Kentucky'™s Hottest Winter Goose Hunts
October 04, 2010
Our local expert selects prime public picks for fine goose hunting, from right now through the end of the season.
Photo courtesy of R.E. Ilg
If you've been a goose hunter over the past five years, it's been pretty obvious that in the Bluegrass State, your options for quality hunting have changed dramatically. To find good hunting at one time, all you'd have to say was "Go west, brother."
While the western tip of Kentucky still offers good goose hunting when conditions are favorable, in recent years the tables have turned to the point that more geese are now being harvested somewhere other than in the far western end of the state. The noticeable increase in resident geese across the Commonwealth has made goose hunting much more widespread than it was a decade ago.
"At first," said Rocky Pritchert, waterfowl program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), "you might think that the reason why the better goose hunting isn't concentrated to the west anymore has to do with a loss of habitat, or some drastic change in migratory goose numbers. But that's not the primary catalyst.
"The driving factor is actually more weather-related," said the biologist. "And the portion of migratory birds that reach Kentucky aren't having to come this far south to find what they need in the winter.
"When there was less good wintering grounds to our immediate north, and we got extended periods of really cold weather, we saw geese pour across the Ohio River and flock into our refuge areas in western Kentucky.
"Hunters had a lot more birds to work with. They were concentrated and most associated with our wildlife management areas like Ballard and the Sloughs wildlife management areas (WMAs) on the Ohio near Henderson.
"That pattern has changed," said Pritchert. "And when you add in the upswing in resident birds getting established outside the western zone, it explains why we're seeing more geese available in the mid-part of Kentucky so far this decade."
Pritchert notes another trend that will interest hunters, besides the fact that goose hunting is becoming more popular in central and eastern Kentucky: This season, this past spring's late freeze will likely have some negative impact on resident goose numbers this winter. (Continued)
"Hunters may recall that right at the latter part of the nesting season, we had a day or two that burned a lot of plants and tree blossoms, and also got some of our early hatches," reports Pritchert. "Our counts later in the spring were down from normal, and we saw smaller broods in most areas.
"I suspect some of the flocks in local areas will be smaller this season," he said. "Hunters who've located an established bunch of birds in past years may find a little tougher hunting this season."
Despite the trend of fewer migrants coming in, the Ballard, Boatwright and Sloughs WMAs in west Kentucky still offer some of the better public land hunting this season -- and the best chances of quality hunting in the that region. All three offer some level of "Show up and hunt" opportunities. But on Ballard, this is done on a stand-by basis. That means if the hunters who have been drawn don't show that morning, there will be a draw for substitute hunters.
The slightly less risky areas to get in on include the Boatwright WMA (also in Ballard County) and the Sloughs WMA. Both of these public areas offer walk-in hunting. At Boatwright, you need to check in first.
Unassigned blinds on portions of the Sloughs WMA are open on a first-come, first-served basis. Again, it's best to check in with the WMA staff for details.
"We saw a bit of an increase in harvest on Ballard last season, mostly due to the relocating of some nuisance geese from other areas in the state," Pritchert said. The biologist said that approach has continued this past summer, and hunters may see some extra birds again this year.
EXPANDED STATE PARK HUNTING
Eastern end goose hunters may be aware that last year, Greenbo Lake State Resort Park was open for goose hunting, to help manage a decent-sized flock in that area. The season ran from mid-December through the end of January, and hunters could hunt certain portions of the lake and adjacent shoreline owned by the park. About the only other restriction was to check in each day.
This year, Pritchert expects several other state parks to more or less follow suit, and be opened to goose hunting like Greenbo.
"While the lakes associated with many of these parks have generally been open to on-the-water hunting out of a boat, we're cooperating with a half dozen or more locations this winter to permit some goose hunting on park grounds, in addition to the waterway or reservoir on which the park is found," explained Pritchert.
Hunters should closely check the final waterfowl season regulations. But additional state parks located at Yatesville Lake, Paintsville Lake, Lincoln Homestead, Barren River Lake, Barkley Lake, Grayson Lake and the Pennyrile State Resort Park will likely allow goose hunting this season.
"They approached us about a way to help manage resident goose flocks that stay on the park grounds much of the time," said Pritchert.
The report on Peabody
goose numbers is decent,
but Pritchert says that
last year's reduction in
hatch survival may
knock the population back
some this season.
"Some have seen a pretty big increase in goose numbers, and the preference is not to wind up in a situation of having to capture and relocate birds to keep from getting more than what visitors (and parks grounds keepers) might enjoy.
"Moving birds just to get them out of a location is an expensive and time-consuming solution when harvesting those birds safely can be an option or, as it sometimes happens, let the hunting activity discourage the geese from staying on the park grounds 24-7 and creating conflicts.
"We suggested allowing some hunting in specific areas where the birds sometimes group up and cause some problems. And I believe that will be a good solution for the park, while at the same time providing some additional hunting opportunity for local hunters," he said.
Hunters need to understand that while the KDFWR regulates the season and limits, hunting will be on land owned by Kentucky
State Parks, and so parks personnel will determine what areas are open on their lands.
They will also determine the procedure and any other hunter rules for these hunts, such as check in, distances that must be maintained from buildings, campgrounds, trails and so forth.
"I think this will be a really good chance for hunters to have some success because in some cases, this is the first season these birds will have experienced being hunted, and they may be easier to hunt," said Pritchert.
"Geese become educated quickly," he said. "And when there is just one spot you can get to and they figure things out there, it cuts down on your options after a few days of how to get them to work your location again."
The biologist suspects that some shooting may spread the birds around. If hunters can spend a little time scouting, they may find some spots like coves or embayments on the big lakes are being used more often than -- for example -- the golf course lake, which is much more accessible for hunting.
For complete information about these new opportunities, you'll have to consult the Kentucky Waterfowl Hunting Guide for any last-minute rules that may be hammered out between the two agencies, or for areas added or deleted to the list for the 2007 season.
If you hunt on some of Kentucky's numerous flowing waterways, your chances of success on Canada geese have increased steadily in recent years. Flocks have developed on tons of private lakes in west-central and central Kentucky. When the land-locked waters freeze over, that sets up a good situation to hunt the closest river or large creek in late season.
You may hunt on moving waterways without permission, as long as you do not tie up or anchor on the bank, which is almost always somebody's private property. There are some waterways where the adjacent shoreline is public land, but that's a limited situation.
"One of the toughest things about goose or duck hunting in the mid-section of the state is that often in a localized area where a lot of resident birds are found, there's just not much public hunting land. In order to be anywhere close to where the birds are, you have to get permission to hunt on private land," said Pritchert.
The biologist is referring to the numerous horse farms, golf courses and sometimes, big manufacturing-operation ponds and lakes that Canada geese will use. It's now routine to see flights of birds going to and from these kinds of locations all year 'round -- but for most of us, it's tough to get access to those lands.
"The alternative is when the weather gets rough and cold, and those private ponds and lakes freeze over," said the biologist. "That's when it's time to scout along rivers or creeks.
"There will be spots to hunt along rivers like the Kentucky, Salt, Green, Rolling Fork, Licking and even the Elkhorn Creek. Look for areas where the rivers run through agricultural lands, were geese feed on during winter periods.
"If you can locate some fields, or see birds feeding in fields somewhere close to a large creek or river, you'll have a decent chance of being able to hunt those birds by floating that waterway," said Pritchert.
When most of the geese in the vicinity are forced to the river to find open water, you might be surprised at the number of birds you can see. They will move up and down those waterways, looking for undisturbed spots and other birds, and that's your chance to cash in.
"The best waterway is usually going to be the Ohio River, in the stretches near cooling ponds of big power plants, or slough ponds that freeze as winter progresses," recommended Pritchert.
"Sometimes, both migrants and residents will use the Ohio as a resting area and natural travel lane, even before they can't find open water elsewhere," he said.
If you're willing to cover some ground -- water, actually -- and are flexible enough to change locations and hunt a little to find groups of birds, going the route of working rivers isn't a bad bet at all.
Just dress correctly, go slowly and make wise shots. If you're not familiar with the closest spot to put in on the waterway you want to hunt, contact the KDFWR for a list of boat launch ramps on public waterways.
PEABODY WMA & CAVE RUN LAKE
The Peabody WMA and Cave Run Lake have specialized goose-hunting zones set up around them to let hunters utilize the established resident flocks in these two areas. Those zones are the West-Central, and Northeast Goose zones, respectively.
In both areas, the KDFWR has helped maintain a larger collective flock of birds that use a variety of waters within those land areas, both for nesting in spring and to call home during winter.
The birds on Peabody and Cave Run Lake tend to regenerate themselves each year, providing waterfowlers in those regions some local hunting on a limited basis. These areas aren't open to the full goose season, simply to ensure the flocks aren't over-harvested and to sustain the resource from year to year.
This year, Rocky Pritchert
expects several other state parks to more or less follow suit,
and be opened to goose
hunting like Greenbo.
Pritchert says that in the Northeast Goose Zone at Cave Run, most of the land and water lies within a four-county area, and the land around the lake is public land. The lake itself is basically a refuge, but most of the surrounding area is open to hunting. Hunters can find the feeding spots these birds use daily when they get up off the water.
To hunt in this area, you need to obtain a free permit. But for the northeastern section of Kentucky, this is where the bulk of the geese are, by and large. Scouting is, of course, necessary to see what places the birds are using and to locate spots to set up.
Except for a couple of refuge lakes on the Sinclair and Homestead Mines, the vast lands and network of ponds and small lakes on the Peabody WMA in the West-central Goose Zone are open, as long as you have a Peabody user permit from the KDFWR.
The report on Peabody goose numbers is decent, but Pritchert says that last year's reduction in hatch survival may knock the population back some this season. He says the key to success on Peabody lands is moving around, getting out there and locating birds in advance, and having two or three potential locations in mind that you can try during a given morning.
"Our goose numbers have leveled off in this area, and it still ranks as one of the best public land spots for geese. But I don't want to mislead hunters that it holds thousands of birds," said Pritchert.
"Since this area was opened and developed a flock, mining activity has continued, and the landscape is in perpetual
change. This causes birds to move around, and it effects hunting year to year.
"Peabody is a big area," he said. "These birds have a lot of spots to choose from when they want to roost and hang out, and which fields they want to sit down and feed on. Those locations may not be the same ones every year, depending on how the landscape changes, and if work is going on in an area where it was undisturbed and quiet before,"
So if you want to be successful, you have to get out there, look around and find out what the geese are doing. You also have to have two or three options in mind should the birds not be there that day, or if someone else shows up before you, which sometimes happens on public land.
"If you'll take time to do that, you can have some pretty good days there, and around Cave Run Lake," Pritchert concluded.
Lastly, he stresses the importance of keeping tabs on the weather, on which Kentucky waterfowl hunting is so dependent. Mild winters make for less productive hunting seasons. It keeps birds spread out, because they can sit down anywhere on open water. If they get spooked, they just move half a mile up the road and find another hole to stick their feet in.
When you scout a WMA, your first order of business might be simply to learn where all the ponds and lakes are, and if a river or creek runs through the land. This will save time if you have to move around when conditions change.
The 2007-08 Kentucky Waterfowl Hunting Season Guide is available on line at fw.ky.gov, or by calling toll-free 1-800-858-1549, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Eastern time, weekdays.
Remember to have your state hunting license, waterfowl permit, federal waterfowl stamp and get the lead shotguns shells out of your pockets before you go goose hunting.