Show-Me December Geese
September 30, 2010
Here's all the info that Missouri hunters need to put a Christmas goose on the table. (Dec 2006)
Not too much more than a generation ago, Canada goose hunting in Missouri depended on guessing the ever-shifting migration patterns of several subspecies of geese, all of which had reared their goslings hundreds (if not thousands) of miles to the north of our border with Iowa. Back then, goose hunting centered on waterfowl refuges in rural areas and in other remote locations. Don't misunderstand: The "old days" of Missouri Canada geese were anything but "bad." To the contrary, more hunters pursued geese then, and, when conditions were right, plenty of geese were to be found.
Canada goose hunting has undergone so many changes that it's not too much of an exaggeration to say that today it's a sport very different from the one that our grandfathers pursued. By far the most important change relates to the various subspecies of Canada geese that find their way into hunters' game bags. Although several true migratory subspecies still augment the state's total harvest of "dark" geese, the majority of the birds killed in Missouri are giant Canada geese born and reared within the state's borders. In fact, when giant Canada geese forced south into Missouri from Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois are added to the equation, more than 80 percent of the state's total dark goose harvest is now made up of giant Canada geese.
Pardon the non-literal pun, but giant Canada geese are birds of a different color. Unlike the geese that provided the inspiration for "my heart goes where the wild goose goes," giants have adapted to life among people. In fact, Dave Graber, the Missouri Department of Conservation's chief waterfowl biologist, forthrightly stated that Missouri's best Canada goose hunting takes place along the fringes of the state's largest cities. He further explained that the metro areas concentrate the vast majority of the state's resident geese, and the presence of so many geese in and near the cities serves as a magnet to attract geese forced south by winter weather.
Ranking each of the state's metro and quasi-metro areas in terms of giant Canada goose potential is impossible because of the number of variables involved. Nevertheless, the Kansas City metro area gets this old waterfowler's vote for No. 1. My choice (which, by the way, Graber seconded) is based on a unique combination of factors.
For openers, metropolitan Kansas City is geographically immense. While definitely up there in terms of human population, Kansas City, Mo., is among the largest cities in the United States in terms of land area. Add in the dozen or so cities on both sides of the state line whose corporate limits abut Kansas City's, and the result is one of the largest, if not the largest, of the giant Canada goose "refuges" to be found in the heart of the subspecies' range.
To say that the geese have responded to the metro's inadvertent putting out of the welcome mat is to redefine the outer limits of understatement. Untold thousands of the big birds have adopted area golf courses, parks, lawns, and both public and private lakes as year-round homes. By mid-December, hunting pressure on rural Missouri geese and, hopefully, cold, snowy weather to the north will have induced thousands of additional giants to take up temporary residence in the big city.
Geography has been kind to Kansas City's geese in another way. Tens of thousands of acres of land devoted either to row crops or to winter wheat lie within a few minutes flying time to the east and south, and smaller, more disconnected acreages devoted to crops lie to the north and west. These fields provide the best and, certainly, the easiest places for finding goose hunters and geese at the same place at the same time.
While a permission-seeking goose hunter won't be welcome at every farmhouse, Graber noted that an ever-growing number of farmers have decided that the number of geese using their property "has gone over the top." What's more, unlike their here-today-gone-tomorrow light-goose cousins, giant Canadas usually return to the same feeding or loafing areas until they're either driven off by excessive hunting pressure or a lack of additional food. I join Graber in assuring responsible hunters that they'll almost certainly find places to hunt.
Missouri's very best goose hunting always has and always will take place on private land. That said, the Missouri River -- which, by the way, is by far the state's largest body of public water -- provides decent to good goose hunting in the early and middle portions of the season. Later in the season, goose hunting on the Big Muddy can be the stuff dreams are made of.
From Kansas City north to several miles south of the U.S. 159 bridge, the Missouri River forms the boundary between Missouri and Kansas; farther north, Missouri and Nebraska share the river. Goose hunters on this stretch of the river need to be aware of some important things. First of all, Kansas and Nebraska are in the Central Flyway, and Missouri is in the Mississippi Flyway. This means that season dates, season lengths, and daily bag limits can vary from one side of the river to the other. MDC Northwest Fisheries Division supervisor and expert goose hunter Harold Kerns strongly advises river hunters to purchase licenses for the states on both banks of the section of river they intend to hunt.
Kerns told me that, as a matter of policy, goose hunters may launch from the Missouri side, hunt on the Kansas side and then cross the river back to Missouri even if the Missouri goose season is closed. However, Missouri conservation agents will check returning hunters for compliance with Kansas or Nebraska licensing requirements and bag limits. Be forewarned that serious and/or repeated violations of either state's laws can result in the revocation of hunting privileges in both states.
Multistate regulations cease to be a problem from Kansas City east to St. Louis. In addition, thousands of acres of land adjacent to the river were purchased by the federal government after the 1993 flood. Access to the river across this land ranges from difficult to impossible, but all of it is open to hunting under statewide regulations. Conversely, boat access to the river is available in virtually every town along its banks.
Kerns noted that giant Canada geese use the river for roosting, loafing, and ingesting gravel. That's good news for goose hunters, because it means the birds are likely to be on the river during legal shooting hours, including the middle of the day when field shooting slows down.
It's also good news for hunters, because it means it's possible to find geese virtually anywhere along the river where the birds can get out of the current.
Another fact that river goose hunters should keep in mind is that giant Canada geese are lazy. They're powerful flyers fully capable of long-distance travel, make no mistake about that -- bu
t they much prefer to have short flights between feeding areas, roosting areas (e.g., the river), and full-blown refuges like the cities. Therefore, the largest numbers of geese using the river are usually found within, at most, a county or two of St. Joseph, Kansas City, Boonville, Jefferson City, or St. Louis.
Significant numbers of giant Canadas are fledged on Truman and Stockton reservoirs. These birds are wary and extremely difficult to hunt, but that just makes the victory even sweeter on those days when the hunter's plan comes together. Lake geese shift from area to area in response to hunting pressure or changing food sources, but only severe weather can make them desert their home water.
Both Graber and Kerns stressed the important role weather plays in late season goose hunting. Given what passes for "normal" weather here in Missouri, by late December, a constantly shifting freeze line will have established itself somewhere across northern or central Missouri. North of this line, farm ponds, small impoundments, and perhaps even major reservoirs are frozen. If it's a good winter by goose hunting standards, the ground north of the freeze line is snow-covered.
Under the conditions just described, both resident geese and northern birds forced south tend to gang up immediately south of the freeze line. Since the Missouri River often marks the freeze line across central Missouri, hunters can count on finding plenty of geese on the river. Field-shooting can also be the best of the year because the birds have been forced into areas with which they're not familiar in order to find food. In other words, now's the time to take revenge for all those admittedly comfortable days earlier in the season, when the geese won most of the battles.