by Bret Amundson
This originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of MNSJ Magazine.
For years hunters flocked to areas like Lac qui Parle, Thief River Falls, Rochester and Fergus Falls to hunt these giant birds. I heard stories on a daily basis at the Watson Hunting Camp about the 70s and 80s when guys would sleep in the ditches to stake claims to their favorite ambush spots. As the geese would fly off the “Lake That Speaks”, shotguns would sound from every side of the refuge. From jam-packed state blinds to street corners to pits on private fields, hunters would completely canvass the landscape. Local farmers got into the hunting business by creating camping space for hunters and offering them a corner of their field to shoot from.
Migration patterns changed and geese became smarter, causing hunter numbers to slowly drop. Some would say the good ol’ days are gone, but a new generation of waterfowlers is once again making the Canada goose their favorite target, traveling all over the state and country to follow the migration, bypassing other hunting seasons to do so.
The style of hunting has evolved from the pass-shooting method to a decoy-and-layout-blind style. Feeding fields are scouted on the day before a hunt. Once permission is granted, a set up including large full-body goose decoys, layout blinds or similar products for concealing hunters and goose calls is implemented. They all are important, but having a good goose caller in the group might mean the difference between a full bag and going home empty handed.
In fact, the calling aspect might be one of the reasons for the renaissance.
“For me the big difference is being able to talk to them,” explains Tony Crotty from the Watson Hunting Camp. “Calling geese can make or break a hunt. There’s nothing better then finishing geese that you know you would not have had a chance at shooting, if it were not for your calling.”
“Their vocabulary is larger and more complex,” according to Cory Loeffler from the DRC Call Company. “They respond to calling better. A good call can really make a difference in a goose hunt, while a good motorized decoy usually makes the difference on a duck hunt.”
Field hunting for waterfowl isn’t for the faint of heart. Lots of windshield time scouting for birds with early morning set-ups that include big decoy spreads and hiding layout blinds. In some areas you’ll hunt a lot of chisel-plowed fields and that requires a shovel to dig holes to lay the blinds in. Sometimes that ground is frozen. Maybe that’s why it’s a younger generation doing it more.
“It’s the rush,” says 24-year-old Nick Trauba. “Deer hunting is fun but doesn’t get me as excited. It’s waking up at 4 am, digging in blinds and setting decoys that makes it all worthwhile when seeing those geese locked up and coming in.”
Whatever it is that’s attracting more hunters to the sport, many people are thankful for it. Hunting is big business for small towns across the state. If you need further proof, you need only to look for bird/animal related business names and landmarks. Thief River Falls (TRF) still dedicates an annual festival in September to the goose, called “Goose Fest.”
This year will mark the 40th year of Goose Fest (and technically it’s in Middle River, just north of TRF). The dates this year are September 26th – the 28th, meaning for the third year in a row, I’ll be celebrating my birthday in a goose blind.
And I couldn’t think of a better place to do it.
It will be hard to top last year’s festivities. I was able hunt with the guys at the DRC Call Company. I’ve hunted with Loeffler and his crew a few times, and it’s always nice to have a North American Goose Calling Champion bringing geese in for you.
In 2012, we hunted near Fergus Falls as big, heavy snowflakes fell around us. Geese were coming in close enough to touch. In fact, Loeffler did. After a limit of geese was shot, we stayed hidden and watched as flock after flock descended into our decoy spread. At one point a goose flew directly over Loeffler and he was able to reach up and give its belly a scratch. Needless to say, the goose was a little surprised.
While Goose Fest celebrates the tradition of hunting Canada geese, the annual migration of sandhill cranes passes through the area as well.
While attending Goose Fest in 2012, we attempted to hunt cranes without success. In 2013, we made a conscious effort to get as close as possible to these prehistoric birds.
The sandhill crane season only goes back a couple of years. Beginning in 2010, it has taken place in a northwest Minnesota zone only. For a $3 permit bought through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, you can take part. These “large” birds can have a 7-foot wingspan, but only weigh around 5-8 lbs. While they’re all “neck and legs”, the meat on the breastbone has given them the nickname “Ribeye of the sky”. I wanted to find out for myself.
The earliest Sandhill Crane fossil, estimated to be 2.5 million years old, was unearthed in the Macasphalt Shell Pit in Florida, according to http://www.allaboutbirds.org. The population has expanded to the point where managing them through a hunting season is possible. 10 other states across the mid-continent flyway also offer a season on cranes. Rumors of an expanded zone have been quietly passed around.
Last year, the limit in Minnesota was two (this year it’s been lowered to 1 per day) and on Saturday afternoon, I shot a double, quickly putting me on the crane board and filling my limit.
We bumped up a nice covey of sharp-tailed grouse along the way, and if we hadn’t been in stealth mode, we would have had a couple of nice sharpies in the freezer too.
The evening consisted of some of the finest nightlife Goose Fest has to offer. The Wheel, A Middle River bar, was packed from end to end as two different bands took the stage and had people bouncing around all night. Since it was my birthday, we may have stayed out just a little longer than we planned. I didn’t have a choice in the matter, but I wasn’t complaining.
A scouting trip the day before found a cut wheat field adjacent to standing beans. The field had literally been trampled by geese and cranes, so we arrived before dark to set up. An assortment of sentries, feeders and active decoys were placed in front of and behind a row of grass that rose from the middle of our field like a mohawk. We’d need to hide 8 guys- 6 hunters and two cameramen from the Wild Dakota TV show.
Soon geese that were close enough for us to reach out and grab were falling from the sky. We finished just shy of our limit, but that wasn’t because of our shooting. There were no “free passes given”-we didn’t miss any birds, just ran out of flocks to hunt. Soon it was lunch time and we found ourselves in the Middle River Cafe face-first in a plate of pork and mashed potatoes.
In fact the food was almost as big of a highlight as the hunting. Goose Fest features a smorgasbord of goose-related dishes. The obligatory goose jerky is always on the menu, but an assortment of favorites and experiments are available as well. The goose quesadillas were my pick in the goose-cooking contest.
There are also games for the kids, a goose calling contest, and a parade-complete with a camouflage-wearing Miss Middle River.