Sam Koenecke remembers tagging along with his father and his uncle on a goose hunt when he was 8 years old.
When the geese came over and the hunters reared up out of the blind to take their shots at the incoming birds, an eager Koenecke cracked a shot off as well – with a BB gun.
After the rounds were fired and the dead birds collected, he informed the other hunters he also had shot himself a goose.
And it’s that tradition of a young boy first experiencing the thrill of hunting that Koenecke is now trying to share with anyone who wants it.
Today he is one of the lead organizers of the Central South Dakota Youth Goose Hunt. The event, which is going on its 24th year, is a free weekend hunt open to 12- to 15-year-olds held annually in Pierre.
This year’s hunt occurred this past weekend, as 112 youth from across the state coming to either sit in goose pits or lie in wait in blinds in rural Sully and Hughes counties.
The weather was cold – temperatures in the double digits below zero canceled most of Sunday’s hunt – and the game less than plentiful. But teenage boys and girls gladly sat out in frozen fields while parents and guides, many who had participated in the hunt themselves years before, kept warm trucks waiting a short distance away.
Mike Thorson, who has helped with the event for the past 22 years, said the reason for the event is that the organizers want to preserve an important tradition. Many young people nowadays don’t get the chance to experience goose hunting for themselves, especially if they come from busy single-parent households.
It’s also a way to teach the ethics and methods of decoy hunting and to allow the greatest chance of bagging a goose, he said.
“Instead of going out with a five-gallon bucket of shotgun shells and coming home with no bucket and no birds, we show them how we think it should be done,” Thorson said.
Bobi Adams, who started helping out on the hunt seven years ago and who has had two sons participate, said it passes on practical hunting skills.
“We’re not just taking them out and shooting, we’re showing them how to do it and how to do it right,” she said.
Each hunt starts off with a mandatory safety meeting on Friday night, followed by seminars on various hunting techniques the next evening.
Denny Rowley, who lives near Spencer and comes out annually to help with the hunt, said it’s a testament to that emphasis on hunting the right way that there has never been an accident in the nearly quarter-century history of the event.
“Some of these kids are safer to hunt with than most adults,” he said.
The Youth Goose Hunt has its roots with local guide and taxidermist Bruce “Wicker Bill” Crist, whom Koenecke described as “the ultimate outdoorsman.” Wicker Bill felt that there were fewer young people becoming involved in decoy hunting and decided to change that trend. It was also a chance to help underprivileged youth experience the hunting tradition.
“The biggest asset to Wicker is he will do anything for a kid,” Koenecke said.
Many of the event’s leaders today, including Koenecke, hunted with Wicker and took over running the event from him after years of participating and helping behind the scenes.
The logistics of pulling off a successful hunt are fairly daunting. The event this year had more than 40 volunteers and more than 30 businesses, sportsmen organizations or individuals acting as sponsors. One group from Salem even paid for the traveling expenses and hotel rooms of eight local youth so they could attend.
Then come the supplies. There were 12 cases of shotgun shells – all donated – along with boxes upon boxes of hand warmers and $500 worth of chili, hot dogs, chips and cookies.
The organizers also spoke with 20 different local landowners to find places to hunt, dispersing hunters to four properties on Saturday. Many landowners are glad to provide the experience and even shut down their property to hunting until the youth have had the chance first.
Koenecke said getting those landowners involved is crucial to the hunt.
Tim Withers, a state Department of Game, Fish and Parks employee and one of the event organizers, said all the work is worth it to see the look on a young hunter’s face after taking that first shot and bagging that first goose or duck.
“That’s the main reason and the only reason (for the hunt),” he said.
Others described that same look of excitement as their favorite part of the hunt. They also said new hunters will sometimes carry their first goose around like a doll or trophy.
J.J. Beck, who participated in the hunt for the second time Saturday, is one of those young hunters. He said he loved the feeling of adrenaline when the geese come in to land among the decoys.
Brian Tracy, who has been around the hunt since its inception, said more than 2,500 youth have come to the hunt over the years. Some of those were handicapped youths or young people diagnosed with cancer – and some had the chance to bag geese during the hunt.
“They wrote me the nicest letters, so I remember those a lot,” he said.