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A Look Back

Article By 
Craig Bihrle
J. Clark Salyer Refuge Border

Some people called them “tennis shoe” zones.

Whether anyone ever actually wore tennis shoes while hunkering in grass next to a refuge boundary fence, waiting for geese to fly from “protected” to “not protected” air space, is the basis for urban legend.

As the story goes, if a flock of geese came over a collection of hunters like those in the accompanying photo, it was seldom a sure thing as to who shot a bird, so the hunter who got to the bird first – tennis shoes providing more speed than hunting boots – was the one who got to take it home.

 

Scenes like this are, for the most part, gone from the hunting landscape in North Dakota. Not that hunters won’t individually try to pass shoot geese coming off a refuge or other protected area, but defined areas where hunters could gather have been largely phased out over the past 20 years.

In their time, though, many hunters shot geese in these situations.

Former North Dakota Game and Fish Department Director Lloyd Jones worked at J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, where this photo was taken, in the mid-1970s. Situated in McHenry and Bottineau counties, Salyer NWR was a major migration stopover for snow geese, and pass shooting as the birds went off the refuge to feed in the morning was popular.

Jones remembers the scene well. He says the fenceline pictured is just south of the Willow City road on the east side of the refuge, and it was one of the more popular spots around the refuge because the boundary was close to the water, where the birds were roosting. On certain days, usually with clouds and wind, Jones said hunters could have some pretty good shooting as the geese left for the fields to feed.

As a refuge officer, Jones said he would often work that line because there was a “no retrieval zone” on the refuge, which meant hunters could only retrieve birds that fell outside the refuge boundary. “But temptation would often override caution,” Jones remembered, “and hunters would dash across the fence and retrieve a downed bird and be subject to a refuge trespass fine.”

The popularity of refuge boundary pass shooting waned over the years. Jones said when he was at Salyer in the mid-70s, the refuge would often hold several hundred thousand geese for several weeks. Today, snow goose migrations patterns have changed so much that birds don’t show up in North Dakota until much later in the fall, and they aren’t nearly as loyal to refuges as staging areas as they once were.

Current J. Clark Salyer refuge manager Gary Williams says that within the last 20 years, many NWRs across the state have added public hunting areas and have phased out retrieval zones because hunters were no longer using them.

But for a time, they were a popular option for hunters who wanted a decent chance at bagging a goose without having to invest a lot in equipment or scouting time.

CRAIG BIHRLE is the Game and Fish Department’s communications supervisor