FOSSTON, Minn. -- The geese are just over the distant trees, a ragged ribbon of dark wings stretching across a good piece of the horizon.
Matt Keller sees them.
"Big flock," he says, reaching for his goose call. "That's way more than we need at one time."
Keller, a Bemidji waterfowler and waterfowl guide who grew up in Grand Rapids, is lying in a layout blind in a field of corn stubble. On this early October weekday, he's guiding the two men lying alongside him, Rich Laing of Minneapolis and his son Ryan Laing of Richfield, Minn.
Our blinds are plopped among nine dozen Canada goose decoys. Our backs are to both the wind and the rising sun, a perfect set-up.
A few minutes earlier, a flock of 20 giant Canadas bore hard into the set, well within shooting range. But Keller hadn't called the shot, hoping the geese would land among the decoys for the sheer thrill of watching them. They didn't land and instead veered to a nearby picked bean field. No shots were fired at that group.
The wavy pennant of geese is closing fast now. At least 75 birds stretch across the sky, filling the air with their raucous chatter. They're bearing straight for our set-up.
Keller makes goose talk on his call. Listening to him is like listening to an answering flock on the ground. At first he sounds like one bird, then two, then somehow like an entire happy gaggle urging those in the sky to sample the corn that the combine missed.
The leaders in the sky respond in kind and as the birds make their final approach, Keller's calling and the flock's calling intermingle in a wild avian symphony.
Finally, they are hovering almost directly overhead.
"Let's take 'em," Keller announces calmly.
The layout blinds flop open. The hunters sit up, mounting shotguns. The flock backpedals in panic. When the volley is over, three of the giant Canadas have tumbled to the field.
For the first hour or so of the day, the geese come at regular intervals in twos or threes or eights or 10s. Keller wishes the flock of 75, as impressive as it was to see, would have come in groups of 10 or so.
"You can shoot as many out of a flock of 10 as you can out of a flock of 75," he says.
Keller is the driving force behind a family business called Keller Outdoors and a waterfowler's website called minnesotawaterfowler.com. The website offers a forum where the state's waterfowl hunters can exchange information. Keller Outdoors (kohunts.com) is the guiding arm of the operation.
Keller's dad, Jim, was an avid outdoorsman and hunter. He died in 2004. Before he did, he left his four sons and a daughter with a wish.
"He wanted a family business that kept the family together," Keller said as we scouted geese one evening.
In 2005, Keller and his brothers started their waterfowling business. His brothers have pursued other paths now, but Keller still consults with his siblings about the business.
Keller also works full-time with Timber Bay in Bemidji, a non-profit, non-denominational Christian-based group that works with youth. Keller leads several youth outdoor adventure trips each year, including an annual waterfowl trip in October.
His guiding fees go directly to support his youth work through Timber Bay, which has a staff of five in Bemidji. His brothers support his work with Timber Bay financially, and Mike Keller of Two Harbors offers gear through his own canoe outfitting and retail shop called The Canoeist.
Matt Keller has found that being outdoors breaks down barriers with kids.
"If I get them out in a duck blind, they're much more honest than in a school situation or a house," he says.
One of the youth Keller has worked with is Jake Flaa, 18, of Bemidji. Keller has helped him become a leader among his peers, and now Jake is working with other youth through Timber Bay. Keller has had a profound influence on Jake, says his mother, Patty Flaa.
"You can see the rapport and see the relationship they have," Flaa says. "I know Jake would write a huge paper on how Matt has affected his life."
Steve Hanson, Bemidji-area director of Timber Bay, has seen firsthand Keller's influence on young people.
"He's tremendously gifted with heart and talents," Hanson said. "He wants to share as much as he can every day of nature with as many people, children in particular, who probably aren't going to have that privilege."
Getting kids outdoors makes a difference, Flaa says.
"Some of these boys don't have that male bonding, which is huge," she said. "By Matt giving them that outdoor experience, the kids feel they can open up more. They're not in this room to talk about their problems. They'll open up more sitting by a fire or sitting in a (blind) looking for geese."
In addition to the annual youth waterfowl hunt, Keller leads a December pheasant hunt where participants sleep in canvas tents, a March ice-fishing trip for big northern pike on Lake of the Woods and a summer backpacking trip in Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains.
Keller is unassuming and humble by nature. When he isn't working with kids through Timber Bay, he's either guiding or scouting for waterfowl.
Before Tuesday's hunt with the Laings, Keller estimated he drove 400 miles keeping track of where geese were feeding. It isn't uncommon for him, when guiding, to sleep in a tent or his pickup, sometimes days at a time.
This fall has been good hunting, especially in Minnesota's early Canada goose season. Here's his Sept. 22 website update: "After living out of my truck the last week, I'm finally home. Our last six hunts (in Minnesota's early goose season) were awesome with a total of 125 geese and two bands. Lots of birds around."
Keller spent another night sleeping in his pickup the night before our hunt on Tuesday. Under the stars, he placed more than 100 full-body decoys in the corn stubble.
"The Milky Way was really bright," he says.
The scouting and preparation pay off. Keller and the Laings finish with six geese for the morning. Keller shoots only occasionally, letting his clients have most of the action.
When the decoys have been loaded back into the trailer, the Laings settle up with Keller. The guiding fees they pay him will go directly to support his work at Timber Bay.
"We consider every hunt a benefit hunt," Keller said.
And he heads for home, where he would sleep in a bed that night.