The first time I hunted the special spring conservation season in 1999 for snow geese I buried my SUV in a muddy South Dakota cornfield and was forced to ask the farmer for a tow. That he blew a tire playing good Samaritan didn’t exactly strike a blow for hunter-landowner relations.
The good news: My small hunting party had a respectable hunt in that field the following morning, which, truth be told, was the match that lit the fuse to my insatiable, incandescent fascination with these magnificent birds. Let me explain.
Every spring millions of snow geese embark on a grueling 3,000-mile-plus journey from their wintering grounds in the southern United States and Mexico to their Arctic breeding grounds. (Recent reports say snow geese have been spotted in extreme southwest Minnesota, all over South Dakota, and in southeast North Dakota — earlier than normal because of the weather.)
Their migration is an aerial display that shouldn’t be missed, whether you’re hunting with a shotgun, camera or binoculars. Found in every flyway across North America (Minnesota is in the Mississippi Flyway), spring snows migrate in large high-flying flocks and their deafening barks and cries, as primitive-sounding and haunting as anything in nature, can on a calm day be heard for miles.
Snow geese are enigmatic birds, and watching a giant wad simultaneously burst into flight is sensory blitzkrieg, a symphonic wave that tickles the eardrum, shivers the spine and beguiles the mind.
For hunters, snow geese are perhaps most-cautious of all waterfowl. Banding data tells us some are pushing 30 years old, and even seasoned hunters say their maddening to hunt (I can attest to that) because they’ve become masterful, artful dodgers. Indeed, snow geese are often impervious to sophisticated decoy spreads, seductive calling, and trendy tactics.
I became intimately acquainted with snow geese when I moved to South Dakota in the late 1990s for my first newspaper job. The Aberdeen area in the Central Flyway is a thoroughfare for spring and fall migrating snows. One night during my first spring in South Dakota, with my window slightly cracked, I distinctly remember getting awakened as the birds winged north. At first light, I jumped into my SUV and set out to find what I was hearing. It didn’t take long. In every direction, flocks of thousands of snows and blues were either flying to the snow line near the North Dakota border or landing in the sheet water of picked cornfields just outside of Aberdeen.
I was gobsmacked. I had watched ducks and Canada geese migrate for years in Minnesota, but this, in scale and sound, was completely different. Soon that morning, other vehicles appeared. Some occupants pulled over and shot photos. Others scanned cornfields with their binoculars as the birds fed hypnotically in circular wave after circular wave. Still others, like me, just watched in awe.
That night, I called my cousin in Minnesota and told him about my grand discovery. A few years later, the special spring hunt opened. I called him again.
“You have to get out here.”
“To hunt snow geese?”
“Yes. You won’t believe what you’re seeing.”
A few days later, my cousin arrived. The night before, my buddy and I spotted thousands of birds feeding in a cornfield and he suggested we pass-shoot them the following morning. “We’ll get between their roost and the cornfield,” he said. “We might have a chance.”
In the next day’s morning fog, we staggered along a brushy fence line and waited for the birds to leave their roost. They did. Wave after wave. By the tens of thousands. We couldn’t see them, but like a freight train closing the distance, we could hear them coming.
We shot a few birds that morning, but my favorite part was watching my cousin as the first snows appeared from the fog. As the birds passed over him power line-high, he stood up and just watched, his mouth agape and his brain seemingly pickled by the spectacle.
While I don’t hunt anymore, snow geese still have gravitational pull over me that is without rival. That’s because the annual migration is one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in North America.
As my cousin said, you have to see it to believe it.
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.