Hunting Kentucky's Homegrown Honkers

Hunting Kentucky's Homegrown Honkers

Here's your guide to some of our state's finest Canada goose hunting right now -- and through the end of the season. One of these picks is surely near you. (December 2007)

Photo by Andy Martin.

The faint honk of a Canada goose ended our small talk and turned our attention to the skies. Peeking out the top of the blind, I could see a distant line of geese on the horizon, just off to our left. As I began to call to the geese, my hunting partner stuck the homemade goose flag out of our blind and waved it aggressively in an effort to imitate geese landing in the field.

The combination proved effective as the short line of 10 to 12 geese banked and headed in our direction.

As they neared our blind, the calling between the flock and us intensified. Soon it became obvious that the birds were committed to coming in for a closer look. By the time they realized that something wasn't right with our flock of plastic decoys, the lid to the blind had flipped open, and the bark of shotguns echoed across the field of corn stubble.

Of course, those big birds are never quite as easy to hit as it seems. When the smoke cleared, only two birds lay among the decoys as a result of our efforts.

While we took only those two birds that day, dozens more made their way by us that morning. It was a hunt that one would expect at Ballard or the Sloughs wildlife management areas (WMAs) when conditions are right.

This hunt, however, occurred in the central part of the state, just a stone's throw away from Louisville.

Hunts like the one just described are more common across much of the Bluegrass State, thanks to an explosion in what Rocky Pritchert, Migratory Game Bird Program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), calls "temperate nesting birds."

These are giant Canada geese that make their home in Kentucky and our surrounding states.

"We are trying to get away from the term 'resident geese,' " said Pritchert. Many of the giant Canada geese harvested here do not necessarily live in Kentucky year 'round.

"We know there is one segment of our population that migrates up to Hudson Bay every year to molt," the biologist stated. "Then they return to this area in August or September."

Regardless of what you call them, the population of giant Canadas in the area has exploded over the last 15 years to the point that Pritchert estimates that some 50,000 giant Canada geese now call Kentucky home.

The increasing number of local geese has been good news to waterfowl hunters, since milder winters and changing migration patterns have resulted in fewer geese from the traditional Mississippi Valley Population (MVP) and Southern James Bay Population (SJBP) making their way south to Kentucky.

These geese are finding everything they need farther north in Illinois and Michigan. Only when the weather up north gets really cold and nasty do we see the customary push of geese that once made western Kentucky such a popular wingshooting destination -- and that just doesn't seem to happen as often as it did just a decade ago.

Despite the drop in migrating goose numbers, the increasing number of temperate nesting birds has actually caused Kentucky's overall Canada goose harvest to increase over the last 15 years. In 1990, for example, hunters harvested 11,500 Canada geese in Kentucky and of those, only 2,400 were giant Canada geese.

Fifteen years later in 2005, hunters were able to harvest approximately 35,000 Canada geese, including 22,000 temperate nesting giants. That 200 percent increase in Canada goose harvest is the direct result of an exploding temperate nesting goose population in the central and eastern two-thirds of the state.

MONITORING EFFORTS

In an effort to monitor their burgeoning population, the KDFWR has been banding birds since the first geese were released back in the mid-1980s. This annual monitoring process involves capturing geese on various sites across the state, recording band information on the Canadas that have bands, and banding those birds that don't.

When a banded goose is harvested, the hunter calls the toll-free number on the bird's band and reports the band number. Biologists can gather data from the banded birds to track survival and movement of our state's nesting geese. This data, in turn, can be used to set the various goose zones and regulations within those zones.

Unfortunately, this year's data may point to a down year for our local geese.

"The hatch looks fair," said Pritchert. "It's down from the good hatches that we've had over the last few years."

He attributes the lower number of broods and smaller number of birds per brood to the late freeze that we experienced last April: "That freeze occurred late in the nesting season," the biologist stated. "The birds would have been just beginning to hatch."

Despite a less-than-desirable hatch, Kentucky hunters should still have plenty of opportunities for successful goose hunts this season.

So where should you set your sights for the best opportunity to put a few geese in the game bag? Let's look at Kentucky's five goose zones and the opportunities that exist in each for some great wingshooting action.

WESTERN GOOSE ZONE

The Western Goose Zone consists of several counties and portions of counties in the state's extreme northwestern part. It starts at Henderson County in the east and includes all of the Ohio River border counties west to Fulton County, along with the northern tips of Graves, Marshall, and Lyon counties. In terms of season length, the western zone is the most liberal, typically opening for goose hunting in early December and running through the end of January.

For public goose-hunting opportunities in this zone, it's hard to ignore Ballard and Boatwright WMAs.

These public hunting areas rely heavily on migrating geese from the north, but the KDFWR has sought to improve hunting opportunities by bringing in several thousand giant Canadas over the last two years -- last year, approximately 3,000 geese were released at Ballard WMA and another 3,200 this year.

Hunting at Ballard WMA is very restricted, and most is done by advance application. But many drawn hunters do not show up, and those blinds may become available to standby hunters who check in

before 5 a.m.

Boatwright WMA, on the other hand, has gone to a daily draw system. Interested hunters can show up at the Ballard WMA lodge on the morning they wish to hunt and put their party in for a blind.

In addition to the drawing process, both Ballard and Boatwright WMAs have numerous restrictions in place to ensure continued hunting opportunities. For example, blinds are limited to four people, and each person is limited to 25 shotgun shells per day.

Hunting is allowed only from Wednesday through Sunday, and all hunters and their equipment must be off of the area by 2 p.m., Central Standard Time.

For more rules and information on goose hunting these WMAs, pick up a copy of the 2007-2008 Kentucky Waterfowl Hunting Guide.

PENNYROYAL/COALFIELD GOOSE ZONE

Moving slightly east, the Pennyroyal/Coalfield Goose Zone includes an area from the Western Goose Zone east to -- and including -- the counties of Simpson, Warren, Butler, Ohio and Daviess counties, but excluding those portions of Hopkins, Muhlenberg, Ohio and Butler counties that fall in the West-Central Goose Zone.

Much of the goose hunting in this area occurs on the private ponds and lakes that dot the region. There's plenty of public hunting opportunity -- nearly 200,000 acres of it -- in the form of Kentucky and Barkley Lakes.

Like Ballard WMA, these large bodies of water rely heavily on migrant geese from the north to really heat up the hunting opportunities.

There are local birds that use the area, however, and as the temperatures drop and the smaller lakes and ponds start to freeze, more birds will concentrate on the open waters of the big lakes.

Several refuge areas are located on these lakes, so be sure to pick up a map at the Land Between the Lakes office before heading afield.

WEST-CENTRAL GOOSE ZONE

The West-Central Goose Zone includes Muhlenberg and Ohio counties south of the Rough River; Butler County west of Highway 79 and north of state Route (SR) 70; and Hopkins County east of SRs 813 and 109, south of U.S. Route 41 and Madisonville. This zone basically encompasses the public lands of Peabody WMA.

Peabody WMA consists of approximately 40,000 acres of reclaimed strip-mined land, dotted with numerous ponds and pits where birds will rest and roost.

Some of the land that was formerly leased by the KDFWR has changed hands in recent years. Two areas on the WMA are now set aside as a waterfowl refuge, so a good map and some on-the-ground scouting are in order to locate the most productive public land areas.

All hunters using Peabody WMA must first obtain a $12.50 user permit. Shooting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise until 2 p.m. daily. Maps are available from area stores, as well as from the KDFWR by calling 1-800-858-1549.

EASTERN GOOSE ZONE

By far the largest of the five, the Eastern Goose Zone encompasses the entire state east of the Pennyroyal/Coalfield Goose Zone, with the exception of the small, four-county Northeast Goose Zone.

Most of the hunting opportunities in this zone center on private lakes and ponds, or the agricultural fields close to them.

Fortunately for hunters, most farmers don't care much for the local geese or are indifferent to them. Getting permission to hunt is not nearly as difficult as if you were asking to hunt deer or turkeys.

A little time spent driving back roads and scouting the area should be enough to pinpoint some potential locations for a productive hunt.

Even if you don't have access to private land for yourself, all hope is not lost. A couple of U.S. Army Corps of Engineer lakes in the area have huntable populations of resident geese. And as with Kentucky and Barkley lakes to the west, once the cold weather hits and the small farm ponds freeze over, these lakes can become magnets for local birds.

One such place is Taylorsville Lake in Spencer, Nelson, and Anderson counties. Located just 30 minutes southeast of Louisville, the 3,050-acre lake provides goose-hunting opportunities from either a boat or from a temporary day blind along the bank.

Keep in mind that many of the lake's banks are steep and the water gets deep quickly, so use caution when placing decoys from the bank. Eastern Goose Zone season dates apply, and all blinds must maintain a distance of 200 yards from any other blind. The area east of the Van Buren boat ramp is closed from November 1 to March 1 as a waterfowl refuge.

Another alternative in the Eastern Goose Zone is Green River Lake WMA in Taylor and Adair counties. At 8,200 acres, the lake is much larger than its counterpart to the north, but should offer similar goose hunting opportunities.

As on Taylorsville Lake, hunters on Green River Lake may hunt from boats or temporary day blinds on a first-come, first-served basis. Shooting hours at Green River Lake end at 2 p.m.

NORTHEAST GOOSE ZONE

The Northeast Goose Zone consists of Bath, Menifee, Morgan and Rowan counties. However, no goose hunting is permitted on the block of land within the boundaries of SRs 801, 1274, 36, 211, 60, and 826, which basically encompasses Cave Run Lake. This refuge area, along with the most restrictive season dates of any goose zone, was established to protect the resident flock that has developed around the lake.

Though the lake serves as their resting and roosting area, the geese must travel to and from the lake in order to feed, presenting hunters with an opportunity to intercept birds outside of the refuge area.

Hunting in the Northeast Goose Zone requires a mandatory free permit, which can be obtained from the KDFWR by calling 1-800-858-1549 weekdays between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. EST.

The season typically runs for a week after Christmas and the last week of January. Shooting hours are from half an hour before sunrise until 2 p.m.

Times are changing for Bluegrass State goose hunters. It no longer requires a trip to Ballard or Henderson counties to put a Canada goose on the table for Christmas dinner. It doesn't even have to snow in Illinois!

Local giant Canada geese can be found across the state using just about any decent-sized body of water.

If that body of water is close by to some agricultural fields, you have the potential for some great wingshooting action this winter.

The nine-member KDFWR Commission sets Kentucky's goose-hunting season dates and bag limits, which in turn are based on the framework set forth by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Regulations f

or WMAs often differ from those statewide, so be sure and pick up a copy of the 2007-2008 Kentucky Waterfowl Hunting Guide to check the dates and regulations for the area you're interested in.

The guide is available from local license vendors, or can be found online at www.fw.ky.gov.

While in the field, all Kentucky waterfowl hunters are required to carry a hunting license, federal duck stamp and state waterfowl permit.

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