Spring Light Goose Hunting
at Sand Lake South Dakota (2000)
by: Tom Armbrust

Posted: 05/19/2008

Our week trip in search of the annual spring snow goose migration through South and North Dakota really seemed to pass by too fast.   A special spring light goose season had been established last year and again this spring to try to thin the vast increasing population of snow and blue geese returning to their Canadian breeding grounds.   These millions of increased numbers of light geese are destroying thousands of acres of Canadian tundra by over grazing.   This presents a problem to the stable population of Canadian geese.   The light geese are now spreading their tremendous numbers into the Canada goose's spring nesting area.   Thus the problem arises when competing for the same feeding and nesting areas.

Our 650 mile ride from Chicagoland to Hecla, South Dakota was our home base for a couple of days.   I received a call from Wallace Labisky of Aberdeen, SD, that the peak of the goose migration was around the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge on March l7th.   This 21,498 acre Federal refuge was attracting over a half million light geese and many thousands of ducks on their spring migration.   Wallace told me this was the most geese he had ever seen, as many fields were solid white with light geese.   Let me tell you this is a mouthful, as Wallace has hunted ducks and geese around the Sand Lake area for well over 60 years!

As bad luck would have it, on our arrival most all of the geese had pulled out of Sand Lake area heading north on a strong south wind and unseasonably warm temps.   We had missed the huge concentration by just one day.   In two mornings of hunting we had just two light geese for our efforts.   Since hunting was slow, Wallace and I headed down to Brentford to see our friend Bob Mitchell.   He had purchased a Browning BSA Auto l0 GA shotgun, and we pattern tested his shotgun at both 40 and 60 yards.   Bob told Wallace and me that his loading of l-3/4 oz of BB Bismuth was a wicked combination on high geese which we already well knew.   After bagging many geese with the lethal non-toxic Winchester Bismuth loads, his patterns at 40 yards were well above 90 percent and still very deadly at 60 yards.

We all enjoyed a great lunch put on by Bob's wife--delicious homemade venison sausage and a big slice of apple pie and ice cream for dessert.   Wallace and Bob really enjoyed handling my W.W. Greener 8 bore hammerless boxlock shotgun.   The big gun has 34 inch Damascus steel barrels, 3-1/4 inch chambers, nitro proofed for 2-1/2 ounces of shot.   Gun weight is heavy at 14 pounds, yet its excellent balance makes the big gun feel lighter as it handles well.   We all agreed that this 8 bore would be the ultimate goose hunting pass gun.   I have worked up 2-1/2 oz Kent Impact Tungsten matrix non-toxic 8 bore loads for a winter wildfowl hunting trip to England.   Where the 8 bore is still legal, alive and well for hunting duck and geese.   This fine Greener Double 8 bore was built and shown at the Chicago l893 Exposition.   This is documented by its serial number in a letter from Graham Greener in England, a fifth generation relative of the original gun maker.   Kind of a shame we cannot use such a fine pass shooting gun in our country to cleanly harvest a legal limit of wildfowl.   The big 4 and 8 bores have been banned by Federal legislation since l9l8.   Yet the 4l0 bore, with its tiny crippling load, is a legal wildfowl gun with non-toxic shot.   Strange ruling, isn't it.

The three of us also had a discussion on the advantages of another new non-toxic shot called Hevi-shot being produced by Environ Metal Inc.   This is a new company from Albany, Oregon.   John Chaney, their director, told me this new Hevi-shot is 50 percent tungsten, 35 percent nickel, and l5 percent iron, making it ten percent denser than lead shot.   In ballistic tests carried out by Wallace, Jim Heggeness from Fargo and I, it showed excellent pattern density and penetration.   Cost should be around 75 cents per cartridge for a l2 GA 1-1/4 oz load.   Reloading will make it an affordable non-toxic alternative.   Approval by the US Fish and Wildlife Service is hoped by September of this year just in time for wildfowl season.   For more information on this new non-toxic Hevi-shot call Environ Metal at 541-791-1819 or write them at PO Box l05, Albany, Oregon 97321.

Dave Nickalson is a retired baseball star who ended his career with the Chicago White Sox in l969.   He played pro baseball for twelve years and had not been back to Aberdeen, SD in over 40 years.   He played in the Northern League as an outfielder for the Aberdeen Pheasants.   He and five other ball players lived in Aberdeen for one season--all living in a rooming house.   At that time Dave's salary was $7500 per season.   A far cry from today's mega buck deals!   Sometimes their team had long bus rides from Aberdeen to say Calgary with just a small box lunch for the long trip.

Dave was just itching to get into some snow geese shooting on this trip, so we left Aberdeen following the geese on into North Dakota.   On state Route 28l we spotted a huge concentration of light geese around Ellendale.   We were amazed at their numbers, clocking them on the odometer for over five miles in length by at least a half mile across.   Flock after flock stringing out like a snow storm.   I was hoping some of these geese would be around Slade National Wildlife Refuge near Dawson, ND, as that was our next stop.   There we would be the guests of Dave and Debbie Lang for the next four days.

Dave Lang is a local farmer near Dawson, ND. Spring is a busy time for he and his family, as their cattle were just then having calves, plus the many other chores involved in farming.   Soon they will be preparing the ground for spring planting as the weather has been so mild.   This means getting machinery into shape.   Dave always takes time out of his busy schedule to hunt with us.   We put many miles scouting for light geese as they were few and far between.   Apparently, many of the geese had pulled out heading north again.

Dave's wife, Debbie, is a hard worker and she prepared a couple of great meals for our stay.   In the fall when they are at the peak of harvest time, Debbie will cover for Dave by putting in many long twelve hour days on the tractor so he can guide goose and duck hunters.   I always kid Debbie saying, "When they get this human cloning down I will put in an order for one of her."

Their two boys, Jon age l0 and Jeremy l2, also do their share of chores on the farm.   I really got a kick watching them bottle feed the little lambs.   Working on their farm is a great lesson in teaching the boys to be responsible and the meaning of working as a family unit.   Like it once was in the good old days in the USA.   School report cards had just arrived and the boy's grades were excellent, reflecting a lot of effort and hard work in their studies plus help from the parents.

After two slow days with just a couple of geese to show for our efforts our luck changed.   We got in between two resting and feeding flocks of light and dark geese.   Our guess was maybe 20,000 birds.   The wind was very strong, gusting to 35 miles per hour out of the northwest.   We put out four dozen silhouette goose decoys using a rock pile as our hide on the edge of a slough.

We set up our secret weapon a "Johnny Stewart" electronic game caller with its snow goose tape.   This unit was truly incredible.   At times drawing flocks of geese down from incredible heights.   Down wind you could easily hear the electronic cries of geese from a mile away as I had to make a long retrieve on a crippled bird downwind.   It was almost impossible to lure in large flocks of light geese, but at times we would get lucky and peel off a small number of birds into gunning range.   Sometime we would have a flock of say l00 birds circle high above us at l00 yards, half a dozen times making plenty of racket and then fly on.   Without this electronic call we would have had few birds to show for our efforts instead of the thirty-eight bagged.   The whole secret to the success of the electronic goose call is that it sounds like many different geese all calling at once, many different types of sounds.   Unlike a single hand held mouth call.

Most all of our shooting was at long range passing birds.   Many distance kills were documented by my Bushnell Yardage Pro 600 compact laser rangefinder which is a simple push of a button and you have an instant digital readout regarding the distance of the bird.   No more guess work as experienced wildfowl hunters are at times still very much fooled on range estimation in part due to changing light conditions.

Remington Arms was kind enough to send me their new 12 GA 3-1/2" 11-87 Super Mag shotgun for field test evaluation.   With its 28 inch Rem choke barrel, weight is just over eight pounds.   A fast handling gun, to say the least.   My friend, Jim Heggeness, commented he would not even have gotten a shot off due to the extra weight of his Remington SP-10, and I already would have had a bird down with the much lighter Remington 11-87 Super Mag.

When shooting steel shot the 10 GA 3-1/2 shell pushing a 1-5/8 oz payload of steel pellets had a slight advantage vs. the 12 GA 3-1/2 inch shot load of 1-9/16 oz.   Velocity advantage for the Big 10 with steel shot is 1350 FPS vs. 1300 FPS in the 12 GA 3-1/2 inch shell.   Winchester's Drylok Super Steel and Kent's Fasteel did a very good job harvesting tall geese with size BB and BBB pellets.   Yet when the wind really began to blow Federal's Tungsten Iron 12 GA 3-1/2 inch 1-3/8 oz of BB shot at a velocity of 1450 FPS really came into its own.   I dumped a couple of birds with the Federal Tungsten Iron loads on flocks fighting a strong head wind at distances just too darn high.   Both instances the goose fell dead a quarter mile away with a single pellet or two in the front half of the breast.   This was a very good lesson for me as I had not shot much steel shot in some time.   I have been evaluating the many other non-toxic shotshells such as Bismuth, Kent Tungsten-matrix, and Federal's Tungsten Iron and Tungsten-polymer.   Steel shot does work if you keep your eye on maximum range, using the proper size pellet, and checking patterns through your gun and choke combo at maximum range.

Wallace Labisky, Jim Heggeness, and I spend hundreds of hours each year evaluating non-toxic shotshells.   Checking loads both for velocity and pressure in our ballistics lab, next at the pattern board.   Then lastly putting them to the real acid test in the field on waterfowl.   With all the years of experience that Wallace Labisky has spent developing and field testing shotshells, he has probably forgot more than most of us will ever experience with the shotgun!   Plus he has written hundreds of excellent articles regarding shotshells, reloading, and gun tests.

Dave Nickalson, our retired baseball buddy, is one hell of a shot in the field.   For many years he hunted crows near Fort Cobb, Oklahoma.   He and his brother, Jack, then learned the true effectiveness of the electronic crow call by harvesting hundreds of black bandits in a days shoot.   If my memory serves me correctly, Dave said he shot something like 525 crows in one morning and l475 in five days himself!   Well, with all his shot gunning experience both at trap and skeet and in the field, he really did a number on high geese.   One day when the wind was very strong many flocks of dark geese were skirting our rock blind.   Dave decided to make a ground blind out of tumble weed and wheat straw about 200 yards wide from our rock pile blind.   In the strong head wind uncomprehendable numbers of dark geese and pintails passed over us.   Dave made three very difficult crossing shots, picking a long single snow goose out of hundreds of flocks of dark birds over the course of a long afternoon.   One of his birds fell stone dead in our decoys and we were 200 yards downward from his shooting position!   To make matters worse on us, Dave outgunned our big 10 GA and 12 GA 3-1/2 inch guns with his less potent 3 inch Magnum Remington 870 with 1-1/4 oz size BBB steel loads.

One afternoon we all took a ride into Bismark to Scheels All Sports store.   We picked up a few more boxes of steel shotshells, as our supply was dwindling.   My eyes caught sight of a beautiful Winchester M-21 three inch duck gun, with 32 inch ventilated rib barrels, with single trigger and auto ejectors.   It handled like a dream.   Sure wish I could have put that Winchester to work on light geese.   I will have to save my pennies.

Ellis Schmidt of Dawson had a great old Winchester M-12 three inch duck gun with 32 inch matted rib barrel.   This shotgun had been in his family for a long time.   I was fortunate enough to purchase it for future goose hunting trips to the Dakotas.

In the little rural town of Dawson, ND, stands a huge Vietnam vintage Army tank.   Just yards south of this tank stands a wall commemorating the services of our war heroes both living and dead.   Many names appeared on the wall all the way back to the Civil War.   This little salute, if you will, to our fallen and living service men really deeply touched my heart.   We should never forget those who sacrificed so much so that we may stay free!   God Bless those who served and died for our great nation.   Any person that has served in the military may have their name put on the wall by contacting the Legion in Dawson.

On our 750 mile trip home toward Chicagoland I got to thinking about how different people's feelings are towards guns, gun control, and hunting.   The rural areas throughout the Dakotas still have many people who enjoy hunting and shooting in the great outdoors.   Yet many people in the larger cities are much in favor of gun control or worse.  

On our hunting trip we all had a very enjoyable time hunting in the great outdoors in a very rural setting.   For the life of me, my mind simply cannot understand what harm we are doing to others by lawfully using our firearms in a responsible way.

This Dakota spring goose hunting trip was a good time had by all and one that none of us will soon forget.   Many thanks to all our great Dakota old friends, plus new friends we met on the trip.   Looking forward to our fall get together and counting the days to return back to the Dakotas.


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