Spring Fling

March 24, 2009 by  

By Perry Thorvig

Monday, March 17, 6:05 a.m. A lone Canada’s honk penetrates the pea soup fog and wakes me from my half sleep. It is the morning after a weekend hunting trip. I notice that the furnace has come on and I am starting to feel uncomfortably warm lying in bed. I throw off the blankets. I feel terrible. I run through my body checklist. Feet: at least they’re moving. Lower back: not nearly as sore as yesterday.

Sunday, March 16, 6:05 a.m., exactly 24 hours earlier. The snow goose decoys are set. I’m fiddling with my blind to get it ready for the morning hunt. Jerry Vandelac is walking back from parking the truck. It is 15 minutes before legal shooting time. It is extremely quiet. The nearly full moon set about an hour ago. The eastern sky is turning pink. An eerie ground fog blankets the chopped and disked cornfields in south central Nebraska. I can just barely see Jerry 300 yards away.

The morning’s silence is broken by a barrage of gun fire from about a mile to the southeast. Boom, boom, baboom, baboom, boomity, boom, baboom. At least 20 shots are fired by unknown poachers sneaking a resting flock of snow geese. The distant calamitous squawk of thousand of startled snow geese can be heard across the dusty fields. The roar approaches. The wavey outlines of the intermingled flocks of geese pass directly over head as thousands of escaping geese fly to some unknown sanctuary.

That was the start of our second morning of spring snow goose hunting in south central Nebraska last month. It was a strange trip characterized by unusually warm and windy weather and perhaps the most unusual event that could happen to two snow goose hunters.

Jerry and I left the Twin Cities about 5:00 a.m. We were only on the road for about an hour when the darkness of night began to recede. It gets light pretty early this time of year compared to fall hunting season when there is still daylight savings time.

Our trip to Nebraska took us through Sioux Falls and Yankton, South Dakota. We had heard some reports of birds west of Yankton, but we did not see anything flying as we pushed southward across the Missouri River into Nebraska. We didn’t see a flock of snows until we were south of York, Nebraska. We must have been blind because the snows sneaked in behind us and arrived in huge numbers that afternoon. But, we didn’t see them.

We scouted all the way down to the Kansas border and scanned the sky for birds in the vicinity of the Lovewell Reservoir. Reports from the day before on the Internet claimed that there were 480,000 birds at the reservoir. There were birds over the reservoir, but nothing in the fields. So, we decided to scout north toward Clay Center.

We did find a good sized flock of birds at the Kissinger WMA. Permission to hunt was secured from a farm family that owned land just north of the WMA. They had allowed me to hunt there four years ago. This was just a second choice field if we could not find something better.

It was about four thirty when flocks started leaving the refuge heading east for their evening feed. We followed the birds and noticed that there were flocks coming from other ponds in the Rainwater Basin. Soon we were surrounded by flocks of supper seeking geese.

There were plenty of birds but very few farm places where we could ask permission to hunt. If this had been North Dakota, it would have been a slam dunk because none of the very active fields were posted. That fact proved to be our undoing. Instead of finding the owners of fields where birds were actively feeding, we settled for a field where we could get permission. There were birds flying all over and around this field, but they were not feeding in it. It was about one mile from a WMA that was holding an estimated 30,000 geese.

We talked to the farmer, Dale Schliep, who leased the field. He was testing a new irrigation pivot in a part of the field where we didn’t plan to hunt. Dale said it would be fine to hunt east of there.

Saturday morning’s warm 50 degree temperatures greeted Jerry and me as we stepped out of our AAA $30 per night motel room. We left the motel at 4:15 a.m. and headed to the field. Our first morning decoy deployment was slower than normal because of being out of practice. We didn’t get all our decoys out before it got light and we had to get the truck out of the field and get ready for the hunt.

Right at shooting time, a barrage of shotgun shots rang out from the firing line at the nearby WMA. Within a minute, skeins of blue and white wavies passed over our heads going northeast to remote feeding fields. It was only 6:20 a.m. The only birds to give us a look in the initial flight were the specklebellies and Canadas. Later, two snows probed our decoys a half hour apart. I fired two shots at each one and missed. Too high? Probably. But, I had to give them a poke when I could.

About 7:00, farmer Dale, drove his pickup out to the edge of the field we were in. For some reason, he started the tractor at the hub of the irrigation pivot that was in the end of our field. It was a different pivot than the one that he had been testing the day before. Jerry wondered if that would adversely affect the geese that might want to decoy into our spread. The pivot arm was directed away from our decoys, so I didn’t think it would be a problem. Geese see pivots and tractors all the time.

We settled in for the rest of the morning. There were flocks of snows, specks, and Canadas in the air all morning. The pintails were the only ones to buzz our decoys. Boy, they are pretty this time of year. Jerry and I dozed a little in the warm comfort of our Final Approach blinds. The snows began heading back to the WMA about 9:00 a.m. We were captivated by the flocks passing over us, occasionally setting their wings to give us a little look.

At about 10:00 a.m. I poked my head out of the blind and looked upwind to see how many geese were over the roost. I was stunned and horrified to see that the pivot had rotated almost forty-five degrees and was bearing down on our decoy spread. Dale did not have the sprinklers activated, but it was moving imperceptibly toward our spread. “Jerry,” I yelled, “that damned thing is moving. We are going to have to move some decoys.” So, that is what Dale was up to. He was testing his pivot. “Why the hell would he do that when we are out in the field?” Jerry asked.

Well, it was clear that we were going to be “out of business” for about three hours as the pivot passed right over the top of us. Fortunately, most of the geese had gone back to the WMA and it was pretty quiet anyway. At noon, the pivot ran right down the axis of our decoy spread and we had to move a few deeks to keep them from being crushed. Dale drove by and sheepishly approached and said, “Geez, I hope I didn’t screw things up for you guys.” He had rented a generator and just had to get the testing done that day. We just laughed and said that it was midday anyway. Dale posed for a picture with me. He’s the one in the white T-shirt.

By mid afternoon, the pivot had continued its snail-like journey around the field to the point where it was not in our way.

But, we were faced with additional adversity. The 78 degree temperatures were getting the atmosphere stirred up. The wind began to howl from the south. It had been at 15 to 20 all morning. It grew to 30 and then gusted to at least 40 mph for a while. It reminded me of our fall pheasant hunting near Dickinson just after Thanksgiving when the wind blew a steady 50 mph.

The wind began to erode our decoy spread. The Northwinds held firm in the spring soil. But, several Last Looks and a few of my ground hugging shells started heading for Ellendale and Ludden, North Dakota. We picked up the flimsy shells and pushed the Last Looks further into the ground and rode out the gale as the sunny skies began to turn grey.

The sun began to set and the wind followed suit by diminishing in intensity. The evening flight of birds again left the refuge and passed over our heads to the northeast. I left the field about 5:30 to see if I could find where they went. I couldn’t. They had disappeared. We decided to pick up about 6:00. The birds did not come back to the WMA before we left the field.

A few flashes of lightning lit the southwest sky and crackled on our radio on the way back to town. The area needs a lot of rain. The dust blowing down the gravel roads totally obscured vision momentarily. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t find the lost geese.

By Sunday morning, there was no sign that the passing line of showers dropped any rain in the area. It was again 50 degrees as we left our motel and headed to another part of the same field we had been in on Saturday. But, no pivot this time.

After we put out our deeks, we heard the barrage of poachers’ gun fire at 6:05 a.m.

A windless Sunday proved to be only slightly better than Saturday. One snow found our decoys and came right in very low. Another found us and circled for so long that I could no longer blow my goose call. He had worn me out! I passed on the one shot that I might have taken. He never got that low again.

We picked up at 10:00 a.m. and were on the road by 11:00. It would take us eight hours of pounding the pavement to get back home. We were amazed that the snow had all melted in Minnesota and the lakes and ponds were looking very dark. Open water was starting to show.

Spring is coming. Get ready you North Dakota guys. The birds will be in your back yard as you read this. Oh, by the way, if you find any wayward decoys out there, I’m sure they are mine. They kept right on going when they blew out of our field on Saturday.


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