Snow Goose Hunting After the Blizzard of 2001

March 24, 2009 by  

By Perry Thorvig

The most severe storm that I experienced during the mild winter of 2001-2002 occurred in late October. It had a huge impact on our hunting that weekend. The trip started off in a big snowstorm and ended in another kind of snow-storm.

You remember the storm don’t you? It was the one that tied up traffic for 15 miles south of Grand Forks on a Wednesday night. I can remember lying in bed that night on the eve of our trip and listening to the wind whip the crab apple tree outside my window against the side of house. I laid there thinking, “Boy, I wonder how many geese are being blown from Canada all the way to Texas in this howler?” As it turned out, a search of reports on the Internet revealed that, indeed, there were birds blown all the way to Texas that showed up right before their opener on the following weekend.

Jerry Vandelac and I left the northern Twin Cities suburbs before 7 a.m. on Thursday morning after that night of howling winds. We were pulling a 10 foot enclosed trailer with our Explorer. The roads were wet but there was no snow yet. However, by the time we got to Alexandria, the first snow of the season was clinging to the windshield. Shortly, thereafter, the Explorer went into four-wheel drive and stayed there until Jamestown. Occasionally, there was a car or truck in the ditch. Just outside of Moorhead, a semi, 200 feet in front of us, started sliding toward the median. Fortunately, the skill of the driver kept the big rig on the road.

And, so it went until just outside of Jamestown where the sun was out and the roads were almost free of ice. We took U.S. 281 from there and headed toward Churchs Ferry. It wasn’t long before we were back onto snow pack and ice. The drifts in the ditches were two feet deep.

Devils Lake at Minnewaukan was a sparkling jewel in the mid afternoon sunshine. Blue bills bobbed on the light chop of the bays close to the road. There was only a hunter or two out there trying to get at them.

About 4:30, we got to the area where we wanted to start scouting. We had not seen any geese all day. We traveled the big scouting circle out to Hurricane Lake, then north to Mylo, back east to Bisbee, and into Cando. The results of the big circle revealed one lonesome string of about 25 snow geese. But, at least the fields had less snow in them the farther north we went. If there were birds the next day, we would be able to get into the fields.

Our friend and host in Cando was serving as score-keeper at the girl’s basketball sectional game. We found our way into the game through the back door of the Cando gym and stopped to say hello and then headed over to his house to unpack some of our gear.

Friday morning, we got up a little later than usual because we had no place to hunt. We drove up to Rock Lake and got there just as it was getting light enough to see. A few ducks were swimming in the freezing open water. We shut off the engine and rolled down the windows to listen. There was a faint murmur of snow geese on the far north end of the lake. But, it was obvious that there were not many there.

So, we decided to head west. We went through Rolla and out to Lord’s Lake. There was nothing but a couple of swans on the lake that was 80% frozen. We went through Bottineau and out on to the Souris plain to see what might be at J. Clark Salyer. Froze solid. An abandoned dark suburban was mired in snow up to the top of wheels in a ditch near Kramer. We headed back east and got to Willow City in time for lunch. It was the town café’s last day. Several camouflaged hunters showed up to pay their last respects and chat with the cook-proprietor of another dying rural business. Sad deal.

The number of geese in the area was also a sad deal. North of Rugby, we did see a couple of flocks that were flying high, fast, and heading south. It was then that we made up our minds to abandon our traditional area for the southern part of the state. I had a hunch that there might be some birds down south if they had not all been blown to Desoto Bend (Iowa) or even to Texas. I had monitored the Internet on the day of the storm and noticed that the roads south of Jamestown were only wet, not icy and snow packed. Maybe there would be open fields there. We would head for Ludden and see what we could find. If there was nothing there, we would just keep on going and get back to Minneapolis late enough to scare my wife out of bed.

So, we bid our host in Cando goodbye and headed for Jamestown. Unfortunately, we did not make very good time because the roads were still icy and rutted. We only had about an hour and a half of scouting time when we got to Jamestown. But, sure enough, just south of Jamestown the snow disappeared and lush green fields reappeared. (Is this heaven? No, just North Dakota.) We were just about to turn east toward Fullerton when I spied what I thought was a big, dark cloud of honkers off to the southwest. Jerry set the brakes and I focused the binoculars on the horizon. They were not honkers! They were the first significant flock of snows that we had seen on the whole trip. As the glasses scanned the horizon, several more flocks appeared. Then, there were flocks everywhere. It looked as though we had found the mother lode.

Soon, it was like trying to figure out which chocolate to pick out of Forest Gump’s box of assorted chocolates. There were so many fields to pick from and absolutely no competition! Nobody knew where the birds were yet after the big storm. We eventually selected a choice field and got permission by phone to hunt the land. The corn stubble field sat adjacent to two roost ponds that had birds on them.

That night we stayed at the Dacha House, a nice B and B southwest of Ellendale. Ellendale was full of pheasant hunters.

Our trusty GPS lead us back in pitch-blackness to the field we had selected. The roost ponds were roaring with noise from the huge flocks of geese occupying them. I hoped that our field location would not be too close to disturb the birds while we set up our field decoys. I also hoped that no local kids would jump the ponds in the morning and scare away the mother lode.

We set our 250 Northwinds on the upwind side of our spread in a fairly tightly packed triangle. There were no family groups here! Trailing downwind from the socks were two long lines of shell decoys and my new Last Look decoys. A 40-yard clear alley separated the two lines. Jerry and I set our low profile blinds on the downwind ends of the two lines. We hoped that the snows would choose to fly up the alley toward the mass of tantalizing windsocks.

Jerry and I dove into our blinds as shooting time neared and a nice breeze put life into the windsocks. We were to the southeast of the pond with the wind at our back. Almost immediately we had action. A single snow rose from the roost pond a quarter mile away and quartered the wind toward our set. Soon, he was lined up with our decoys and coming in toward my right side. A little flutter of the goose flag and he was committed. When the faint early morning light revealed his feet, he was only about 25 yards virtually straight up. My one shot broke the dawn’s silence. The flock on the roost pond started to roar as the lone goose plummeted to the ground. But, the big flock was not spooked from the pond. They circled a few times and sat back down on the pond. I softly yelled over to Jerry and said, “It looks like we got it just right. With any luck we should get small bunches like that all morning long.”

The words were no more than out of my mouth when another bunch started our way. They also headed for the windsocks a hundred yards upwind from us. Another bird was taken from the small bunch as only Jerry got shooting at this group. This scene was repeated often that morning. In an hour we had eight birds on the ground. “Hey, this is looking pretty good,” I said. The pace was not fast and furious, but it was very steady.

As the morning wore on, the wind started to really blow. Not only did we have a great spot, but we had the wind to go along with it. Even the bright sunshine could not deter the geese from heading toward our spread. By noon, we had 23 birds.

Jerry took a break and headed for the car to get some snacks and the dog that we had left in the car all morning. Poor Kirby, the golden retriever, had missed out on all the fun. But, I figured, “What the heck can he screw up now? We already have a boat load of birds. They don’t fly much in the afternoon anyway.”

Boy, was I wrong! Old Kirby got a great afternoon workout retrieving another 17 birds. Just before the sun set about 6:30, we got our 40th bird of the day. What a day!! It was the first time that I had been part of a party limit of that magnitude. We were pumped. We had hit it just right.

Even cleaning the birds was not a dreadful chore that Saturday night. Our euphoria was aided by a sheltered spot in the yard at the B and B and a nice yard light where we could gut the birds and put them on ice.

Sunday morning’s pre-dawn was absolutely beautiful. The aurora borealis danced in the northern sky as we got ready for another shoot. The breakfast supplied by the Dacha House was eaten in our blinds as we waited for legal shooting time. The morning started much as Saturday morning did. Another eight birds were taken by 9:30. But, then things began to fall apart. First the local boys “found” the roost pond and blasted all the birds off the pond. That moved most of the birds out of the area. Then, the wind became light and variable and eventually died before it shifted and destroyed the orientation of our setup. Oh well, we had had enough. It was time to go home.

Our snowstorm weekend had turned into a real snow-storm – one with white wings, honks, squeaks, and squawks. It was a trip that I will never forget. It almost didn’t happen.


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