Cedar Rapids Goose Hotspots
October 04, 2010
Eastern Iowa offers a wealth of goose hunting opportunities. Hunters in the Cedar Rapids area can count on a Christmas goose - if they'll just go out and shoot one!
By Dan Anderson
Late-season goose hunting in east-central Iowa ain't what it used to be. It's better!
In the "good old days," goose hunters had not only fewer places at which to hunt geese but also fewer geese to hunt. Before Coralville Reservoir was impounded 40 years ago, waterfowlers had either to travel to the Mississippi River and its backwaters or to crowd into the smaller public marshes and lakes scattered around that section of the state if they wanted a shot at a goose.
For the most part, the only geese they had a chance to call from the skies were migrants traveling through the area on their way to wintering grounds farther south. If weather conditions were wrong, the geese blew through the state in a couple of days and hunters were left blowing their calls at empty skies. Then Coralville came on the scene, and the vast shallows at the upper end of the big reservoir persuaded more migrating geese to lay over long enough for hunters to call them within gun range.
But the biggest change in goose hunting in east-central Iowa came as a result of the reintroduction of giant Canada geese to Iowa. Giant Canadas were nearly extirpated from the state by overhunting and habitat destruction in the early 1900s, until the Iowa Department of Natural Resources found a tiny remnant flock in northern Iowa. With hopes of perhaps building a flock of several hundred birds that would allow Iowans to see a "rare" giant Canada goose, IDNR biologists began seeding pairs of giant Canadas in waterfowl refuges scattered around the state.
Several decades later, that seeding has developed into a resident flock of giant Canadas that now numbers in the tens of thousands and provides some of the best goose hunting in the Midwest. Giant Canadas found the thousands of farm ponds across the southern half of Iowa to be perfect nesting habitat - and discovered as well the safety of impoundments and ponds associated with urban golf courses and water treatment facilities.
When Hawkeye State skies fill with giant Canadas, everyone's transformed into an avid goose hunter! Photo by Tom Evans
"Late in the season, the best goose hunting often isn't in the marshes or on the lakes in southeast Iowa," said Bill Ohde, wildlife management biologist for the IDNR's Odessa Unit. "Some of the better goose hunting is around urban areas. The geese have learned that it's easy living hanging around golf course ponds and other open water in cities. The past few winters have been mild enough that there have been about 1,000 geese that stayed around Muscatine and Burlington for most of the winter."
The result of the changes in habitat and goose behavior is that Iowa's hunters now have opportunities from opening day to closing day of goose season. They no longer have to wait for geese to migrate down from Minnesota and Canada. In fact, any geese that migrate down from Minnesota and Canada and decide to lay over to visit their Iowa cousins later in the season are just frosting on some of the best goose hunting in eastern Iowa in the past 100 years.
HOW TO HUNT HONKERS The biggest challenge for eastern Iowa goose hunters is to figure out the best technique for hunting the region's resident and migrant geese. Some traditionalist waterfowlers prefer to hunt from large blind boats on big water; other hunters, adapting to the challenges associated with hunting geese in urban areas, specialize in patterning and field-hunting geese as their targets fly to and from feeding grounds. A few opportunists jump-shoot geese on farm ponds or sneak around bends on the Iowa and Cedar rivers to get shots at geese lounging on sandbars.
There's no right way to take advantage of all the goose hunting opportunities in eastern Iowa - it all depends on what style of hunting each hunter enjoys the most. Long-time waterfowl hunter Kevin Hunter of Cedar Rapids prefers to take his late-season geese from the upper end of Coralville Lake, using his fully-outfitted 18-foot "plate" boat pushed by a 150-hp outboard.
Plate boats are especially constructed to withstand the challenges of crunching through several inches of ice during late-season hunts. Clark Plate Boats in Dubuque specializes in building boats with extra ice-breaking plates on their hulls, and can outfit the boats to make early-winter hunts as safe and comfortable as is possible.
"Safety is a big issue when you're hunting geese on the water in December in Iowa," said Hunter. "The weather can change real fast, and it can get tricky on Coralville when the wind comes up. That's why I like a big boat with a big motor. And I always make sure I've got my 20-pound propane bottle full and all my safety gear on board."
Hunter's propane bottle not only provides warmth during late winter hunts but also cooks breakfast while he waits for geese to begin moving. "There's enough hunting pressure so that you have to compete for the best spots," he said. "You just about have to have somebody go out and sit in your spot as soon as it's legal (after midnight, according to Iowa law).
"I'm old enough (45 years old) so that I'm not especially fond of getting up that early," Hunter said with a chuckle, "so we usually make one of the younger guys go get our spot; then we come out before dawn. Then we sit and wait. The geese really don't start moving until 8 or 9 in the morning, so we cook breakfast and tell stories. That's just one reason I like a big boat. I honestly feel sorry for those guys out there huddled in a little 14-foot johnboat with no heater, no hot food, and very little protection from the wind."
Whenever possible, Hunter makes goose hunting an all-day event. "A serious goose hunter won't quit before noon, and the really serious ones stay out all day," he said. "Geese will move throughout the day, and hunting can be really good when they start to come back to the lake after they've been out feeding all day. A lot of the guys go home at midday, which is fine by me, because it makes it easier to work the geese in with calls if I don't have so many other guys calling and shooting."
By late season, Hunter and his colleagues have a milk run of spots to choose from every time they hunt. Throughout the season, they stop at roadside marshes on their way to the lake and cut willows, filling their boats with them. When they get to Coralville, they stab the willows into the shallows to create "islands" with cutouts for their boats.
"Camouflaging those big boats is critical, especially in late season when the birds have been shot at a lot and are spooky," said Hunter. "Using the cut willows, after we've been out a couple of times, we end up with a seri
es of willow islands that we can pull right into, depending on the wind direction and where we want to hunt on any given day."
Hunter wants the wind at his back whenever he hunts geese, prefers shallow water, and uses either a J-hook or V-pattern for his decoy layout. "You never want the wind in your facing when you're trying to call in ducks or geese," he observed. "The water depth isn't critical to geese, as long as there's a lot of open water in front of you. I prefer shallow water because I like to wade to lay out my decoys, and because it's easier to work with short decoy anchor cords than it is to work with the long cords you have to use in deep water. Those long cords can be a pain, especially when it's windy."
Hunter was hard-pressed to explain how he decides whether to use a J-hook, a V-hook or some other decoy layout pattern. "We're always tinkering with the spread pattern," he said. "It all depends on where you want the geese to land and depends a lot on wind direction and the way things feel on a given day. The biggest thing is that you've got to have a place for the birds to land in the decoys."
Because he's an equal-opportunity waterfowler, Hunter welcomes any mallards that drop into his decoys, and often mixes decoys to attract both ducks and geese. "Both species seem to take it as a good sign if there are both ducks and geese in an area," he said. "It's not unusual for us to put out 50 goose decoys and 75 mallards when we set up."
Like all waterfowlers, Hunter closely watches the weather maps on television. A big storm moving out of the northwest prompts him to oil his gun and prep his boat.
"The absolute best weather is clear, blue skies with a northwest wind blowing about 25 miles an hour from the northwest, the day after a big storm came down from the north," he remarked. "They'll move ahead of big storms, too, and you can do OK during the actual storm. But there's a safety factor about being on Coralville in December during a big storm."
For all his enthusiasm for waterfowl hunting, there are days when Hunter might actually decide to stay home. "If there's been a long run of mild weather, and it's sunny with a light wind, it's almost enough to make me stay home," he conceded. "The birds just won't be moving much. But I'll hunt any time I get the chance, so I'll probably go out anyway - just because I like hunting."
|TASTES LIKE PRIME RIB|
Goose can be delectable table fare, or goose can be barely edible. Species and where the geese have been feeding can influence flavor, but Cedar Rapids waterfowler Kevin Hunter says that with proper preparation all his goose dinners ". . . taste like prime rib."
Hunter skins and breasts out his geese and cuts the breasts into 10 or 12 pieces ("Anybody who plucks a goose deserves a medal," he said). He marinates them in teriyaki sauce for 24 hours and then wraps them in water chestnuts and bacon strips held in place by toothpicks.
"Put them on a grill, cook them on both sides, and they're absolutely delicious," he promised.
DRY-LAND GEESE The urban goose flocks based in Muscatine, Burlington, Cedar Rapids and nearly any Iowa town with sizable ponds, lakes or water-treatment lagoons provide a growing hunting opportunity for waterfowlers all across Iowa. Field-hunting requires significant scouting, but it can provide hunters with chances to hunt geese that otherwise are untouchable within city limits.
The strategy is to follow in a vehicle when urban geese leave their sanctuaries within city limits and fly to surrounding crop fields to feed. If left undisturbed, geese will return to the same fields day after day. Goose hunters then obtain permission from landowners to hunt, and set out spreads of dry-land decoys in the field to ensure the city geese will land within gun range.
After that, it's a matter of lying in wait and calling when geese come in sight. Some hunters cover themselves with cornstalks and lie between the rows, sitting up and shooting when the birds set their wings. And there are other options.
"Coffins" are increasingly popular with veteran field-hunters. "They're boxes shaped like coffins, and come in a lot of different colors and patterns to help them blend in," said Hunter. "They've got flip-up lids, so you can sit up and shoot, and are pretty nice. They're a little pricey - around $500 - but they're an alternative to lying on the cold, wet ground."
A friend of Hunter who owns farmland in the area takes field-hunting to an extreme. Experience has taught him which of his fields are most likely to be frequented by geese, and each fall he hires a backhoe to dig a pit blind in that field.
"That way you can sit instead of having to lay, and it's a lot more comfortable," said Hunter. "The disadvantage is that you can't move around the field to match wind conditions, and you've got to be careful not to overhunt them so they spook and quit using that field."
OTHER OPPORTUNITIES Hunters near Ottumwa can also target citified geese. Chuck Steffens, wildlife management biologist for the IDNR's Wapello Unit, reported that up to 3,000 giant Canadas make use of the city's ponds and water-treatment lagoons.
"They've been staying there almost all winter the past few years," said Steffens. "There are some local guys who are starting to work at going after them. It takes quite a bit of work, because there are so many directions the birds can go to feed in that area. Some of them go up or down the river (the Des Moines) and feed in the fields along the bottoms. I've noticed that quite a few of them seem to frequent a big flat that's row-cropped between Ottumwa and Fremont."
Hunters who lack decoys and blind boats can jump-shoot geese on rivers and ponds throughout eastern Iowa. Opportunistic pheasant hunters often make a practice of easing over the dams on farm ponds in hopes of ambushing geese loitering on the water. That's a valid strategy, but upland game hunters are reminded that if they're carrying waterfowl and are stopped by a game warden, they'd better have a duck stamp and proper licensing.
Another option is to use a small boat or canoe to drift silently down a river and ambush geese resting on sandbars. "Some guys do real well hunting geese up and down the Cedar and Iowa rivers
," said Hunter. "Personally, I prefer to sit in my big boat with my dog and my stove and my heater and call them to me.
"I've talked to guys who tried goose hunting and didn't care for it, but I think they didn't get started on the right foot. They were probably jump-shooting or out in a little boat in bad weather and didn't have a good time. Before they give up, I wish they'd get a chance to hunt with somebody who has a decent boat, knows how to call, has a good dog and generally knows what he's doing."
Hunter acknowledged that it's tough for a young or inexperienced hunter to get started in waterfowl hunting, because boats, decoys, dogs and experience are either expensive or hard to come by. "But if they could just go on one good-quality hunt," he said, "they'd be hooked for life."
Just ask Hunter's 11-year-old son, Sam. After several years of being a spectator on hunts with his father, Sam used his 20 gauge to down his first giant Canada last season. "It took three shots," Sam proudly recalled, "but I got him. It's so cool to call them in. I can't wait till this year's goose season."
Another waterfowl hunter, started right and hooked for life. If you're not already a member of this fraternity, you can join!
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