Getting A Magnolia Goose
September 30, 2010
Waterfowl seasons approach, so it's time to start planning your goose hunts. Start with this preview of the fall action. (Nov 2006)
With each passing winter, goose numbers continue to increase in the Mississippi Delta, but that hasn't translated to a significant growth in the number of Mississippi goose hunters. And that confounds Brad Harris of Greenwood.
"It's about as much fun as you're going to have as far as hunting goes," he remarked. "But I guess there's just not enough people like me who are willing to do the work it takes to become successful at goose hunting.
"I will say this -- it sure as heck ain't easy."
The fact is that a lot of people don't want to spend hours tromping through muddy Delta fields setting up hundreds -- if not thousands -- of goose rags or hard decoys just to shoot geese. The latest surveys by state and federal wildlife officials still consider the number of goose hunters to be too small to count as a significant user group.
"It is true that most Mississippi goose hunters are just duck hunters who take advantage of the opportunity to kill a goose when it presents itself," said Scott Baker, the migratory bird coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "We don't have that many honest-to-goodness goose hunters. While the number is growing, both during the regular and extended season, it's still not a significant number, even though we have a lot of geese in the state each year.
"It just hasn't caught on here. I wish I knew exactly why. But it just hasn't."
According to the latest statistics available from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Harvest Information Program, an estimated 6,500 individuals claimed to have hunted geese during the 2004 season, resulting in a total harvest of 21,000 geese. No information is provided as to how many of those hunters actually were specifically hunting geese at the time they shot a goose.
Also, no information was forthcoming as to how many of those hunted during the special 15-day early Canada goose season in September, but since 8,707 Canada geese were claimed, the highest of any species, it's reasonable to conclude that many did.
The bottom line, Harris said, is that true goose hunters are few and far between during the regular goose seasons. He points to the HIP survey for his proof.
"Most of the goose hunting done in Mississippi is accidental," he asserted. "Duck hunters kill the majority of the geese in Mississippi when they aren't even goose hunting. I think the telling factor is in the average number of geese harvested in that survey. If there are 6,500 goose hunters, and the total harvest is about 21,000 geese, that means the average harvest is about three per hunter. That means there are a lot of hunters killing one or two per season, because a serious goose hunter, when he's on geese, is going to be killing at least five to 10 per day.
"The limit on snows, blues and Ross' geese is 20 per day in aggregate and those are the geese that are so plentiful in the huge flocks in the Delta. That's what we're hunting. I kept count this year, and I killed close to 320 snow geese alone, give or take a few, plus some blues and Ross'. That's the kind of action you can get when you concentrate on geese."
Not that Harris has anything against duck hunters who transform into goose hunters solely when an opportunity presents itself. "Hey -- I used to be one of them!" he admitted. "But about four years ago, when our ducks started getting scarce -- and they've continued to get even more scarce each year -- I decided to get serious about goose hunting. We had lots of geese, and I learned real quickly that you have to commit to hunting honkers if you want to kill them. You can't hunt ducks in the morning and, if that doesn't work out, switch to geese."
That realization did more to improve Harris' goose hunting than any other factor. But other adjustments did play a part -- like, for instance, a complete overhaul of his waterfowling equipment.
"Oh, man -- I spent a lot of money switching from ducks to geese," he said. "But I swear it was worth it. My buddies and I spent close to $3,000 each over the last few years getting geared up for geese. And that doesn't count the amount of money we've spent on gas riding around and finding places to hunt, which is a big part of goose hunting.
"But in the long run, we've saved money. We used to spend thousands of dollars a year on two or three duck leases. Turns out we are finding plenty of places to hunt geese for free. It's like we're doing landowners a favor. One guy even asked me how much we'd charge him for killing his geese. Imagine that! We even found a couple of landowners who let us hunt ducks if we keep the goose numbers down."
Granted, that scenario isn't the one that all goose hunters are likely to luck into -- but it does offer a notion of the level of quality that our goose hunting can attain. If landowners allow free access to property, there must be an unmet need.
"All we have to promise usually is that we will leave the property in the same condition we found it -- except for fewer geese," said Al Thompson, one of Harris' hunting partners. "We pick up all our shell hulls, all our dead birds -- and we even clean a few of the geese and offer them to the landowner. We haven't had a problem with finding and then keeping places to hunt."
Most areas of the Delta hold geese at least periodically. According to Scott Baker, the MDWFP's annual winter duck survey flights have resulted in goose sightings in most areas of the Delta, with the vast majority of the huge flocks staying in those counties along the Mississippi River.
Geese are found as far east as the areas around Sardis, Enid and Grenada lakes, but not nearly in the numbers seen in the west Delta.
Finding huntable numbers of birds is as easy as driving the Delta highways, since the flocks are easy to spot -- huge white areas resembling snowpack contrasted against an otherwise dark-brown background.
"The thing about the geese is that, once they find a field with any amount of crop stubble -- be it soybean, corn or even rice -- they won't take long to completely clear it," said Harris. "When they get through going across the field, there's nothing but thousands of blobs of goose droppings left. They hoover it as clean as can be. There's nothing left to hold the soil. Which is why I think the landowners are so happy to see us."
Harris and his group will spend late November and early December hunting ducks, but they keep an ey
e open for geese. "Yeah, we still do a lot of early duck hunting, because the geese are a little slower arriving en masse," he explained. "We hunt ducks a couple of hours, if we have any to hunt, and then start driving around looking for geese. We do have a list of about 10 landowners from Greenville north to Clarksdale who call us if the geese are there -- but we are always looking for new places.
"If we spot big flocks, we stop, pinpoint the field and then find the owner. About half the time, he or she is glad to know somebody will hunt them. Of course, we get turned away the other half, but that's OK. You never know until you ask."
According to Al Thompson, the key to winning a landowner over lies in being gracious, and assuring him or her that respect will be shown to the property. "We offer them a list of previous landowners, kind of like references, and you'd be surprised how helpful that has been," he said.
Once birds have been located, and permission granted, the team goes speedily to work. The first day is spent scouting the birds to determine the direction from which they approach, the time of their arrival and which way they're feeding.
"We usually don't go for the flocks that number in the thousands right away," noted Harris, "because they deplete the food supply so fast that you can't pattern them. If we can find a group of about 300 to 500 birds, then we can count on a few good hunts."
As soon as the birds leave the field, the group starts putting out their rags and decoys. "We'll go right to where they last were, and look to see if there's still food ahead in the direction they were feeding," said Thompson. "If there is, we stand a pretty good chance they will return there the next day. We go ahead and put out the rags. You can't have too many.
"We learned a long time ago that the more the merrier. Even if you are only hunting a group of about 200 birds, or even less, when they come the next morning and find 600 or 700 rags on the ground, they'll dive in quickly, kind of like they're mad other geese have found their feeding ground.
"At the same time, the more rags you have, the more easily spotted they are for traveling geese. When the geese have really arrived in the Delta, you will see 10 or 20 huge flights of geese flying high every day. They're looking -- and you want them to see you. They may not come down if they see the rags. But they certainly won't if they don't."
Never put the rags in the area in which you want the geese to land. "It took us a year to learn that trick," acknowledged Harris. "We kept putting out rags and decoys, and they kept landing out of gun range. What we found out from researching goose tips on the Internet and in magazines and books is that geese land on the fringes, especially when you're dealing with the big groups of snows and blues like we do.
"Know the wind direction, because geese, like all waterfowl, will land into the wind. Ninety percent of the time, the best place to hunt is the downwind edge of the decoy spread. If the prevailing wind is out of the north, which it usually is in the winter months, then you will want to hunt the south edge of the spread."
We're pleased to report, incidentally, that Harris got some of his best tips from a Mississippi Game & Fish article from 2004 in which a similar group of goose hunters explained their rag theory. "I remember they said that there's no such thing as too many rags and decoys, and that you don't need to spend a lot of money on hard or shell decoys," he recalled. "I think they said that a few full body decoys that would move in the wind is all that they needed to augment the rag spread.
"We laughed when we read about how one of their hunters who was a football official had suggested sewing a rock in one corner of the rag and then painting that corner black like a head. Turns out, it was right on cue. You can throw those decoys like an official's flag. And we're not talking that much added weight -- in a bag full of decoys, maybe a few pounds."
If for some reason the birds don't return the next day, the hunters don't automatically give up on that location. They leave the decoys at least one more night and then go back --unless, of course, they have a sure-fire better place to go.
"If there's food there, they will be back," Thompson offered. "It might be that they come back later in the day. We will give it a few hours."
This is one of the grayest areas of goose hunting. These waterfowlers have their own particular ways, but there's nothing black-and-white about calling.
"You have to feel your way through it," Harris observed. "Every day and every flock is different. A lot of times, if we know the geese are coming, we won't do a lot of calling other than to make noise to let them know there are geese down here, and not just a bunch of rags.
"Then there are days, like those when we were expecting geese and they didn't show, that we have to be quite loud, with everybody who knows how blasting away. If we see or hear a flight of geese way up high traveling, we'll try our best to get them to come check us out. We do pretty good that way, but not as good as the days when the birds we're expecting return. They come in a lot faster to a known entity."
The group learned calling techniques the same way they learned everything else -- through study. "We bought DVDs, CDs, tape cassettes -- you name it," Harris said. "We bought lots of calls at trade shows, where we could get calling tips from call-makers. But I'll be honest with you: Calling, to me, is the least important part of goose hunting. Learning where to be and when to be there is far more critical than calling. The only time calling is the most important thing is when you don't have birds patterned or located and you have to attract newly arriving birds to a field."
Harris pointed out that the group's kill rates went up the day they learned about -- and immediately invested in -- ground blinds.
"We were having some success and killing a few geese just laying on the ground in camo clothes with painted faces," he recalled, "but then when we saw a TV show about those comfortable, pillowed blinds, we ordered them that day. And it was amazing -- adds hours to how long you can lay in a field comfortably. And our kill rates went up. We've all got at least one or two of them now."
Most of the group stuck with 12-gauge shotguns, but those who didn't have one already upgraded to guns with 3 1/2-inch chambers. They all shoot Ts.
"We did have one guy who bought a 10-gauge auto, but that lasted one morning -- actually only one volley," Thompson said. "He fired three shots, got up, walked to the truck and retrieved his 12. His shoulder still turned purple."
Canada goose hunting is concentrated on the state's lakes and reservoirs, including Barnett, Grenada, Enid, Sardis, Eagle, the Tenn-Tom pools and a few other big water
A lot of the Canadas shot there are non-migrating resident geese that were put here after trades with other states to obtain nuisance geese. They can be hunted during that early Sept. 1-15 season, and then, during the open goose season.
Public-land goose opportunities are limited and are mostly to be found in the Delta. Most geese taken at those properties are by duck hunters.
"We get all the major types of geese in Mississippi: Canada, snow, blue, white-fronted" said Baker. "But the great numbers are those huge flocks of snows and blues that go to the Delta each winter. That's where there's room for growth in the sport of goose hunting in Mississippi."