Hawkeye Geese Are Great -- Late!

Now's the time for savvy sportsmen to intercept Canada and snow geese at select public areas throughout Iowa. Read on for top places near you to consider. (December 2007)

Photo by Andy Martin.

A Christmas goose isn't out of the question for late-season Hawkeye hunters. Hunting during the winter months isn't nearly as popular as in the fall, but plenty of geese are still just waiting to be bagged.

Whether you're after Canadas or the remaining snows and blues, December can put a honker on the table and provide some of the best action of the season. You just have to know where to look -- and following are some places at which to do just that.

RATHBUN LAKE

In the 1970s, this area was almost emptied of Canada geese -- but that's not the current story. Rathbun Lake attracts a lot of waterfowl these days.

"There's a lot of them now," said biologist Greg Schmitt. In the late winter we can have quite a build-up of Canada geese on the North Fork of the reservoir. Canada geese will use the open water, especially just west of the dam, because they feel secure on it."

During the early part of the season, much of the area is an intact refuge, but it opens up to hunting around Christmas. The often-overlooked area west of the dam is a hotspot whose goose numbers can be fairly high.

The resident birds were flooded out during the nesting season a couple of years ago, but the population is up and running again, said Schmitt. If snow geese or blues are in the area, hunters are almost guaranteed permission to hunt the private fields these geese will be feeding in. Thousands of birds can roll in at a time and completely devastate a field in a matter of hours.

The Bridgeview Refuge is the most neglected spot in the area, said Schmitt. Geese that have weathered the early-season hunting pressure by retreating to the closed Canada areas become fair game when the areas are opened. When geese figure out that fields of corn, milo, barley or wheat are within flying distance, hunters set up between the refuges and the fields can easily limit out.

According to Schmitt, some other good goose-hunting opportunities are in the area in addition to Rathbun Lake. At the Woodpecker Marsh, a good winter spot for Canada geese, waterfowlers can get in a top-quality hunt.

Rathbun Lake covers 15,970 acres. The area is six miles north of Plano on state Route 142. For more information, contact the Rathbun Unit at (641) 774-4918.

TWELVE-MILE LAKE

When it comes to late-season shooting, Twelve Mile Lake in Union County is a destination worth checking out. If birds are going to be in the area, said Chad Paup, they'll probably be at Twelve Mile.

Open-water hunting is the draw for the lake. The geese find a sense of security in the wide-open spaces, where they can keep a watchful eye on approaching predators and hunters. Listening to them over the water at night means that sentry geese are doing their job, and approaching them in the morning without their taking flight can be tricky.

Field-hunting can also prove productive, especially pass-shooting at birds as they fly out onto the nearby fields. When the geese are cooperating, they'll follow a pattern, using fields within the same area over a period of time. Colder weather and hunters can move them into other locales, but a few birds will always be moving in to replace them. Here, as at most other large reservoirs in Iowa, resident geese will make up the lion's share of the birds that hunters will see, and at this point of the year, they're going to be leery of humans.

About two-thirds of the area is in grass and brush, with the other third being water. The 1,500 acres or so of public hunting water and land lie four miles east of Creston off U.S. Route 34.

For more information, contact the Mt. Ayr Wildlife Management Area at (641) 464-2220.

RED ROCK RESERVOIR

The Red Rock Reservoir area feels a lot of hunting pressure -- and with good reason: Canada geese find the area irresistible. Given the over 25,000 acres of lake, marshes, grass and trees here, Canada geese can take their pick of resting or forage areas, and the closed refuge attracts honkers looking for shelter from hunting pressure.

One of the environmental factors making Red Rock so attractive to both resident and migrant honkers is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' flooding of the area to encourage the production of millet, smartweed and other wetlands grains. The controlled flooding has been a highly effective method of ensuring a high-end hunting experience in the area. The additional waterfowl refuges provide a level of protection for geese that they don't enjoy in much of the rest of the state.

Open water on Red Rock leaves a lot of room for the geese to roam, but you'll want to check the open-water areas near the grasses first. When honkers can have both food and open water in the same location, they have little reason to leave for the proverbial greener pastures. When the birds are on the move, the only way to know where they're heading is to do the required scouting.

A lot of resident birds can be taken from the area even in the late season. If snow geese are still traveling through the area, look to find them by the thousands.

Red Rock is in Marion, Polk, Jasper and Warren counties north of Knoxville. Additional information on Canada goose hunting opportunities at Red Rock can be found by calling the Red Rock Unit at (515) 961-0716.

MIAMI LAKE WMA

Though this wildlife management area covers a mere 766 acres, Schmitt said, it'll see good numbers of Canada geese during the late season. At an area this small, geese can be easily spooked, but the shooting can be fast and furious when the birds are there. Opportunities are available for both the boat hunter and the field hunter.

If the 135-acre lake has open water, the area is especially attractive to geese. Though geese will be spooked when the shooting starts, it's a great spot to check out on a morning during deer season when you've got a gun in the rack.

"I like to hunt geese in the morning and go deer hunting in the afternoon," said Schmitt. "At this time of the year in southern Iowa, hunters are a lot more focused on whitetail hunting than on the geese. The guys that waterfowl-hunt this time of the year have some pretty good success stories, but they've got to do their homework. We're talking southern Iowa roads that can take you a couple miles out of your way before you reach where you're going, but waterfowl

hunters need to get out there and see which fields the birds are using."

Canada geese will gladly spend the night on the lake and then fly out onto the surrounding fields in the morning. Setting up in time to intercept the outgoing flights (early in the morning), or when the geese return in the evening are the windows of opportunity.

The Miami Lake WMA is an out-of-the-way spot on SR 137 in Monroe County, two miles north of Albia. The Rathbun Unit can be reached at (641) 774-4918.

DUNBAR SLOUGH WMA

According to biologist Ron Munkel, this WMA spreading out for miles and consisting of county, state and federal lands open to public hunting is one of the state's best waterfowl destinations.

"If there are geese in the area they'll even sit on the ice," he said. "In December, the shallow marsh can be frozen if there's sustained cold weather. The surrounding wetlands are even shallower, and will freeze up first, while the main marsh will stay open a little longer."

When worst comes to worst, the only open water may be the deep gravel pit on the WMA, which will be used by Canada geese long into the season. The pit, a mile and a half south of the main marsh off county Road E57, isn't accessible by boat; hunters are limited to shoreline or field hunting. As long as the food holds out in area fields, the birds will stay, said Munkel.

The waterfowl refuge at Bays Branch can harbor a lot of birds. Shooting will move the geese onto the protected property at times, and waterfowlers will have to set up on flyways or in the fields where the geese are feeding.

The beauty of the area is not only that it draws lots of geese, but also that hunters aren't limited to just one type of shooting. Open-water boating, deploying shoreline decoy spreads or jump-shooting are all popular approaches to putting a goose in the bag. Laydown blinds are becoming popular with hunters who prefer to stay high and dry; set out a large spread of Canada decoys and ambush birds as they come in to check out the pickings.

The Dunbar Slough WMA in Greene County in the central region of the Hawkeye State. The concentration of open fields and shallow, marshy areas is a draw for migratory geese; you never know just how many birds will be flying in.

For additional information, contact the Bay's Branch Unit at (641) 332-2019.

BLACK HAWK LAKE WMA

"I'd recommend Black Hawk Lake Wildlife Management Area if the water isn't frozen," said biologist Mike Mahn. "Some years we have a significant buildup of Canada geese, while most of the other areas in Sac County like the Kiowa Marsh and Tomahawk Marsh wildlife areas are frozen up this late in the season."

Black Hawk WMA and Blackhawk Lake both offer outstanding late-season hunting. According to Mahn, the large watershed offers both walk-in and boating opportunities for those looking for some of the best winter shooting in the unit. The lake's big enough to accommodate boats larger than most of the other areas can handle.

Generally, the aeration systems operated by the fisheries division keep pockets of water from freezing over entirely, barring severe winter weather. These holes in the ice are magnets for geese, as they provide places for them to congregate for the night.

"The goose hunting is sometimes better later on in the year at Black Hawk than it was earlier in the season," said Mahn. "The aeration systems designed to prevent fish winterkill usually helps keep the water open in spots, and the Canada geese will use it. They'll usually make outbound flights a couple of times a day."

Blackhawk WMA covers 975 Sac County acres, about half of which are upland habitat, with the rest in marsh and forest. For more information contact the Black Hawk Unit at (712) 657-2639.

UNION HILLS WMA

"I'd focus on the bigger areas like Union Hills when it comes to winter geese," said WMA supervisor Jim Jansen. Lots of room and plenty of grass make Union Hills WMA a popular gathering spot for late-season geese, primarily Canadas.

Most of the area habitat is of an upland type, which is the preferred sort of winter feeding ground for geese. A large section of marshy ground provides additional options for the birds.

Frigid weather forces the geese to consume more calories in order to keep their core temperature stable. Roosting or feeding together can create a little protection from plummeting temperatures, but their best defense against hypothermia is to increase food intake. Canada geese will be looking for grain crops and will spend a lot of time eating the same. Hunters with decoys, laydown blinds, flags and calls can score big -- if they hit it just right.

Concealment is crucial. These birds are edgy, as they'll have been shot at several times by this point in the season. Canada geese have an uncanny instinct for detecting threats, and a flock will have several birds on sentry duty while most of the rest are concentrating on feeding. One startled lookout can translate into spooked birds.

The Union Hills WMA covers 1,989 acres in Cerro Gordo County. The area is four miles north of Thornton on SR 107, then two miles west on county Route B55. Contact the Big Marsh Unit for more information at (515) 532-2765.

MORSE LAKE WMA

Owing to its great habitat, this is another of Jansen's top picks. The area, part of the 25-county area in northeastern Iowa that's supervised by Jansen, is well worth mentioning.

Lush fields of grass are right at the top of the Canada goose's winter wish list. Field-hunting opportunities are present, along with some boat hunting on the small lake. Wetlands and marshy soil round out the package, making Lower Morse a definite spot to consider despite its small dimensions.

Morse Lake WMA is an out-of-the-way spot that holds a lot of promise, according to Jansen. There's not a lot of room, so it's a good idea to check things out on weekdays and spend the weekends hunting a larger area. Canada geese are notorious for hightailing it to less disturbing environs when the hunting pressure's on, but they'll nearly always come back if to good roosting and feeding areas.

Morse Lake WMA, covering 235 acres a mile south of Belmond on U.S. Route 69, includes a lake as well as some upland habitat. Call the Big Marsh Unit for more information at (515) 532-2765.

RIVER SYSTEMS

Some of Iowa's least-appreciated late-season goose hunting opportunities are scattered far and wide along the Hawkeye State's river systems. Geese won't be out in the flowing water, but rivers will host huge numbers of geese if the birds can find backwaters, sloughs, oxbows or other locations with open water.

Conditions on rivers can change on a moment's notice, and goose locations along with them. Predicting where the birds will be is tough. A tank of gas and a few hou

rs to spare are the basic prerequisites for a good hunt.

Canadas need grit to digest the vegetation they eat. Sand and gravel bars are primary sources of grit, so a lot of hunters key in on these areas with a lot of success.

Keeping tabs on the local birds is probably the most overlooked way to score a few honkers, and it's usually the locals who succeed, because they've patterned the birds well.

"As far as late-season goose-hunting opportunities go, the Iowa River around Marshalltown is a good possibility," said Otter Creek Unit biologist Rick Trine. "If there's open water in late December, the river can hold a fair number of geese and the field hunting around it can be fair."

Decoys and calling skills can be honed to a fine art such that a hunter can sometimes have a whole section of river to himself.

For information on where to stay during the hunt contact the Iowa Division of Tourism at 1-888-472-6035.

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

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