Here’s everything you need to know about the snow goose.
By Jerry Pabst
The old saying goes, “The more things change, the more they remain the same,” meaning that underlying values remain in place, while superficial fads come and go. Well, that idea may work for human beings, but let me tell you, exactly the opposite seems to be true for snow geese. The byword for these wild critters should be, “The more things change, the more things change.”
If you haven’t seen these white birds on their annual migration, you are missing one of nature’s truly wondrous sights. Most Illinois hunters are familiar with skeins of Canada geese crisscrossing the sky as they rise from their watery roosts and raucously flap off across the countryside to their feeding grounds. But as spectacular as this aerial show may be, it doesn’t hold a candle to the daily feeding frenzy the snow goose flocks put on.
Unlike their big cousins, snow geese do not leave their roost in formations of family groups, or small flocks. Instead, they roar aloft in what can only be described as a conglomeration, followed by another conglomeration, followed by another – well, you get the idea. Thousands upon thousands of the glistening white creatures simply erupt from the water, each screaming excitedly at the dawning of a new day, ravenous for the abundant waste grain to be found in surrounding fields.
Nutritious particles of wheat, rye, barley and oats nourish the birds on the prairies of Canada and the Dakotas. As the migration flows south, millions of acres of harvested corn and bean fields provide forage for the hungry flocks. On the wintering grounds of Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, sprawling rice fields accommodate the geese until they begin the return trip to their far north nesting grounds.
The snow geese and blue geese that make their way up and down the center of North America each year nest mainly along the western shore of Hudson Bay, and on Southampton and Baffin islands. Known to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists as the Mid-Continent Population (MCP), this flock, until recently, flew only in the Central Flyway. Waterfowl hunters in Illinois rarely saw white geese. But things are changing, and today, your chance of encountering snow geese in Illinois is astonishingly high, and in many cases, even predictable. MCP snow goose distribution expanded into the Land of Lincoln as the result of an unprecedented population explosion.
Back in the early 1970s, the nation’s farmers embraced the concept of no-till farming practices. Whereas they once put the plow to their fields immediately following the harvest, now the land lay untouched. An unintended consequence of this practice was tons of waste grain that formerly had been turned under the earth, was now available to wildlife in general, and foraging geese in particular. A feast awaited traveling migrants from the northern nesting grounds to the southern wintering areas.
With the stress of finding day-to-day sustenance removed from the snow goose’s life, the birds flourished. They were healthier, stronger, lived longer and brought off hatches of goslings with great regularity. And, their young also lived the good life and soon were producing more geese to swell the ranks of the MCP.
Recent figures clearly depict the result of the habitat changes we have described. In 1970, the MCP was estimated at a fairly stable 600,000 birds. In spring of 2002, just 32 years later, that count had skyrocketed to 2,700,000 snow geese and blue geese, which represents nearly a five-fold increase. In spite of slight decreases in the population from 1999-2001, last spring’s survey revealed a 15 percent increase in just one year. And, the end is not in sight.
At first glance, anyone with a hunting license would surmise this was great news, but that isn’t really the case. While the goose population has been growing at a tremendous clip, available habitat has remained constant, and due to the fragile nature of this sub-Arctic land, is in great peril
The land around Hudson Bay is mostly tundra, a few feet of soil covering a layer of permanently frozen earth. Given an incredibly short growing season, plants may take years to recover if they are removed or killed. As goose nest density increases, the plant life the birds rely on is becoming scarce, and it can take over 15 years to renew itself.
As a result, the geese are forced to travel farther and farther from their nest to feed. This isn’t such a threat to the adults, because they can fly to more abundant food sources, but the goslings must walk, miles in some cases, to find nourishment for their rapidly growing bodies. Many can’t make it, and others fall victim to predators. Still, their numbers grow.
As this situation grows more serious, biologists fear an epidemic of avian disease will decimate the flock. Hunters then would see prospects for snow goose hunting fall from the dizzying heights now enjoyed to a dismal state of affairs that could even bring radical curtailment, or even a closure, to snow goose hunting seasons.
Some other control methods have been discussed, but to date none seem likely to be implemented. Alternative controls range from allowing Indians and Eskimos to resume spring egg collecting, thus re-instituting a recently closed practice. Destruction of nests by USFWS personnel was considered but the nesting area is too large and remote for this to be effective. And the least likely option of all is dropping napalm on the nesting geese.
To date, waterfowl managers have relied on hunting to reduce the MCP flock, but in spite of liberal bag limits, long seasons and removal of many hunting restrictions, the flock increased 15 percent in the last year alone. As a responsible, dedicated goose hunter, it is your duty to get out and shoot some snow geese, for their own well-being.
There is some question as to whether the blue goose is a permanent color phase of the snow goose, or a bird in transition from juvenile gray to adult white. In my opinion, the blue goose is a snow goose in disguise. Whatever the relationship, underneath the feathers they are the same bird. They live, feed and fly together, and will respond to a hunter’s tactics in precisely the same way. Young-of-the-year snow geese are identified by their light gray feathers, which will molt during their first summer to be replaced by brilliant white adult plumage accentuated by distinctive black wing tips.
Hunting the snow goose in Illinois, or anywhere else, is not an easy proposition. I have had the pleasure of working up an early morning sweat in several Great Plains states, on the shore of Canada’s Hudson Bay, and in the rice fields of Texas attempting to outwit a witless creature. I have experienced some g
reatly successful hunts and plenty of truly humbling days. But whether you or the goose has the last laugh, the awesome spectacle of the snow goose migration is one that never gets old. From the moment you detect the flock’s pre-dawn wake-up chatter until the last straggler circles and drops into its roost pond after the morning feeding flight, the snow geese charge the air with an electric-like anticipation that calls us back, day after day, season after season.
Snow geese began arriving in Illinois in small but viable numbers in the early 1990s. Undoubtedly, they came as a result of overcrowding in their traditional flyway in the Dakotas and western Iowa and Missouri. Many of the white flocks use the Missouri River as a guide to the big refuges in that state, and they simply kept coming east to find more elbowroom. Once in Illinois the birds quickly learned to take advantage of the perfect habitat available to them.
The Missouri River empties into the Mississippi a few miles north of St. Louis, and by drawing a line across our state you will find the best area to hunt snow geese. Basically, the southern half of Illinois hosts most of the light geese, with the southern third holding the bulk of the migrating birds.
According to Illinois Department of Natural Resources records, here are the peak snow goose populations in Illinois during 2001. These are the most recent records available at the time of writing, but the 2002 figures should not vary significantly.
Illinois populous northeastern zone held no snow geese at all. The west-central area, along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, held a scant 4,500 in early March. At that same time, the central portion of the state peaked at 11,000 white geese. These low densities do not justify hunting in these zones, unless you have access to acreage that a sizeable flock is temporarily using. Your best bet to connect with these visitors from the far north is in Illinois’ southern zone, where the aerial survey turned up a whopping 188,850 in mid-February. The preliminary estimates for 2002 suggest as high as a 300,000 peak for snow geese in southern Illinois late last winter.
The first significant influx of snow geese to southern Illinois occurs during the first week of December. The five-year average number of birds on hand at that time has been 23,000. This average varies for about a month before beginning a steady climb in early January to an eventual peak count in mid-February. Snows and blues then begin to drift away, and by mid-March they are gone. You will find the prime time for snow goose hunting in southern Illinois during the last two weeks of February.
Learning where and when to hunt Illinois snow geese is the easy part of this equation. Things get progressively tougher from here on in. The last two hurdles you must overcome are finding the right place to hunt, and using productive hunting tactics.
Without fear of contradiction, I believe that anything you have learned about Canada goose hunting will do you no good at all when chasing the white goose. You must re-think your tactics and develop an entirely new game plan for birds having entirely different habits and characteristics.
Canada geese will find a safe feeding field and return to it, predictably, day after day, until they have cleaned it out. Snow geese rarely hit the same feeding ground more than two days in a row, and often they will feed in a field one day and never return. Your best bet is to locate a feeding flock in late afternoon, and be set up waiting for them at daylight. They may come back – or not.
This trait creates another problem for the hunter. You will have to have to move around the area following the random feeding patterns of the snow geese. You had better have a good sales pitch, and be ready to meet a lot of farmers. On the other hand, you won’t need blinds, pits or boats, since you can simply lay in the decoys and hope the birds show up.
This is painful, so I’ll make it short. I know of no public hunting areas open for the spring snow goose season, nor am I aware of any private clubs offering snow goose hunts. Even if there were, they could not assure decent shooting due to the unpredictable nature of these geese. There is the vague possibility you may score a white goose or two during the regular Canada goose season in late January on one of the daily-fee clubs, or the state grounds at the Union County, Crab Orchard or Horseshoe Lake refuges.
Where do you hunt snow geese? You drive-scout the area in late afternoon, follow a flock to its feeding field, then hope the landowner will let you set up there in the morning. If you are rebuffed, don’t despair. Instead, try to get into a field next to it, but you absolutely must be between the roost and the feeding area, under the flock’s flight path. Hunting beyond the feeding field is all but useless, considering the incoming geese would have to fly over a flock of thousands of their happily gobbling relatives to get to your decoys. That isn’t going to happen. Another option would be to set up between two feeding fields, and hope to waylay geese trading back and forth between them.
After the regular Canada goose season closes, special snow goose hunting regulations go into effect in the Mississippi Valley Flyway. Guns can be unplugged; electronic calls are permitted, and bag limits increase to 20 light geese per day. Non-toxic shot is still mandated and normal baiting rules still apply. Hunting begins one half-hour before sunrise and ends at sundown.
A 12-gauge shotgun will serve just fine. Since snows and blues weigh 6 to 7 pounds, BB or even No. 2 Federal Classic Steel Heavy High Velocity shot is fine. If you are shooting iron, such as Federal Tungsten or Polymer/Tungsten, No. 2s or 4s will do the job while putting more pellets in the pattern.
Snow goose hunting tactics are a subject widely debated. With the explosion of the white goose population has come a tremendous increase in hunting pressure. These critters come under fire in early September in Canada and face unrelenting danger all the way down the flyway and back. By the time they get into Illinois they have seen it all, and only the smart ones have survived. You will be challenged. Here is the traditional strategy.
Since huge snow/blue goose flocks love company, a few hundred decoys may not turn their heads. You will need 400 to 800 decoys, but many can be nothing more than white paper plates, squares of plastic tablecloth, white plastic bags or any other innovative material. Put your best decoys up front, and then get as much white down as possible. Dress in white or good field camo, and lay in the downwind end of the spread.
Blowing a goose call into a flock of noisy snows is a joke because they’ll never hear you. The use of electric calling devices, permissible only during the spring hunt, is responsible for an upturn in hunters’ good fortune. These callers are thought to be seven to eight times more effective than conventional mouth-blown calls. Illinois’ snow goose harvest has risen over the past few years, partly due to increased hunter effort and improved tactics, but the electronic callers may well be the main reason.
The big snows with the black wing tips are rarely shot.
They wisely stay high above and watch the youngsters take the punishment. Don’t pass shots hoping the whole flock will settle in. That hardly ever happens, so shoot what you can, when you can.
In general, snow geese feed actively early and late in the day, returning to safe loafing areas during midday. Plan to hunt as long as there are birds flying, but after the flocks have finished feeding and have returned from whence they came, you can safely call it a day. With few exceptions, the party is over.
Snow goose hunting in Illinois? You bet, but these wary birds are tough to fool. You’ll probably work long and hard for any you manage to bring down, but hey, it’s called hunting, not shooting. Enjoy!
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