Prairie State waterfowl hunting doesn't have to end after you get your Christmas goose. Here's how you can stay in the game until it's over.
By Jerry Pabst
To quote Yogi Berra, the former New York Yankees catcher famous for malapropos statements, "It ain't over 'til it's over."
Yogi's firm grasp of the obvious extends beyond the baseball diamond to nearly every other area of human endeavor, and that surely includes late-season goose hunting in Illinois. Yogi's point was, keep playing the game until it officially ends, and if your game is chasing the Canada goose, you would do well to follow that advice.
Winter weather throughout our state has moderated some over the past 15 years. That, combined with changing agricultural practices and ever-expanding populations of resident giant Canada geese, ensures plenty of honkers will be scattered throughout the Land of Lincoln. Additionally, during late January and much of February, flocks of snow geese and blue geese, winging their way north, will be stopping to munch abundant waste grain in the fields across the southern third of the state.
Believe me when I tell you goose hunting in Illinois "ain't over" at Christmas. Unless the hunters in the Northeastern Quota Zone fill their annual allocation early, the game will still be going on in the entire Northern Zone at least through the first week of January. Since this is long after freeze-up, huge flocks of birds will be bunched up in any available water, usually the larger rivers. But it does not include the largest rivers, such as the Mississippi and Illinois. In most years, the backwaters of these major waterways will have long turned to ice, and geese will not want to waste their energy fighting strong currents in the main channels.
You will find plenty of hunting action near secondary rivers such as the Rock, Pecatonica, Des Plaines, Du Page, Kankakee and especially the Fox. These are streams that maintain open-water areas, and abundant islands that break the current and afford gravel bars for the birds to roost on overnight. Some geese will find refuge from winter in large, aerated ponds adjacent to housing developments, golf courses, parks and cemeteries. The easiest way to locate the winter roosting areas is to follow the flocks back to the water late in the afternoon after they have fed in near-by fields.
To be successful hunting late-season geese in the Northern Zone you must adapt to their changing patterns. Short days and long, cold nights will challenge the big birds' ability to maintain proper body temperature. Although nature has provided geese with a thick coat of warm down and a special circulatory system that allows them to stand on ice indefinitely without harm, they still need a large amount of nourishment to survive.
Instinctively, the goose will restrict its movements to conserve energy in cold weather. Don't expect the flocks to stir in the early light as they did during warmer times. It will not be uncommon for the birds to remain in their roosts until 8:30 a.m. or later, sometimes as late as 10 a.m. If the temperatures drop near the zero mark, the geese may not fly at all, preferring to hunker down and wait out the frigid temperatures.
I'll be honest with you, when the thermometer pushes near the zero mark, I emulate the goose, and hunker down inside, too. But if you are lucky enough to have access to a warm pit or blind, don't give up, because there is hope. While I once shivered through three straight days of zero-degree temperatures and never saw a goose, that is a rarity.
Photo by Cathy & Gordon Illg
Even on the roughest of winter days some birds eventually take to the air, if only for a short hop. This flight probably will consist of a family group of four to 10 geese eager to find a snack in the frozen fields. Since all of their live brethren are in the roost, a decoy spread is going to represent the only game in town, and your chances of scoring on such a hungry crew are good.
Since this is a time of little goose movement, scale back your efforts accordingly. A large decoy spread won't appear natural. Excessive flagging could alarm rather than attract the geese. Loud, insistent calling should be avoided.
A good setup would be 15 to 20 decoys. A few flaps of the flags while the geese are distant will be enough to get their attention, and a muted cluck now and then should convince them to taker a close look. You will want to let the birds work in as close as possible before shooting because this may be your only opportunity of the day. Make the most of it.
On the other hand, if the winter is mild, the habits of the birds will not change much from late fall, and more birds will be in the air. Then larger decoy spreads and more aggressive flagging and calling will work.
The only thing that will spoil January hunting in the Northern Zone is deep, long-lasting snow. A storm that dumps 6 or more inches of new snow on the fields and a cold snap that keeps it there for five or more days will drive most of the northern birds south to greener pastures. However, if such an event should occur in December, be aware that most of those birds will return to their northern hangouts as soon as the temperatures moderate.
One thing to be aware of is that when geese concentrate in the open waterways, they often abandon feeding areas they relied heavily upon earlier in the season. To score, you must target their new fields, and that could present a problem. However, it may well be you will have better luck knocking on farmer's door in January than you would have in October. For one thing, it is likely no one has bothered him for a couple of months. Also, all of their crops will have been harvested and their equipment put away. There is nothing out there to be damaged.
All the commercial clubs in the Northern Zone will be open for business as long as hunting goes on. Although most of the clubs have access to multiple fields and are able to put their clients into active areas, it is important to your success that you are assigned to a pit that is currently producing geese. If you see flocks of geese flying in the distance and not coming anywhere near your field, it probably means they have changed their patterns and you are in for a long day. If, however, you see no geese flying, that simply means the birds are not active, but you are still in for a long day.
Central Zone goose hunting goes on until the end of January, barring filling the quota early. In fact, hunting in this zone just gets better as the month progresses, mainly due to new birds constantly filtering in from northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. As in the north, freeze-up here channels most of the geese into available open water, and the Kankakee River is the prime factor south of Interstate 80.
You will find the preponderance of Central Zone geese in the area around Wilmington, which is right on the Kankakee and just south of the I-80 border with the Northern Zone. Clustered in this area are three major power-plant cooling lakes that never freeze - Dresden, La Salle, and Braidwood. Also of importance is the Mazonia Wildlife Area, featuring a multitude of ponds and strip-mine pits. Scattered around the public land are many privately owned properties with large strip-mine pits. Some may be frozen over, but others will have a bit of open water and hold goodly flocks of geese.
Although the big cooling lakes do not hold large concentrations of geese - which avoid such unprotected waters - the entire area is a major wintering site and offers excellent goose hunting late in the season.
As you go south in the Central Zone, check out the public goose hunting at Snakeden Hollow near the small town of Victoria. This property encompasses dozens of strip pits, and if it does not freeze up, it can attract a lot of honkers. This place does not kill a lot of geese each year, but under the right circumstances, your chances are fair. The hunting is regulated by daily permits, but standby hunters stand a good chance of drawing a blind, especially during the week. If you want to try Snakeden, call first (309-879-2607) to be sure there is open water and that geese are present.
Farther south in the Central Zone, goose hunting around Lake Springfield is rated fair to good, and it can be great if a big storm stops just north of it. This is field-hunting, and permission is needed to access private lands. You will see plenty of geese all along highways I-55 and I-57 between Chicago and Springfield, but these are usually small flocks of 30 to 50 birds, and they would be very hard to hunt.
When you encounter such a situation, you can be sure you will have but one chance at this local flock, and you had better do it right. Once you burn them out of a field, they probably will not be back again that season. They learn fast.
Don't count on big lakes such as Shelbyville or Carlyle to produce many Canada geese. Often their shallow, protected backwaters ice over, and as we have noted, the big birds won't take to the rough, open lake.
The Southern Zone is also scheduled to hunt through the entire month of January, unless their quota is filled, which is something that rarely happens anymore. Without a doubt, this is the best time to goose hunt in this zone.
Although the Rend Lake Quota Zone is no more, goose hunting remains decent, especially after the holidays - unless the lake itself freezes. There are many public hunting areas and access points all around the lake, and full details can be had by phoning the Illinois Department of Natural Resources office in Benton at (618) 279-3110 or (618) 724-2493. Public hunting is available by daily draw at Crab Orchard Lake (618-997-3344) near Marion.
The Union County Refuge (618-833-5157) has a productive public goose hunting program that requires a daily permit. It is too late to apply for that, but standby hunters - especially weekday, late-season hunters - have a fair chance of getting in.
If you have access to public land in the Southern Zone, by all means take advantage of it. If not, you will find gaining permission to hunt a tough sell, since everyone who lives down there is already vying for a field to lie down in.
Of course, all of the commercial clubs are up and running as long as the season is open, and depending on weather conditions up north, that gunning can be spectacular. Here is a tip on hunting the commercial clubs. Most hunters make reservations well in advance of their trip south, and then take their chances that the geese will be there. As an alternative, try showing up at one of the productive clubs and going on the standby list. You get to sit in the warm clubhouse, drink coffee and wait for a blind to shoot out. When, and if, that happens, a-huntin' you go. If the geese aren't cooperating, you don't have to sit in a cold pit all day, and you don't have to pay a blind fee. Not a bad deal.
And then there are the snow geese. Did you ever think an article about goose hunting in Illinois would even touch on the snow goose? But today it would be shortsighted to ignore the opportunities that exist to hunt these wild visitors from the Artic tundra.
As the snow/blue goose populations soared throughout the 1990s, their range expanded to accommodate the huge flocks. Now, this expansion has included the southern third of the state, and hunters are taking advantage of the opportunity to kill what was once regarded as a rare trophy.
On Dec. 30, 2003, an aerial survey found 61,000 snow geese in southern Illinois. On Jan. 2, a private pilot flying over Carlyle Lake spotted a resting flock of snows and blues he estimated at 50,000. By Jan. 12, the official aerial survey estimated 81,000 snows in southern Illinois, and by Jan. 21, that number had risen to 181,000, a figure that held steady through the end of the month.
Hunters are allowed to take 10 snow/blue geese per day during the regular Canada goose season, and that figure doubles during the special season that opens as soon as the regular Canada goose season closes. While that sounds great, it isn't usually accomplished, since the snow goose is a wary goose, and has been hunted hard since its migration began from Hudson Bay in early September.
To successfully hunt the snow goose, you must first know where the flocks are going to be feeding the next morning. It is almost impossible to lure the birds away from their preferred target field, no matter how many decoys or electronic calls you use. (It should be noted that for the time being, the electronic calls, which are highly effective, may only be employed during the special regulation season following the close of the regular Canada goose season in each zone.) Once you locate a feeding flock of snow geese and gain permission to hunt that field the next day, your work has only begun. Snow geese are suspicious critters and will rarely land in a field that does not promise total security. They sometimes make you wonder why they ever land at all. I mean, someone has to come down first, right? In any event, 800 snow goose decoys are not too many, and in most instances, barely enough. These can be commercial shells, full bodies, silhouettes or rags. Alternatively, pieces of white banquet hall table cloths, old white rags, paper plates, plastic garbage bags or a conglomeration of all of the above may be used to create a huge, white spot on the ground.
Calling to large flocks with a standard snow goose call is, in my estimation, a total waste of breath. The racket set up by a milling flock of snows and blues will drown out any sound you can send up. Lie still in the decoys and let 'em work. If you encounter a small flock of less than 20 birds, or singles, standard calling is helpful. The electronic calls work because you can turn up the volume and send out a realistic audio of a flock of feeding geese.
You might have some luck luring a flock of snows back to the same field several times after shooting them out of it, but don't count on it. Still, if one bunch found the field a
ttractive, the chances are following flocks will, too.
The special snow goose hunt continues into March, but by mid- to late February, most of these birds will have left our state. Your best bet is to have a hunt set up with someone who will contact you as soon as snow geese appear. Then it is up to you to hit the road at once, and get there before they disappear.
In Illinois, goose hunting begins with the 15-day early season on Sept. 1, then the Northern Zone opens during the first week of October, and the Central Zone and Southern Zone don't close until Jan. 31. That comes out to around 125 days of Canada goose hunting, and guess what? At that point, it still "ain't over," because the special snow goose season goes on for another five weeks. Whew! Then, and only then, is it "over."
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