Through the light fog hovering over wild land near Oronoco early this month I heard the crackle of a volley of shotguns followed by honking.
Ahh, hunters out for the early goose hunt.
I wonder if they dropped any.
And I wonder if they know how improbable that shooting would have about 45 years ago when there was no special hunt nor many local geese for early-season hunting.
Since then, however, local goose numbers have exploded statewide, we still get tens of thousands of geese from the north, chances to hunt both local and migrants have dramatically increased statewide and, most unusual, we are seeing a change in how those waterfowl hunting trophy birds are classified by scientists.
I had just started my outdoors writing career back then and one of my best sources for information about hunting geese was Randy Bartz. “I’ve watched it pretty close, I suppose, from about 16, 18 (years old) on up,” said Bartz, now 80.
He is one of the legends of goose hunting around here and continues to keep tabs on who’s doing what and where. He and others such as Todd Pfanning, Dr. Bob Sabbann, Dean Tlougan and the H & Q Guide Service were some of the best in hunting back then.
Bartz said hunting in the 1970s pretty much centered around the Rochester Waterfowl Refuge that was, at that time, roughly a square around the city. Statewide, there were only a few other prime places to hunt geese, Bartz said, including Fergus Falls and Thief Lake.
Rochester was much smaller back then and the refuge line where we could hunt was mostly along gravel roads with no houses nearby. Initially, anyone could hunt in the ditches, Bartz said, but demand was high and there were fights over prime spots.
To stop this, the Department of Natural Resources set up about 40 stations along part of the line and the only hunting was a within a few feet of each station. “It had to be controlled because it was kind of free range,” he said. “I think the DNR said hey, we got to regulate this.”
Today, only one blind survives, along 19th Street Northwest, because Rochester grew out to the line then leaped well past it in many places and it’s illegal to hunt close to homes and other structures.
In the 1970s, hunters waited for the geese to migrate from Canadian breeding grounds because we had few local geese. The peak time was around Thanksgiving when about 30,000 or more would be counted at Silver Lake.
That was another big thing -- that lake that was kept pretty much ice-free all winter because warm water from the nearby power plant flowed into it. That meant geese didn’t have to go father south, though some did when winter got longer and the food supply in picked fields got smaller.
“Those were the good old days where you could count the number of geese that were in Rochester by watching them return to the roost,” he said. "In fact, that was exactly how the DNR did count them, either coming or going. "
Today, the plant no longer produces electricity so the lake freezes. But the number of local geese is dramatically higher and they live along many rivers and streams, old quarries or the seven Rochester flood-control reservoirs and feed in golf courses, parks and backyards. The city tries to discourage geese at Silver Lake because they leave such a mess on trails, he said. Hunters, therefore, don’t have to crowd around the refuge but have so many more places to hunt such as near Oronoco.
In those earlier years, it was mostly pass shooting but changed as hunters, their calling and decoys got so much better. With that came more commercial goose-guiding businesses that continue to thrive. Along with them came some of the best goose callers, he said, including Scott Threinen of Rochester who has won international contests, is still calling and teaching both in person and with CDs.
All the changes are a “double-edged sword” for many hunters, Bartz said.
The city’s expansion has wiped out many places to hunt though there are still some places along the refuge line, either at the one station or places farther from homes. “That puts more pressure on the outlying areas that becomes prime ground for leasing” often by commercial guides, he said.
Those guides might take some prime land but can also give the average hunter a crash course when they spend just a day or two being out with the experts. Average hunters can up their game by learning how to place decoys, how and when to call, Bartz said.
One of the badges of honor for Silver Lake was when the giant Canada goose subspecies, which had been thought extinct, was rediscovered at Silver Lake. It was about 60 years ago and researchers noticed geese were unusually heavy. They bought sacks of flour and sugar from a nearby grocery store and found the scales were right. They decided they were the giants. It was big news.
Now, however, even that honor might be gone, said Steve Cordts, the DNR’s top waterfowl expert. Many years ago, waterfowl researchers thought there were many subspecies, then it was whittled down to about a dozen. Today, it’s down to two, he said - the giants and the cackling geese. Our giants are now just part of a group that includes what was considered several subspecies.
Giants and cacklers look much alike with their distinctive colors but the giants are much larger and nest below the Arctic Circle, he said.
Cacklers are not much bigger than a mallard and nest above the Arctic Circle, he said. They also have a much higher pitched honk.
Minnesota hunters shoot about 95 percent giants, he said. When hunters shoot a cackling goose, they often think it’s just a late-hatch bird, he said.
The DNR has only one management plan that includes both giants and cacklers, he said, while 30 years ago, it had separate plans for subspecies.
DNR statistics show hunters shot about 20,000 geese in 1970 but that rose to about 280,000 around 2004; since then, it’s dropped to about 150,000. Many of those shot are now local birds that spend their entire year around here. To cull their numbers, the DNR set up an early-season goose hunt when hunters could shoot within the refuge if they met all the legal requirements.
Today, the regular waterfowl season opens for ducks, geese and mergansers. Waterfowl hunting around Rochester is only outside the refuge line.
There is talk of doing away with the controlled hunting zone that follows part of the Rochester refuge, but there is no talk of getting rid of the refuge itself.
DNR Conservation Officer Phil George, who once patrolled the Rochester area and is now a regional training officer, said hunters seeking geese, or other waterfowl, along the refuge or in any road ditch need to know the regulations because there are a lot of them. Included in those are regulations about trespass and how close you can be to various buildings.
When most of the geese spent time at Silver Lake it was easier predicting when and where flights would be coming out, he said. Still, “we still have some very good waterfowl hunting around here but it’s in different times of the year,” George said.
John Weiss has written and reported about Outdoors topics for the Post Bulletin for more than 40 years. He is the author of the book "Backroads: The Best of the Best by Post-Bulletin Columnist John Weiss"