Geese From Top To Bottom
May 04, 2010
From the Texas Panhandle to the Gulf Prairies, geese arrive and depart constantly this month. Here's where and how you can cash in on the big waterfowling bonanza.
The goose hunting experience that Levin Aynesworth never forgot happened along the upper reaches of the Colorado River back when a hunter had to keep an eye out for hostile Indians as well as game -- but it's easy enough for a 21st century sportsman to understand how the frontiersman must have felt on that winter day so long ago.
Unencumbered by game laws or much of a sense of sportsmanlike behavior, Aynesworth spotted some geese on a sandbar in the river. Hankering for some savory roasted dark meat, he shouldered his muzzleloader and drew a bead on one of the big white birds.
But when he squeezed the trigger, nothing happened. As he later recalled, the damp powder in his rifle "sputtered and fizzled" after the falling hammer popped the percussion cap, but the charge didn't fire.
Alarmed by the noise, the geese flew at about the same time that Aynesworth threw his rifle into the air in frustration and anger. That's when the weapon finally went off. And according to Aynesworth (who claimed to have had a witness), the wild round just happened to hit one of the spooked birds.
More than a century and a half latter, Texas hunters are still taking to the field hoping to bag a limit of geese. Most of them know what it feels like to miss a shot over a gun issue -- empty gun, forgotten safety, defective sights -- though it's hard to imagine anyone actually tossing a shotgun into the sky after a miss. These days, of course, sportsmen pursuing geese in the Lone Star State have to play by the rules.
One thing that hasn't changed since the 19th century to now: the plentitude of geese. From the playas of the Panhandle to the rice fields along the mid-Gulf Coast, Texas offers some of the finest geese hunting to be found anywhere.
While no 2008 numbers are available just yet, the 2007 goose harvest in Texas showed an increase compared to 2006. "The total for 2006 was 300,000 geese," said Dave Morrison, waterfowl program leader for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "In 2007 the harvest was 361,000. Most of that increase was in snow geese, including blues and Ross' geese (160,000 to 227,000). Whitefronts were unchanged and Canada geese were down from 63,000 to 47,000."
In Texas, he said, the most common geese are snow geese, followed by whitefronts and Canada geese.
Many veteran hunters prefer going after geese late in the season. For one thing, most of the pressure is in the early part of the season. Later in the season, the birds tend to let down their guard somewhat. Also, fewer hunters are out.
"Going after geese can be tough but exciting hunting," said Merkel advertising executive Roger T. Moore, a cartoonist who's been on some hunts worthy of his humorous drawings.
"I remember on my first hunt, down on the coast, we put white plastic trash bags over the top of our bodies and then lay down in the rice field," he recalled. "It was a cloudy day and pretty soon some snow geese headed toward us, thinking we were some of their buddies."
Moore knocked down a bird but when he went to pick it up, it ran. "We had quite a chase," he said. "I finally tackled it, but when I got hold of it, it seemed as big as me. I think it was winning the fight for a while."
When things work right, which happens when a bunch of geese are gilding in low and close, shooting is a little easier and a lot more effective. Birds that go down when that happens usually stay down.
Dave Morrison, waterfowl program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, shuffled through some papers.
"OK -- here it is," he said. "Looking at the western Central Flyway population of white geese, production is expected to be better this year than last. Near average for population."
Breeding ground surveys show a few more young than last year, he continued, "but it's going to be an average year."
In the Panhandle and South Plains, most goose hunts are in grain or wheat fields. On guided hunts, outfitters usually put out 5 to 15 dozen decoys.
Guide Dane Swinburn, who runs Tule Creek Bird Hunts out of Tulia, regularly harvests Canada, snow, and speckle-bellied geese. Most hunts are half-day affairs, starting early in the morning.
"While we do take snow geese and Ross' geese," he writes on his Web site, "we specialize in dark geese (lesser and greater Canadas) and speckle-bellied geese."
For the last five years, Smokey and Kathy Rathburn, owners of Webfoot Connection Inc., have averaged 7,000 Canada geese a season. They operate in the peanut country of North-central Texas, about an hour's drive north of Abilene.
They note on their Web site: "This small agricultural area winters in excess of 500,000 to 1,000,000 geese every hunting season. These geese have already migrated, so we are right in the middle of their everyday food source for the entire season."
Judging from surveys along the mid-continent flyway, Morrison said, the future looks bright. "We're looking at a higher percent of young compared to last year," he stated, "with average to better production in the northern colonies."
He further reported that whitefront numbers look better than last year, both along the Rolling Plains and the coast. "There was a little better production than last year," he said.
"Bottom line," said the TPWD's Dave Morrison, "this should be a better goose season than last year." Now who could complain about that?
Canada geese look to be more plentiful this year as well. "In the tallgrass prairie, there was poor nesting last year, but this year it is reported as improved," he said.
No matter the numbers, no discussion of goose hunting along the Coastal Prairies should go without a tip of the camouflaged hat to the late Marvin Tyler. For all practical purposes, he invented goose hunting in Texas. Hunters like old Aynesworth have been taking potshots at honkers as long as rifles and shotguns have been around. But most geese were taken by duck hunters sitting in their blinds, or by folks who set out life-sized goose decoys until Tyler gave it some thought.
In 1954, just four years after Tyler knocked down his first snow goose, he had an idea that revolutioniz
ed Texas goose hunting. Instead of using expensive decoys, why not spread a bunch of white baby diapers across a coastal field? Pulled up just right, to an airborne goose they would look just like another goose.
Tyler had heard that hunters in Canada cut the white wings off geese they had downed and used them for decoys. That's what gave him the idea of using the white tablecloths he spread in the restaurant he operated at Altair in Colorado County.
The technique worked, but Tyler's linen service didn't like picking up muddy tablecloths covered with rice straw. They suggested old bedsheets instead, and offered to sell him some cheap.
In 1955, Tyler began guiding goose hunts. He would have his clients meet him at his eating place, the Blue Goose Lodge, and then lead them to a rice field where he had spread white rags to lure the birds.
Tyler's business grew slowly, but as word of his technique spread, other guides began offering the same service. By the late 1960s, the Altair-Eagle Lake area may as well have been renamed Goose Lake, because it had become the goose-hunting capital of Texas.
The most recent step in the evolution of Texas Coast goose hunting came in the mid-1970s when one of Tyler's guides realized that white plastic would do the same thing as white rags, and be a lot lighter and easier to handle. Not to mention eliminating all the washing and drying that using cloth rags took.
In addition to perfecting the style of coastal goose hunting still used today, Marvin Tyler taught his son Clifton to hunt and guide. The younger Tyler began operating his own goose-hunting club in 1975. The Blue Goose Hunting Club is now operated by John Fields.
Wherever in Texas you choose to hunt, as Morrison puts it, "To have a good season, you've got to have good production. The breeding ground has to be in good in shape."
For light geese, for example, those factors include the amount of ice, temperatures and the availability of groceries. At the end of the flyways in Texas, availability of water for roosting and feed are crucial.
"In the Panhandle, if more cotton than corn or grain gets planted," Morrison said, "you're going to have fewer birds around."
Some good news is that with higher rice costs, the extent of the fields along the coast is likely to increase this year.
"It's all tied to habitat," he said.
SOME GOOSE BASICS
Late-season geese are combat veterans. That makes them wary to the point of being easily spooked. They are less likely to decoy.
Most hunters believe a cloudy day makes for better hunting, since the big birds usually fly higher during clear weather. The savvy birds that have lived through hunting season also realize the altitude is good for their health.
Geese fly faster than it looks. The main reason for missing a bird is not leading it sufficiently.
Successful hunting isn't about luck; it's about observing the geese and learning what their day is like. Geese, for instance, generally avoid fencelines. They like open areas so they can keep a look out for danger.
The big, high-flying flocks of geese know where they're going and are not much interested in diverting to investigate a spread. Usually, only smaller groups of a half-dozen or so will decoy. The good news is that geese are more likely to check out a spread later in the season.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Forget the weather, time of year, or anything else -- the secret to successful goose hunting is being at the right place. You, or more likely your guide, have to know where the geese are going to be coming to feed.
Once you know where the birds are eating, all you have to do is get to the field early and get set up. Then it's up to how well you can shoot.
Although a few farmers used to lease their land for goose hunting, now almost all of them do.
It's an unwritten law that guides only take their hunters out for half a day, stopping at noon. It's not because they're lazy. The half-day "cease fire" gives the birds time to relax after being shot at and spend their afternoons eating undisturbed. This makes them more likely to come back to the same place the next day, which obviously is to the guide's advantage.
If the birds are not feeding on land controlled by an outfitter, the only other option is to put out a spread and hope geese will come to the decoys on their way to the morning meal. That works sometimes; sometimes it doesn't.
Sometimes, no matter how still you're lying, geese will flare off the spread at the last minute. Pulling the trigger at that point is just going to waste ever-expensive shells (think $2 to $3 per round for a box of premium 3-inch steel shot BB shells) or result in a wounded bird.
Unless you're a landowner or have your own lease, most goose hunting is through guides.
At lodges, breakfast is usually on the table at 4:30 a.m. Your guide will meet you and fill you in on where you'll be going, what to expect in the field and how far you'll be from your vehicle. That little item will have a bearing on how much gear you'll have to carry.
Once you're in the field, it's your job, even though you're paying for the hunt, to help your guide set up the spread. Usually, the guide will drop the rags or plastic in a pattern he thinks will work. After that, you're expected to make the rags look lifelike.
Then you and the others in your party will be directed where to go. Most of the time, you'll be expected to lie on your back to wait for the geese. When birds show, the guide will call the shots. If a single comes in, the guide will name the shooter. If that person misses, anyone can open up after that. The guide further earns his pay by keeping up with the type of geese taken and the numbers.
After the shooting stops, hunters are expected to help pick up the spread. The next step is going to the picking house and signing the necessary paperwork.
FINDING A GOOD GUIDE
As with almost anything, the best way to find a good guide is to hear about one from a satisfied customer.
Be wary of any guide who promises you'll get your limits. And shy away from guides claiming to be great shots. You're going to be paying them to get the birds to you, not to shoot them for you.
GUNS AND AMMO
My late granddad, longtime outdoor writer L.A. Wilke, hunted geese with a 20-gauge pump and No. 6 shells. He knew not to try for the highest birds with that load, but he was a good wingshot, and didn't miss many birds.
ys, most guides recommend using a 12 or even a 10 gauge. A 20-gauge, they say, can lead to wounded birds. For the big-bore guns (it's best to use an improved-cylinder choke), the pros suggest shooting BB loads. Steel shot only, of course.
For those Strategic Air Command shots, carry 3- or 3 1/2-inch magnum shells.
In the Western Zone, the season for both light and dark geese began on Nov. 8 and will continue through Feb. 8. In areas in which a conservation order is in effect, hunting for light geese only is legal from Feb. 9 to March 29.
In the Eastern Zone, the season for light geese and Canada geese, began Nov. 1 and runs until Jan. 25; for white-fronted geese, the season's Nov. 1 to Jan. 11. With a conservation order, the light geese season goes from Jan. 26 to March 29.
In the Western Zone the daily bag limit for light geese is 20 in the aggregate. For dark geese in the west, the limit's four Canada geese and one white-fronted goose. Eastern Zone shooters can take 20 light geese in the aggregate, three Canada geese and two white-fronted.
To figure what zone you're hunting in, remember that Interstate 35 from Fort Worth to Laredo is the dividing line between east and west, with U.S. 287 from the Red River to Fort Worth marking the upper border.
In both zones, the possession limit is twice the daily bag limit.
"Bottom line," said the TPWD's Morrison, "this should be a better goose season than last year." Now who could complain about that?