When the Sky Falls

As the old adage goes: When it rains, it pours. And on special days during the spring snow goose migration, big white 'raindrops' come down hard and fast.

It's interesting to observe the pride that goes along with defending one’s home ground. We’re often blind to its faults and embellish its good qualities. Ask a Midwestern hunter where the absolute best place to hunt is located and they’ll likely tell you about a county, section or specific piece of dirt in their home state. Ask a Western hunter the same question and you’ll likely get the same answer, regardless of the game species in question.

That said, I’m a Minnesotan born and raised, and I can’t imagine myself living anywhere else. Don’t get me wrong: I love traveling North America, leaving new boot treads and shaking new hands. But there’s no place that feels as good as home. The summers are perfect and the winters aren’t really all that bad once the cold makes me numb.

But then there’s March, and I’d rather be anywhere but Minnesota during March. There’s very little to hunt (it seems I’m as far away from an open big game season as I can get), the lake ice is generally too thin and dangerous to fish through, and exceptionally muddy dog paws makes keeping the carpets clean a laboriously futile affair.

So, when the chance to hunt migrating snow geese in some of the best habitat in Missouri came along last March, I couldn’t jump ship fast enough.

In Like A Lion
Even in near darkness, I was in awe of the sheer number of ghostly snow goose decoys that fluttered in the pre-dawn breeze. There must be nearly 800 decoys here!

“You’re standing in the middle of more than 1,000 decoys,” said Tony Vandemore, co-owner of Habitat Flats in north-central Missouri, as though he were reading my mind. “There’s nothing birdbrained about snows. They’re smart, but they find strength in numbers … hence the hoards of decoys.” And I thought baiting black bears was a pile of work.

Snuggling into the layout blind, I had that “needle in a haystack” feeling. There’s something special about lying in wait in the middle of a huge decoy spread, hoping to execute a diligently planned ambush. And it didn’t take me long to appreciate the allure of hunting snow geese, either. There I was, sprawled out comfortably in a layout blind, sharing coffee and chatting casually about last fall’s hunts with my loitering neighbors. Life was indeed good.

I was half-way through hearing about Scott Grange’s fantastic Utah adventures when Tony hit the electronic caller. When the music began to play, we were to zip lips and slide down into our blinds—although most of us were guilty of sneaking peeks of the distant birds. Even through the songs of the “electronic” geese, the return calls of the real birds became louder and closer. And then, there they were.

Still much too high to shoot, the circling cloud of screaming snow and blue geese had my lungs pleading for air my open mouth couldn’t collect fast enough. I couldn’t resist the urge to shuffle slightly, readying my right hand on the gun and my left to spring the bi-fold blind doors. Even in the heat of the chaos I could hear Kevin Howard to my left doing the same.

The sounds of igniting gunpowder roared through the morning air and sent the geese reeling—apparently I was too far down the line to hear Tony’s “Kill ’em” call. Axing my way through the blind door, I sat up and managed to drop two birds in three shots with one of my favorite scatterguns, Winchester’s SX3. Kevin had killed at least as many, and two of them nearly bounced off my gun barrel as they plummeted into the corn stalks. March was definitely in like a lion.

By the time sunset fell on day No. 1 of our 4-day venture, six guns had grounded more than 120 snows, blues and Ross’ geese.

Out Like A Lamb
I was torn when I heard the weather report as I laced up my boots in preparation for day No. 2: I’d packed rubber boots for mud, rain gear for rain, and heavy clothing for cold and wind, but I hadn’t packed sunscreen for 80-degree temperatures.

By 8 a.m. we had pulled a flock of about 30 geese down from the heavens and killed five before the survivors retreated. By noon we’d seen two extremely high flocks headed north. By 3 p.m. we were sweaty and bored. That was it. There were no more geese honking. There were no more geese flying. There were no more geese.

Although the “blind lounging” in 80-degree March weather was a welcomed activity, I wanted more—and so did Tony.

“We’ve got two options,” Tony said to our group, like a coach giving a half-time pep talk to a struggling team. “The geese have moved north because of this heat, so there’s no point to stay in this area. You’ll get a sun tan here, but that’s about it. We can either send you all home, or we can follow the migration north.”

Duh.

A Time To Fly
As soon as Tony recognized the changing weather patterns, he’d immediately assigned scouts to head north and follow the birds.

With directions in hand, our group of six drove northwest for nearly 3 hours. During those 3 hours of highway travel, the skies darkened, rain began to fall and the temperature dove.

With my face pressed to the window glass, I began to see—only a few at first— flocks of snow geese mixed amongst the rain-spitting clouds. And about the time we pulled into a roadside restaurant to meet Tony, we were right in the middle of a migrating snow storm.

The rain made field travel difficult, and it wasn’t long before I’d dragged so much mud into my blind there was little room for me to sit. But none of that mattered—there were birds everywhere.

“Snuggle in, boys,” Tony conducted. “We’ve got a big line of geese getting up off that pond behind that tree line to the west.”

It took me a second to spot the exponentially growing flock; the dancing black-and-white cloud rose and fell and rose again above the tree line. Tony hit the music and the speakers echoed across the corn field, and turned the flock our direction. Like a magic carpet the flock of squabbling snows rose and fell with the contours of the land and descended onto our line of quivering hunters.

“Kill ’em!” Tony screamed, and six guns roared through the flock. There’s no way to know exactly how many birds there were, but I had time to shoot and reload—twice—before the flurry was over, as did everyone else. Snows and blues fell from the sky as Tony’s Lab struggled to keep his anticipation contained. I wanted to run out and join the Lab to gather our birds, but there were still countless geese in the air—and I didn’t want to be “that guy” who spoiled the next goose-raining volley.

As I sat there, looking up and down the line of smiling hunters sitting on either side of me, I slipped another round in the chamber and watched as smoke sneaked out the muzzle of my shotgun and rode the wind.

Life was good indeed.


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