For a bird their size — mature tundra swans can weigh up to 25 pounds and their wings can stretch over 5 feet — swans often use small pieces of water on their southbound migration. In the Central Flyway, they’ll rest on prairie potholes as small as 3-5 acres. As long as they have a quantity of sego pondweed, the swans will loaf on these sage-country reservoirs until they resume their migration south to the Great Salt Lake and the Sea of Cortez inside Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.
Tundra swan hunting is by special permit only. In the Pacific Flyway portion of Montana, permits to hunt Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area are hard to draw. But in the Central Flyway, most years you can pick up surplus permits over the counter. For me, a swan permit is almost as coveted as a special elk tag. Sometimes called whistling swans, tundra swans are hard to distinguish from protected trumpeter swans, and the permits enable waterfowl managers to control and monitor harvest.
I teamed up with my friend Eric Gullickson to double on swans. We had spotted scores of swans on a Bureau of Land Management pond, but it was too open to either pass-shoot or jump-shoot. So I belly-crawled to the dam while Eric posted on the far end of the reservoir. I figured if I bumped the birds, at least he’d get a shot.
With my enthusiastic yellow Lab, Willow, at my heels, I jumped the dam and bumped the birds. Just my luck — about 25 yards out of range, even for my heavy 3-inch BBs. But I noticed that one swan was wounded, and actually veered toward me. It fell in the pond with a splash like a cannonball and Willow was off like a rocket to retrieve it.
The BBs hit home, and make a mess of the snow-white feathers of the swan’s breast. Meanwhile, the flock turned toward Eric, who picked out his own swan and dumped it after figuring out the lead on the big birds.
Because tundra swans look so similar to protected trumpeter swans, waterfowl managers implore hunters to know how to tell them apart. It’s tough, especially on the wing, but most tundra swans have a yellow patch on the lore of the bill.
The yellow patch isn’t conclusive, as about 15 percent of tundra swans don’t have it. The bills of trumpeter swans are completely black.
Because wildlife agencies are keen to retain hunting seasons for tundra swans, they ask all hunters to complete surveys that verify the identity of harvested birds. The yellow patch is one key, so is the shorter bill of a tundra swan. They ask all hunters to measure the distance from the nostril to the tip of the bill.
The feet of a swan are remarkably well adapted for their lives as water-dwelling vegetarians. Swans will dabble much like mallard or pintail ducks, but because their feet are so large, they can displace huge amounts of vegetation. Other waterfowl know this, which is why you’ll often see ducks anywhere you find swans in the fall. The swans churn up pondweeds, and the ducks feed on this windfall food.
The huge webbed feet also make swans prodigious swimmers. But the claws at the end of those webs can be weapons, especially when deployed by a wounded swan against a retrieving dog. Luckily, both swans Eric and I shot were dead before Willow had to tangle with them.
For a brief window during the fall flight, the biggest waterfowl in the sky descend on tiny prairie potholes. Hunting these graceful, wary tundra swans is a mixture of spot-and-stalk, long-distance shooting and solid dog work. Hunting Editor Andrew McKean employed all those skills to bring a giant swan to hand.