Every serious waterfowl hunter should experience a head-on clash with the peak of the Central Flyway’s spring migration.
Fronted by who-knows-how-many-million mid-continent snow geese, “The Big Show” includes nearly every species of North American wildfowl, all dressed to the hilt in their finest nuptial plumage. Just to be among ‘em, whether in northwest Missouri, eastern Nebraska’s Rainwater Basin, the eastern half of South Dakota, throughout North Dakota or on the prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, is truly awe-inspiring.
At first blush, you’ll think, “Surely, these are the best of times.” With skies constantly etched by ragged, wavering, barking lines of high-riding snows that periodically stall out, only to build into swirling, tornado-shaped vortices numbering tens of thousands of birds, a spring goose hunter’s heart boils.
But the hunt itself, even at these times of obvious abundance, can be disappointing.
Rarely can the freelancer set a rig large enough to effectively compete with fields full of the real McCoys. And even if a hunter has signed up with an outfitter to hunt a massive, semi-permanent spread, he’ll have to be lucky enough to encounter one of those grand, south-winded migration days that can generate a big shoot.
At the front or peak of the migration, we’ve learned the standard mode of operation — putting feeding birds to bed only to hunt them upon their return to a field in the morning — is ineffective. These restless, super-wary birds, most of them having survived years of gunning, are always on the move. They rarely return to the same field or behave as they should. And even if they want to, chances are good-to-excellent they will be interfered with by an abundance of jump and/or pass shooters.
Now, I can’t argue that sneaking on or downwinding geese is not hunting. But it’s not hunting well. And the fact that some gunners who practice these techniques trespass and gouge fragile prairie roads makes it the worst of times. Their actions don’t endear hunters to the general public, and undermine the future of our sport.
So what’s a white goose hunter to do?
Well, as a lot of us have come to know, the answer is to skip “The Big Show” and concentrate on the less-spectacular, but juvenile-laden tail end of the migration. Perhaps no one has learned the lesson better than a group of South Dakota State University students my son, Bill, has come to know.
Forming a Cooperative
“You should see these guys, Dad,” Bill effused on a phone call from South Dakota late last March. “Man, have they changed. They really get it.”
Bill and a coworker, Luke Farah, had decided to make a quick trip to visit their buddy, Nick Dokken, a graduate student in wildlife management at SDSU.
Dokken is a gonzo waterfowler who is always on top of the birdy action in The Land of Opportunity.
The guys had made the same trip a couple of years earlier, but Bill wasn’t impressed.
Although everyone had good intentions to hunt with decoys, Dokken and his group joined in the popular run-and-gun scenario after their initial field setup attempts were foiled by jump shooters.
But last year was different. The plan for their first day’s hunt orchestrated by Dokken involved eight scouts leaving Brookings at daybreak, each on a different compass heading. Their mission was to find a huntable number of “dirty birds,” the catchy term they use for the juvenile, less-than-full-colored snows and blues.
Farah got the phone call near noon.
One of the guys had found a flock of 1,000 birds that his well-trained eye confirmed to be at least 70 percent youngsters. The hunt was on!
After a 100-mile dash Bill and Farah met up with the guys just as they were putting the finishing touches on a massive spread of windsocks deployed well within view of the three-quarter mile distant roosting birds, but exactly where they’d fed earlier that morning.
Bill had his doubts. But they were gradually erased as late afternoon brought a few curious customers — singles, pairs and flocks of three — to the rig. Sunset produced a half-hour of classic, in-your-face gunning on solidly fooled geese.
The SDSU wildlife curriculum has long been a magnet for young, outdoor career-minded enthusiasts throughout the Midwest. All of Dokken’s gang, with Mick Hanan, Tait Ronnigam, Kevin Rohling and Cody Werner as the nucleus, fit the description.
The hunter most responsible for the group’s conversion to field hunting is Hanan, a young man from Fergus Falls, Minn. Having grown up field hunting Canada geese on his home turf, and snows with his father on the nearby prairies, he brought the critical know-how to the guys. They have learned that it’s not how many you kill, but rather, how well you hunt that counts.
This fowl-crazy bunch has formed an informal cooperative to hunt spring snows. They pool decoys, gas money, time and considerable energy. They scout individually, but hunt together, even if it means eight or nine guys in the spread. Everyone enjoys the fruits of their collective efforts.
Shoot Fast, If Not First
After spotting birds until dark and playing Texas Hold ‘Em until midnight, the 4 a.m. wakeup call came startlingly early that late April day. Trying to keep up with my Canuck buddy, Randy, and his crew of Travis, Cyril, Lucien and Craig — all 20-some years my junior — as they
made an unspoken competition out of seeing who could throw the biggest percentage of the spread, was a failure. They kicked my aging butt and had a good time doing it. But it didn’t matter. I planned to turn the tables on the boys once the shooting started.
Wrong! When the first wave of sheetwater-roosting snows blew over us, all five of their guns spoke before mine even hit my shoulder.
I’m used to being the pit boss, based on seniority alone. With my Manitoba group each fall, I always have to aggressively call the shot. Not so with this competitive bunch. They each cut loose as they saw fit, leaving the rest to react or be left behind time and again. It was plain to see they were going to make the most of the available trigger time.
I’d always wondered what it would be like to hunt with these guys. Hiring them for their equipment, scouting and land access had produced a lot of efficient, productive and memorable fall hunts over the years. We all became good friends. But it wasn’t until I joined them on this late-spring hunt that I really learned how much wildfowling meant to them.
As young hunters reared in such a fowl-rich land, each of the guys, all of whom guide in the fall, had been weaned on honkers and mallards. It wasn’t until customers wanted snow geese that they learned to hunt them. But the guides usually don’t get to hunt snows until spring. Even then, because of career and family commitments, they only spend a few days each year.
“So to make it count, we hold off till the end of the migration, when we can work over the more predictable young birds on drying, usually driveable fields,” Randy explained.
On that wild day, the juvies, along with the odd adult they dragged along with them, were ours for the taking.
They sailed low and happily into and over our rig placed smack dab on the “X” where they had fed the night before. And take we did, amid a lot of good-natured hooting, hollering and happy gunning.
The frenetic flight lasted an hour and a half. When the smoke cleared, we had nearly a limit on the ground. Everyone — including the dogs, I’ll swear — was wearing the type of grin that comes from knowing something truly special had just happened.
A Sticky Situation
I met John DeVries in 1995, the first year of the Conservation Order spring light goose hunt. He was a budding spring snow goose guide, and I was one of his first customers. It didn’t take much conversation to learn that we had a mutual love for waterfowl. What I didn’t realize at first was how naïve we both were about hunting snow geese.
A lot of water has flowed under our bridge since then. Not only are DeVries and I still talking, we’ve actually become good friends.
When it comes to hunting spring snows, I’ll always tip my hat to DeVries. Experience counts. And Lord knows DeVries, a self-professed addict who hunts every chance he gets, has a ton more than me. But the fact that neither of us knows it all was never more evident than one comical day late last April in North Dakota.
Nearly the whole state was under water last spring, which made driving on the soggy fields basically impossible. All fields, except for the one we were looking at that afternoon, or so we thought. Woody, the third and most senior member of our group dissented. “We’d better plan on hoofing our rig out into the hilltop stubble,” he said.
The debate still lingered as we arrived back at the field at ‘o-dark thirty the next still, overcast, misty, blacker-than-black morning. Stepping out to walk the field, DeVries and I convinced ourselves, thanks to being more than a little sleep-deprived and war-weary, that the gravelly moraine would support the pickup. Woody shook his head in disbelief.
Now, I’m still fairly certain we would have been fine had DeVries stuck to the hill’s crest. But no, he had to try to sidehill so the 600 or so juvie snows and Ross’s geese roosted little more than a half-mile away wouldn’t skyline us.
Well, DeVries made it all of 100 yards before he sunk the truck — my truck — to the frame. There we sat, a quarter mile from the X. With cool heads, without any “I told you so,” and little choice, we walked our gear the rest of they way. It was a grim situation.
All was darn quiet as we waited for shooting light. But when it came, the situation quickly got a lot better. The hunt that began to unfold defied all logic. Singles, pairs and small flocks winged confidently to our meager spread.
We were working them over pretty good when DeVries’s character again took center stage. Dixie, his fine young Lab, broke on an incoming pair of Ross’s Geese.
The inquisitive geese flared at first, then turned and tolled back to the rig hot on Dixie’s tail. After shortstopping their flight, DeVries thought it was so cool that he began to send Dixie on any half-interested birds that looked like they weren’t going to finish.
I was amazed, but kept my thoughts to myself. Understand this is the same guy who years earlier, on a day when the geese were winning big time, would “go off” if my dog so much as sat up, suggesting, as if he needed an excuse, that my dog’s very presence was the reason for our failure. Well, while using your dog to toll snow geese on the wing will never become a regularly productive practice, it looked at least like DeVries lived, learned and maybe even mellowed a bit.
Our shoot proved short, but sweet that last day. Taking just shy of 30 birds when they had to stare directly at my truck while on final approach was nothing short of amazing. We did fine, but anyone with more common sense and energy would likely have done better.
It occurred to me then that all gear and strategy aside, the single key to success with late white geese is simply being there.
After pulling the pin under still-lowering skies that began to leak an icy drizzle, Woody and I sought the comfort of the truck’s heater. DeVries headed off on foot in search of a friendly farmer or cell service, whichever came first. He was back within an hour, proudly announcing with a sheepish grin, “Help’s on the way.”
All’s well that ends well — as our memorable late-spring snow goose hunt surely had.
Jack Hirt is a frequent contributor from GlenBeulah, Wis. To order Hirt’s book, ‘S No Geese Like Snow Geese, see the Wildfowl bookshelf.