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Hunting Rocky Mountains Waterfowl

Colorado’s White Goose Invasion

by Holger Jensen   |  October 4th, 2010 0

High-flying Ross’s and snow geese drive some Colorado hunters up a wall. Here’s how — and where — to get a few in the bag. (December 2007)


Photo by Holger Jensen.

White geese are infuriating birds. They’re so unpredictable that few waterfowl hunters have anything kind to say about them.

You can get up at 2 a.m. and spend your predawn hours pounding hundreds of decoy stakes into frozen ground. Then listen to the din of thousands of birds taking off from a nearby lake and watch helplessly as they fly high overhead, well out of shotgun range, blithely ignoring your spread in order to land in a field only a few hundred yards away.

And if you switch fields at lunchtime when they’re back on the lake for a midday break, they’ll return to the field you just left behind.
If you’re lucky, a lone straggler or unwary juvenile might decide to drop in among your decoys. If you’re luckier still, a small group of six or eight birds may sail in, fooled into thinking that your fluttering Texas rags are others of their ilk.

And then there are those magical days — maybe one or two per season — when contour-flying geese battling gale-force winds pass so low over your pit that you can swat them to your heart’s content, until your shotgun jams from the swirling grit.

Such days are rare, however. Usually, you’ll end up collecting hundreds of decoys, with only one or two geese to show for it. Or none at all.

FRUSTRATING, BUT FUN
Not many hunters are willing to put up with such frustration, at least not in Colorado. The Centennial State is on the western edge of white geese’s northern and southern migrations, thus attracting far fewer of them than Kansas, Nebraska or the Dakotas.

However, some decent — if not spectacular — hunting for snow and Ross’s geese can be enjoyed on Colorado’s eastern plains. It begins two weeks before dark-goose season and ends fully two months later.

Not bad, for those of us who hate to put away our fowling pieces!

Three years ago, 100,000 white geese arrived at the Queens State Wildlife Area in southeast Colorado just before hunting season opened in the first week of November.

Jack Gentz, who runs the check station, waited in vain for hunters to show up as the birds denuded surrounding croplands.

By the time they arrived, most of the Ross’s and snows had moved south to New Mexico and Texas.

In 2005, the opposite was true. A phalanx of hunters showed up on opening day, but only two white geese made an appearance. The big flocks came two weeks later when most of the hunters had given up and gone home.

In 2006, the geese again arrived early. The first snows were seen Oct. 8 in northeast Colorado and arrived at Queens two weeks before the white goose season opened on Nov. 4.

HUNTING QUEENS SWA
Are you interested in giving this kind of goose hunting a shot? Very few places are any better than Queens. It’s the only agricultural land open to the general public that offers pit hunting for geese in feeding fields adjoining sanctuary lakes.

It also harbors the biggest concentrations of snow and Ross’s geese that migrate south from the Canadian Arctic every winter. Many of these geese simply pass through the Centennial State on their way to Texas and Mexico. But a fair number spend their winters at Queens, fattening up on corn, milo and winter wheat before heading back north in the spring.

Given its abundance of white geese and free pits to hunt them from, one would think this SWA would be crowded with hunters. It’s not.

Though the Colorado Division of Wildlife digs more than 40 pits every year, rarely are more than 10 of them occupied, even on weekends. And on a weekday, you may be alone.

The wildlife area covers more than 4,000 acres on both sides of U.S. Highway 287 between the towns of Eads and Lamar. Because it’s a mix of state-owned land and fields leased from local farmers, the size of the SWA and the locations of pits may vary year to year. Some leases are not renewed, others are added on and crop rotation makes one field more productive than another.

Snow goose hunting is like buying a house: location, location, location. Good rules of thumb: Green winter wheat draws more geese than corn stubble, and milo sometimes trumps them both.

Queens has four lakes fed by a ditch from the Arkansas River, but the water levels depend on weather and irrigation demands.

Several years of drought had emptied Lower Queens Reservoir. Upper Queens went dry in the summer of 2006, but was replenished by a winter blizzard that dropped enough snow to give it a partial refill.

It is not a sanctuary lake and can be hunted right up to the water’s edge or by boat on the lake itself with floater decoys, which are particularly effective during the extended spring conservation season. Nee Noshe and Nee Gronda are both sanctuary lakes, protected by firing lines that hunters cannot cross.

Each has firing-line pits that require no decoys and can be quite effective on windy days, depending which way the geese fly. But hunters with decoys do best in pits located in feeding fields farther away from the lakes, if they pick the right field.

Most white geese spend their nights on Nee Noshe and Nee Gronda, and during the day, there is a fair amount of goose traffic between the two lakes. But where they feed is a crapshoot that even good scouting can’t always pin down.
Your best bet is to see where they go in the morning, check again in the afternoon after their midday break on the water, and hope they’ll return to the same fields the next day.

Gentz, the amiable pit boss who runs the check station at Queens, will tell you how many geese there are on the water. But he won’t venture a guess as to which way they’ll fly. Pits must be reserved in person between 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. and claimed by 5 a.m. the next morning.

Small-game licenses with HIP numbers and waterfowl stamps must be left at the check station while hunting. All birds must be brought back whole for weighing and species-check at the end of the hunt. You can reach Gentz at (719) 438-5755.

OVERABUNDANCE?
Wildlife biologists estimate there are least 6 million lesser snow geese in North America. Add Ross’s geese, their small
er cousins, and the number of white geese could exceed 8 million. Mature Ross’s geese weigh 3 to 4 pounds, while the bigger snows weigh 5 to 6 pounds.

They are divided into four distinct populations. The white geese seen here are part of the Western Central Flyway population, which leaves its summer nesting grounds in the Canadian Arctic to winter in Kansas, southeastern Colorado, New Mexico, the Texas panhandle and northern Mexico.

The white goose population has grown tremendously over the past 40 years — and may be still growing, as Canadian biologists continue to find new nesting colonies.

Already, coastal marsh habitats, notably those in southern and western Hudson Bay, have been severely degraded by staging and nesting geese. Continued growth of the mid-continent population is predicted to cause even greater damage.

Over-hunting in the early 1900s nearly decimated white geese. Wildlife managers responded by closing seasons and restricting bag limits, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used funds from the federal duck stamp program to purchase additional refuges. That, plus a rich and plentiful diet of readily available agricultural crops such as rice, corn, milo and winter wheat along their migration routes, helped snow and Ross’s goose populations rebound.

Global warming, especially in the Arctic, lessened the frequency of periodic breeding failures. Wildlife agencies, accustomed to protecting the birds, found themselves encouraging more hunting to prevent the geese from destroying their habitat.

In spring, the geese pull grasses up by the roots, stripping the ground bare. This leads to erosion, increased evaporation of soil moisture and an increase in soil salinity that prevents re-growth of vegetation. Along the west coast of Hudson Bay, it’s estimated that nearly one third of the coastal salt marsh habitat has been destroyed, while another third is seriously damaged.

In Arctic climates, habitat recovers slowly, if at all. Studies suggest that degraded coastal salt marsh habitats will take decades to recover.

Worse yet, white geese beginning to move inland in search of food are now threatening freshwater marshes. This could have a serious, long-term impact on the entire coastal ecosystem, including other wildlife species such as Canada geese.

Snow geese are not only threatening the Arctic ecosystem, but a number of their populations are showing signs of stress. Due to intense competition for food, thousands of goslings starve to death or die from disease every year.

Another consequence of increasing white goose populations is damage to agricultural crops. American croplands are vulnerable to fall-migrating snow geese, and during both winter and spring migrations, winter wheat gets especially damaged.

Wildlife agencies have implemented several strategies, including increased subsistence harvest by Canadian Inuit, longer spring seasons in the U.S. and allowing electronic calls.

TRACKING SNOWS
Colorado attracts anywhere between 120,000 and 200,000 white geese on their winter migration. Some merely pass through the state on their way to Texas and Mexico, but others spend the winter before heading back north to their Arctic nesting grounds.

The first Ross’s and snows usually arrive in the third week of October, depending on the weather up north.

Ed Gorman, a Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist, says he starts seeing white geese as soon as the first big cold front hits Montana and the Dakotas.

The southbound flocks don’t linger long in northeast Colorado. But the first week of the white-goose season in early November could see up to 50,000 birds on Jumbo Reservoir and provide good shooting in surrounding farm fields and state wildlife areas.

A few thousand spend the winter on Jumbo and ponds along the Platte River corridor, so there’s always some goose hunting to be had there all season long.

Some southbound geese — 2,000 to 3,000 — also stop at Bonny Reservoir in east central Colorado, where they mingle with migrating Canadas. There’s good pass-shooting at Bonny and crop fields to hunt over decoys in the adjoining South Republican State Wildlife Area. But the largest concentrations of white geese prefer to go on to southeast Colorado, where many stay for the winter.

Snow goose hunting is like buying a house: location, location, location. Good rules of thumb: Green winter wheat draws more geese than corn stubble, and milo sometimes trumps them both.

In winter, therefore, southeastern Colorado provides the best white goose shooting. In the later half of February, still more geese pile in from New Mexico when the flocks begin their northbound migration.

March is a peak month, not only in the southeast quadrant but up around Jumbo. The northbound flocks linger for several weeks before beginning their long flight back to the Arctic.

AMMO, TACTICS, DECOYS
Ross’s geese are little bigger than a large duck. Snow geese are still a lot smaller than a Greater Canada. Both are tough birds, however, and require some heavy shot to bring them down.

I’ve shot light geese with a 12-gauge, and most of my hunting partners still do. But my favorite is a full-choke 10 loaded with No. 2 Hevishot or BBB steel.

Good calling helps, but I’m not sold on electronic calls. Most are taped from flocks of 5,000 geese or more. Coming from a spread of only 400 rags, they sound phony. I’ve had snows come into a silent spread and maintain that motion is better than sound.

Light geese feed like crazy, eating as much as a third of their weight every day and adding 400 percent body fat in just two or three weeks. They’ll eat alfalfa, wheat, corn, sorghum, milo, rye, sunflower seeds and anything else left behind a combine. But their favorite seems to be green winter wheat.

Many hunters believe the birds have wised up to Texas rags and will only come into spreads of more expensive North Winds or full-bodies. But rags still work for me — with a few improvements. Besides putting them on dowels that must always face into the wind, I staple the bottoms together to create a better windsock effect. It takes very little wind to puff them out and get them moving.

Most lesser snow and Ross’s geese are pure white, with black wing feathers. However, a few never leave the “blue” phase when they are young that gives them a slate-gray or brownish color with a white head. Every big flock will contain a few “true blues,” so make sure you have two or three blue decoys for every 100 whites.

Since white geese and Canadas often feed in the same fields, it’s good to have decoys of both. But keep the groups some distance apart: A small flock of Canadas near a large spread of rags work
s wonders when the seasons overlap.

If the birds flare off a large spread, try a smaller one, or vice versa. And if the birds are really decoy-shy, move your spread 100 to 200 yards away from your pit, in the hopes that they will veer away from the decoys and fly right over you. Above all, don’t be afraid to experiment.

The limits are generous: 20 a day during the regular season, and no limit during the extended spring conservation season. In Colorado, this lasts clear through April.

But by the end of March, the white geese are usually gone. The few hunters who go after them hardly put a dent in their numbers.

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