Last Call For Canada Geese

Last Call For Canada Geese

Prairie State hunters who brave the elements in January can get plenty of bang for their buck! (January 2009)

In mid-November of 1962, while driving to the quaint town of Anna, I had my first exposure to the mind-boggling goose migrations that annually beset southern Illinois. Wave after wave of circling Canadas hovered over picked corn fields attempting to land in scant spots not already covered with other flocks of geese.

Flyway expectations in southern Illinois remained much the same through the late 1980s. Multi-hundred assemblies of geese annually driven by weather and hunger to Illinois' southernmost tip were awaited by thousands of hunters burrowed chest high in pit blinds ranging from elaborate to makeshift. It seemed to be an unending ritual that would stand the test of time. Then things changed. The Central and North waterfowl zones started tallying a bigger percentage of Illinois' goose harvest. (Continued)

According to climatologists, of the last 20 upper Midwest winters, eight averaged 3.1 degrees less than normal and 12 averaged 4.5 degrees more than normal. In the last 10 years, seven averaged almost three degrees more than normal. The nation's warmest year of record was 2006 when the average was 55 degrees, 2.2 degrees more than the norm. Many scientists warn that we must slow global warming by reducing auto and factory emissions by no less than 70 percent. If we do not, they predict our earth's temperature could rise 9 degrees before the end of this century.

Though warmer winters have prompted geese to dawdle longer in the top half of Illinois, there are other factors that have significantly changed the perennial patterns of their migrations. Two decades ago, no-till planting, for example, was more earnestly practiced in Illinois' South Zone than in the Central and North zones. This alone exposed more food for ducks and geese in surrounding areas of the southern refuges -- Union County, Horseshoe Lake and Crab Orchard. Fuel and fertilizer costs, the average farm size and ever-changing seed genetics have transitioned more Illinois farmers to no-till practices. The bottom line: When geese locate food and aren't pushed away by cold, snow, ice or hunting pressure, they usually stay.

Once known as the goose-hunting mecca of the central United States, southern Illinois now is recognized as much for ducks as geese. It's taken on the amusing moniker "Little Arkansas," which satirically describes its growing populations of smaller waterfowl species that attempt to winter here during milder winters. Though Illinois' South Zone still experiences banner goose seasons, Central and North zones hunters have begun sharing the limelight by posting greater numbers of geese each year.

Migrations have been progressively zeroing in on the more northerly open-water haunts and annual-recurring food sources.

THE SOUTH ZONE
The few in the science community who don't totally buy into the global warming theory blame much of our erratic weather on the cyclical effects of El Niño and La Niña in the ocean jet streams. El Niño is an oscillation of the ocean-atmospheric system in the tropical Pacific that defines important consequences for weather around the globe. La Niña is defined as lower than normal sea-surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific that influences global weather patterns. La Niña conditions recur every few years and may persist for as long as two years. Both El Niño and La Niña are extreme phases of a naturally occurring climate cycle and both greatly affect waterfowl's built-in barometer

Regardless of which global weather theory you agree with, varying winter weather patterns have definitely produced warmer falls and milder early winters in the Midwest over the last two decades. Nonetheless, Januaries still seem to muster periods of blustery conditions that put geese in the flyways. Goose populations are incredibly healthy and more widespread than ever. Migrations no longer seem to be in a few great waves from north to south. Instead, geese appear to be making mini-migrations and rarely move farther than the south fringes of bad weather occurring in any particular zone.

"We have had three great goose seasons in a row, but last year was one of the best ever," Dr. Richard Schaede said. "It did not start getting good until bad weather hit up north on Dec. 28. It was like the good ol' days again. We killed more snows, blues and specklebellies (white-front) than we ever did. Usually the snows and blues never winter long here, but last year, for some reason, they stayed over in Crab Orchard long enough for us to get in some great shoots."

Schaede bought and formed his D&M Hunting Club in 1980. It's bordered by Crab Orchard's 44,000 acres on three sides. Southeast of D&M is the Marion city lake, a large impoundment that acts as an excellent holding area for a connecting flyway to and from Crab Orchard. D&M is a club, but also offers by-the-day shoots. Get on Schaede's call list, and you'll be contacted only when large flights of geese are in and the action is heating up. For more information, call (618) 993-8914 or email letshunt@DMHunt.com.

Goose hunters who find it difficult to leave non-hunting family members behind should try an outing at Rend Lake Resort. Resort spokesperson Clark Gyure says, "You don't have to drive far to feel far from it all."

This is in reference to the country atmosphere and superb goose hunting offered on Rend Lake. Non-hunting family members can relax at the lodge or visit area tourism attractions.

For more information, visit www.rendlakeresort.com.

For Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge information, call (618) 997-3344 or the IDNR Region V office at (618) 435-8138.

THE CENTRAL ZONE
There is no more addicted goose hunter and no one better to interview about the Springfield area than my own cousin, Kirby Davenport. He remembers the days of old when traveling to southern Illinois for goose hunting was every waterfowler's annual obsession.

"Twenty years ago, if someone would have told me that goose hunting around Springfield would be as good as southern Illinois, I'd have called them stupid," he confessed. "I hunted both in Fulton and Knox counties when geese first started staying longer in the Central Zone. Over the last few years, I have not had to leave the Springfield area. Lake Springfield and Sangchris Lake hold at least 10,000 or more geese throughout most of the winter. A large percentage of these birds are resident, and new geese are coming and going most of December and January."

The cost of a good goose-field lease around Springfield is reasonable compared with most other parts of Illinois. Geese feed in varying directions and distances from Springfield's two mid-state lakes. Your best bet is to lease a field from an area farmer who

knows he has repeat visits from local geese. Pay him the additional cost to grow corn over corn in that field (corn on corn requires more nitrogen/fertilizer costs). Decoy the field heavily and don't overshoot it before each weather event forces new geese to lead wised-up geese back into muzzle range.

"Springfield is also in a direct line for many of the migrations of snows, blues and specklebellies," Davenport said. "These geese are tougher to decoy. We have better luck decoying them on snow than on a bare field. When they commit, though, it's about as much fun as goose hunting gets!"

Fulton, Peoria and Knox counties remain one of the hottest goose regions in North America. The Illinois River, Cilco impoundments like Powerton, Rice Lake and Banner Marsh and myriad state lakes and countless privately owned strip pits make this area a No. 1 pick in the Central Zone. The goose hunters here are so competitive for leases and public blind drawings that it's darn hard for an outdoor journalist to get an interview that's anything but factually elusive.

I called two long-time goose-addict friends in Pekin to get the latest scoop on the tri-county area. Both talked at length about the unbelievable hunting that has increasingly beset this region over the last decade-plus. I got the same seven-word edict at the end of each interview, "Don't use my name in the article."

These men are only two of a multitude of waterfowl hunters from this region who have seen lease prices triple over the last decade. The minute word gets out that geese have been favoring any given area, hordes of competing waterfowlers try to outbid present lease-holders creating a domino effect that has sealed their lips or made them purposeful liars.

Your best odds of ferreting solid information on better-than-average public goose hunting is at Presley's Outdoors in Bartonville, the goose-hunting headquarters for most of the Peoria area. Owner Tim Presley has outfitted waterfowl hunters in the Peoria area for decades. His hottest-selling goose decoy is still the full-body Big Foot. If you're in the market for a layout blind, the Avery Finisher blind is this store's most-picked due to its quality and ease of operation. For more information, contact Presley at (309) 697-1193 or www.presleysoutdoors.com.

Concerning pothole shooting from a boat-blind on the Mississippi River in west-central Illinois, Greg Arens of Quincy said, "Few people know just how good the Mississippi really is for geese. It never gets good until inland ponds and lakes freeze over, usually in late December and January."

Arens contends that most any open, backwater pool that is decoyed can attract plenty of geese. Both the Illinois and Ohio rivers offer similar opportunities, but usually freeze shut earlier than the Mississippi.

"Breaking ice with your boat to get to open potholes is lots of work," Arens said. "Most guys won't go to the effort more than once. For me, it's worth it simply because I save the price of a lease."

Like most waterfowlers, he believes that more decoys are better. Check with the IDNR for restricted areas on the Illinois side of the Mississippi. There are fewer restricted areas on the Missouri side of the river, so you may consider buying a Big Mo non-resident hunting license. Call the IDNR Region IV office at (618) 462-1181 for more information about Mississippi River goose hunting.

Plenty of high-odds hunting may be had on the far northern end of the Central Zone with Neal Brooks and Eric Fjelde at their Mazonia Hunt Club near Gardner where hunters averaged 1.5 Canadas per outing. If you pre-book a hunt with these guys and the geese aren't in, you'll get a call ahead of time and have the opportunity to change your date.

They have daily-fee hunts and a Web site where you can track their successes (www.mazoniahuntclub.com). The club has been in business eight years and offers some great package deals. Youth hunters are free on their first outing if accompanied by a guardian who pays the guide fee (the pit fee is waived).

For information or bookings, call (815) 739-9822 or e-mail mazoniahunt club@prodigy.net.

THE NORTH ZONE
Goose hunting has heated up in the North Zone because of climate changes and a growing number of cooling ponds and factory impoundments. This is a good thing for north-state hunters, because the price of gas and a motel room for hunting central and southern Illinois has grown more costly than a hunt.

Don Hazlewood of Boone County may be as avid a waterfowl hunter as God ever created. He turned 70 this year and says about goose hunting in northern Illinois, "It was about 12 to 15 years ago that I started noticing northern Illinois gaining more resident geese. If weather does not get too severe, migrating geese stay much longer in this zone than ever before. We also shoot lots of geese that come out of the Chicago area."

Hazlewood walks the walk as well as talks the talk. For the last three years, he and his friends have taken eight to 12 kids each year on their first-ever hunt. Hazlewood feels a growing need to get more young people involved in waterfowl hunting.

"All the kids who hunted last year shot great and filled their limits," he bragged. "It's sad that so many kids today do nothing but sit behind a computer and watch television."

The North Zone season is open through Jan. 10. Northern public areas that remain open in January for goose hunting are listed in the IDNR Digest of Hunting and Trapping. The booklet includes the phone number of each site. Be sure to call for bird numbers and water conditions before showing up.

For booking a great hunt near Chicago, try Porter's Outdoors at www.portersoutdoors.com or (800) 345-0259. The club, which offers daily-fee shoots, has averaged 1.8 Canadas per hunter since 1993. The club leases 40 farms in three counties.

Illinois' 2007-2008 Canada goose harvest of 141,000 broke our state's previous record of 128,000 birds. IDNR waterfowl biologist Ray Marshalla reports that the 2008-2009 totals for Canadas will likely be down from those record levels due to a late spring and an April blizzard that reduced the number of the Mississippi Valley Population geese. The MVP birds make up about 51 percent of Illinois' total Canada goose harvest.

Giants, which make up 44 percent of the total harvest, had average hatches and survival rates last spring.

"Of the total giants harvested in the state, about half of those birds were actually born in Illinois," Marshalla said. "This year's harvest of snow, blue and white-front geese is predicted to be much better than last year. More specklebellies have been using Illinois flyways of late than ever before."

The Central and South zones are open through Jan. 31 this year. State and federal regulations have not changed from last goose season, but check the latest-posted dates and regulations for snow, blue and white-front geese.

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