Spring Goose Memories

February 14, 2009 by  

By Chris Hustad

Anyone who knows me or has read any of my articles over the years knows my passion for hunting weary snow geese. From the start of the migration in Saskatchewan in the fall to the last flocks that leave North Dakota each spring, I can be found in pursuit of snow geese. With the spring snow goose conservation season underway, I look back at some of my favorite stories that have arisen over the past springs since the conservation season started.

I can remember the first time I ever hunted in the spring like it was yesterday. It was early March during the inaugural spring snow geese season that had just started a few days prior, leaving so many uncertainties as to when and where I would start. “Starting over” was what it felt like, as I wasn’t sure how much it’d be like the fall…but I was excited to learn. I walked into Scheels All Sports in Fargo, ND and went back to the section on steel loads with the intent to stock up for the weekend. I ran into Jason Berger, a Scheels’ employee who I’d gotten to know as being a regular customer. He stated that there had been some reports of snows showing up south of Oakes. This optimism was all I needed and it wasn’t an hour later that I was on my way SW of Fargo to our hunting lodge, “The Plant”, where we stayed regularly in S.E. North Dakota. Two of my hunting buddies Bob Fercho and Christian Kiedrowski were waiting for me while I also played phone tag with Doug Panchot and his friend Tim who we’d planned on hooking up with for the inaugural morning. I had never hunted with Doug before at the time, but we spoke often about it as we participated in the NDSU Waterfowler’s Club in college all winter. I still hunt with Doug to this day, unfortunately not as much recently due to our busy schedules.

Doug had scouted the field we planned to hunt the next morning and was camping out in the landowner’s backyard. We met up that morning well before sunup in the farmyard and decided on the best way to deploy our decoy spread. For those that remember, the first spring snow goose season was coupled with the most snow that we’ve ever experienced during any spring season. There was an actual defined snowline, and we were near its southern edge. We used Doug’s ATV to haul in tub after tub of windsocks and all of our gear towards the middle of a cornfield. We were ready to go well before we saw our first goose, but we could hear plenty of them roosting in the distance coming from the Hyatt Slough along the ND/SD border. With Sand Lake refuge in N. SD just miles to the south of that we knew we were in for some geese; but being this was the first time you could EVER hunt snow geese in the spring, I really didn’t know what to expect.

And then it happened, the roost erupted with a cloud of snow geese that did their usual circle for elevation and headed north. I quickly learned from the very first hunt that the spring is indeed, unlike the fall season. While we were in a field the geese used the night before, we didn’t understand what they wanted in the morning and why they had no interest in any of the nearby fields. They weren’t content with just feeding, they wanted to push the envelope north and it showed as countless birds flew over with few showing interest in our moderately sized decoy spread with no intention of slowing down. We harvested 9 snow geese that morning and we had a blast! But as any avid snow goose hunter will tell you, if you don’t know what the geese are doing you’ll find yourself in the endless pursuit of figuring out just what that is. We learned that a week later when we followed a never-ending string of snow geese from Sand Lake refuge up to the snowline along I-94 between Jamestown and Valley City (a roughly 100-mile drive). When they turned around near the interstate, and flew 5 miles south to feed we soon realized that not just any cornfield is what they wanted, but the furthest north cornfield possible (which was flooded and also used as a roost). To this day I’m still waiting to use this knowledge in ND, but unfortunately, mother nature hasn’t allowed it with a string of dry winters since.

One of my most favorite snow goose memories I can only share in print, as it was one of those rare times where I headed out solo. It all started on my way home from a Sunday morning hunt in S. Central ND in early April in 2002. We had a fairly successful hunt and all of the guys in our group dispersed, each taking their own scenic route home. I chose to take the back roads home as I had this itch in the back of my mind that the day was not yet over, or that I didn’t want it to end. I decided to take the road that cut north near our hunting lodge, “The Plant” and see if there was any that were close to home. The area typically is frequented by spring snow geese but not normally in large numbers like other more well known areas; but this day was different. Just a mile or two to the east there were 3 cornfields loaded with geese and they were also casually roosting in a couple nearby ponds. The day was warm with nice steady south winds that spelled migration like no other. I quickly picked up my phone and called all of my hunting buddies, none who were willing to make the sacrifice to drive back SW of Fargo to do the evening shoot. But this was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss. I scouted all the opportunities present and decided to deploy the decoys on a small WPA that was adjacent to a cornfield the birds were using.

I  had to walk-in about 350 yards to where I planned to hunt, and I decided that I was only going to make the trip ONCE. I glanced over all my decoys and decided to take 6 snow goose floaters on my back, and to grab a handful of windsocks with my one free hand (which later turned out to be just 8). So there I was, trudging through a muddy field in a pair of waders with a big bag of floaters, gun, 2 e-callers, gun bag, decoys in hand and a Final Approach Ground Hog over the shoulder. I had only what I could carry…barely. After a grueling walk I arrived at what I felt would be the X. I threw out the 6 floaters and setup the 8 windsocks going into the cornfield. I decided to put my blind along a small clump of weeds on the water’s edge where my blind blended in perfectly. So there I was, at 3 in the afternoon on a 60-degree day with a weak decoy spread looking to the south wondering why the heck the migration wasn’t happening…or would it? Was it over? That question was answered not more than 20 minutes later as the first signs of small flocks appeared from the south. I turned on the E-caller and pointed the speaker in the direction of the flock. To my amazement they instantly turned and were coming at me…and fast. The first flock was locked up at about 150 yards and “shucked” down to the water like they were ready to dive in like an eagle homing in on a fish. With their bellies almost dragging against the water, they glided into the floaters without an ounce of worry. Giddeyup! I pulled up and folded a beautiful blue at roughly 15 yards and it folded into the water. I swung my Benelli Nova ahead of a mature snow and CLICK…I tried again, nothing. For whatever reason my gun wouldn’t cycle shells properly and I was down to a single shot for the rest of the day. And to my amazement, what just took place would become the norm. Flock after flock, each perfectly spaced about 5 minutes apart kept coming from the south. Each of them seemed to want to outdo the previous flock as they all shucked and followed suit down to the water’s edge and into my lap. MOST of the time I made the one shot count, but there were a few flocks that left my spread laughing as some stupid hunter shook a shotgun at them spouting off profanities that I won’t divulge here. But as it turned out, 14 dead snows lying around me was plenty. Maybe it was a good thing my gun failed me that day, or I would’ve spent all night carrying snows back to the truck.

The last story I hold close to my heart and is proof at what a waterfowler will do to get a chance at fooling fowl. The story started on the opening of the season, Thursday March 1st in 2001. I had been watching the migration closely with daily phone calls to the CO’s in SD (Al Thomas from the Sand Lake refuge office probably got caller ID that next year because of me). There was spotty reports of flocks making their way into the northern region of South Dakota all week, and the forecast was calling for highs in 60’s on Saturday. I had no doubts that it would spark a migration into ND. With that being said, my quest started that Thursday afternoon with a solo drive SW of Fargo towards the SD border. There was countless flocks of Canadas and ducks in the cornfields so I assumed the snows weren’t far behind. I scouted my first flock of snows heading north a few miles into ND, which then swung and headed west and later swung back south to roost which I assumed was Sand Lake refuge. That night I counted around a dozen scout flocks do this same routine, so I decided this flight path would be the best bet to get any decoying action.  With highs in the upper 40’s on Friday, this flight path continued and I scouted the first ND grounded snow geese in a flooded cornfield (only around 500). I got permission from the landowner and headed up to The Plant to sleep for the night. Around 9 p.m., my brother Eric who was my only hunting partner for the following day showed up at the lodge. We leisurely packed up our gear and loaded up an ATV that we loaned from my friend Bob Fercho. We had a few beers and spoke about past stories and what was to come the following morning. Around midnight we both turned in, with an anticipated time of departure of 3 a.m. the following morning. Needless to say, I was excited for the spring to start and so was my brother. After a failed hour of trying to sleep we decided to head out at 1 a.m. as we knew we had a lot of work to do setting up 600 decoys and trying to get some sleep wasn’t working. We thought we’d catch a catnap the next day in the decoys to recoup from the sleep we were depriving that evening.

We arrived at the field around 2 a.m. and slowly starting packing for hauling out the decoys. We took out one plastic tub of windsocks at a time, dropped them off and started again. This was about a 600-yard round trip and I remember calculating 8 trips to get all of our gear out. Well to make a long story short, after 2 trips our ATV died and we were unable to figure out the problem in the dark. So we spent the next 4 hours hauling out all of our gear on foot, and in sticky mud this is no easy task. We set out all of the decoys around 2 water holes the size of swimming pools, and setup our blinds. We than pushed the ATV out of decoys about 250 yards to the nearby treeline which pretty much sealed the deal on our already fatigued, sleep deprived bodies. As we made our way back to the decoy spread for the final time, I can remember how comfortable that cold, wet ground was. It sure as heck beat the work that we spent the past 5 hours deploying our spread.

The sun was rising and the ducks and Canadas swarmed us like bees. So much so that a flock of snows that roosted nearby came over us well within range but we didn’t notice until they had already passed overhead and spooked. After an hour I wondered if this would be it and I slowly drifted to sleep. I was awoken shortly after by my brother yelling, “Chris, there’s some nosebleeders coming at us!” I quickly fumbled with the E-callers, pushed the power button and pointed the speakers at the flocks. These geese were literally dots in the sky but the moment they heard the chatter from my speakers they locked up and started to circle. They were so high that it literally took almost a half hour for them to come down, if not more. And this funnel attracted every flock of snows for miles. The migration had started. From roughly 10 a.m. that morning until around 4 p.m. it was rare to not have a flock circling overhead. Pretty amazing timing considering there wasn’t a snow goose in ND just 2 days earlier with the exception of a couple over-flying scout flocks. Most of the time we were able to get flocks down to roughly 35 yards which presents great shots for migrating snows. But our fatigued, sleep deprived bodies didn’t do us justice on our shooting and I can recall that day as one of the worst shooting days ever. But this didn’t matter, we were out there and I’d do it 100 times again without hesitation. I can recall the roads were active that day with road hunters, but the geese weren’t feeding in ND. They were merely pushing the frost line and turning around and feeding back in SD. We were the only hunters ( at least I’d guess from the scouters I talked to) that had a decoy spread out, and were the only guys who were actually hunting. At one time, we had as many as 4 vehicles parked watching us working birds. I’m sure they were laughing at our pathetic shooting, but it sure beat sitting in the vehicle! To this day, that was the earliest I’d ever been sunburned in ND (March 3rd) while staring up at the sky all day.

These are just a few of the countless memories I’ve amassed the past springs while hunting snow geese. More often then not, the hunting is coupled with more sweat than I could accumulate during any gym workout; but the payoffs of cupped wings is worth it every time. The spring snow goose season has started, and it’s time for you to get out and make your own memories!


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