Hooked on Snow Geese

March 24, 2009 by  

By Perry Thorvig

Some who have tried it are apathetic when it comes to waterfowl hunting. Most of those that walk away from hunting have failed to have those premier experiences that can hook a hunter forever. This is the story of how four hunters got hooked on North Dakota waterfowling.

My brother-in-law, Ken Carlson, and I took the “scenic route” to Cando in 1987 on the second weekend of the waterfowl season. The old route up Hwy. 2 was getting a little stale after nine years. I also wanted to see how far the birds ranged to the east up along the border.

We departed from our normal route in Grand Forks. Instead of heading west to Devils Lake, we preceded north on Hwy. 81 and then west on Hwy. 5 to Rock Lake. It was time to see what Langdon looked like.

We soon learned that Walhalla didn’t get its name for being the heaven on earth of goose hunting. There weren’t any geese around there. We saw our first snow geese in the Langdon area. We went a little farther west and turned north toward Rush Lake. We scouted along the route toward Calvin, Clyde, and Sarles. We saw a few more small flocks of geese.

We got to the high land east of Rock Lake and were able to scan the western horizon and see the feint outline of the distant Turtle Mountain uplands. There were no lengthy strings of birds lifting off the lake and going out to feed. Suddenly, the prospects didn’t look too good. Where were the birds?

We stopped at the top of a hill overlooking the lake to take a leak and were buffeted by strong westerly winds. I yelled at Kenny C. to put his back to the wind or he was going to get an unwanted shower.

With that taken care of, we prowled the west side of Rock Lake and found more small flocks of geese already on the ground feeding. It seemed that the strong wind had caused the birds to feed early. Now, it occurred to me that maybe the scattered, small flocks were actually an encouraging sign. I hated when they all bunched up and went out in one large group. They were really hard to decoy when they behaved like that. The smaller groups offered some hopes that they could be pulled into a decoy trap.

We checked into our host Mike’s place at about sunset. We had found a few likely spots to hunt the next morning but were not overly excited about any of them. Shortly after we arrived, my old hunting partner Ken Ziegler and his friend Mike Ferber joined us. Ken and I had hunted in the area for four years with mixed success. Ferb was an old friend of Ken’s from the Detroit Lakes, Minnesota area. It was Ferb’s first hunting trip with us.

Kenny Z. and Ferb had arrived the night before and had one day of hunting already. They had come directly from an opening hunting weekend in Minnesota and were making a week of it. I greeted the two dirty-faced warriors and asked, “Did ya have any luck?”

They tried to hide their smiles but weren’t very good at it. They sure did have good luck. In fact, they were well on their way to their possession limits. They had found both ducks and geese in a field not far from the local airport only about two miles from town. That sure beat the field locations that Ken Carlson and I had found 20 miles from town. The decision on where to hunt in the morning was an easy one.

The next morning dawned cloudy and extremely cold. It was only 17 degrees according to the radio station in Devils Lake. The forty-five minutes it took to put out the decoys warmed us up pretty well. Our decoy set in those days was exclusively heavy rubber Quack shell decoys. All of the heads had to be attached to the bodies and then set out about six to eight at a time. It was a tedious job. We had about 20 dozen snow and blue decoys at the time. We set them up in two long, narrow parallel strings with an open end at the upwind and downwind ends of the spread. Two hunters occupied shallow trenches in each string. We hoped that the 40-yard open alley between the two decoy lines would give the birds some sense of security and that they would fly right up the middle.

Our decoying strategy worked perfectly that weekend. Our field location was attracting birds from both Alice and Hurricane. They were flying out from 5 to 10 miles to feed. They sure liked that field. They flew right up the alley when they got to it.

Despite being bundled up in virtually all the clothes we had to fight the 20-degree temperatures, we were able to shoot well and find the mark 80 times that weekend. Of course Kenny Z. and Ferb got a head start on us.

The most exciting part of the weekend shoot was when two huge flocks converged over us just as an icy sleet squall rolled through our decoy location. The ice pellets began dancing on our parkas and the already noisy geese turned up the volume a bit more. Soon, they were dive-bombing our decoys. They did not want to be in the sky during that sleet storm. Several volleys of shots were fired because the geese just would not leave the field. A lot of birds in those two flocks never found their way back to Alice and Hurricane that morning.

Three or four sailers that we winged did seek refuge in a grassy low spot in the field up wind of us about a quarter mile. That’s when Kenny Ziegler’s big Chesapeake, Bonz, got into the act. That dog had quite a nose on him. He had stayed in the truck all morning. But, it was like he had been marking the downed birds when Kenny took him into the grass after the hunt was completed. He got every bird that had sought refuge in that grassy patch.When the last bird was counted around noon on Sunday, we had forty ducks and forty geese. The possession limit was 10 ducks and 10 geese per hunter in those days. It was the first time that we had really been successful in pounding the geese since striking off on our own in 1982. Prior to that, we had relied on one of our North Dakota friends to show us the ropes. The first four or five years on our own were pretty tough, if not downright discouraging. It was that very successful hunt in 1987 that turned it around for us.

Every time we go past the airport now, someone will say, “Remember 1987? We hunted right there for three days straight and we were less than five minutes from town. And, do you remember the birds we got?” Of course we all remember! It’s the memory of 1987 that sustains us through the lean years and keeps us going back to the prairie each fall.

There were only 7,500 non-resident waterfowlers in North Dakota in 1987. It was also the year that four of them got hooked on North Dakota geese.


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