Christensen brothers named to ND Goose Hunters Hall of Fame
Posted 10/12/11 (Wed)
2011 ND Goose Hunters Hall of Fame inductees,
Jay Christensen and Harold Christensen
By Caroline Downs
Brothers Harold Christensen and Jay Christensen grew up following their father and his friends every fall to the 200-acre lake on their farm in Kandiyohi Township southwest of Kenmare.
There, numerous ducks were shot and even more stories were told. Eventually Harold and Jay joined those men and perfected their skills at the sport until they became the ones who took their friends and family to hunt waterfowl at the beloved site, their own grandsons now in tow and in training to become yet another generation of Christensen duck hunters.
The 2011 inductees into the North Dakota Goose Hunters Hall of Fame can trace their hunting heritage back to the 1950s and ‘60s, when community leaders and neighboring farmers would gather at the Art and Ruby Christensen farm nearly every weekend, leaving their cars parked in the pasture, behind the hills out of sight of the ducks.
Harold and Jay watched the hunting action and absorbed the stories. When they were finally given guns of their own, they took their place alongside their father.
Neighbor Chet Nelson, who contributed to the Hall of Fame nomination for the brothers, remembered those autumn hunting days well, even though he didn’t get to participate as often as he would have liked. “I grew up one mile away, envying the whole thing,” he said. “We would hear the shooting, literally, from dawn to dusk.”
The brothers can’t remember a time when they didn’t hunt. Harold, the elder of the two, recalled hanging out with the hunters every year, but he didn’t carry his own gun until he was 11 or 12.
“Back then, 60 years ago, you didn’t have to be 12 years old to hunt,” he said. “We were around our dad all the time anyway, and he was very strict on this. The gun was always on safety and no shells were in the barrel when we were around other people.”
Jay said as a five- or six-year-old, he wasn’t allowed to carry a gun, but he still spent weekends in the field with the men.
“I was too young to shoot, so I would pick up all the empties,” he said. Many of the hunters paid him for the return of their shells and sometimes the work was lucrative. “Everybody would be shooting the ducks and geese, and I would do pretty well!”
When he did start hunting, around the age of eight or nine, the success he saw among the older hunters was difficult to imitate. “I couldn’t shoot ‘em flying,” he said. “I couldn’t hit anything. The only way I could hit one was to put out decoys on the lake and shoot them on the water.”
He laughed and added, “It seems like I’ve shot a lot of grouse over decoys out on the lake, too!”
Fortunately, Jay’s shooting skills improved as he kept practicing through every hunting season. “I went to college at the University of North Dakota, but I never missed a year of hunting up there,” he said.
Now the branch manager for Ferguson in Mandan, Jay and his wife Dot raised their family with the fall hunting schedule at the Christensen farm as a permanent part of their calendar.
Harold also continued hunting, but he had a military career, which didn’t always operate according to his duck hunting schedule. “I graduated from high school in 1960 and there wasn’t much going on in Kenmare,” he said, “so I joined the Army.” He is retired from 20 years of active service and 13 more years of federal civil service with the U.S. Army Reserves in Minnesota, where he and his wife Juline lived with their family.
He missed some of the waterfowl action in North Dakota during time stationed in Vietnam, but after he returned in 1972, he made a point to make a trip home every fall. “I would take my leave and my vacation and come up there,” he said, adding that he has been absent only one fall since 1972 when he attending classes required for his position.
ducks to geese
The hunting history of the two brothers spans the changes in waterfowl species and migration habits seen in northwestern North Dakota. “When we started, it was 99 percent ducks,” Harold said. “You would never see a snow goose, and you would see honkers once in a while. In fact, as a kid, I never ever remember seeing a honker.”
He shot his first Canada goose on the farm after he got out of the Army. “There were a few at the Lostwood Refuge and a few at the Des Lacs Refuge before that,” he said. “The numbers were so small. I did see them, but didn’t shoot them. But we were getting any kind of duck you wanted.”
According to Harold, snow geese started showing up at the Christensen lake about 25 years ago. “Now, the numbers are at their peak,” he said, “and the Des Lacs Refuge is one of their concentrations.”
Jay recalled shooting more Canada geese, but ducks were still the main target, with the huge lake attractive to every species. “One time, it would be one kind of duck,” he said. “Another time, it would be another kind of duck.”
Those ducks were a staple on the Christensen dinner table. “My folks would hang them on the eaves of the north side of the house,” Jay said. “They weren’t gutted and they would freeze solid. When my mother wanted some, she would bring them in and thaw them out under the cookstove, then pick them, gut them and throw them in the roaster.”
He laughed. “And nobody died of any food poisoning!”
The meat fed their family when the brothers were younger, and they continue to enjoy several recipes for waterfowl today, including one of Jay’s entrees for duck wrapped with green peppers and turkey bacon, then grilled, or Harold’s browned ducks served with homemade gravy.
Stories from the field
Waterfowl hunting provides more than meals for the Christensens, however. “I’m not just out there to get my limit,” Jay said. “I like being outside. I like nature, like the sounds of the marsh.”
They also appreciate the experiences and stories they share with their hunting companions. Both men have included various friends in their trips home over the years, and they often join relatives and old friends from Kenmare for hunts at the lake and the surrounding countryside.
“I only bought a hunting license in Minnesota one time,” Harold said as he described paying additional fees to those landowners for the opportunity to hunt, “but the hunting is so much better in Ward County and Burke County. There are plenty of birds in this area and overall, all the trips we’ve made, we’ve done very well.”
He continued, “You can go anywhere here. The farmers are very friendly.”
Then he laughed and finished, “Well, I went to school with a lot of them!”
“Over the years, we’ve had some unbelievable hunts,” said Jay. He started talking about one fall day, looking for birds on the east side of the Des Lacs refuge, north of Kenmare, when he and his party came upon some snow geese. “We had to lay down and cover ourselves up with snow, but we shot lots of them,” he said. “It always seems like the best time of year for snow geese is the Friday morning of the opening of deer season. That’s when I always seem to see flocks of 10,000 to 20,000 snow geese!”
For Jay, sharing the hunt makes for a good day in the field. “Last year, I was up here with my son and we got Chet Nelson to join us,” he said, adding that Chet did not have a retriever at the time. “You know, his dad and my dad used to hunt together. We just shot our limit and got 15 ducks, and Chet said it was one of the best hunts he’s had in years. We got some nice canvasbacks, mallards, bluebills and redheads, and our dog ran down everything for us.”
Both men admired their father tremendously as a person and a hunting companion, and each of the brothers has a story from one of their final hunts with Art, who died at Christmas time, 1985. Jay talked about a special hunt earlier that fall, on a day when the Christensen lake was covered with snow geese. The birds went out to feed, and the men took advantage of the time to position their decoy spread and themselves.
“When the birds came back, I heard two shots and Dad had his limit!” Jay said. “It was fun to see him do that when he was 77 years old.”
Harold has a story from the same hunting season when he was hunting with his father and a good friend, outdoor writer Gary Bennyhoff of San Antonio, TX, who hunted on the Christensen farm for 35 years. According to Harold, the three men were driving past the north end of the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge when they came upon hordes of snow geese. “There must have been 50,000 snow geese sitting up over the hill there,” said Harold. “The day was sunny and windy, about 65 degrees or so.”
He continued, “It was about 11 am and we could only hunt until 1 pm. That was when you could shoot 10 a day. They were landing in the field and taking off again, and we had no decoys with us.”
As the men sat and pondered the situation, Art mentioned the bags of newspapers he had stashed in the back of the vehicle. “I think that included a few copies of The Kenmare News!” Harold said.
The men scrambled to lay newspapers across the field, holding the pages down with rocks and clumps of dirt. In the meantime, another car pulled up and a married couple from Canada stopped to ask if they could join the hunt with their retriever.
The five hunters arranged themselves along the fence bordering the refuge. “The geese started coming in and landing among those newspapers,” Harold said. ”Within less than two hours, we shot about 50 of them. My dad stopped us and said, ‘Okay, let’s separate all the geese.’ We had 10 apiece and we all went home happy!”
Going home after that hunt led to another chore, however. “My mother just dreaded seeing us,” Harold said, laughing. “She said, ‘Now we’ve got to sit and clean 30 geese.’ It took us all afternoon that day.”
Hunting across the generations
Harold and Jay have extended the hunting tradition they shared with their father to their own sons, sons-in-law and grandchildren. Jay and his son Jason made many trips to the Christensen farm over the years with a friend from Mandan and his son so the boys could learn how to hunt properly.
“Now, I hope to show my grandkids,” said Jay. “I have one grandson, who is already carrying a toy gun around, and three granddaughters. Hopefully, they’ll like to shoot!”
Harold has hunted with his son Daniel and sons-in-law Terry Rien and Doug Sawatzke, both of whom will join him again this fall. Grandsons Marcus, Turner and Ryan will also be included in the party, although Devan will miss the fun. “He’s a freshman in college and he has to miss this year,” said Harold. “He’s just getting his study habits down!”
Son-in-law Corey Munson also has to miss the North Dakota trip this fall, but Harold’s daughter Michelle is bringing the couple’s three-year-old son Justin. “He’s my youngest grandson, and he will be a hunter, too!” Harold said.
Of course, this year the hunting activities will include the Christensen family’s presence at the Hall of Fame Banquet. “It’s a great honor,” said Harold. “I know there are a lot of good people who have been selected, and especially because my dad was in it.”
Jay agreed. “I was surprised when they told me,” he said, his voice choked with emotion. “Two of my heroes are already members of the Hall of Fame. One is my father, Art Christensen, and the second is Bud Grant, the best coach the Vikings ever had. I used to talk to him at GooseFest!”
Bud Grant, who was present at the first GooseFest in 1989, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990. The Christensen family accepted the Hall of Fame honor on behalf of Art Christensen in 1996.
The individuals who nominated Harold and Jay, including Chet Nelson, Delmer and Shirley Christensen and Kenneth and Donna Christensen, emphasized the sportsmanship of the two brothers and their passion for waterfowl hunting. They wrote, “In the Christensen family, hunting is generational...We recommend Harold and Jay for the Hall of Fame...because they symbolize hunters at their best and are role models for the hunters of future generations.”
Harold Christensen and Jay Christensen will be recognized as the 2011 North Dakota Goose Hunters Hall of Fame inductees on Wednesday, October 19th, following the Wild Game Feed at the Kenmare Memorial Hall. Everyone is invited to attend this event, which begins at 6 pm. David Keene, current president of the National Rifle Association, will also speak during the evening.