Following the flock: When waterfowl becomes a way of life
It was 6 a.m. on a Wednesday morning and headlamps were shining across a plowed corn field near rural Osakis.
Ducks and geese had been pouring in to feed here the night before. Hours of scouting by Osakis' Colter Fortenberry and some of his buddies had verified that. The hope was that the ducks and honkers would be back in the same field early in the morning.
Fortenberry, along with Trenton Axel, Lane Rutten, Josh Beack and Chase Blackbird, spread out the goose decoys and slipped a row deep into the standing corn as first light cracked through the cloud cover.
The ducks were the first off the roost. A couple landed in the decoy spread before legal shooting hours started. Fortenberry looked at the time on his phone. "Three minutes," he said.
Those few minutes passed and a small flock of mallards committed. They gave a quick circle around before coming over the top of the standing corn and setting their wings into the decoys as the shots erupted.
"Once you hear everybody's safety click, you know it's about to get real," Fortenberry said. "Somebody usually ends up calling it a little too soon because you get a little too excited. Once they cup those wings up, especially big honkers... man, there's nothing better than that."
The geese that had frequented that field the night before never did show up, but that's hunting. Flocks in the distance could be seen going further south off the roost. The group still ended up with almost 10 ducks before Axel, Rutten, Beack and Blackbird had to leave the field to get to class at Alexandria Technical and Community College.
In a day and age when reports keep popping up about young adults not getting into hunting, this group bucks that trend. Fortenberry is the oldest of the five by almost six years at age 26.
He grew up in Mississippi before moving to Osakis with his family at 16.
"I started waterfowl hunting that first year I moved up here," Fortenberry said. "I didn't have any decoys, shot a few passing and fell in love with it. I started hunting with my cousin a little bit, and it just became a passion from there."
For Fortenberry and so many of his friends, there is always another flock to follow. He will make two or three trips a year out of state sometimes, but their primary focus is in Minnesota. They spend hours driving in search of ducks and geese. When they find them, they knock on doors and ask for permission to hunt.
The early-season shoots like the one on that September morning are fun, but those November and December days when they get on flocks of thousands of geese?
"It's a crazy feeling when you have a ton of them and they cover the whole sky in front of you," Rutten said. "It's just loud because there's so many geese. It almost doesn't sound like geese."
Both Rutten and Fortenberry said hunting directly around Alexandria has its moments, such as the 2017 season when a wet summer and fall led to flooded fields. Generally, the further west one goes, the better the bird counts become.
Scouting is about 95 percent of what makes them consistently successful, and that takes time.
"It's at least four or five hours every afternoon," Rutten said. "Driving around looking."
The days blend together with the same routine in the fall. Hunt in the morning, school or work through the afternoon and scouting or hunting again in the evening.
"Having a good group around you helps a lot," Fortenberry said. "It's no fun going out looking for birds on your own. It's just good being out with friends. You don't get together as much as you'd like all the time, but this isn't a bad excuse to get together."
Fortenberry figures he's waterfowl hunted with probably 100 different people, many of them new hunters who he likes to introduce to the sport.
Late-season hunts, the ones with thousands of geese on the roost, will require setting up hundreds of decoys. They try to get about a dozen guys at a shoot like that to make the work worth it and make the fun last a little longer.
"It's so cool setting up in a spread of decoys and fooling them with calling and flagging, moving decoys around when they're not coming in," Fortenberry said. "There's so many things that go into it."
It starts with understanding wind and how it pertains to decoy placement and where to set up. The general rule is that waterfowl always land into the wind.
Then there is the calling. That interaction and getting the birds to commit is what so many waterfowlers live for.
"Calling is probably my favorite part of hunting," Rutten said. "I'm not the best shot all the time, but calling has always been my strong suit. It's about what kind of notes to use when the birds are going away or coming in. If you need to be quiet or be super loud at them and aggressive. There's just so many different styles on how to read them."
Rutten was frequently in and out of the corn that morning so he could keep an eye on the geese flying in the distance to adjust his calling as needed.
A couple hours passed, the sun rose and the group of friends gathered up the decoys only to have a late-arriving flock of Canadians make for one last chance. The guys hurried to the corn and started calling, but the birds flew over without committing.
This wasn't the day for geese, but tomorrow was another day. It was only September 26. A new season of giving chase was only beginning. The best was yet to come.