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Snow geese: One tough hunt
Doug Smith, Mpls. Star Tribune
March 20, 2005 DOUG0320

LAKE PRESTON, S.D. -- Dawn broke cold, snowy and birdy.

Lying on a rock-hard frozen corn stubble field in coffin-like camouflage blinds, shotguns in hand, we scanned the dull gray sky for snow geese.

"Here come some," a muffled voice reported.

A flock of perhaps 100 squawking geese approached from the northwest, then circled high above us, eyeing our 500 decoys. Then a second smaller flock, flying in the opposite direction, commingled with the first, creating a spectacular kaleidoscopic vortex of birds swirling above us like dry leaves caught up in the wind.

It appeared they would glide down, if not right into our decoys, at least to shotgun range.

But snow geese are cautious creatures. They clearly spotted something amiss, hesitated, then flew off. Still, it was an impressive sight.

"That was tremendous," said Don Sauter, 51, of Arlington, Minn. "I thought they were coming down."

A blizzard of snow geese sailed over the frozen South Dakota landscape last week -- hundreds of thousands of birds migrating from their southern wintering areas to their Arctic nesting grounds. Large flocks of birds stage in South Dakota and North Dakota, producing a spring spectacle that attracts scores of hunters, including many from Minnesota.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has offered the special spring hunts -- called conservation orders -- in 24 states, including Minnesota, since 1999. The reason: to try to reduce a burgeoning snow goose population that has destroyed portions of their fragile Arctic nesting grounds.

But as any snow goose hunter knows, seeing lots of geese doesn't necessarily mean shooting lots of geese.

We saw plenty of geese during a two-day hunt in eastern South Dakota last week. We tried decoying them. We tried pass-shooting them. We tried sneaking up on them.

But in the end, seven of us bagged a measly three birds.

"There's a reason they're overpopulated," Sauter said. "They are tough to get."

"You should have been here last week," said Jason Kral, 25, a former Minnesotan who lives in Brookings, S.D., and was hunting with us. He and seven friends shot 57 snows one day.

And at a nearby cafe, a local resident reported seeing a hunter with a pickup truck full of dead geese.

But snow geese are notoriously uncooperative.

We blamed our poor showing on the weather. Two inches of snow fell the night we arrived, so when we set our brown camo layout blinds in the white field, we stuck out like cow pies in buttermilk.

The following day, we used white sheets to help hide our blinds. And we put out another 500 windsock decoys. But white decoys on a snowy white backdrop aren't as visible to geese. And we felt that we still weren't hidden well enough. No geese stopped in for a visit.

A lack of wind didn't help: Our decoys often hung limp.

These geese are wary and educated from lots of hunting pressure. Everywhere we went we encountered hunters -- many from Minnesota.

"Most guys say they are getting tougher to hunt," Spencer Vaa, waterfowl biologist with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, said in an interview last week. "They're hunted all the way up and down the flyway, from September to May."

The geese we saw always spiraled straight up when departing fields or frozen lakes, rarely providing any pass-shooting opportunities. They returned the same way. They tend to fly in big flocks, and are decoy-wary.

They are much more difficult to hunt than Canada geese.

"No doubt about that," Vaa said. "They are a much more wary bird. They are tough to hunt."

Wildlife officials have tried to tip the scales in favor of hunters. Shotguns can hold more than three shells. Electronic calls are legal, and we used them. Shooting hours are a half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset. And limits are almost nonexistent. In South Dakota, there is a 20-bird daily limit, with no possession limit. In Minnesota and North Dakota, there are no daily or possession limits.

Hunters in South Dakota shot nearly 97,000 snow geese last year, and nonresidents shot almost half of those.

The goal of the special spring hunt is to trim the population of light geese -- which includes snows, blue-phased snows and Ross' geese -- to reduce the damage they are causing in the Arctic. Hunters last fall and spring killed a total of about 1.2 million snow geese.

But with a spring breeding population in excess of 5 million birds, it appears the special spring hunts are having a minimal impact on the snow goose population, possibly not enough to resolve the habitat destruction problem.

The difficulty in killing snow geese was obvious to us.

"We're not even getting close to them," Sauter said after one flock took off when they spotted us.

"It's near impossible right now," agreed his son, Ryan, 25, a former Minnesotan who lives near Lake Preston, S.D. He has been hunting snows all spring and was with Kral for the big shoot the previous week.

We finally gave up the decoys and crept close to a mostly frozen lake holding thousands of geese. While some in our group hunkered in a patch of cattails, two of us, dressed in white, simply lay in the snow atop a small rise and shot at geese that winged over.

The shooting was over quickly, and when it ended we had just three geese. Still, we didn't measure success by the number of birds we shot. Seeing and hearing the huge flocks and trying to out-fowl them was rewarding enough.

"It's just fun to see them," Ryan Sauter said. "You're not always going to get them."

Doug Smith is at [email protected].

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We made blinds from refrigerator boxes, the cow type blinds. Painted them up like different cows, made some handles and walked up on them. You can't get within feet of them, but 30-40 yards is enough when there are 1000 geese setting in the field. If the geese learn to count legs on a cow, game over man!
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