Illinois Goose Hunting -- Change of Season

Warm-weather tactics that accounted for many of those young-bird kills in the fall now need to be tweaked to suit the cold-weather conditions of midwinter.(January 2008).

Photo by Gerald Pabst.

Once upon a time January goose hunting could have been summed up in just four words: "Southern Illinois Quota Zone." Nearly every respectable Canada goose in the Mississippi Valley Flyway was living large in one of the three major refuges to be found there. In fact, I wouldn't have trusted any goose that didn't live in the Quota Zone.

However, who would ever have guessed this basic migratory pattern of the wild goose could be completely altered in a short period of time? Actually, the same thing occurred just 60 years earlier.

Few of today's goose hunters were even around back then, but the geese had been winging their way southward for decades upon decades down the major river systems of Illinois and the rest of the Midwest all the way to the Gulf of Mexico's northern coast in Louisiana and Mississippi. They ate grasses along the riverbanks, moving south as cold weather crept from the north, killing off the seasonal grasses or covering them with snow.

Then, back around 1830, a major earthquake jiggled the Mississippi River out of its banks, leaving southern Illinois' Horseshoe Lake in its wake. The lake became Illinois' first major waterfowl refuge, and the geese began to forget the lands and waters of the more southern portions of their traditional flyway.

In the late 1930s and early '40s, goose hunting became so popular and was so good in Illinois that the Mississippi Valley population of Canada geese was nearly wiped out. As a result, President Harry S. Truman closed the goose-hunting season in 1944-45 and ordered the vast Crab Orchard Federal Arsenal to be converted into a wildlife refuge. In 1951, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources created the three-mile-long Union County State Fish and Wildlife Area midway between Crab Orchard and the nearby Horseshoe Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area.

These refuges provided abundant food and safety for the migrating geese, and their annual flights farther south were a thing of the past. The migration had been altered, permanently. Each fall hundreds of thousands of wild geese poured down the flyway to fill the "big three" southern Illinois refuges, a pattern that appeared to be set in stone. Today, wild Canada geese don't have a clue that there is life south of the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

But by the late 1980s, Mother Nature played the global-warming card, biologists introduced giant strain Canada geese into northern Illinois, and farmers embraced no-till farming methods that left tons of waste grain on the surfaces of their fields.

These dynamics further altered the migratory pattern of the wild Canada geese. Lured by open water, abundant food, safe roosting areas, and the companionship of their fellow kind, the southern migration now went no farther than Illinois' northern tier of counties. What appeared to many to be an amazing natural phenomenon, in reality, was nothing more than wild creatures adapting to their changing environment.

In a way, the reaction of the geese to their altered habitat may give us some insight as to what could happen if the worst scenario of global warming occurs. For example, if the Arctic ice shelf melts, is it conceivable the seals will become more shore oriented, and the polar bears will simply hunt them there? Why does everything have to die just because current conditions no longer prevail? Somehow, the seals and bears survived mile-thick ice during the ice ages, didn't they?

Combine all the factors said and unsaid that can, do and could affect the migration of Canada geese in and through Illinois, and you find the vast majority of the region's Canadas now winter in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. By January, a small portion of those birds might move into the extreme northern tier of the Central Zone, but the only significant concentrations of Canadas in Illinois are found at a few large, open-water sites near Peoria. Most prominent among these are the power plant cooling lake operated by Central Illinois Light Company (CILCO) and the Chicago Metropolitan Sanitary District ponds.

Southern Illinois still holds some Canada geese, but their numbers are a shadow of the hundreds of thousands that once congregated there. Under normal conditions, the Union County and Horseshoe Lake refuges will have a few thousand present, while Crab Orchard NWR may host as many as 6,000 to 7,000 birds.

The southern refuges also hold great numbers of white-fronted geese, as well as a fluctuating population of snows and blues. In addition, visiting hunters would do well, too, not to overlook the variety of waterfowling in the region, thanks to the greatly increased number of ducks now wintering in these refuges.

But goose hunting is on both my mind and yours, so let's travel north to south through Illinois and look at the details and techniques that will help goose hunters succeed in the cold-weather conditions of January.

Canada geese of Illinois' Northern Zone live the proverbial "life of Riley," finding safe havens to loaf and roost on suburban cemeteries, golf courses and corporate campuses. Nearby, agricultural fields littered with waste corn and soybeans offer an inexhaustible bounty.

Additionally, many thousands of resident giant Canada geese unwittingly act as guides, leading the migrating flocks of wild birds to food, water and safe havens. Unless forced by severe winter storms to leave this "Promised Land," none of these honkers are going anywhere else.

In fact, by January most -- but not all -- of the geese have been using their roosting and feeding areas since early November. Some of the foolish younger Canada geese now reside in the hunters' collective freezers. However, the warm-weather tactics that accounted for many of those young-bird kills now need to be tweaked to suit the cold-weather conditions of midwinter.

Calling All Fools!

This late in the season you can safely assume the geese in northern Illinois have heard enough goose calls to know when a "forked tongue" speaks to them.

Watch videos of goose hunts on TV and you might be led to believe that goose calling is vital to goose-hunting success. Bear in mind that most of the TV shows are taped early in the season, often in Canada at the "top" of the flyway. The birds there have not yet been heavily hunted and would probably respond just as eagerly if the guide stood up and waved his hat at them.

In

fact, geese on the ground never call to geese in the air. The goose call's only purpose is to add life to the decoy spread. Under most conditions calling must be toned down, restricted to occasional "clucks," and then only if the birds seem to stray off line to the decoys.

Many times no calling at all is your best bet, except during periods of fog or when it is snowing. With their visibility reduced, the geese usually rely on their sense of hearing to locate feeding flocks. Steady calling in these conditions will guide them to your hide.

Decoy Diversions

Carefully watch the northern flocks that do fly near your hunting site and you may even notice the geese avoid flying over your decoy spread. The reaction is in large part because of "high shooting" that develops among north Illinois hunters as the birds became harder to decoy as the season progresses and hunters' shots grow longer.

And because the geese of northern Illinois are predictably decoy shy by midwinter, huge spreads of fake birds are not a good idea. Limit yourself to less than two dozen of your best quality decoys, and take care to deploy them in a natural way upwind from your blind or pit. Doing so can divert the birds' attention away from your hideout and bring them over you as they approach the decoy flock.

If you expect to be hunting in falling snow, bring a towel or brush along to keep snow from accumulating on the backs of the decoys, which gives a very unnatural look to your spread.

Weather . . . or Not

Goose hunters also need to understand that very cold weather will not move the geese out of northern Illinois, but it will affect their daily habits.

When the temperatures drop much below 20 degrees (and certainly when the thermometer reads 0 or lower), a goose usually figures it is best to hunker down, conserve energy and wait for better days. I have seen a flock of geese sit on a frozen pond for three straight days in sub-zero weather and never leave it. But when the weather broke and the birds took flight, hunting was gangbusters!

When, and if, the geese do decide to fly out to feed, it will be late in the morning, perhaps as late as 11 a.m., and they probably will all come at once. This makes for some very tough hunting, as there are just too many eyes in the sky. Some are going to figure out what you are up to. Your best shots -- following your best calling routines and decoy spreads -- will be taken at the small flocks that precede the later large flight of geese, or those that trail after the big flight.

The frigid conditions associated with many days of goose hunting in northern Illinois also dictate how you use your decoys.

Observe a flock of geese on the ground in very cold temperatures and you will note most of them are huddled up with their heads under a wing. This is how they stay warm. Your decoy spread should mimic this behavior, so use shell decoys predominantly and cluster them in a tight group, with only a few standing sentries scattered about. Do not call or wave flags under these conditions.

What will move the geese is a deep snow of 5 inches or more that buries their food for more than four days. After the snow falls, the geese will often just sit it out, sometimes right in the feeding fields, and wait for a thaw. When cold conditions persist, and the birds get hungry enough, they will suddenly all decide to take a road trip.

Looking for a Meal Ticket

When the geese do go, it is a remarkable sight because it becomes a mass migration of nearly all the birds that have been fasting. For the better part of a day, the sky is filled with long lines of noisy southbound honkers. They are excited and hungry, and they are doing something about it. You haven't got a "snowball's chance" to lure any of these flocks to your spreads, but you may get lucky on a few local flocks before they reach airliner altitude.

Centrally Located

This huge force of geese will wing its way south only as far as it takes them to find bare ground and food. Typically, their landing sites will be somewhere in Illinois' Central Zone, but that will be determined by how far downstate the snowstorm traveled. They may light just south of Interstate 80, or the weather may chase the geese all the way down to Illinois' Southern Quota Zone.

Wherever the goose flights decide to come down, local hunters will be dancing in the streets! For the next two or three days the fields will be alive with "new birds." These geese are ravenous, and they have no idea where danger lays -- the perfect combination for memorable goose hunting.

So, you see, goose hunting in the Central Zone in January is quite dependent on weather conditions in the Northern Zone. And, "if you snooze," proverbially, "you lose." When weather up north moderates, the same huge flights of Canadas that generated excitement in blinds across the Central Zone will be gone as fast as they came. Some will probably remain near the big cooling lakes just south of I-80, but most will simply return from where they came. Moreover, hunting the local flocks, which aren't numerous or large, is difficult at best because these birds have been heavily pressured for two months and are reaching the "unkillable" stage.

Southern Sojourns

So, go south, young man! Go south!

When the Canada geese stopped coming to southern Illinois most of the hunters did, too, and understandably so. But Mother Nature has a way of filling wildlife voids, and the Quota Zone in southern Illinois was no exception. The expanding hordes of snow geese winging into the region soon discovered the now-empty, food-filled refuges and put them to their own use. Suddenly Illinois' Southern Quota Zone again became the best-kept secret in Prairie State waterfowling.

The population of these truly wild nomadic birds waxes and wanes, but substantial numbers of snow geese can be found in the southern refuges all during January. The same can be said of the white-fronted -- or specklebelly -- geese that moved in on the heels of the retreating Canadas (except for very small populations of wintering migratory and resident Canada geese).

As a result, the region's fee-hunting clubs in the Quota Zone have rebuilt their organizations to accommodate all species of geese and the styles of goose hunting that account for good hunting success. (Author's Note: Many of the waterfowl hunting clubs in southern Illinois also flood corn fields annually to attract swarms of mallards, teal and wood ducks.) And it is the variety in waterfowl hunting in southern Illinois that many wingshooters are discovering. The resurgence of duck and goose hunting opportunities in southern Illinois is a story that rivals the Canada goose "miracle" in the state's Northern Zone.

Striking Afield

Whatever you do, don't hang up that shotgun during January. Yes, few public waterfowl-hunting areas remain open this late in the season, but those that are open are listed in the Digest of Hunting and Trapping, published by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, including th

e phone number for each site. Call ahead to learn details of the hunt, if any birds are present, and what -- if any -- ice conditions prevail. The pamphlet is available free at any state hunting license retailer or IDNR office.

Hunters in the Northern and Central zones do well to try their luck on one of the many fine daily-fee clubs located in all the right places. These operations provide everything -- including a professional guide -- to make your day enjoyable and productive.

In Lake and McHenry counties, check out:

Porter's Hunt Club -- (800) 345-0259, or visit the Web site at www.PortersOutdoors.com./"

Ultimate Waterfowlers -- (847) 487-9603, or visit the Web site at www.Ultmatewaterfolwers.com./"

Bob Rosa Guide Service -- (815) 343-7492.

C&J Honkers -- (815) 385-2898.

In Kane and DuPage counties, check out:

Fox Valley Guide Service -- (630) 264-1802.

Brestal's Waterfowl Adventures -- (815) 264-3810.

The Southern Zone offers both public and fee-hunting sites.

Public hunting takes place on three refuges, as well as at Rend Lake, a perfect site for do-it-yourself hunters. This 19,000-acre Corps of Engineers impoundment is open to the public for waterfowl hunting all season long. For more information, call the IDNR regional office in Benton at (618) 435-8130. Or try Southern Outdoor Resources Service at (618) 325-1554, which specializes in Rend Lake waterfowl hunts.

Among the best public waterfowl hunting sites is 44,000-acre Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, west of Marion. Call the refuge manager at (618) 997-3344 to request hunting information.

And state-supported hunting sites include the IDNR's Union County State Fish and Wildlife Area, near Jonesboro. Advance permits are required at Union County SFA (go online to dnr.state.il.us/lands/Landmgt/PARKS/R5/UNIONCO.hrm/" for more information), but stand-by hunters are allowed to draw for unclaimed blinds each morning.

Daily-fee clubs abound in the Southern Zone. Contact details for many can be found online at www.southernmosttourism.com/" or by calling (800) GEESE99.

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