Spring Snow Goose Hunt in Dawson, ND (2005)
by: Tom Armbrust
It was hard for me to believe that five months had already passed by since our last hunting trip to Dawson last November. But here we were on the road again on our 755-mile trek in search of the snow geese. Marty also had to check on his house in Gackle to see how it had survived the winter.
Marty drove most of the trip, as this gives me a chance to really view and enjoy the beautiful and varied countryside on the trip. You first realize you are entering the "Prairie Pothole" country in Otter Tail County, Minnesota. Rolling wooded land dotted with many marshes and blue lakes still partially covered in snow and ice.
Our first stop was in Fergus Falls, MN to view a fine old W & C Scott hammer 8-bore double that Marty was interested in. We had a look see at LeRoy Merz's fine guns, as he is a dealer in antique Winchesters and many other collectable guns. A 10-bore Greener single shot under lever with a fine Damascus barrel also caught my eye.
Marty and Mr. Merz got on the subject of muscle cars, as Marty told him he taught auto shop class. This opened another door as LeRoy had a Super 1968 Ford Cobra in his garage. Boy did those two talk up a storm about horsepower, torque and many other auto specs that were way over my head. We had to hit the road again, as we still had to make Fargo for a dinner appointment. So we said goodbye after a wonderful visit with Mr. Merz and his son.
Kind of disappointed we did not link up with Harold Duebbert also of Fergus Falls. He just finished the forward to a new book, "Old Wildfowling Tales III" 1877-1910, and I wanted him to sign it. This book is available through Sand Lake Press, PO Box 130, Amity, OR 97101. This book makes a number of references to the Dawson, ND area and its fine hunting days many days ago before the turn of the last century.
We then wheeled into the driveway of my old hunting amigo Jim Heggeness of Fargo. Jim and his wife, Sandra, had a wonderful meal cooking that Marty, Hunter and I did justice to in short order. Turkey on the Weber grill hit the spot after our long ten-hour road trip. Hunter and Marty wanted to have a look in Gander Mountain, Shields, and Sportsmen's warehouse to check out all the new "Shooting Irons" plus ammo. So they were off right after dinner. For some reason, I was under the weather so I did not tag along but laid on the couch as it was 5:30.
Really wished I had felt better, as I wanted to spur the boys on to Dawson for an evening shoot on the snows. Dave Lang, our resident Dawson goose guide, told us they were covered up in birds. In fact, the most snow geese he had ever seen in his life in the area. Lake Isabel and the long slough, plus the cornfield just south of Dave's house were solid snow white with geese. He estimated 200,000 birds in his area.
The boys did not return home till 9:00 p.m. as I had fallen asleep on the couch. They had stocked up on the various new non-toxic tungsten alloy shot shells that were anywhere from 10 to 35 percent heavier than lead shot. Next morning we were on the road by 7:00 a.m. I rode with Jim, and Marty and Hunter drove in the other car. Jim and I were full of anticipation as we headed west on I94 on our 150-mile trip to Dawson. We did notice numbers of snows in the Alice area heading north as Jim smiled and pushed the bomb a little faster west. As we neared Dawson, we saw very few geese and my hopes were dwindling. When we pulled into Dave Lang's driveway, he greeted us with a big smile and handshake telling us our timing was a few hours late as most of the geese pulled out heading north during the night, as it was clear with a good southwest wind. Damn the luck!! All was not lost, as still many flocks of light geese were on the spring migration through the area. But we had missed the big push.
Jim had also been under the weather this week as he was really tired. Once on the couch at Dave's, our guide hit the pillow till 4:00 that afternoon. Hunter and Marty were itching at the bit so we were off on our wild goose chase. Dave had to do chores for his cattle. I don't know how he and Debbie do it as they both work nights at the onion plant in Dawson plus farming and raising their two boys. It seems they got very little shut eye while we were there. Debbie fed the lot of us for three days at their home.
A number of incidents stick out in my mind in regards to the hunting and I will try to list a few. Marty got the nickname "Hard Lucky Marty" as he brought along three shotguns on the trip. His first was a big LC Smith 10-bore double with ejectors. As we got into a hot corner about four miles north of Gackle late one afternoon, Marty noticed a large flock of snows gliding down onto a frozen lake about half mile off the road feeding in a nearby cornfield. As they were trading back between two rest areas, Marty, Hunter and I started our march. The lower end of the field became muddy due to the frost going out. We left Hunter on a hillside with a huge rock pile for a blind. Marty and I trudged on finally getting into position down wind from the birds in a low spot next to a marsh. Every few minutes geese were on the move but just out of gun range. Marty put his Bushnell laser range finder on passing flocks. After a long wait and eyeballing thousands of birds just out of shot our luck turned. A small family group of snows came right over us at 75 yards. I yelled to Marty "take em" as I dumped the lead bird then pulled a second tall goose. Marty had a misfire with his first barrel and lodged the wad in the bore. To make matters worse his empty shell casing was stuck in the other barrel's chamber. My first goose just about beaned Marty over the head. In the nick of time I yelled, Marty watch out, as he rolled out of the way next to me. That bird missed by no more than eighteen inches making a deep imprint into the soft marsh mud! Marty gave me a look saying your damn reloads! Marty sailed a bird with his next shot as I dumped a third snow stone dead.
Approval by the US Fish and Wildlife Service could not have been better timing in regards to Winchester's new Xtended Range Hi-Density TM shotshells. These tungsten based waterfowl loads were put to the real test on high passing snow geese with much satisfaction to those of us who used these new loads. These long range snow geese kills did not come as a surprise to me. Our bag consisted of an even dozen birds with distances verified on my Bushnell Laser range finder. All birds were stone dead harvested in the 60 to 75 yard range bracket. What did get my attention were the Size 2 Xtended Range Hi-Density pellets giving complete body cavity penetration at long range. Plus the Size 4 shot was hitting the geese with four to six pellet strikes, broken wings and head neck hits.
Last fall season Remington Hevi-Shot did well on long range quackers and geese, but pellets were misshapen and irregular in size thus somewhat effecting down range velocity, patterns, and pellet energy. Winchester's Supreme Elite TM Xtended Range Hi-Density waterfowl loads have very round and uniform pellets being ten percent heavier vs. a lead pellet of the same size and fifty-six percent denser than steel shot, dramatically enhancing per pellet energy and extended range penetration. A big plus on decoy shy snow geese where long range shots are the rule.
Steve Meyer of Winchester's shotshell testing facility told me he was shooting 65 percent patterns at 60 yards with the new Xtended Range Hi-Density waterfowl loads. Keep in mind the old lead shot standard for patterns with a full choke was 70 percent of the pellets in a thirty inch circle at 40 yards. So Winchester has raised the bar from 40 to 60 yards with these deadly new load offerings.
This fall large race Canada geese will also be in deep trouble as Winchester's Xtended Range Hi-Density pellets will be available in Sizes B and 2 shot. With a high velocity level of up to 1450 FPS and load selection from the 3-inch 20 GA Magnum all the way up to the 12 GA 3-1/2 inch Roman candle loads-now the sky is the limit!
We made an Easter morning goose hunt just a couple of miles east of Dawson near the railroad tracks. This wheat field had large numbers of geese feeding there the evening before. Jim, Dave, and Jon had taken five birds the day before in that same field. A nice bunch of snows were feeding within 200 yards of the tracks. We had a big advantage as the geese would not notice our approach due to the high bank of the railroad grade. As we walked along the tracks out of sight, we noticed a train way in the distance west bound towards us. With that Dave, John, and I ran as fast as we could to intercept the geese when they lifted due to the train whistle and rumbling. After 300 yards I was very winded; Dave and John passed me by. I was touting the heavy 14 pound Tolley with the 10 GA tube inserts and BB Bismuth shot. Birds exploded into the air in all directions as the train passed. I was lucky as I pulled a high double with the big-bore as our group put five more geese into the bag.
I told the boys I wanted to get to church for Easter Sunday, and they told me I would not shoot any snows in church. But I thought to myself that I owed God thanks for a great trip to the Dakotas with my wonderful friends. After Mass at the Catholic Church, we had a great Easter Sunday dinner at the café in Steele. Debbie's family put out a fine meal for the many family members in attendance. They also celebrated Debbie's mother's birthday.
Jim wanted to try out his final approach layout blind so he set up 100 wind socks and field decoys as we expected geese to come back and feed in the cornfield. I told Jim I would take his car to church. This would give him time to get set up in the field. I would come back after church to pick Jim up. I forgot to come back as the food was so good at the café and I had a great time visiting with Debbie's family. So Jim would not have my head on a platter, I brought his big appetite, a peace offering, a plate of good food. The poor guy ate everything but the plate and fork, as it was now 4:30 in the afternoon. Jim had been in the field since 9:30 that morning!
It seemed that Hunter and Jim had just arrived in Dawson, but Jim had to be back to work Monday and Hunter had a long flight back to Washington, DC the next day. Hunter did have the distinction of taking the tallest goose award as he pin wheeled a bird from a cloud dusting height! Hunter had not been to Dawson in six years and he really had enjoyed his short stay. He promised us he would not be a stranger for so long, and he would return this fall for more hunting with his friends in the wide open spaces.
Less and less numbers of geese were now seen in the Dawson area so Marty, Dave, Debbie and I piled in the car for a 47 mile trip to Gackle. Marty wanted to show Dave and Debbie his house in town plus scout for geese. The country towards Gackle changes from flat fields to rolling hills with many out croppings of rocks. Also, as you travel east on country Road 37 at South and Alkaline Lakes, a most beautiful and remote area was viewed on the east side of South Lake with two small little cemeteries with age old headstones viewing the lake. That day the sky was so blue you could almost see forever. I thought to myself what a grand resting place to be for eternity. Also a very old abandoned homestead is on the north end of Alkaline Lake. If this old homestead could talk, its block walls are still standing after many years of neglect. What tales of good times and hardships we would hear of the family that had once homesteaded this land. The old tractor parts and other pieces of farm machinery rust away year after year in the seemingly endless march of time.
We had another good goose sneak on Balch Lake as maybe 2000 birds were resting on the ice. A battle plan was discussed. Debbie and I would try to move a half mile up wind of the resting birds trying to push them over Marty and Dave, as they were screened by a large gravel hill. We gave them about ten minutes to get into position then started our advance. I was not going to take my shotgun, but the boys talked me into it. What a great day for a walk as the breeze was fresh and clean out of the north. As Debbie and I got within 250 yards of the lake, we noticed a deep gully leading right down to the water's edge. The only problem was that so many dark geese were right in the line of fire on the shoreline, and the snow geese were about 100 yards further out. We slowly made our way down the gully towards the lake. As we got nearer the goose music got louder and my excitement mounted. As I peered over the edge of my hide much to my surprise, hundreds of white fronts and Canada's were within 30 yards of me. But they were right in the way of a dozen snows at about 60 yards. I asked Debbie if she wanted to shoot, but she declined. As I emerged from my concealment, all hell broke loose as the thunder of wings erupted with honking in a fever pitch. It seemed like slow motion for all those dark geese to lift into the air. With this I went into action with my Remington 870 Magnum. As I pumped the action three times hard and fast, three white geese simply melted stone dead. Again this magic was performed with the heavier than lead Size 4 pellet. When the birds lifted over Dave and Marty, all were darks. Kind of a shame as I thought they would have scored.
Our last evening goose hunting in this same area was a rare treat. Dave, Marty and I got to watch around 10,000 geese plus a number of varieties of ducks feed in a cornfield towards dusk. We could not get near enough for a shot. The geese were feeding just over 100 yards off the edge of the corn and we were hid in a strip on the fields edge. So we waited and enjoyed the show. Sometimes we had pintails, mallards, and widgeon so close we could almost touch them. With those vivid colorful feather patterns plus bar markings on the white fronts were so splendid. For over an hour towards sunset we knelt on our knees till our calves ached hoping to get a shot as the birds fed closer towards us in the standing corn. Finally at dusk we got our chance as a small group of snows almost knocked our caps off, harvesting three beautiful little Ross geese. This was icing on the cake to a great hunt with a wonderful sunset and the clamor of geese on the wing.
The next morning we bid farewell after having breakfast with Dave and Debbie. It was hard for me to realize we had been enjoying these wonderful people for the last 16 years, as Jeremy, their oldest son, is now graduating from high school already.
We were told to link up with Doug Burkett and his daughter, Angie, in Fargo on our way back. He was a long time Dawson resident with many hunting tales under his belt. It was a joy for me to see how clear his mind was as to details in some of his stories at 85 years young!
When Doug was around 10 years old, his father, Charlie Woessner, and Harry DeVore (long time residents of Dawson) were hunting ducks on the northern side of Horsehead Lake, as it was full of wild rice. This was excellent duck feed. Young Doug was told by his father that he could only shoot cripples on the water with his "Long Tom" 20-bore. The grown men were armed with 1897 Winchester pump shotguns and Harry's Parker 10-bore would raise havoc on the flying birds. When the barrage had ceased, young Doug had plenty of ducks to polish off with his "Long Tom" 20. The grand total was 86 ducks!
Another time Doug had his trusty "Long Tom" 20 shooting with a fellow toting a huge 8-bore single shot that belonged to a relative of the DeVore family. Every time the big gun went off a tremendous report would follow with a huge cloud of smoke, but no birds were brought to bag with the big cannon. Yet Doug had no trouble shooting a fine bunch of geese with his pee wee bore! Much to the dismay of the 8-bore shooter.
Angie is very proud of her father, Doug, as she has hunted with dad ever since she was a young girl shooting a Marlin Model 120, 12 GA pump gun on ducks and geese. Yet she handled my heavy 14 pound Tolley 8-bore double very well, commenting the stock was about an inch too long for her. Raising a family she still finds time for hunting. Angie and I both whole heartily believe in the great importance of recording and putting into print these grand old stories of these fine gentlemen of a bygone era now long past. Once her father and others in his age group are gone, these tales will be lost forever if not put into print for young people to enjoy for many years to come.
Fern Werner, from the Dawson hardware store, had an old duck boat full of around 100 Mason duck decoys, mallards, Cans, etc. During the depression he could not give them away at auction for the grand total of two bucks. It took Mr. Werner two winters to burn up all of those decoys for firewood! Marty almost cried when he heard that story, as he collects old decoys.
Robert E. Schmidt, a long time resident of Dawson, told us that J.R. Cooker and Harry DeVore in one day shot a whole case of 12 GA shot gun shells (500) rounds at ducks up around Horsehead Lake area in about 1925. Imagine how many ducks they must have seen!
On down the line to Aberdeen, SD to see my old friend, Wallace Labisky, an outdoor writer for more years than he cares to remember! We visited with him for a day as he told us many more great hunting stories and we taped some of them. At 82 years young this tale was still very fresh in his mind so many years later. He and his father were scouting around Sand Lake Refuge for ducks and geese when a young man walked into the road waving his arms to get their attention. Wallace thought the fellow had a hunting accident and had shot someone. They quickly stopped, as the man came towards their car with his tail of woe. Much to Wallace and his father's relief no one had been shot, but this lad needed a big favor. He had snuck up on some snow geese in a corn field on his hands and knees with his trusty old 1901 Winchester 10 GA lever action shotgun. He got real close putting the first shot across their heads, then levered a couple of more shots into the departing flock. "Well, let me tell you, birds were down all over the place as he had well over thirty geese!" The young man asked if they would take some of the birds off his hands as he was way over his limit. They agreed to take five but the man pleaded to take more and they finally took ten. This story was spurred on as Marty showed Wallace a 10 GA 1901 Winchester he had brought along on the trip. He also had problems with tight shells in the gun chamber. My darn reloads again. We even went out for some pictures with Wallace holding a fine little Ross goose and the old 1901. Stopping at the Sand Lake Refuge headquarters they told us that on Friday, March 25th there were 960,000 snows on the refuge.
Much to Wallace's delight, Marty told him about his big game hunt. Marty did down a big critter one day right in front of Dave's corral. He was really itching to put his big Ithaca Mag 10 auto to the test, when suddenly a Richardson's pocket gopher scampered across the gravel road. Reaching the road ditch the gopher made his final mistake as he rose up to check us out. This was the little fellows last mistake as he was not out of reach of the big 10-bore, and he became well ventilated. Marty's great white hunter story brought this to mind as Wallace Labisky told us a great story about his boyhood days collecting three cents a piece bounty for these above varmints. To prove his tally at the county seat office he had all the gopher tails salted down in a Mason jar. Close to one hundred tails for his summers effort with his 22 pump. Imagine the smell when he uncorked the lid off that jar to show the clerk his success! Plus he had a chunk of change for his varmint control effort.
That evening we went back to Fargo to spend our last night with Jim Heggeness and his wife, Sandra. Marty and I beat them home from work, so we surprised them with hamburgers on the grill. Had a great evening together talking about our wonderful trip to Dawson and Gackle, making new friends, and hearing more great hunting tales of days gone by.
Jim was also very pleased, as we presented him with Wallace's generous gift of collectable vintage Hercules powder cans. Thank you all for a very memorable time. Just a shame a week passes so quickly in the Dakota country!