Peak-Migration Honkers

Canada geese are piling up in our state in record numbers this month. Here's where and how to take advantage of that happy situation. (January 2008)

Photo by Marc Murrell.

I couldn't believe my eyes: The huge Western Oklahoma wheat field bulged with a flock of several thousand geese, all honking incessantly as each competed with the others for the scant remnants of the refuge's once-flourishing greenfield.

Soon, I knew, these geese would be leaving the confines of their secure barbed-wire boundaries, winging their way in small groups toward neighboring feed fields to fuel themselves in an effort to fend off the bitter January weather. Nearby, hunters shivered within the pit blinds they occupied, awaiting a crack at any marauding black-and-gray honkers that invaded the air space within shotgun range.

Some incredible goose hunts take place statewide this month, as maximum numbers of geese inhabit the state en route to their southern wintering destinations. If you're a goose hunter, now's the time to head into the field and experience Oklahoma goose hunting at its finest.

LATE-SEASON CANADAS ARE DIFFERENT

Early-season geese behave much differently than do their late-migrating counterparts that arrive in January and February. Early in the season, many of the first arrivals are young geese that readily decoy, as they lack the wariness necessary for survival. Goose hunters can easily dupe these youngsters with as little as 24 decoys.

Later in the season, however, things change radically for Oklahoma's goose chasers. Geese arriving in Oklahoma late have been shot at all the way down the Central Flyway and are very cautious about decoy spreads and overzealous goose callers.

Expert goose hunter Paul Newsom said it most aptly: The late season is tough at best, but rewarding. Newsom loves to hunt geese, having done so for over 35 years, but he doesn't usually begin hunting the tough ones until after deer season ends in December. In his view, Oklahoma's goose action peaks during late season, and success depends on the ability to adapt to various hunting situations.

The savvy veteran varies the number of decoys he uses with regard to the size of birds he's hunting. "Late season, if I am hunting big geese, I can get by with using 24 big full-bodied decoys," said Newsom a former state goose calling champion. "If I am hunting lesser Canadas, I will use more decoys -- generally 75 to 100 dekes will do the job. I always set my decoys up into two family groups, and leave a space in the middle for the geese to land in. I refer to the area between the two groups of decoys as the 'gauntlet.'"

Newsom's goose hunts (as well as a host of other hunts) can be seen on his locally syndicated television show, Paul Newsom's Great Outdoors.

Early-season goose callers can call until they're blue in the face, and geese will readily come to their decoy spreads. Later in the season, though, hunters have to exercise caution when calling, because too much calling can actually repel geese.

Shane and Brandon Risley are two of the best goose hunters I've hunted with -- and they call less than most goose hunters do. "I usually only call a few times to get the geese's attention, to look at my decoy spread," said the former, "and then I stop and let them work the spread on their own terms."

Some hunters set up completely away from their decoys during late season, geese being wary and sometimes landing outside the spread. "One of my favorite late-season tactics is to set up from 30 to 70 yards downwind of my decoys," stated Newsom. "Many times that allows me to be in range to shoot at late-season geese that are decoy-shy, but will swing by, just out of range of my decoys, for a look."

Newsom also believes that our late-season goose hunting is predicated on Kansas' migration patterns. "Kansas has two main refuges -- Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira," he said. "Each holds a lot of geese before they come into Oklahoma. If the weather isn't bad in Kansas, and there is still an abundance of food, the geese won't migrate, and our hunting can be dismal except for hunts for our resident geese."

Late-season geese can be a little more predictable than their early-season counterparts, due to their feeding patterns. Early in the year, when there is abundant food on the state's refuges, the birds rarely leave. When they do venture out of the confines of the refuge, there are grain fields everywhere making the geese's patterns unpredictable. However, during the late season the geese have eaten most of the lush food on the refuges, and the area wheat fields have also been decimated, so when you find an untouched field offering protection from man and varmints, you're apt to find geese.

THE X-FACTOR

Goose expert Jeff Stewart believes late-season goose hunting success is predicated by what he calls the X-factor. "Geese have specific areas they want to land in and they won't settle for anything less," he explained. "It is like a map with an X on it -- where the X marks the spot. If you set up your decoys 50 yards from the X-spot, the geese will not land. After scouting for several seasons now I can tell you, geese have precise locations where they want to be, and to be successful you have to be set up exactly in those spots."

Stewart says setting up as little as 50 yards away from the X-spot can cause geese to flare and stay out of range before heading elsewhere.

So if you're hunting a new field and have no prior knowledge of where the geese prefer to land, what do you do? Most experts will tell you simply to arrive at the field early and survey the premises, looking for telltale sign such as feathers and recent goose droppings.

If you don't have private lands to hunt, here are four excellent choices in public venues.

SALT PLAINS NWR

Salt Plains National Waterfowl Refuge is located near Jet and is home to a fair amount of all goose species. The refuge predominantly holds lesser Canadas but also caries a few other varieties.

Winter estimates place the counts at nearly 100,000 Canadas, as well as a combination of 20,000 snows, blues and Ross' plus 500 white fronts.

"I've seen as many as 250,000 geese on the refuge during a hard winter," says Dr. Will Wyatt, a member of the Oklahoma City Sportsman's Club. Dr. Wyatt frequently hunts geese on club property bordering the refuge.

Most hunting land in the area is leased either by individuals or by sportsmen's clubs. However, some blinds can rented for day-hunting at reasonable rates. I've hunted the fields adjacent

to the refuge on numerous occasions and taken many lesser Canada geese.

The typical goose killed at Salt Plains weighs between 4 and 6 pounds. DeWayne Orr, a hunting companion of Dr. Wyatt's, once took a Salt Plains thumper that tipped the scales at 13 pounds, 11 ounces.

FORT COBB WMA

If you can find hunting access, Fort Cobb Lake is a great spot to take a limit of Canada geese. The lake's migrating geese use the local feed fields with such regularity that you can almost set your watch by them.

The WMA is located in Caddo County, southwest of Oklahoma City, and spans more than 3,500 acres fronting Fort Cobb Reservoir. These public lands are excellent for goose hunting, particularly in that most of the available private land in the area is leased.

Peanuts are the big draw in this area, and these feed fields receive considerable numbers of ducks and geese foraging on the high-protein fodder. Local geese also frequent the area's wheat fields, as you might expect.

During peak migration, this area holds as many as 20,000 Canadas, the majority lessers. Fort Cobb WMA also picks up a few white-fronted and snow geese.

Jeff Stewart logs many trips each season to Fort Cobb and says the area is phenomenal. "If you can find a peanut field that isn't already leased, you will almost be guaranteed some good goose shooting," he said. "Most farmers will be receptive to goose hunters if their property is not leased, because they hate the geese and want to get rid of them."

WASHITA NWR

One of the best places for Canada goose action is the Washita NWR, located two hours west of Oklahoma City near the town of Butler. Washita NWR is one of the premier Canada goose spots in Oklahoma.

The refuge is home to more than 100,000 Canadas at peak migration, and also holds 1,000 white-fronted, and 2,000 mixed snows, blues and Ross' geese.

Most goose hunting land in this area is leased, but permission can be obtained by talking to area landowners. I've obtained permission relatively easily by knocking on a few doors and inquiring at local restaurants and convenience stores.

Another option -- and probably the best bet for a quality Canada goose hunt there -- is to contact Refuge Manager David Maple at (580) 664-2206 and inquire about the refuge hunts. The refuge personnel conduct computer drawings for weekend hunts throughout goose season.

The application deadline for these hunts is early October. Successful applicants must pay a $20 user fee and can bring two hunting companions. There are also weekday hunts held on select Wednesdays during goose season. Hunters must call the refuge office on Tuesdays to make reservations for the upcoming Wednesday hunts.

Hunters pay $10 for the blind they draw, but they can bring only 15 rounds of steel shot. These weekday hunts are filed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Hunters can take only geese and sandhill cranes on these hunts, and a free permit is required to take sandhill cranes. Hunters are required to stay in their blinds until 11:30 a.m., even if they've shot their limit. I've hunted the Washita Refuge and found that a limit of geese is generally easy to take.

Noble Stanfield is an expert hunter who has hunted the Foss area for over 35 years and has taken his share of geese. Stanfield says that Foss's geese seem to have definite late-season patterns.

"The geese at Foss seem to follow creek bottoms and rivers when they leave the refuge," noted Stanfield. "Most area farmers are very receptive to hunters because, as a rule, they don't want geese in their fields.

SOONER LAKE

One of my favorite goose-hunting destinations is Sooner Lake, near Perry, where hunters have a chance at a trophy Canada goose. I've taken many big geese in that area and find that most area farmers are pleased to allow responsible-acting sportsmen the right to hunt their properties.

Most of geese there are resident greater Canadas -- "maximas," as diehard goose chasers call them. As their name implies, these geese are big, tough birds that are very challenging to hunt.

Biologists estimate the number of geese in the Sooner Lake area to be near 10,000 and growing, with the majority of them there year 'round. A large percentage of these geese are banded, offering lucky hunters a bonus keepsake for their call lanyards.

The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation conducts drawings for blinds on a first-come, first-served basis. No user fee is required. For more information, call (405) 521-3851.

One of Newsom's favorite late-season tactics in the Sooner area is to use fewer decoys to draw in the big geese found in that area. To accomplish the task, Newsom places 12 dekes in a well-used spot, and then uses a deeper-sounding goose call to mimic the growling clucks of the magnum-sized honkers.

"For years I have used a flute-type goose call and found that it is deadly on both lesser and greater Canadas," asserted Newsom.

NO PRIVATE ACCESS? TRY HIRING A GUIDE

Hunters new to goose hunting should consider hiring a guide if they want to maximize their time, and save a few bucks to boot. When you factor in the cost of buying decoys, now ranging from $80 to $400 a dozen, layout blinds costing over $100, and the high price of leased hunting land, hiring a guide seems reasonable.

Employing a guide takes all the guesswork out of goose hunting and stacks the odds in your favor. If the guide is worth his salt, and wants return clients, he no doubt scouts his areas almost daily. A good guide also has the latest, most authentic decoys, as well as blinds built for the best sort of concealment of hunters looking to take wary late-season migrants.

Avid goose hunter Russ Higbie operates Law Dawg Hunting Lodge -- (405) 613-6913 -- in Cogar. As the name implies, Higbie worked in law enforcement for 30 years as a narcotics officer.

"I went from busting dopers to busting geese," joked Higbie, a 40-year goose-hunting veteran. "I decided that with my goose-hunting knowledge, combined with my family's homestead that's located in Caddo County near Fort Cobb, opening up a guide service and having some fine goose hunts seemed like the thing to do."

OTHER GOOD GOOSE SPOTS

With resident geese now at nuisance levels, finding geese near your locale is an easy task. "There are a tremendous amount of geese around Oklahoma City," said Stanfield. Stewart echoed Stanfield's assessment and added, "With gas prices being at an all-time high, it is becoming more cost-effective to hunt closer to home. I hunt six days a week during the season, and I take a lot of geese near Oklahoma City."

Tom Steed Reservoir and Hackberry Flats, both located in the southwest, are sleeper goos

e haunts that swell with geese each winter.

According to Stewart, the area around Canton Lake is becoming a goose magnet. "Farmers there are begging hunters to come and rid them of the scavenging geese," he added.

FINAL CONSIDERATIONS

If you're a seasoned goose hunter who has not hunted late-season geese, then the challenge is on! I hope to harvest several before the season ends.

While some waterfowl numbers are dropping, Oklahoma's goose numbers seem to be rising. With the availability of an estimated 50,000 resident geese living in Oklahoma, a goose hunter generally doesn't have to go far to engage in his sport.

The bag limit of dark geese is three Canadas and two white fronts. The daily limit on light geese -- snows, blues, and Ross' -- is 20. Steel shot is of course mandatory.

If you're new to goose hunting, and buying decoys for the first time, buy the best ones you can afford. Some of the new full-bodied decoys feature flocked heads and look incredible, but they can cost as much as a new shotgun.

Practice calling -- and keep in mind that, when calling to geese, you should as a rule answer them in the manner in which they call. For example, I've had substantial success by exactly imitating the lead goose.

For Okie goose hunters, the good ol' days are now. Vary your decoy spreads, be adaptable, and scout your hunting spots often -- and you too can experience the peak of goose migration through our state at its finest. Good luck this season!

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