Spring Snow Goose Hunt in Dawson, ND (2004)
by: Tom Armbrust
We went on a wild goose chase to the extent of 2055 miles. Headed first, to Sand Lake Refuge in northeastern South Dakota, spending a couple of fine days visiting with Wallace Labisky, a gun writer from Aberdeen, SD. Marty Sands and I had a great time with Wallace as we taped many of his excellent memories of bygone days hunting. I am truly amazed by his sharpness of detail of so many different events of the distant past.
Wallace authored his first published outdoors story in Fur, Fish and Game Magazine in 1942 when he was nineteen years old. Now to his credit over six hundred feature articles have been written by this man over a span of sixty-two years. With articles appearing in many different magazines such as American Rifleman, Fins and Feathers, Shotgun Sports, Guns, Guns and Ammo, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, Shooting Sportsman, Shotgun Journal, The American Shotgunner, Gun Digest, Handloader's Digest, Shooting Times, and Handloader, plus a book titled "Waterfowl Shooting" in 1954. A recently completed book on pheasant hunting is waiting to be published. Still after all those long years of writing, Wallace is still formulating new articles at 81 years young!
Wallace, Marty and I took a ride out to the Labisky homestead from near the tiny town of Mina. The Labisky family endured some hard times here as many other farmers throughout the Dakotas during the Dust Bowl Years and the Depression in the early nineteen thirties. But Wallace pointed out that these were some of the best times of his life hunting as a young boy. When he first got proficient with his .410 single shot at about nine years old, he popped many a gaudy China bird. In his mind he can still recall his mother telling him as he headed out the back farm house door, "Wally, just shoot the hens not those tough old rooster birds."
As Wallace grew a little older, he acquired a grand obsession for waterfowl hunting. As the Sandlake National Refuge attracted hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese come fall. Another love of Mr. Labisky is sharptail hunting. He has matched wits with the elusive sharptail grouse in the standing Rock Indian Reservation for well over 50 years.
We stopped to look at the Labisky farm just south of Mina and took some pictures. Wallace commented to us "that somehow the place just doesn't look quite the same." Then into Mina to take some more pictures of the one room schoolhouse that Wallace attended grade school with a handful of other kids. The school was erected in 1912. How time marches along!
Wallace's grandfather came to homestead this area in the late 1860s. He stakes his claim with just five bucks left to his name after buying food and supplies plus a twenty mile round trip trek on foot in the wild western Dakota territory.
His wife and three children had a hair raising experience some years later or should I say hair losing close call once on the prairie. They had built a wooden footbridge over the creek, a short distance from their sod house. One evening after dark they heard horses coming across the bridge and he ordered his wife to blow out the lamp and grab a butcher knife. He grabbed his double barrel 10 GA muzzleloader off the wall. A number of renegade Indian braves in war paint were hooping and hollering, shot a couple of arrows into the front door, but after a short while rode on.
A very close friend of Wallaces, Bob Mitchell of Mellette, told us another unusual Indian encounter in the olden Dakota territory. Bob's grandfather was off from the homestead hunting or some such thing while his wife was at home baking bread. A small band of Indians were passing by when they smelled the aroma of fresh bread baking. They rode up, much to Mrs. Mitchell's surprise. She did not understand the Indian language but she offered the Chief, Laughing Goose, some homemade bread and they rode off without incident. A few days later they returned with two fine ponies. The Chief wanted to trade the ponies to Mr. Mitchell for his wife as she was a fine cook. Needless to say the Mitchell's declined! The Indians left with more bread but no new bride. The Indians returned a second time, but now they had six ponies to trade. Again, Mr. Mitchell declined the offer and gave them more bread.
Just a handful of snow geese were at the refuge, but it was a real treat to view the variety of ducks: many redheads, cans, scaup, and a few buffleheads. Marty made a stop at Gackle to check out his new house in town. He paid $5000 for the place and let me tell you I would move in tomorrow. The house is in very good shape with hardwood floors, two bedrooms and a basement.
Gackle has a population of 350, a very nice town that is well kept up. A fine school also. I told Marty if he could just talk his wife into moving out there he could land a teaching job at the local school. Marty's new neighbors were great, Jo Ann and Wilbur Janke. We had a great visit with the Janke's. Wilbur told us about the terrible blizzard of March 1966. Their farm was out of electric power for three days and he had to milk his 27 head of cows by hand. He also had to throw out the milk as he had no way to keep his bulk tank cold. The winds gusted to 70 miles per hour with snow drifts right up to the top of the telephone poles in some areas. Loss of cattle in the area was high as many animals froze to death.
Jo Ann asked us if we had a place to stay for the evening. We told her we planned on staying at Marty's house but we could not get the furnace going. Remember, these folks didn't know us from Adam, and they put us up at Jo Ann's mothers' house. I was amazed at their hospitality to say the least.
That evening when Marty called home at around ten o'clock, it was a very clear night as the stars looked so close you could almost grab a handful. You could hear the cries of the snow geese as clear as a bell high overhead on their long northern journey. They got me cranked up with anticipation, as I hoped Marty and I could have some luck on a spring snow goose hunt.
So much for getting up bright and early the next morning. I didn't get Marty out of the rack till 9 a.m. We were only out of Gackle about 6 miles west of town when Marty smarty spotted a few snows gliding into a lake behind a hill. We pulled off the road to investigate and we noticed more geese in this area. As we drove into the field about a half mile, we noticed at least 5000 to 10,000 snows on a ten acre lake. But the problem was to get into shotgun range. Marty and I were concealed for the first 600 yards by the rolling landscape as we finally reached some round bales. This put us within 300 yards from the huge compact mass of birds. Marty was excited, but we could not sneak any closer without being spotted by all those pairs of eyes. All of a sudden something spooked the huge mass of white birds into an uproar, but within minutes they settled back onto the lake. I talked Marty out of a couple of tall shots even though he had the big 8 bore Tolley with the 10 GA chamber inserts hosting 2 ounces of Bismuth BB shot. I wanted to get well behind the lake, making a big circle covering over a mile. I got the wind in my face and off I went, taking me about a half hour to get into position. At around 300 yards many heads went up and about 50 yards closer all hell broke loose. Much to my surprise, not a single bird passed over Marty. They passed 200 yards to his right not 40 yards high. As I walked back, I noticed a fence line that would have gotten me up to within 60 yards of the edge of the lake. Was a shame we did not notice the fence line cover from our position. What would have both barrels of the old Tolley done into the huge lifting flock of snows.
On the road again. We went west towards South Lake and Alkaline Lake nine miles west of Streeter. We took pictures of a very old and long forgotten ruins of a homestead by the lake. I thought of both the hardships and good times that farm families must have endured these many years ago. My brother would have wanted the old rusty farm machines on this farmstead.
In Stutsman County you start to realize the true meaning of the "Duck Factory" in the prairie pothole country as countless small lakes dot this area. Gackle is called the duck capitol. The vastness of this open, almost treeless land is very strange and beautiful. What a great opposite to my home of heavy traffic congestion and homes and businesses almost never ending.
Then on up to Dawson to my good friends the Lang's--Dave and Debbie, and their boys-John and Jeremiah. Dave and Jon had some very good shooting the past Saturday, March 27th. They harvested 24 snows. The strong winds helped keep the birds in good gun range.
Dave was busy with cattle and new calves, but he still made time for a wild goose chase all the way up to Rugby, a distance of 110 miles from Dawson. We did find maybe 5000 snows right along a gravel road just west of Manfred. But the land was posted. By the time we had located the owner by phone, a number of cars had passed pushing the birds further into the field. Dave and Marty tried to get in between them but without any luck.
Debbie and her two sisters were very busy each day at the cafe they run serving delicious home cooked meals. If I lived in Steele, this bachelor would sure put on some pounds in his mid section with all that good eating.
Jon went fishing on Alkaline Lake just north of Lake Isabel. The ice was just going out there also. In a half hour for his efforts he had three northern, the biggest around five pounds. The day before Jon had caught eight more northern in a short time. Fishing can be very good in this area.
My old buddy, Bob Schmidt, born and raised in Dawson had told me for a number of years to get in touch with Evelyn Hoover DeVore. She was born in Dawson on December 6, 1905 and is now 99 years young! Marty and I were very lucky indeed to visit with her at the nursing home in Dawson on two different occasions. I was very impressed with her excellent memory. We asked her a number of questions on our two visits and recorded them on tape. Both her husband and father-in-law, Harry DeVore were noted duck hunters in the Dawson area for many years. Evelyn plucked countless numbers of ducks for her down pillows and comforters. She had a beautiful comforter that she had made displayed at the historical museum in Steele. She went duck hunting just once with her husband. She was bored to death, as they shot just one duck. She wasted all that time and was not allowed to take her knitting along.
Evelyn, with her sister and brothers, rode a horse to school every day--a distance of three miles. She later taught school for eleven years. Speaking of school plays, we saw a class picture of Evelyn around the age of eight. A beautiful little girl in a fine dress with large flowing curls. She remembered having a sore throat that day, 91 years ago, since she had a neckerchief on. Gosh what a memory, I had a hard time saying goodbye as Evelyn is one remarkable woman-a second generation descendant to a pioneer family in the Dawson area. The nursing home Evelyn resided at in Steele is a great place. So many people on staff were working very hard to help these older residents as much as humanly possible. Inside it was as clean and neat as I have ever seen. There were many beautiful outdoor paintings on the walls, cheerful color schemes, plus a beautiful birdhouse enclosed under glass with many live multi colored birds in a life like setting.
Another remarkable oldster from Tappan was Mr. Leslie Nicholson, age 102 years old. In 1908 they moved to North Dakota. Robert E. Schmidt hunted with his son Carl years back. I hope on my next trip I get to spend some time with Mr. Nicholson and his daughter Marlys.
While looking at a 1912 Platt map on page 17 of the "Dawson Centennial" 1880-1890 book, I noticed another famous name from bygone years, especially in old time hunting circles. Joseph J. Gokey, who owned land south of Dawson just on the southwest side of Lake Isabel, was a next door neighbor to my good friend Dave Lang of present. They both have much in common, as their great love for duck and goose hunting plus dogs, and fishing. Dave Lang is a modern day version of Gokey, if you please. In Harold Duebbert's grand book "Wildfowling in Dakota 1873-1903" on page 303-338 and on page 310-311 titled "Home of the Wildfowl", Gokey, State Warden Bowers, and Emeron Hough hunted ducks at Chase Lake Pass shooting from a series of pits dug between the two lakes. Gokey took the east pit and in a couple of hours they had their limit of 25 ducks each, totaling 100 birds. Was noted that "Even the best shots will spoil 100 shells to pick up 25 ducks on a pass like this. I believe we could easily have fired from 500 to 600 shells a piece, and have killed perhaps one fourth or more of that number of birds a piece."
One hundred six years later on Chase Lake Pass my good friend, Jim Heggeness who I have shared so many excellent North Dakota hunts for the last twenty years, was following in Gokey's footsteps. Jim told us the divers were in as we had a good bluebill shot from those same pits that Gokey used. Jim was shooting his old Winchester Model 1901 10 GA lever action shotgun. Dave Lang's boy, Jon--age 14, and a great little hunting buddy of mine, Vince--age 13 on his first visit to Chase Lake Pass, occupied the same pit as Gokey had 106 years earlier. Young Vince and Jon got trigger happy exhausting 25 12 GA shells in short order as they had two bluebills for their efforts. Vince came running back up to the car for a second box of 25 steel shot shells. With the second barrage they downed another scaup and a beautiful drake bufflehead. Boy was Vince excited. An hour later they returned to the vehicle with that fine buffalo head as he called it-mixing up the nickname with nearby Buffalo Lake. They bummed 10 more rounds, bringing their tally to 60 shots. They dropped one more bluebill, but it was a cripple. With that a young couple from Wisconsin showed up with their two well-trained black labs. They offered to fetch Vince's cripple. When the man's wife spotted the drake bufflehead, she told us her husband had been trying for one for the last three seasons in North Dakota. Jim said, "no problem, take the bird to the taxidermist". After the young couple left with the labs, Vince and Jon had finally run out of ammo so I gave them the comeback call. Vince carefully laid out the five ducks in a row, but much to his surprise his prized bufflehead was missing. He looked under the car, in the tall grass, high and low. Finally blurting out, "Where is my bufflehead?" Jim calmly answered "using that steel shot you probably crippled the duck and it crawled away." Vince looked some more. Then in an angry voice said, "Boy does this stink, this really stinks!"
Joseph J. Gokey, who also owned property on the west side of Harker Lake, named it the Roosevelt Gun Club House Farm. There he guided and boarded hunters and trained hunting dogs. He settled in Dawson in 1881. George Slade first came to Dawson in 1910 as the executive vice president of the Northern Pacific Railroad. At first he lived in a railroad car parked on the siding at Dawson so he could enjoy the tremendous hunting in the area. In 1922 Mr. Slade started buying up property around Harker Lake forming his own hunting club. Finally his land acquisition totaled 3000 acres of hunt club property including five lakes and eleven potholes-over 900 acres of wetland. Mr. Slade died in 1941. Being the conservationist that he was, he willed this entire area to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to be named the Slade Refuge. I have been lucky enough to hunt this area south of the refuge for ducks and geese as a guest of Dave Lang. His property borders the southern refuge boundary.
Robert Schmidt recalls Gokey's son, Gordon, coming back to Dawson for a visit in the year of 1932. His guess was the young man was probably in his late twenties. Bob thinks that when Mr. Gokey sold his property in Dawson in 1924, the family moved to upper Michigan. I have a number of relatives in northern Michigan and it would be very interesting to see if there is a possibility of finding any of Gokey's family tree. He was one very interesting and colorful character in the early days of Dawson.
Another prominent visitor to Dawson was William B. Hershon, also a railroad man who in the fall of 1883, traveled by train (the Northern Pacific) to Yellowstone Park with his father through Dawson. The car, the "City of Saginaw", was attached to the train that carried the Villard-Hatch party when they went to drive the Golden Spike that connected the eastern and western ends of the Northern Pacific. This was in September of 1883. He and his friends hunted the Dawson area till 1900. Mershon wrote a book titled, Recollection of My Fifty Years Hunting and Fishing published in 1923.
"The biggest shoot we ever had was sometime in the early 80's on the Troy farm near Tapping, the station just east of Dawson on the Northern Pacific. It was a stormy day, snow squalls all day long. The field we located in was a mile square of wheat stubble. Our party of five split up, three in one part of the field and two in the other. The geese were flying all day-thousands upon thousands of them. We killed 163 that day. We had a farm wagon with extra side boards for carrying eighty bushels of wheat. Our kill nearly filled that wagon box. I know that night when we drove back to Dawson, which I think was eight miles, we were cold and wet and we all stuck our legs down into the geese and the warmth of their bodies kept us comfortable. We frequently brought home three hundred or more geese with us. The arrival of the car in Saginaw was known in advance, and our friends by the score flocked to the car to share our bag. Not a bird was ever wasted".
"With the goose shooting we had good duck shooting. Lake Isabel, Etta, and Sibley literally swarmed with all kinds of wildfowl! Every tree claim and sand hill were full of sharp tailed grouse. Bag limits and non-resident shooting out of the state in those days were unknown. To illustrate the terrific numbers of waterfowl, the big slough just mentioned, in later years we came to know as Lake Etta Slough and the big slough back of Sam DeVore's house. For years the latter slough has been dry. In 1884 it was almost a sea, although the bottom was hard and with rubber boots one could wade a good ways into it. Such clouds of waterfowl we saw here and at Sibley Lake and Buffalo Lake I have never seen before and never have seen since. I remember standing on the edge of Sam DeVore's slough when something alarmed the waterfowl and they darkened the sky when they got up.
The roar reminded one of a heavy train moving at a rapid rate of speed over a long, resonate trestle."
In closing, I very much hope that Evelyn Hoover DeVore reaches her 100th birthday on December 6, 2005. So that when Dawson celebrates its 125th anniversary on June 22, 2005 this grand lady will be the queen of the ball. God Bless you Evelyn!! Also thanks so much to both Alice DeWitz and Eleanore Wolbaum for spending time with us at the Historical Museum in Steele. Plus getting us each a copy of the Dawson Centennial Book 1880-1890 as so much historical information is contained in this book. I consider myself very fortunate to have heard great stories from so many people of the Dawson area and sharing some very memorable hunting adventures. Take care all and Happy 25th!!!