HENRY, S.D. – The high-pitched crying and barking of snow geese blared from speakers hidden on a slope of corn stubble near Indian Springs Lake, echoing into the sky.
As the day dawned with orange hues on the horizon, a small group of the birds flew lower and lower, side-slipping until they were only a couple of shotgun lengths above our spread of 2,200 decoys.
“Get ’em!” our shot-caller yelled.
We popped up from a well-camouflaged pit blind and blasted steel BB shot — some of it directly overhead — as the geese butterflied and darted away. In a few instants, the flurry of shooting was done. We had two geese in the bag and that would be it for the day.
That’s the risk you take by hunting at the tail end of the spring migration. What was booked as a three-day hunt starting last Friday was instead aborted Saturday at 4 p.m. for lack of shooting opportunities. Heavy rain was forecast for Sunday.
“After you guys leave, we are done for the season,” said Josh Craig of Watertown, a guide for Pepper Slough Lodge.
South Dakota’s “spring light goose” season officially opened in mid-February and runs until May 2. But every year, the typical window for successfully shooting these overly abundant birds is short, difficult to predict and frequently interrupted by inclement weather. Their seasonal flight en route to arctic Canada and Alaska depends on available roosting areas, food availability and position of the snow line.
Snow geese and blues (a color variation of snow geese) fly with Ross’s geese and all three white or light-colored species are legal to hunt in springtime over South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota, mostly west of a line from Mankato to Fergus Falls.
Out of control
But biologists say control efforts aren’t curbing the birds’ exponential growth. According to one isolated study published this year by The Waterbird Society, the number of nesting pairs of snow geese averaged 35 from 1992 to 1998 in a region of northern Alaska west of the Colville River. By 2015, the number of nesting pairs in the same area stood at 12,373, the study said.
With the same rapidity, snow geese populations have exploded elsewhere across the tundra, wreaking havoc on plant life and habitat shared with other wildlife.
Most snow geese hunters in the Upper Midwest purposely wait for the leading edge of the migration to pass. That’s when the geese move in gargantuan flights — so big that it can take hours for a single roost to empty. The geese cyclone upward from water and move north in swarms high above the glacial lakes and Prairie Coteau of South Dakota and Minnesota.
Those early-season pushes are loaded with hunt-savvy adult birds gifted with instincts that keep them out of shotgun range. The more huntable birds are the juveniles, or “juvies,” that languish in their comfortable wintering grounds before moving north in shorter, daily strides than the lengthy surges made by their parents.
Head on a swivel
While Saturday’s hunt was a bust, Friday was a different story. Small lines of snow geese flew overhead intermittently, with some groups descending fully into the oval-shaped trap of fake geese. Inside the pit that morning were Scott Ward of Inver Grove Heights, Chris Ward of South St. Paul, Mike Wenzel of Minneapolis, Dr. John Liddicoat, also of Minneapolis, and guide Holt Watson of Stillwater. I didn’t arrive until Friday at midafternoon, when most of that day’s shooting was done.
The morning pace had been enjoyable. Even when the “snows” were out of sight, lines and “V’s” of other migrating waterfowl were fun to watch. There were pelicans, cormorants, ducks, honkers, swans and gulls.
“Keep your head on a swivel,” Chris Ward advised as I climbed into the 5-foot-deep pit.
He said that for every group of five to seven white-feathered targets that flew into range, three or four had been harvested. In one pass, eight birds fell.
But in the afternoon, a stiff wind from the south was keeping more birds from committing to the decoys. They’d pass overhead, out of shooting range, then turn back into the wind for a look at the spread. Some of the geese tried, but failed, to overcome the wind, which gusted up to 40 miles per hour.
“Come and play!” Watson shouted to the birds on more than one occasion.
He said Friday’s action was considerably slower than previous weekends when individual hunters shot boxes and boxes of shells. That could have been us.
Originally this year, we were scheduled to use one of the pit blinds over St. Patrick’s Day weekend, but a huge snowstorm canceled the trip.
A crew at Pepper Slough plowed out 13 acres of snow to create a decoy set, but no birds came in for three days. Had we not accepted the later makeup dates, it would have been the second year in a row we sat out of the hunt because of all the unpredictable variables.