By Dottie Head
Georgia hunters are now in the midst of the longest Canada goose season on record. With the addition of an early 22-day hunting season back in September, Peach State hunters now have more opportunities than ever to put a goose on the table and help reduce the state’s nuisance goose population.
Today, Canada geese in Georgia are abundant: The state has an estimated population of 150,000 birds. It hasn’t always been this way, though. In the early 1900s, the Canada geese found in Georgia were mostly migratory birds that traveled here from James Bay in Canada. (James Bay is the little finger of water that points south out of Hudson Bay along the northern borders of Ontario and Quebec.) The geese migrated each year, with some stopping over in Georgia and others continuing on to the Saint Marks Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Over time, this population declined for a number of reasons, including hunting, competition on the breeding grounds and other factors.
It took wildlife managers awhile to figure out there was a problem at all, said Greg Balkcom, the state waterfowl biologist with the Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The biologists were counting these geese each year in mid-winter, and the population seemed to be stable or increasing. In reality, the population of resident geese was increasing while the number of migrant geese was declining.
When biologists finally discovered that migrant geese were disappearing, they closed the goose season to protect the population. In 1975, the Georgia WRD began a program to re-establish Canada geese in Georgia. During the restocking period of the late 1970s and early 1980s, biologists from Georgia began traveling to Northeastern states that had ample goose populations to capture birds and bring them back for release in reservoirs and farm ponds scattered throughout the Peach State. Most of the several thousand wild geese were brought from Pennsylvania as part of the restoration effort.
Wildlife managers clipped the wing feathers of the geese so that they would have to stay here during breeding season.
“If they nest and breed here, their offspring tend to stay here,” Balkcom noted.
The newly stocked Canada geese quickly adapted to the various habitats into which they were released, and the state’s resident goose population began to grow and expand into new areas.
As the goose population expanded, the WRD began to open a limited hunting season. The first season was in January of 1991. It was an eight-day quota hunt in just a few small areas of the state. The limit was one goose per season. During the first goose season, hunters harvested an estimated 1,500 birds.
Today, there are still no migrant geese in Georgia, but there are plenty of resident birds. Many of the Canada geese are descendants of the Pennsylvania geese that were stocked in Georgia, and many are descended from captive flocks held by hunters to lure migrants in. When live decoys were outlawed, according to Balkcom, a lot of people turned their captive flocks loose.
Over time, the state’s Canada goose population has swelled to nuisance proportions. In the 13 years since that first eight-day season in 1991 in about 10 percent of the state, the shooting session has burgeoned to a 70-day season in 100 percent of the state with a five-goose-per-day limit for anyone who wants to hunt.
“Geese are scattered statewide from Lake Seminole in one far corner to the Blue Ridge Mountains in another far corner,” Balkcom said. “We’ve got them all over the place!”
During the 2002-03 season, the last season for which harvest figures are available, hunters took an estimated 26,300 geese. About 8,000 of these birds were taken during the September season, making it both a popular and productive time to hunt.
In recent years, the number of goose hunters has stayed pretty steady at around 10,000. Both the number of hunters and harvest estimates are developed each year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service using data returned from the Harvest Information Program. In addition, the WRD comes up with their own estimates based on telephone surveys of hunting license buyers.
Despite the ever-increasing goose harvest, Georgia’s goose population is still growing, and along with this growth comes an increase in the number of nuisance complaints. Residential, metropolitan areas tend to rack up the most goose complaints.
“Geese are like cows. They like lots of manicured grass and lawns,” Balkcom explained. “Goose heaven is a golf course with water hazards!”
The WRD also hears lots of complaints from new residential developments with storm water retention ponds and from office complexes with fancy lakes and fountains.
“It’s just heaven for a little goose. They fly right in the pond, walk up on the grass, poop on the sidewalks, eat the grass, walk back down to the lake and then do it all again,” the biologist continued. “We have 10- to 12-year-old geese up here who get pretty smart and know which areas are hunted and which areas are safe refuges. If they find a safe area, they tend to stay there.”
While nuisance problems may be a pain for landowners, they can be a boon for hunters. A lot of private landowners who may not open land to deer or small game hunting will allow goose hunters to come onto their property because they are so frustrated. Goose hunters have a distinctive edge when it comes to gaining access to private areas.
“There are lots of things that people can do to discourage geese from being on their land, but when none of these work we often advise that they go find some hunters,” Balkcom noted. “We tell them to go to their local Ducks Unlimited banquet and find some waterfowl hunters. A lot of times, all you have to do is ask and these landowners are more than willing for you to take some geese off their land.”
For hunters who are eager to help reduce Georgia’s burgeoning goose populations, there is a plethora of hunting opportunities scattered around the Peach State. A good place to start is on one of the state’s many reservoirs.
Located just north of the metro-Atlanta area, Lake Lanier is a 38,000-acre reservoir owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This reservoir has a huge resident Canada goose population and is a great destination for hunters looking to put a few geese in the freezer. The lake has many develop
ments around its edges and is heavily used by boaters and anglers.
The key to hunting Lanier is to get out early and to hunt far away from the big marinas and other developments. There are still some undeveloped areas of the lake, and sportsmen should seek them out when possible. Hunters who follow this advice can expect to find a lot of geese.
Another area that is gaining the reputation as a good area for goose hunting is Clarks Hill Lake, outside of Augusta. Owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the reservoir still boasts lots of undeveloped areas around its fringes.
“Duck hunting is up and down, but goose hunting is good,” Balkcom said. “It’s a good, undeveloped lake and has earned a great reputation.”
Balkcom pointed to Bussey Point Wilderness Area as one of the better spots to hunt on the lake. Bussey Point is a massive undeveloped area owned by the Corps that is a popular spot with goose hunters. There are also numerous wildlife management areas located along the banks of Clarks Hill that are good spots in which to look for geese. The WMAs on the edges of the reservoir are Clarks Hill, Fishing Creek, Sope Creek and Germany Creek. On some of these areas, especially Clarks Hill WMA, wildlife managers have planted goose-grazing pastures to attract the birds. Hunters can access some of the pastures via WMA roads, but others require a short walk. There are four public boat ramps in the vicinity of Clarks Hill WMA.
On the far west side of the state, hunters will find West Point Lake on the Chattahoochee River to be a good bet for geese. Owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lake has good goose hunting opportunities. The WRD maintains West Point WMA on the lake and has planted several goose grazing pastures with winter wheat and rye to give the geese something to feed on.
“We try to bring them into the nice green fields during the winter months and get them out of other folks’ hair,” Balkcom explained.
Hunters traveling through the mid-state area may wish to try their luck on Lake Oconee, located east of the metro-Atlanta area. Managed by the Georgia Power Company, Lake Oconee is a large impoundment that is popular with waterfowl hunters. Like many areas within easy driving distance of Atlanta, the region is experiencing a lot of growth and development around the lake. New homes with lots of landscaping, golf courses and resorts have sprung up in the area in recent years.
“It’s starting to get a little crowded with some of the new developments in the area, but it’s historically been a good spot,” Balkcom pointed out. “If things don’t change, it’s going to go from a good hunting area to a big nuisance place. We’d like hunters to continue to be the means of reducing those nuisance problems.”
As far as hunting locations go on Lake Oconee, parts of Redlands WMA and the Oconee National Forest border the lake. A good bit of the lake shoreline is still privately owned, and hunters should not have too much trouble locating geese on the lake’s waters.
Heading south, you encounter Lake Juliette in Forsyth. With easy access off I-75, Juliette is a 3,600-acre reservoir operated by Georgia Power that is surrounded by the Rum Creek WMA and is adjacent to the Rum Creek MARSH project, a refuge area for wintering waterfowl.
Lake Juliette has a good goose population and there are goose pastures located on the northern portion of the lake.
“It can get crowded on Saturday mornings and the lake is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but if you can sneak out Wednesday through Friday there’s a really good population,” Balkcom said.
Located in southwest Georgia, Lake Walter F. George is a 45,700-acre reservoir owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This reservoir provides hunting opportunity for both ducks and geese. Additionally, Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge encompasses a large portion of the northern section of the lake, and hunters may want to look there for geese.
Moving into South Georgia, hunters find it increasingly difficult to locate geese. According to Balkcom, the best opportunity for geese in this region is on private agricultural lands. Geese can often be found near farm or irrigation ponds and in pastures. Keep in mind, however, that you must have permission from landowners to hunt on private property. In many cases, securing permission to hunt is as easy as knocking on the door and asking. As mentioned, many landowners have grown so frustrated with geese on their property that they will allow goose hunters access even when they will not allow access for other types of hunting.
Hunters may find a few geese that stay around on Lake Seminole, in the very southwestern corner of the state; however, this impoundment is far better known for its duck hunting opportunities.
“Most folks go to Seminole to duck hunt. A goose is just a bonus if it comes by,” Balkcom pointed out.
Southeast Georgia has the unfortunate distinction of having the lowest goose population in the state. The abundance of forested wetlands and the lack of open wetlands have prevented the goose population there from exploding like it has in other areas of the state. Balkcom speculated that one of the reasons there are more geese above the fall line at Macon than below is predation by snapping turtles and alligators.
“We don’t have any way to prove it, but there seems to be a correlation,” Balkcom emphasized. “The farther south you get, the fewer geese there are.”
Canada geese like open banks where there is not a lot of cover to hide in. This makes them easy prey for alligators and alligator snapping turtles.
Hunters who want to maximize their chances of success need to do their homework in advance of the hunting trip. Scouting is extremely important with resident birds, Balkcom offered. The birds know where the safe havens are and they know where they are exposed to hunters. When conducting your pre-season scouting, figure out where the birds tend to congregate and then plan to get there early in the season. Once they’ve been shot at a few times, they are likely to find another place to feed.
He suggests hitting the big reservoirs early in the season before the geese have scattered out to less popular hunting areas. Later in the season, concentrate your hunting efforts on small ponds and more isolated areas where the geese do not get as much hunting pressure.
“Once the pressure is on, the geese move,” Balkcom assured. “Scout before the season begins and then re-scout mid-season to find out where they’re going.”
When conducting your hunt, it is best to mimic what you see occurring naturally. If you’re seeing big, noisy flocks, then put out a lo
t of decoys and call frequently. On the other hand, if there are only a few geese and they’re behaving quietly, then only put out a few decoys and don’t call as much.
“Try to be as realistic to those geese as you can be,” Balkcom said.
Regardless of where in Georgia you hunt this year, the Peach State’s goose population is on the rise, so your chances of finding geese are better than average. For more information on goose hunting opportunities and regulations in Georgia, call the nearest Wildlife Resources Division office or consult their Web site, at www.georgiawildlife.com.
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