The E-caller. Don’t Go North Without It!

March 24, 2009 by  

By Perry Thorvig

Twenty years ago, there were plenty of snow geese in North Dakota by the mid-October. Kenmare, Westhope, Bowbells, Bottineau, Rolla, Rock Lake, Cando, and Devils Lake were the hotspots. There were even a few on the river north of Jamestown in those days. But, those were the good old days. Now, those seeking snow geese in October have to go north of the border.

That’s where we were headed. Our Waveytrain (white Avalanche and white snow goose trailer) breezed along U.S. Hwy. 52 on the edge of the Missouri Choteau on its way to Portal, North Dakota, gateway to Saskatchewan. It was cold that October 16, 2004 Saturday morning. There was skim ice already on the small potholes along the highway west of Harvey, North Dakota, despite a sunny sky. The other two hunters aboard the Waveytrain with me included brother-in-law Ken Carlson and old friend from work, Jerry Vandelac.

The beautiful Saturday morning weather gave no hint of the sagging low-pressure system dropping out northern Canada. But, the chatter on the local country music radio stations flooding the airwaves north of Minot contained weather forecasts that called for light snow later that Saturday night with continued cold temperatures hovering around the freezing mark during the week.

We rolled across the flat, brown northern North Dakota prairie heading for snow goose country. We arrived at our destination without seeing any snow geese or any sign of snow either. We enjoyed a nice dinner and watched World Series action on the big screen TV. But, our thoughts were not about the Red Sox breaking “The Curse”. Our thoughts were about the weather and finding snow geese the next morning. I wondered if we would have trouble pushing our decoys stakes into the ground if it remained cold and snow put a skim of ice on the fields. Two years before, the fields were frozen so solidly that there was no chance of penetrating the icy crust when we hunted the Devils Lake area on Halloween.

I went to bed still thinking about what the weather would bring us. I peaked out of the motel window about 2 A.M. after getting up to pee. It still looked pretty peaceful outside. No snow, yet. Back to sleep. Upon awakening at 6:30 A.M., the view out the window had changed considerably. The Avalanche (the truck) was covered with snow. “Ohh, this could be interesting,” I thought.

Though we could not hunt that Sunday morning, we grabbed some quick breakfast egg sandwiches and headed for where we hoped the geese would be. Scouting early would give us an edge on any other hunters. Or, so we thought. It was snowing and the visibility on the highway was pretty poor. The roads were partially snow covered and a little slippery.

We didn’t have our GPS unit running yet and only guessed where to turn off the main highway onto the gravel road that we thought would lead us toward the roost. Bingo! We hit the birds a half-mile down the snow covered gravel road. Snow geese were floating through the snowflakes gliding toward a small feed on a quarter section of wheat stubble. Our eyes were then drawn to distant flocks of snow geese flying toward other fields to the south. We drove their way. Soon, we were on the edge of the tornado of descending geese. It appeared that we had found a major feed right away. We circled the section and saw that two other vehicles were also looking at the birds. Then we discovered that Chris Hustad, Nickel Ditch, Maddy, and Deltaboy occupied one of those trucks.

 It had been a year since seeing Chris and Maddy. They stopped behind us on the edge of the road. I opened the passenger door of the Avalanche and made one step back toward Chris and the crew when my foot slipped on the snow and I slid to the bottom of the ditch. There was more than an inch of snow on the ground already. “What was this going to be like?” I thought.

Seven of us watched a blizzard of snow geese descend into a section of pea stubble. The birds were standing shoulder to shoulder. We got a closer look through the binoculars. We were shocked! There were a surprising number of juvenile birds considering the reports that had been received in late summer saying that the hatch was very poor on the tundra.

Our focus then turned to getting permission to hunt. Each Sunday of scouting in Canada can be very aggravating. It is the day when the freelancers first arrive. However, the local rogue guides are also out competing with the visiting freelancers for field locations. They recite their standard line, “Well, we got permission to hunt all of the land along this road back in September.” That could be true or it could be B.S. By law, they can’t pay the landowner for exclusive access, but they try to intimidate the freelancers. It’s a little game. We stood our ground and Chris called them out for being the same jerks that downwinded us last year. Eventually, “Nickle Ditch” got in contact by phone with the landowner of the field we wanted to hunt earlier that week, received permission to hunt there, and hoped there would be no morning fisticuffs in the middle of a Canadian pea field.

There weren’t. Although, it was interesting that we pulled into our chosen field at exactly the same time as a group of hunters coming from the opposite direction pulled into the same field about a half mile north of us.

Now the fun began. It had continued to lightly snow all Sunday night and into that early Monday morning. We carefully probed our chosen field until we found the right spot to set the decoys. The Waveytrain was pointed into the wind with snow blowing across the white glow of the headlights.

We got out of the vehicle to begin our morning chores. Canadian hostility greeted us as we opened the doors. The snowflakes, propelled by a 20 mile per hour wind, cut into our exposed cheeks. There was about 3 inches of snow on the field. I wondered, “Are the geese going to still be here this morning? Are they going to really fly out here and try to find some little peas under all this snow?” I had never hunted geese in this kind of situation.

After a tough hour or more of sticking Last Look metal stakes into the ground and actually drilling holes for plastic Northwind stakes, we were about ready to find out the answer to the question of what effect the snow would have on the geese. It continued to snow and blow.

We were just about ready. The drivers crawled into the temporary comfort of the trucks and drove them out of the field to a spot where they would not flare incoming birds. The low profile blinds were covered with weeds found in the field. Chris’ 2 homemade e-callers surged with rock band power and the recorded squawking of snow geese filled the air with something besides snow. Before we could even get into our blinds and before the drivers returned to the spread, the first scouts of the morning began to cry in the sky. Fire poured out of the barrels of the standing hunters’ guns. Birds hit the ground with a poof of snow. We jumped into the refuge of our blinds and waited for more birds that were seriously overmatched that morning. The 2 four-speaker CD e-callers provided a non-stop chorus of snow goose murmurs, squawks, and squeaks.

They wouldn’t have a chance!

The first of about 25,000 snow geese left the chilly grey water of the roost and headed east for breakfast in the pea fields that they hadn’t quite devoured the day before. The 20-mile per hour wind and snow made it very difficult for them. The cold temperatures had forced the birds to consume calories from what little fat they had in order to keep warm overnight. They needed food and they needed it soon.

Small flocks of dark and white snow geese began to emerge from the snowstorm in front of the hunters. The faint outlines of the dark birds were the first to be seen by the hunters. Then, some of the black wingtips of the white birds could be seen. Those black wingtips eventually morphed into white wings and bodies. Some of the geese bore right in on the e-caller. Some flew across the front of the spread until they were in the direct projection of the caller. They banked hard to the left or right to home in on the noisy squawking in the field ahead. The blinding snow seriously impaired their sharp eyesight. They trusted their hearing instead. Bad choice!

The seven hunters poured the steel to those cagey white birds. Birds fell from the sky at a furious pace that morning. Singles, doubles, triples, and more fell from the small flocks. Several boxes of shells were consumed. Red, grey, and brown hulls were ejected onto the white snow. Within minutes, new snowflakes buried the ejected shells.

Snow blew into the crevices of the low profile blinds. Polarfleece mittens eventually became too wet to protect the hunter’s fingers. The hunters scrunched lower in their blinds as the snow and wind increased. Occasionally, in a rare lull in the action, they would break from their shelters and spread out in a 360-degree circle to retrieve the birds that littered the field. The hunters were stiff from the cold as they emerged from their blinds. The blowing snow gnawed at the exposed parts of their flesh. Even while out of their blinds, more birds came for the e-caller.

By, 9:00 A.M., the windsocks had lost their waddle, even in a 20 mph wind. They had filled with blowing snow. The hunters wondered if they even needed decoys. The e-callers might have been all they needed in the snowstorm.

Nickel Ditch’s gun jammed on him. He vacated his blind and headed for his truck carrying the barrel in one hand and the stock in another bare hand. He looked cold as he staggered through the snow toward the truck.

Shortly thereafter, the hunters huddled and decided that there were enough birds to clean for that day. It was not going to be much fun standing in the open in 30-degree temperatures back at the motel cleaning the birds.

During the process of picking up the decoys, the game wardens made their obligatory visit to the spread. It was too damned cold for them to look at everybody’s license. They just counted birds to see how many Ross’ Geese there were. Then, they hopped back in the truck and headed off across the field to check those other guys a half-mile away.

Shortly later, I and the rest of the hunters laid out the birds and gathered for the group pictures.

We then left the field and headed for the main highway to town and some hot food! Just before we got back to the highway, we found the destination of most of the birds leaving the roost that morning. They were in an unbelievable concentration of birds in a pea field. Juveniles with mom and dad stood ten yards off the road and looked at us. They didn’t move. This wasn’t spring hunting!

It continued to snow on Tuesday. That morning’s hunt was also good but not like Monday. Wednesday was totally different. Chris Hustad’s crew headed out from our traditional area for his backup area to the west. That day, Kenny, Jerry, and I had to hunt without the e-caller. We only got three birds in a quarter section that was shoulder to shoulder with birds the night before.

We got up early on Thursday hoping for a little break in the weather. It had not looked good for us the night before. By Thursday morning, Monday’s wind had turned to nothing. Monday’s snow had turned to light rain and mist. We had no e-caller and knew that our Northwinds would be useless that day. In the end, it was not the snow and wind that defeated us, it was rain and a lack of wind. We decided to just head home rather than lay out and get wet without much chance of getting more birds. Besides, we had a cooler full from Monday and Tuesday.

The U.S. border patrol came out in the rain to check our birds. But, they did not really want to be there and get wet either. They gave us just a cursory check and waived us through after we filled out the necessary paper work.

Beware; it’s not always that easy! Always leave one wing on your birds!

After our border crossing, we drove across a soggy N.D. Hwy. 5 headed for a brief visit with our old friend in Cando. During that drive Kenny and I leaned on Jerry. Jerry, our electronics tech, vowed to assemble an e-caller during the off-season if we helped him out with the cost. That was a no-brainer. We would never go to Canada again without our own e-caller.


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