By Jason Abraham
I strode toward a group of camouflage-clad strangers gathered beneath sodium lights in a Kwik Trip parking lot on the west side of Rochester. Despite the bitter cold wind and predawn hour, there were warm smiles and greetings all around. Todd Fanning, owner of Westline Guide Service, stood at the center of the group of nine men. He introduced himself with a quick, well-practiced talk about safety and the finer points of hunting geese from pit blinds.
We piled into our vehicles, and our caravan headed due east of the city to a snowy field atop a low, rolling bluff, which Fanning leases. With the help of his crew and his clients, Fanning began pulling full-bodied decoys from a trailer. "We'll set up around six dozen decoys on a day like today," said assistant Nick Dennison. "This late in the season, geese don't like to sit off by themselves. They like big flocks." We set the decoys on the ground around a line of pit blinds. The 4-by-8-feet, waist-deep pits were lined with plywood and outfitted with shelves, benches, and a propane heater. Designed to hold two hunters, each pit had a rolling top that could be closed for full concealment when geese approach.
With the decoys set and the sun well above the horizon, hunters milled about in the cold, exchanging stories and glancing toward the Rochester skyline with anticipation that geese might soon be approaching. From his guide pit in the center of the client blinds, Fanning kept a pair of powerful binoculars trained on the city. "Looks pretty quiet," he said. "I can see birds trading back and forth between the soccer fields and Silver Lake, but it doesn't look like anything's leaving the city yet."
Once thought to have disappeared from the landscape, Minnesota's resident Canada geese (Branta canadensis) have not only recovered but also have become a nuisance to some urban residents, lake-home owners, and farmers.
The state's population of resident Canada geese reaches around 325,000 in the spring. The birds graze grass and aquatic plants in natural areas and have expanded their habitat to include urban lawns, city parks, golf courses, beaches, and agricultural fields, says Ray Norrgard, DNR wetland wildlife program leader. Issues with Canada geese made up 42 percent of the nuisance animal complaints received by the DNR in 2007.
The abundance of geese in the state, however, doesn't make them easy quarry for hunters, as our group found out. We were hunting the late goose season, a 10-day extension of the regular goose season aimed at reducing Minnesota's resident geese.
These geese, also known as giant Canada geese, weigh from 9 to 12 pounds, although larger specimens are not uncommon. Many of Minnesota's resident "giants" are the descendants of a last remnant flock of giant Canada geese discovered in Rochester by Harold C. Hanson of the Illinois Natural History Survey in 1962.
Until Hanson's discovery, resident giant Canada geese were thought to have disappeared from the United States due to overharvest, egg collection, and habitat disturbance. At that time the state's goose population consisted of a few thousand 6- to 10-pound migrant geese breeding along Hudson Bay. There were also numbers of smaller Canada geese, known today as cackling geese (Branta hutchinsii), which weigh less than 6 pounds. These geese pass through western Minnesota on their way from Manitoba to their wintering grounds in Missouri and Arkansas.
After Hanson's discovery, the DNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Canadian Wildlife Service entered into a cooperative agreement to afford the birds extra protection on their nesting grounds in the Interlakeregion north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and to closely monitor their food and access to open water on Silver Lake, where a power plant kept ice from forming.
The average number of geese using Silver Lake during fall and winter swelled from about 6,000 in the 1960s to some 19,500 geese in the 1970s. Today giant Canada geese make up the majority, but smaller Canada and cackling geese are common, depending on the day, says assistant area wildlife manager Mike Tenney. Thanks to relocation efforts by conservation groups such as Geese Unlimited and private individuals, giant Canada geese have become abundant across their range in North America.
Having grown up in nearby Lake City, I often made trips with my family to Rochester, with a stop at Silver Lake to visit the geese. Here, these trophy birds acted almost tame, gathering in parking lots for handouts of shelled corn and loafing year-round in the park.
While the geese are very approachable in the city, the birds become wary away from Silver Lake. The Rochester city limits, including Silver Lake, comprise a 66- square-mile refuge, established in 1926 to protect wildlife. Away from this protected zone, Rochester geese revert to their wild tendencies: They fly high -- outside the range of shotguns -- and search for anything that looks out of place in cornfields, circling dozens of times before landing. Goose guides like Fanning need to rig strategic decoy sets and employ their best calling to lure the birds within 30 or 40 yards of their hunting clients.
"These are college-educated birds," said Fanning, who has operated his guide service for nearly 25 years. "They've been hit with every trick in the book. I think some of them can even tell the difference between brands of decoys."
In Rochester, where geese appear on the city's official seal, the birds have become a source of controversy, says Don Nelson, DNR area wildlife supervisor. "It's a polarizing issue. Some people just love the geese," he says. "But other people would like to see their numbers reduced significantly."
The DNR estimates that at least 1,000 geese live in Rochester year-round. Migratory geese usually start arriving at Silver Lake in late October or early November. Additional open water areas have been developed within the city, and these satellite lakes are now heavily used by these long-distance travelers. Their numbers peak around Thanksgiving at more than 20,000 birds and quickly dwindle as the migrants continue their journey south to Illinois and Missouri. Birds harvested during the late hunt, which begins in mid-December, are a mix of resident and migratory geese.
The DNR opened the Rochester refuge for mid-September goose hunting two years ago in an effort to further reduce resident goose numbers. Landscaping changes, such as a buffer of tall prairie grass around Silver Lake, aim to make the lake less attractive to geese, which prefer shorter grasses for grazing and walking. In addition, a coal-fired generating plant on the lake's western shore has been discharging less warm water in the winter, thus allowing large sections of the lake to freeze over.
So far, according to Nelson, the changes seem to be having an effect. "It's very likely that we're seeing a dispersal of birds to other areas of the city or areas outside the city," Nelson says. "Generally, that's less of a nuisance than large, concentrated flocks."
East of Rochester, our group of goose hunters spent an entire morning doing nothing to reduce the population of resident geese. At one point, Fanning offered a pep talk to hunters up and down the line of pit blinds.
"Sometimes, the mornings can be really slow," he said. "But you've got to be patient. At some point, the geese will come out of the refuge to feed in these fields, and the sky will be just full of birds." As if on cue, one of Fanning's assistants called out "Birds!" to alert the group to approaching geese.
I couldn't locate the birds in the air before the call to "cover up" rang out and all the clients hunkered down, rolling the covers of the pit blinds shut. It was impossible to see outside the covered blind. Tension grew thick as the guides' insistent two-tone calling became louder and more frantic. Finally, a small buzzer sounded the signal to roll back the cover and get ready to shoot.
I looked straight up to see a goose sailing directly overhead at about 40 yards. I raised my gun and fired simultaneously with the clients in the blind to my left. The goose crumpled and fell in a puff of snow. Clients and guides alike hoped this bird heralded more action to come.
Because of the overabundance of Canada geese in some areas, some hunters have taken to calling them "sky carp" or "flying rats," epithets Fanning said he hates. "I truly care about these geese," he said. "They are a trophy bird, and they should be respected and harvested in a certain manner. If you don't like them, don't hunt them."
At age 53, Fanning said he still enjoys taking about six weeks of vacation from his job at the Mayo Clinic every November and December to guide goose hunts. "It's not exactly profitable if you consider the hours we put in," he said. "But it's great to get outside every day. And I still love to call birds, hunt, and interact with the clients."
The dim winter sun slips toward the horizon. But the mood in the pit brightens as skeins of moving geese enter our view of the Rochester skyline. Many are heading to the north and east on this day, but a few bear down on our position. The call to "cover up" went out again, and we hunkered into our blinds. The calling grew incessant, and the whooshing of goose wings in flight filled the air. The buzzer sounded, covers opened, and two more geese fell.
As the shadows grew longer, the call of daily obligations forced me to pack up and head for home. The rest of the clients stayed with Fanning in hopes of a last-minute flurry before sunset, when shooting hours would legally end. I felt a twinge of regret about leaving early. Fanning's optimistic talk and the rest of the group's willingness to stay through biting cold and strengthening wind made me wonder what I might miss in those waning minutes.
But a few miles down the road, I realized that shooting more geese wouldn't have improved this hunt. It wasn't about shooting or bringing home a goose for the holidays. Today was about being outside, watching knowledgeable goose guides, and gaining a new respect for the wariness of Rochester's wild geese.
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