Chasing Wild Geese In Mississippi

With the waterfowl season opening this month, it's time to plan your goose hunts. Here's an overview of how the birds are doing and where you can find them in the Magnolia State. (Novemeber 2008).

You're caught in a sound machine with mega-stereo. A cackling, honking, garbled cacophony rattles your eardrums, and you imagine that each of a thousand of pairs of eyes is trying to pick you out of that insignificant little pile of soybean stubble that constitutes your "blind."

Like something you'd see in a diagram of a World War II German armored unit executing a Blitzkrieg-style pincer movement, the outriders of the flock have already swung around, so now the noise is coming from behind and from the sides, as well as from out past your boots' toes. Looking out over the birds' "V" formation, you realize, as your targets get steadily closer, that their pattern resembles the rear sight on a rifle.

"Take them!" someone yells.

You scramble upright, flipping the safety on the 12 gauge into the "off' position. A big white bird appears over the front bead; you grab the trigger, and a 3-inch Magnum dose of No.'‚2 shot goes flying off to some spot occupied by no part of the goose that you just missed. How could anyone miss something that big, that close -- and that slow?

Never mind: Get your head down on the stock and try again. The birds are starting to peel away, but plenty of opportunities remain. Shoot; work the pump; find another target; shoot again. You do this until six fresh empty hulls litter the mud and stubble beside you.

Happily, the empties aren't all that you now see lying on the dark Delta soil; geese are on the ground as well.

Whoa! Did I say six empties? Yes! Unless the rules get changed, you can legally remove the plug from your shotgun during special "light goose management" season that ran all the way into early March last time around.

During that same period you can also use electronic calls, although less than half of those who participated in the light goose hunts during the 2007-08 season did so. And for those who really like to hang in there, hunting is expected to be allowed up to a half-hour after sunset.

Why are federal and state agencies' policies regulating this kind of waterfowl hunting so liberal? Simple: too many snow and blue "light" geese, so abundant that they do considerable damage to their own habitat. In fact, you should consider your outings a sort of hunter's obligation.

HUNTING THE LOCALS

None of this implies that the only goose hunting in Mississippi occurs during the snow geese segment at the tail end of hunting season. Big birds are around from day one, and that includes the 15-day season back in September for resident Canada geese.

Those resident flocks are mostly made up of family members, or at least of birds hatched and raised on the same lake. They're part of a successful management program to reestablish "dark" geese not only here but also across the country. In some instances it is a program that has been almost too successful. Even the limit of five birds daily, 10 in possession, hasn't slowed the growth of the number of these birds.

Resident geese seem to achieve a state of mind in which they totally disdain the two-legged animals that share their habitat. If anybody were ever to develop an urge to hunt geese every chance they get, I'd think that golfers would be at the head of the line -- because resident Canada geese are simply crazy about golf courses.

I love the story that one of my buddies who golfs tells about a member of his foursome being chased away from a water hazard by a couple of nesting birds. He gets a lot less of a kick out of relating another instance of goose misbehavior, however -- the one in which he made a dandy chip shot onto a difficult green only to find that his ball was sitting on something that most definitely was not a tee. (Hysterical with laughter, his brutal partners insisted that he play the ball where it lay.)

Geese, which will be found all across the state, are mostly targets of opportunity harvested when they happen to fly by a blind containing duck hunters. If you choose to target the birds, you can up your odds considerably by doing one thing: scouting.

The habits and movements of "honkers," residents or migrants, are quite predictable -- well '‚.'‚.'‚. at least as predictable as any waterfowl's (if you want to be picky). If geese spend the night on a lake or pond tonight, they'll probably be back tomorrow night unless you make the mistake of shooting them where they roost. Shooting over water pretty well insures that the birds involved won't be back, but if hunting is done where the birds feed, they most likely retreat to their previous roosting spot and stay in the area for as long as it remains secure, which can be for quite some time.

Obviously you can't hunt golf-course geese where they feed, so by all means go after them and their suburban brethren where you must. But when you're given an option, you'll do better not to shoot roost areas.

Do your homework, and have your hunting buddies do the same. Watch for geese leaving roosting areas around daylight, and then get a fix on where they are going to feed. Getting permission to hunt on private land is always necessary, but when it comes to geese, such permission is often easy to obtain, as the big birds can be nuisances. Bottom line: If you scout and locate feeding areas, set up on those spots and you'll put birds in your game bag.

When in the course of your scouting you encounter birds on the ground, listen to them -- they don't call wildly all the time. If you have a hunting partner who insists on doing this or, even worse, simply has to call at geese that he didn't see until they had already started a descent, pack his calls full of mud and toss them one by one into the nearest slough. (If he complains, leave the remaining calls around his neck before you drop them in.) Bad callers foul up as many gunning opportunities as the guys who can't resist wiggling around for a better look when geese are approaching.

TARGETING THE TOURISTS

The so-called light geese -- snow and blue, which are the same critter, but in different coloration -- are another story entirely. Strictly migrants, they're about as unpredictable as waterfowl get.

Because these geese can completely empty a feeding area in one pass, your scouting needs to wear a different face here. You need to locate the areas that geese are using -- but don't bet the family farm that the birds will be there two days in a row; three days in the same spot would mean that some higher power has put them under house arrest. What scouting wi

ll do is give you a sense of the general areas in which the birds are moving and feeding.

Another good bet: Visit farm and ranch supply stores and let it be known that you'd be happy to help the landowners evict these unwelcome travelers. Farmers with winter wheat in the ground don't exactly welcome these feathered varmints, which don't just nip the top of fresh greenery, as Canada geese are wont to do: Snows go for the entire plant.

I don't recall ever killing a snow or blue, except on rainy days, that didn't have dirt or mud on its beak. In that regard they're sort of like an avian armadillo -- they sure can root things up.

In the Delta Region and elsewhere, as many light geese are probably taken as targets of opportunity as in all other situations combined. Hunters take a route that happens to put them in proximity to a feeding flock, and an ambush path is figured out -- in most instances, a drainage ditch or hedgerow; guns and birds ultimately collide.

Because the birds feed in pretty much a straight line, it's not terribly hard to figure out the direction in which they're heading and plan accordingly. That usually requires some sneaking and low crawling.

Be aware that such tactics carry some unusual risks when you're trying to get into gun range on a warm day. On one occasion, I was about to crawl over a levee in Quitman County when the right of way was disputed by a cottonmouth about as big around as the sleeve of my parka. He was happy lying there in the sun, and I was equally happy to slide back down the levee and take an alternate route.

If you're lucky enough to have access to farmland that the birds have a history of visiting, by all means make plans to work at decoying them -- especially when the liberal "habitat" season is in effect, during which (unless the rules are changed prior to the upcoming season) mechanical calls are allowed and, as mentioned earlier, no plug restricting the hunter to three shells in the shotgun is required.

Snow geese are noisy birds, so a good, loud electronic call is an asset, as is a call blown by even a semi-competent caller, or voice calling. Using flags designed to attract the attention of distant birds can also work well -- just don't keep flagging when wary birds get too close, or you can spook them. They may have a brain the size of an acorn, but they'll inspect a suspicious setup with the suspicion of a veteran banker asked to issue a third mortgage on a mobile home.

Decoying starts with one thing: lots of decoys. Snows like company. Luckily, they respond well to "rags," with a few shells and silhouettes scattered around edges of the set for maximum visibility. The rags are exactly that -- white pieces of cloth. Some hunters opt to tie rocks or other weights in the corners of the rags to make them easier to toss out.

Wire stakes may take longer to set up, but they reduce weight and cause you to take more time to consider your set. Rather than just one big clump, break your set down into small bunches of three to six or so to mimic family groups. You don't have to do a picture-perfect job, but the more realism, the better.

Despite liberal limits and regulations, as well as the lengthy season, light goose harvests have increased as much as many managers all along the flyway would like. Last time around, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries issued 643 free permits for the special hunt, and 189 participants responded to the follow-up survey. Based on that data and field reports, the total harvest of light geese was put at 11,776 -- little changed from the previous year, and possibly down slightly.

Top counties in terms of harvest were Tallahatchie, Quitman and Bolivar, but this could relate more to actual hunter participation than the number of geese using the area. Hunters in Laflore, Humphreys, Sunflower and Washington counties might very well make a case for those locales as the top areas.

All waterfowl are notoriously mobile; they can be here today and who-knows-where tomorrow. All that you have to do is drive through the state's 15 major refuges during the winter to see that this applies everywhere. One may appear to be white wall to wall on one tract, while another will have more open sky than anything else.

John Anderson, a longtime goose chaser from Jackson, admitted the transitory nature of the birds, but added that he believed weather made putting a hunting pattern together even more difficult. "They have hundreds of thousands of acres at their disposal," he noted, "and when the weather's mild they don't have to feed as heavily as they would if it were cold and things were frozen up. These birds are close to the end of their migration corridor, so if they are in a situation where they can snack around and loaf, they will. Why work if you don't have to?

"Also, when the weather is mild all the way up into the middle of the flyway, the birds don't have the need to come this far south. On any given day you can see about as many snow geese going north to feed in Arkansas fields as there are spreading out around the Delta, especially the northern part.

"I believe that a hard freeze or two during the latter part of the season would put a lot more geese into areas that are accessible to local hunters," Anderson concluded. "We don't have a real snow goose hunting tradition here, but given the right weather conditions that will allow success rates to really jump, I don't think it would take long to develop one." *'‚'‚'‚*'‚'‚'‚*

Hunting geese anywhere comes with no guarantees, but if you want to bag a Canada goose, the odds are better than good, thanks to the number of resident birds. They can even be predictable.

The odds of daily success may not be quite so high the first time or two that you try for Mississippi snows, but when the sky seems to offer incoming birds from horizon to horizon and a thousand or more of them seem determined to occupy your personal space, you can get some shots -- that is, if you can get your heart out of your throat, your gun up and the safety off!

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