Mississippi Goose Options

Waterfowling in general has been a bit spotty in the Magnolia State of late. But not the goose action! Here's where the honkers are showing up. (November 2007)

In recent years, the only increases in the goose harvest for Mississippi have been for Canada geese.
Photo by Polly Dean.

Most geese killed in Mississippi are taken by duck hunters, who simply take advantage of the situation when a Canada, blue or snow passes too low over a spread of mallard decoys. But another group of hunters can be added to that opportunistic list. Rabbit hunters are next in line!

Last winter, on a miserably cold January day on the edge of the south Delta near Yazoo City, a small group of us were following beagles in pursuit of swampers and hillbillies through some reclaimed agricultural land and catfish ponds. Moving closer to a creek that bordered the property, we head a cacophony rising from a neighbor's fields.

I had to take a look. What I saw was a field that seemed filled with living snow. It was white geese -- literally thousands of them.

"Guys, you need to get a look at this," I hollered at my partners. "You've heard of the huge flocks of wintering snows and blues? Well, here's an example."

About a mile down the road, at a slightly lower elevation, several thousand geese were already feeding in an open field. Thousands more were arriving in waves, steadily dropping out of the drizzle to join the feast.

It was an amazing sight, watching the flock feed through the field.

"Anybody know the farmer who owns that field?" asked Keith Quayle of Terry. "If we can get permission, I've got a case of steel shot in my truck left over from a duck hunt last week. They're not Ts, but they are No. 2s. We'll have to get close."

It just so happened that our hunt host not only knew the landowner, but also had his phone number saved in his cell phone's memory. He made the call, and the farmer was happy to hear the request.

"By all means, kill all you can," he said, his voice crackling over the speakerphone. "I hate them dang geese. I wouldn't care if you killed them all."

But killing the geese would be lots tougher than getting the permission to do so. How do you get close enough to shoot at 5,000 to 10,000 geese without being seen?

"We don't," said Quayle, the only one among us who'd had much goose experience. "We let them get close enough to us. That's the only way you can take advantage of this kind of situation when they're already in the field. If we just walk down there, they'll spook for sure. There's no cover anywhere near them."

We surveyed the situation and tried to form a plan. I spotted a big drainage ditch with high grass that cut the field in half, and it reminded me of a goose hunt I had witnessed a few years earlier, near Eagle Lake north of Vicksburg.

"Look at them. They're steadily feeding toward that ditch," I pointed out. "See how the ones at the rear of the flock hop up and fly over the tops of the others to get to fresh ground closer to the ditch? They've still got about 400 or 500 yards to go, so we have to hurry and get in that ditch."

There was one obvious flaw to the plan. The geese were between our position and the ditch -- a point my partners were quick to make.

Just as we were about to give up on the idea of a quick goose hunt, a truck drove past us and headed down toward the geese. One edge of the flock was within 50 yards of the road. But when the truck drove past without stopping, only a few birds were spooked. They simply took wing for a few seconds and went right back down, ahead of the flock.

"I think we just got our sign," said Quayle. "We can drive past them, sneak back and make the ditch."

Only four of us were wearing camo, so the others kept on rabbit hunting while we made our move to the truck. We made sure our guns were all plugged, and then took off.

When we passed the geese, the sound was deafening. A few jumped up and flew to the head of the flock, now only 200 yards from the ditch.

Quayle drove us about 100 yards past the ditch and around a curve. We jumped out, and slowly made our move to the ditch.

Fortunately, the gully had about a 4-foot drop, and the grass at its edge was tall. We spotted an area with a couple of small bushes and headed for it.

In the ditch, another fortunate situation greeted us. In the bottom, there was only a small trickle of water about ankle deep, and we were all wearing knee-high rubber boots.

We got to the ditch, loaded our guns and hunkered down, laughing. It was a comical sight -- unreal, being less than 100 yards from thousands of honking geese.

"OK, now what?" I asked out loud, feeling no need to whisper.

Quayle, laughing the hardest, could barely put words together.

"Get three more shells ready," he said, "because once we come up shooting, they're not going to stay long. We need to space out about 10 yards down the ditch. And when they get within 15 or 20 yards, I'll holler 'Now,' and we'll come up.

"When they fly, shoot and reload as fast as you can. This will be over in a matter of seconds."

We spread out and waited, and it didn't take long. Ten minutes after we made the ditch, the flock was almost on top of us.

I looked down the ditch toward Quayle, waiting for his sign.

"Now!"

We popped up out of that ditch and let loose. Shots were fired. Geese went crazy. More shots were fired, and more geese went crazy.

A total of 18 shots rang out. All but 10 of the geese escaped. The unfortunate 10 were flopping around in the mud near the ditch, none of them in front of me.

I had been laughing too hard to fire a single shot. The sight of 10,000 or so geese rising up in a large, noisy cloud of white was more than I could stand.

The more I watched the geese, the harder I laughed. Only about a couple hundred of the birds really knew what had happened. The rest just flew up when those nearest the ditch d

id.

Then an amazing thing happened. Part of the flock -- which filled the sky in all directions -- seemed to regroup and circle back.

We dropped back in the ditch and watched as about 2,000 geese peeled off and headed right for us.

"They're coming back to the other side of the ditch," I hollered. "I don't think they know what happened."

Sure enough -- within seconds, the geese were circling in to land on the other side of the ditch.

On their second circle, they passed overhead, well within shooting range.

We added another seven geese to our take, including two I managed to get on the pass.

The flock finally settled in the far corner of the field, well out of range. Ten minutes later, we were back at the rabbit hunt.

"You know what?" Quayle said. "That could be addicting if it were always that easy."

But apparently, goose hunting is rarely that easy, and that could be why it is slow to catch on in Mississippi. Geese rank among the most underutilized wildlife resource in the state. Though millions of the birds winter in our Delta, surveys indicate that fewer than 7,000 hunters take at least one goose.

That's in spite of a 15-day September Canada goose season and the long regular season, plus an extended opportunity provided through the continuing Conservation Order that allows unlimited snow and blue goose hunting through February.

But the number of hunters and the number of birds harvested are slowly increasing, according to the latest hunting figures available from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In the 2004-05 season, a total of 6,500 individuals participated in goose hunts in Mississippi. That was an increase from 4,200 the year before. The total number of geese harvested increased from 17,300 to 21,000.

But the extra snow and blue opportunities don't seem to be contributing to either the increase in hunting or the harvest. In the 2003-04 season, hunters took nearly 13,000 snows and blues combined. In the following season, that number was only 9,700.

The increase was in Canada geese, as the harvest of those birds jumped from just over 2,000 to more than 8,000 the next year.

The increase in the Canada goose harvest was probably boosted by two factors -- most notably, the growth of the native non-migratory population from 15 years of stocking with "nuisance birds" obtained from other states. The geese were stocked throughout Mississippi on public waterways and some private lands and have become widespread, having expanded their range throughout the Magnolia State.

They are mostly tame now, and can be hunted with relative ease at places like Ross Barnett Reservoir.

The other reason is the increased popularity of the early-September season on Canada geese. The limit is five daily, and 10 in possession.

Scott Baker is the migratory bird project coordinator and one of three waterfowl biologists with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. He doesn't understand why the sport is undergoing such slow growth.

"You'd think with the expanded hunting opportunity for snows and blues, and the fact that we have such a big migration that winters here, there would be more interest," Baker said. "There is growth, but it is slow.

"I think the main reason is that few people have any experience with goose hunting other than getting an occasional shot while duck hunting. They don't know how.

"Another contributing factor is that while the conservation order allows hunting after January, in recent years we have had extremely mild winters. And by mid-February, we start getting warm fronts rising up through the state from the Gulf Coast.

"Geese won't tolerate that. They do not like to be here when it's warming up. They begin migrating out, so the extended opportunity doesn't last as long as you'd think."

Baker confirmed that during the duck season, some hunters get interested in goose hunting when they see so many geese feeding in Delta fields -- such as the flock described in our rabbit-hunt-turned-goose-hunt adventure.

"I get calls every winter here asking about geese," he said, "and our forums fill up with questions about how to hunt them. They get more interested when duck hunting is slow and they see the geese."

Quayle learned about goose hunting decades ago when a friend of his operated a waterfowl guide service specializing in goose hunts in southeast Texas near Beaumont.

Based on his experiences in Texas, he said he knows why goose hunting is slow to catch on.

"It's a lot of fun, but it's a lot of work," Quayle offered. "It's not very often that you get lucky enough to catch geese feeding on the edge of a field, like we did that day. Usually, they're as far out in the middle as they can get. And you know how our Delta fields turn into gumbo mud with winter rains!

"When you have to trudge half a mile or a mile to get to where they're feeding after sunrise, then put out hundreds of decoys or rags -- man, that's a lot of work! Then you have to either sit or lie down in that mud, waiting. I might consider doing it once or twice a year. But I'm telling you, it's a young man's sport."

Locating geese takes time and gas. Hours of driving the highways and back roads in the Delta are needed to find geese. But spotting them is not a problem once you're near.

"When you get direct line of sight at a flock, you can't miss them," said Raymond Turner of Greenville. "It looks like a patch of snow. If it's a big enough flock, an entire field may look covered in snow.

"You can ride around and find them, or you can go hang out at the local co-op and ask around. If there's a big flock around, you can find out about it. People talk, and word spreads. Landowners don't really like having them around, especially close to the house. They are really loud!"

Turner hunted geese for a decade in the Delta before developing heart problems two years ago.

"The key to successful goose hunting here is just like anywhere else," he said. "You have to find an area where a large flock --thousands of birds -- is feeding frequently. Then network with local landowners, and try to find some nearby fields where they haven't been. You don't really want to hunt where they've been using a field, because they eat everything there in a matter of days. They can completely strip a field that fast.

"Get in a field in the area be

fore sunrise and put out hundreds of rags and as many hard or soft-plastic decoys you can afford," he continued.

"Learn to call and learn to call very loud. You've got to get their attention and make them come to check you out. Once they see the rags, they'll come."

The second step is where you set up in relation to the rag spread.

"Don't surround yourself with the spread. They don't land in the middle," Turner explained. "Get on the downwind edge of the spread. Just like ducks, they come in against the wind and land on the outside edge of the flock, where you need to be.

"You want to be as close to the geese as you can get. They are big and tough. They can sustain a hit and keep going, and you'll lose them."

A final tip Turner had was one he learned from a previous goose story printed in Mississippi Game & Fish.

"I read where one guy said he designed his rags after a football referee's flag," he pointed out. "He cut his white rags in rectangular pieces and wrapped one corner around a rock. This accomplished a few things that I liked.

"One, you can throw them further, which can save time putting out the spread. Two, you can paint the rock corner black like a head. And three --the thing I like best -- the rock will weigh the rag down and keep it in place in high wind.

"We get a lot of wind in the flat Delta, and it can blow those rags around. Weighted down, though, it gives the rag a little movement like a goose, but it won't blow away."

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