May 04, 2010
Goose action galore still lies ahead for Lone Star waterfowlers, some of whom think that the gunning yet to come is the year's best. So how is Round 2 of Texas' goose season shaping up? (January 2007)
Goose guide Shane Chesson checks out a specklebelly brought to him by his dog Remy. With the ever-abundant snows wising up to the ways of hunters, these and other geese are playing a bigger role in filling the bags of Texas hunters.
Photo by Chester Moore Jr.
Texas is covered with geese.
By this point in the season, the geese that are going to migrate down are already here; the stage is set for the rest of the season. From here on out the birds will grow increasingly meticulous as to where they'll feed, their vigilant nature amplified by intense hunting pressure, particularly along the Coastal Bend and Upper Coast regions.
In January I've seen geese move in on a field one day, feed until the next and then seemingly disappear from the area. It's a predicament you can combat only with good scouting -- and a bit of luck.
Hunters in Texas are now face other predicaments: More NO HUNTING signs go up all the time, and the acquisition of wetlands by the federal government presents new challenges, especially with regard to access. Land once open to hunting in some areas is now a sanctuary for birds already difficult to hunt.
Let's take a look at what hunters can expect for the rest of the 2007 goose season, and give you some tips for scoring on these wary waterfowl.
The outlook for geese in Texas is promising, as nesting was solid for most species of waterfowl. "Overall, this season should be a little more productive than last year," said Dr. Bruce Batt, chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited. "The stage was set last summer and fall, when most areas had at least fair precipitation. That left ponds in better condition at freeze-up, and also meant there was better-than-normal residual nesting cover on most upland habitats.
"The increased populations, along with timely precipitation this spring and summer, should help assure good conditions for a strong nesting effort and good wetland conditions for brood rearing."
According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, biologists on Southampton Island -- a key nesting area for snow geese -- reported that spring snowmelt was only about one week earlier than in recent years.
An excerpt from the officials' report: "Nesting there appeared to be three to four days earlier than in 2005, and two weeks earlier than in 2004. Spring nesting at Cape Henrietta Maria and La Perouse Bay was earlier than average for a second consecutive year and biologists expect production there to be average or better. A fall flight similar to or larger than that of 2005 is expected."
For the white-fronted geese (often called "specklebellies"), nesting near Queen Maud Gulf in 2006 was about a week earlier than average, and nesting conditions from the Rasmussen Lowlands to Kugluktuk appeared to be favorable.
The report continued: "Production of white-fronted geese throughout most of their range, with the exception of the western Canadian mainland, is expected to be above average. A fall flight lower than that of last year is expected."
Fewer young specklebellies will be available to hunters in the field this year. Less experienced and so easier to call in and decoy, young geese make up the majority of the bag in seasons during which they constitute a large proportion of the fall flight -- so waterfowlers may have to work for their specklebellies this year. Whitefronts are currently at their lowest population levels since 1990, continuing a trend of 5 percent annual reductions over the last decade.
Nesting for Canada geese was good in most areas. Canadas are not important geese in much of Texas, but the Panhandle produces a lot of them. This year, plenty should be available for hunters there and in parts of the Rolling Plains.
Texas gets most of its Canadas from eastern Saskatchewan and western Manitoba. During the 2006 survey, 444,400 were found in that area, up 7 percent from 2005's numbers. The other key area for producing Canadas that end up in Texas is in the Northwest Territories. Numbers there were up 25 percent from last year, with an estimated 87,500 birds. Spring break-up was nearly a month earlier than average there, and average spring temperatures throughout the region were conducive to nesting success -- which should bode well for North Texas dark-goose hunters.
The big draw here is that Canadas are so common. The region holds as many as half a million of the big, beautiful birds. The species is only infrequently seen in the rest of the state, and the bag limit is always higher than the two dark geese allowed for the rest of Texas.
Most geese hang out near the irrigated croplands around towns such as Hereford and Dalhart. They're also sometimes killed around the region's natural lakes, the playas -- shallow, circular wetlands primarily filled by rainfall, although some lying amid cropland settings may also receive water from irrigation run-off. These small lakes, which average slightly more than 15 acres in size, are loaded with ducks, and, if near an agricultural food source, can appear quite attractive to geese as well.
When heavily pressured on the coast, snows sometimes head toward the Panhandle, where hunters are far fewer and wide-open spaces abound. Mild winters see this behavior often, so keep this in mind if the geese in your neighborhood start to disappear.
In country this flat and open, you don't always have to set up large spreads, especially if you're able to be about your business at a site that no one else is hunting, which is highly possible.
Small formations made up predominantly of dark-goose decoys mixed with some snows are notably effective. Last season, many added mechanized decoys to the mix, initially for shooting mallards landing and feeding with geese in dry fields -- but it paid off for geese as well. The setup I kept hearing about last season was a basic dry ground spread with shooters set up in pop-up blinds in the middle with three mechanized mallard decoys, two set to the sides of the blinds, one just ahead.
"The hunting in that part of the country is just phenomenal for geese and ducks," said guide Roger Bacon -- (409) 379-3474 -- who drives up from East Texas every season. "It's really a waterfowler's paradise.
"One thing hunters want to do is
to bring plenty of ammunition with them. Once you get west of Abilene, hardly any stores carry steel shot. Make sure and bring your own because you will probably be making a lot of shots up there."
Approximately one-third of the Rolling Plains region is used, in the words of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department materials, for "intensive agriculture with a variety of different crops such as wheat, cotton, and milo. . . . Large acreages of wheat are grown annually for harvest and winter/spring livestock grazing. The remaining two-thirds of the region is rangeland devoted to cattle ranching."
That division is fabulous for goose hunting, and can prove productive for light and dark geese equally. The top spots are the few flooded fields, the conservation lakes and the dry crops like peanuts. Look for the light goose hunting to improve as the season draws to an end; the early part of the month will yield more Canadas.
Hunters should use smaller spreads than they would earlier in the season or on the coast. Most in the region prefer small spreads, and may go with as few as two dozen decoys, mainly life-sized models. Calling is not optional here, as spotting geese at a long distances and then luring them in with effective goose talk is typically the way in which the hunting goes down.
Top counties: Clay, Wichita, Archer, Throckmorton, Shackelford, Callahan, Taylor, Nolan, Coke, Sterling, Tom Green, Irion, Concho, and Runnels.
Very little in the way of goose hunting is seen in the Texas Hill Country, although the northern tier can hold a fair number of birds. At the time of this writing, habitat conditions were pretty bad in most of the region, with water in grimly short supply and the crops that geese prefer in poor condition.
The best chances in the region for prospective goose hunters will be found in the northwestern section of the region, where geese migrating from along the coast will pass and sometimes stage going toward the Panhandle later this month.
I honestly believe that the most difficult geese to hunt anywhere in the country are along the Texas Gulf Coast. These geese feel serious pressure from focused, well-managed outfitting units and an increasingly knowledgeable recreational hunting base. In 1990, Texas could claim only 60,000 waterfowlers; now, the ranks have swollen to 130,000, many of those on the Gulf Coast.
The outlook for this year for the Upper Coast should be good, as late-summer rains put a lot of water on the rice country and in the coastal marshes. Crop production was good and there is plenty to hold geese.
Outfitter Brian Fischer -- (409) 296-9452 -- advises hunters to be very mindful of key food sources, and to do a lot of scouting. "The geese that are here this time of year are very mobile, and will tear up an area for a couple of days and then move elsewhere at the drop of a hat," he said. "A lot of times, the best thing to do is to go scouting and see where the geese are feeding and then set up on them after dark. If you can hit them when they're hot for one particular food source in a field, you can usually do well."
One food source crucial to the geese at this time of year is rye grass, which the geese will gorge themselves on. Another thing to look out for: an area in which the geese are getting grit. I hunted ducks with Fischer last year, and on the way out of the property, we found a spot that the geese were gritting in, and observed their flyway. The next day, he and his clients set up on the spot and shot a bunch of birds.
"It's all about being able to have access to property and knowing what is hot for geese then," he said.
Hunters in the Upper Coast area, especially along the Jefferson/ Chambers county lines and in Brazoria County are coming to discover that land purchased for the national wildlife refuge system is starting to work against them. For a spell last January, everyone thought the ducks and geese had deserted the southern end of Jefferson County. But then, while hunting with Fischer, I saw thousands of birds work from one part of the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge to another -- all within closed areas.
"The refuge system is something that is a factor with hunting nowadays," observed Beaumont's Jacob Hunt. "They only legally have to allow hunting in 30 percent of the refuge, and it is not always duck hunting they allow. Down here it is -- but they put it out in the middle of nowhere, and leave the sanctuary areas dominating the refuge. Hunters have to learn how to hunt around the refuges, and are having to start to work really hard to get them on the refuges."
If, according to Ryan Warhola of Port Acres, you want to hunt refuge geese, you pretty much have to wait for a foggy morning and set up an ambush. "The one saving grace this time of year on the Upper Coast is that we get quite a few days where the big, thick sea fog comes in," he said. "You basically have to find a flyway and position yourself along a levee and do a lot of calling. The geese are confused in the fog and you can hammer them when they fly right over the levee. That is probably the best pattern for public hunting this time of month for geese."
On the Middle and Lower Coast, hunting is always reasonably steady. Agricultural production looks good for the season, and dry-ground hunting seems a stable proposition. As on the Upper Coast, refuges must be contended with, as well as increasing urbanization.
Hunters in this part of the state should expect some south-to-north flight as the month progresses. Depending on weather conditions, some geese will slowly start trickling up from Mexico and the Lower Laguna Madre region up into the Middle Coast area and staging for a larger migration northward. Some of the best areas for targeting geese when this occurs will be in cattle pastures that have seen little hunting pressure and in areas on the outskirts of town. By this time the geese are super-spooky, and will forgo preferred food sources to avoid hunting pressure.
KEEPING IT REAL
One thing you may well have noticed in this story is that the wariness of geese at this time of year has come up several times -- which is because it can't be overemphasized!
Hunters who want to score on any kind of goose should be well camouflaged, and concealed around some kind of natural cover or in a photo-realistic blind. More goose hunters miss shots by not wearing facemasks, or by having one that allows too much face to show. If you have any face showing, put on some dark-colored makeup and hide yourself.
If you're hunting in dry fields, lay-down blinds -- those that totally conceal you until the decisive moment -- are recommended. Last year I picked up one put out by Avery Outdoors and did well on a couple of dry ground hunts at Winnie and Devers.
If you hunt rice fields, avoid pit blinds that've been out all season and from which hundreds of birds shot have been (and shot at). At this point, the geese know what happens there,
and will avoid the pits at all costs.
Setting up along natural cover like a levee, or lying in the middle of a spread (and, yes, being wet and miserable) will yield far more birds. It's also important to keep your dog at heel, as the fidgeting of a hyperactive retriever can easily spoil a promising late-season goose hunt.
A lot of trouble just to shoot a few birds? Maybe. But those who, because they went the extra mile, have experienced the thrill of dozens of geese landing around them, and hundreds, sometimes thousands, flying over within shooting range, are the ones who reap the rewards. Yes, late-season goose hunting is a lot of work. And we who venture out in the fields at this time of year deem it to be well worth the effort. Well worth it!