Published September 09, 2012, 12:01 AM

VIDEO: Enjoying the early morning show on Minnesota goose hunt

The geese were within 5 yards, maybe less, when the shots rang out. And in that moment, all of the work — the days of scouting, the getting up at 3 a.m., the setting up of dozens of decoys in the headlights — had paid off.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

ROSEAU COUNTY, Minn. — The four geese came from the northeast and had their wings set to land in the decoys when Zach Johnson yelled out the command.

“Kill ’em.”

The geese were within 5 yards, maybe less, when the shots rang out. And in that moment, all of the work — the days of scouting, the getting up at 3 a.m., the setting up of dozens of decoys in the headlights — had paid off.

The geese had been fooled, and six hunters, concealed in layout blinds stuffed with straw and stubble, were almost close enough to reach out and touch the gigantic birds.

None of the geese flew away. For goose hunters everywhere, moments like this are what it’s all about.

“You couldn’t have told them to do it any better,” Johnson, 19, said later. “They read the script.”

It was the opening day of Minnesota’s early Canada goose season, and Johnson and five hunting buddies were in the field long before daylight setting up decoys and layout blinds. Joining Johnson, a UND sophomore from rural Roseau, Minn., was Nano and Ashley Sorrels, Roseau; Darin Powell, Duluth; Alicia Sunsdahl, Roseau; and Grant Olson, Warroad, Minn.

Nano Sorrels had scouted and lined up the stubble field, which was attracting anywhere from 400 to 600 geese in the days leading up to the opener.

“I’ve been sitting here two weeks,” Sorrels, 30, said. “Last week, I even took a notebook and wrote down where they were landing.”

A farm-service technician at Northland Tire in Roseau, Sorrels’ job gives him the opportunity to meet lots of landowners. In the way waterfowl hunters often meet — in search of a field to hunt — he met Johnson, a savvy goose hunter whose abilities easily surpass his age, two years ago.

The pair quickly became hunting buddies.

“He knows his stuff, and I get the fields,” Sorrels said. “It helps being on the service truck because I get to know all the farmers.”

Management tool

The early goose season in recent years has been a key tool for wildlife managers to control populations of resident giant Canada geese. A subspecies once on the brink of extinction, giant Canada geese now are too abundant in many places.

As a result, hunters in Minnesota can shoot five Canada geese during the early season, while neighboring North Dakota has a 15-bird bag limit.

That compares with daily limits of three during the regular seasons, when migratory geese make up a larger part of the harvest.

Steve Cordts, waterfowl staff specialist for the state Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji, said hunters in Minnesota shoot about 100,000 geese during the early season. That’s about 40 percent of the annual take, Cordts said, an effort that has helped keep populations of the resident birds relatively stable in recent years.

The early season is especially attractive to young hunters, he said.

“They’re a pretty avid group of goose hunters, and they tend to like high bag limits,” Cordts said. “The older, more traditional hunter tends to be, ‘a goose or two is great.’”

“Avid” definitely described the crew near Roseau opening day. That was obvious by the equipment: Some 10 dozen decoys at a price of about $300 per dozen and layout blinds costing upwards of $200 each.

Johnson estimates he has $2,100 invested just in decoys. Throw in calls, shotguns and the gas burned while scouting the countryside for birds, and the expenses can add up in a hurry.

“It’s not hard to get into it, but it costs money, and you’ve got to know the right people,” Johnson said. “I had an advantage; I grew up in the country so all my neighbors are farmers, and they’re pretty good about letting you hunt their land.”

It’s the reward

Hunters such as Johnson defy the stereotype that today’s younger generation spends all of its time in front of computer screens or playing video games. Johnson said he’s been hunting geese since he was 13.

It’s what he does in the fall, he says, from the time season begins in September until the birds migrate south in October and thoughts turn to hunting deer.

That’s about 30 days chasing ducks and geese.

“I would be out here every day if I could,” Johnson said.

Ask him why, and he’s quick with an answer:

It’s the reward.

“There isn’t a bigger reward for me, other than maybe shooting a big buck, than having a flock of geese at 5 yards because you fooled them,” Johnson said. “You did your homework. You did enough work to get them to think you were live geese. You just play your cards right, and it can be quite a show sometimes.”

Other ideas

It was quite a show indeed when the first four geese approached the decoys as if on cue. But wild geese, even the uneducated birds that haven’t been shot at before the early season, are unpredictable critters, at best.

The hundreds of birds that had been pouring into the field the previous evening had other ideas; the shotguns were mostly quiet.

“They’re not acting like they did yesterday,” Sorrels said as the hunters milled around their blinds scanning the horizon for geese. “You can do all the scouting in the world, but they’re a wild animal.”

That didn’t diminish the fun for Ashley Sorrels and Alicia Sunsdahl, who were on their first goose hunts. Their faces streaked with camo-colored paint they’d applied in the pre-dawn darkness, the women were soaking in the whole experience.

Just being out there, they said, was enjoyable. Watching the sun rise above a horizon streaked pink, listening to geese pass far out of shooting range and experiencing, for the first time, the heart-pounding rush of watching geese set their wings and approach within feet.

And, of course, the camo makeup.

“It’s a lot of work,” Ashley Sorrels said. “It was fun. It was crazy how close they get.”

By 8 a.m., the show was over, and the morning’s tally was eight birds for six hunters. Not great, but not bad, either, considering the reports from other hunters opening weekend.

“It was slower than we expected,” Johnson said. “The birds weren’t flying how they normally would. I think we saw 250 to 300 birds. Only half of them showed up, and when they did show up, they didn’t want to come where we were.

“We did what we could. We didn’t get as many birds as we wanted, but the birds that did come close, they came in just how they should.”

And some mornings, that’s good enough.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148; or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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