Hotspots For December Geese

December and January present two different sets of Canada goose hunting conditions in New England. The changing weather is one important factor, and the other is the sub-species of geese that are available.

In most Northeastern states, two groups of these birds exist. One is the migratory population, which wings through our region in late fall. States like Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut are primary resting areas for migrating honkers, so hunting prospects are good.

The second is the resident goose population, which includes descendants of domesticated Canada geese once bred by waterfowl hunters. When real birds (live decoys) were outlawed for hunting in the 1930s (because of their deadly effectiveness), most waterfowlers didn't want to dispatch their "pets," so hundreds of captive birds were set free. Without an inborn sense of migration, these geese began reproducing locally. Unfortunately, residential lawns, corporate golf courses, playgrounds, parks, beaches and reservoirs soon became preferred goose habitat. In suburban areas, few predators were present to control the burgeoning bird numbers, so conditions for these winged grazers were perfect.

As these local goose populations grew, one solution to curbing nuisance or resident geese was an expanded experimental hunting program. The term "experimental" (implying possibly temporary) no longer applies in most areas, and southern New England states now consistently offer a separate goose-hunting period after the regular waterfowl season closes.

The regular season is open during some portion of November and December in all coastal New England states. Bag limits in December are restricted to two birds per day in almost all areas.

The second, or "bonus" season, generally runs from mid-January into February with a generous five-bird limit.

If the goal is to reduce goose numbers, why not simply always allow hunters a five-bird limit regardless of the month?

The reason for the disparity is that migrant Canada geese move southward through the Northeast in late fall and early winter and, unlike the growing number of resident geese, their population has been shrinking. The theory of waterfowl biologists is that when hunters harvest their five-bird limits in January, it's assumed they'll be culling the swelling native goose population rather than impacting the migrants. The last of the migratory geese may still be winging through our region in December, but by January they're gone (from most spots), and only resident birds remain.

According to waterfowl biologists in the Northeast, goose numbers in 2009-2010 are not outstanding, but are at least stable. The northeastern United States had an unusually chilly and damp spring, which possibly affected hatch rates. Nonetheless, the birds will still be plentiful and huntable in early winter.

"Resident goose production was decent in Connecticut this year," said Min Huang, Connecticut's Migratory Game Bird Program leader, "and from reports by biologists in neighboring states, production was good throughout the Northeast. That means there should be a fairly good number of young resident geese in this year's fall and winter flights.

"Migrant groups of Atlantic Population (AP) and North Atlantic Population (NAP) birds had lower-than-average production due to a cool, wet spring, which came at least three weeks later than normal," Huang added. "Both the AP and NAP breeding pair estimates for 2009 were slightly higher than in 2008, but with the lowered production of each population, the fall and winter flights will likely be similar to last year.

CONNECTICUT

Connecticut has recently divided its goose hunting zones into three units: the two coastal sections are the AFRP Unit, west of New Haven Harbor, and the NAP-H Unit, which is east of New Haven Harbor. (See the state's migratory waterfowl guidelines for details and demarcation line.)

The Nutmeg State divides its waterfowling regulations by North and South zones. The boundary line for the two zones is Interstate Route 95, which conveniently separates inland areas from coastal marshes.

The East River is a comparatively small marsh in Guilford where geese may be found during cold spells. The marsh borders the towns of Guilford and Madison and totals 147 acres. You can review it on Map 26 of Delorme's Connecticut Atlas and Gazetteer.

The launch is an all-tides landing, in good condition and wide enough to accommodate several rigs at once. Be careful not to stray off the concrete ramp because there is thick mud on either side.

The East River marsh is off I-95 at Exit 59, appropriately named Goose Lane. Turn south off the exit ramp and then travel east on Route 1. Turn right onto Neck Road, and then continue past the beach houses to the gated gravel launch road on the right.

East of Guilford on I-95 is Old Lyme and its Great Island salt marsh. The 504-acre wetland features dozens of creeks, coves and inlets on the main river and in the protected backwaters.

To find the easily accessible Great Island launch, take I-95 to Exit 70. Travel south on Route 156 for 1.8 miles to Smith Neck Road on the right. Follow Smith Neck .9 miles to its end. The ramp access driveway is steep and curved, so a 4-wheel-drive vehicle is required to haul the boat out in snowy or icy conditions. The launch is on a main channel of the marsh. Head west or north into the management area or south toward Griswold Point.

In the southwest corner of Connecticut is the Charles Wheeler WMA. Locally called "Nell's Island," this 812-acre salt marsh is off the east side of the Housatonic River. Hunters may enter the WMA in Milford one-half mile upriver from the marsh.

Take I-95 to Exit 34 in Devon. Turn west on Route 1 and then north on Naugatuck Avenue. The launch is on the left under the highway. Another access point is the Byrd Street launch downriver in Stratford, but that one requires a town permit.

The marsh features three main avenues where you can motor in at full to mid tide, but there is a risk of stranding here at low tide, especially with a full moon or a strong west wind, which pushes water out of Long Island Sound.

To hunt geese in Connecticut, you'll need a federal duck stamp, a state waterfowl stamp, a Connecticut small game license and a HIP permit.

RHODE ISLAND

Native goose numbers are good in Rhode Island, and with some out-of-state birds still around, hunters should have enough action to bag a day's limit.

Narragansett Bay is always a good public-hunting access area, especially when the inland waters start to freeze, which may happen in early December. This spot includes the Warwick area at Conimicut Point, Green Island and Rock Island.

Boat ramps are located around Narragansett Bay, but a good choice for Conimicut Point is the small sand launch at the end of Shawomet Avenue. This ramp is best used with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. A better ramp is off Narragansett Parkway, south of Rock Island. It is useful for accessing other areas around the bay.

Wickford Harbor is another good hunting option in the area with access off Route 1, southwest of Kingston.

See DeLorme's Connecticut/Rhode Island Atlas & Gazetteer, maps 68 and 72, for details of these areas.

Point Judith Pond and nearby Potter Pond offer more winter goose-hunting possibilities. A brackish stream, which is governed by tidal flow, courses through Succotash State Marsh and links the two ponds.

Access is from the launch north of Galilee Road. If you are only interested in plying Potter Pond, check out Kenport Marina, which is on the northwest side of Succotash Marsh. Using it means less travel time.

To visit the Galilee landing, travel toward Point Judith on Route 1. Turn onto Old Point Judith Road, and then take Route 108 to Galilee Road.

Another place to explore for early winter geese is Tiverton's Seapowet WMA on the east side of the bay, where Seapowet Point and Jacks Island offer tidal creeks, mud flats and salt ponds. Use the state's public launch off Puncatest Neck Road. More intrepid hunters may also launch a safe, seaworthy canoe from the beach.

Worden Pond is near South Kingston and borders Great Swamp WMA. It is open for bird hunting during the early and regular waterfowl seasons. Access to the pond is off Wordens Pond Road west off Route 110.

Rhode Island requires a special permit for its late goose season, which is available only in Providence and Kent counties and northern portions of Exeter and North Kingstown, as specified in the 2009 waterfowling guidelines.

For more information, visit the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Hunters may also call (401) 789-0281 for a free copy of the Atlas of Rhode Island Wildlife Management Areas. This publication details the state's upland and waterfowl hunting lands open to the public.

MASSACHUSETTS

MassWildlife demarcates its Coastal Zone as "eastward and southward of the Central Zone line to the coast." If you're unsure of the Central Zone boundaries, there is a detailed description on the Web site listed below.

Two of the most reliable public access hunting locations in the Coastal Zone north of Boston are the Salisbury Marsh and the Parker Wildlife refuge areas.

The Parker River Wildlife Refuge site is divided into A, B and C sections, each with its own restrictions. Area A is attainable by boat only from the refuge boat ramp (vehicles and trailers must be parked in Lot 1) located opposite Lot 1 or from off-refuge sites.

When planning a hunt here, consult a tide chart because this launch may be inaccessible at low water, especially on a moon tide. Here, you can also explore Kents Island and the Salisbury Flats along with Woodbridge Island and the famous Joppa Flats.

Access includes the landing at Salisbury State Park on Route 1A, as well as a small launch on the Plum Island side within the Parker River Refuge gate. Be forewarned, however, that this spot readily freezes in bitter weather.

Area B may be accessed by boat from either the refuge ramp or off-refuge sites. For those without a boat, it's legal to walk into Area B from Lot 8 at Newbury Neck Road and Marsh Avenue. Gunning is allowed only within the posted "Hunting Area" signs.

Hunters may reach Area B from Lot 8 about one-third of a mile to the left of the trail's end. You must set a minimum of six goose decoys and hunt within 50 yards of them. Jump-shooting is not allowed.

Nelsons Island, also called Area C, is accessed by foot only. Use Lot 9, which is off Stackyard Road, for parking. Hunting is not permitted within 150 feet of the lot.

Call for more information for current regulations, maps and conditions before hunting either Parker River or Salisbury Park. Hunters may view the area in Map 19 of DeLorme's Massachusetts Atlas & Gazetteer.

For directions, maps, regulations and local conditions for Salisbury State Park, call (978) 462-4481. For the Parker River Refuge, call (978) 465-5753.

For cozy nearby lodging and good dining, contact Stripers Inn and Grille on the Merrimac River in Salisbury. For reservations, call (978) 499-0400 or log onto www.stripersgrille.com for details.

In the late regular season, hunters south of Boston have most of Cape Cod available for waterfowling. During the late bonus season, however, the region closes because of the high numbers of migrant geese still inhabiting the area.

Probably the biggest and best chance for action is Barnstable Marsh on the north side of Cape Cod. This spot features good waterfowling habitat including deep tidal cuts and islands, which allow various opportunities for rigging on different wind currents.

There is a small launch over the bridge in Barnstable on the left off Route 6A. Another option is the big town ramp in Barnstable.

Also on the cape are Nauset Marsh and Pleasant Bay, which are on the east side. Hunters may access Nauset Marsh in Eastham from Hemenway Road off Route 6. Turn right to find the town launch on Salt Pond Bay.

For more information, check the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife homepage at www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw, or call (617) 626-1590.

To view close-up maps of these and other Massachusetts wildlife management areas, log on to www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw/habitat/maps/wma/wma_maps.htm.

Always check the latest regulations for dates, limits and zones because adjustments to waterfowling policies occur annually. Also, winter waterfowling conditions are unpredictable. Always scout parking areas, launches and hunting areas during daylight and at low tide.

Check for local restrictions and natural danger zones including ice, mud flats, sandbars and rockpiles to ensure a safe and successful hunt.

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