Geese Of The Big Rivers

Geese Of The Big Rivers

When December rolls around, veteran goose hunters head for the open waters of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and to nearby fields and wetlands. Where does the action promise to be the hottest? (December 2005)

Photo by Cathy & Gordon ILLG

December marks the point in the year at which many waterfowlers begin to look back on their season -- to reflect on what might have been. That's too bad. Because it's just as easy to think about what lies ahead, especially for those hunters who choose to target geese.

In some ways, geese are easier to hunt than are ducks. Duck populations vary substantially from year to year, and their flight paths can change for unknown reasons. That's not true of geese, whose populations are more stable and flight paths more predictable.

Well -- goose numbers in Iowa aren't exactly steady: They're in fact on the rise, primarily as a result an exploding resident goose population. The majority of the resident birds are Canadas, many of which live in or near urban areas. That makes sense, if you think about it, as a lot of open water and safe habitat is available in our towns and cities -- small ponds, parks, fountains, urban renovations, run-off catch-basins and golf courses with water hazards, to name a few.

Along with that, there's plenty of forage; in some locales the food supply is almost unlimited. During those rare times when it's not, there are always a few farm fields nearby. Corn, beans, wheat and various small grains all offer food, both before and after they're harvested.

All in all, it's a great neighborhood to inhabit for most of the year. The problem for the geese is that all good things must come to an end. The water in those small, shallow ponds turns to ice as winter wears on and the grain and other forage run out. In some cases, it's eaten; in others, it's destroyed, or covered over by inclement weather.

The geese must find somewhere else to live; survival requires it. In many cases, that means turning towards the rivers, which will offer open water long after everything else freezes over. And, while food may not be as plentiful as it was a couple of months ago, there's still some available in the farm fields and rich bottom land in the river's floodplain. Living on the river might not be as good as good as living uptown, but it beats the alternative.

Migratory geese are different from residents -- very different, indeed, more like ducks than resident geese in that they travel south in the fall and north in the spring. The route they travel, the Mississippi Flyway, isn't so much a road map for the geese as a descriptive term used by humans to mark their travel routes. It stretches from well north of the Canadian border down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Migratory paths follow both the Mississippi River on the east side of the state and the Missouri River on the west side. Both offer good, solid populations of geese, including both the migratory birds coming through and the resident geese that have moved in from surrounding areas.

In December, the far southern parts of the rivers -- as far south as you can get -- are best. Both rivers offer thousands of acres of open water, sandbars, islands, wing dams and points for staging your blind, digging your pit or parking your boat.

And there's more good news: The federally established season framework has been extended another 10 days, thus allowing the Iowa Department of Natural Resources the option of closing the goose season in early December so they can extend it from later in December well into January.

At press time, Iowa regulations had been proposed but not approved. Check with the IDNR at for the final approved migratory hunting season dates and regulations before scheduling your goose hunt.

The proposed changes address hunters' requests that the season be extended later into the winter. The season, if approved, will coincide more closely with the later migrations that have become common over the last several years. It'll also offer more hunting opportunities during and after the holidays.


On the Mississippi you'll want to take a close look at Lake Odessa, a huge backwater slough on the west side of the river in the extreme southeast corner of the state. The Odessa wetland complex spreads over roughly 7,000 acres in east-central Louisa County, although the actual lake size varies markedly with rising and falling water levels.

Roughly 3,000 acres, which are part the Mark Twain Wildlife Refuge Complex, are closed to all public access beginning Sept. 15 each year. The remaining 4,000 or so acres, which include open lake waters and surrounding backwaters, are managed by the IDNR as the Odessa Wildlife Management Area.

Much of shallow, stump-filled Odessa is old, long-abandoned farmland; as such, it offers hundreds of acres of marsh. Odessa's goose hunting potential goes largely unnoticed, and that's a shame, because it holds substantial numbers of Canada geese, both resident and migratory, throughout the winter.

A portion of the WMA known as Area A is managed by means of a draw hunt during regular duck season. During the last part of goose season, however, the entire area is open under general WMA hunting regulations.

At Odessa are two high-quality improved cement ramps and one gravel ramp; one cement ramp is at Schaffer's Landing. Another is at Sand Run. Both offer immediate access to prime boat-hunting areas. The gravel ramp can be found near the Tollesboro Outlet area. It offers direct access to both the lake and the main river and is the best choice for river access.

Water levels were good this spring, and the river was stable this summer. Barring unexpected rainfall, the river should drop as the season progresses. That'll allow the water on the wetlands and flooded plains to be drawn by gravity back into the river. The resulting dry ground will support all manner of vegetation and small grains. That's good news: The geese will have plenty to eat.

The number counts look promising as well. Last year, weekly goose counts on the refuge ranged between 800 and 4,400 birds. That establishes two things: First, geese are using the lake; second, numbers suffice to provide good-quality hunting opportunities on both the WMA and the main river.

The Mississippi depends to a large extent on Lake Odessa and the Mark Twain Wildlife Refuge to supply its geese. In fact, during the very best years, the most-productive hunting is usually that for birds flying back and forth between the lake and the river.

Lake Odessa can be hunted on foot, or from a boat or blind. It's an outstanding destination for hunters who don't have the equipment or experience to hunt the main river.

If you choose to hunt the main river -- many do -- you'll need to do your homework, as on this ever-changing body of water, what's there today may or may not be there tomorrow. Each bar, point, island or backwater slough will be unique. Some will be a month old, others only a day or two into a short life.

Savvy hunters spend time scouting islands, sandbars and any other place that offers safety and food to the geese; it's in such sites that the birds will be found. Once you locate a likely-looking spot, it's simply a matter of digging a pit, building a blind out of local materials or hiding your boat anywhere you can find a couple of open shooting lanes.

This is the only place in Iowa in which permanent blinds are permitted. Very popular along this stretch of the Mississippi because of their effectiveness, they probably account for most of the harvested limits in any given year.

No matter how you choose to hunt the river, pay careful attention to your shooting lanes. Depending on the weather, they might need to face towards almost any point on the compass. On the best days, they'll face north, into the blowing wind. A cold, strong, icy, miserable wind is best: The tougher it is on you, the better the geese like it.

Most experienced and successful hunters along this river set out lots of decoys, almost always using Canada goose replicas. Spreads of 100 or more are common, and while setting out a spread like that will take time and require spending a few dollars, it'll be worth it in the long run, as smaller spreads are just not as successful as big ones -- not on this river, anyway.

Goose numbers in Iowa aren't exactly steady: They're in fact on the rise, primarily as a result an exploding resident goose population.

Excellent maps, as well as complete information about Odessa WMA, are available from the IDNR web site at Check both the "Hunting" and "Fishing" sections for complete coverage. Call (319) 523-8319 for more information.


The situation on the western side of Iowa may be even better.

To understand the hunting in this area, it's necessary to have a mental picture of the Riverton Wildlife Management Area. Riverton is in Freemont County, approximately two miles north of the town of Riverton on L68. It's just north of the confluence of the West Nishnabotna and East Nishnabotna rivers and within 10 miles of the Missouri's waters.

Its small size belies its importance to the area and to the river. The terrain is split roughly in half -- marsh and uplands. The north end is planted in crops -- an important factor, because those crops offer both resident and migrating geese something to eat. Barring unusually severe winter weather, there'll always be something for the geese to feed on.

Those things help keep high populations of residents around, and attract migrating geese to the general area as well. After that, it's a matter of common sense: the more geese hanging around the area, the more on the river. It's a numbers game.

Stu Mass, a long-time waterfowler and serious conservationist, believes that the area is rapidly becoming the place to hunt waterfowl in Iowa. "There's a high population of resident geese around. The hunting should be good this winter," he said.

Mass doesn't mean only Riverton WMA, though: He's also talking about the East and West Nishnabotna rivers and the Missouri itself. And he should know, as he owns and manages Flightpath Bottoms -- one of the most successful private wetlands projects in the state, which is important to the river and goose hunting in the area. The Bottoms offers resident and migratory geese alike plenty of open water, forage and nesting habitat.

Mass saw high numbers of resident geese along the Missouri River throughout the spring and summer. "I've seen more than usual, a lot more -- especially along the wing dams. It should be a great year. I can't wait to hunt," he said, with obvious enthusiasm.

Mass' observations apply not only to the southern most portions of the Missouri but also upstream to Council Bluffs and beyond.

Carl Priebe, wildlife biologist with the IDNR, says that early-season goose hunting pressure is light in this general area, building as the season wears along. He believes there's plenty of opportunity along the Missouri for many hunters to enjoy late-season action. Exactly how good the hunting will be depends on the weather and conditions in the river.

According to Priebe, river geese use the wing dikes and sandbars for resting and feeding. This will continue until late in the winter, when the weather turns cold.

If we have a mild winter like those experienced in the past several years, the birds will stay put. The only time they'll leave the river is to feed. They can't help doing that. The grains and crops growing in the rich bottomlands that border the water are just too tempting.

On the other hand, if the weather turns unusually cold, ice chunks will start flowing down the river. (The river itself doesn't freeze, at least not often. The chunks of ice come from areas way north.) Once that happens, the geese move off the river. If the ice chunks are small and their presence brief, the geese will return in a couple of days; if the chunks are big, and the flows protracted, the geese will be forced southward, not to be seen again until spring.

Savvy river hunters hunt the river from boats skillfully camouflaged to blend with the surroundings. No permanent blinds are allowed, so you'll have to build your own -- not normally a problem, as there's usually plenty of natural materials in the area for building one quickly and efficiently.

If necessary, you can always hide behind a logjam or lie very still on the sand. Under some conditions, you can dig a pit. Doing so will require either a big sandbar or island that rises well above the waterline, or a set of well-insulated waterproof clothing; otherwise, you'll get wet in a hurry. That's something you don't want to do in December on the Missouri River.

Finally, don't waste time if you find a good spot; take immediate advantage of it. Most of them are small, and the geese will spook after one good shoot. Even worse, your hotspot may not even exist the next weekend, or even the next day. The river's never the same -- certainly not for very long.

You can launch a boat from either of two public ramps, both located in Fremont County. One's about a mile north of the Iowa-Missouri state line near the town of Hamburg; the other, just west of Bartlett, can be a problem when the water's low, so check on local c

onditions before you make a long drive.

For complete up-to-the minute information on the area call the IDNR, Riverton Unit at (712) 387-2791. They'll be able to help. Information is also available from their web site at

Give the Mississippi and Missouri rivers a try this winter. The goose hunting along these storied rivers is great.

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