Our State's Best Winter Goose Hunts

Our State's Best Winter Goose Hunts

From east to west, here are prime places to try for Canada geese right now on public-land areas in three top waterfowl zones.

The very mild winter that we enjoyed last year was not welcomed by Kentucky's goose hunters. The unseasonably warm temperatures and lack of severe weather caused most migrating geese to stall in regions north of Kentucky; hence hunters, especially those in the western part of the state, faired very poorly.

Much of Kentucky's goose harvest last season was made up of giant Canada geese, which are more commonly referred to as resident geese. Without these homegrown birds, the season would have been much worse.

Resident geese made the overall number of geese taken in Kentucky seem higher than in other years with poor migration. Around 20,000 Canada geese were taken statewide with true migrants making up only around 35 percent of the total. In the early '90s, when we had an extremely poor migration and a subsequent harvest of around 9,000 geese, migrants made up about 70 percent of the total harvest.

True migratory geese breed in the Hudson Bay area and other areas of northern Canada, then migrate south through the winter. The resident geese that make up a large part of our winter harvest breed and live in areas such as Ontario, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, as well as here in Kentucky. The increase in the number of resident birds has helped increase hunting opportunity across the state.

Rocky Pritchert, Wetlands Systems and Migratory Bird Coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), had this to say about the poor migration last year.

"Goose hunting has gotten better in Kentucky. Overall, the number of geese harvested has gone up over the past 12 or 13 years."

Harvest statistics back this up. A five-year average between 1981 and 1985 shows around 15,900 Canada geese being harvested each year. The most recent five-year average shows that figure at 33,600 geese per year. Although last year's figure of 20,000 looks bleak compared to the average, it is not uncommon for harvest figures to fluctuate. After the record harvest of 52,400 geese in 1998, the next year dropped off to 24,500 geese. Around 35,500 geese were taken the following year in 2000.

Photo by Cathy & Gordon Illg

This season may be down in the total number of birds, but the hunting may be better depending on the weather. Preliminary indications from breeding observations indicate a poor year for young birds. This is true of both true migrants and residents.

There are two different populations of true migrants that winter in Kentucky. The Mississippi Valley Population (MVP) and Southern James Bay Population (SJBP) are the migrating geese, which are predominantly seen in the western third of the state. The number of adult SJBP birds returning to the breeding area was down, while the number of MVP birds saw an increase in the number of adults returning; but both groups had poor years at the breeding grounds.

Nesting took place very late last year due to a very cold and wet spring. There was snow still on the ground in some of the breeding areas even into June. This past spring was one of the latest on record for hatch dates. Very young goslings were observed even as late as the end of July. Late nesting does not bode well for fall migration numbers.

"The longer it takes them from the time they arrive on the breeding grounds to when they initiate nests - the cost is in the number of eggs they will lay. Because it took so long, we saw the clutch sizes go down about one egg per nest. So we saw a 13 percent drop in the number of nests and a 20 percent drop in clutch size," Pritchert said.

Young birds that hatch extremely late in the breeding season are usually not capable of making the fall migration. They simply do not survive. Adult birds are ultimately forced to leave them behind when severe weather arrives.

"Unfortunately, the odds of these birds that are hatched so late ever leaving the breeding grounds are very poor. They just don't have a long enough growing period," according to Pritchert.

Our resident geese did not fare any better. Substantial flooding and cold temperatures during the peak of nesting in March and April took a toll on gosling production. Many nests were lost to flooding. Those broods that did hatch were subjected to very cold, damp conditions. These conditions made it very difficult for geese to keep their young warm.

We generally have our best hunting seasons when there are a good many young birds produced. But this year may be better than last. Although the number of young birds will probably be down, more adult birds survived from last year and should help make up part of the loss of reproductive success. With any luck, winter conditions will be more favorable for hunting. Here are three top spots across the state for late-season goose hunting.

BALLARD WMA
Ballard Wildlife Management Area (WMA) was not immune from experiencing poor numbers of wintering geese in Kentucky. Traditionally, one of the best spots in the Commonwealth for goose hunting, last year Ballard saw a sharp decline.

Charlie Wilkins, area supervisor of Ballard and Boatwright WMAs, said. "Last year was one of our poorest years on Ballard WMA due to the fact that the birds did not come into the southern latitudes because of the mild temperatures. This was especially true of Canada geese."

This year should be better provided the weather cooperates. Last season, the WMA saw the lowest harvest to date. Only around 50 to 60 geese were taken on the area. The area has averaged harvests of 629 geese per year over an 18-year period. Last season, only 500 geese were taken in the entire reporting zone. This zone usually has an average harvest of 7,000 geese per year based over a span of 19 years. In the past, the reporting zone has seen sportsmen harvest as many as 18,000 Canada geese.

True migrating interior geese, predominately the MVP, make up the majority of the birds seen at Ballard. Wilkins says there are only around 50 to 75 resident geese utilizing the WMA property year 'round. However, he indicates several hundred geese make their home in the nearby area. This includes geese living on farm ponds and other places. If these birds are counted, their number may be as high as 1,500 to 2,000 resident birds.

Ballard and Boatwright WMAs are extensively managed for waterfowl. The areas are bordered by the Ohio River, and both WMAs have plenty of other water sources on and near their boundaries. Additionally, Wilkins oversees the management of moist-soil areas and m

echanical flooding. Both water-wells and pumps in the river are used to enhance approximately 800 acres on Ballard and 50 to 55 acres on Boatwright. Standing corn is left on 310 acres and another 1,200 acres of winter wheat are planted by airplane.

Both the Ballard WMA and Boatwright WMA are furnished with 17 hunting blinds each. One blind on Ballard is for mobility-impaired users only. Most of these blinds are assigned for hunters selected in a drawing during a pre-season application period. However, Wilkins says there are plenty of "standby" opportunities for late-season hunters, who were not drawn or even participated in the application process.

Standby hunters should arrive at either WMA no later than 5:15 a.m. on the day they wish to hunt. Their names are placed in a bucket. If someone drawn for a blind on that day does not show by the allotted time, a name from the standby bucket is drawn and that person gets to hunt. Wilkins says they have been successful in recent years at providing hunting opportunity to around 98 percent of standby hunters. The most difficult time to get a spot is around the holidays.

The WMAs also provide decoys and transportation to the blinds for hunters. Hunters may not bring hard decoys, but they can bring soft-sided decoys, flags and windsocks. Hunters are also allowed to bring along their dogs and heaters for the blinds. Each hunter must pay a $15 day-use fee during the check-in procedure. Each blind will hold up to four people. The WMAs allow hunting from Wednesday through Sunday with no hunting on Mondays and Tuesdays or on Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

Wilkins says there is no "freelance hunting" on the Ballard and Boatwright areas, although walk-in and boat hunting are allowed in some areas. Hunters must still check in and out each day and must stay a minimum of 200 yards apart.

More information on the Ballard and Boatwright WMAs can be obtained by calling Charlie Wilkins at (270) 224-2244.

SLOUGHS WMA
The Sloughs WMA, in Henderson and Union counties, usually attracts a large number of Canada geese each year. Some years this figure has been estimated at 30,000 birds. Last year, due to the warm winter, Sloughs-area sportsmen harvested only 640 geese, which is a record low. Conversely, during the 2000-2001 season, the area exceeded the targeted quota number of 3,200 geese and the season was closed 10 days early. This year will, of course, also be decided by the weather. However, it will not be decided by a lack of attraction to the area or from a lack of effort on the WMA's part.

Mike Morton, the manager at the WMA, and his staff work very hard to manage the area for waterfowl. The location is already prime with ample agricultural areas and other food sources, including the nearby Ohio River, sloughs, ponds, creeks and other wetlands. A waterfowl refuge located at the WMA provides an off-limits to hunters resting and roosting area for geese and other waterfowl. Additionally, Morton and crew enhance the goose-attracting habitat of the area tremendously.

Moist-soil areas are managed for waterfowl and approximately 750 surface acres of water are pumped up onto the WMA each year. WMA personnel pump water in front of all the on-site blinds, with the exception of two, which are left dry and used primarily for goose hunting only. The annual expense for pumping water at the WMA usually reaches approximately $22,000.

Some of the blinds located on the WMA are available only for hunters drawn during a pre-season application period. The remainder of the blinds is open to walk-in hunters on a first-come, first-served basis. Most of the WMA, excluding the area set aside as a waterfowl refuge, is open to day hunters and walk-ins. Hunters can use portable blinds and boat blinds, but must remain at least 200 yards from any other blind or boat.

Hunting pressure at Sloughs WMA ebbs and flows depending on hunting conditions and time of year. Morton says the area gets the most pressure during the opening week of the season and around holidays. Weekends are also usually busy. Waterfowlers who can hunt during weekdays will find the least amount of pressure from other hunters. Morton also recommends pre-hunt scouting to help pattern the birds and determine the best location for hunting.

Mike Morton can be reached at (270) 827-2673.

NORTHEAST
The northeastern portion of Kentucky is a little trickier to hunt. Not only are there fewer geese than in the western zones, but the birds are also much more scattered. There is no single location that holds large numbers of birds, like Ballard and Sloughs. Advance scouting in the northeast is vital to success.

Any of the major reservoirs in the northeast will attract and hold geese. The number of geese will vary according to weather conditions and feeding patterns. Paintsville, Yatesville and Grayson lakes each have a resident flock of between 100 to 200 birds, according to Rick Mauro, public lands wildlife biologist with the KDFWR.

Cave Run Lake, by far, has the largest number of geese; however, the lake is closed to waterfowl hunting. Certain areas around the lake can be excellent at times, but hunters need to locate these areas well ahead of the hunt while scouting.

Mauro indicates that all these reservoir areas are resting and roosting areas. The geese will typically fly out of these lake areas to surrounding agricultural fields to feed and then return to reservoirs later in the day. Hunters will typically set up to intercept geese along these travel paths.

These reservoirs will see an increase in the number of geese when cold weather begins freezing smaller ponds and sloughs in the area. Waterfowl will move onto the reservoirs in search of open water. Likewise, severe prolonged cold will cause freezing at these reservoirs as well and force waterfowl to the nearby Ohio or Big Sandy rivers. Severe winter conditions to the north oftentimes bring in geese from Ohio and Ontario, which dramatically increases hunting opportunities in the northeast.

The Lewis County WMA is a newly licensed area for the KDFWR in cooperation with American Electric Power (AEP). The WMA consists of 1,161 acres and should offer additional hunting opportunities this year for goose hunters. Nearly half of the property consists of agricultural fields typically planted with corn and soybeans. Mauro says these areas generally attract geese each year.

"Hunting the Lewis County WMA will be the exact opposite from hunting the reservoirs. This area will be primarily a feeding location and will provide very little resting or roosting areas. Geese will generally fly into these fields to feed and then go back to the river or other locations to roost," said Mauro.

The KDFWR will probably have around six to eight blinds located on the property, according to Mauro. These blinds will be available for public hunting on a first-come, first-served basis. However, hunting will be permitted throughout the property and hunters will be allowed to set up portable blinds in areas of their choosing. All blinds must be kept

at least 200 yards apart.

Hunters should also check for the latest information regarding goose-hunting possibilities at Greenbo Lake State Park. Generally, state parks do not allow waterfowl hunting. However, the goose flock at Greenbo Lake has become overcrowded and officials are looking at hunting as a means of thinning their numbers.

A limited hunting season has been proposed and, if passed, may offer both quota hunting and walk-in hunting during January. This will be an excellent late-season opportunity if made available. Official word on the approval of the hunting season at Greenbo Lake State Park can be obtained by contacting the KDFWR at (800) 858-1549.

Call Rick Mauro at (606) 686-3312 for more information on goose hunting in the northeastern part of the state.

Last year was a very poor one for goose hunters in Kentucky. Reproduction this past spring was also poor. This season's success will not be entirely decided by reproduction. Weather will still be the most prominent factor. Goose populations, residents and true migrants, are still at good numbers. They will yield excellent hunting opportunities if Mother Nature cooperates.



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