Snow geese have never mesmerized me like they do many waterfowlers. I spend a fair amount of time watching snow geese and pondering on their journey from the tundra to the southern prairies. Back when my hunting season was only 45-50 days long, I anxiously pursued the white birds, mainly as a chance to be back in the field after some form of waterfowl. Once I started photographing the spring migration, days in the marsh with full plumage ducks quickly replaced my snow goose hunting forays.
This year’s winter, in southeastern South Dakota, lasted into mid-April, keeping the migration at bay and stalling an abundance of waterfowl near my home for over a mont. As the first week of April ended, we were beginning to see most of the stalled waterfowl in the area head north. Barely two days after the northbound mass exodus, a large snowstorm once again made us the epicenter of the migration's front end as those recently departed birds retreated back south.
One of my better friends, whose name is also Phil, is more into snow goose hunting than I am. In early April he was out daily looking for birds in the same vicinity I was taking photos. Every day we compared scouting reports, both amazed by the number of waterfowl in the area. Cold weather kept the birds pinned down a few days and yet another snowstorm...a blizzard... was on the horizon for the next day. I planned to head to a nearby slough and repeat the previous storm’s awesome day of waterfowl snowfall photos.
Waking up to sleet hitting the window, I looked out and saw trees bending over and broken branches laying in fresh snow. I wasn't overly enthused to venture out but these chances don't come very often; I went out to the garage, changed into my spring photography uniform (long underwear, wader pants, waders, two warm top layers, down vest) and threw my heavy jacket and white cover-up in the truck, and headed out with the canoe in the back. The roads were miserable.
I pulled up to the slough, about 40 acres of water running north to south, right in line with the wind. My destination, a small point of cattails jutting out into the water, may have been only 200 yards away but my desire to paddle or walk out to it was not high. Spring snowstorms tend to be short-lived and I knew time was ticking, if I miss the snow, I miss the whole point of venturing out in this weather. Just as I felt the wind rush in from the open truck door my phone beeped...
Phil messaged with word he had found a spot to pass shoot and had nine birds already. I knew the spot and barely hesitated before turning around and heading back home. I traded my 100-400 lens for the 24-105, my shotgun, and two boxes of shells, and the waders for my bibs and knee boots. Off I went on a new 35 mile drive through the blizzard, knowing this scenario was a rare opportunity to have a world-class snow goose pass shoot. I had wanted to try for quite some time. Keeping my truck on the road was comparable to a drifting contest with fresh snow and ice and a 30-40 mph crosswind, but I couldn’t help noticing ducks and geese of all varieties filled road ditches and snow-covered corn fields the last few miles of my trip.
In its simplest form, pass shooting is picking a spot, waiting for ducks/geese to fly over, and shooting them overhead. A more refined method involves a fair amount of scouting, planning, and forethought. Pass shooting often gets a bad name. It is often associated with sky-busting (shooting birds that are too high) or considered as amateur method to shoot geese. These folks tend to view the only "real" way to hunt them is over decoys. I’ll admit if I had my choice that would be my ideal scenario but decoy hunting that time of the migration had been much less successful than what we had in that blizzard. I challenge anyone who believes pass shooting isn't fun to join me on a day like this. You will change your mind.
I pulled into the field approach and parked next to Phil's truck. Careful not to let my door fly open into his truck, I started dressing for the brutal weather. Steady 30-40 mph winds from the east with constant heavy snow made me question walking out in this stuff, but the geese flying barely above the ground across the entire pasture, convinced me it was worth it. If I were to design a better scenario for a pass shoot, I'd be hard pressed to beat this entire set up.
What made these conditions so ideal? When the weather is really nasty- high winds (over 25+ mph sustained) and heavy snow or sleet- birds fly very low. This is why people tend to believe cloudy, nasty days are great for duck hunting. Unfortunately for most decoying situations that is not the case but for pass shooting, which would have been the main form of waterfowl hunting when that saying came about, it would have indeed been true. On a sunny or calm day, pass shooting is better known as bird watching.
It takes more than just nasty weather to have a good day pass shooting; Phil had found the perfect location to take advantage of the blizzard. Waterfowl tend to get off of the water/ground while facing into the wind, making their take-off simple. When it is windy they will generally go out to feed against the wind, continuing with the way they got off the water. With tens of thousands of geese only half a mile downwind to our west, a strong east wind ensuring they came our general direction, a conveniently located piece of public land...the likelihood of these events coming together again were slim. The scene was set.
With visibility less than 200 yards, I began my walk out. I tried calling Phil so he could tell me where he was, but all I could make out through the wind noise was "at far end, stock dam". Seeing a stock dam ahead I figured that was the spot, but he was nowhere to be seen. I pulled up my onX map on my phone and realized I had almost half a mile to go to reach the "far end". I could see a stock dam on the satellite image. With geese flying constantly overhead within shooting range, I trudged on. I heard two gunshots downwind and saw a goose fall. Now I knew where I was going I made a little better time...having a destination speeds up the pace of the trip significantly.
With the wind ripping past his hood, Phil didn't even know I was there until I was basically right next to him. Immediately there were geese coming. Before I could even get loaded he had two opportunities at small flocks. I rushed to get my gun out and a few shells in it. There is an inverse relation to attempted speed of gun loading vs actual speed of gun loading.
Our ambush spot was the backside of a large stock dam. A stock dam consists of two parts: one intended, one just a consequence. A cattle rancher digs out a depression in the prairie, usually a few feet deep in the middle to hold water for their livestock...the intended. The removed dirt is pushed out of the way and piled up on either side of the dugout...the consequence.
The slope of the ground was such that your feet were dug in, somewhat awkwardly, against the angle. Combining snow/muddy ground, a sharp slope, and a 30+ mph wind at our backs to blow us off balance every few seconds, maintaining our position was a challenge. With the snow and wind, visibility was minimal, sometimes not much further than we could shoot. Once I got settled in with my ammo situated, my gun out, a decent place to stand, and a reasonable lookout spot, I decided to get my camera out. Not the ideal place for electronics but photos opportunities like this aren't a dime a dozen and I figured my camera needed a cleaning anyways.
As has always been my battle when trying to take hunting photos, I had to decide whether to grab my gun or my camera with each approach of geese. Several times when I should have had the camera, I had the gun, and vice versa. The wind created a layer, just barely above ground, that was a dirt version of a sandstorm. This resulted in the eyepiece of my camera being consistently filled with a combination of wet snow and dirt. At one point I could barely see out the viewfinder and with cold fingers, cleaning it was not high on the priority list.
When the wind calmed down momentarily we would hear geese coming and between the two of us, managed to spot them before they could see us peering over the top of the berm. One of the odd things about a blizzard is that it can still be very bright out, and near the bottom of my list of things to consider on this day was sunglasses, but I was wishing I had them, not only to knock down the brightness, but also to provide some contrast.
It is amazing how well a nearly all-white goose blends into the background. More than once I stared at a spot on the horizon and all of a sudden at 100 yards I would see a few black objects bobbing against the sky in tandem. The first time it caught me off guard and I didn't realize what I was looking at until Phil noted there were geese coming on my side. What I saw was the black wing tips. At the initial spotting each goose appeared like a pair of black rabbits bouncing across the sky in unison, until they were close enough to distinguish the white body of the goose from the snow and sky.
Typically when looking for snow geese your neck is stuck at a 45 degree angle for hours on end, but in this situation we actually looked downward or straight at the horizon from our perch on the stock dam. Many of the birds gained altitude to get up and over our berm, while we waited on the back side for them to appear over the top. The success rate for shooting snow geese, in my experience is under 50%...meaning that I would guess under 50% of shots taken result in a goose coming down. With ideal conditions and careful shots, and a few first flock misses out of the way, my success rate had to be right around 50% out of two boxes of shells. Phil did equally as well and we were happy with our shooting, especially for such nasty conditions. Keno, Phil's black lab, got a good workout for the day and was eager for more, but ammo was running low and the thoughts of how we would get all of these birds back to the truck weighed more heavily with each flock coming our way.
A point comes where you start looking at the work ahead of you (carrying out geese) and weigh it against future enjoyment you may have (shooting more geese). We reached the point where the work was close to outweighing the fun. At 4-5 pounds for each bird, we had a serious project on our hands. I have carried two elk out of the woods (in quarters) and this project was equal to a trip with an elk hind quarter on your back, and then some - not in a nice backpack, but on a strap over one shoulder. We split the walk in half and dropped the birds at a gate and walked back to get the second half.
We didn't talk much as we carried the birds out, just kept trudging against the wind and snow. Each walk back to pick up more birds was filled with discussions of how we should have planned this part out better. Dropping the last load off of your shoulder is an amazing feeling.
When we got back to the trucks we made quick work of getting the birds and our gear loaded. It was really more of a "throw everything in" event than an organized loading. Closing the door and being out of the wind was a welcome change of atmosphere. I sat there, appreciating the silence and lack of a constant roar through my ears for a few moments.
I started my truck and threw on some tunes for the drive home. It was long and no better conditions than the journey there just a few hours earlier. I was already reliving many of the sights of the day and wondered if the birds would still be around for the blizzard that was in the forecast just five days out. I also thought about how wrong I had been, along with many others, about pass shooting. It may not be as glorious as a big decoy shoot, but there is no doubt it is enjoyable and something that we as waterfowlers need to reintroduce to our beloved pastime.
(For those wondering what we did the birds please check out my previous blog post and keep an eye open for an upcoming post about my first time making and smoking sausage.)