Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Swans mistaken for geese, shot by two at Pickerel Creek

Clyde, Ohio — One hunter has been sentenced and two were scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 31 in an incident that saddened both wildlife officials and hunters and illustrates the importance of one of the foremost rules of hunting: Always know what you’re shooting at.

The three men were at the 3,200-acre Pickerel Creek Wildlife Area in Sandusky County on Oct. 12 when two of the men opened up on five trumpeter swans preparing to set down, witnesses said.

Huron father-son hunters Robert and Mitchell Hagstrom, 54 and 20, respectively, pleaded no contest to shooting a trumpeter swan, a fourth-degree misdemeanor, in Clyde Municipal Court on Oct. 22.

A third man, Charles Catri, 73, pleaded no contest to shielding and harboring an offender and providing false information.

Two adult trumpeters escaped unharmed, witnesses told investigators. One cygnet was shot dead, one was shot but could not be located later, and a third was injured.

The injured bird was captured and taken to Back to the Wild, a wildlife rehabilitation center in nearby Castalia. That bird died Oct. 21.

According to Jim Schott, Pickerel Creek manager, other hunters were on it right away.

“As soon as it happened the phones were ringing off the hook,” he said.

In addition to hunters contacting the Pickerel Creek office, the sheriff’s office and the ODNR TIP lines rang, too.

Brian Bury, a Division of Wildlife Lake Erie investigator, said only the Hagstroms shot at the birds.

In fact, he said, Catri, who was situated in a spot a short distance away, tried to intervene as soon as it happened.

“When they shot, he began yelling at them,” Bury said.

Unfortunately for Catri, when he spoke to investigators a short time later, he provided false information indicating that the Hagstroms were not the ones involved in the shooting.

The trio left the area after speaking with investigators briefly. But when other hunters in the area were subsequently interviewed, it became clear the Hagstroms had indeed been the shooters.

The pair gave officers a story that seems unbelievable, though is the most oft-used excuse in swan kills: They thought the birds were Canada geese.

“No,” Bury said. “Trumpeter swans are white and they are about the largest flying bird in North America.”

Bury acknowledged that waterfowl hunting is a difficult sport, but said ignorance is no excuse when it comes to shooting game on the wing.

“The main thing is people need to be able to identify things before they shoot,” Bury said.

Gino Barna, Lake Erie law enforcement supervisor for the Division of Wildlife, said it shouldn’t be that hard to distinguish swans from geese.

“They’re three times the size,” he pointed out. “Just the size alone and the outline should tell you,” he said.

Trumpeters can weigh as much as 30 pounds and have a wingspan of up to eight feet.

But Catri said the pair did indeed believe they were shooting at geese.

“It’s a dirty rotten shame,” he said. “This is a situation I was in and it wasn’t a very good one.”

Catri described the Hagstroms as good folks who made a terrible mistake.

Catri said if he’d been in the blind with the Hagstroms, who had invited him as a guest, he could have prevented the incident.

“I could have shut that down right away,” he said.

Catri said this was Mitchell Hagstrom’s first year hunting and first waterfowl hunt.

“The old man said shoot and he shot,” Catri said.

The swans were approaching from the east, with the shooters facing the sun, he said.

The hunters at Pickerel Creek on Oct. 12 had been selected randomly after entering an online drawing.

Of the 1,410 that entered, 37 were selected.

While trumpeters are uncommon in Ohio, they’ve made tremendous strides in recent years as their numbers increase.

The ODNR began restocking trumpeters in 1996.

The birds were extirpated in Ohio almost a century earlier due to unregulated hunting and the feather trade.

Previously, the species was considered endangered in Ohio.  This year, they were moved to the threatened list due to their growing numbers.

In northeast Ohio, trumpeters are far outnumbered by mute swans, a bird many people often mistake for trumpeters. And while mute swans are considered to be an invasive species and an aggressive nuisance by wildlife officials, it’s illegal to shoot them.

When it comes to targeting illegal actions by hunters, including over-bagging, trespassing, and other violations, one thing has helped wildlife officials immensely.

“One of the biggest things the last 10 to 12 years that’s really helped us is the cell phone,” Barna said.

The TIP line is staffed 24/7, Barna explained.

Information that’s not time-sensitive is received by Ohio wildlife officials at the beginning of each day, he said, but other information is expedited.

For example, he said, information about an incident unfolding would be turned over right away.

“As soon as you call and leave that information, they’ll call the local officer first thing,” Barna said.

Marlin White and Andrew Utz accessed Sandusky Bay using kayaks a week after the shooting.

White said he used the TIP line once to report evidence of poaching.

“I found a deer carcass out of season,” he said. “It had been skinned out.”

Both said it should be all but impossible to confuse the two birds.

“They don’t look anything alike except for they both have wings and beaks,” Utz said.

John Delhees and his 14-year-old son, Ben, hunted Sandusky Bay from a boat the same day.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing I suppose it could happen,” John said.

Delhees said he might even be inclined to confront the person.

Ben said he definitely knows the difference between the two birds.

“They’re a lot bigger than just about anything else you might attempt to shoot at,” he said, shaking his head.

Schott said trumpeters are frequent visitors to Pickerel Creek.

“They come and go all the time,” he said. “It’s not unusual to go out there walking around and see a dozen.”

Schott called the incident unfortunate.

“This is the first time that I know of it’s happened here,” Schott said.

Catri was given a three-day suspended sentence and fined $283 and must serve 20 hours of community service. His Ohio hunting privileges are suspended for six months, Bury said.

“If it hadn’t been for the other hunters, we probably couldn’t have made a case,” Bury said.

“This is a lose-lose for the hunter,” Schott said, citing bad publicity. “Hunters are our true conservationists and no one wants to see swans get shot and die.”

Barna said the death of the swan at Back to the Wild could add to the Hagstroms’ troubles.

Restitution for each swan is $1,000, he said, plus veterinary bills.

“Of course, that’s still up to the judge,” Barna said.

Catri said he’s been hunting six-plus decades and despite the really bad day of hunting, is still friends with the Hagstroms.

“It’s different, though,” he said in a contemplative tone.  “I probably won’t be hunting with them again.”

Robert and Mitchell Hagstrom could not be reached for comment.

Charges are likely to be filed the last week of October in a separate trumpeter swan shooting incident that occurred at Magee Marsh about two weeks earlier, according to DOW officials.

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