Central Iowa's Best Goose Hunting

Geese on the Mississippi Flyway go right through the heart of Iowa -- and there are plenty of places to hunt them along the way. (Dec 2006)

Goose hunting in Iowa couldn't be better this year. Overpopulation among Canada geese has yet to create problems such as other states are experiencing, but there are plenty to go around, according to Guy Zenner, the waterfowl and wetlands program leader for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in Clear Lake.

According to Zenner, native Hawkeye Canadas can at times number 100,000 birds -- a figure, remember, that excludes migrants. That's a lot of geese! So here's a look at some of our best areas for bagging one this winter.

RED ROCK WA

"The good news for hunters -- and the major change this year -- is that the big area that was closed around Red Rock Reservoir is going to be open to hunting this year," said Zenner. "Initially there will probably be a pretty good harvest. The first day or two, the Canadas will be fooled -- but they're not stupid. They'll pick up on the fact that things have changed."

According to Zenner, 100 square miles of formerly closed waterfowl refuge will now be open to Hawkeye waterfowlers, with the exception of two inviolate waterfowl refuges that have been in place since the reservoir was impounded. No special regulations will be in effect.

"The Red Rock refuge is located near the suburbs of Des Moines," explained Zenner, "and was an experiment that didn't do as well as biologists had hoped. The refuge was supposed to coax the Canadas out of the urban areas and into the refuge. Canada geese are very sensitive to hunting pressure, and Red Rock had a lot of boating and other activity that probably kept the geese from settling in."

Scrapping the refuge status of this marshy area will make field-hunting an option this year where there was little land open last season.

The Red Rock Wildlife Area covers over 28,000 acres in Warren and Polk counties. The 19,000-acre flood-control reservoir is the largest in the state. The area is two miles south of Carlisle on 165th Place.

Additional information is available from the Red Rock Management Unit at (515) 961-0716.

ELK CREEK MARSH

"December is primarily field-hunting time, as most lakes and marshes are iced over in north-central Iowa," reported Greg Hanson, wildlife management biologist with Rice Lake Management Unit. "Occasionally there are still geese using Elk Creek Marsh in Worth County, since Elk Creek usually remains open for a few hundred feet below the dams."

Other areas too hold promise, noted Hanson. "Geese congregate on the Rice Lake Refuge," he said, "and on the rivers in larger towns like the Winnebago River in Forest City and Mason City and the Cedar River in Charles City and Osage. Most field-hunting is done on private land, but if the rivers are not frozen, some of the state and county areas along the Winnebago or Cedar and sometimes the Shellrock can provide shots at the geese."

According to Zenner, waterfowlers in the northern part of the state will have local birds filtering out from the closed zones and back into the outlying public shooting areas. The big marshes have good goose production and supply the numbers that hunters like to see. Telemetry and banding studies have shown that birds will move back out of the protected zones and into their summer feeding grounds, where hunters can tag them.

The marsh covers nearly 3,000 acres, about half of which is wetlands. Access to the east unit is four miles east of Lake Mills on Highway 105. The west unit is a half-mile south on Dogwood Avenue. The area is long and narrow, with a slight break between the east and west units along Elk Creek.

For additional information, contact the Rice Lake Unit at (641) 324-2431.

BAYS BRANCH WA

"Early in the season there will be 10,000 birds there," said Zenner. "The late-season Canada goose hunting has been good."

Late-season waterfowl shooting in the area can be fast and furious, as thousands of Canada geese will still be on their annual Iowa stopover unless severe winter weather is pushing them further south.

Though open-water hunters might disagree, field-hunting Canadas and ducks can be one of the highlights of the waterfowl season. "Towards the end of the season a lot of the water freezes up hard and forces most of the birds south," said Zenner. "It's all weather-driven and the key is snow. If enough snow hits Manitoba in the fall, then the birds will move south to where the feeding is easier.

"Temperatures don't seem to be that big of a factor, since the birds are well insulated, and usually enough of them get together to keep some water open. When it snows in Minnesota the central Iowa hunters get the benefit. When the birds are flying 50 mph out of Minnesota, they'll usually fly for a few hours, which puts them right into our area."

Randall Alicie has been shooting honkers for years. He's a fascinating guy to talk to -- one with ideas that can be traditional, but have just enough of a twist to be surprisingly effective.

Alicie maintains that decoys should be set in as realistic a pattern as possible. "Spreads should face into the wind with only a few lookouts on alert with their heads up," he said. "A bad decoy spread can easily spook geese from 100 yards away, so realism is critical. During the late season, a haphazard spread of cheap decoys won't fool geese. Use decoys with well-painted detail, the right size and in a variety of positions."

Out in the field, most of the geese should have their heads down as though they're feeding. As geese fly by, it should look to them as if their buddies have hit the jackpot.

The open-water option can be equally productive when shooters are setting up on sites that geese are using for overnight roosting. There's safety on the water, which means that birds will move out in the morning and into the nearby fields to feed; the return trip will be made in the evening. Both morning and evening shotgunners can bag their limits. These flights arguably offer the best shooting of the day.

Water spreads should follow the same general rules, added Alicie: great detail, proper placement, and the suggestion that those "birds" are scoring a great meal.

Bays Branch, which covers 842 acres in Guthrie County, is two miles north of Panora on Highway 4, and then two and a half miles east on 190th St. For more information contact the Bays Branch Management Unit at (641) 332-2019.

OTTER CREEK MARSH

"One of the largest areas I have in my unit is Otter Creek Marsh in Tama County," said Rick Trine, wildlife management biologist for the Otter Creek Unit. "The hunting is good if the water is open, and that all depends on the weather."

Shooters can either walk or boat into the area. Most of the area's 3,400 acres are wetlands, but forest and open land are mixed in as well.

"The marsh is usually frozen up in December because the marsh is shallow," Trine stated. "If the area is frozen over, the geese will usually move off to nearby lakes such as Diamond, Ponderosa and Holiday lakes. These lakes will usually have open water through December, and can get good concentrations of birds if Otter Creek Marsh is frozen. Holiday and Ponderosa lakes are privately owned, so guys field-hunt around them on private property. Diamond Lake is owned by the county, and is located outside Montezuma in Poweshiek County."

The determining factor in winter goose location is open water, noted Trine. "Field-hunting is generally what goes on around here this time of the year," he said. "The same thing happens around several pits near Marengo in Iowa County. The hunters chase the geese out and field-hunt them."

Experts like Alicie recommend doing things a little differently when geese are being difficult. He's found calling to be very effective, but puts a spin on it that most of us wouldn't consider using: When calling to passing geese, he starts out slow until the geese begin to show some interest. "The calling should be minimal until they get close," he said. "Then let them have it."

What Alicie is trying to communicate to the arriving honkers is that the area's taken, and that the newcomers should just keep right on flying -- not exactly the message most callers are trying to send. In goose-speak, the message is clear: I've got something that I don't want to share. The new arrivals invariably decide that they're going to do just the opposite and stop by to see what's on the dinner table.

"I keep this up until I shoot," Alicie said, "and it works great!"

The Otter Creek Marsh is a mile northwest of Chelsea on E66. Diamond Lake is two miles east, then two miles north of Montgomery. Only electric motors are allowed on the lake. For more information call the Otter Creek Unit at (641) 752-5521.

INGHAM-HIGH WETLANDS COMPLEX

"The Ingham-High complex," said wildlife management biologist Bryan Hellyer of the Ingham Management Unit in Estherville, "consists of a mix of restored and remnant prairies and prairie wetlands, which are very attractive to migrating waterfowl.

"December goose hunting consists primarily of field-hunting within cropfields outside of the closed area. Distances vary greatly depending on the availability of food, weather conditions and staging areas. For the most part, geese can be successfully hunted within about six miles of the closed area which provides a lot of opportunities for hunters."

The 17-square mile Canada Goose Closed Area within the wildlife unit in Emmet County is a major staging area for geese, reported Hellyer. The closed area has numerous picked cropfields, and is an important factor in holding migrants. Depending on weather conditions, numbers usually range between 10,000 and 15,000 Canadas from late October through December.

Access to the Ingham-High Wildlife Unit is five miles east of Wallingford on A34. The unit covers 3,119 acres.

Nearby West Swan Lake is another Emmet County hotspot. The 1,000-acre lake can draw loads of honkers.

According to Hellyer, if the right conditions persist, West Swan is one of the area's premier water areas for Canada goose hunting. West Swan is outside of the Canada Goose Closed Area and an excellent waterfowl destination.

West Swan Lake is east of Estherville four and a half miles on Highway 9; then, go four miles south on N40, one and a half miles east on A33 and a half-mile south on 200th Street.

For more information on the Ingham-High Wetlands Complex and West Swan Lake, contact the Ingham Management Unit at (712) 362-2091.

RATHBUN RESERVOIR

A lot of room to roam: That's the big selling point of this 11,000-acre lake in Appanoose and Wayne counties.

"Probably the most consistent field-hunting around Rathbun would be to the south and southwest of the lake," said Jeff Telleen, wildlife biologist with the Rathbun Wildlife Management Unit in Chariton.

Many of the local geese will also stay on pastured farm ponds in the area until the ice forces them out onto the lake. Field-hunting can be outstanding as local geese make the transition from smaller bodies of water to the main lake, whose waters can (barring subfreezing temperatures) be open much later into the year.

The reservoir itself lies within the borders of the Honey Creek State Park in Appanoose County in south-central Iowa. Several thousand acres of land and water are available to waterfowlers.

Having a great decoy spread, subtle concealment and big firepower is substitute for knowing where the birds are. Getting in some pre-season scouting is the single best way of ensuring that you'll be onto birds when you go afield. If you have the time, checking the patterns of geese using the area prior to hunting can save time that would otherwise be wasted on unproductive spots.

Drive nearby back roads and talk to local farmers, as they can be your best sources of information. If you're willing to stop and knock on a few doors, you might get permission to set up on a prime field.

While scouting potential hotspots for Canadas, concentrate on grain fields located near open water. Corn is the perennial favorite of geese, followed by soybeans, wheat and other small grain crops.

In the dead of winter, large reservoirs like Rathbun are great places to start identifying the whereabouts of Canadas and other geese. If you're not sure where the birds are spending their daytime hours, wait by locations at Rathbun at which Canadas are spending the night; then, just follow the flight out in the morning.

Rathbun Reservoir is eight miles north of Centerville. For more information, contact the Rathbun WMA at (641) 774-4918.

RICE LAKE COMPLEX

Rice Lake is the best spot for Canadas in Winnebago County. The Rice Lake area is a staging area for thousands of migrants and local birds throughout the winter months and is an excellent cold-weather destination. Goose numbers are stable and shooting opportunities many. Most of the area is either marsh or other dry habitat, but, at 2,362 acres, the lake itself is fairly large.

Ducks and geese are affected by weather in often-overlooked ways. Oncoming low-pressure systems spur geese and ducks to feed heavily several hours before severe winter weather ar

rives. Birds are active and moving into fields where they are highly vulnerable to camouflaged shooters.

When the bad weather hits, the birds will sit tight in protected areas, often laying low on the windward side of points and islands on open water. As the weather clears, the hungry birds will resume their outbound flights to nearby grain fields, where hunters can enjoy excellent shooting.

Low-visibility conditions brought on by fog, snow, light rain and the like can put birds within easy shooting range. Even though ducks and geese have excellent eyesight, they can't see well through swirling snow and rolling fog. Field-hunters would be well advised to take advantage of inclement weather.

For more information contact the Rice Lake Management Unit at (641) 324-2431.

Rice Lake isn't the only area in Winnebago County that has good waterfowl hunting though. "We have about 6,500 acres of state, federal and county wildlife areas open to public hunting in the county," remarked Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Winnebago County Conservation Board in Forest City. These include the Myre Slough (540 acres), Hogsback Marsh (738 acres) and the Good Neighbors Marsh (309 acres).

"Goose production looks good on both county and state wetlands in the area," Schwartz said, "though geese that nested along the Winnebago River lost nests due to high water from heavy rains earlier this spring."

Find more about Iowa fishing and hunting at: IowaGameandFish.com

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