Goose Season In The Pelican State

In recent years, ducks have been tough to come by, but goose numbers have increased. So does that mean they're easy to bag? Let's see. (December 2009)

Don Dubuc of Mandeville took these specklebelly geese on a rye grass field near Lake Charles.

Photo by John Felsher.

The swirling white mass rose from the adjacent field and spiraled higher and higher as the hunters waited in their freezing pits, trying to overcome the chill while remaining still.

From more than a mile away, the cackling cacophony echoed across the frosty field. The sportsmen added their messages of welcome to the incessant din rising over the stubble. Several hundred full-bodied and shelled decoys stood as silent sentinels, beckoning the twisting white tornado to come that way. White flags on strings resembling clotheslines added movement to the spread, as rags perched on sticks filled in the gaps between the solid decoys.

The white cloud numbering perhaps more than 30,000 snow geese began to move en masse toward the hunters. Unfortunately, they climbed higher than shotgun range, passing a tantalizingly close 80 yards above the pit blind. In frustration, the hunters banged away with magnum loads, hoping for a lucky shot, but no big white birds tumbled from the sky. The pellets probably never made it that high, dropping like rain among the shooters.

Snow goose numbers increased dramatically in the past few years, but that doesn't necessarily translate into meat on the table. Geese can live longer than 30 years. Sharp-eyed old veterans know all the tricks and can spot blinds, crouching sportsmen or decoys. They can discern even the best calls, but in the right spot, hunters can find plenty of action.

"We had an excellent goose season last year, but geese are definitely getting a little smarter," said Erik Rue of Calcasieu Charter Service in Lake Charles. "They are more call-shy and definitely more wary of decoys. White geese have been extremely difficult to fool unless the weather conditions are in our favor."

Geese can prefer one field today and then disappear. Therefore, sports­men need to scout and move with the birds whenever possible. In some places, scouting is as easy as driving around back roads in the winter. From Lake Charles to about Crowley, through Cameron, Vermilion, Jeff Davis and Acadia parishes and north almost to Alexandria, hunters can often spot huge flocks of snow geese feeding in fields. Driving from Lafayette to Shreveport along Interstate 49, motorists also spot snow geese, often accompanied by white-fronted geese. However, since geese primarily feed on private agricultural lands, hunters need to obtain permission to set up in a field.

When picking a good place, don't try to hunt where a massive flock of geese feeds. A flock numbering in the thousands typically posts hundreds of sentries looking for anything out of the ordinary. Hunting that spot could chase the birds away. Huge flocks almost never go to decoys or calls. Even the best callers and a few hundred decoys can't compete with 10,000 to 20,000 live birds cackling up a ruckus a couple miles away.

Instead, pick a spot between two large groups of geese, but never closer than a mile. Hunt the stragglers that fly back and forth between the two concentrations. You might find better luck calling in a single, a pair or a small flock rather than 10,000 birds.

Sometimes, you can "creep" up on huge flocks of geese. To successfully stalk geese, split into two or more parties consisting of creepers and blockers. Blockers find places to hide in likely routes that birds might fly to escape the creepers. Typically, birds take off into the wind, but turn so the tailwind gives them an extra boost.

With the blocker hidden on likely escape routes, the creepers can begin their stalk. Keep close to the ground and use any available cover, such as trees, ditches, levees, farm buildings or equipment, whatever blocks the view of the keen-eyed geese. Once the creepers get in range, they can open fire. The startled geese erupt from the field and fly in the opposite direction to escape, hopefully heading directly over the blockers concealed on the flight path.

Hunting white-fronted geese -- also known as specklebellies -- more closely resembles duck hunting than chasing snow geese. In fact, duck hunters in parts of the state routinely add a speck or two to their daily bags.

"Our ratio of specks to white geese is about 3 to 1, despite the limit being two specks and 20 snows," Rue explained. "But in defense of those numbers, we don't typically set out any snow goose decoys unless we find a good concentration on the property or nearby. We mostly kill snows as targets of opportunity. Too many white dekes sometimes seem to bother our speck hunting. We can't always get specks to decoy inside 25 yards when the snow dekes are out. However, the white decoys sometimes draw specks from farther away."

Specks come to decoys and respond better to calling than their white and blue cousins. In addition, specks typically don't call as often or as loudly as snows. While all 20,000 snows in a flock may squawk boisterously, only one speck in the flock might speak for the group.

Although they decoy well, these geese can pick up danger signals instantly. One move at the wrong time might put the entire flock into turbo drive. Therefore, keep blind material as natural and complete as possible. Cover the top of the blind, since geese can easily see down into it when flying high overhead. And, obviously, you need to remain motionless.

"The best advice I can give to any goose hunter is to make sure you're very well concealed," Rue agreed. "That is essential if you want the big, wary birds to decoy inside of 20 to 25 yards. Also, when hunting specklebellies, too much calling will often alert them."

Rue hunts fields near Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge. Surrounded by marshes, impoundments, farm units and agricultural property, the 35,000-acre refuge near Lake Arthur sits square in the middle of some of the best goose country in the state, perhaps the nation. In some years, the refuge hosts thousands of geese.

On certain days during duck season, about 9,300 acres of the NWR are open to hunters. Many geese feed in nearby rice fields and return to the refuge to escape hunting pressure.

"We harvested the most ever specklebellies for our operation last season," Rue noted. "We still see huge flocks of wintering geese in southwest Louisiana. However, the last few years the concentrations of snow geese seem to disperse a little earlier in the season than in the past. It seems with the mild winters we've been having that they are traveling back up the flyway a little soone

r."

South of Lake Charles, on the Louisiana-Texas line, Sabine NWR covers 125,790 acres, According to Sabine NWR Manager Terence Delaine, marshes blanket most of the refuge, which offers excellent duck hunting on about 34,000 acres four days a week. Although the refuge doesn't hold many geese, sportsmen sometimes bag specks or snows while duck hunting.

"The 2008-09 season was pretty typical for Lacassine and Sabine refuges," Delaine explained. "Sabine marshes are not really conducive to just goose hunting, but duck hunters kill their share of specklebellies and snow geese. Lacassine does hold some birds. Just about all of our goose hunting is done incidental to duck hunting. We don't stay open for just the goose season. When duck season ends, it's over for geese too."

Hurricanes Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2008 battered the area. Sabine did not open for waterfowl hunting during the first duck split in 2008, Delaine said. In addition, the storm destroyed a bridge that allowed vehicle access to part of the hunting area. Boaters can still enter the area, though.

While the marshes and rice fields of southwestern Louisiana traditionally provide good shooting and still hold the most geese, flight patterns have changed. During the past several decades, geese shifted from coastal marshes to feeding in agricultural fields, primarily rice and soybeans in Louisiana. In recent years, rice production shifted north and the birds followed.

"We've seeing more white-fronted and snow geese in the northeastern part of the state and fewer in the southwestern and coastal parts of Louisiana," said Larry Reynolds, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries waterfowl study leader. "In the past 10 or 15 years, Texas and Louisiana lost large portions of their rice production, and Louisiana as much as 40 percent. In southwest Louisiana, farmers aren't growing as much rice, so they are growing sugarcane, which offers little wildlife habitat. The rice production has gone north to southeast Missouri, Arkansas and northeast Louisiana."

During the January 2009 waterfowl study, LDWF surveyors estimated 320,167 snow and 51,185 specklebelly geese in southwest Louisiana, which runs as far east as St. Mary Parish. This compares with 161,595 snows and 47,840 specklebellies in the northeastern part of the state, which according to survey rules covers everything from Sherburne Wildlife Management Area near Krotz Springs to the Arkansas line at the Mississippi River. Northwest Louisiana, which includes everything from Toledo Bend to the Arkansas line and over to Lake D'Arbonne, held 11,825 snows, 1,100 Ross geese and 2,165 specks. Southeastern Louisiana, that part of the state from Terrebonne Parish to the Mississippi state line, held 5,860 snows and 1,597 specklebellies.

The 2009 numbers reflected a 29 percent drop in state snow goose numbers compared with the same time in 2008. In addition, the 2009 snow goose numbers came in at 21 percent below the 10-year average. For specks, the trend reflected a 1 percent drop from 2008, but came in at 26 percent above the average, the one bright spot in goose numbers for 2009.

In northeast Louisiana, sportsmen might find the most geese in the agricultural lands along the Mississippi River, said John Hanks an LDWF wildlife biologist in Monroe. Unfortunately, hunters without access to private lands won't find many geese, but they might bag a few snows and an occasional speck on some public properties.

"Goose hunting in northeast Louisiana was fair last year," Hanks said. "Northeast Louisiana has several rice farms and flooded bean fields that provide good goose hunting. Morehouse, Richland and the eastern part of Ouachita parishes usually have quite a few geese. East and West Carroll have some geese. The biggest concentration of geese that I've seen in northeast Louisiana occurs on the Upper Ouachita NWR. The Ouachita WMA south of Monroe has some goose hunting. They kill mostly snows, but some white-fronts and an occasional Canada goose."

Upper Ouachita NWR covers 42,594 acres in Union and Ouachita parishes along the Ouachita River. The property largely consists of upland pine forests and hardwood bottomlands, but it also contains some moist-soil wetlands, open water and agricultural lands. East of the Ouachita River, the Mollicy Unit covers about 16,000 acres. A ring levee cuts off the property from the river floodplain, but traps rainwater.

Owned by the LDWF, Ouachita WMA covers 10,989 acres of Ouachita Parish six miles southeast of Monroe. It borders the 16,835-acre Russell Sage WMA, another potential public goose-hunting property. On both properties, the habitat consists mainly of hardwood bottomlands and cypress swamp, but some impoundments provide duck habitat, while geese feed in the moist-soil lands.

Sportsmen can find limited good hunting in other parts of the state. Catahoula and Concordia parishes along the Mississippi River hold some geese. Birds also use the Red River Valley when migrating down from the Great Plains. Avoyelles and Rapides parishes can provide some good hunting in places.

"Most WMAs in the central and eastern part of the state are forested wetlands," Reynolds said. "I've hunted on Catahoula Lake a few times and have seen geese on the banks. In some years, people kill a fair number of geese at the Sherburne WMA. After the duck season ends and snow goose season continues, some people hunt Sherburne."

For most of the year, the 46-square-mile Catahoula Lake near Pineville remains largely dry, but the state floods it to about 30,000 acres each fall to provide habitat for waterfowl. Duck hunters bag a few geese passing through the area. On the northeast shoreline of the lake, Catahoula NWR covers 25,162 acres, divided into two units.

Consisting of 11,780 acres owned by the LDWF, 15,220 acres of the Atchafalaya NWR and 17,000 acres owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Sherburne WMA totals 44,000 acres of mostly hardwood bottomlands laced with several bayous. The state manages the entire area as one unit. The South Farm unit offers limited goose hunting.

The Mississippi and Atchafalaya river deltas can provide some goose hunting. In the Atchafalaya, sportsmen kill mostly specks with snows dominating in the marshes of southeastern Louisiana. Neither area contains enough geese to intentionally target them, but duck hunters sometimes bag a few big birds.

"On public lands, goose harvests are almost entirely incidental to duck hunting," Reynolds said. "About the only public areas that I might recommend someone intentionally try for geese would be Pass-A-Loutre and Delta NWR at the mouth of the Mississippi River. When the weather is bad, hunters kill a few snows, but they are difficult to hunt. Sportsmen in the Atchafalaya Delta WMA primarily kill specks with an occasional snow."

Pass-A-Loutre WMA covers about 66,000 acres of marshes and open water in lower Plaquemines Parish south of Venice. The nearby Delta NWR covers an additional 48,800 acres. Geese swallow grit to aid in their digestion, so they sometimes congregate on mudflats along the Mississippi River at low tide.

"Th

ere are some snow geese down here, but hunting them is not something we can count on doing," said Damon McKnight, a duck guide for Super Strike Charters who hunts the marshes near Venice. "While we're hunting ducks in the marshes, we occasionally bag some geese. A few snow geese might fly over the blind and we take shots at them. If we see a concentration of birds, we can sometimes hunt them, but usually, we just get them as targets of opportunity if they happen to move through our area while we're duck hunting."

One of the largest public hunting areas in the state, Atchafalaya Delta WMA covers 137,000 acres of St. Mary Parish between the Atchafalaya River and Wax Lake Outlet south of Morgan City. The area consists mostly of open water and mudflats, but sportsmen can also hunt in nearby marshes and scrub. Like in the Mississippi Delta, geese find grit on the mudflats. Duck hunters occasionally pick off specks and infrequent snows that wander too close to their blinds.

For 44 days this winter, sportsmen can also hunt Canada geese in parts of the state that allow it. In flight, Canadas look and act much like specklebellies, but look for the white throat stripe. Some resident Canadas stay around Toledo Bend, in Ascension Parish, around the town of Clinton, in parts of northwest Louisiana and scattered other places. Unfortunately, most resident Canada geese live in urban or suburban areas that might not allow hunting.

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