20 inches of snow threatened to wipe out a cross-country waterfowl hunt
The weather forecast and my travel itinerary for Nov. 6, 2008, seemed to be on a collision course. My final destination was Bismarck Municipal Airport in central North Dakota. But judging by The Weather Channel's morning projections for the early-season blizzard blowing south and east across Saskatchewan, I figured I'd get as far as the Minneapolis airport before I'd be stranded for a day or two.
But what could I do? I had a plane ticket to Bismarck and a booking to hunt waterfowl for five days with Tim Frantz of Coteau Lodge in Goodrich, N.D. The sky was clear and blue as I drove to Harrisburg, Pa., International Airport for my departure. Blizzard warning or not, I was going.
The flight to Minneapolis was as smooth as glass. Upon leaving the jet way, I quickly checked on the status of my connecting flight to Bismarck. I was quite surprised to read "On Time" on the video screen.
An hour later, I was buckling my seatbelt on a plane, listening to the pilot say he expected high winds and clouds as we flew west to Bismarck. But he made no mention of snow.
"I guess The Weather Channel was off," I said to the man seated next to me. "I thought I'd surely get stuck here because of the big blizzard."
I snoozed on the short flight to Bismarck, waking only when the flight attendant announced it was time to return seats to the upright position and turn off all electronic devices in preparation for landing. The wheels of the plane touched down on dry pavement and not a snowflake was in sight.
For the first time that day, I stopped worrying about the weather and started thinking about the awesome adventure that lay ahead -- five days in the heart of the North Dakota prairie, hunkering down in fields calling to flocks of migrating ducks and geese. It was a hunt I'd been dreaming about ever since I booked it eight months earlier.
My excitement was boiling as I picked up my gun case and duffel at the baggage claim area and headed outside to catch a cab to the car rental facility. I had only been inside the airport for about 20 minutes, but when I walked out to the taxi-staging area, tiny snowflakes stung my cheeks.
By the time I reached the rental car lot a few blocks away, the snowflakes had grown bigger and were falling at a steadier pace. I took a quick trip to a nearby supermarket to pick up a few personal items, and when I left the store I was greeted by a full-on blizzard. Barely an hour had passed since my plane landed under gray, snowless skies, but now I was dealing with white-out conditions.
"This isn't good," I thought.
Goodrich is about 90 minutes northeast of Bismarck. I was leery of making that trip for the first time ever in a blizzard, so I called Frantz to get his opinion.
"I'd stay there tonight," he said without hesitation. "They'll probably close the interstate here in a little while anyway."
Hiding layouts required snow removal.
I decided to hole up in a Bismarck hotel. Snow fell hard all night. When I awoke the following morning, light snow was still adding to the nearly 20 inches that had piled up overnight. Weather forecasters and Bismarck residents were touting the storm as the worst early-November blizzard to hit the Dakotas in at least 20 years.
Interstate 94 -- one of the main arteries through Bismarck -- was closed until 11 a.m. That's when I finally started my white-knuckle trip to Goodrich. High winds blew snow horizontally across the road, causing me to drive more than a few miles per hour under the speed limit. I completed the journey in just over two hours.
Ducks Long Gone
The air temperature barely climbed into double digits that day. I noticed on my drive that nearly every pond, slough and lake was frozen solid. I figured that signaled an end to the duck season. Frantz confirmed my suspicion.
"There were some ducks here last week, but they'll be long gone now," he said.As for geese, Frantz said the nearby Missouri River still should be loaded with Canadas and snows, despite the snow and frigid temperatures.
"All we have to do is wait for the snow to stop and for the wind to blow the deep stuff out of the fields, so we can get in with a trailer," he said.
Since the meat of Day 1 of my adventure was spent getting to Goodrich, it passed with my shotgun never leaving its case. Days 2, 3 and 4 were spent slogging through heavy snow after pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge, because there was no way we could get into the goose fields with Frantz's equipment trailers.
There were spots on hill peaks where the wind had cleared off all but a few inches. The low places, however, where the hilltop snow was deposited by the gales, promised to catch and hold a truck and decoy trailer. Upland hunting helped pass the time, but it wasn't exactly the dream waterfowl adventure I'd hoped for.
But there was nothing we could do. More than two feet of snow still buried the hunting fields, and despite our burning desire to trade our lead pheasant loads for some BB steel, we hadn't seen a single goose in the air. Apparently, the flocks were sitting tight on the Missouri River, waiting, as we were, for the fields to clear. Sensing the sinking of my heart, Frantz offered the only silver lining available.
"At least we didn't get hit as bad as they did in northern South Dakota," he said. "They got 45 inches."
Finally'¦ A Field
On the evening of Day 4, after a hard, game-rich day of upland hunting, Frantz said we were cleared for a goose hunt near the Missouri River the following morning. A guide alerted Frantz to a fairly flat field outside of Bismarck that had finally been stripped of most of its white covering by heavy winds, and the geese located it en masse that afternoon. It was news I'd been waiting days to hear. I eagerly laid out my calls, camouflage clothing and steel shot before going to bed that night.
Early the next morning, Frantz hooked one of his decoy trailers to his pickup and we set off down the driveway. Unbeknownst to us, however, snow had drifted across the lane during the night and his rig quickly foundered in a particularly deep spot. We hadn't even traveled 50 yards, and already we were stuck.
A native of southeast Pennsylvania, where just a few inches of snow throws people into a panic, I would have called it a day right there and gone back to bed. But being a lifelong North Dakotan, Frantz has dug vehicles out of deep snow more than a few times. He simply walked back to the house, fired up another truck and used a heavy chain to haul the captured rig to freedom.
Flocks of lesser Canada geese rode the storm down from the Arctic.
We had lost about 30 minutes of travel time, but we were finally on the road heading toward the Missouri. On the outskirts of Bismarck, we met up with Frantz's guide, Steve Schumacher, who led us to a harvested barley field he said held thousands of lesser and greater Canadas and snow geese the previous day.
"There were so many of 'em in there, I nearly went deaf when I rolled down the window," he said. "It's going to be a good day."
With a lot of snow and ice to contend with and a mountain of Canada and snow-goose decoys to deploy, Schumacher and Frantz had assembled an 11-man crew for the hunt. They rightly figured we needed serious manpower to complete all of the chores.
Headlights knifed through the predawn darkness as our caravan of trucks and trailers snaked across the field, taking care to stay on the highest ground. Schumacher made the call about where we'd set up for the hunt and the whole gang was soon busy unloading layout blinds and silhouette and full-body snow and Canada decoys from three trailers.
I was assigned to blind detail, along with two other guys. Using coal shovels, we dug holes in the snow, into which we sunk the blinds. Then we camouflaged the hideouts by shoveling snow around and on top of them and by unloading three or four cans of spray-snow onto any exposed brown material. By the time we were finished, I thought our row of blinds blended well into the frosty field -- especially with more than 200 decoys surrounding them.
Waves of Black and WhiteThe crew of 11 made quick work of the setup. A gray film of daylight was slowly creeping across the prairie by the time all was ready. Although the temperature was 17 degrees, I could feel beads of sweat on my forehead and down the center of my spine as I organized my shotgun, shells and calls in my blind.
Talk of geese, shotguns and the weather bounced up and down the line over the next hour or so. Day had broken, but there wasn't a goose in sight. No doubt, the cold air had the birds lingering on their overnight roost a half-mile away on the Missouri River.
But eventually, the first string finally appeared in the white sky as a thin black line meandering low across the northern horizon. That string was soon followed by another. And another. Before long, multiple flocks were airborne.
When a small group appeared directly behind us, fairly low to the ground and heading our way, someone yelled, "Here we go! Get down!"
That command set off a symphony of fast clucking and laydown calls from the gang. Guys who had flags feverishly flapped them up and down in front of their blinds. And the geese responded.
Even though a rare early November blizzard delayed the waterfowl hunt, limits of Canada geese and a few bonus snow geese made the final day of the trip memorable.
The dozen or so Canadas slowed their wingbeats in unison, losing altitude as they glided toward our spread. They swung wide off the left end of the decoys to put the wind in their faces before cupping hard and diving into the empty horseshoe we'd left as a landing zone.
When the geese dropped their feet and started to backpedal, Frantz hollered, "Take 'em!" I sat up, pushing the doors of my blind to the sides, shouldered my 12-gauge and pasted the green fiber-optic sight smack in the middle of a hovering goose's downy gray chest. The bird crumpled and fell into the snow.
Gun blasts sounded on both sides of me, and geese dropped like flies out front. I fired two more shots in the direction of other geese, but I don't think I really aimed. After downing that first goose, my concentration was broken by the sight and sound of hunters unloading on the flock. The pungent aroma of burnt gunpowder filled my nostrils.
I joined the mad dash out into the field to recover fallen geese, and had just plucked a plump lesser from the snow when someone back at the blinds called out, "Hurry up! There's more coming!"
Back to the line I sprinted, dropping the goose behind my blind before jumping inside and pulling the doors closed over my torso. Between huffs of air as I tried to catch my breath, I coaxed a few clucks from my call to add my voice to the growing din.
This time, a swarm of Canadas was making a beeline for our field. The closer they came, the more their calls drowned out our own. Geese buzzed overhead like yellow jackets before they grouped into formation and slid into the pocket.
The geese were so loud I barely heard Frantz yell, "Take 'em!" when the heart of the flock was hanging just a few feet off the ground, 20 yards in front of my blind. I sat up, shouldered my gun again and fired three times into the mass without ever really taking aim.
Geese fell as shotguns barked up and down the line. Birds rained down during the volley. Flocks were all over the sky now, so we had no chance to retrieve fallen waterfowl.
White on WhiteAs I reloaded my shotgun, Frantz called out a flock of snows was coming. The sky was as white as the ground, so I had a hard time picking up the birds. All I could make out was a series of black dots -- obviously the wing tips -- darting erratically as the geese approached.
The snows did not dive into our spread with quite the same reckless abandon as the Canadas. We took the only shot they offered, which came when the flock curled over the left end of the decoy spread. A couple of snows plummeted, but the volley was nowhere near as lethal as it had been on the Canada geese.
Following the barrage on the snows, there was a brief break in the action, giving guys an opportuni
ty to jump out of their blinds and run in every direction to recover lesser Canadas and snows. I used the lull to switch my gear to a blind in the rear, so I could photograph the action.
No sooner did I have my camera ready than flocks once again were winging our way. After three or four more volleys, each hunter had a limit of three Canada geese. I looked at my watch. Barely an hour and a half had ticked by since the first flocks of the day took flight.
The sky began to spit freezing rain and the gang decided to pack it in, rather than wait for more snow geese to show up.
I had hoped for five days of waterfowling like I had just experienced, but thanks to the mother-of-all-early-November blizzards, one day was all I got. But what a day it was.
P.J. Reilly is a free-lance outdoor writer from New Holland, Pa. For information on hunting with Coteau Lodge, visit www.coteaulodge.com.