As the season goes on, and colder weather pushes “valley” birds down into Illinois, hunter success will pick up. Every day, new geese will be arriving in your area, and they will be eager to join the resident birds at the dinner table.
If there is a better place in the U.S. to hunt Canada geese than Illinois, I sure don’t know where it would be. In fact, I expand that opinion to include the entire world. I know, the Canadian prairies offer some mind-blowing experiences but only for a few weeks each fall. One good blast of wintery air up there can turn red-hot hunting into “wait until next year” overnight.
It doesn’t take much to move the birds south, and can you guess their destination? That’s right, the bountiful corn and bean fields of Illinois, where they will spend the entire winter fattening up for the spring migration north to their nesting grounds. In addition to the two-week September Early Goose Season, you can add in the regular 90-day season, which usually begins in mid-October and runs into mid-January. The total is 104 days of excitement, as the big honkers rarely leave their wintering grounds, and there is really no bad time to be in the field.
To capitalize on the Illinois goose bonanza, we first must understand the migratory movements of the goose flocks.
RESIDENT OR MIGRATORY?
There are two distinct flocks of Canada geese in the Mississippi Valley Flyway — the more-or-less resident, giant-strain Canada goose, and the highly migratory interior Canada goose, which are usually referred to as the Mississippi Valley Population (MVP).
The giant strain goose is highly urbanized, nesting and spending most of its life in close contact with humans. These big geese (12 to 15 pounds) utilize small ponds and lakes in suburbs and feed in parks, cemeteries, corporate campuses, athletic fields and even subdivision lawns. Among these, summertime’s non-breeding geese — very young or old — go on what is termed a “molt migration” that takes them north, away from the bickering breeding pairs at home; but, by early September, these molt migrants begin to return. Within a month, most are back in their old haunts for the winter.
The MVP geese (population about 450,000; weight 8 to 12 pounds) are the true wild ones, breeding in the Arctic tundra regions and following centuries-old migration routes south in the fall, urged along their way by early winter storms. They will make a stopover in southern Wisconsin’s Horicon Marsh Waterfowl Refuge area before they begin to filter into northern Illinois where they join their big cousins, the giant Canadas. The MVP geese — or “migrators” — make their first appearance in early November; by early December, most of the huge flock is living large in the Land of Lincoln.
While giant Canada geese are found mostly in the Northern Waterfowl Hunting Zone (basically north of Interstate 80), nearly every piece of suitable habitat halfway down in the Central Zone holds some, too. For our purposes, let’s concentrate on the area that holds 90 percent of all the Canada geese in Illinois — the northeastern counties.
How many giants are there in the state? Well, the biologists estimate several hundred-thousands; but, to put it in more practical terms, in 2017 hunters bagged 72,216 Canada geese; 70 percent were giant-strain birds. By far the majority of these geese hit the ground in Lake, McHenry, Will and eastern parts of DeKalb counties.
The best piece of hunting advice I ever heard came from the late Paul Morgan of Union County, in southern Illinois. Paul was a famous goose-hunting-club operator, guide and the best goose caller with whom I have ever hunted.
“Jerry,” Paul began to confide, with a little southern Illinois twang in his voice, “the secret to goose hunting is to get where the goose wants to be and wait there.” As we go through seasonal tactic changes, this primary consideration will remain constant: Hunt where the geese are.
With the September early season goose hunt in the rearview mirror, let’s step right into the first three weeks of regular waterfowl hunting. From mid-October through the initial week of November, resident giant Canadas are going to be the only game in town. The days are getting shorter, the nights cooler, and the farmers are well on their way toward clearing the standing crops from their fields.
The geese, which have been contentedly munching on grass all summer, suddenly have developed a taste for the waste corn and beans scattered over the harvested fields. These geese have been living unmolested in suburban retention ponds, and many of them are newly hatched youngsters with no experience with hunters at all. It doesn’t get any easier than that.
At this time, getting to where the geese want to be is easy. They want to be wherever there is an easy meal. They have no fear of dangers and will readily come to a decoy spread. You don’t even need a lot of decoys — just enough to make a black spot on the ground. A couple dozen will do. Set them in small, well-spaced groups to simulate a relaxed, feeding flock. Use a flag to attract their attention from a distance. Calling is optional because these flying dummies are just going to pile into the decoys. Let ‘em work, then let ‘em have it (it may be a good idea to wear a safety helmet).
WHEN THE PARTY’S OVER
We all know that no party can go on forever, and the easy part of the goose season is no exception. Year after year, without fail, it takes the geese three weeks to figure out there is danger out there in the stubble fields. Then, a whole new set of circumstances arise that make goose hunting much more challenging. Other than our primary rule — hunt where the geese are — everything else has changed and will continue to change right through the end of the season in January.
Consider this: The same geese (survivors) have been flying around the same area for three weeks and seeing the same decoy spreads in the same places. Each time they approached those decoys they were greeted with gunfire … things that make the birds think, “Hmmmm.” Even a goose can put these pieces together and alter its habits accordingly.
As the first three weeks have gone by, the farmers’ combines have been rolling, opening up thousands of acres of feeding fields where there are no decoys. As the geese get chased from field after field by hunters, they quickly learn which fields are safe. Feeding flocks number up to many hundreds of birds, as they all focus in on the secure areas.
To make matters worse, there are no new geese to fool. The MVP flocks are still in Wisconsin, and all the local geese are wise to the hunters’ tricks. The second three weeks of the season will bring the toughest hunting of all.
To cope with all these challenges the goose hunter must refine his/her tactics. After three weeks of use, your blind or pit will start to look a little shabby, and the geese will be quick to notice that. Look your hide over carefully and dress any parts of it that are wearing thin. If you are using a layout blind, pull all the cover material off and redress it with fresh vegetation. Pick up spent shells from around the blind. Scatter straw or weeds over paths that may have been worn into surrounding grass.
If you have been hunting from a tree brake or fence row, you are in trouble now. No goose in its right mind will fly anywhere near such an obvious ambush point; if they do, they will probably be so high you would think they would be showing movies on them. You will have a long, boring season if you continue to hunt like that.
Rather, increase the size of your decoy spread to match what the real birds are doing. Set the decoys upwind of the blind, so even if the geese flare and begin to pull out, they will be right in front of you. Use the flag only at a distance, so as not to call attention to your blind. Do not over-call. Match your calling to that of the geese. Less is always better than too much. Do not — ever — take high shots. You will just be educating large numbers of spooky geese to your position, making your hunting efforts that much more difficult. Let ‘em work, shoot your limit, and then get off that field as fast as possible.
As the season goes on, and colder weather pushes MVP birds down into Illinois, hunter success will pick up. Every day, new geese will be arriving in your area, and they will be eager to join the residents at the dinner table. If some of the “residents” happen to be made out of plastic, so much the better! From mid-fall through early winter, continue to follow the precautions listed above. By now all the geese have encountered hunters, and they will not be easily fooled. The dumb ones are already in someone else’s freezer.
Now comes winter. By mid-December the snow is flying, temperatures are dropping fast, and the wind cuts like a knife. A lot of your fellow hunters have called it “a season,” stashed their decoys and taken up spectator sports. Don’t you do it; the best is yet to come.
Winter goose hunting requires a whole different set of tactics, excepting only the cardinal rule — hunt where the geese are — and, the geese are going to be in one of two places: They are going to be feeding in a nearby field; or they are going to be huddled up in a tight bunch conserving energy. Sometimes, they will do both in the same place.
When the temperature drops below 20 degrees, geese move about as little as possible. When it gets down to 0 degrees or lower, they may not move at all. I once saw a flock huddled together on a frozen pond for three brutally cold days without ever leaving it. When the cold spell at last broke, those starving birds roared off that ice and poured into anything that looked edible. We limited out in minutes.
The secret to cold-weather goose hunting success is showing the birds what they are used to seeing. If you observe the birds during a cold spell, you will note that they do not move around at all. In fact, they don’t even stand up. Rather, most of the flock will be lying flat on the ground, feathers fluffed up, with their heads under their wings. There will always be sentry birds on guard, but only a few. To simulate this behavior, use shell decoys set right on the ground or snow. You can even leave the heads off some to represent a goose with its head under a wing. Cluster the decoys tightly together, and put them all around the blind, pit or layout blind. Remember, these are very quiet birds, so minimal flagging and very subdued calling is important to creating a natural setting. Don’t do either if the geese are coming in on their own.
In frigid weather geese will often feed only once a day, in mid-morning. Don’t be too quick to pick up the decoys if nothing happens early in the day. Also, when the birds do fly out, they may sit right on that feeding spot all day.
Winter goose hunting can be very frustrating if the birds sit tight all day, but when they do get up it can be gang busters.
Illinois’ goose hunt is well under way, and now you have a game plan. Make the most of it, and all you then will need are some good recipes.