Louisiana's Gulf Coast doesn't get much snow -- except during waterfowl season, when flocks of snow geese fall from the sky. (Dec 2006)
The forecast is for snow -- lots of snow -- in the Louisiana Gulf Coast region.
Actually, the chances for frozen precipitation in the Bayou State are all but nil. But waterfowlers will find plenty of snow in the fields and marshes in the region. This is the prime time for bagging snow geese, which have become extremely common in the area over the last decade.
At this time of year, snow geese migrate in unusually large flocks of up to 1,000 birds. These, according to a release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, consist of many family groups.
"The families will stay together through the migration. During the flights south, birds fly between 40 and 50 miles per hour. Their average altitude is around 3,000 feet, but radar has recorded geese as high as 20,000 feet. The flocks usually fly in a peculiar undulating fashion. Individuals fly at staggered heights, and rise and descend slightly, giving rise to one of their names, 'wavie.'
"The snow geese also fly in imperfect V's, which distinguishes them from Canada geese. There is usually a leader at the head of the formation, but this position changes frequently among the flock. A migrating flock of snow geese will usually begin their trip at sunset, and may continue both day and night.
"Although many geese will stop at rest areas, some geese will make the entire flight from the breeding grounds to the wintering grounds of the Gulf Coast or Mexico, in one continuous flight. Snow geese have been known to fly as long as 70 hours and 1,700 miles in continuous flight."
I mention this because during December, Louisiana will be getting some flocks of "new" birds -- birds that've made their way down from other parts of the Mississippi Flyway. Those are hungry, tired birds, and you can score on them if you're ready.
"Some of the best hunting is around the cold fronts in December," says Capt. Buddy Oakes of the Hackberry Rod and Gun Club, 1-888-762-3391. "Watch the weather, and when you see a big northern front -- not a Pacific front -- blasting through, grab your guns and decoys."
Generally, geese migrating into Louisiana will begin stopping along the southern tier of the Interstate 10 corridor. Look for some of the hottest action to be in the parishes of Calcasieu, Jefferson Davis and Lafayette and in the northern reaches of Cameron Parish just after fronts early in the month. After that, much of the action shifts much closer to the Gulf Coast in southern Cameron Parish, Plaquemines and wherever a combination of marshes and agriculture beckons the birds.
Hunters wanting to cash in on new migrants should focus on fields producing rice and other grains that are close to fresh water. Setting up on these fields should be done with large decoy spreads capable of totally distracting the geese. You've got to walk a fine line this month, because (as you'll see later in the story), big spreads can work against you at times. However, if you're looking for birds migrating in when they're in smaller groups, monster spreads are the ticket. A minimum: 300 dekes.
Several spread designs merit consideration. The basic "teardrop" pattern is highly popular throughout the coastal region. Arrange the decoys in the field in the shape of a teardrop: a big concentration in a round or oval shape tapering off toward you. In this situation, it's best for the hunters to be concealed in pit blinds or along a levee, as the flight pattern of the geese will send them flying right into you, where there are fewer decoys to fool them.
Another spread worth looking at I simply call the "doughnut" -- a round pattern of decoys with small clusters of a variety positioned around a spot in the middle for the hunters, who should be well hidden in coffin blinds, or at least covered with fast-grass mats and wearing white jackets. This spread may lead to your getting some geese lighting right in your face. It's riskier than others are, but can be very exciting as well.
Hunters tend to get lax about varying the decoys within a spread. To start with, you rarely find a large flock consisting of just white snow geese. You need to add some blues, which are simply a blue phase of the snow but look a lot different. Throw in some Ross' geese; set them in small clusters, kind off by themselves. And don't be afraid to throw in some specklebellies, or even a couple of Canadas. In the field, diversity equals reality.
In that same line of thought, look at your decoys before you ever put them out and ask yourself if it looks like a real flock. You'll want to standing geese, sitting geese, preening geese and a few sentry geese (looking up). Don't, however, put too many sentries out, because dozens of geese looking alert is a signal to incoming birds that something's wrong. You should always have a few sentries, but overkill can equal no kill for you.
At this time of year, having a couple of good callers out is essential as well. Snow geese are very vocal creatures, and more often than not in December, if you can call them, you can kill them. This is especially true for smaller groups of birds and singles. Don't be afraid to call at birds that are way out, especially on those days without much wind to distort your sound.
I have in the past seen good callers bring in birds from a half-mile away -- and these birds weren't flying in our direction. If you are going to commit to calling birds from such a distance bring along some flags. Waving flags in the air while you call at long-range birds can make a big difference. Geese are like any other kind of wildlife: If they can put two things together that seem legitimate or alluring, they'll commit. Bring along white flags and black flags. The color's not that important; what really makes a difference is calling in conjunction with movement on the ground. It'll draw attention to your spread, and ideally, with each passing moment, make the geese more apt to light in shooting range.
Locating and learning to hunt geese properly from a roost can be the most valuable thing that you can do at this time of year. And, no, I don't mean shooting geese off the roost. I'm talking about learning flyways, flight times and the feeding areas closest to the roost.
A few years back some friends of mine and I found a roost on some property we were hunting. Just five miles away was a roost of probably 30,000, but this one was in the neighborhood of 5,000. That's still a lot of geese.
Our first attempt at taking the birds was a dismal failure. Two afternoons in a row we saw geese feeding in one particular field, and assumed they were coming from our roost, since it w
as only three-quarters of a mile away. That was a big mistake.
When we arrived in the early afternoon, a few scattered snows were in the field; the big concentration hadn't arrived yet. We set up on the end of the field nearest the roost right along a thick line of tallow trees that ran north to south. We had about 100 decoys set up just in front of us, but the goal was to shoot the geese as they flew over the treeline.
At around 7 a.m. the geese started flocking to the field, but they came from the other direction; we ended up shooting six geese. If they'd come in the way we'd thought they would, they'd have flown right over us within easy shooting range.
What happened? Well, the geese weren't from the roost we had scouted, but from the big one down the road. The landowner told us that he'd seen the geese get up from our roost and feed in a field a mile to the other side of the roost. Probably 1,000 geese were there, he said, and the rest seemed to be scattered in neighboring fields. We were on the opposite side of the concentration of birds that we wanted to hunt.
Our mistake lay in not taking the time to watch which fields that the geese from our roost were flying to. In many cases you'll have one huge roost and then another smaller one or a few smaller ones nearby. Roost hunting is all about hunting flyways and flight times.
You have to be especially wary of depending on your decoys to help you score on large flocks of geese. Sometime this month, geese will begin moving in large flocks. Oh, there'll be plenty of small ones -- but you'll usually find thousands of geese in a flock flying in unison, and that's very tempting for hunters to pursue.
"One of the biggest mistakes a goose hunter can make is to focus all of his efforts on that one big flock. You are talking about a couple of thousand eyes looking down at you," said diehard goose hunter Keith Robicheaux of Breaux Bridge.
According to Robicheaux, the program to follow in these circumstances is planning that everything will work entirely against you.
"If you're dead set on hunting those huge flocks of geese," he said, "you have to basically plan for everything to go wrong. Start by forgetting about impressing them with a huge spread of decoys. You can do just as good with a handful and maybe not intimidate them."
And that's exactly right. Hunting a few years ago with an outfitter along the Texas-Louisiana border, I spent two hours along with the rest of the party in setting up well over 1,000 decoys. We had it all: Life-sized, magnum, shells, rags, kites -- you name it, we had it out. Then just before dawn, the outfitter moved us about 200 yards away from the decoys.
One of the hunters on the trip said, "I'm sure you're aware that our shotguns will not reach that far."
The outfitter told us to be cool and wait -- we'd get our shot at the geese. About 30 minutes later, thousands of them decided to get off their roost and fly in our direction. The flock heading in our direction contained, I'd conservatively estimate, 2,000 birds, but it could have been more. When they made it over a treeline, they spotted our decoys and did exactly what they aren't supposed to do -- or, in this case, what they were supposed to do: They flared away from them and flew right toward us. Up until that point, I had never heard of using decoys to scare geese toward hunters -- but that time it worked very well.
"I like to use a few dozen, maybe four dozen decoys spread out in the field, and I like to mix in a few specklebellies and, of course, some blues in there," Robicheaux offered. "I find that if you can make it look like you just have a few stragglers out there feeding, it does not get the big flocks as nervous. What happens is, this time of year, so many people put out huge decoy spreads -- and they are used to being shot from them. Huge spreads work well, but not so much for trying to get a shot at a couple of thousand of them."
For duck hunters who may not want to specialize in geese at this time of year but would like to diversify their bag, putting out some goose decoys in the marsh could be beneficial. A number of goose decoys mixed with the ducks won't scare the ducks away, and in fact might help in some cases, as ducks know geese to be highly wary. Some realistic goose decoys could be confidence decoys for the ducks.
As for the geese themselves, they're certainly not immune to landing in the water, and a mixed duck/goose spread could be the ticket to luring in geese pressured from other areas.
Besides the fun (and meat for the frying pan) the best part about snow goose hunting is that hunters contribute directly to conservation of the species. According to USFWS officials, populations of light geese have become so numerous that their arctic and sub-arctic nesting habitats can barely support them.
"The breeding population of mid-continent light geese exceeds five million birds, which is an increase of more than 300 percent since the mid-1970s," says a USFWS release. "The population has increased more than 5 percent per year for the past 10 years. In addition, non-breeding geese (juveniles or adults that fail to nest successfully) are not included in this estimate, so the total number of geese is even higher. Light goose population indices are higher than they have been since population records have been kept and evidence suggests that large breeding populations are spreading to previously untouched sections of the Hudson Bay coastline."
"Although anecdotal historical records refer to large concentrations of light geese, they do not indicate that the populations have ever been higher. The unprecedented numbers are not only a problem for the light geese themselves but also for other wildlife and plants that share their habitats.
At these high population levels, parts of the fragile tundra habitats where light geese traditionally nest are being seriously degraded and/or destroyed. In addition, complaints about geese damaging agricultural crops are on the rise in states and provinces that lie between the nesting grounds and the wintering grounds."
Over the last few years, the use of electronic calls and unplugged shotguns at the end of the general season has helped to bring the population back into better balance, but more work needs to be done: We need to aid the work of conservation by shooting more snows.
Conservation is always a beautiful thing, but it's especially attractive when the result is a nice pile of deep-fried strips of goose breast next to some buttermilk biscuits.
That is conservation of the highest order.