The Pacific Northwest's Coastal Geese
September 29, 2010
It's one thing to hunt geese in inland areas, but it's a totally different world to see the big birds come across Pacific breakers. (December 2005)
Photo by Cathy & Gordon ILLG
A fresh Canada goose is the traditional and highly prized Christmas main course for many outdoor-oriented families. In the Pacific Northwest, the most common images of goose hunting tend to depict settings east of the Cascade Mountains. High Desert marshes and shrub-steppe wetlands have historically attracted large flights of migrating geese, and in the decades since irrigation increased the region's forage base, tens of thousands of Canadas winter on dry-side farmlands, state wildlife areas and federal refuges. These birds provide consistent and productive shooting for hunters throughout the fall in such places as the Columbia Basin, Snake River, Klamath Marsh and Malheur Lake.
However, each autumn, the bays and estuaries along the Pacific Northwest's ragged coastline also attract thousands of migrating geese of several different subspecies. Enough of these birds remain through the winter to provide the main course for many succulent Christmas feasts.
"When the migration is on, we note many flocks passing over the breakers on their journey south," E. A. Kitchen wrote in his 1949 volume, Birds of the Olympic Peninsula. "At first the flocks seem to contain only the one variety, whatever the species may be. Later on I have found the flocks more mixed, made up of all kinds of geese. For example a friend of mine and I shot into a flock of 12 geese near the mouth of the Queets River, securing four birds, of which three subspecies were represented: namely, Common Canada Goose, Lesser Canada Goose and Cackling Goose. This was late in the season, after most of the geese had gone through."
Most Northwest goose hunters are aware that this mingling of sub-species along the coast has made things difficult for waterfowl managers in recent years. This is because populations of dusky and Aleutian subspecies of geese declined, resulting in low numbers in the 1980s, while other subspecies increased to the point that they began to cause considerable crop damage on the lower Columbia, the Oregon coast and the Willamette Valley. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife responded by maintaining general Canada goose seasons for the abundant subspecies and creating September seasons aimed at harvesting local birds before the threatened geese arrive. However, in areas where dusky geese winter with other subspecies, hunters have been required to pass a goose identification test to receive a hunting permit. Dusky and Aleutian geese have been off-limits, and all goose hunting has been prohibited in Tillamook County, Oregon, an area in which Aleutians tended to concentrate.
Outside of the range of the threatened subspecies, however, waterfowlers have continued to hunt Canada geese without complications. Aleutian geese numbers have also increased dramatically since the late 1990s, and last July Oregon removed them from its state threatened species list. The difficulties remain for dusky geese, and waterfowlers will still have to pass the test this season to hunt productive areas like Washington's Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, and Oregon's Lewis and Clark NWR, Sauvie Island and Willamette Valley. But waterfowlers can pursue their Christmas goose without restrictions at Skagit Bay, Hood Canal and Dungeness in Washington and at Bandon Marsh and Coos Bay along the Oregon coast. Freelancing goose hunters can also enjoy fine sport for locally produced birds in the network of small bays and estuaries where pockets of public land provide access.
PUGET SOUND CANADAS
More geese are killed in Puget Sound's inland sea than in any other area of Western Washington. Although a large percentage of the birds taken in the North Sound are snow geese, hunters looking for the larger and tastier Canadas can find birds as well. The Skagit Wildlife Area, which consists of 13,000 acres divided into several separate units between the mouths of the Skagit and Stillaguamish rivers, is the largest public waterfowling area in Puget Sound. The wildlife area contains mudflats on Skagit Bay, grain plots, tidally influenced sloughs and upland areas. A boat launch near the wildlife area headquarters lets hunters work the salt marsh fingers and Skagit Bay.
Hunters without boats have access at a number of areas in the wildlife area, but the intertidal zone is often soft mud, and hunters should exercise caution. Most of the geese in the Skagit Delta, especially the south end, are snow geese, and you need written authorization (no test required) to hunt them; it is too late to receive one this season. In addition, special regulations are in effect in north Puget Sound, including a 15-shell limit in portions of the wildlife area, prohibitions on hunting from a moving boat and a Port Susan Canada goose closure. Consult the WDFW pamphlet for information.
To the north, Whatcom County has turned out more than 1,200 geese in recent years, the second-highest harvest in Western Washington. Hunters with boats access Bellingham Bay and nearshore waters from ramps in Bellingham. While it isn't located on salt water, the WDFW's Lake Terrell WA pulls in geese and ducks from Georgia Strait and other exposed saltwater areas during storms. Hunting is legal on the wildlife area, and there is a boat launch.
At the southern end of Puget Sound, the Nisqually WA is one of the few public areas that allows hunting. It is at the mouth of the Nisqually River, adjacent to the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge (which doesn't permit hunting). The Nisqually WA is heavily used by boatless waterfowlers, but hunters with seaworthy boats can access the largely pristine Nisqually Reach by launching at Luhr Beach ramp.
HOOD CANAL & THE STRAIT
Neither Hood Canal nor the eastern reaches of the Strait of Juan de Fuca support the immense flights of geese that hunters see east of the Cascade Mountains or in Skagit Bay, but flocks of a couple dozen geese are common along estuaries and creek mouths, and hunters who learn these birds' comings and goings can enjoy good sport.
As elsewhere in Western Washington, the geese like to feed on upland and cultivated vegetation and then rest on shallow marshes and estuaries. Few public areas provide beach access for shore hunters, but an abundance of intertidal WDFW and Department of Natural Resources shellfish beaches can be hunted from boats. A common strategy is to locate a launch near a feeding or resting area, then motor to the public area and set decoys on an incoming tide.
Wind and rain routinely kick up nasty chops and swells in these areas, and waterfowlers need salmon-fishing-sized boats, as well as navigation and safety gear and a strong dose of common sense if they intend to cross open water.
Geese are often abundant on Dungeness Bay. The Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, which m
anages Dungeness Spit and a large portion of Dungeness Bay, does not permit hunting. However, waterfowlers can hunt outside the refuge and along the eastern strait toward the head of Sequim Bay. The Port of Port Angeles Dungeness and Cline Spit ramps, which are along the south shore of the bay, provide access. Ducks are much more common than geese in these areas, but hunters with large strings of decoys can often pull in Canadas.
Canada geese also winter off the major river mouths along the east and west shore of Hood Canal, but boat ramps are widely separated, and hunters need to find hunting areas where geese congregate a safe distance from a launch. The Port of Port Townsend ramp in Quilcene provides access to Quilcene and Dabob bays. The Triton Cove State Park ramp is close to the mouth of the Hamma Hamma River, and the Potlatch State Park launch is near the Skokomish River Delta. (The delta is on the Skokomish Reservation, which is closed to hunting.) At the extreme eastern end of the canal, hunting is closed in Lynch Cove and the Union River except at designated blinds.
GRAYS HARBOR & WILLAPA BAY
You can hunt without a permit on Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay during the September goose season, but if you want a Christmas goose, you will need to pass the goose identification test. If you haven't taken it by now, the only places that still offer testing are the Region 4 office in Mill Creek (by appointment only) and the Region 5 offices in Vancouver and Wahkiakum County. Hunting dates had not been determined at press time, but during 2004, hunting was restricted to four days in December and four days in January, with a daily bag of four geese. As in all of the permit areas, dusky geese are off-limits, and you are required to submit all geese at the nearest check station.
Grays Harbor is pretty much a boat hunting show when it comes to Canada geese. The WDFW's Johns River WA, on SR 105 near Markham, encompasses 1,500 acres, and its boat ramp at the mouth of Johns River provides access to the southeast corner of the harbor, especially Markham Island. On the north side of the bay, the Oyhut WA provides beach access and a boat ramp that gives access to the North Bay. Hunters who work the harbor's islands can also launch at Westport.
Big, shallow and separated from the ocean only by the low sand spit of the Long Beach Peninsula, Willapa Bay is even larger than Grays Harbor. Goose hunters approach it in more or less the same way -- that is, with big boats and large strings of magnum decoys.
On the southeast corner of the bay, the Willapa NWR is the largest public holding open to goose hunting. Waterfowlers without boats can hunt from permanent blinds at the refuge's Reikkola Unit for a small fee, from the shore along the Lewis Unit and at Leadbetter Point. (Brant are seen here, although they are only open on designated days, and hunters must have a permit.) Boat hunters can also launch at the inside of the Long Beach Peninsula north of Nahcotta, on the refuge, at the Palix Portion of the Johns River WA near Bay Center, on the lower Willapa River near Bay Center, at the mouth of the North River and at Tokeland.
NORTH COAST BEAVER STATE GOOSE DESTINATIONS
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife divides the state into six goose hunting zones, four of which touch the coast at some point. The Northwest Coast Permit Zone contains Clatsop and Columbia counties on the Columbia River estuary and Clatsop County's coastline. Only hunters who have passed the goose identification test can hunt in this zone.
Tillamook County is within a separate Northwest Oregon Permit Zone closure area and has been off-limits to all goose hunting in recent years.
The Northwest Oregon General Zone, where the special goose permits are not required, includes the Lane and Lincoln county shorelines.
The Southwest Zone contains coastal areas of Douglas, Coos and Curry counties, where there are no current permit requirements.
When Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski signed legislation that removed the Aleutian goose from Oregon's endangered species list, many coastal hunters thought that they would once again be allowed to hunt geese in Tillamook County. Originally nesting all along the Aleutian Island chain, Aleutian geese were reduced to dangerously low levels after foxes were introduced. Numbers have recovered to 64,000 since hunting restrictions, fox control and other measures were implemented. However, biologists say that the sub-population that winters in Tillamook County has not recovered as well as other stocks, and hunting will most likely remain closed in Tillamook Bay. This will displease farmers as much as hunters, because local Tillamook geese (not Aleutians) have responded to the hunting closure by lingering in the area longer and, consequently, doing more crop damage. Coos and Curry county farmers have also experienced goose depredations.
Outside Tillamook County, all previous regulations and permit requirements will most likely remain the same for the 2005 goose season, except hunters will be able to harvest Aleutian geese. The Lewis and Clark NWR is by far the most productive goose area on the north coast. Although it is not actually on the Oregon coast proper, the refuge's 35,000 acres are definitely affected by the tides, and upwards of 5,000 Canadas typically winter on its islands and marshes. The only way to hunt Lewis and Clark is with a boat that should be at least 17 feet long and outfitted with a substantial motor and safety gear.
Moving south from Clatsop Spit, goose populations are healthy on the bays and inlets along the Oregon coast (healthier than many residents prefer). However, access has become a major problem. Even though most of the Oregon coast is publicly owned as state parks or waysides, hunting isn't allowed on it. Geese usually prefer more sheltered bays or estuaries anyway. Until a few decades ago, hunters simply set up on undeveloped private holdings along these protected waters, but most of the available land now sports trophy homes or businesses, and it has become increasingly difficult to find a place to spread your decoys.
CENTRAL & SOUTH COASTS
Large bays and river mouths support wintering Canada geese on the south and central Oregon coast, but waterfowlers have the same access problems as do hunters to the north. General goose season regulations are in place along the Lincoln and Lane portions of the Oregon coast. Siletz Bay is the northernmost area in which a waterfowler may have access to a goose, although there are shooting closures and area restrictions. Most of the coast south of Siletz is unsuitable for waterfowling until you reach Yaquina Bay, which itself is highly developed and difficult to find a place to hunt.
The South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve is, perhaps, the largest public shoreline available to goose hunters. The reserve is tucked away on the southwest lobe of Coos Bay and encompasses 4,771 acres of salt marsh, mud flats, sloughs and intertidal creeks. There are some closures on the reserve, but most it is open to hunting, and portions of it can be navigated in kayaks and marsh boats or canoes.
The Coquille River, which blends its flow with tidewater at the coastal community of Bandon, is the next major river to the south. Bandon NWR is on the south
shore of the river just north of town. The refuge covers 712 acres, and hunters can work the portion west of Highway 101 and north of Bandon. As on most refuges, permanent blinds are prohibited but can be assembled from natural or manmade material as long as they are removed at the end of the day.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
More detailed information on seasons, regulations and access can be obtained at the following phone numbers and Web sites.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife: (360) 902-2200 or
www.wdfw.wa.gov. Skagit Wildlife Area: (360) 445-4441. Johns River Wildlife Area: (360) 553-5676. Willapa National Wildlife Area: (360) 484-3482.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife: (503) 872-5268 or
www.dfw.state.or.us. Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge: (360) 795-3915. South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve: (541) 888-5558. Bandon National Wildlife Refuge: (541) 347-1470.