CENTRE HALL - Dawn still was an hour away and fog draped over a pond near Penns Cave in Centre County. Somewhere in the haze, Canada geese honked.
"I hope they leave. I don't want them to be here when it's daylight," Sgt. 1st Class Reggie Falls, of Howard, said as he and a group of hunters began to unload his truck.
One by one, he handed goose decoys to me, my husband Tim, Rick Gaab and his 14-year-old son, Austin, of Montoursville.
Sentinel photo by JESSICA?WELSHANS
Stephanie, a 7-year-old Labrador retriever, brings in a goose while hunting in Centre County.
Falls, a recruiter for the Pennsylvania National Guard, often mentors children and first-time hunters and anglers. He toured with the fishing organization FLW as part of a semi-professional team for the National Guard.
Five floating goose decoys hit the water while 10 more were lined up on a ramp-like area leading to the shore.
"We want them to look like they are walking out of the water. (It'll) draw the other geese in," Falls said.
A huge bag full of duck decoys was placed below the geese and to the left of where we were going to set up a makeshift blind.
Stephanie, Fall's 7-year-old Labrador retriever, whined in the cab of his truck. She was ready to get out and do her job but waited patiently for her cue.
Falls mentored all of us that day because no one in the group ever had gone goose or duck hunting.
Austin and Rick met Falls at the hot-air balloon festival last year in Hughesville. Austin, a member of the Junior Bass Busters and Susquehanna Valley Fishing Club, is an avid fisherman and outdoorsman, as is his father.
His extreme interest in the outdoors might be uncommon among other 14-year-olds. He and his father spend much time together in the fields and forests.
At one point, Falls said to Austin, "Better then a day of gaming, huh?"
"I don't really game. I would rather be doing this," Austin replied.
This time, Rick wasn't planning on hunting but rather wanted to learn and to enjoy time with his son.
When it barely was light, the setup was finished. The fog still was heavy. It gave the group cover but also made it hard to see silhouettes of flying birds.
Shells were loaded, and we sat and waited.
"You two watch the left. If you see ducks coming in, just quietly say 'ducks.' We will watch the right, saying the same," Falls said to my husband and me.
It didn't take long. Two ducks came in from Falls' and Austin's side. They landed quietly.
It was evident that the fog was going to hinder us a bit, because when the ducks hit the tree line, they would disappear and reappear when they hit the water.
When the fog began to dissipate, our line of sight became more clear.
"Ducks," someone yelled.
Shots rang out and two ducks tumbled to the ground.
High-fives were traded all around, and the hunt was on.
The first two ducks were claimed by Austin and Tim, but it wasn't long before more glided in.
As they surveyed the area, Falls called to them, trying to coax them to land. I imagined he was saying, "Hey, land here! It's cool! It's the only open water you will find for counties."
When the smoke cleared and safeties were clicked on, Stephanie would burst out of her portable kennel, hit the water and begin retrieving the dead ducks.
Most of the time, she needed no direction. If a bird landed or floated a good distance from the bank, Falls would go out to the bank and mark her for retrieval.
Sometimes, Stephanie would spot the birds in the air as they came in or hear them well before the rest of us did.
As the hunt went on, Falls taught the group more about waterfowl hunting.
He has been "throwing steel" in the air for many years - he is an avid goose hunter.
"Waterfowl hunting isn't always about the calling. Your setup has a lot to do with it," he said.
One thing any beginner will learn quickly is that ducks and geese have really good eyesight, much better than you think.
As daylight hit, we moved our setup back closer to a bank to blend in to our surroundings.
Heavy camouflage netting hung between two trees covered us up to our necks. It was imperative that we were all dressed in camo, even our face masks, and that we covered anything that may have stuck out.
The ducks would circle as they came in and checked out the area. If they felt comfortable, they would land in the water. If they thought "something was up," they would circle and leave.
"They start to get smart," Falls said.
Many times, as groups of ducks would start in, Falls would call, then tell us to be perfectly still, get our heads down and stay as close to the blind as possible.
Quacks from the Falls' duck call would pierce the air and birds would start to commit to the water landing. When they came into range, Falls would call the shot and we would line up the beads to a bird and fire.
After a few rounds of hits, misses and complete rejections from the birds, everyone got comfortable. Then the hunt started to fall naturally into place.
When birds would fly directly over the group, we would all call it too high. When they were out of range, shotguns would drop and the wait would begin again.
"The geese should be coming back around 10:30 a.m. Usually they go out into the fields in early morning and come back to the water around mid-morning or so," Falls said.
But, like with everything else hunting-related, the weather determines a lot.
Rain fell off and on, and the fog rolled in and out, depending on wind direction.
The geese weren't rolling in like usual, though, and Falls suspected they were out in the fields and planned to stay there for the day.
The wind treated us better than the rain.
We experienced very light breezes, although they changed direction quite a bit, which left us looking every which way for birds.
Falls explained why: Ducks and geese land into the wind. This helps them use the force of the air to slow their landing into the water.
As the morning moved on, we talked about hunting, Austin's experiences fishing, current events and waterfowl questions and answers.
One nice thing about waterfowl hunting is you don't really have to be completely still and silent the whole time.
Until you see birds and buckle down, it's a pretty relaxed hunt.
Just around 11 a.m., we heard the first honk from distant geese.
"I hear geese," Austin said with a twinge of excitement.
Falls hit the goose call and a response came from the right.
Through the fog, one lonely goose came gliding in. Looking like a B-12 coming down for a landing, the bird was massive compared to the ducks we shot earlier.
Falls indicated when to shoot.
I said, "It's all you, Austin." I wanted to be sure he got to fire first at a goose.
Austin fired twice and feathers flew. But, the bird was barely phased. It flew past Tim and me, then Tim fired a shot and a goose was down.
Proud and excited, all of us were ready for more geese.
A few groups of ducks came in afterward. Some didn't like the looks of things and moved on. Others we took shots at and downed a few more.
Each time birds fly in and shells start flying, it's an adrenaline rush like no other.
More geese honked in the distance, and Falls responded. The two that came into range were downed by 3-inch steel shot fired by Austin and me. We celebrated with fist bumps.
Stephanie retrieved the huge birds from the water with what looked like no effort at all.
The rain started and slowly began to get heavier. The birds seemed to be in a lull, so we called the hunt just after noon.
When all was said and done, the group scored three geese, five drakes and two hens.
We packed up the decoys, picked up empty shell casings and took down the blind.
When asked why Falls mentors beginners like us, especially kids like Austin, he said he enjoys seeing newcomers to the sport accomplish something they never tried before.
"I love to mentor youth hunting and fishing for the sheer joy in a kid's eyes at the first jump of a lunker bass or the moment when the birds lock up and you know they're committed to your spread. There's nothing more rewarding than knowing you helped open someone's passion for the outdoors."
Mentoring creates a learning process that promotes focus and social skills and exercises control norms or laws.
"As a recruiter for the Pennsylvania National Guard, I have dealt with countless youth that made bad decisions and, as a result, have closed many doors of opportunity," Falls said. "Getting involved in mentoring our youth in outdoor activities creates positive focus, and maybe we can save a few."
The outing met Austin's expectations.
"It was fun," he said, adding that he plans to go again.
"Yeah, we are going to have to make shotgun investments," his father said with a smile.
"The hunt went great," Falls added. "Last time I checked, Austin was still grinning."