Return Of The Rice Birds
September 28, 2010
Louisiana waterfowlers in search of some January wingshooting need look no farther than rice country. From Interstate 10 south to the Gulf Coast, the action can get hot and heavy! (January 2009)
In January, geese feed heavily in rice stubble, but they also take advantage of other food sources such as rye grass, clover regrowth and winter wheat. Photo by Keith Sutton.
Late-season goose hunting can be downright demanding.
By January, the birds have been shot at from Canada to Cameron Parish, and even the young birds start to wise up. Owing to lower hatch estimates on the birds' arctic nesting grounds, hunters will face tougher goose hunting this year than they did last season. Combine this year's less-than-stellar hatch with similar numbers from the previous year, and it's fairly easy to read the writing on the wall: the birds will be really tough to hunt. Hunters serious about shooting geese need to know how to catch the birds with their guard down and how to identify where the birds will concentrate in the greatest numbers.
In Louisiana, that means rice country. From just north of Interstate 10 south to the coast, rice country composed of rice farms, cattle operations in coastal prairies and marshlands offer the variety of habitat on which both light and dark geese thrive.
First, let's talk food sources.
Goose hunters should think "green" for late-season snows in particular.
"By the time January starts rolling around, you want to look real hard at rye grass, which is a key food source for geese," said veteran waterfowler Ed Kestler. "They will start hitting it and, in some cases, ignore just about everything else. Out in the rice country, it is very common for farmers to plant rye grass and have it growing by the latter part of the season.
"There is a definite point where the birds start feeding really heavily on rye grass, and success often becomes an issue of who has access to green fields."
Other similar sources in the Louisiana rice country are clover regrowth on dry ground and winter wheat crops.
"A lot of hunters get caught up just thinking the birds are feeding in the rice stubble, which is certainly important," Kestler said. "But the later the season gets, it is the other food items in rice country that tend to draw in the most birds. . . . (Hunters with) access to these kinds of crops definitely have the best success."
Something else to consider is grit. I have hit passing shots on birds flying from grit pits on several occasions and know hunters who routinely use the habit of "gritting" to their advantage. For those who do not know, all waterfowl need grit -- or, essentially, hard material -- in their diet to allow their gizzards to mill what they are eating. Domestic goose farmers often supply their birds with limestone, shell and even flint and sometimes give them coarse sand. There are "grit pits" on most federal refuges where geese congregate to get their essentials, but these birds will get it wherever they can from shell roads to sand pits. Knowing when and where the birds will utilize grit can aid hunters with limited access to agriculture. The key is learning the flyways to lure birds into your spreads and understanding which groups of birds are utilizing key gritting areas, as well as determining areas on which they are feeding and roosting.
SPOT THE ROOST
Equally important to identifying food sources is learning where the geese are roosting. Concentrations in this part of the world can range from 500 to 50,000 birds, and it is the hunter that spends the most time scouting that will know where the geese are coming from and where they are feeding during different parts of the day.
Appropriate camouflage is vital for hunters targeting hyper-wary January snow geese.
Photo by Chester Moore Jr.
"Scouting is important, and that is something we do a lot of here," said Capt. Buddy Oakes of Hackberry Rod and Gun Club. "It is important to know what the birds are doing every day because their habits can change by the hour. . . . Unless you are up to speed, you will end up with few birds."
In general, large decoy spreads in the fields tend to work better than small ones, and hunters who set up realistic spreads that show geese doing a variety of things such as feeding and preening will do much better than those with just a bunch of rags out in a field. The old adage in these parts used to be that a white bucket was all you needed to attract snows -- but that's simply not true anymore, the species having 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; if you have access to private fields, go big and realistic.
Mix it up with life-sized realistic decoys, shells, rags and kites. During the last few years I've seen goose hunters using kites more and more, and I believe they are 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 and our quarry was snow geese. We had lots of competition, as there were numerous highly skilled outfitters operating in the area. Our spread consisted of several strategically placed kites lined up within good shooting range of the hunters. Nearly every goose we shot went right for the kites.
I believe the geese here are driven as much by pressure as they are food availability. There are lots of outfitters and refuges along the Louisiana coast. With much of the refuge closed to hunting, these birds have plenty of sanctuary, but they can be easily decoyed if you are able to set up near their flyway and focus on getting the geese that are 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 do minimal calling.
If you're hunting right along the edge of a refuge, I'd recommend using a couple of dozen life-sized decoys with a few magnums to grab their attention. "I always like to have a dozen and a half snows and then throw in a few specklebellies," said veteran Lake Charles waterfowler Chris Phelps. "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, so I try to set it up as naturally as I can."
Phelps suggested light calling for snows and louder, more aggressive calling for lone specklebellies. "You almost can't overcall the specks down here, especially if you have a young bird coming in alone," he said. "If you just give it that steady action, be ready to shoot, because I have found them very easy to bring in."
THE DECOY EFFECT
Sometimes hunters can use decoys effectively to push birds where they want them to go instead of actually luring them into that spot. Older, smarter birds will come down to look at spreads but will often veer away. If you can figure out this technique, it can pay big dividends. I learned this lesson while hunting geese in the rice prairie with outfitter Will Beaty many years ago.
We set up a huge decoy spread consisting of nearly 1,000 shells, rags and silhouettes on a field at 4 a.m. Nearby was a roost of 10,000-plus geese that had been flying right over this field. After we completed the task of setting up the spread, Beaty put us about 125 yards away from the spread itself. I questioned the logic in this, however, he was confident in the tactic.
"I'm telling you the geese will see the spread and then immediately veer away from it," he explained. "Hopefully, they will veer toward us hidden in this brush and we'll get a chance at them."
As the huge flock rose off the roost, the formerly quiet morning was now filled with the near-deafening sound of calling geese. About 1,000 of them moved in our direction and, almost as if they had been programmed to do so, the geese veered directly away from the decoys and flew right toward us.
"See?" Beatty said. "These birds are smart. You just have to try your best to be smarter than they are."
A big part of being smarter is the use of appropriate camouflage. Serious hunters conceal themselves with some kind of natural cover or realistic blind. Likewise, many goose hunters miss shots because they're not wearing facemasks. If you have any part of your face showing, put on some dark-colored makeup and conceal yourself.
In rice country, cane and tall grasses are common. With the help of a machete, these stands can easily be made into blinds. I have often pulled back the cane, crawled inside the stand and started hunting directly. This cane is very useful in concealing a boat as well. I always bring along a cane knife or machete and, if necessary, pull my boat as close to shore as I can to surround it with cane. The advantage here is the opportunity to match exactly your immediate surroundings.
If you happen to be hunting around small wetlands in the prairie, cattail stands make great natural blinds. They are usually thick enough to hide a well-camouflaged hunter and are actually quite comfortable.
The old adage in these parts used to be that a white bucket was all you needed to attract snows -- but that's simply not true anymore, the species having 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; if you have access to private fields, go big and realistic.
If you are hunting in dry fields, laydown blinds can offer total concealment until the decisive moment. I purchased Avery Outdoors' "Migrator" blind and have had great success on a couple of dry-ground hunts. If you are hunting in rice fields, avoid using pit blinds that have been out all season and have had hundreds of birds shot from them. At this point, the geese know what happens around the pits and will avoid them at all costs. Setting up along natural cover like a levee or lying in the middle of a spread (and, yes, being wet and miserable) will yield far more birds. It is also important to keep your dog at bay, as the movement of a spastic retriever can easily spoil a good late-season goose hunt.
Another portable blind by Avery is the "NeoTub," which allows hunters to lie down and stay dry in the water. The NeoTub's bottom is made of 3mm-thick waterproof neoprene with an almost-indestructible polyester-laminated outer layer. The sides and top are constructed with camouflage neoprene, also 3mm thick. All seams are glued and blind-stitched just like waders. It's perfect for hunting surface water, flooded cornfields, rice fields and soybean fields.
Abandoned, manmade structures can make good blinds if they are in good locations. I once saw duck hunters using an old boat wreck as a blind. It had been drug into the shallows and was covered with brush. Apparently, it was set up right along a flyway, and the hunters simply sat in it and shot ducks and geese as they flew over. On farms, there always seems to be abandoned tractors or trucks. If placed in the right location, they can be good blinds. The birds are used to seeing this kind of thing and do not seem to mind their presence.
Over the last few years I've used portable ground blinds like Primos' Double Bull to hunt ducks and geese. Portable ground blinds, which you can set up exactly where you need to be in less than five minutes, enable you to play the wind and sun. Most of the time these blinds are used by bowhunters, but they're great for waterfowl hunting as well. Veteran bowhunter Mike Cascio gave me a great tip for using these ground blinds. Since most of them have black lining, he advises wearing black shirts, gloves, facemasks and makeup. "That pretty much renders you invisible," he said.
A final factor to consider for snow goose hunting is what I call the "refuge effect." While federal and state hunting refuges are a huge benefit to hunters who use them, they can be troublesome in some ways for those hunting private lands.
The refuges along the coast have a huge impact on goose distribution and population growth -- this according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report entitled "Factors Contributing to High Populations of White Geese."
"During the 1970s, changes in hunting practices near refuges included a reduction of firing lines, creation of no-hunting zones, manipulation of croplands to provide food, and a restricted harvest of geese on refuges and off refuges," the report reads. "The management practice of half-day hunting was initiated to hold migrant geese longer to increase hunting opportunities and local harvest, but its success also appears to have influenced distribution.
"These factors led to such migration sites functioning as true (refuges). Long-term reduction in the hunter harvest is consistent with the hypothesis of disproportional growth of population units using refuges. These refuges might thus function as (locations) for population growth and exploitation of surrounding 'new' agricultural foods."
This all gets back to hunters being prepared for what they will face in the field. A hunter who knows where the birds are roosting, flying and feeding -- whether it is on a federal refuge, private land or a state management area -- will be well suited to face the challenges goose hunting can offer.
Goose hunting is like no other sport. It takes an immense amount of work, dedication
and time -- but when you set up in a field and have dozens of geese fall out of the sky and into your scattergun's range, everything that you've put into it will seem well worth the effort.
It's a certainty that your shoulder will be bruised from firing your gun and your bones will ache from lying in a cold field. But as is often said in sports, "No guts, no glory" -- in this case, "No guts, no geese."