With the incredible hatch that occurred in much of northeastern California and the influx of birds from the north, this may be the season to go after Canada geese.
The author with a heavy honker shot on the Oregon border on a bitter-cold day. Photo by Rich Gracie
By Rich Gracie
The high-pitched honks were barely audible as we sat in our blind on the valley floor, but we knew that the distant clamor meant action was soon to come. Just as several previous flocks had made the journey over the mountains from some distant lake, this flock too was coming to feed. The geese had been resting all night on open water, but luckily for us, they eventually had to put some groceries in their bellies.
A few minutes later, as the flock made its final pass and descended into shotgun range, we took the last remaining birds needed to fill our limits. After some celebrations and a few quick photos, we quickly picked up our decoys and the blind before the next flock of geese arrived. While we were finished hunting for the day, our hasty retreat was intended to preserve the spot for an unspoiled return visit.
One of the keys to successful honker hunting is knowing the feeding and resting habits of the geese you plan to hunt. You can hunt geese in the fields where they feed or on the open water where they rest. Each tactic requires slightly different gear, and northeastern California offers opportunities for both styles of honker hunting. Here's how to match those styles with the locales.
LOWER KLAMATH NWR/TULE LAKE NWR When you think of waterfowling in Northeastern California, the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath national wildlife refuges are the first destinations that come to mind. They offer many choices for the goose hunter. Most hunters concentrate their efforts in the grain stubble of the field units. Honker hunters can also lie out on the ice of the marsh units when it becomes thick enough late in the season.
At Lower Klamath NWR, some of the best honker hunting occurs in the field Units 7b, 8 and 11b. The refuge manager rotates one of the fields to be closed each season, so be sure to check on the closure.
The Sheepy East Unit is another area made up of grain fields. Hunters are allowed to drive into the fields to set out and pick up their decoy spreads.
At Tule Lake NWR, a good number of honkers will rest on the open water of Sumps 1-A and 1-B. Scouting in the afternoon will determine which fields in the League of Nations or the spaced blind area will offer the best shooting. The spaced blind lottery occurs two hours before shooting time at the check station on County Line Road. Hunters must have at least one dozen goose decoys to hunt one of the spaced blinds.
MODOC NWR Located just south of Alturas on the west side of Highway 395, Modoc NWR is a great spot to knock down a honker or two. Refuge manager Steve Clay reports that they had an excellent water year with late spring rains filling local ponds and reservoirs. He said that the local hatch was very good and predicts good numbers of honkers this season.
The harvest of 309 Canada geese during the 2002-03 season was down slightly from previous years, but Clay says mild weather through most of the season led to the lower number. Clay said that during a single cold spell in the last part of the season "... everybody was killing geese on and off of the refuge."
Sustained cold provides the best goose hunting. That's when geese start to focus on grain fields, regardless of hunting pressure. When the weather is mild, honkers tend to become scattered throughout the area and are harder to pattern.
Hunting where the geese feed is best when the weather is cold; during mild weather try the wet meadows and ponds along the west side of the refuge. Hunters can set up along the edge of open water and catch geese as they return to roost. Extreme care is needed when wading or walking on ice that may be thin, because some of the ponds and ditches are quite deep.
Hunting is allowed on the refuge on Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Some outstanding guided hunts are also available on nearby private lands. Contact the Alturas Chamber of Commerce (530) 233-4434 for a list of reputable guides. Hunters will find excellent accommodations in nearby Alturas.
Knowing when and where to set up your decoy spread is one of the most important keys to honker hunting success. Scouting may give you the most important information regarding your decoy setup. Try to determine which field the geese are feeding in by watching where flocks set down. If geese are not present during your scouting trip, walk out into a field and look for fresh droppings, feathers or even footprints.
The best setups for geese take advantage of two crucial tendencies of honkers that are approaching a feeding field: Honkers always land into the wind and will almost always look for an opening to set down in. Your decoy spread should provide geese with these options.
Successful hunters use variations of the "V", "X", "J" (or fishhook) and wedge designs to arrange their decoys. The tail of the spread should act as a stopper to geese approaching into the wind. Spreading out your decoys in family groups of six to 12 can be a productive tactic on calm days.
Geese in a relaxed feeding state will feed into the wind to allow them to quickly take flight if danger approaches. Set your decoys 3 to 6 feet apart with some facing straight into the wind and some quartering right and left to break up the uniformity of the spread. Load your spread with feeders, because a flock of 50 feeding honkers might only have two or three sentinels.
Placing three or four sentinels close together in the landing hole is a trick that will calm approaching flocks. It makes it look as if a small flock has just landed and all is well for them to follow. Flagging is effective at gaining the attention of a distant flock, but drop it as soon as the flock looks interested.
Set your decoys at the upwind end of the field to allow geese to approach over open land. Stay away from fences, irrigation lines, power lines and tall vegetation, and don't forget to park vehicles several hundred yards away, preferably behind a haystack, levee or treeline. -- Rich Gracie
HONEY LAKE WILDLIFE AREA The Honey Lake WA is at the north end of Honey Lake. This large alkali lake is visible from many points along Highway 395 south of Susanville. The valley supports a large population of Canada geese, thanks to its farming practices and expansive open water.
The Fleming and Dakin units make up the nearly 8,000-acre wildlife area. "The Dakin Unit usually shoots better, but the Fleming Unit had some great shoot days last season," said area manager Pam Cherny. She also reports that neither unit usually fills its hunter quotas of 125 each during the latter part of the season.
The reported Canada goose harvest for last season totaled 278, with an additional 104 white geese being taken. Some hunters prefer to set up along the shoreline of the lake with large decoy spreads. The grain fields produce best when it gets bitter-cold. A single flooded wheat field was the hotspot last season.
A highlight worth mentioning is the fact that Ducks Unlimited was able to provide funds for the excavation of 25 miles of ditches here. Cherny is excited about the improved capability to move water and flood new areas. This might create some excellent hotspots for the coming season.
Hunt days are Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays, and hunters must self-register at the check station. Comfortable accommodations can be found in nearby Susanville.
Hunters can also try the Willow Creek WA, which offers a chance at geese returning to rest on open water. It is about 16 miles north of Susanville on Highway 139.
ASH CREEK WA The 14,000-acre Ash Creek WA is in Big Valley off Highway 299, about an hour and a half from Redding. Ash Creek is one of the closest northeastern goose hunting opportunities. You can hunt geese here on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays.
Some of the best goose hunting traditionally takes place in the barley fields near the wildlife area headquarters. Ash Creek staff usually plants a small amount of corn, and the cornfields can be productive when the snow becomes deep. Snow can be a great help for hunting success and for dragging gear.
Hunters haul their gear from the parking areas out into the fields. Ash Creek WA is a big area and hunters can often hunt fields that rarely get hunted by putting in the extra effort to walk farther than the next guy. Plan to transport decoys and gear a considerable distance here. Decoy bags, carts or whatever ingenious method of hauling gear you have will be an advantage here.
Many hunters either lie out in their decoys under some sort of camo or use one of those new lightweight layout blinds. Silhouette decoys are a great lightweight addition to your decoy spread here. You can carry dozens of these feather-light imitations and really spruce up a boring spread without adding a lot of weight to your gear.
BUTTE VALLEY WA Just over the hill from Lower Klamath on beautiful Meiss Lake, Butte Valley WA has offered some good honker hunting over the last few seasons. Last year was one of their best seasons ever with hunters bagging 337 Canada geese. The amazing fact is that 326 of those geese were taken from Dec. 28 to the end of the season.
Area biologist Dave Van Baren said most of the geese taken were of the Taverner's subspecies, and quite a few, lesser Canadas. Taverner's Canada geese are slightly smaller than lessers but bigger than cacklers. It would be a good idea to take a higher-pitched call with you to help lure in these small honkers.
Van Baren mentioned that Butte Valley is a closed basin with no main tributary, which puts the area in a bad water situation. They had some wet late spring weather this year, which helped for nesting purposes, but Van Baren says more is needed. "We need an enormous amount of rain to get us out of this drought," he said.
The drought has changed the patterns of wintering geese in Butte Valley. In normal years, the geese rest on the open water of Meiss Lake and feed in the grain fields of Butte Valley. Van Baren said that geese have been leaning toward the wetland units in recent years and not using the grain as much. These are wet meadows that are fed by ground water. Keep this in mind if conditions don't change this winter.
Hunting is allowed on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays and accommodations can be found in Dorris. Because Lower Klamath NWR is open seven days a week and only is a 15-minute drive from Dorris, you might consider hunting Butte Valley's off days over there. There is an agriculture check station in Dorris, so be sure to follow the migratory bird transportation laws and keep a wing or head on your birds for identification.
OTHER LOCATIONS There are a handful of opportunities to hunt northeastern California honkers that occur on lakes where geese spend a considerable amount of time resting. Tactics vary from location to location, but many versatile hunters take advantage of these opportunities. These are good ways to fill in the time when you aren't allowed to hunt the big wildlife areas and refuges.
Depending on the location, some hunters decoy geese from the shoreline of large bodies of water. Many hunters use scull boats to maneuver within shotgun range of unsuspecting honkers. There are also a handful of places where jump-shooting and even pass-shooting can be productive.
Lake Almanor in Plumas County is a popular honker-hunting destination. There are some decoying opportunities along the northern shoreline. The Causeway, east of Chester, is one of the most popular spots. Scull boaters favor Lake Almanor because of its vast open water and large numbers of resting honkers.
Just over the hill, in Lassen County, is Mountain Meadows Reservoir, a grassy, flooded valley is also known as Walker Lake. It's too shallow for motors, but honker hunting can be productive along the grassy shoreline. Scouting is made easy here by taking one of the roads to higher ground and using binoculars to pattern the geese.
The huge Goose Lake and surrounding fields hold large numbers of honkers. Nearly all of the land around Goose Lake is private. A few guides run successful honker hunting operations here; one of the best, Honker Inn Lodge, can be reached at (530) 946-4179.
Opportunities for jump-shooting abound on the many lakes in the Modoc National Forest and BLM lands of Devil's Garden just west of Goose Lake. You can often get close enough for a shot by using sagebrush and junipers as cover. If not, place all but one hunter in the most likely escape path. The guy who d
raws the short straw can go around to the other side of the geese and try to sneak within range; the rest of the hunters will hopefully get shooting as the geese leave.
Cedarville and the Surprise Valley can be excellent for hunting Canada geese. The problem is that nearly the entire valley is private. Some decoy hunting and pass-shooting can be had along the shores of the Middle Alkali Lake, but it is really hit or miss. Guided hunts are available on private property and are productive when the geese are in.
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