Spring Light Goose Hunting
at Sand Lake South Dakota
by: Tom Armbrust
Was heading on a 650 mile trek from Chicagoland to the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge located near Hecla and Groton, South Dakota. Sand Lake Refuge is an age old staging area for hundreds of thousands of snow and blue geese both in spring and fall on their migration.
A big problem has been the dramatic growth increase in the numbers of snow and blue geese in the last 30 years. The mid-continent population of lesser snow geese nesting along the southern and western shores of Hudson Bay, James Bay, South Hampton and Baffin Islands. Biologists estimate the mid-continent population has increased three to five percent per year and has more than tripled in the last 30 years. Their population is now at more than five millions birds. It is in early spring, on the their nesting grounds, that snow geese over graze the fragile salt marshes of Hudson Bay. Biologists estimate that as much as 35 percent of the salt marsh habitat along more than 1000 miles of Hudson Bay has been negatively impacted or destroyed. This over grazing also creates a problem with the Canada geese as breeding and feeding areas are starting to overlap on the tundra, due to the population explosion of light geese. This is a real problem resulting in Canada geese being pushed out of their breeding areas. In the hopes of eliminating some light geese returning to the breeding grounds around Hudson Bay a spring goose season has been established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is the first time, 1999, since 1918 that a spring goose season has taken place.
Wallace Labisky, a gun writer and long time friend from Aberdeen, SD, was keeping me posted in regards to the numbers of light geese staging at Sand Lake. Wallace has hunted ducks, geese, and upland game birds for well over 60 years. With all that experience under his belt he was to act as our guide around the Sand Lake refuge area. Wallace warned us hunting would be very hard as geese were feeding at night, plus their flight height was well out of shotgun range in most all cases. What the local hunters needed was a spring blizzard or very strong wind to reduce the visibility and flight height of the geese.
L.P. Brezny, noted gun writer, and I linked up at his New Brighton home, a suburb of Minneapolis, for the 300 mile trip to Aberdeen. Brez was excited about meeting Wallace having a lot of ground to cover regarding non-toxic shot shells as we all have been working hard testing and writing about the development of steel, Bismuth, Tungsten Iron, Tungsten Polymer, and Tungsten Matrix shot pellets to date. Brez had just returned from a visit and plant tour at Federal Cartridge in Anoka, Minnesota. Brez wanted to talk with Wallace about the R & D development work Wallace has carried out with his Terminator high tech choke tube. Brez was interested in doing a story about this innovative choke tube teamed with the new 12 GA 3-1/2" Winchester Super X 2 semi auto shotgun.
After a number of hours of scouting for geese the next morning with little success, we all decided to put the Super X 2 shotgun and Terminator choke tube through its paces at "Poverty Acres", Labisky's test area. Pattern tests were carried out at 60 yards using a prototype 12 GA 3-1/2", 1-3/4 oz high velocity BB Bismuth reload put together by Labisky. Patterns were evenly distributed and deadly running 63 percent at this distance. Even at that long range pattern density, velocity, and energy to kill the biggest goose that flies were being displayed by this gun, choke and Bismuth load combo. We were all pleased with the high performance of the Super X 2 shotgun and the Terminator choke tube in conjunction with Winchester BB Bismuth and Federal's Tungsten Iron shot shells. These heavy guns and loads are required for the very high flying decoy shy light geese.
After a second day of scouting showed the light geese were feeding just over the line into North Dakota where our hunting licenses were no good. We decided to drive down to visit Bob Mitchell, a long time friend of Wallace's in Brentford, SD. Bob and his sons had had no luck in downing any light geese in their area. To make matters worse, most all of the geese had pulled out heading back north. I had brought along the ultimate goose gun for Bob to admire. A huge 4-bore English made "Army & Navy" under lever side hammer single barrel shotgun. This shotgun was very unusual, having a 38 inch steel barrel that was nitro proofed in England, making it safe to shoot smokeless powder loads. A local machinist in my area, Gene Reem, had made me a set of hand loading tools. Bob and I retired to his reloading den in the barn to put together a couple of 4-bore loads. Bob was amazed at the amount of powder and shot we were putting into the 4-bore Roman candle shell. Brez questioned my powder charge of 90 grains of Blue Dot powder, saying, "My reloaders powder bushing won't hold 90 grains of Blue Dot"! Bob had been reloading 1-3/4 oz BB Bismuth shot in his 10 GA handloads so now we doubled the shot charge to 3-l/2 oz and poured this massive payload into the huge 4-bore shell. Over to the drill press to apply a firm roll turnover crimp. Now we were all ready for the big moment as I asked for any takers to shoot the big gun, no volunteers! I told them due to the great weight of the gun, 16 pounds, recoil was not bad, still no one stepped up. My target was a small spot of sheet water about 70 yards into the field. As everyone gathered around me, I let fly and to their amazement I had survived! Plus the sheet water erupted with a multitude of pellet hits! Recoil is a big push, I went back two full steps, not a sharp jab like a much lighter 10 or 12 GA shotguns with heavy magnum loads. Brez, now convinced that the big gun wouldn't hurt him, asked me to catch the recoil on film. Next he peppered a gallon plastic jug full of holes at long range. He was determined to hunt light geese with the "ultimate goose gun" as he called it. To his dismay I told him the Bureau of Biological Survey had outlawed the use of 4-bore, 8-bore, and punt guns-I believe in 1918. Yet in England these big guns are used on a limited basis. Unbeknown to me in a few short years my dreams would come true, hunting geese in Scotland with both 4- and 8-bore shotguns. Brez just once wanted to use the big gun on geese so we made a call to the Sand Lake Refuge office. No such luck using "Big Bertha" even on spring light geese was the refuge manager's reply. We teased Bob Mitchell's son Billy as he was the mayor of Brentford asking him to sign a declaration legalizing the 4-bore for light geese for the day in the Brentford area.
The next afternoon we staged a mock apprehension and arrest taking pictures of the crew with the big 4-bore gun in front of the jail in Ludden, ND. Brez, being a police officer, had me in cuffs showing me his badge. We all shared a fine lunch at Bob's home having a wonderful visit. Bob commented that it had probably been many years since a 4-bore had been shot in SD if at all. We all said our goodbye's after a wonderful get together.
Now we had to get serious about goose hunting having only two days left and up until now we had just one high goose that Wallace had scratched out of a flock to show for our efforts. Jim Heggeness, another member of our "Ballistic Research" shotshell team, coming from Fargo, ND and was due in Hecla by 4:30 that afternoon. We got good news regarding the weather as the wind was going to increase to 45 MPH. Just maybe Heggeness would bring us some goose hunting luck. I told Wallace don't hold your breath for Heggeness to show up on time this afternoon. He will be on a wild goose chase all the way down the road from Fargo. To my amazement he proved me wrong showing up on time that afternoon. Jim told us a lot of light geese we just over the North Dakota line near the Dakota Lakes refuge near Ludden. After a quick plan of strategy, Wallace and Brez hunted the north end of the Sand Lake Refuge and Jim and I crossed over the line. Our luck changed as we each had two light geese to show for our efforts. Jim and I tried sneaking some birds without success as we could never close the distance for a shot.
Next morning our prayers were answered as the wind was strong and increasing by the hour. Brez and Jim knocked out a couple of high birds that fell into the water and cattail jungle on the north end of Sand Lake. I put on the chest high waders and with the help of another hunter's lab we found the geese. Wallace would make the 42 mile drive every day from Aberdeen arriving near Hecla with hot coffee and sandwiches he put together for our hunting crew. Giving Jim the business, I told him Labisky's guide service was much better than his supplying us with road side service and a fine tail gate lunch featuring good grub. All kidding aside, Jim is a great guide showing me some wonderful duck and goose shooting for many years in ND. After a great lunch we all decided to split up as returning geese coming into Sand Lake were fighting a very strong south wind. I picked a spot along the east side of the James River behind a big clump of cattails and waited. Brez was 300 yards off to my left. While waiting for geese I was really amazed at the many hundreds of ducks to be seen and admired at close range. Their vivid colors were just beautiful. So many different species of both Diver and Puddle ducks such as mallards, teal, pintail, gadwall, canvasback, redhead, scaup, plus Blue, Snow, Whitefront, and Canada geese, what a spectacle! That afternoon I was enjoying this vast beautiful open country with its sparse population, rural America the way I once remember it around my home in north eastern Illinois. Once, my homeland was some of the best growing black earth in the world, dairy country. Yet now just an hours drive northwest of Chicago land it is a concrete and asphalt jungle, with way too many people, homes, stores, fast food, etc. I am a country boy at heart and have never been too thrilled with the hustle bustle of the big city.
One afternoon Mary Elsen, owner of the local cafe in Hecla, and I got talking. I asked her if she realized how lucky they were to live in a small town-no traffic jams, high crime, or rude people going a million miles an hour. Mary said, "It was a very good place to raise their children," yet she sometimes missed the big city for convenience of shopping, going to a movie, etc. She admitted the big city was a great place to visit, but Hecla was where she and her family wanted to live. Next door to the cafe at the meat processing plant Jim and I went in for some homemade beef sticks. The young man behind the counter threw in a big package of beef jerky at no charge to see how we liked it. Small town hospitality always makes my day on my hunting travels to the Dakotas as the people are great, warm and friendly. Still seeing vanishing rural America is a great treat for me and loving the past history of these rural towns and people! I just pray it doesn't keep vanishing at such an alarming rate!
The night before our departure will stick in my mind as long as I live. Walking the mile back to the vehicle after a most beautiful sunset, not seeing a vehicle on this lonely gravel road all day Long. With stars starting to appear in the sky to the south, I could see a few house lights twinkling at distant Hecla. Now at dusk thousands of geese were heading out from the refuge to feed after dark, their high pitch calls could be heard from a long way off. Nearing the truck I startled half a dozen deer as I was down wind from them in the dark, getting within 20 yards before they took off in alarm. Much to my surprise a Hecla resident stopped his vehicle in the dark as he saw me walking down the gravel road asking me if I needed a lift. I told him I was very near my van. At home if I was seen walking down a road after dark with a shotgun over my shoulder someone would have called the police. Also the beaver I watched for twenty minutes in the James River just before dusk was amusing.
That next afternoon after a snooze for not more than a few minutes, I was awakened by the calls of light geese and they were very close. As I popped up I had a pair of snow geese 50 yards to my right. Thinking to myself an easy double, I swung the big 10 GA Browning Auto into action dropping just one goose with three shots. The wind drift was tremendous on my steel BBB shot charge, and I had not compensated for it. Well, at least I had finally gotten my 50 dollar goose. The very high winds were keeping the returning geese low enough to afford some good shots, as Brez managed to down a couple of birds. About that time Wallace showed up with lunch for us again. After wolfing down his sandwich quickly, Wallace viewed a number of large flocks passing just east of us skimming the tree tops. This prompted Wallace to walk up the road and get into position in the road ditch. We wished Wallace luck, as Brez and I headed back to Minneapolis that afternoon. We hadn't seen Jim yet so figured he was also getting some shooting on the ND side due to the high wind. I later found out my suspicions were correct as Jim had downed four geese. As Brez and I departed, we waved goodbye to Wallace and I thought to myself how lucky I was to be able to have such good friends enjoying four wonderful days together afield hunting! We may not have harvested many light geese but we all shared quality time together that none of us will soon forget. In this rural Dakota country that my soul longs for each spring and fall.