Hunting for Canada geese in the North Zone is very dependent on the weather. But if Mother Nature cooperates, we should have a good season this year.
Photo by R.E. Ilg
By Jerry Pabst
Without a doubt, goose hunting in the Mississippi Valley Flyway centers around northern Illinois in general, and our state's five-county Northeast Quota Zone in particular. Once the birds leave their Canadian nesting sites and migrate into the upper Midwest, their sights are trained on the near-perfect wintering habitat in Illinois' northern tier of counties. Only unusually harsh weather will push the flocks south, and most geese will return as soon as conditions become more favorable.
Illinois is divided into three major zones, with smaller quota zones established within them. The North Zone is that portion of the state lying north of a line from the Iowa border east along Route 92 to U.S. 280, then along U.S. 280 east to Interstate 80, and along I-80 to the Indiana border. Within this major zone is the Northern Illinois Quota Zone, comprising Du Page, Kane, Lake, McHenry counties and those portions of La Salle and Will counties north of I-80.
Hunters in any of the Illinois quota zones must obtain a Canada goose permit, which is issued free to an individual purchasing an Illinois waterfowl stamp. This permit must be carried by the hunter at all times he's while goose hunting, and any birds taken must be recorded on the permit by punching, or circling in ink, the pre-printed date on the card. Successful goose hunters in the Northern, Central and Southern quota zones are required to report their kill by calling 1-800-WETLAND the same calendar day they hunted.
The information thus provided gives Illinois Department of Natural Resources waterfowl managers an accurate accounting of how many birds have been harvested each day. When the Northern Quota Zone's annual quota has been reached (9,300 in 2002, closed on Dec. 7), Canada goose hunting ends for the season in the entire Northern Zone (14,700 in 2002).
Some hunters feel it is unfair to close the entire zone simply because the five-county area has met its quota, but DNR waterfowl chief Ray Marshalla's carefully kept records show that over the years the harvest rate in this area reflects that across the entire Northern Zone. Since each major zone receives a portion of Illinois' annual allocation of Canada geese, it is important not to overshoot the flocks in any of the zones.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the governing authority responsible for managing the nation's waterfowl population, and the agency works within the framework of an international treaty that includes the U.S., Canada and Mexico. All three countries play host to enormous quantities of geese and ducks during the migration periods. Cooperation between the host nations is vital to protect this bountiful natural resource from exploitation that could prove ruinous. It is, therefore, in everyone's best interest to abide by the rules governing the annual hunting seasons.
In addition to an Illinois waterfowl stamp and a Canada goose permit, all hunters - unless exempt - must possess a valid Illinois hunting license and a federal waterfowl stamp. The hunter must sign his or her name across the federal stamp, which is valid in all U.S. states and territories, and it must be affixed to a state license or a sheet of paper.
As if all this paperwork wasn't enough, the bean counters have thought up yet another requirement for us. This is the ubiquitous HIP program (National Migratory Harvest Information Program). Anyone hunting migratory birds - including doves, woodcock, snipe and rail, as well as waterfowl - is required to register with this program by phoning the same 1-800-WETLAND number used to register goose kills. Registrants will be issued an identification number, which is to be written in the special area in the lower right hand corner of their hunting license. Be sure to follow this procedure; citations are written for those failing to comply. And it should be noted that hunters must register with the HIP in each state in which they pursue migratory birds.
Non-toxic shot is required for all waterfowl hunting. This includes steel pellets, as well as Federal Cartridge's tungsten/polymer, Winchester's Bismuth and Remington's HeviShot. While steel will surely kill any goose at 40 yards, the other alloys are denser and will deliver a fatal dose 10 to 15 yards farther. The main thing to remember is that none of the alloys are magic, and they do have realistic limitations with regard to their effective range. It has been shown that most crippling of waterfowl is the result of shooters not being able to put the full pattern of shot on the target at long ranges. Don't shoot at living creatures just to see if you can hit them. Learn how to hunt the geese, and only shoot at birds within your effective range.
Hunting for Canada geese in Illinois' North Zone usually begins in mid-October and runs through a 90-day season, unless a quota zone fills its allocation sooner. The weather, which always plays a critical role in waterfowl hunting, is predictably mild at this time of year, and much of the migratory flock will still be hanging out in southeastern Wisconsin near the Horicon Marsh National Waterfowl Refuge and its satellite refuges. While some of these geese will have moved into Illinois, the big push is yet to come.
Most early-season hunting will focus on resident giant Canada geese, and there are plenty of them distributed throughout the North Zone. Contrary to earlier evidence, the giant strain of Canadas do migrate, although not on the same scale as the migratory flock, termed the Mississippi Valley Population (MVP). These big birds are stay-at-homes when nesting, but the non-breeding portion of the flock - older geese and young, unmated birds - may migrate, usually in mid-May, in what is termed a molt migration. Some will go all the way to the Canadian breeding grounds, while others spend the summer in northern Wisconsin and southern Canada.
By mid-September, however, the bulk of these vacationers have returned to their familiar haunts in northern Illinois. The population of resident giant Canada geese in northern Illinois is difficult to assess due to the large urban area they inhabit, but estimates of several hundred thousand are thought to be reasonable.
The major concentrations of resident geese will be found in Lake and McHenry counties, but all areas of the Northern Quota Zone are thick with these critters. Outside of the quota zone you can expect to find sizeable populations of Canada geese near most large cites, such as De Kalb and Rockford. These areas have many water retention ponds surrounded by lush lawns, and they lie within city and town boundaries. Add numerous parks, golf courses, corporate campuses and cemeteries, and you have everything a big, old goose could dream of.
While the resident goose flocks continue t
o grow, their patterns often make them hard to hunt. In warm weather, the birds don't need to feed more than twice a day, and they often do just fine nibbling grass along the edges of their ponds. Add to this the fact that many crops will still be in the fields, and you can see that unless a hunter has access to a harvested agricultural field or a water hole, he may not do well during the initial part of the season.
Some hotspots to look for would be sweet corn stubble, emerging winter wheat fields, small ponds near feeding or loafing areas, and soybean fields that have been recently visited by the combine.
In most cases, the geese will only fly in early morning and late afternoon. Of course there will be exceptions to this pattern, but in general, that is what to expect. If you are hunting a field that has had the crop removed, any action will probably come when the birds are moving off their roost pond, looking for grub. If you are hunting over water, the birds may well ignore your setup on the way out, but could become quite interested after feeding when they are thirsty and in the mood for a cool drink.
No matter how the first few weeks of the hunt go, improvement is near at hand. By the first of November, more and more fields will have been harvested, and the birds will be swarming across the countryside in search of food. Shorter days and cooler nights will put an edge on their appetites, and they will be anxious to take a close look at your seductive flock of decoys. Additionally, most of the molt migrants will have returned, and MVP geese are moving in from the north.
Of course, new birds are a waterfowl hunter's delight. These geese new to the area have yet to learn the local danger zones, and for a few days after arrival they are prone to errors in judgment that will put meat on your table.
As cold weather moves in you can expect the geese to fly more often. In temperatures below 40 degrees, geese require more energy to keep their big bodies warm, and a main source of that energy is the starch they garner from eating waste corn. This makes the birds' feeding preferences more predictable, and since northern Illinois is a major corn-growing area, it provides many more hunting areas.
Once the cold weather pattern has been established, it will remain in place until bitter cold keeps the birds grounded, or heavy snow covers their food for an extended period of days, forcing them to migrate south in search of open ground. While these conditions could prevail as early as the first week of December, it is unlikely any such event would occur prior to Christmas, and if the recent string of mild winters is any indication, it is quite possible nothing will happen that will force the majority of geese to leave northern Illinois all winter.
We have seen that resident geese will not leave their home range unless forced south by heavy snow. It used to be that the migrating MVP flock needed no such prodding to swarm south each fall. But as the older birds die off, and younger geese - birds without recollection of the southern wintering grounds - begin to dominate the MVP population, even these flocks tend to remain in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois as long as they can find open water and suitable food.
Generally speaking, you can expect a large population of geese, both resident and MVP birds, to remain in northern Illinois throughout the hunting season, if not the entire winter. They may not fly every day, and they may even sit tight for the better part of a week if heavy snow falls, but most of the honkers will find a way to make it through the winter without flying very far south. The worst-case scenario would be 8 to 10 inches of snow followed by a prolonged cold spell that keeps the goose's food covered for more than a week. If that happens, they will eventually be forced to flee, but many return quickly when a thaw occurs.
Access to hunting land is, as always, a problem, and one that just seems to get worse each season. As we noted above, the geese seem to relish the accommodations associated with city living. They are most populous within suburban communities, and many are happily at home within Chicago's city limits. Many of the fields the geese feed in are snuggled tight against housing developments, and in fact, these same fields may well be housing developments themselves before long.
Still, the secret to productive goose hunting is to get where the geese want to be, and wait there. In northern Illinois, more often that not, this means hunting on the edges of on-rushing "progress." Last year I hunted with a guide who asked me not to use Federal tungsten/polymer shot because he feared I might "rain pellets" on a nearby cluster of homes. He gave me some of his steel shot instead, preferring their shorter range.
No one said it was going to be easy, but it may be worth the time - and frequent rejections - to approach as many landowners as you can locate in areas of high goose density and inquire about the chances of hunting their property. Dress nicely and be polite, and if they give you a chance, explain that goose hunting does not require you to tromp all over the property, nor is it necessary to hunt near buildings or livestock.
Don't worry about offering to do some work for the property owner. Considering today's sophisticated farming machines, you would probably kill yourself trying anyway. Don't discount the possibility of leasing the hunting rights. You will have to set financial limits as to what you can afford to pay, but do that math before approaching landowners. Keep in mind that a small group of hunters can afford to pay more than an individual. Before leasing, however, satisfy yourself that the land in question is in an area the geese are using regularly.
Since we are talking money, let's take this one step further. In northern Illinois, there are several commercial goose hunting services that can put you in the right place at the right time. Unless you plan to hunt frequently - and by that I mean several times a week or more - you might be money ahead doing your goose shooting on a daily-fee basis.
Add this up as we go along. These commercial clubs provide a pit ($800) in a leased field (conservatively $1,500), a full decoy spread ($1,000), insurance ($400), and transportation to and from the pit (4-wd capability alone, $2,200). That comes out to $5,900 just to set up in your own leased field. Further, you may lose that field the following year, so the entire investment may be down the drain after just one or two seasons.
The guide service provides all of the above, plus an experienced guide/caller, and the options of hunting different fields if the flight patterns change. You can expect to pay about $150 per day to hunt, including the guide's tip. For the same $5,900, that comes out to 40 hunts, or 10 years' worth of action if you hunt four times per season. (The average Illinois goose hunter gets out about 1.8 times per year.) And, no hassles, no worries. Think about that.
There are several reputable goose hunting services now operating in northern Illinois. A few that I am familiar with are the following: Brestal's Waterfowl Adventures in Kane County, (815) 264-3810; C&J Honkers in Lake County, (815) 385-2898; Ultimate Waterfowlers, (847) 487-96
03; and in McHenry County, Porter's Northern Illinois Goose Club, (847) 639-8590. All of these services can be proud of their clients' impressive success rates.
For availability of public waterfowl blinds, contact your area DNR office. The phone number for Area 1 is (815) 625-2968, and in Area 2, (815) 675-2385.
The McHenry County Conservation District has offered both field and water blinds for waterfowl hunting the past two years. As of this writing, they have not yet decided about 2003, but go to their Web site now and check it out at www.mccdistrict.org, or call John Kramer at (815) 338-6223.
All signs point to a good, but not great, Canada goose season. Be sure to get in on the excitement!
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