Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. January 6, 1895. Omaha Sunday Bee p. 7.

On the Legendary Platte

The Story of a Wild Goose Hunt in Wintery December.

There is much royal sport for the gunner in Nebraska, but none that surpasses or even equals goose shooting on the Platte. The time was when this stream was one of the most famous resorts for the birds, both fall and spring, of any in the known world, and it is still a haunt numerously visited in the seasons named. The population of the country, however, with its attendant increase of hunters, has done much to reduce the flocks that come in here nowadays, and instead of countless thousands they are only to be seen in scattered flocks, some days more, some less, but never in a feathered avalanche such as overwhelmed the region regularly, season in and season out, twenty years ago.

In company with E.S. Dundy, jr., and Myron Learned of this city and Charlie Hoyt and Sam Richmond of Clarks, I put in a couple of days recently at the latter point and had one of the most pleasant little hunts that has fell my way for several years.

For many years Clarks has been a favorite rendezvous of the goose hunter, and even in these latter days continues to furnish as good returns as any point along the river. It is the home of such celebrities as Sam Richmond and Charlie Hoyt, the most successful goose hunters in the whole Platte valley, and whose services are almost indispensable to visiting hunters. Richmond will run a big hotel camp on the river this spring, and gunners patronizing him will be most satisfactorily cared for.

The first day we shot from bars just a couple of miles below Clarks and we had great luck, Dundy, Hoyt and myself getting nine big Canadas and Learned and Sam seventeen, including two Hutchins.

Reaching the point from where we were to wade out to the bars about 9 o'clock, we could not resist the temptation of halting and for a brief time enjoying the romantic scenery. The unfettered Platte rushed and gurgled and rippled as it bore on its way, as if under a spell of enchantment, with the soft, south breezes playing over its frothy surface and the yellow sunlight kissing the ragged masses of floating ice and frosted bars into radiant smiles. Truly, the Platte river, in the fall, presents a thrilling picture, flowing, as it does, with a mighty impetuosity onward and downward through one of the grandest agricultural regions in the world, so lovely yet so wild and fascinating in its environing details, so impressive in its sweet of grandeur. Far to the eastward are the dim outlines of the barren uplands, with their lacustral borders, where the cottonwoods stand naked and spectral, but gleaming topaz and opal in the soft light; to the west numberless towheads and islands, dark and gloomy in the shadows, but affording the most excellent blinds from which to deal out death and destruction to swift-winged duck and wary goose. Stretching before you, through a network of floating ice, foam and snow-laden floes, the savage Platte, a gleaming, glittering expanse of crystal waters, dim artery to all that vast country beyond everywhere offered a favored home for the coyote and jack rabbit, chicken, Canada goose, mallard, sandhill crane, redtail hawk and that king of the air, the eagle.

The Platte is a wonderful stream, and at this time of the year, like in the spring, it is generally one seemingly interminable stretch of watery wilderness, the whole country for miles appearing to be so swallowed up by its extending shores as to make it next to impossible to pick out or distinguish the river proper. The main channel, if there is such a thing, even to one most familiar with the configuration of the landscape, cannot be determined from the countless sluices, divides, cut-offs, guts and cul-de-sacs which crowd its broad bed. It is seldom, if ever, in this region, at any point, over a man's head, although from one to one and a quarter miles wide, but there are channels deeper than others, treacherous holes and beds of quicksand, which make it hazardous, even for the most adventurous and skilled hunter to enter; yet, in their high waders or macintoshes, they boldly penetrate to the most remote bar, and cross and recross, here, there, and everywhere, without fear or disaster, and yet many an unwary and inexperienced hunter has met death in its powerful, merciless and perfidious current. These fatalities, however, in almost every case, have occurred in the spring, when the river is at its highest, the floating ice most dangerous, and the quicksands more frequently encountered.

From the time when but a solitary wagon trail crossed the state, and ages back of that, in all likelihood, the Platte river has been one of the most noted resting and roosting places for wild geese during their spring and autumn migrations, there is to be found this side of the Californias, and as I remarked before, is still a region much visited by these great birds. In the morning the geese leave the bars and fly off to the corn and stubble fields for food, returning for ablution and rest shortly before noon, and then off again about the middle of the afternoon for their vesperian refreshments, and back in the dusk of eventide for rest and safety on the bars through the cold and dreary hours of the night.

Our first morning was a glorious one, even for December. While the atmosphere was a bit keen, everything was as fresh and radiant as June. The pink tints of dawn had hardly faded before we had stored away a substantial breakfast at the Commercial house, and were on our way to the shooting grounds. An hour's drive brought us to the point down the river, off from which we were to shoot. The distant bluffs had now warmed into hazy purple, while the tops of the scraggy cottonwoods glistened in gold. A little later, and the genial sun was kindling the grass and willow sprouts into yellow life, and now picking out the weedy crannies and water-worn gulches, everything was quickly under one broad illumination. A belated lark piped his merry note as blithsome as in May, from a swaying mullin stalk hard by; a wandering breeze fluttered over the landscape, and several great lines of geese were seen cutting the air to the east on their way from the bars to the feeding grounds.

Scip, Hoyt and myself went together, and Sam and Learned, and while the latter drove off to a point a mile below us, we were not slow in making preparations for the midday return of the birds. Each one cut a bundle of brushwood, and with this, and our guns and decoys, we made our way to a favorable bar. It was with some trepidation we stemmed the powerful current, but in spite of this and the perfidious shoals of quicksand and floating ice, we finally reached the point selected. "Old Honker," as Hoyt is familiarly known to the goose shooters who visit Clarks, was but a marvelously short time in arranging the blind, and the decoys all carefully set out to the windward, we were soon ready and eager for business.

But it was a long wait, nearly two hours and a half, before our strained and impatient vision was rewarded with anything more important than the passage of a crow or snow bird, when suddenly that electrifying monosyllable "mark!" came from the vigilant Hoyt, and all crouching low behind our shield of brush, we peered eagerly through the interstices. A bunch of five geese was coming in, all Canadas, with a huge old veteran in the lead. They were coming in from the northwest, and decoying splendidly. A moment more and the grand quintette set their wings and came directly at us. I was on the west, the side nearest the approaching birds, Honker in the middle, and Scip to the east, and in order that no bungle be made, I whispered: "I'll take the last bird, Scip the leader, and Charlie, you bang into the middle of them!"

The next moment they were within reach, and we were on our feet as a single man. Crack! crack! and again, went our guns almost together. Hoyt got one with each barrel, but I only got my second one down. The old leader must have looked as big as the fabled Roc in the Arabian Nights to the judge, but he never flinched. He poked his first load full into his broad, ash-colored side, and then, as he wheeled with a startled ah-honk-honk-honk! and began to climb skyward. Scip steadied himself, and down he whirled biff! into the water at his second barrel.

He was dead as a stone, and was so mine, but the one Honker had gotten down with is second shot, was only wing-tipped. He had fallen on the bar, but before Charlie succeeded in getting a killing shot he led him a merry chase a half-mile out into the foaming river.

Scip's bird weighed quite seventeen pounds, and besides him, we had three other fine ones, and were correspondingly jubilant. But we were allowed only a few moments for congratulation, when another flock was descried in the distance, coming straight our way. On, on they came, as if pulled by a string, they came so directly into us. There were over twenty of them, and waiting until they dropped their crimson feet to light upon the sands of the bar, we again arose and poured a volley of lead into them four birds again fell, while a fifth, hard shot, swerved from the main flock as they soared away, and flying straight across the river, went over the line of woods and fell in a cornfield a mile away.

Then came a long wait. Most of the birds had returned to the bars, and would not start to leave again before 3 or 4 o'clock, and we were debating whether to go into shore and give the quail a whirl or not, when a flock of canvasbacks were discovered circling over the open water a half mile below us. Honker brought his called into play and after considerable effort succeeded in attracting their attention and they started to come over. They soon get their keen eyes on the geese decoys, but shied past just when we thought they were coming in. They made a circle of a mile or more, then came bearing down upon us like a whirlwind. We saw that they were exceedingly wary and agreed to take a long chance. Sure enough when within possibly sixty-five yards of the decoys they dished, with a sibilant swish, and began to go up at the rate of a mile a minute, and feeling that this was our only show, we jumped quickly to our feet and let them have six barrels.

We didn't get a feather!

When we got to shore that evening Honker struck a bee line off into the cornfield where our wounded goose had fallen in the afternoon, and in ten minutes he was back, bringing the bird with him. We were shortly joined by Sam and Learned, and when they displayed their splendid kill of seventeen geese, we felt a bit crestfallen. However, we were pretty well satisfied ourselves. We had nine, and one that tipped the scales at nearly eighteen pounds, and we felt under the circumstance that we had no kick coming. Learned, of course, was excessively jubilant, and as garrulous as an old woman, and insisted on telling us of his extraordinary shooting, how he killed five birds out of a single flock, three with his own blunderbuss and two with Sam's gun. Richmond had gone ashore to jump a flock that settled on a bar below them, and where, he apprehended, they would decoy all the incoming birds. He left his gun in the blind. While he was out a big flock of Canadas came in. Myron sat like a block of ice. The birds lit, and then he didn't do a thing to them. Two dead in their tracks at the first crack; another at his second barrel; then he grabs Sam's gun and gives them some more. Bang! another Canada, and bang! again, and still another! For a moment, he said, he thought it was raining geese, but when he began to tell us of the two crips that flew off over the woods and fell in the fields, we demanded a halt, but he wouldn't have it, and kept up his tale of woe until we reached the hotel, and far into the night. Scip declaring that he cracked the old chestnut over and over in his sleep.

The next day was another glorious one, and while we did not bag quite so many birds, we had plenty of shooting and plenty of sport.