Our Finest December Goose Hunts

Southeastern Pennsylvania is the place to be for some great December goose hunting on public land. Bring plenty of decoys and don't forget your nontoxic shot!

Photo by Tom Migdalski

By P.J. Reilly

With hunters focused intently on pursuing deer in December, perhaps the month's best-kept sporting secret is Canada goose hunting in the Southeast Region. Every December, tens of thousands of Canadas descend on the region during their annual southward fall migration. Waterfowlers can expect to find loads of birds and loads of public-hunting opportunities in the Southeast Region during December.

Pennsylvania's southeastern counties are within the Atlantic Flyway. The Canada geese that breed in eastern Canada and migrate each fall down the East Coast are considered to be part of the Atlantic Flyway Population of geese.

There were an estimated 156,900 breeding pairs of Canada geese on the Atlantic Flyway nesting grounds in northern Quebec in 2003, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service annual breeding population survey. That's higher than the population objective of 150,000 breeding pairs set by the agency. Breeding pair estimates increased at an average annual rate of 19 percent from 1994 through 2003.

No other part of Pennsylvania is as important to Atlantic Flyway Population geese as is the Southeast Region. John Dunn, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's chief migratory bird biologist, said many of those birds migrate only as far south as southeastern Pennsylvania.

"There's so much food and water in that area, it really holds the geese," Dunn said.

According to harvest data compiled by the Game Commission, Pennsylvania's Southeast Region counties annually post the highest goose harvest numbers. In fact, goose hunters in Lancaster County traditionally kill more Canadas than hunters in any other county in the state. Hunters in Chester, Berks, Lebanon and York counties usually are not far behind.

Pennsylvania's Southeast Region falls in the Atlantic Flyway Population South Zone. The management areas for Canada geese in Pennsylvania are different from the standard state wildlife management units. The South Zone encompasses all or parts of York, Dauphin, Lebanon, Schuylkill, Carbon, Monroe, Northampton, Lehigh, Berks, Lancaster, Chester, Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks and Philadelphia counties. For the best goose hunting in December, hunters should stick to Lancaster, York, Dauphin, Lebanon, Chester and Berks counties.

Last year, the fall and winter seasons for Canada geese in the South Zone ran Nov. 15-29 and Dec. 15-Jan. 20. The season dates were not set at the time of this writing, but hunters can expect similar dates this year. The bag limit during those seasons was two birds per day, except on State Game Lands 46 adjacent to the Game Commission's Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on the Lancaster-Lebanon county line, where hunters were allowed to take one goose per day.

PLAY THE FIELDS

If you're going goose hunting in December in southeast Pennsylvania, plan on hunting birds in crop or pasture fields. There are a few possibilities for hunting them over water, but in most cases, the best bet is to find a farm field the geese are feeding in and set up there. If you can't access a field where the geese are feeding, at least find one that's under their daily flight path. Using an enticing array of decoys, you should be able to coax passing flocks to within shotgun range.

The closer you can get to a flock of incoming geese, the more productive and exciting your hunting will be. Field hunters use decoys to lure birds out of the sky. What better place for hunters to hide than right among those decoys?

The best way to conceal yourself among your decoys is to lie flat on the ground. Laying out for Canada geese is an extremely effective way to hunt flocks in fields. It allows you to hunt in the center of harvested crop fields far from cover, such as fencelines and ditches, that might protect incoming predators. These areas are also favorite hideouts for many goose hunters, and wary Canadas quickly learn to avoid them during the hunting season. They feel more secure in the middle of a field where it appears there is no place for danger to hide.

WIND IS THE KEY

Positioning decoys and hunters is vital to your success on a layout field hunt. And the key is wind direction. Geese land into the wind. They may approach your spread from any direction, but when they finally decide to touch down, they will do whatever it takes to put the wind in their faces. For this reason, you always want to have the wind at your back.

The wind direction tells you which way the geese will make their final approach. It's up to you to position your decoys so that the birds will land in front of your gun barrel. When you're setting up, keep the letter J in mind. This is a basic shape for a decoy spread that you can use to direct the geese to land where you want them.

In this setup, I place my decoys in the shape of a J with the hook situated upwind. Because geese normally land into the wind, they should follow the leg of the spread into the open space behind the hook. Gunners should be hidden among the decoys that form the hook and facing directly downwind.

If there's no wind, you'll have to guess which way the geese will be flying and set up as if their direction of approach is directly into the wind. If there's more than one hunter in your group, make sure you're lined up next to one another so you don't end up shooting at each other when birds come in!

Hiding within your decoy spread can be accomplished simply by lying on the ground while wearing camouflage that matches the surroundings. However, that can be a cold and damp way to spend a morning in the field. For basic comfort, carry a foam mat to lie on and a blanket made of camouflage material to cover up. Cluster decoys around you for further concealment.

I've made oversize silhouettes out of plywood that I arrange in a V, triangle or box shape to make a mini-blind. The giant silhouettes offer some concealment, and they block the cold December wind as well.

BLIND TACTICS

For ultimate concealment and comfort in a layout situation, it's hard to beat a low-profile coffin blind. A number of companies manufacture these blinds, which are made out of camouflage material that, in many cases, is waterproof and windproof. Simply lie down inside these blinds and wait for the geese to come in.

Besides being comfortable, a coffin blind provides a hideout that completely conceals a hunter's movements. With gees

e flying only a few feet overhead, you can move around all you want inside a coffin blind without being seen. You can reload your gun, work a call, swivel around to keep an eye on the flock, or take one last sip of coffee before the shooting starts without spooking the geese.

A huge advantage to lying out among your decoys is the ability to add movement to the fake flock. Motion adds life to an otherwise lifeless decoy spread. A little movement at the right time can easily attract geese that have spent weeks pitching into, and escaping from, motionless decoy spreads.

Flagging is the practice of waving a flag over your head while lying among your decoys. The premise is that passing geese will think the flag is the flapping wing of a bird on the ground. Flags are a snap to make. Just take a 14-inch square piece of black cloth and staple it to a 2-foot-long, 1/2-inch dowel, which should also be painted black.

The idea is to wave the flag in a figure-eight pattern over your head mimicking the flapping wings of a goose. The key to successful flagging is knowing when to quit. If you keep waving your flag until the geese are directly overhead, they're going to spot you and flare. Generally, it's safe to keep flagging until a flock is about 100 yards out and headed your way.

USE THE RIGHT GUN

The goal of laying out for geese is to get as close to the birds as possible. When selecting a gun and ammunition, many waterfowlers automatically think big guns, big shot and tight chokes for hunting Canada geese. Those are the right tools for pass-shooting at geese or in situations where you expect long shots. For Canadas that are often as close as a few feet, however, you don't need a 10-gauge shotgun loaded with 3 1/2-inch shells filled with T-shot. In fact, you'll probably miss with that setup.

Layout goose hunters should expect most shots to be 20 yards or less. You want to shoot a wide, dense pattern of shot for the best chance at hitting a goose that's in close. That means small shot fired from a barrel with an open choke. For years, I carried a 12-gauge pump gun with a 28-inch barrel choked with a modified tube, and fired 3-inch shells loaded with No. 2 or 4 shot. That setup works just fine for laying out. Recently, however, I switched to a 12-gauge over-under with 26-inch barrels choked with one Skeet tube and one Improved Cylinder tube and fired the same shells. The shorter gun and open choke tubes really improved my shooting.

The last piece of equipment you need for a successful layout field hunt is a call. Any honker-style goose call will work. If you're hunting in a group, make sure several hunters have calls. Remember, the geese in the air think they're approaching a live flock on the ground, which would greet the newcomers with loud, incessant calls. Be sure to diminish your calling as the geese in the air make their final approach.

Here's a rundown of hotspots for field hunting December geese in southeast Pennsylvania.

LANCASTER COUNTY
Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on the Lancaster-Lebanon border has to be one of the best goose hangouts in the region. This Game Commission-owned property is a major resting place for migrating Canadas and it has a dense population of resident geese. With its network of ponds and wetlands emanating from the 400-acre main lake, Middle Creek was built for waterfowl.

Middle Creek is part of State Game Lands 46, though much of the property is posted as a propagation area where hunting access is restricted or prohibited. Hunting in the restricted area is limited to Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays during the open seasons for Canada geese. Call the Middle Creek office at (717) 733-1512 for more information on how to access this area.

There is some flat, open ground on SGL 46 just outside the propagation area around the main lake that is open to general hunting and is ideal for a goose setup. Corn, alfalfa and other crops are planted on these tracts to provide food for wildlife, and geese feed there regularly in December.

East of Middle Creek, there are clusters of Farm-Game properties around the villages of Reinholds and Blainsport along Route 897 that draw hungry birds from the refuge.

The heaviest concentration of Farm-Game properties, however, is to the south. You can find plenty of hunting opportunities north and south of Route 322 around Ephrata, Akron, Schoeneck, Hopeland and other nearby towns and villages.

Octoraro Reservoir sits in the southeast corner of Lancaster County off Route 472. This 528-acre lake is owned by the Chester Water Authority. Field goose hunters should look to the nearby Farm-Game properties just west of the lake from Kirkwood on Route 472 south to Little Britain on Route 272.

The Susquehanna River forms the western boundary of Lancaster County. Obviously, the geese that roost and loaf on the Susquehanna River have to eat. A short flight to the east takes them to some prime farmland, much of which is enrolled in the Farm-Game program. There are several such properties close to the river around Marietta, Mount Joy, Bainbridge and other towns along routes 441, 743 and 241.

YORK COUNTY

Some of York County's best December goose hunting can be found a short distance from the west shore of the Susquehanna River. There are heavy concentrations of Farm-Game properties along the river in the southern end of the county around the villages of Brogue on Route 74, New Bridgeville off Route 425 and Muddy Creek Forks at the junction of Downs Road and Muddy Creek Road.

There's another cluster of Farm-Game properties worth checking out along the river in the northern end of the county. Look for these farms west of Mount Wolf off Route 181 and around Strinestown along Route 295.

LEBANON COUNTY

Southern Lebanon County draws the bulk of its geese from Middle Creek, although the area is rife with farm ponds that also attract and hold Canadas in the fall and winter. What makes this area so special is its flat and open terrain that is heavily farmed. Geese don't have to fly far to find a meal in southern Lebanon County, and waterfowlers don't have to look too hard to find places to hunt.

There's a large band of Farm-Game properties stretching east to west across a good portion of the county a few miles north of Middle Creek. The areas around Schaefferstown and Iona on Route 897, Newmanstown on Route 419 and Quentin on Route 72 are well known to local goose hunters as hotspots.

BERKS COUNTY

Roughly 10 miles north and east of Middle Creek lies Blue Marsh Lake in neighboring Berks County. This 1,150-acre jewel owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides prime habitat for Canada geese in the fall and winter. Much of the 6,173 acres of land and water owned by the Corps is open to hunting. The Game Commission leases 2,500 acres of Blue Marsh land for wildlife management. Goose hunters should focus on the flat, open areas that the Game Commission

farms around the lake for their setups.

SGL 280 along Route 183 abuts the Corps of Engineers' land to the east. Much of this property is farmed and planted with corn. Once the corn is harvested, the remaining fields are perfect for fall goose hunters. There are also several Farm-Game properties west of the lake.

Concentrate on farms around New Schaefferstown between routes 183 and 419. Also, the farms between Blue Marsh and Womelsdorf and Robesonia are known to be productive.

CHESTER COUNTY

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission owns Struble Lake on Morgantown Road in western Chester County near Honey Brook. This 140-acre lake and the 240 acres of land around it are open to hunting. Struble Lake holds a good number of Canada geese through the fall and winter.

The Octoraro Reservoir, which is on the Chester-Lancaster line, harbors a lot of the geese that are hunted in southwest Chester County. But there are hundreds of farm ponds available to the geese in this area as well. Waterfowl hunters can find some productive farm-game properties south of Oxford around Nottingham and Chrome on Route 272. The best concentration of farms enrolled in the program, however, is north of Oxford around Atglen and Parkesburg. Many of the farms along routes 10, 41 and 372 in this area are farm-game properties.

For assistance with locating farm-game properties in the Southeast Region, contact the Game Commission's regional office at (877) 877-9470. For lodging information, contact the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau at (717) 299-8901.



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