in a laundry. “We had four washers and a dryer, and during hunting season we ran them 24 hours a day,” he says.

To be effective, decoy spreads require several hundred rags. Rice fields are almost always wet, and cloth rags quickly became soaked and heavy. “One man could carry only about 100 cloth rags,” Tyler says. Newspaper turned into soggy pulp that was hard to pick up. One of Tyler’s guides tried using plastic tablecloths cut into pieces, but the nearly weightless squares would blow away in the wind. If the field being hunted had no rice stubble to drape cloth over, it lay flat on the ground and didn’t look convincing enough to fool geese.

In the early 1970s the windsock decoy became available. Windsocks consist of a plastic bag and a stick. The sides of the bag are tied to the stick, which is stuck into the ground at an angle facing into the wind. Any slight breeze will inflate the bag and move it, simulating a goose feeding. Windsocks are easy to put out and take up, don’t get heavy when wet and are so light that one person can carry up to 600 at a time. The Texas rag spread was ready to take off. All it needed was a little publicity.

That came in 1970, when golfer Sam Snead and entertainer Andy Griffith filmed a hunt with Tyler that aired on the “American Sportsman” outdoor show. “They stayed a week filming the show,” Tyler says. “After the show aired, people came from all over the nation to hunt with us using the rag spread. Business doubled in one year.”

The rag spread sparked a revolution in goose hunting. Once the technique became widely known, more people got into the business of waterfowl outfitting. Landowners were among the first to benefit. “I paid landowners $25 a hunter for a long, long time,” Tyler recalls. “As more people got into it, the cost went to $100.”

Landowners who wanted revenue from hunting worked to improve the habitat on wintering grounds to hold geese in the area. But there was a downside to that, too. Well-fed geese returned to Canada in the spring in better physical condition, and healthy geese raised more goslings. The snow goose population rose to the point that there are now too many of them on their nesting grounds, and they are destroying their habitat by overgrazing.

As for the rag spread, while it is widely used and can be effective under the right conditions, it is not as deadly as it was when new. Snow geese can live to be 20 years old, and they quickly learn to avoid rag spreads. Goose hunters frequently watch incoming flocks of geese split and go around spreads or hover overhead just out of shotgun range before heading elsewhere. As the rag spread turns 50, one might wonder if it will be used at all a half-century hence.

I suspect that it will. As long as gullible young snow geese travel down the Central Flyway to the prairies around Eagle Lake and Garwood and Katy, hunters will find it helpful to greet them with hundreds of white decoys fluttering in the breeze, waiting for the snows to fall.

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