Catching Cameron Waterfowl

Cameron Parish has thousands of acres of lakes and marsh that are perfect for ambushing all species of ducks and geese. ( January 2007)

The author shot this nice blue goose near Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Cameron Parish.
Photo by Chester Moore Jr.

At first I thought I was seeing things.

Just as the sun started to peek over the marsh, a large black shape blacked out the available light. Was this a fog coming from the nearby Gulf or an ensuing storm?

From a distance, it looked like one giant shape, but as it approached, the familiar cackling sound of snow geese broke the silence of the morning. What seemed to be one huge object was instead thousands of geese moving in unison, heading in the direction of our blind. This was my first-ever real goose hunt, and the bunch I was hunting with had warned me to bring plenty of ammunition. Cameron Parish was loaded with geese, and I was to be in the middle of some world-class wing-shooting action.

That was many years ago, but the geese are still in Cameron Parish, and the hunting can range from so-so to superb, depending on weather and habitat conditions.

Last year, in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, very little hunting took place in Cameron Parish, with the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge closed and nearly every structure in the area obliterated by storm surge or severely damaged by wind -- so any specific data that could underpin predictions about prospects for goose hunting in the area this season are questionable. However, certain long-recognized areas and techniques should pan out in this remote, wild part of Louisiana. (Continued)

Identifying goose flyways through the parish is extremely important. Two major national wildlife refuges are in the area, but waterfowl hunting is allowed only at Sabine NWR. Most opportunities here are on private land, so hunters need to be flexible with regard to their game plans, and to understand the movements of the birds in the Parish.

By the time this article hits newsstands, geese will be established in the area, so few birds will be arriving from up north. The movement will be associated with changes in food availability, and will respond to the pressure that will be felt in the area. One of the key areas holding geese lies right on the boundary of the refuge and private property that borders Sabine Lake. From the Willow and Johnson Bayou area you can see the geese moving back and forth. The geese, mostly snows and Ross', tend to roost on refuge property, afterwards flying toward the outskirts of the federal property and onto the prairie area to feed. If you're one of the lucky hunters with that property leased, you'll probably kill lots of geese. However, refuge hunters can also score -- if they pay careful attention.

I believe that geese here are driven as much by pressure as by food availability. Lots of outfitters work to the northeast of the refuge, and quite a few along the southeastern corridor. With much of the refuge closed to hunting, they have a little sanctuary, and these geese can be easily decoyed if you're able to set up near their flyway and focus on getting stragglers from the group. Flocks of a dozen to two dozen geese are as good as dead if you have a well-placed decoy spread and call minimally.

Many of the outfitters here use huge spreads and call a lot, so the geese trying to dodge the pressure will gladly go to small to medium-sized spreads with minimal calling activity.

"I would recommend hunters use a couple of dozen life-sized decoys and then have a few magnums it there to grab their attention," said veteran Lake Charles waterfowler Chris Phelps. "I always like to have a dozen and a half snows, and then throw in a few specklebellies. I put the snows in a cluster, mix a couple of specks in with them, and then put the rest of my specks in a group out to the side.

"I have always seen the small clusters of geese like this where you will have the specks feeding around them down here, so I try to set it up as natural as I can."

According to Phelps, you should call sparingly the snows, but if you see specklebellies coming in alone, turn up the volume. "You almost can't overcall the specks down here, especially if you have a young bird coming in alone," he noted. "If you just give it that steady action, be ready to shoot, because I have found them very easy to bring in."

Hunters in the rest of the parish should look for some geese moving from the northeast that are pressured from along the Cameron-Calcasieu parish line and an east-west and west-east line of travel. Geese along the coast are very mobile, and those not roosting on a refuge can be hanging out in one spot one afternoon and be at another location the next morning. In the early part of the month, they'll be feeding in available rice and some coastal grassfields, but at some point they should turn to rye grass. Any available rye grass is like a magnet for geese -- they're addicted to it -- so hunters with access to rye grass should have no problem scoring on big numbers of geese.

Large spreads in the fields tend to work better than do small ones, and hunters who set up realistic spreads that show geese doing a variety of things (feeding, preening, etc.) will do much better than will those with just a bunch of rags out in a field. The old adage in these parts used to be that you could take a white bucket and put it in the field and shoot snows. That's simply not true anymore, as the species has developed a level of awareness second to none in the waterfowl world. You have to know the behavior of the birds in your area. If you're hunting marsh refuges think light and mobile, and if you have access to private fields, go big and super-realistic.

Mix it up with life-size photorealistic decoys, shells, rags and kites. During the last few years I've seen kites popping up on more and more goose hunts, and I believe that they're one of the major keys to success -- depending on wind, of course.

Last year, I got to participate in a hunt for Ducks Unlimited Television. Our quarry: snow geese. We had lots of competition, as numerous highly skilled outfitters were operating in the area. Our spread consisted of several strategically placed kites lined up within shooting range of the hunters -- and nearly every goose we shot went right for the kites.

They also picked out any hunter not camouflaged head to toe, including a solid facemask -- so if you think you're not camouflaged enough, you're not. By the time geese get down to southern Louisiana they've been shot at hundreds of times. Just as important to keep in mind: Snow geese in particular are an old population. The age-class of the birds is such that we're dealing with experts at dodging hunters.

I'm a big proponent of combination goose/duck hunts, and I believe that some of the big marsh flats and lakes in the parish can offer some high-quality goose hunting, particularly late in the season.

Just as with bay duck hunting, the secret lies in thinking big. You'll want to set up a good number of duck decoys -- particularly divers, which are common in the area this time of year -- mixed with some snow and blue geese. Besides making the spread big, use magnum-sized decoys. You have to get the attention of those geese and ducks, and using big decoys is one way to do that. When the birds fly over open water, which is often choppy, they may have a hard time seeing regular-sized decoys or a small spread. Think big, and you'll promote success.

Many hunters set their decoys in a large cove, leave a landing area, and extend one long leg of the spread out into open water to attract cruising ducks. This is highly effective, especially if you have a couple of mechanical duck decoys with rotating wings in your spread.

I prefer hunting around islands. The prime decoy spot is toward the tail of an island, in the soft water between the tail and the main current. Islands generally have enough cover so that, coupled with a well-camouflaged boat, it should work to hide hunters.

Usually the best shooting time comes as the birds cross the bay after their morning meal in the marsh and nearby prairies. The drop-of-water formation is a smart pattern to employ. This consists of decoys set up in the shape of a water droplet, with one end tapering off sharply toward the hunters. You can camouflage the boat greatly and set up in the middle of the set or hunt just off the edges. The advantage here is that, with the wind in your face, you can remain well hidden amid the sea of white. The tapering end looks like a natural landing, inviting more birds to set down.

Ryan Warhola, from Sabine Pass just across the Louisiana-Texas border, said that he's had pretty decent success at bagging low flying geese on foggy days along this coastal area. He emphasized that hunters need to be very mindful of weather conditions. "You have to really pay attention to the weather and be prepared to leave at the last minute," he noted, "because this is a matter of keying in on confused geese. That's something you don't get a chance to do every day."

Hunters should familiarize themselves with the flight patterns of the birds in the section of the refuge they want to hunt, recommended Warhola. "These birds have patterns they use quite a bit in different areas," he said. "They will do the same thing on foggy mornings, but they are not sure of their surroundings, so they are a lot easier to get.

"Find some good cover, like around a levee, or just behind a small ridge, and use that as your signpost for shooting and calling. Once the birds get to your spot, let them have it. If the fog is high enough, you can see a fair way up; you'll want to take farther shots. But if it's really thick, you can make super-high-percentage shots at near point blank range."

FALL FLIGHT

Goose hunting success in Cameron Parish (or anywhere, for that matter) begins in the nesting grounds, and this year brings mixed reports. During the 2006 midwinter survey, biologists counted 2,221,700 light geese, which is 5 percent fewer than last year's tally.

According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, biologists at Southampton Island in Canada's Hudson Bay (a key nesting area for snow geese) reported that the spring snowmelt occurred about one week earlier than it had in recent years. Nesting there appeared to run three to four days earlier than it did in 2005, and two weeks earlier than in 2004. Spring nesting at Cape Henrietta Maria and La Perouse Bay was earlier than average for a second consecutive year, and biologists expect production there to be average or better. A fall flight similar to or larger than that of 2005 is expected.

For specklebellies (white-fronted geese), nesting near Queen Maud, Gulf in 2006 was about a week earlier than the average, and nesting conditions from the Rasmussen Lowlands to Kugluktuk appeared to be favorable.

Production of white-fronted geese throughout most of their range, with the exception of the western Canadian mainland, is expected to be above average. A fall flight lower than that of last year is expected. Fewer young specklebellies will be available for hunters to get a crack at. Young geese make up the majority of the bag in years in which they're a large portion of the fall flight. They have less experience and are much easier to call in and decoy. This year, it looks as if hunters might have to work for their specklebellies.

GETTING READY

FOR THE FIELD

If you've never hunted Cameron Parish, you're in for a treat -- but this wild, beautiful part of the coast is also quite treacherous. The mud in the marshes is super-thick, and you can easily get lost in this area that has very little human habitation. It's definitely no place for wimps; it's for those with a spirit of adventure, and for those who want to give a different kind of goose hunting a chance. As I said earlier in the story, lots of question marks remain to be erased as we go into the season; the extent to which last year's hurricane damage will affect hunting is not yet known.

However, at this point, the only way to find out is to go hunting. At worst, you'll have the pleasure of roaming some breathtakingly beautiful country; at best you might very well have the goose hunt of a lifetime.

It's certainly possible down in Cameron Parish.

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