by Bret Amundson
“You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you get what you need.” – The Rolling Stones
Aw yeah, sometimes what you need is knowing you tried even if things didn’t go as well as you’d hoped.
As the end of the bird hunting seasons come to a close in Minnesota, I look back on the last couple of weeks with pessimistic optimism. (Does that make sense?) Normally this would be my favorite time of the year to hunt and oftentimes my most successful. But as I found out, it doesn’t always work that way.
I pulled into the parking lot at the Watson Hunting Camp on December 19th just as Chuck Ellingson and Tony Crotty were getting fish houses for the ice. Tony and I would eventually end up with holes drilled just in time for the evening bite. I spent just about every day on Lac qui Parle last winter and remembered the routine: every afternoon around 4:30 red lines would appear on the electronics and for a couple of hours you’d have some non-stop stretches of slabs.
Not tonight. Sure we caught a few fish, but bullheads and sheepheads don’t count do they? We stopped by a house owned by Minnkota Tackle’s Pete McGinty to get the lowdown on what was going on.
“Fishing slowed a bit this past weekend for some while others continued to have a good bite,” McGinty said. “We faced some dicey ice conditions after several days of warm weather and rain. Then temperatures dropped again. The unstable weather conditions most likely had an effect on the bite.”
The next day saw a bookend of crappie excursions with limited success. A couple of nice fish came up, but nothing to invite friends over for a fish fry for. I can’t be in western Minnesota in late December without walking the sloughs and shelterbelts for roosters though so it was time to slip on some orange. My lab, Mika, happily bounded out the back of the truck, excited to learn that her favorite time of the year hadn’t come to an end yet, and went nose first into the grass.
It’d be a long, cold walk that would include only one rooster that would surprise us while we dealt with a trespasser. So much for that plan.
Two years ago I was able to hunt with Cory Loeffler from the DRC Call Company in Fergus Falls. It was like buffet. You could pick out the geese you wanted out of each flock, then when you were ready to shoot more, you’d grab a clean plate and pick one out of the next flock. It was wave after wave of honking masses, bombing right in the way they do in your dreams.
So when the opportunity to descend on this area in west-central Minnesota arrived, I couldn’t say no. I left Lac qui Parle in the early afternoon and arrived at the same pit as one of the famed outings two years prior. Cory’s time was limited as his two labs back in Thief River Falls were expecting to become parents at anytime.
We watched flock after flock fly over the top, with no desire to drop into our decoys. A winter storm was coming the next day so optimism was high. Heavy snow had fallen during one of those successful hunts last time and we hoped history would repeat itself.
Cory’s lab, Bella had begun giving birth so he packed up and headed back north. All the other guys that had joined us the day before had something come up and couldn’t make it out, so it was up to Jeremy Hawthorne and myself. The two of us welcomed the opportunity to have the giant wads of geese all to ourselves. We started daydreaming about taking turns picking out birds with bands or special markings. We’d make trick shots and turn geese on a dime with one flick of a flag. A leucistic goose had been seen hanging around town and we argued over who’d get to pull the trigger on the trophy. It would be legendary.
The winter snowstorm that was promised had fizzled into a light drizzle that quickly melted all the snow on the ground, leaving our cornfield a sloppy, muddy mess reminiscent of a spring snow goose hunt.
An enthusiastic Jeremy wasn’t happy to see the rain. “My happiness was squandered by a false weather man,” he said knowing that a snowstorm would shorten a goose’s flight plan and give us a better chance.
By noon we’d shot one and only had 3 within range. A clean miss by yours truly and a misfire by Jeremy allowed the other two to fly another day. An empty sky prompted the decision to break for lunch, pack up and head home. The decoy spread would be staying so we just grabbed our guns and headed to the truck. As we climbed out of the pits, I asked Jeremy how far away we’d make it before we saw geese flying towards us.
Turns out it wasn’t even 30 feet. 3 geese had snuck in from one side, flared and headed to another feeding area. Of course.
Then at the truck, as we scraped ten pounds of mud from our boots, we watched another group of five swoop low over the spread, with one actually landing right next to the pit. We shook our heads in amazement and decided that we should come back after lunch.
That goose would still be in the spread when we returned but we gave him a pass. It’d be the only chance we had the rest of the day.
We tucked our tails and headed home from what I thought to be the final waterfowl hunt of my Minnesota season. While I was wrong, it would still be the last time in 2014 I’d shoot at a goose.
After Christmas, I found myself driving west to the Watson Hunting Camp once again for an impromptu bird hunting/fishing trip. While crappies made appearances here and there, I was really excited for one last crack at the birds. Wade and Danny Amundson would drive out in time to hit my public land honey hole at the 9am start for pheasants and I could hardly contain my excitement. My excitement would soon be tempered as only one lonely longtail would be found. Wade would knock the bird down over a heavy section of cattails. As I walked over, I thought to myself, “please let this go quickly.” We had a prime piece of private land lined up at 10am, before setting up for one last goose hunt at 11.
“Late season has been good to me in the past,” Danny explained. “So I had to jump on the chance to get out one last time.”
Things did not go smoothly. The warm weather had loosened up the sloughs and soon both Wade and I had water over the top of our boots and really cold feet. We also couldn’t find the rooster despite the strong sense of smell that our three labs used as they crisscrossed each other in the dense cover. Soon we had to cut our losses and move on bird-less.
8 or so flushes would come in the next slough that we walked, but none would be in range. Such is life at the end of the season. Weary and wary, pheasants don’t stick around to get shot at more than once and I don’t blame them.
The day before Tony Crotty had scouted a field that held every single goose in the surrounding zip codes. While not a staggering number, the 800 or so Canadas should provide ample shooting opportunities for our group. The afternoon feeding time was 2pm, so we were wrapping up the blind stubbling and climbing in our layout blinds at 1pm.
An hour later we rested fingers on trigger guards watching the skies to the southeast-the direction geese would be coming from.
At 3pm, some of the guys climbed back out and started walking around the spread to warm up.
At 4pm, we’d start to lose hunters.
By 5pm we were in the car, trying to remember what geese looked like, since we hadn’t seen any since yesterday.
“It’s late season geese being late season geese,” Crotty said. “They don’t follow any specific pattern and the slightest change in weather can affect when and how far they fly.
With a trip to Canada planned during the final week of the pheasant season, I knew that my time with the 12 gauge was over for the year.
While I can’t complain about being out the final two weeks, since just being out there is a big part of why I go, I can’t exactly write about how great the late season hunting (and fishing) was. But that won’t stop me from getting out again next year as the snow falls and the mercury reads single digits.