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Duck, duck and now it's time for geese

With the duck season at end, those with a passion for waterfowl hunting still have nearly a month's worth of goose hunting ahead of them. The Lac qui Parle refuge still offers opportunities for late season geese, even if the days of big numbers are over.

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WATSON - With Minnesota’s duck season at end, those with a passion for waterfowl hunting still have nearly a month’s worth of goose hunting to go.

There remain opportunities to target geese at what was once the state’s only show in town when it came to goose hunting, the Lac qui Parle refuge. The state maintains blinds surrounding the refuge, available to hunters on a first-come, first-served basis.

The migration is coming later than it used to, and the numbers of geese are nowhere near what they once were. There were 5,000 geese in the refuge at the last count, although last Sunday saw an influx that may have bumped the numbers up some, according to Walt Gessler, manager of the refuge with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

In its heyday, there were times when the refuge held over 100,000 geese and hunters came from far and near. Hunters filled the two cafes in Milan every day and during the mid-October Minnesota Education break, patronized the annual steak fry at the American Legion club. “Almost did 600 steaks,” said Milan’s mayor, Ron Anderson, of one steak fry held to raise funds for the junior prom.

Anderson said the days of the goose season being a cash cow for the small community are long gone. He pointed out that geese hunting opportunities are widespread these days and the migration much later.

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But the area still remains a destination for waterfowl, thanks to the restoration of Marsh Lake. This past season was the first one held following the drawdown of the lake that allowed vegetation to re-establish on 2,000 to possibly 2,500 acres of mud and sand flats that were exposed within the footprint of the lake, which normally covers over 5,000 acres.

Gessler said he stood looking over the lake at the Lousiburg Grade one day during the season and watched a flock of mallards roughly a half mile long take flight.

“I talked to a lot of happy hunters out there,” said Gessler of how the waterfowl season went on Marsh Lake. One, who arrived at season’s end, lamented to him: “‘Why did I wait?’”

Chuck Ellingson and his guides at the Watson Hunting Camp didn’t make that mistake. They took advantage of the opportunities right from the start.

“Marsh Lake was absolutely fantastic,” said Ellingson.

He admits that he previously had his doubts about the Marsh Lake restoration project, but said he has seen its results. The return of the vegetation and the food source it provides migrating waterfowl was essentially the best thing they could have done for the lake, according to Ellingson.

The Watson Hunting Camp offers a full range of hunting and fishing opportunities, but at its start, the Lac qui Parle goose hunt was a prime draw for customers. The focus remains on waterfowl, and Ellingson said this was one of the most successful seasons ever for the camp.

To make it that way, he and his guides covered more turf than ever before. They led hunters to locations north of Ortonville and south to Granite Falls to enjoy some of the best waterfowl hunting, he said. They hosted clients from 32 different states, some coming from states as far as Georgia, Florida, Texas, Alabama, and California.

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It’s still game on for the Hunting Camp: The focus in December is back on the geese.

There are good opportunities in the weeks ahead. Ellingson said the late season goose hunt is generally the best, but weather is very important. In other words, we need some weather: Snow and cold definitely improves the chances for success, he said.

The trend towards warmer autumns has delayed the migration of geese through the refuge.

Another big reason for the migration changes is the steady expansion northward of corn, soybeans and other crop farming, extending well into Canada, Gessler and Ellingson pointed out.

Migration is hard work, Gessler said. Geese are content to hold their ground in Canada as long as the food and open water are available, and migrate only when they need to do so, he explained.

But migrate they will. Gessler does not expect to see big numbers of geese in the refuge in the weeks ahead; certainly, not like those of the '70s or early '80s. He does anticipate steady enough numbers to keep it interesting for those who make the commitment to the hunt.

“The guys who tend to be successful at pass shooting pattern the geese and figure out when they are flying and where,” he said by way of advice.

The goose season continues through Dec. 29, with a daily limit of five.

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