A Spring Goose Hunter’s Lament

March 24, 2009 by  

By Richard Kaplan

Note: Article Written at the end of April

Nothing like waiting on the migration

Nothing like waiting on the migration

Hello. My name is Richard. I’m addicted to hunting spring geese and today is the seventeenth consecutive day I have not checked the Spring Snow Goose Migration Report at Nodak Outdoors.

My support group believes that writing this article will be therapeutic for me. You see, I just returned from another frustrating spring snow goose hunting trip and my hope is that this trip will be my last. You might say that the end of this trip starts the beginning of my recovery.

My story is about a long and steady descent into an addiction to hunting spring snow geese. It began some years ago when an issue of Ducks Unlimited Magazine arrived in the mail. I’ll never forget that issue. It was so new, so exotic. The magazine featured an article about the Spring Conservation Season in southwest Iowa. According to the article, snow geese were flying low and stacked up by the thousands. The photographs in the article showed a sky darkened by snow geese, in-your-face photos of snow geese, and happy hunters posing with piles of dead birds. The article spoke of electronic callers, hundreds of decoys, warm sunny days of hunting, and unplugged shotguns. It sent out an irresistible Siren call. That was my first introduction to spring snow goose hunting. You might say that the DU article was my gateway drug.

That spring, with magazine in hand, I drove to what I then understood to be the Mecca of spring goose hunting: southwest Iowa, just across the Missouri River from Nebraska City, NE. My father-in-law, ordinarily a judicious man, abetted my early addiction by coming along. We hunted an ideal man-made impoundment called Copper Creek, located on the flyway sort of between Forney Lake and Riverton. The date was around the first week in April. The weather was warm, but the wind was blowing at gale force. The guide met us at the appointed time and as we walked to the blind, I spotted several hundred white birds roosting in a far corner of the lake. I nudged my father-in-law and said something like, “look at all those geese sitting on the Lake.” Our guide overheard me – as so often happens – and piped in, “them’s pelicans.” I should have suspected something right then, but chose to ignore this harbinger of things to come.

No birds at dawn that first day of spring goose hunting. No birds at 7:00 or 8:00, either. But around 9:00 one small group of Ross Geese flew in and we knocked a couple of them down. Other than that short flurry of activity, you needed binoculars to see any other snow geese that day. Like any good salesman, the guide told us exactly what we wanted to hear, that is to say, we should have been there two weeks ago. The guide spoke of fifty-bird days and going through boxes of shells. As my father-in-law waited impatiently in the car for me while I kept my eyes fixed on an empty and darkening sky, I deluded myself into thinking that we were in the right spot, but at the wrong time. Next year, I would plan the trip to be in the middle of the heart of the migration. That self-delusion marks the real beginning of my undoing.

Timing is so crucial to spring snow goose success

Timing is so crucial to spring snow goose success

The following spring we again headed out to SW Iowa, but this time around the middle of March. It was warm and sunny when I left Chicago. During the drive to southwestern Iowa we saw several large flocks of snow geese milling around. Things looked promising.

Twelve hours later, we had to chip ice off the doors to get into the Suburban in Nebraska City. The high temperature that day was recorded at dawn. In a not entirely selfless act, I loaned my insulated bib-overalls to my father-in-law just to keep him from going home early. The relentless wind blew a combination of ice pellets and field grit into our faces all day. The day was spent shivering uncontrollably in metal pit blind staring at iced-up decoys posed in mad variety of unnatural and grotesque positions. Never saw a bird that day. Not even a starling. The day before we arrived, the guide said, they took 27 out of that same blind. I was hooked.

My father-in-law again unwittingly abetted my addiction the following year by introducing me to the friend of a friend who hunts snow geese in southeast Iowa. He did this out of concern for my wife and family. His thinking was if I traveled as far as southeast Iowa to sate my appetite for spring goose hunting, I would cover about half the distance and thus spend more time at home.

In retrospect, I see now that my father-in-law’s plan to get me to hunt southeastern Iowa was his attempt – his last attempt – to get me out of this self-destructive cycle of wild goose chases. Like many addicts, instead of reaching out for the life line, I twisted his gesture to mean that reducing my travel time by half meant I could double the time I spent in the field. I did. One year I got two birds. The next year; none over two days. It was about that time that I really lost contact with reality. I entered that time of my life that my family now euphemistically refers to as “Daddy’s lost years.”

I started doing Google searches for snow goose hunting videos at work. I bought white overalls. I changed my password to “getsnowgeese.” For days at a time I thought about almost nothing else except whether or not to buy a magazine extension tube for my Benelli. In short, I became obsessed with hunting spring snow geese.

It was during this period that I first read about the Rainwater Basin. One unforgettable and compelling image I remember seeing portrayed spring snow goose migration routes as an hour glass overlaying the U.S. The narrowest part of the hour glass, a spot so narrow that the two opposing lines of the hour glass almost touched, was right over the Rainwater Basin. I had to have some of that. Money, time, and distance no longer mattered.

In the spring youre at the mercy of mother nature. Be prepared for wet and muddy conditions.

In the spring you're at the mercy of mother nature. Be prepared for wet and muddy conditions.

That spring I hooked up with a guide and made my way to Sutton, NE. A group of other snow-goose junkies and I hunted a muddy corn field downwind from a hog confinement operation. The field we hunted was sprayed with waste from the hog operation. The second day of the hunt, my hunting party had to run for cover during a freak icy thunderstorm. Altogether, I spent two nearly fruitless days driving over dirt roads at breakneck speeds in the pre-dawn hours trying to keep up with the guide’s truck, stayed in a road-side hotel that brought images of Norman Bates’ mother to mind, and spent 12-hours each day in a wet layout blind.

But that’s not the worst of it. On the way home from Nebraska, I was stopped by a county sheriff on I-80 because by the time I had started home, I fit the profile of crystal-meth smuggler from Illinois. (Must have been the mud on the car and the vacant expression on my face.) Once he saw my gear and heard my pathetic story, he let me go, but only after telling me that two days ago he and a buddy shot 53 “sky-carp” from his brother-in-law’s back porch. Now it was personal.

I brooded my way through the following fall duck season. I was shooting mallards but thinking snow geese. This coming spring would be different, I told myself. This spring I felt the need to do something drastic. This spring, I told my disbelieving wife, children, and father-in-law, I’m going to South Dakota.

And so it was. I hooked up with a guide before Christmas. Paid more money than I ever paid for a guide. Traveled further than I ever traveled to shoot a bird. Ended up crossing an icy, waste-high creek in the pre-dawn darkness and walking about one mile over terrain pockmarked by prairie dog holes and cow pies. Hunted over a brand new spread of a thousand silk-screened silo-socks and another hundred strategically placed full body decoys. The layout blinds were so carefully camouflaged I tripped over them. The night before the morning of our first hunt, the guide said there were 10,000 geese in the field where we were set up. My headlamp illuminated fresh goose droppings and foot prints in the mud. The wind was at our back. We were miles from the closest road. The guide’s electronic calling system was the envy of Carnegie Hall. That first day we had perfect breezy weather. If there was an “i” not dotted or a “t” not crossed, I couldn’t find it. This was it, I told myself.

The next part of the story is still painful for me. After so many tries, to have traveled so far, to have come so close…

There is a love-hate relationship between snow geese and man. While snow goose hunters respect the game they pursue, you cant help be feel frustrated when they make you look dumb

There is a love-hate relationship between snow geese and man. While snow goose hunter's respect the game they pursue, you can't help be feel frustrated when they make you look dumb

I  saw snow geese by the tens of thousands during this trip. But do you know what? Only 12 geese came within 90 yards over two days. The geese toyed with us that trip. It tore at my heart as I watched seemingly endless enormous globs of snows spot our decoys, turn directly toward us as if following a beacon, and slowly gain altitude until they were just out of range right over our heads. There they would linger. There they would circle slowly above, taunting me. I distinctly remember hearing them call, “Richard, Richard, 1,500 miles, $1,000, Richard, Richard.”

I can hear them still as I write this. Calling me. Beckoning me to come back. Maybe I didn’t travel far enough, I thought to myself. Maybe I need to try central South Dakota, or maybe North Dakota, or maybe even Saskatchewan. Could it be that two days wasn’t long enough. Maybe I should have booked that third day, maybe four days… I became feverish, even slightly delirious as I started the long drive home.

I know now that I bottomed-out that trip. But on the long drive home, I had a rare moment of clarity. The absurdity of spring goose hunting finally penetrated my consciousness. Just twenty-four hours earlier, I was laying in the middle of a thousand decoys with eight other hunters, all of us afraid to look out from the blind for fear of spooking the lone snow goose circling above in case it might be considering the remote possibility of closing to within 90 yards. As I remembered that image from the day before, I started laughing, first quietly to myself then progressively louder and harder until I had to pull the car over to keep from driving off the road. I felt a sudden relief, as if a giant weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

I  realized that if this were the regular season instead of the spring snow goose season, there is no way in hell I would have paid what I paid for a guide, driven 1,500 miles, spent three nights in a rundown motel, and looked forward to a hot meal at a bowling alley just to kill a handful of birds.

I realized that living where I do means that the success of any spring goose trip is hostage to the weather and migration patters. Two variables I cannot control no matter how good the plan, how much I spend, or how far I travel.

At first I could hardly bear to think these thoughts much less utter them, but thanks to my local chapter of Spring Snow Goose Hunters Anonymous, I’ve decided to leave hunting spring snows to those who live under them. So, I’m done with it. I’m going cold turkey on snow geese. Spent my last dollar and drove my last mile chasing spring geese. Boys, I’m leaving the field to you.


Comments

One Comment on "A Spring Goose Hunter’s Lament"

  1. gcosmas on Sun, 10th Jan 2010 2:16 pm 

    Sorry to make light of another’s plight, but I haven’t laughed so hard in years.

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