Here's how -- and where -- you can take advantage of Iowa's finest December goose hunts. (December 2008)
A wild goose chase is seldom productive. But careful study of goose behavior accompanied by the patience to hide motionless in plain sight can mean a tasty Christmas dinner if you're waiting where the white-cheeks want to go.
Guidance counselor Frank Nester didn't think my college career would last more than a semester. He suggested that I redeem a scholarship valid at any state university at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale "because you like to hunt and fish."
In the summer of 1969, employment with the Carroll County Highway Department put a serious crimp in my summer catfishing plans, but in the twinkling of an eye, autumn arrived; it was time to report to college, where I would soon learn that life's about more than fishing and duck hunting. Southern Illinois was the focal point of Canada goose hunting on the Mississippi Flyway -- and my life was about to change forever.
In the nearly 40 years since I first learned how to double-cluck into a modified Olt A-50, the pursuit of white-cheeks has taken me pretty much all over North America, but an Allamakee County base camp may be my final roost.
Those years in southern Illinois taught me a great deal about goose hunting and goose behavior under the critical guidance of Gerald "The Bald Eagle" Cain, owner and operator of both the Grassy Lake and B&C Hunting Clubs in Union County. He could look at a dozen flocks of geese several miles away and predict with nearly unfailing accuracy which birds would work into our fields and which would continue to the next fence south and safety in the Union County Refuge.
If Cain came down to the clubhouse by 5:15 a.m. when visiting hunters were getting their pit-blind assignments, you could bet the honkers were going to leave the refuge early; on the other hand, if he didn't show up for black coffee with two sugars before it was time to head out on haywagons to the pits, you could rest assured that no geese would pass over the club within howitzer range before 10 a.m.
Cain had a Ph.D. in practical "goose-ology," his dissertation area being Canada goose behavior; that is still a gold standard for the tactics we can employ in Iowa's corn and wheat fields today, even though the Canadas' population characteristics and migratory patterns have undergone quantum-leap-level changes since the days of paper shot shells and lead goose loads.
These Canada goose tendencies are confirmed by Iowa Department of Natural Resources waterfowl guru Guy Zenner, who clearly paid attention to wildlife management classes in college and has the diploma to prove it -- in addition to thousands of hours on the ground and in the air tracking waterfowl.
"Weather is the major factor that influences Canada goose hunting during the latter half of the season in Iowa," Zenner said "Weather patterns here and across the rest of the upper Midwest dictate when, where and how the geese migrate, whether they trickle through or migrate en masse at the end of the season."
With decades of observing the big birds around Union County refuge in southern Illinois to draw on, Cain would take this information one step further. "Two major factors drive goose behavior once they've found a spot to their liking," he once said. "These factors are availability of food and ambient temperature."
Geese, like other critters, need to feed heavily to maintain health in cold weather. If food sources are depleted or inaccessible because of heavy snow cover or other reasons, they'll move on.
According to Cain, ambient temperature will also drive goose movement. "The critical number is 17," I recall him remarking. "If the temperature gets down to 17 degrees (Fahrenheit) and is this cold -- or colder -- for three days, the geese will migrate farther south.
But cold temperatures don't mean that the geese will be gone for good -- at least not if a flock has found a wintering area to their liking. If the weather event is a snowstorm followed by a burst of arctic air, geese may return to an area they like once weather conditions moderate.
Goose hunting can be fantastic ahead of an approaching winter weather system. "Hunters need to watch for the winter storms (that) hit southern Minnesota with lake-freezing temperatures and heavy snow," Zenner said. "This weather will push the birds out of Minnesota across our state line. The first few days after arrival here the geese are pretty vulnerable to calling and decoy spreads."
HISTORY AS A GUIDE
Migration trends from the harsh winter of 2007-08 are worth noting. The next time we see another particularly wicked winter, knowledge of goose behavior under similar circumstances will undoubtedly come in handy.
Winter arrived last year in earnest on Dec. 2, when a major storm swept across the Midwest. First snow and then freezing rain covered South Dakota, southern Minnesota and northern Iowa with an impenetrable white crust. Massive flights of honkers left northern Iowa and southern Minnesota on Dec. 3-4, creating almost certain hunting opportunities for those hunters hunkered around limited open water. A second wintry blast arrived statewide on Dec. 6 and another storm followed two days later, effectively ending the season for waterfowlers in the northern part of the state.
This weather pattern continued through the second week in December, blanketing nearly the entire state with heavy snow and causing geese to push further south. Only the Mt. Ayr wildlife unit in the southern part of the state continued to hold reasonable numbers of honkers.
During the third week of December, counties south of Interstate 80 saw a "warming" trend. Snow melted just enough to cause geese to migrate back north into fields to feed.
Just before Christmas, we caught a real howler of a storm across the state, which pushed the birds beyond our boundaries again. A January thaw just after the first of the year once again opened up some of the fields in southern Iowa, providing a few field-hunting opportunities in the south goose hunting zone.
BY THE NUMBERS
IDNR biologists in southern Iowa reported good numbers of Canada geese in the south zone on Jan. 8, just prior to the season's end and initiation of the annual midwinter survey.
Zenner pegged severe weather as the major reason that Canada goose numbers were so low in the mid-winter survey completed Jan. 11. This survey counted 114,740 honkers -- 54 percent lower than 2007, when 248,000 geese were counted. Last year's midwinter goose numbers were also 15 percent below the
1998-2007 average of 134,300 geese.
Although Canada goose numbers will be down from the 10-year average, they're still phenomenal compared to those of decades past. Statistics from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicate that the entire Mississippi Valley population of Canada geese was only about 50,000 birds at the close of World War II.
Establishment of federal and state refuges since this time has bolstered numbers to around a million white-cheeks. Many of these geese are migrants from the prairie provinces of Canada and the Dakotas, but over the past 15 to 20 years, construction of lakes, reservoirs and farm ponds across the Midwest have seen a proliferation of local Canada goose populations that can number in the thousands of birds.
These "golf-course geese" abound in many metro areas across the state, most notably around Des Moines, Cedar Rapids/Iowa City and Cedar Falls/Waterloo. All of these areas have special early goose seasons in September, but plenty of honkers are still around to become the focal point of Christmas dinner during normal autumns.
"Sprawling city limits of the metro areas are so large that they serve as effective refuges for the geese," Zenner said. "It is also difficult for the average hunter to obtain permission on private lands where shooting is permitted. But local folks who have hunting as a top priority can usually find access around metro areas and do quite well, especially during the first two-thirds of the season."
Large populations of homegrown geese also provide excellent hunting opportunities along the Des Moines River near Ottumwa, near the Iowa River near its confluence with the Mississippi, around Rathbun Lake in the south-central part of the state, Lake Icaria in the southwest and in fields around the Bays Branch Wildlife Area (including private Lake Panorama) in west-central Iowa.
With easy access to food and water these birds -- and similar populations of Canada geese elsewhere in the state -- develop predictable behavior patterns throughout the course of the goose season.
It doesn't take long for these geese to know exactly where they're safe and where hunters may pose danger. But the geese have to leave their loafing areas to eat. Figuring out the vector they will take away from the lake or pond can result in filling a quick limit for the pass shooter.
The timing of their decision to lift off is often driven by the weather. If skies are overcast and snow is predicted, the first geese usually leave their loafing area shortly after daybreak, whereas those days that find you wondering why you bothered to stumble out of a warm bed and hunker down along an overgrown fencerow with temperatures in the teens or less typically see later departure times -- maybe 10 a.m., perhaps noon.
Golf-course geese usually send out a couple of "scouts" to choose the feeding vector for the day. Although this is often into the wind, it may be in the opposite direction.
The key to success lies in being in position to observe the exact direction these birds fly out. Another small flock or two will take off on the same tangent. Then the big bunch will get noisy and leave in the same direction.
When two or three groups of geese leave their refuge on the same course the others will eventually follow suit. If you're under this flight path and close enough to the loafing area, all that waiting in the cold will be rewarded.
Don't bother setting any decoys; don't try calling: Just set yourself up under the flight path and get ready.
Many novice hunters have difficulty judging distance for pass-shooting geese. Cain provided clues for both gauging distance and calculating an effective lead that have served me well for years. "If you can see their feet when the geese fly over, they are close enough to shoot," he offered, "and in regard to figuring lead, you need to keep swingin' that gun! Get what you think is the correct lead, double it, then add another foot -- and you'll kill 'em every time!"
When pass-shooting at inbound geese, you also need to calculate the birds' downrange distance, so that you know the right moment to stand up and shoot. Take note of a particular fencepost or clod of dirt about 40 yards in front of your hiding place. When the birds pass over this invisible line, it's time to send up a string of BBB or T shot.
I could never figure out why flocks of Canada geese would leave on the exact same vector from a loafing area as the first couple pairs of scouts. Many times the vanguard would be out of sight on the way to feed before the next bunch would lift off the water. Could it be exceptional eyesight coupled with memory? Some subtle nuance on the wind?
Often the flight path of outbound geese will take them over some landmark on the ground -- a farm building, a lone tall tree in the fenceline or strip of unharvested grain. Taking note of this can help you decide where to set up for pass-shooting.
Of course, getting to the point that you can see goose feet overhead requires your first to blend in with the surrounding cover and remain perfectly immobile until the moment of truth. It's hard not to watch a string of those great big birds coming right at you only 25 yards off of the ground. And if you can see the geese, they can certainly see you.
Total body camouflage -- including facemask and gloves -- is the only way to go. Some good camo field patterns are on the market now. One of the best for field hunting is a three-dimensional "leaf-o-flage" suit in cornfield pattern. (Right out of the package the suit may be too shiny to use. Washing it several times before use can help cut down on glare.)
If anything will flare geese quicker than sudden movement in the flight path, it would be glint and glare off of shiny objects like guns and eyeglasses.
Choosing a spot for decoying geese that want to feed is considerably tougher. Your best odds of success come from hunting the birds twice. If weather conditions are stable with a prevailing wind out of the same direction for at least a couple of days, resident flocks of geese -- and migrants that have joined the party -- will usually leave their loafing area and fly out up to 10 miles to feed. Watching the birds from the road with binoculars provides "best-guess" input regarding setup sites for the following morning.
You don't need a huge decoy spread if you set up where the birds want to feed. Three dozen magnum shell decoys are plenty. A "fishhook" spread with a string of several decoys leading into a crescent-shaped cluster at the end is usually pretty effective if you set up in such a spot.
Set the decoys facing into the wind with the alert heads in the approach string and on the outside of the hook; then, position yourself so that the geese have to fly over you to land in the decoys.
Even if you're a good caller, keep it to a minimum. The geese already know wher
e they want to go. A little double-clucking is usually enough. If you've got to toot on the darned thing when the birds are within 400 yards, appease this need with a little feeding cluck-and-grunt.
Cain used to say that the bigger the flock, the less you want to call. Groups of a dozen or less are much easier to decoy than are flocks of 50 white-cheeks, every pair of goose eyes looking down to see who's trying to get them to land!
Don't call when the geese are overhead, no matter how high they fly. Once they pass, you can try an excited come-back call, taking note on how the birds respond.
The term "wild goose chase" remains part of the American lexicon for good reason: We go to great extremes in trying to lure geese into shooting range, but as often as not, the hunt is just an opportunity to witness the majesty of waterfowl on the wing.
But sometimes it all comes together. The best early Christmas present is a sore shoulder from the weight of a brace of big honkers hanging on the duck strap as you walk out of the field.