Minnesota's Pace-Setting Goose Hunters

Minnesota's Pace-Setting Goose Hunters

More geese have been killed in Minnesota than in any other state the last several years, and 2005 shouldn't be any different. It looks like we're in honker heaven!

Photo by Lee Leschper

It is hard to imagine that 40 years ago the only honk to be heard over the entire state of Minnesota either came from the horn of a car or one of those annoying circus clowns. Now, the latest estimate by the Department of Natural Resources puts Minnesota's Canada goose count at 338,000 birds, which is nothing to clown around about.

"That is simply amazing," is the response given by most everybody you speak with, whether they are a waterfowl hunter or not. Chip Leer is president of Fishing the WildSide, and he spends a lot of time on the water, though he is also an avid hunter. Once he picked his jaw up off the ground and thought about it some more, he said he could see why the population is so high in our state these days. "We've seen them nesting in areas around Leech Lake, and that's something I can't ever remember seeing," he said.

Delta Waterfowl is well known as being a conservation organization that works hard to preserve waterfowl populations. John Devney is the senior vice president of the organization, and he said the progress of geese throughout the country is impressive. He grew up near White Bear Lake north of the Twin Cities and has watched Canada geese go from a species with a prohibition on hunting when he was a child to the September season when he was in college, and now to the point where they are abundant.

People all around Minnesota have seen the range of the Canadas expand, especially during the last five years. The population has risen to the point where farmers in the west-central and southwestern regions of our state and residents of the Twin Cities metro area consider flocks of geese to be a nuisance rather than a welcome sign.

The city folks aren't happy because a suburban lawn that's had 100 geese on it for several hours is pretty grotesque. Farmers, on the other hand, are losing valuable crops when the geese spend their flightless time feeding on the fields.

"I've seen firsthand what a family of Canadas can do to a new stand of barley, and it is pretty devastating," Devney said.

Waterfowl hunters throughout Minnesota are not going to complain very loudly, however. They are too busy grinning about the fact that more geese were killed in Minnesota last year than any other state in the country. Yes, that is true, and it has been the case for several years.

POPULATION STEADY

A resident population of 338,000 birds from the spring counts seems like an incredible number, but it is actually down a little from the same count in 2004.

"It's down from last year but if you look at the trend for the last five years, the trend is increasing -- we still have plenty of geese," said Steve Maxson, goose specialist for the DNR's Wetland Wildlife Population and Research Group.

Maxson said his estimates for the 2005 season are that production will be average to above average and that hunters will have a lot of opportunities from the opening of the early September hunt all the way through the end of the December hunt.

"You can find geese in just about any part of Minnesota, which is impressive considering they weren't even around a few decades ago," he said.

The success story geese have had in Minnesota is due largely to the fact that the species is so adaptable to a variety of conditions and seems to be willing to live alongside humans.

"They seem to thrive in areas with large human impact such as on golf courses and farm fields with ponds nearby," Maxson said.

Pair that with the fact that geese simply don't have very many natural predators and it is easy to see why they are thriving. Geese are relatively large compared to most of our state's predators and they nest in pairs, making them a formidable opponent to a hungry fox, raccoon or coyote. The same cannot be said for ducks, which have been ravaged by these predators along with pheasants.

The DNR does its count in the spring from the air in helicopter surveys over 150 random quarter-section plots throughout the entire state.

"Some of the locations are in very good habitat and some are in less than ideal habitat, so we have a good cross-section of all that's available," Maxson said.

As far as the spring counts are concerned, the highest concentration of birds can be found in west-central Minnesota in locations near Appleton, Glenwood, Detroit Lakes and Fergus Falls. It is not a coincidence that this is also where the farmers are less than happy with the way the geese are treating their crops.

"The tough thing is that by the time the goose season comes around, most of those geese that were causing the damage have moved on, and the ones from farther north are in the area," said Don Schultz, area wildlife manager for the DNR in Fergus Falls.

The good news is that the crops that attract geese during the summer are still around attracting migrators throughout the season.

"The areas closest to the refuge seem to offer the best hunting, but there's a lot of public hunting opportunities in the area that provide great hunting locations," Schultz said.

Public land does dot the landscape in this region, but the vast majority is still privately owned, and Schultz said most landowners are willing to let people hunt on their land. But he also said there seems to be a lot of competition for the best locations.

"Just like anything else, the best hunting exists for the hunters who are able to do the most scouting and are willing to move," he added.

SEASONS AND HARVEST

The September season begins the first Saturday of the month, which this year fell on Sept. 3 and ran until Sept. 22. This is the season the DNR has the most information about since the only waterfowlers during this time period are going after geese, and a special permit is required to hunt.

Approximately 30,000 hunters participated in the 2004 September hunt, and the numbers for 2005 are expected to be very similar. Those hunters took between 80,000 and 100,000 geese last year, based on a survey conducted by the DNR. Compare that to the annual harvest at around 230,000 to 250,000 geese, and the September hunt shakes out to be a good time for numbers. Information on the exact harvest numbers from 2004 as well as the season dates and bag limits for 2005 c

an be found online at

www.dnr.state.mn.us.

Our state is divided into three regions during the September hunt -- the northwest, southeast and a broad region known as the "remainder of the state." Since it encompasses the majority of the state, this is the area where the most geese are harvested during this season. The western zone is second fiddle at this time, but given the fact that it is significantly smaller, it is a premium location throughout September and well into October.

Almost as quickly as the September hunt is over, the regular season hunt kicks into gear. During this hunt the state is divided into four zones -- the northwest, the west-central, the west and the remainder of the state. Pinning down accurate numbers of hunters and geese killed during this time period is difficult, Maxson said, because there are so many hunters afield. "There are not any large-scale counts conducted during the regular season, though several smaller scale surveys are conducted on a fairly regular basis," he added.

A lot of hunters during this time period are in the blinds and pits going after both ducks and geese, which is why a good count is tough to reach. The 2005 season has some adjustments from last year in that some of the restrictions around in 2004 were loosened up. In 2003 there was a production failure of migrant geese on the tundra, but they fared better in 2004.

The December hunt is something a lot of diehard goose hunters seem to live for every year. Maxson said the 2005 season should look the same as in years past, and that it seems to be an underutilized time to go after geese.

FOLLOWING THE MIGRATION

Paul Sawyer travels all around the country to film hunts as part of his duties as founder of Knock'm Down Productions. A great deal of that time is spent waterfowling, but he's lost some time this year because he's been busy promoting Knock'm Down's first video "Stranglehold." The video tells the story of the traveling waterfowler -- which is a role he fits perfectly -- and when people find out he's from Minnesota, the first question they ask him is, "What about that Minnesota goose hunting?" All he can do is shake his head, smile and tell them how great the opportunities are, whether you go up to Lake of the Woods for early-season goose or down to Rochester for a classic late-season hunt.

"What seems to intrigue them the most is our late season in December, which I absolutely love hunting," Sawyer said.

When you consider the fact that Sawyer has hunted waterfowl all over North America and South America, it's pretty amazing that there are few other places he would rather spend a December day than a pit in the fields around Rochester.


All he can do is shake his head, smile and tell them how great the opportunities are, whether you go up to Lake of the Woods for early-season goose or down to Rochester for a classic late-season hunt.
 

"The action really gets going in November when the corn is being harvested, and the grain fields are definitely the place to be throughout December," he said.

The Rochester area is such a great hunting opportunity because upward of 40,000 birds winter in town and feed in the adjoining fields during the day. This is not something only found in Rochester, but the combination of available hunting land and sheer numbers is tough to beat. Similar conditions can be found around the Mississippi River in the southeast portion of Minnesota, and any place where open water exists throughout the month.

If the cold doesn't seem as good as it does to Sawyer, there are plenty of opportunities in October and November. Depending on how the fall migration is going, there can still be some great hunting in the north around Lake of the Woods since it is a natural staging area for the giant geese as they make their migration south. Most of the birds have cleared out by November, so be sure to check the most up-to-date reports.

Sawyer said a good location for honkers in October and early November are the fields around Fergus Falls where big migrators are actually coming back to hang out before making another push south. Later in the season he likes the area around Lac qui Parle in southwestern Minnesota.

Rookie goose hunters in Minnesota tend to have a difficult time, but seasoned hunters know that chasing geese is only as difficult as you make it. Understanding the biology, habitat and behavior of Canadas is the key, and this can be done either through individual study or by tagging along with a seasoned hunter. Hiring one of the numerous outfitters or hunting guides can help figure out great places to start and make the climb up the learning curve a smoother one.

If tagging along with a hunter is not possible, you can certainly check out one of the controlled hunts at Lac qui Parle, Roseau or Thief Lake WMAs. These are DNR-sponsored hunts that only allow a certain number of hunters -- selected by a daily lottery -- to hunt from permanent pits or blinds.

EASY-CHAIR SCOUTING

The DNR posts a weekly "Minnesota Waterfowl Migration and Hunting Report" at

www.dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/waterfowl based on field observations by area wildlife biologists and managers. The report is usually posted by Thursday and is the most comprehensive report out there that focuses solely on Minnesota. It includes information on habitat conditions, weather conditions, migration observations and reports from hunters.

Another very effective online tool for scouting geese can be found at

www.waterfowler.com. The site offers a GIS real-time migration mapping system that features reports provided by over 100,000 waterfowlers. Anybody can file a report as long as they pledge to be accurate, and preferably provide regular information.

Hunters who access www.waterfowler.com can choose from six different maps and read the specifics of each report. The map averages the input from all participants, and it updates every 15 minutes. The map is purged of data at midnight each night. Sawyer said he highly recommends waterfowler.com as a comprehensive clearinghouse of information.

The only word of caution about www.waterfowler.com is that the information posted is done by individuals rather than by agencies that are required to post credible information. Another thing to remember is that the DNR is going to post reports good or bad, while most hunters aren't too eager to let everybody in on a hot location until it begins to cool down.

One of the problems with both of those Web sites is they tell you what happened, not necessarily what is going to happen. Careful observers can interpret what's going to happen, but the best tools are found at

www.weather.com or at

www.weather.gov. Watching the weather for wind direction and movements of fronts are keys for waterfowling. Don't forget to keep an ear open to the latest agricultural reports, too. When the grain is harvested, it is a sure bet that the geese will be on the fields for the dinner bell.

As good as all this is, there is still no beating the scouting that can only be done in the field. Checking out the lakes and wetlands at dawn or the crop fields during the day is still the best way to determine where the geese are holding up. Find them a few days before your hunt and you'll have time to find landowners in the area willing to let you hunt or public hunting lands that are less crowded.

A good map such as the Public Recreation Information Maps (PRIM) published by the DNR can make in-the-field scouting considerably easier. Plat book maps can help determine property designations and ownership, but door knocking, a friendly demeanor and good hunting ethics tend to remain the time-tested approach. Landowners like hunters they can trust on their land. Make a good relationship this season and you may have a location for years to come.

STAY ETHICAL AND LEGAL

Resident waterfowl hunters over age 16 must have a valid Minnesota Waterfowl Stamp signed across the face, a valid federal Migratory Bird Hunting Conservation Stamp signed in ink across the face, proof of Minnesota HIP registration and, an eligible license such as a small-game license. Check the regulations for prices and information on HIP certification.

Some of the more common violations include having more than three shells in the gun at one time, possessing toxic shot, having an overlimit of an individual species, improper licensing and wanton waste. To avoid the last one, waterfowlers need to make sure their shotgun has been properly patterned, that they are taking shots within range and that they make an effort to retrieve downed waterfowl.

A good hunter always reads the regulations each season, so be sure to pick up or download a copy. There really is no excuse for not being up to date on the regulations and bag limits.

Hunting geese during the cold weather of November and December can be pretty comfortable when sitting in a pit either on a field or wetland. The air is cold but the ground is still holding on to some warmth, enough to make it worth checking out. But whether sitting in a pit or a makeshift blind, get out there to hunt those Minnesota geese. There are plenty of them, and it's the best waterfowling opportunity available here in honker heaven these days.

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