Bagging A Georgia Christmas Goose

Having a goose on the dinner table at Christmas has been a longstanding English holiday tradition. Nowadays it is one in which even Peach State hunters can partake.

There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn't believe there was ever such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by the applesauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great delight (surveying the one small atom of bone upon the dish), they hadn't ate it all at last! Yet everyone had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows! - "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens, 1843

* * *
Classic literature makes it apparent that the tradition of a Christmas goose goes back many years - even centuries - and it is easy to picture fathers and sons hunting geese together both in England and in Colonial America in order to bring home the centerpiece of a fine holiday meal.

Not too many years ago, no such opportunity would have existed for Georgia hunters. These days, however, goose-hunting opportunities have become quite abundant. In fact, even a hunter who had invited many friends and family members to join him for the holidays could potentially go out and kill the geese needed for the feast.

Georgia hunters enjoy abundant opportunity to hunt for and harvest Canada geese, and that opportunity continues to increase. Annual goose harvest totals and the statewide population have both been on the rise ever since the first Canada goose season was established in 1990. The still-expanding population of honkers has brought more-liberal seasons and limits as well.

Goose season usually runs 70 days in the Peach State, opening for a week in mid-November, closing briefly around Thanksgiving, and then reopening from the end of November through the end of January.

Georgia's resident Canada goose population currently numbers 80,000 birds, based on the best estimates of the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division (WRD), said Greg Balkcom, state waterfowl biologist for the WRD. Some birds can be found in all parts of the state, but the largest concentrations by far are north of the Fall Line. Most population expansion that continues is in the southwestern part of the state.

Interestingly, Georgia used to get some visitation from migratory Canada geese during the winter. Migration routes changed more than 25 years ago, however, and the geese stopped visiting Georgia. That prompted the WRD to begin goose relocation efforts in the early 1980s, which soon resulted in the establishment of a resident population.

Photo by R.E. Ilg

The first Canada goose season, highly experimental and heavily regulated, was held in 1990. It was a short quota hunt in select North Georgia counties, with a limit of one goose. The season was successful and very popular, so it was kept. The quota was soon removed, and the open area expanded to the entire northern half of the state.

As goose populations and the popularity of goose hunting have continued to grow, the WRD has increased the amount of hunting and harvest opportunity. The limit increased from one bird to two birds, then to three birds two seasons ago. Hunting has been permitted statewide for several years.

The last three goose seasons have produced an average harvest of approximately 10,000 birds, with each total a bit higher than the previous year's. Band-return data indicates that Georgia hunters are currently harvesting approximately 20 percent of the statewide population annually, Balkcom said. That percentage still has room to increase without threatening the stability of the population. As is, the population continues to rise, as do the number of nuisance-goose complaints.

Geese can do a lot of damage to agricultural crops, golf-course greens and subdivision lawns, and they can make a pretty bad mess where numbers are high. In fact, nuisance complaints, not re-establishment efforts, lie behind most current "goose relocation" efforts. An office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that deals with nuisance-animal problems moves quite a few geese from areas where the birds generate a lot of complaints (like Atlanta metro) to areas in South Georgia that offer good habitat. The secondary benefit to hunters has been the continued expansion of the goose population to more of the state.

The stereotype surrounding resident Canada geese is that they are somewhat domesticated, and the assumption of many would-be hunters is that the geese would be easy targets. However, virtually anyone who has hunted Georgia geese at any time during the past dozen years knows better. Geese become wild and wily with the first crack of a shotgun around a lake, and they are very challenging hunting adversaries.

Balkcom actually believes that resident geese are more difficult to kill than migratory waterfowl, because they have sort of a home-field advantage.

"They spend all year in an area, and they get to know the one- or two-county area around the lake where they might spend the most time extremely well. They find refuge areas in subdivisions and on farms when hunting pressure increases on the lakes," he said.

Balkcom pointed out that this becomes evident late in the goose season when birds virtually disappear from some reservoirs that support good populations through most of the year. Meanwhile, birds that don't leave reservoirs seem to figure out where popular hunting areas are on those waters and use those areas much less as the season progresses.

Late in the season, hunters who do confine all their efforts to major reservoirs often must do a lot of scouting to figure out the birds' daily travel routes and catch geese coming and going to feeding areas. Early in the year, by way of contrast, any concealed spot within range of a grassy field near a lake is apt to be a good place to set up for geese.

Throughout goose season, hunters should keep in mind that geese are grazers. They like grasses and grain, on land, not aquatic vegetation, which most ducks fed on. Nevertheless, they relate to water and spend most of their time on or around water. Good goose areas have open fields for grazing and water nearby. Hunting can be good from the water or the land, depending on the location and access regulations and how the birds are moving.

In terms of actual locations, most of Georgia's larger reservoirs support some Canada geese, and several reservoirs throughout the Piedmont sustain high numbers of birds. Outside the Piedmont, Walter F. George and other imp

oundments along the lower Chattahoochee River have become better goose hunting destinations than they used to be. Lake Seminole, although well known as a great duck hunting area, does not support a lot of geese, which Balkcom believes may have to do with alligator predation.

The Savannah River lakes all offer some goose-hunting opportunity, but Clarks Hill is the best known of the three for its Canada geese. The population at Clarks Hill is so strong, in fact, that more than 200 birds have been taken from the Broad River area of the lake alone to be relocated to other parts of the state.

Clarks Hill actually may be Georgia's No. 1 goose lake, in terms of both the number of birds that use its waters and surrounding lands and the amount of public land around it. Seven wildlife management areas (WMAs) along Clarks Hill's banks provide more than 20,000 acres of public hunting land on the Georgia side of the lake.

One of these seven areas, Fishing Creek WMA has waterfowl impoundments that fall under special regulations and season dates. This is primarily a duck-hunting area, but goose hunting is permitted any time the season is open on all other WMA lands around Clarks Hill.

Some WMA tracts around Clarks Hill even have goose pastures, which are essentially food plots planted specifically with vegetation that geese make good use of. Any grassy area around the lake is apt to be used by geese, however, and hunters do well hunting both from the water and on land.

Hunters should be aware that the Georgia/South Carolina border splits Clarks Hill down the middle and that hunting privileges are not reciprocal.

Crossing from the South Carolina border to the Alabama border, West Point Lake is another one of Georgia's premier goose-hunting destinations. Goose numbers are high on this big Chattahoochee River impoundment, and the birds tend to stick around throughout the season.

Public hunting access to West Point is found on both the water and land via West Point WMA, which covers approximately 10,000 acres on five separate tracts. West Point WMA has several goose-grazing pastures in addition to natural openings near the lakeshore. These tracts, like Fishing Creek on Clarks Hill, have some specific waterfowl ponds that fall under special regulations.

Only a small portion of West Point lies in Alabama, but hunters on that area of the lake do need to be aware of where the border runs and stay in the Georgia portion of the impoundment.

Rolling farmland, huge lakeside houses with perfect lawns and several golf courses surround Lake Oconee, a big Piedmont impoundment along the river of the same name. That habitat is perfect for Canada geese, which is obvious by the number of birds that use the lake.

Access to good goose hunting lands is more limited around Oconee than it is on some other lakes. Redlands WMA provides some lakeside access well up the Oconee River arm, but public tracts are mostly forested and lakeside public lands are heavily interspersed with private holdings. Oconee WMA also provides some access at the lower end of the lake.

Through the latter part of the season, Oconee hunters are generally served best by looking for areas they can hunt from the water that lie along routes between major grazing areas. This takes a fair amount of scouting to learn routes and figure out places to set up, but it can yield good hunting. Oconee's abundant standing timber in the reservoir provides good concealment for hunters in some areas.

On Lake Oconee (and all other Georgia Power reservoirs), hunters may not set up within 300 feet of any private boat dock, house, bridge or other structure. Keeping a good distance from homes and structures is a good idea for the sake of safety and hunter/non-hunter relations, anyway.

Much smaller than the three reservoirs already mentioned is 3,600-acres Lake Juliette, which nevertheless offers very good goose-hunting prospects. Rum Creek WMA, which Lake Juliette forms the heart of, surrounds the lake and provides great public hunting opportunities to all parts of Juliette.

Lake Juliette action, more so than action at the other lakes mentioned, does tend to fall off late in the goose season. The lake is small enough that most of the geese in the population eventually seek out neighboring waters instead of moving to different parts of the lake. Through the first part of December, however, hunting prospects tend to be quite good on this impoundment.

For hunters who opt to shoot from a boat, it is important to point out that no motors of more than 25 horsepower may be operated on the lake.

Balkcom also said that Atlanta-area hunters should not overlook Lake Lanier as a possible hunting destination. Lanier does not have big WMAs surrounding it to provide shoreline-hunting access, and extensive development does limit the areas where hunters can set up. Those things acknowledged, Lanier supports a very large population of geese, and it does not get hunted very hard.

"For someone who lives in the Atlanta area who doesn't have a couple days to devote to hunting farther away, they can go out on Lanier in the morning, have a good hunt and be back by lunchtime," Balkcom said.

Finally, Balkcom stressed that hunters should not overlook private-land opportunities, especially late in the season. Farm ponds in the vicinity of large Piedmont reservoirs often get extensive use by geese as hunting seasons progress.

"When the pressure is on, they know where to go," Balkcom said of the resident birds.

Balkcom also noted that landowners might be more receptive to allowing goose hunting than many hunters would expect, largely because of the amount of damage that geese can do to crops. Hunters should scout for farms in the vicinity of big reservoirs as far ahead of time as possible, and plan a visit to the landowner to ask permission to hunt.

Naturally, hunters who do get permission to hunt geese on private land should be very aware that they are on someone else's property and be careful to tend to things like picking up any trash, closing gates behind them and adhering to any special requests. Of course, if a hunt is successful, stopping back by the farmhouse and offering to share a Christmas goose from the day's harvest can't ever hurt!

Before heading out to get your Christmas goose, be sure to check out the finalized season dates and limits and be certain you are familiar with all regulations. The easiest way to get all the information you need is to log onto and follow buttons to the Late Season Georgia Migratory Bird Regulations pamphlet. Printed copies of the pamphlet are also available through hunting license dealers.

In addition to a hunting license, goose hunters must have state and federal duck stamps and a free Hunter Information Program permit. For WMA lands, a WMA stamp is also required. Restrictions regarding where

hunters may set up in relation to structures exist on several lakes and vary from lake to lake.

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