South Zone Goose Hunting

South Zone Goose Hunting

Times are changing when it comes to goose hunting in southern Illinois, but our honker expert says you need to put the downstate hunt into perspective in order to be successful. (December 2005)

Photo by Cathy & Gordon ILLG

There was a time when an article such as this would be short and sweet: go south and kill geese. There was a time when the first wave of migrating Canada geese arrived in the South Illinois Quota Zone (SIQZ) refuges in mid-September -- and they just kept on coming. There was a time when the goose populations in the major refuges were counted in the hundreds of thousands. There was a time when the awesome sight of clouds of honkers swarming across the landscape on daily feeding frenzies was worth the trip all by itself.

Well, as the song says, "those were the days my friend, we thought they'd never end." But, alas, and amazingly, end they did. Indeed, the 2004-05 season may have represented the low point in the SIQZ's retrograde movement when Department of Natural Resources' waterfowl biologists reported, "No major migration of Canadas into the South Zone was detected this year."

That being said, let's see if we can make some lemonade out of what appears to be a very big lemon.

The first thing to do is put the SIQZ hunt into perspective, and to do that we should compare the results of that zone with what happened in the North Zone and Central Zone. The SIQZ 2004-05 quota was set at 8,600. The final tally of Canada geese bagged was 6,403. Hunters in the North Zone, working on a quota of 15,300, brought down slightly over 12,000 -- failing to fill the quota for only the second time since that system was instituted. Central Zone gunners scored best, reaching the 17,500-bird allocation on Jan. 24.

While it may seem that the North Zone and South Zone kill greatly outpaced that of the SIQZ, we must recognize that both of those zones were hunting an 86-day season. The SIQZ hunters limited themselves to a 54-day season, realizing the geese would not be present in significant numbers until mid-December.

Taken on a day-to-day average basis, North Zone hunters averaged 140 geese per day, Central Zone 203 and the SIQZ recorded a 118 daily average. Viewed in that light, it is clear that while the SIQZ fell short of the other zones, the daily average was only 17 percent off that of the North Zone, an area generally regarded as "Illinois' goose paradise." Of course, the South Zone fell nearly 100 percent short of the Central Zone, but there is a mitigating factor that must be taken in consideration.

Both the North and Central zones began killing significant numbers of geese from opening day on. North Zone hunters experienced a drastic slow down during the last two weeks of December, but the final week in early January was going like gangbusters. Similarly, the Central Zone hunt dragged through December, but January was hot from start to the early finish. Although the SIQZ began hunting Dec. 11, hunting did not heat up until mid-January, and 4,490 of the zone's 6,403 geese fell during the last two weeks of the season for a daily average of 264 birds -- best of all zones.

Not too shabby in a year that recorded the second-lowest peak count of geese -- 63,170 -- since aerial surveys began in 1956. Compare last year's count with the five-year average peak from 2000-2004 of 182,485. The average peak count during the 1992-96 period was 334,190, and going back another five years to 1988-92, the average peak jumps to 712,630 honkers.

As the above figures show, Canada goose hunting in the SIQZ has changed mightily over the past 15 years, but it remains worthwhile for hunters willing to adapt to the changes. To put together a game plan for a successful SIQZ goose hunt, we need to know what causes the geese to move into the South Zone, when to plan a hunt, where to hunt and how to maximize your chances once you are in the goose pit.

Let's go over these points and see if we can't put a couple of more geese in your freezer this season.

What makes geese fly south? For thousands of years the migrating wild Canada geese followed major river systems, in this case, the Mississippi. The geese browsed on the green grasses growing along its banks and found overnight refuge on the clean sandbars. As cold weather killed off the browse, the birds simply flew downstream until they found a new food supply.

With European settlement, things began to change. First, levees were erected to protect farms in the bottomlands from floodwaters, eliminating vast areas of wetlands that sustained the migrating geese. Wing dams -- installed to keep the current in midstream -- allowed heavy vegetation to cover the sandbars, forcing the flocks off their ages-old refuges.

The geese eventually learned to make use of the thousands of acres of croplands along the river edges, and waste grain replaced the grasses they once depended upon. Huge federal and state refuges provided shelter and safety from hunting pressure. Later, Interstate 55 and I-57 replaced the Mighty Mississippi as guides for migrating Canada geese.

The steady decline in the SIQZ goose population can be directly tied to the rise of enormous populations of resident giant Canada geese in northern Illinois. These homegrown flocks act as living decoys, and draw migrants to their luxurious suburban habitat where they find endless corn and bean fields -- and doting humans who provide tasty snacks of bread crusts, Fritos and doughnuts.

The only thing that would induce a goose to leave this lap of luxury is hunger. Cold won't do it. Only deep long-lasting snow covering their food sources will drive the big birds away. So here we find the first part of your SIQZ game plan. Don't leave home until the ground has been buried under a blanket of white for a few days. The geese will not flee at the first sign of trouble, but when their bellies start protesting, off they go.

Knowing the majority of geese have left the North Zone is only the first step toward a successful SIQZ hunt. The next part of the puzzle is figuring out where they went. Last season, when several nasty winter storms hit the North Zone counties just before Christmas, the geese did indeed fly south. But sadly for SIQZ hunters, the snow barely made it to I-80 -- the northern border of the Central Zone -- where the daily kill rate zoomed, and the season closed a week early.

Few geese bothered to fly all the way to southern Illinois, as the abysmally low peak count indicated. Still, something eventually caused decent numbers of birds to continue the journey south, and I suspect it was hunting pressure in the Central Zone. Whatever. It was a case of "out of the frying pan, into the fire," as SIQZ gunners were quick to capitalize on their good fortune.

Let's scan the weekly harvest reports to see just what happened. On Jan. 10, after hunting in the SIQZ had been open nearly a month, only 1,913 birds were in the bag. On Jan. 17, that number had jumped to 2,656. It was 3,373 on Jan. 20, 4,326 on January 23 and finally 6,403 when the season had run its course on Jan. 31.

So, while the geese departed the North Zone around Christmas, they didn't begin to show up in the SIQZ until more than two weeks later. However, had those snowstorms pushed farther south, it is quite possible the geese would have reached the SIQZ much sooner, and the hot hunting would have been extended. So, while the arrival of heavy snow in the North and Central zones is important, you need a spy in the South Zone to tip you off that the geese have indeed arrived there. Since nearly all the hunting in the SIQZ is done on commercial clubs or public land, it follows that a club owner or refuge site superintendent should be your contact.

There are two options for visiting hunters in the SIQZ -- unless you have a relative who owns farm ground down there. Hunting programs are in place at the three major refuges: Federally-operated Crab Orchard Refuge and DNR-operated Union County and Horseshoe Lake refuges.

Crab Orchard National Waterfowl Refuge in Williamson County allots water blinds on a daily draw basis, and allows freelance hunting in agricultural fields on the property on a first-come basis. Last year, 794 hunters took home 213 geese and 253 ducks. For details, call (618) 997-3344.

Horseshoe Lake Refuge in Alexander County is not worth your trouble, recording a paltry 16 geese and 14 ducks during the 2004-05 season. Perhaps if more geese make it down to this refuge, things will pick up, but there are many better choices. If you must, call (618) 766-5689 for more information. What a shame this area has fallen on such hard times, considering it was once the most famous of all goose hunting destinations.

The Union County Public Hunting Area fared slightly better than Horseshoe, recording a goose kill of 76 to go along with 331 ducks. This area requires a daily permit and then holds a drawing for unclaimed blinds. This refuge will produce much better in years when storms push larger numbers of geese south. It is too late to send for a permit, but there should be no problem drawing a blind in the daily lottery. Call (618) 833-5175 first to learn the time of these drawings.

The following list of recommended clubs is based solely on last season's results and it must be remembered that clubs omitted could do quite well in the future given a better migration.

Let's begin with the Horseshoe Lake area. Based on 2004-05 results, I cannot recommend any club there. The total goose kill for that area was 535 geese spread among 25 clubs and the refuge blinds. There were 1,386 ducks taken there as well, with 298 shot on the Big Cypress Club, which can be reached at (618) 776-5322.

Moving north to the Union County Refuge Area, the only club that stands out is the perennial heavy-hitting Grassy Lake Club (618-833-7890), and home of the famous "Black Hole." Club owner Gerald Cain's hunters harvested 817 geese of the area's total of 1,292. Additionally, 1,714 ducks bit the dust there. Next in line was the public hunting area's 76 honkers.

Crab Orchard National Waterfowl Refuge is the largest in the SIQZ, and the most northerly of the three. As a result, more geese are accustomed to spending winters there, and more geese are shot there each season. A total of 4,576 birds were taken last year, with the greatest quantity -- 682 -- falling at the Crab Orchard Hunting Club. They can be reached at 1-800-934-3373. Other clubs meriting consideration are: Burns Hunting Club, (618) 964-1806 (309 geese, 368 ducks); Bleyer Farms, (618) 997-1331 (217 geese, 144 ducks); Bush Hunting Club (175 geese); D&M Club, (618) 993-8914; Ferrell's Club, (815) 438-3798 (134 geese); L&D Hunting Club (270) 826-4364 or (618) 997-6119; Jake and Norb's, (812) 838-5732 (134 geese); and Pike's Hunting Club (618) 997-1124 (102 geese, 818 ducks). Honkers Corner Club, (618) 985-6542, did not have an eye-popping kill, but it is important to note that 96 hunters took 88 geese for an impressive 0.92 per hunter average. They also shot six ducks.

When contacting the club of your choice, tell the owner that you want to hunt but you don't want to take a stab in the dark at picking the right time to do so. Ask him to phone you when the geese begin to arrive. Today's club owners are well aware of the current state of affairs, and should be willing to help you to be there at the right time. If the operator doesn't want to cooperate, move down the list to one who will work with you.

How to hunt a goose club depends on whether you are assigned a guide, a caller or left on your own. If a caller is present, just sit back and enjoy the show. Most are expert goose hunters, and they greatly enhance your chances of success. Be sure to tip him generously for his efforts, even if the geese don't cooperate.

Hunting without help isn't that hard. Usually, all the decoys will be in place at your pit or blind. Check out the spread and stand up any that fell over during the preceding night. If there is snow or frost on the decoy's backs, brush it off. A "borrowed" towel from the motel works nicely for this. If there is a strong wind, turn most of the decoys to face into it.

Police the area around your pit. Pick up any trash or empty shell casings lying about. Inspect the covering on the pit or blind and fix it up as much as possible, taking care to cover any exposed lumber, and giving yourself overhead cover to hide under when the birds approach.

Any 12-gauge shotgun will do the trick on geese. You won't need a cannon, and you won't need anything more than 3-inch shells throwing either BB or BBB steel -- or one of the new variety of synthetic substances. I like Federal Tungsten BBs, which provide dependable quality at a reasonable price. Don't go cheap on shot shells since you won't be doing a lot of shooting, and a quality product could make the difference between a goose on the table or BLTs.

Goose calling can be horribly overdone, especially late in the season when the geese have heard it all. Here are some tips from topnotch experts.

"Practice, practice, practice," said Field Hudnall, the 2004 World Goose and Live Duck Calling Champion. The more familiar you become with whatever call you are using, the better it is going to sound under hunting conditions. Most hunters buy a call and don't spend enough time learning to make the sounds that will convince geese to come to the decoys.

Kelly Ross, a five-time New Jersey and Ohio duck and goose calling champion said to pattern your calling to what the birds are saying. If the geese are very vocal, then your calling should be equally aggressive. Similarly, when the birds approach quietly, tone down the volume and intensity of your calling.

"Buy a call that works, or as some would say, a call that 'has a goose in it,' " said Fred Zink, call maker and champion of the Avery International, World Open, Grand National and Grand American goose calli

ng contests. For beginning hunters, that can be difficult since they can't pick a call in a store and determine if the goose is really "in it." In that case, ask an experienced friend to help choose a good call, or have an employee at the store demonstrate the call's capabilities. Obtain a good instructional tape to guide your progress.

The recommendation of the three experts, and one with which I fully agree, is for beginners to start with Mick Lacey's Big River Goose Call or a P.S. Olt A-50. These are inexpensive flute-style calls that most beginners can learn to play well in a very short time. The next step up would be a short reed call, such as Jeff Foile's Strait-Meat Model or Tim Ground's Half-Breed call.

Has SIQZ goose hunting become a thing of the past? Heck, no! It has just changed, and if you change with it, you can add a great deal to your waterfowl hunting season. Happy honking!

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