Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
When Pursuing the World’s Ficklest Fowl, You Just Never Know What’s Going to Happen
The phone didn’t ring until late afternoon. It was my friend, Curt Stille calling with the latest, most up to date snow goose report. Surrounded by a spread of white wind socks, Curt was currently perched atop a prominent North Iowa hillside keeping company with last year’s muddy cornstalks. The report was dismal.
“All I’ve seen so far,” said Stille, “is one flock of Canadas, and they were high and headed straight south. Haven’t seen or heard a snow goose.”
The complete lack of goose activity was especially troubling. North Iowa snow goose numbers had been steadily building for the past week. With an ever-increasing number of juvies beginning to show in the mix, the stage was set for some potentially great goose hunting during the final days of March. But waterfowl hunting can turn on a dime, and you can never count your snow geese until they’re over the decoys. This fact became painfully evident last Friday when the snow goose outlook took a sharp downward turn as a powerful weather system – dubbed Winter Storm Uma by Weather Channel – moved into the state. By the time the storm ended on Saturday, the region had received anywhere from a foot to 20 inches of heavy, wet snow. Wetlands that had teemed with waterfowl on Friday were frozen and void of birds on Saturday. For area snow goose enthusiasts, Winter Storm Uma appeared to have delivered a knockout punch.
But there was some good news. Although the snow geese were a no show, the parade of ducks had been spectacular, said Stille. While the rest of the adjacent landscape remained locked in white, a 50-yard circle of the corn stalk hilltop had blown clear. In spite of its small size, the decoy studded opening had been a magnet for passing flocks of mallards, pintail and wigeon.
Sitting on breezy hilltop and watching close-range ducks circle some goose decoys on a sunny afternoon sounded pretty good to me. “OK. I’ll run down, watch ducks for an hour, and help pick up the decoys,” I said. In addition to my camera bag, I also decided to throw in the shotgun and handful of shells – just in case.
Arriving at the field, I was pleased to see a flock of mallards circling low over the wind socks. I hiked to the hilltop, and we were still exchanging howdy-doos when Curt excitedly blurted two of my favorite words, “Snow geese!!”
Diving to the stalks, I hurriedly uncased my gun and pulled a couple of shells from my pocket. Looking up, I spotted two lines of snow geese approaching the spread from slightly different directions. Arriving at the field, the geese locked their wings and began scaling down from altitude. But before the birds could come into range, they were joined by a third line of geese. By now, our hilltop was growing loud with the shrill, terrier-like yelping of excited snow geese; the birds’ crisp black and white plumage providing sharp contrast to the deep azure of the afternoon sky. With geese gliding in from the right and others coming from the left, the criss-crossing flight paths were dizzying. As the birds continued to lose altitude, a single juvenile snow goose bailed from the flock. Within seconds the lone goose hung suspended over the decoys. Snow geese are the ficklest of fowl and, although the remainder of the circling birds were still showing interest, snow goose hunters soon learn that “one in the hand is worth a hundred in the bush”.
“Take ‘em,” Stille whispered.
“Should I? Are you sure?”, I asked in a conversation that would soon resemble two grandmas arguing over who’s going to pay for the ice cream cones.
“Yes. Shoot!” Sitting up, I pointed the barrel in the direction of the yelping goose and folded it with a short load of steel #4s.
There was no time for High-Fives. Here comes another bunch, Stille announced. The flock was a mixed group of snow and white-fronted geese. Some of the snows broke off to circle the spread and we bagged a couple more. From that moment on, it was nonstop action as a near constant procession of snow geese, white-fronted geese, and mallard ducks poured over the decoys. Before long, we had a total of nine geese on the ground – an amazing turn of events from what we had expected.
While watching a distant swarm of white-fronts, a flock of four Ross’ geese came into view and headed directly for the decoys. Ross’ geese are arctic nesting, mallard-sized, lookalike cousins of the snow goose. Like their snow goose relatives, the species has undergone tundra damaging population surges during recent decades. Drawing ever closer, the Ross’ liked they saw and came right in. We bagged three but missed the fourth as it fell back into the wind. Lousy shooting notwithstanding, we couldn’t complain. The continuing waterfowl show as outstanding; our bag had now moved into the double digits.
And so it went. There were more lines of white-fronted geese. Some came in. Some didn’t. There were more lines of snow and Ross’ geese. Some came right to the decoys. Some didn’t. There were more flocks of mallards; some rolling like footballs when they made too fast a landing in the decoys. And then it was over. Following an hour of near chaos, the flight ended as quickly as it had begun.
Funny how things work out sometimes. The winter storm that appeared to have effectively delivered a death blow to area waterfowling had actually set the stage for what will undoubtedly be remembered as the best snow goose hunt of the season.