Chasing swans in big sky country.
For a lot of kids such as I, born at the end of The Second World War, bedtime stories were a nightly ritual-- cheap, educational, high entertainment. Early on, I was exposed to such classics as Bambi, The Little Pond in the Woods, The Three Little Pigs, and The Three Bears. Partly because of these children's books, I grew up with an interest in wildlife which eventually metamorphosed into an intense interest in hunting. Before I was 30, I had affected numerous forays to different parts of the U.S. for game such as deer, duck, bruin, and wild hogs. One species I did not hunt, however was the wild swan.
For that, I can thank The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen.
My mother read me The Ugly Ducking, a tear-jerk story about a swan egg that got mixed up with a bunch of mallard eggs and about how when they hatched, the cygnet was not cute like the ducklings and thus suffered much discrimination until it finally grew into a majestic white swan. Because of Andersen's story, I never really thought of swans in the same sentence as rifles or shotguns. Swans preened in the ponds of royalty. They were pampered and protected. People with foreign accents created stage productions and ballets about swans. You didn't go out and try to shoot one!
"Why not shoot one?" asked my friend, Bob Aho. "They're a renewable resource, and I hear they're the best tasting of all waterfowl." It was 1999 and Bob had drawn a swan permit for Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area in north central Montana and wanted me to go along. "You don't have to shoot a swan," Bob continued--in fact you can't shoot one without a permit. I've been trying three years to get mine. But there are tons of snow geese and ducks there, too, and I'd enjoy your company." He didn't add until later that he'd also enjoy my Jayco camper more than a tent.
When we got to Freezeout, there were close to 10,000 tundra swans using the shallow lakes. Bob shot one rather easily, but it was I who became hooked. Seeing that big bird coming toward us, then watching it collapse and plummet downward into the mud from 40 yards up like a refrigerator falling from the sky was as exciting as having a big bull elk respond to a bugle. I applied for a swan permit at Freezeout the next seven years without success.
Studying the scene.
Three friends whom I had told about Freezeout's swans were similarly frustrated during that time. Then, Jerry Hawkins was playing around on the Internet and discovered there was another refuge in Montana--Bowdoin--which issued the same number of permits as Freezeout--500 a year. The down side was that Bowdoin, on the central rather than Pacific flyway, was six hours farther east of Spokane and generally held only about 400 swans at a time during the autumn migration. Nevertheless, Jerry and two other friends, Mike Sweeney and Mike Selyard applied and were drawn. On Halloween day, 2006, all shot tundra swans.
"It wasn't easy, not as easy," Mike Selyard told me. "Freezeout is a series of small lakes, but Bowdoin is mostly one big lake. The refuge is over 15,000 acres, and about half of it is wetland.
"But you've practically got the place to yourself and there's a good, huntable pheasant and sharptail population on the refuge," Jerry added. "We're going back next year. Send in your permit application and join us."
The application process was mostly painless and we were all drawn for 2007. (See sidebar for details). Jerry kept tabs via e-mail with the refuge headquarters, and beginning in mid-October, called daily for a bird count. When it appeared the swans were finally showing up in decent numbers, we reserved two rooms at the Royals Inn Motel in Malta, which had a freezer out back for birds and allowed dogs in the room.
Low flying long-necks
We made the drive from Spokane in one long day, hauling a trailer with layout blinds, two plastic shallow-water boats, a half dozen "swan decoys (Canadas painted white), three dogs, and enough guns, ammunition and camouflage clothing to outfit a sporting goods store. In addition to swans, we intended to hunt ducks, geese, sharptails, and pheasants.
No lead shot is allowed anywhere on the refuge for any species, so we had a variety of steel, tungsten, and bismuth in assorted shot sizes and gauges. For swans, I had a box of Kent Impact three-inch ones--my favorite goose load. The other guys were shooting Triple B or T-shot. Jerry and I had 12-gauge pumps for waterfowl. The two Mikes were shooting 10-guage autos.
We settled in at the motel, had a late dinner just across the tracks, and were sawing logs by 10. The next morning, we began a ritual that would be repeated for three more days--up at 6 a.m., coffee and muffins in the motel room or a fresh-made cinnamon roll at the Sinclair gas station on the corner. Then, we would drive the seven miles to the refuge, sign in at headquarters (maps available) and split into two groups to begin hunting.
The first morning, though, we stayed together to drive the 15 miles loop around the refuge to orient ourselves and check out the waterfowl population. There appeared to be lots of ducks, from mallards to divers, quite a few Canada geese, and maybe three hundred swans. These were scattered in small bunches over some mighty big water, and I was pessimistic. "How the hell do you know where to start?" I complained.
The birds seemed impossible to pattern. Every so often, a pair or small group would get up for no apparent reason and fly off with no particular destination, but for the most part, they seemed content to just sit and make funny noises--a sound something like a cheap flute. "What we did last year," Sweeney said, "was watch them to see if they used one spot more than another. Last year, most were hanging out by the boat launch close to headquarters. I got in my boat and hid in the cattails and got one coming over low."
"What we did last year," Sweeney said, "was watch them to see if they used one spot more than another. Last year, most were hanging out by the boat launch close to headquarters. I got in my boat and hid in the cattails and got one coming over low."
"Yeah," Hawkins said. "And I waded out to a muskrat house a
nd just sat there until one flew by. Selyard got his sitting on a point between bays. If you stick around long enough, you'll get a shot."
"What about the decoys?" I asked. "Do they do any good?"
Mixing it up with Canadas.
"Definitely," Sweeney said, "They give me confidence. Who ever heard of hunting waterfowl without decoys? A guy over at Freezeout a couple years ago was using white garbage bags on a stick. He swore by them."
"Did well, huh?" I asked.
"No, but he said no one set up within 400 yards of him all day. Thought he was crazy."
"Sometimes, I think the decoys cause the birds to swing a little closer," Selyard said seriously, "but--no--you're not going to see a big ol' tundra swan feet down over your meager spread."
"This is all very confusing to me," I said. "I think I'll take the dogs and chase pheasants and let you guys explore." "I'll go with you" Jerry said. "I haven't shot a rooster this year."
A Big Sky swan for the table.
Four hours later, Jerry and I had three pheasants and a sharptail between us. The sharptail, which we found in the Russian olives, had been easy, but the pheasants weren't. There are a lot of the big, long-tailed birds skulking in the vast patches of cattails that surround the reservoir, but unless you've got waterproof boots, the heart and legs of a 20-year-old athlete, and maybe a combine, you'll not shoot many of them.
High stepping through bull rushes taller than your head and so thick you won't hit the water if you fall is an excellent formula for raising charley horses. Also, when swans are present at Bowdoin, part of the refuge is closed to pheasant hunting. On Dec 1, it opens up and there is a lot more typical pheasant habitat available. At this time, the cattail swamps are frozen and huge flocks of sharptails have moved into the Russian olives.
Jerry and I walked a couple miles, eventually wandering down to the edge of the lake where the two Mikes were hiding in the grass. Their white decoys were sitting in barely an inch of water, tilted awkwardly to the side. Two hundred yards out, a small raft of swans rested. "Why didn't you put the decoys out farther?" I asked.
"That mud will suck the boots right off your feet," Selyard said. "We could throw them out there but we'd never get them back. This reservoir is down a lot over last year, and it was low then. We can't even launch the boats now."
"Get any shots?" I asked.
"A little shooting at ducks, Sweeney said. "Not much hitting though."
That afternoon, Jerry and I also set up our layout blinds for swans along the edge of the lake, but though there were always birds in sight, none came our way. It had been 12 degrees that morning but it was warm now, and I kept nodding off. Every now and then, I would awaken when a sudden "pat, pat, pat" indicated birds were running across water to take off, but they would then just fly aimlessly in a circle before setting down again. For the rest of the day I was content to snooze and recover from my pheasant hunt.
The next day, all of us sat futilely for hours along the lake waiting for a flyby that didn't happen. Finally, Jerry and I pulled out again and went looking for more pheasants. Once again, we saw plenty of birds and thanks to some brush-busting heroics by my springer, Gus, and my Lab, Sis, we scratched down a few as well as a couple more sharptail. When we rejoined Mike and Mike, they had a couple honkers and a few ducks but no swan.
On the third day, the two Mikes dropped Jerry and I off near a point on the lake's edge. Jerry set up his layout blind and I moved down the lake a couple hundred yards and leaned against a low bluff. Neither of us could get as close to the water as we wanted because of the sizable mud flat. Around noon, I got disgusted with the lack of action and walked back up to the road. Without decoys, even the ducks had stayed out of range. I was contemplating chasing pheasants again when Sweeney's truck came down the road and stopped next to me. "Want to shoot a swan?" Sweeney asked. "We found the spot.
It's between the big water and a smaller arm of the lake. With this south wind, birds have been moving over it all morning." He opened up the back of the trailer to stash my two swan decoys, and sure enough--there were two big tundras inside.
We drove down the road maybe three miles and parked. "Follow our tracks in the alkali dust," Sweeney said. "There's a real primitive blind about 10 yards from the water. The birds come over a berm to your right and sometimes they're in range. Shoot pretty. We'll watch from here with binoculars."
I left Gus with my friends, called the Lab, and followed footprints three hundred yards.
Barely had I arrived when a pair of swans drifted over in marginal range. I opted not to shoot. Then, a single drifted by, also a little far out. Five minutes later, three mature birds came from my left at about 40 yards. I stood, swung on the middle one and pulled the trigger. At the report, the birds did not even waver. Again, I swung on the middle one, but before I could fire again, it collapsed, and once again I had the impression of a big, white refrigerator falling from the sky. When the swan hit the water, a geyser shot up 10 feet in the air, and my Lab, who had been on her way at the shot stopped abruptly and stared.
She turned and looked at me, and I'm positive her eyes were bugging.
"It's okay, girl," I shouted. "Get the bird! Get it!"
Sis delivered the swan slowly. Oddly, I was both saddened and awed by what I had done.
I sat with the swan many minutes admiring and photographing it--the big, wide bill with the yellow eye patch at the base, the huge webbed feet, the enormous wing span. Then, slinging 15 pounds of swan over my shoulder, I retraced my steps to the truck.
"Nice job," Mike Sweeney said. "We saw the geyser from here. Let's go find Hawkins."
time, three of us watched from the truck as Jerry plodded down the trail with my springer. An hour later, though, he was on his way back. At least four swans went by where he should have been before he got back and learned that without a watch he had seriously underestimated the time--he still had another 20 minutes of legal shooting.
Even so, he was smiling, as he had waylaid a Canada goose and a nice pintail.
Jerry's luck held, and after an early morning pheasant hunt, the south wind picked up again the next afternoon. We took him back to the same spot and dropped him off. Then the Mikes and I hunted pheasants along a railroad track, where I made a rare double on pheasants and found a goose decoy in the reeds where one of them fell. We got back to the truck in time to see Jerry drop his swan, a single that came directly over the top at less than 40 yards. It was the biggest one of the four, weighing almost 17 pounds. Tomorrow, we would concentrate on ducks.
I'll definitely go back again to Bowdoin for ducks and pheasants, but most likely, I'll not hunt swans. The thrill was as great as I had anticipated, but despite my resolve to feel otherwise, there was a twinge of remorse. There are stories and there are stories. "The Ugly Duckling" is one of those I can't get out of my head.