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30
Posted on Wed, Sep. 29, 2004

It's official: Minnesota the goose hunting capital of the world

BY CHRIS NISKANEN

Knight Ridder Newspapers


ST. PAUL, Minn. - (KRT) - Randy Bartz began his career in insurance but left it to become an illusionist.

But, he's not the sort of magician you'll find on The Strip in Las Vegas.

Last week, Bartz was guiding Canada goose hunters on the prairie near Fergus Falls, Minn., using his version of smoke and mirrors to lure wary honkers within shotgun range.

Bartz, known as "The Flagman," has perfected methods for fooling Canada geese using wing-shaped flags based on ideas likely developed by American Indians.

"I don't say that I invented flagging, because it's a device developed on the East Coast, and maybe even the Indians used flagging as a means of hunting birds," said the Oronoco, Minn., inventor. "I guess I'm doing something David Copperfield would do - creating the illusion of a bird that is flying. It's something that's not really there."

Hung on a long pole, Bartz's flags are waved to make geese believe they are wings of geese settling into a field. With keen eyesight, Canada geese see the flapping from a distance and believe a flock is settling down to feed.

The illusion of movement "capitalizes on a goose's tendency to follow," said Bartz. "I know that my nickname is `The Flagman,' but maybe it would be more appropriate to call me `The Wingman.' "

BREEDING GROUND

Bartz's invention capitalizes on another phenomenon_Minnesota's rise to becoming the nation's Mecca for goose hunting. Other regions, namely Maryland and southern Illinois, have claimed the title "Goose Hunting Capital," but it rightly belongs in Minnesota, which by far kills more Canada geese than any other state.

Minnesota has been No. 1 in goose harvest for several years; last year's kill of 282,495 honkers was well ahead of No. 2 Michigan with 191,000 birds. The number of Minnesota goose hunters has reached 80,000, doubling in the past two decades. Some years, Minnesota hunters kill more geese than mallards_a feat unimaginable 20 years ago, when bagging a single goose in a season was an accomplishment.

Why the shift? The explosion of resident Canada geese in Minnesota is no secret. A successful, state-run goose transplant program, starting in the `60s with a small resident flock in Rochester, Minn., helped distribute geese to every corner of the state.

While populations of migrant geese from Canada have gone up and down, Minnesota's resident flocks have thrived. They feed on short grass - i.e., that found in parks and golf courses - and agriculture grains. There's no shortage of either in Minnesota.

Meanwhile, an entire Minnesota industry has risen around goose hunting. Companies like GooseView Industries in Grand Rapids are building blinds and other camouflage products. Goose callers are marketing Minnesota-made calls, and Rochester is home to a thriving guiding business that's nearly 2 decades old.

Minnesota is home to one of the top goose-callers in the nation, 22-year-old Scott Threinen of Rochester. A former minor league baseball player for the Cleveland Indians, Threinen has won 14 major competitions and has been runner-up two consecutive years at the World Goose Calling Championship in Easton, Md.

He's earned about $15,500 in his goose-calling career.

"Guys in Minnesota are taking goose calling a lot more seriously," he said. "There are still a lot of uneducated hunters out there, but goose hunting is a sport that's grown faster than anybody anticipated."

Pat Reimer, who helps manage Midwest Western & Waterfowl, a new waterfowl-hunting specialty store in South St. Paul, said the popularity of goose hunting has spawned hundreds of new products.

"I have an Excel spreadsheet at home that I use for ordering; it has more than 100 different duck and goose callers on it," Reimer said. "If you type in `goose calling' on Google, you'll get pages and pages on the subject."

Bartz sells his products nationwide through catalogs and such retailers as Cabela's and Bass Pro Shops. He's had orders for his flags from hunters as far away as Russia and Argentina. Despite offers to move his manufacturing overseas, Bartz still has his products made in Minnesota.

BEAUTY OF MOVEMENT

Reimer said movement, whether of decoys or flags, is the current trend in luring geese. He said a new decoy, called a Wing Waver, is operated by pulling a string (thus avoiding future restrictions on motorized goose decoys). He said Greenhead Gear is making a new full-bodied goose decoy with a special stake that wobbles in the wind.

Realistic decoys and ground-hugging blinds also are hot. Greenhead is also making decoys with special flocking (tiny bits of fuzzy plastic) on the head that looks like real feathers and takes the glare off the plastic. The flocking material also can be purchased as a do-it-yourself kit. Goose blinds are getting lower to the ground and sophisticated with camouflage.

"You can get into a field and have absolutely no profile," he said.

Bartz has developed his own moving decoy. The Ya Butt Motion Device is a wind sock that replicates the rear end of a walking goose. "It gives the illusion of a bird walking around," he said. "I'm just now putting it on the market."

The idea is to make a goose think it's safe to land and feed in a field. "It's like owning a restaurant along I-94," Bartz said. "If you don't have a sign out by the freeway, nobody will stop, will they?"

More hunting pressure sometimes forces hunters to try creative approaches.

"We're basically training (the birds) anytime they are exposed to a concentrated hunting effort," he said. "That's when they get smarter. These birds do have memory."

Threinen said that while he advocates good calling, other factors make a bigger contribution to a successful goose hunt.

"I think goose calling in the field is about 10 percent of the hunt," he said.

"Your setup, your location, your concealment and your decoys are more important. I hunt about 130 days a year, from Canada to southern Illinois, and I can tell you geese are getting smarter. The realism factor of your set-up is important. It's what you do before you pick up the call that will get you geese."

Some novice callers try calling too much or too loudly, Threinen said. But some of the most successful hunters are those who don't call very well but work hard to scout for the right field and use good camouflage and realistic decoys.

Camouflage is a tricky thing, he added. Most hunters camo their blinds while looking from the side of the decoy. They never think about imagining what their blind looks like from above.

"If you get up high and look down on a field, you'll notice it's a lot darker looking," he said. "Try looking at your ground blind sometime from a silo and you'll see how it looks to geese."

The illusion of live geese_and no hunters_is the effect inventors like Bartz keep trying to perfect.

"I remember one of the first times I goose hunted, I was using some fold-up Johnson decoys," he said. "I was standing on a knoll with my decoys below, hoping the geese would circle over me.

"When they came up from the river and landed in my decoys," he said, "I thought to myself, `Well, I guess I should have been down there in my decoys.' I'll never forget that."

---

© 2004, St. Paul Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.).

Visit the World Wide Web site of the Pioneer Press at http://www.twincities.com/mld/pioneerpress/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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