North Dakota Waterfowling – A Generation of Change

March 23, 2009 by  

By Perry Thorvig

There have been many changes in waterfowl hunting in North Dakota in the last 27 years. This third part of a three part series covers tactics, communication, and access to information that will enhance the hunting experience.


Despite all the changes in snow goose hunting equipment and decoys, there are still three basic ways to hunt snows – in the field with decoys, sneaking, or pass-shooting out of a fence or tree line. The most effective method seems to be changing, however.

Decoy hunting was the popular way to hunt snows when we first got started pursuing this magnificent bird over 25 years ago. It is still a popular option and what we like to do but is getting more difficult and less popular with snow goose hunters. However, nothing gets the hunter’s adrenaline pumping like being under the “tornado” as it comes swirling in on you in a decoy spread. There is also the bonus of being swooped by the greenheads and experiencing the sun’ rays brighten the sky and tint those eastern clouds.

The traditional field hunting tactic is that the hunter finds a field in the evening where the geese are feeding and then returns there in the morning to set up the decoys and hopes to get the geese to take a real close look. That is the tactic we employed when first hunting in North Dakota. We still use it.

However, recently some hunters are passing up the field where the geese are feeding and trying to locate their spreads either between the roost and the feeding field or another mile farther out than the feeding field. I can see their logic on this one. I have been passed over many times on morning hunts when the geese seem to fly another mile or two farther out and pass up the field they were in the night before. The hunters who pick different fields than the previous night’s feeding field hope to entice a few geese out of the flocks on the way out to feed or to get them going past where they were the night before.

The other tactic they are trying is morning scouting rather than evening scouting. Hunters have noticed that often the geese feed in a different place in the morning than they do at night. Often, they are farther out from the roost during the day because they have all day to feed, whereas, at night, they need to be a little closer to the roost in order to get “back home” before it gets too dark. (Do you suppose that is why they seem to ignore you when you are set up in a good field and they go right on by?) This scouting method requires one of the hunters to abandon the decoy spread after about an hour of banging ducks in order to follow the geese out to their morning feeding location.

We have not personally employed this new method yet in our party. However, if the geese continue to play hard-to-get, we may have to use this new tactic. It is now in our list of options.

The actual decoy setup is also evolving.

Our first spread was a long I shaped string of shell decoys. Then, we went to two parallel strings separated by about 40 yards so that the birds could fly up the middle in what they thought was a “safe zone.” However, our guns could still reach them. More recently, we have set virtually all of the Northwinds in an upwind triangle with one or two strings of Last Looks and shells downwind from the mass of Northwinds. The mass movement is supposed to capture the attention of the snow geese as they approach the spread. We hide toward the downwind end and surprise the snows when they are focused on the Northwind movement 75 yards or more upwind of where we are. The tactic works pretty well, but you have to be ready to move within your spread if you find the birds cutting in behind you. This will happen when there are subtle wind shifts aloft that you don’t yet detect on the ground.

The practice of sneaking geese has exploded in the last few years despite being very hard work. As decoying has becomes more difficult, more people are sneaking. Sneaking geese can be very effective in killing large numbers of geese. It is probably the best way of inflating the body count, especially in the spring.

There have always been those hunters that are too impatient to sit in the decoys or don’t have them. These folks like to sneak geese. An area can handle a FEW of these sneaking parties, as it helps move the geese a little so that they don’t get too settled in at one location. But, a large number of sneakers can create chaos with the whole goose hunting experience. The sneakers apply too much pressure and the birds take off – not for the roost, but for the next state.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the cost of decoys and the popularity of the spring goose season has resulted in way too many buckaroos out there running and gunning (sneaking). The spring season has brought in a lot of opportunistic, novice hunters who never had hunted snow geese before and are encouraged to do their patriotic duty to kill as many snow geese as they can, all in the name of saving the tundra. It can be a real circus in some locales.

I am not the one to talk much about what has changed in a generation of pass shooting. I rarely do it. However, I do not think this tactic has changed much over the years. My limited experience with pass shooting has occurred on those first days when I have arrived in a hunting area and am out scouting and an opportunity presents itself that can’t be passed up. For example, we arrived at a hunting location early one morning rather than in the late afternoon. It was a nasty and extremely windy that day and the geese were flying low toward their feeding fields. There was a convenient tree line that we could stand in and practice our different ways to lead birds. There were a lot of misses that day! Hunters can also crawl up a fence line on a windy day and have a heck of a time. I have heard some great stories about windy days, snow geese and fence lines.

Some hunters refer to a form of decoy hunting as pass shooting. This occurs when the hunter has a blind a hundred yards or more downwind from his decoy spread. A hundred yards out is where snows often decide to flare from your decoys. The tactic of locating the blind far downwind from the decoys is a relatively new tactic employed as the snow geese have become more decoy shy over the years.

Communication and Hunting Information

Communication with people in the area where you hunt and gathering as much hunting information about that area as you can is very important in determining the success of a hunting trip. There is no comparison between now and 25 years ago in our ability to know what is going on in our hunting area. Twenty-five years ago we had very little knowledge of what was happening on the goose range either before we got there or after we left. We made phone calls to our local contacts only once or twice a year before the season started. Unfortunately, those folks did not see what a hunter would see. So, their reports were often rather unreliable.

The Fargo Forum’s outdoor writer, John Lohman, used to pass along the USFWS weekly bird counts and reports. Then, I could only get the paper at the local library. It could be days before the paper went through the mail and got shelved by the library staff. The information was pretty stale by the time I got it.

Then, I remember those long rides home on Sunday afternoons after a four-day weekend of hunting in northern North Dakota. We were dead tired and napped between driving shifts. But, my hunting partners and I wondered how others did. Were there birds in other areas? Did they decoy? We didn’t know! It was all a great mystery for those of us who traveled away to remote locations. We had no concept of the bigger waterfowling picture in North Dakota.

Today, the Internet provides hunters with extensive, timely information (maybe too much at times) about the conditions across the hunting range. The hunter can follow the migration on several web sites or exchange inexpensive e-mail messages with local contacts. Now, we hunters know what happened before we hunted, when we were hunting, and in the days following our hunts, not only in our area, but for miles around. And, whereas, I used to talk to my local contact a couple of times a year, I now communicate on a weekly basis throughout the year by e-mail. It has brought us much closer together. He has become a true friend, not just a guy to call up and ask about hunting.

ConclusionOverall, there have been tremendous changes in bird patterns, equipment and communications over the last quarter century. Some of them have been good and some have been bad. In the end, it is all about the hunter, his gun, and the bird. Despite all that has changed, that is still the bottom line and what lures the hunter to the marsh and grain fields.

Part One of the Series

Part Two of the Series


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