Parker & Parker Hunt Dawson Area (2006)
by: Tom Armbrust
I had been checking the calendar for the last month with anticipation regarding our upcoming hunting trip to Dawson, North Dakota. Dave Lang, our host, was keeping a close eye on the waterfowl migration and the weather. He was ready to give us the word at a moments notice. Then finally, on October 20th the phone rang. It was Dave on the other end telling me the mallards were in. With snow falling he and his son, Jon, had just harvested their limit of greenheads in a nearby cornfield. Some snow geese were also just starting to move in. That was all I needed to hear, and I called my hunting partner for the last 20 years, Jim Heggeness from Fargo. Telling him we would link up on the 26th. I would be bringing along a new friend, Rob Burns and his German shorthair dog “Parker”. Rob worked for the US Fish & Wildlife Service in the state of Washington studying and tagging salmon in the Columbia River. Now he was chomping at the bit to sample someof the fine Dakota upland bird and waterfowl hunting with his dog.
It seemed that work dragged on and on that week; but finally Rob, Parker and I were Dawson bound. Thoughts crossed my mind about the horrible summer drought conditions in the Dakota’s, but much to my surprise, by the time we passed through Otter Tail County in western Minnesota all the lakes and marshes looked full of water. So this area must have gotten rain this fall. We exited off I-94 at Cleveland, ND traveling over 700 miles since our departure from the Chicago land rat race. I never tire of this vast stretch of Prairie Pothole Lake country with very good numbers of diver ducks on them. We made a quick run on down to Gackle to check in with Marty and Bill Sands, as they had been hunting already.
Bill and Marty showed Rob their 12 and 10 bore Parker and L.C. Smith double shotguns, plus swapped enough hunting tales in short order to last all week. Before hitting the road again, Rob and I suited up into our hunting duds. Heading west out of Gackle and Streeter I wanted to check two big bodies of water, Alkaline and South Lakes. My hunch had paid off with many divers on both lakes. On the southeast corner of South Lake a finger of high ground stretches a distance into the lake. Rob grabbed his shotgun and was off to this spot. Within a short time two shots rang out, Rob dropped his first Canvasback drake; but it was crippled and swimming away. I ran to the truck to get Parker, Rob’s dog, and within moments the chase was on. Hunting with black labs for many years I did not realize that shorthairs were good water retrievers. Well, for the next twenty minutes did we get a performance from such a driven dog in that icy cold lake! Every time the dog would get within a few feet of the duck, it would dive under, yet Parker was determined to catch that bird. They must have swum at least 800 yards from shore before the quarry was finally gotten. In Washington, Rob told me Parker would swim out into the middle of the Columbia River among whitecaps after a duck, and that is a very wide river. My hunting cap was off to that dog, he is all heart!
Next morning after meeting up with Jim Heggeness, my good friend from many previous North Dakota hunts, Dave Lang put us on a hot spot between two prairie pothole marshes on the southeast corner of the Slade Refuge. Jim, Rob and I were tickled getting our limits of Canada geese in short order. Many different species of ducks tested our pass shooting skills such as: redheads, bluebills, ringbills, gadwall, wegion, shovelers, and mallards. Rob really lucked out shooting a banded gadwall. To put icing on the cake, Jim filled his swan tag right next to me dropping a beautiful snow white 19 pound swan with his 12 GA Browning Auto 5 Magnum. Jim was really in the groove that morning pulling off some very long shots on ducks some were past 60 yards. With a big grin he told me Steel 2 shot was doing a job. These super long stone dead kills were no accident; as I remembered I had given Jim ten rounds of the New “/Supershot” loads the evening before. This new ultra heavy tungsten based nontoxic shot is 65 percent heavier than a lead pellet of the same size. So imagine if you will, the much greater penetration and per pellet velocity and energy to enhance long range kills vs. a steel shot pellet. The proof was in the shooting as these small Size 7 shot really carried the mail with no lost cripples on long range ducks.
That evening after a great hunt, we headed to Cleveland to enjoy a delicious slab of ribs at the Northern Lights Cafe. Jim Bender and his wife, Linda, entertained us with a Lionel railroad steam train show. The train encircled the inside of the dining room high upon the wall, plus music on a miniature violin with a song and Happy Birthday Congratulations to Debbie Lang.
We had a great visit at dinner with Charlie Aycock, Dukes Isgett, and Donnie Porch. I thought I had a long drive from Chicago land to Dawson at 755 miles. Well, these boys had to drive over 1650 miles to arrive in Dawson from their home in South Carolina. They had done their homework scouting and harvesting a number of ducks and geese. Charlie hunted with an old L.C. Smith double 10 GA. I take great pride in hunting with my old double guns. On this trip a 12 GA Parker VH Grade made in 1909 accounted for my ducks, geese, and upland birds. At 97 years old this fine Parker still performs with the best of em. The only problem is these fine old tightly choked shotguns were never designed for extra hard shot pellets. Lead shot is soft so choke deformation is not a problem. Yet lead shot is toxic and illegal to use on waterfowl. Just two other non-toxic alternatives are available. Employing shot pellets that are double gun friendly and are soft like lead shot. Bismuth shot or Kent Impact Tungsten Matrix. Kent’s Impact 2-3/4 inch 12 GA 1-3/8 oz Size 3 and 5 shot were deadly on both ducks and geese in my Parker. Harvesting birds cleanly very similar to quality lead loads. These old doubles were made to enjoy; yet now many end up in collections never being used for hunting as they should, carrying on long hunting traditions.
The wind was really up so Jim took us to the famous Chase Lake Pass, but no bluebills were using the area. The next day after scouting, Rob and I found a nice bunch of Canada and snow geese resting on Cherry Lake just west of Horsehead Lake. We had about a half mile hike towards the lake seeing hundreds of geese feeding in a field just a short distance from the water. We found concealment in tall swale grass with a fallen tree for a seat. Our long wait paid off on that afternoon. A small group of snow geese mixed in with a flock of ark geese gave Rob a good shot—dropping his first snow with ease. We also brought two more Canada geese into the bag. That evening towards dusk we experienced a most beautiful sunset over a peaceful, out of the way lake on the prairie. The wind had now died down to a whisper letting us hear the strange calls of swans and the honking of many geese. Walking back to the truck at dark, the heavens were filled with millions of bright stars. Looking so close you could almost grab a handful. There were only three farmstead lights visible for as far as I could see. Thinking to myself how different this country is vs. home with way too many people, houses on top of one another, traffic jams, etc.
On our last evening we had a great time at Steel’s “Ducks Unlimited” dinner. So many great waterfowl prints to look at plus raffle prizes and the Ducks Unlimited shotgun of the year. After the meal I had to let my belt out a notch and relax—visiting with Dave and Debbie Lang and their friends.
I had a great time talking with Tim White at the dinner. His mother, Mary Eastburn, came to Dawson in 1905 at the age of five with her sister and parents from Pennsylvania. Tim’s mother, Mary, and her parents operated the famous Sibley Hotel till 1930. During the early days Tim Eastburn also operated a livery business. Many affluent hunters lodged at the Sibley Hotel in the good old days such as Wm. B. Mershon who wrote “Recollections of My Fifty Years Hunting and Fishing” in 1923. Mershon talked of the great hunting in the Dawson area a number of times in that book. George T. Slade and James J. Hill, presidents of the Northern Pacific Railroad, at times employed Mr. Eastburn as their personal guide and driver to the Slade Hunting Preserve just south of Dawson.
In 1937, Tim’s parents and family moved to Dawson from the farm into the Rhodes house due to the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Tom Rhodes was the greatest duck guide of all, according to Horace Thompson in the book, “Wildfowling in the Mississippi Flyway” on page 114. Tim told me, “There are no more ducks compared to when I was young. He, Gaylor Hild and Daryl Clark shot very close to one hundred mallards not long after World War II. They had hung a mess of the ducks on the side of the old Rhodes house—I guess for a picture. When their father saw all those birds, he about had a fit. What if the game warden saw that? We would all go to jail!
The times might have changed for old Dawson as the town is slowly shrinking away; but like me, the older people from there still have some wonderful memories of their past! Where else could you shoot puddle ducks, divers, geese, China birds, and sharp tails all in the same area without other hunters breathing down your neck, Dawson, North Dakota.
On the morning of our departure I had breakfast with Lorna Schauer at the Dawson Cafe. She and her daughter were putting together a video of their family tree, going back seven generations from Norway. Lorna told me about how she and her three sisters all taught school in rural North Dakota in one room school houses many years ago. Lorna, where do you get all that get up and go? It is always hard to leave old Dawson. It’s like my home away from home.