Snows Early & Late
September 30, 2010
Whether you look at them as an extension of the late goose season or as an early start on next year's waterfowling, Nebraska's snow-goose shoots have something for everyone.
By Gene Hornbeck
A goose hunter's dream? It can't get any better than sitting in a blind and seeing thousands of incoming snows, says Keith Brown of Waverly.
"We have thousands of snows decoy into a small, manmade lake we hunt near Fairbury almost every day we are in the blind," Brown said. "Of course only one or two small bunches come in over our decoys - most stay out of range.
"We do kill a good number of snows, but the best part of the hunt is seeing the birds in such huge flocks - it's a beautiful thing. It's particularly impressive for those who have never experienced hunting these geese during the Nebraska spring, or Light Goose Conservation Action season."
As most waterfowlers in the Great Plains know, the Conservation Action or spring season was initiated to reduce the population of snow geese, which has mushroomed out of control over the past 30 years. The birds migrating through central and eastern Nebraska in the spring had reached about 3 million by 1998; estimates now put the total at close to 6 million. They were and still are literally eating themselves out of the habitat in their Arctic nesting grounds.
To deal with the huge population increase, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, increased limits and eased up on the rules of the hunt. For the past few years, hunters could take 20 birds a day with no possession limit. They could also use unplugged shotguns and electronic calls.
Photo by Ken Klock
Waterfowl managers report that the harvest of snow and light geese (a category including the blue phase of the snow goose and the Ross' goose) has increased dramatically over the past five years because of the special seasons.
"Here in Nebraska we have had the extended snow goose season since 1999," said Jim Douglas, wildlife chief for the NGPC in Lincoln. "We have killed an average of 50,000 birds annually during the spring season as compared to an average of about 10,000 during regular season."
The hunting for the light geese has become more challenging each year since 1999, say those who've taken the hunting seriously.
"In the spring of 1999 I started guiding hunters commercially," said Kevin Hennecke of Wymore. "When we first used the electronic caller it was absolutely awesome to watch a flock of 50-plus snows come over really high, begin to circle, and then side-slip down like quickly falling leaves into the decoys. It was unbelievable; they came to the decoys and the calling like dogs to table scraps.
"Some of the more memorable periods over the years include a 24-day stretch in 2000 when we bagged 486 geese. We were averaging about five hunters a day in the blinds then. I hunted two blinds and averaged seven hunters a day last year. Our best run was a 21-day stretch when we bagged 336 birds."
Most of the hunters Hennecke hosts use 3- or 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge shotguns; he sees a few 10 gauges. His favorite is a 10-gauge Ithaca Magnum shooting No. 1s or BBs.
Barry Bales, a 43-year-old over-the-road truck driver from Fairbury, started hunting the snows as a hobby - but then it turned into something of a business.
"I have a pond on my place, and when the spring season got going we killed a lot of geese," he said. "I began getting inquiries about hunting and began taking in a few hunters. Our best year was the first year - 1999 - when we killed about 1,600 snows. Since then it has become more and more difficult to decoy the big bunches.
"Last year the score from our one pit was 350 birds taken over a spread of about 1,200 decoys. When you have a flock that numbers in the thousands begin to circle your setup it takes a lot to fool even a few."
Bales does most of his hunting over decoys, but there are methods that produce more birds. "Sneak-hunting, which includes 'cow-board' hunting, takes a lot of scouting and a lot of patience at times," he said.
That type of hunt involves a stalk behind a cutout shaped and painted like a cow in order to fool the geese. "It entails locating a flock of feeding birds, getting permission to hunt, and then making a sneak on the birds to get within range. The cow boards are the best. If you take your time, you can work well within range of the feeding birds. When it comes time to shoot, you can be, figuratively speaking, shooting into a wall of geese. Using an unplugged shotgun, you can kill a bunch."
Bales doesn't know why, but the best cow board is black, imitating a Black Angus. It's hard he says, for novices to visualize hunting the snows until they do it.
"In addition to the pond we hunt on my place, there are four or five others nearby, and at times we will have 200,000 to 300,000 snows using them."
Tom Ross, a 46-year-old farmer who lives near Nehawka, along the Missouri River, hosts hunters in two pits along the big river.
"I usually hunt up to six hunters a day," he said, "and during the spring season we have our good days and bad. I like to stress having a quality hunt, and that includes getting some geese, but it also includes good food in the blind and the fellowship and camaraderie that go with the hunt."
Ross uses about 1,200 decoys and an electronic call. "Hunting the last couple of years has become more challenging because of the pressure that has been put on the birds," he observed. "They don't sucker into the electronic call like they did the first couple of years, and they are often leery of decoys."
Jim Keller of Martell works on the snows from a field setup using about 1,000 decoys. He agrees that the hunting is not as productive as it was the first years of the special season. "A lot of the birds we hunt are staged on nearby Bluestem Lake," he noted. "It will often be holding 10,000 to 20,000 snows. We aren't bagging the numbers we did three or four years ago, but it's still a lot of fun."
A professional dog trainer, Keller has an affinity for the Irish setter. "I had an old female that I lost a year or so ago that would lie under a white sheet and wait for the geese to start falling," he recalled. "When she first started retrieving the geese, she would bring them back to me in the pit, but then she decided she would just stack them up next to her hiding place. I have her daughter in training now, and she's learning, too."
Keller has more or less backed away from the electronic call and the unplugged shotgun. "In the early days we would have 5,000 to 10,000 birds work the spread," he said, "but now it's just small bunches. We like to work the birds in close, and if you can get off three well-placed shots you are doing good."
Mike Spencer of Lincoln is another field hunter who uses a wide variety of decoys to bring the birds within shooting range. "We will use somewhere around 1,000 decoys - full-bodies, shells, rags, fliers - and I'll even use flags to get their attention when they are a long way off," he said.
Is the additional hunting pressure making inroads into the snow goose population? Yes, says the NGPC's Jim Douglas.
"The international goal for the kill is approximately 1.4 million birds per year," he noted. "We were close to meeting that goal over the past two years. Researchers are doing a current photo inventory of the nesting grounds to see what progress we are making on reducing the habitat destruction."
In years past, the spring snow goose migration tended to follow a broad corridor along the Missouri River; today snows are found en masse in southern Nebraska from the Missouri River to North Platte. Up to 6 million snows use the wetlands in this area, Douglas says.
The season this spring is expected to see both the East Zone and the West Zone in the Rainwater Basin area open to hunting. Last year the West Zone was closed. Season dates will again be similar to last year's, which were Feb. 1 through April 13.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION Commercial hunting setups come and go on the Nebraska goose-hunting scene. Nebraska conservation officers may be able to offer additional help in locating guides. Check the Nebraska hunting regulations for a list of the officers.
Guides include: Kevin Hennecke, 613 12th St. Wymore, NE 68466, (402) 645-8223; Tom Ross, Civil Bend Hunting, 6108 O Street, Nehawka, NE 68413, (402) 227-2137; Barry Bales, 57040 720th Rd., Fairbury, NE 68352, (402) 729-2028.
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