Go With The Flow

Go With The Flow

Missouri goose hunting heats up January's late-season waterfowling prospects. (January 2006)

Photo by Tom Migdalski

Late-season waterfowling can be problematic in Missouri. In some years, when cold fronts blow through early, it's nothing short of a disaster: The birds are gone, and most of the good spots have been hunted to death. Truth be told, it'll easier to buy a bird at your local Piggly Wiggly store than it'll be to kill one.

But then again, if the weather in the northern states is warm early in the season and the cold fronts blow through late, flights may still be working their way south. If that happens, you can usually bag a limit on the last day. It all depends upon the weather and the forces of nature --things that none of us can scarcely affect, much less totally control. We can't even predict them properly.

Certainly, Missouri waterfowlers can minimize the tough times and take advantage of the good times. One of the easiest and most effective ways to do so is to hunt the right areas -- to learn about the best public hunting spots in the state and take advantage of them.

And keep in mind that "waterfowl" doesn't necessarily mean ducks -- the term also covers geese, both Canadas and snows. Sometimes you need to take advantage of what's available, rather than to insist stubbornly on having it your way.

SMITHVILLE LAKE

Waterfowl hunters in central Missouri are blessed with Smithville Lake. Managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, this 7,000-acre body of water is one of the true waterfowling gems in the Show Me State. It's in Clay County, just a short drive north of Kansas City; head north on I-29. Otherwise, I-35 runs north and south past the water on its east side. The exits are well marked.

Two marinas service the lake '“ Paradise Point, (816) 532-2666, and Camp Branch, (816) 407-3420; both are open for launching year 'round. Camp Branch doesn't have a restaurant, and the one at Paradise Point closes after Labor Day, so you'll need to bring your own food. However, motels, restaurants and gas stations are available in: Liberty, a short distance due south of the lake; Smithville, on the west side of the lake; and Kearney, about 20 minutes east.

Before we get into the specifics of hunting Smithville, a lengthy word of warning is in order: Between Oct. 15 and Jan. 15, stay out of the 2,200 acres of water and surrounding land on the Little Platte arm of the lake that make up Honker Cove Wildlife Refuge. From the south, water access to the refuge, which is operated by the Corps, is blocked by a string of buoys, as are most of the other entrances. During the closed period, you can't hunt, fish or boat in the area.

The Corps is serious about protecting this area, so don't even think about hunting inside it. A break will be mighty hard to come by if you're caught violating the law in Honker Cove. The southern boundary is along County Highway W. On the north, public accesses 2 and 16 draw the line.

Bruce Clark, the operations manager for the Corps at Smithville, has many years of experience with this magnificent body of water. He reports that January goose hunting opportunities -- the duck season is normally closed by then -- can be feast or famine. But the "feast" situation is most likely, especially if hunters take the time to learn something about the lake.

Smithville Lake is a resting and feeding place for geese. It's only a few miles from Kansas City and fewer still from the Missouri River bottoms. As such, it attracts both resident and migratory Canadas. "Most of them start arriving around the third week in December '¦ Christmas is usually about the time," Clark said.

Of course, the numbers of geese on the lake varies from year to year, depending on the weather. That's especially true of the resident Canada goose population, and that population can be huge. Canada goose populations are exploding all across the United States, owing in large measure to the steady urbanization of our country. In short, Canada geese have learned to adapt. They've found homes in public parks, office parks, golf courses, the grounds of colleges and other sort of school and numerous other characteristically urban facilities that offer water, food and safety. Plenty of such places are to be found in and around Kansas City.

All this is wonderful for most of the year. "Most" is not "all," however. As late fall turns to winter, the urban habitat becomes less hospitable. Local water consists of shallow, small ponds. Nearly all have some weed growth. They freeze quickly, as the air develops a bite.

Just as bad -- maybe even worse -- the food sources for city- and suburb-dwelling geese start to diminish. Areas that once held a lot of seeds, grains and other forage turn brown, barren and in some years covered with snow and ice. They won't replenish the neighborhood until spring, when the warm weather renews their growth processes. Even most of the humans are gone, taking with them their bread, peanuts, Moon Pies and other treats.

That forces the resident geese to move, and many choose Smithville Lake as their winter home. That's a pretty good choice. The lake has thousands of acres of open, deep water, plenty of shoreline vegetation and hundreds of acres of crop fields in the immediate vicinity. What more could a goose ask for over the holidays?

As a result, when Kansas City grows cold, Smithville gets hot. Canada geese start arriving in a trickle at first, but, in no time flat, they'll be all over the lake. At times, and in places, they'll be so thick that you'll have trouble finding water. In some years, 15,000 birds might take refuge on the lake; in others, that figure will climb to 30,000 and beyond.

When it comes to thinking about hunting snow geese, the news is even better. Smithville attracts snow geese not only from their overhead migratory flight paths but also from nearby federal lands, mostly Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge. Their numbers are extraordinary. In a "bad" year, Smithville Lake attracts from 200,000 to 300,000 snow geese; an ordinary year generates around a half-million visiting snow geese. In one of the best recent years, the local snow goose flock was estimated at about 1.2 million birds! (Those figures include blue geese, which were once considered a separate species but are now recognized simply as a color phase of the snow goose.)

Just because their numbers are high, don't think that snow geese are easy to kill: They aren't. In fact, according to Clark, they can be tougher to hunt than Canadas: "The darn things are so unpredictable '¦ you can do everything right '¦ and they'll circle and circle above you but never come down into shooting range. Drives you crazy!" This he offered with some frustration, great respect an

d, maybe, a small twinge of admiration.

Clark recommends that hunters concentrate their efforts on the north end of the lake, up and into the Little Platte arm. "That's where they're at most of the time," he said, pointing out that a lot of public-land crop fields lie in that general area. Although all manner of small grains are grown on this land from year to year, corn is the best -- according to the geese, certainly.

Getting access in this area is not an easy thing. If you launch from the marinas, you'll be blocked by the buoys at the south edge of Honker Cove Refuge; all your work and efforts will be for naught. You'll need to use one of the many other launch sites found around the lake. They're not as nice, or as convenient, but they're good enough to get a johnboat into the water.

Most of them are small access areas, only big enough for vehicle parking and a small non-descript road that drops into the water and acts as a boat ramp. Access points 1 through 16 are on the Little Platte arm. Point 8 offers hunters a small, single-lane concrete ramp big enough to launch most boats if you know what you're doing. Avoid points 1, 2 and 16, as they lead directly into the refuge. The others are serviceable to one degree or another.

To find all these places, you can download a map from the COE Web site: go to

www.nwk.usace.army.mil/smithville and follow the prompts for the map; it's worth the effort, because you really can't hunt the area without it.) You can also write the Corps' Smithville Lake project office at P.O. Box 428, Smithville, MO 64089, call them at (816) 532-0174, or contact the operations manager by e-mail at Smithville@Nwk02.usace.army.mil.

Most of the successful waterfowl hunters in this area place a lot of decoys around their spots; spreads of several hundred "birds" are common. This is especially true of those who target snow geese. Interestingly enough, many of them mix it up a bit in their spreads, placing plenty of fake Canada geese, snow geese and blues around the water's surface.

While thinking about all this, don't forget the basics. The Little Platte arm isn't especially thick or heavily obstructed with trees and vegetation. Still, make sure that you have open shooting lanes before you settle down into your hiding place. Once the geese start coming down off their flight lanes, it's too late to fix anything, and "I wish" just won't cut it then.

On the very best days, hunters' shooting lanes face north or northeast into a blistering-cold, miserable wind -- the kind that howls and screams before it takes your breath away; that makes you wonder why you're out there in the first place. Why? Because the geese like it that way -- that's why. That's what drives them to open water.

MONTROSE CA

Smithville isn't the only place at which Missouri waterfowlers enjoy their sport. In the south of the Show Me State, in Henry County, is Montrose Conservation Area. It's easy enough to find: Take Highway 18 west from Clinton for about 12 miles; then, travel four miles south on Route RA. That should take you right to the front door.

Montrose isn't all that big. The lake only covers about 1,800 acres of water, and a good chunk of that is a refuge on the east end. Don't sell it short, though -- sometimes good things come in small packages. That's definitely the case here.

According to Missouri Department of Conservation wildlife management biologist Monte McQuillen, Montrose CA will hold upward of 100,000 geese at any given time, a mix of Canadas, snows and blues. That's a bunch of geese, especially on an area comprising fewer than 2,000 acres of water.

You can launch your boat on either a concrete ramp or the additional "primitive" ramp. Hunt this one with smaller spreads, but keep them mixed -- you never know if the next flight will be Canadas, snows or blues.

You don't have much choice about where to hunt; that decision has been made for you. All waterfowling at Montrose CA is by morning draw. Each draw will assign one of 15 blinds.

As of this writing, the rules and regulations had not been finalized. Call the MDC at (660) 885-6981 or go online to the agency's Web site,

www.conservation.state.mo.us, to get the most current information.

Montrose is a great place to work a call. If you don't have one, go buy one. Either way, spend some of your evening time learning to use it properly. It'll make a world of difference in your goose hunting success, and not just at Montrose.

HARRY S. TRUMAN RESERVOIR WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT LANDS

Another high-quality goose hunting spot lies southwest of Montrose CA. The spread of Harry S. Truman Reservoir Wildlife Management Lands stretches across parts of Benton, Henry, Hickory and Saint Clair counties. The tens of thousands of acres given over to public hunting land here include just about every type of terrain imaginable.

According to McQuillen, most of the January goose hunting at Truman is for resident Canadas. Unfortunately, the resident birds on this reservoir aren't like the resident birds found in your local park. They're wild, they don't like people, and they for sure don't like being shot at, and get very skittish very fast. So when you find a flock, take advantage of it -- the action won't last long. The birds will get smart in a hurry, and that can be trouble for filling your limit.

The hunting can get much better, however, if the weather "up north" -- that's what McQuillen calls Kansas City and Smithville -- turns cold and brutal, pushing the Kansas City geese farther south. A lot of them will end up at Truman. For whatever reason, that group doesn't have such a reputation for being so tough to hunt.

You can bag a few of them with big spreads of mixed birds. Do your best to set your decoys out as early as possible before your hunt. Some hunters report excellent success around areas of standing timber and along the backwater areas of small bays, inlets and cuts. That's particularly the case when the water is high and into the trees and vegetation. When the water's down, low and off the banks, hunting can be difficult. Not only will there be fewer spots to hunt, but there'll also be fewer geese to hunt.

WHEN YOU'RE READY TO GO

McQuillen offers this note of caution: When the weather gets especially cold and stays that way for any length of time, be very careful around the ramps. They freeze and can become quite treacherous. Under those conditions, it's easy to damage a truck, boat, or to suffer serious physical injury.

For up-to-the-minute reports on lake and hunting conditions, general information, hunting rules and regulations, contact the MDC's Truman District Office at 2010 S. Second St., Clinton, MO 64735, or call them at (660) 885-6981. You can also get updates online from the MDC Web site.

No matter where you choose to goose hunt this season, check the rules and regulations -- local, s

tate and federal. Any of these can change annually. This is especially true of season dates and bag limits (which was not available at press time). Get up-to-the-minute information from the MDC Web site.

Late-season waterfowling in central Missouri can be a great experience. Don't let your season get away without taking advantage of it.

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