A spring fling to South Dakota: Hunting snow geese

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 1, 2014 - 8:54 PM

Waterfowl migration was a spectacle during a spring snow goose hunt in South Dakota.

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Waterfowl filled the predawn sky from horizon to horizon, ducks and geese crisscrossing from every direction at various altitudes in a chaotic, frenzied flight.

Six of us lay on our backs, hidden in camouflaged layout blinds, mesmerized by the aerial stunt show.

Ten minutes later, the sun now lighting a golden field of corn stubble, thousands of barking snow geese lifted off the ground a quarter-mile to the west, and the tornado of birds quickly drifted overhead, eyeing our 1,000 decoys.

“Take ’em!” hollered Jason Swartz.

A volley of shots exploded, and a half-dozen birds fell from the sky. The rest flew off.

“That was breathtaking,’’ said Mike Porter, 59, of Minneapolis.

“That tornado of geese is something everyone should see,’’ said Paul Lewis, 57, of Mendota Heights, who was hunting with his son, Brad, 30, of Minneapolis. “There aren’t too many days you can lie on your back and see that kind of show.’’

The spring migration of snow geese and other waterfowl definitely is a four-star show.

But a weekend trip to northeastern South Dakota last week also underscored the difficulty of hunting snow geese, one of the longest-lived and wariest of waterfowl. Guides Swartz, 39, and Cody Bruns, 29, both of the Aberdeen area, scouted the region and found an area holding thousands of birds.

But despite putting out 1,000 decoys, including multiple ‘‘flying’’ decoys on rotary machines powered by marine batteries, and with two MP3 soundtracks blasting snow goose calls, our group of six bagged just 16 birds in 1½ days of hunting.

Flocks of mallards, pintails, redheads, teal, Canada geese and white-fronted geese thrilled us, flying low into our decoys — set around a small patch of water in a vast field of corn stubble. Some ducks landed. But rarely were the snow geese fooled.

“They are definitely the smartest species of waterfowl,’’ Swartz said. “Some are 20 years old; they’ve seen this all before.’’

Still, we were pleased to see swarms of waterfowl, and to get some shots.

“Any day you can pull the trigger on snow geese is a good day,’’ Bruns said.

Not reducing population

This is the 16th year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed a spring “conservation order,’’ or spring hunting season, to try to reduce the light goose population, which includes snows, blue geese and Ross’ geese. The population has ballooned during the past 50 years to an estimated 15 million. Especially worrisome to wildlife officials is that the geese have degraded their fragile subarctic nesting grounds on Hudson Bay, damage that continues today. And agriculture expansion in their migration and wintering areas has provided the birds an almost unlimited food supply.

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  • Hunters in layout blinds fired at snow geese over the weekend in northeastern South Dakota. The geese are notoriously difficult to decoy into shotgun range. This photo was taken with a 24mm wide-angle lens, which makes the geese appear more distant than they were.

  • Rhys, a yellow Lab, broke through ice on a pond to retrieve a downed snow goose.

  • Cody Bruns, a hunting guide from Aberdeen, S.D., retrieved snow geese shot by his group over the weekend near Aberdeen.

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