Southern Illinois Goose Hunting

There's nothing easy about hunting late-season geese. But if you are up to it, try these downstate hotspots.

Photo by Cathy & Gordon Illg

By Jerry Pabst

When putting together your list of gear to pack for a southern Illinois goose hunt, always start with warm clothing. You'll need long underwear, thick socks, insulated boots, a wool hat, Thinsulate-filled bibs and a good parka. I would even include a double-thick handkerchief, if there is such a thing. Don't let the word "southern" fool you - it is going to be cold.

The reason this packing list sounds more appropriate for the Alaskan Iditerod Dog Sled Race is because your goose hunt is going to be in January. And, if it isn't cold, there may not be very many geese to hunt. But if recent history repeats itself, early January's wintry blasts in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin will have encouraged enough migratory birds to seek more moderate climes, and the big refuges in Williamson, Union and Alexander counties will have begun to fill up.

When the migration patterns of the Canada goose began to change about 20 years ago, most hunters thought it was a temporary aberration. A few years of milder-than-average winters were nothing to become excited about, since weather patterns would soon return to normal, and so would the migratory habits of the birds. Well, we now know that didn't happen, and it probably isn't going to happen. Moderate winters, no-till farm practices and the establishment of a huge resident population of giant Canada geese in the urban areas of northern Illinois have combined to alter the goose flights dramatically.

But while things are certainly different, they by no means diminish the opportunities afforded to goose hunters in the Land of Lincoln. As the old saying goes, "Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle." Don't worry about the way things have changed, but simply adapt your hunting plans to take advantage to today's reality.

And, that reality is the big flights of geese don't go south until they have to, and they usually don't have to until mid-December at the earliest. In recent years, the major movement - the one that provides maximum action for goose hunters - has occurred during the final three weeks of the season, which ends Jan. 31.

It may be helpful to profile the goose migration as it occurred last season. The weather was typical of what we have been experiencing over the previous decade, with the exception of a few freak snowstorms in early December in the late 1990s.

On Nov. 10, 2003, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources conducted an aerial waterfowl survey of the South Zone. The biologists estimated there were 6,245 Canada geese present at that time. By Nov. 17, the number of geese had increased to just 7,070, an addition of a paltry 825 birds. The Dec. 1 survey showed 11,350 geese present, which compared favorably with the five-year average of 9,290. As of Nov. 25, 351 geese had been killed in the South Zone. By Dec. 8, the goose flock had dispersed, and only 9,175 birds were counted. That was 50 percent below the five-year average.

As winter came on, more geese arrived in the South Zone, and the Dec. 8 survey revealed 30,500 birds in the area, which still trailed the five-year average of 77,970. The slowly increasing population of migratory geese is reflected in the rising success rate of South Zone hunters. By Dec. 17, 1,054 birds had been bagged, and that number grew to 1,345 on Dec. 23. It wasn't a "shoot-'em-up," but it was encouraging.

By Jan. 5, the number of birds found in the major refuges of southern Illinois tallied 21,350, but again, that trailed the five-year average of 147,870 by a significant percentage. Still, the season's kill had edged upward to slightly over the 2,000 mark by year's end. A cold front moved through our state at this point, and by Jan. 8, 45,400 geese had flown south. The five-year average for that date was 141,950.

At this point, things began to heat up in the South Zone. By Jan. 16, the kill had risen to 5,418, or a daily average of 271 since the first of the year. The period of Jan. 16-18 saw the kill jump to 6,474, a daily average for that three-day period of 352 birds. Those figures compare favorably to the numbers put up in the Northeast Quota Zone, which had already filled its quota.

The Jan. 21 aerial survey showed 64,725 geese in the South Zone, a shortfall of about 100,000 from the five-year average. Populations in the major refuges were: Horseshoe Lake, 12,000; Union County, 9,000; Crab Orchard, 19,800; and Rend Lake, 3,500. By Jan. 26, 8,542 birds had been killed by South Zone hunters.

As the season ended on Jan. 31, geese continued to pour in to the South Zone, and a Feb. 3 aerial survey showed 140,370 birds present, surpassing the 125,561 five-year average for that date. The total season's kill in the Southern Quota Zone slightly surpassed 9,000 birds.

When considering aerial survey results it must be taken into consideration that their findings are greatly affected by weather, visibility and the fact that the geese may be out feeding when the plane passes over the refuges. Nevertheless, the weekly harvest numbers are factual, and they give us a clear picture of how the hunt has progressed. In the 2003-04 season, we can see the harvest rate improved dramatically beginning in very early January and continued at a good clip through the entire month.

It is clear from the statistics above that hunters heading to Illinois' Southern Quota Zone should choose to do so in January, whenever possible. The aerial surveys and the harvest statistics clearly reveal the relationship between winter storms in the north and improved hunting in the southern Illinois counties. The lesson to be learned is to stay flexible, and don't plan your hunt too far in advance. Do what any sensible goose would do, and that's sit tight until the storms hit, and then head for the southern refuges.

At this point it is appropriate to acknowledge that all the above statistics were generously provided by Ray Marshalla, head waterfowl biologist for the DNR. Marshalla's continuing cooperation with the press and numerous waterfowl organizations has contributed substantially to their ability to provide timely, useful information to duck and goose hunters throughout the state.

While the final results of nesting success, or lack of it, are not available at the time of this writing, we do have a May 25 report on nesting conditions on the goose breeding grounds of remote Canada. Sadly, it isn't a very encouraging bit of information, in that at that time snow and ice covered most of the nesting areas, and the birds hadn't even begun to lay eggs yet. While that doesn't guarantee a poor crop of young birds, it leads one to suspect there will be a significantly lower percentage of new honkers winging their wa

y south this fall. That is bad news for hunters since the younger geese are the ones most likely to fall for our ruses and end up in the pot.

On the other hand, surveys in the suburbs around Chicago and a few other metropolitan areas reveal an increase of over 26 percent in the resident flock of giant Canada geese over last year. The resident population, in spite of sporadic efforts to control it, now has surged past the 100,000 mark, and is still growing. Since resident giant Canadas represent 54 percent of the birds killed each year in Illinois, the increase in the homegrown variety may make up for any shortfall in the wild flock. The migratory geese that move through Illinois are part of the Mississippi Valley Population, or MVP.

One big change coming that is fairly predictable is the allocation of geese to the state's three major quota zones. Over the years, many misconceptions have arisen among hunters as to just how the DNR honchos arrive at these figures. Suspicious by nature, waterfowl hunters often suspect the numbers are subjected to political manipulation, rather than the result of sound resource management decisions. And in years gone by, they were probably correct in their assumptions, more often than not. But things have changed.

About 10 years ago, then-DNR Director Brent Manning authorized his waterfowl managers to come up with an allocation formula that would give each zone a fair share of our state's goose allocation. He wanted it done in such a way that the public could understand the mechanics of the system, and in so doing, take politics out of the process. While the new system the DNR came up with has worked wonderfully, it is still not clearly understood by many hunters, so let's go over it again, and then at least you will know what is going on. Current DNR Director Joel Brunsvold has declared his intention to continue using the allocation system as it stands.

The allocation system works around the seasonal average number of geese killed in the past three years in the state, and then in each quota zone. By using a rolling three-year average, the results are kept current, and exceptionally good or bad seasons will not unduly skew the numbers.

In August, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assesses the MVP, and allocates to each state in the Mississippi Valley Flyway the number of migratory birds it may kill from that flock. For example, let's say Illinois is allocated 50,000 MVP, or wild geese. To that is added the resident, or non-MVP, geese that make up 54 percent of Illinois' total harvest, bringing the total Illinois goose allocation, or quota, up to 108,700. Remember, these numbers are examples, not this year's actual bag limits. Next, the total goose harvest in each quota zone for each of the previous three years is added together, and that figure is divided by three to obtain the yearly average kill. Then, the average number of MVP and non-MVP geese killed in each zone is determined.

The waterfowl managers now know the average percentage of the statewide harvest of MVP and non-MVP geese in each zone over a three-year period, and based on this they distribute each year's allocation among the state's quota zones and non-quota zones.

What has dismayed many hunters, especially in the North Zone, is the great disparity between the allocations assigned to their area, as opposed to the number of geese allocated to the South Zone. From the first year the new system was put into effect, the south has often received double the number of birds assigned to the North Zone.

In view of the fact that the North Zone usually shot its quota and was closed early while the South Zone regularly struggled to bring down even one third of its allocated number of geese, it is understandable that northern hunters would become suspicious of the system. But actually, the system was working as it should, and reflected the fact that every so often a series of major snowstorms would drive hundreds of thousands of geese into the southern refuges, and their success ratio soared, taking their yearly average up with it.

But this year, the last of the big yearly harvests (2000-01) dropped out of the South Zone's equation, and a major restructuring of the allocation numbers seems assured. Predictions are the South Zone will lose a large number of geese, and the North Zone will gain them. The Central Zone, based on three straight years of nearly constant results, should stay just about the same.

This might sound like bad news for South Zone hunting, but don't fret. After all, last year South Zone hunters brought down only 9,000 out of an allocated 28,600 geese, just about 25 percent. Accordingly, they could stand the loss of a lot of birds and still enjoy hunting on a par with recent years. And, they would leave fewer birds on the table at the season's end.

Where, you may ask, is this excellent goose hunting taking place? Based on last year's results, here is the answer. Most South Zone goose hunting is done on commercial clubs, but there is some public hunting available on the refuges. Since the clubs are clustered around the refuges, we will deal with each of them separately.

At Horseshoe Lake, Billings Hunting Club (314-892-1439) led the pack with a hunter success ratio of 1.07 geese per hunter per day. Also scoring well were Black Creek Hunting Club (309-443-5285), Carter's Guide Service (270-554-3870), Miller Brothers (618-776-5901), Renaud Hunting Club (573-683-3049), Willis Hunting Club (270-753-6773), and Worthington Hunting Club (618-776-5333). The public hunting area on the refuge isn't worth your trouble, since 277 hunters bagged only 43 geese.

At Union County, Grassy Lake Hunting Club (618-833-7890) at the north end of the refuge produced an eye-popping 824 geese for a hunter success average of .80 per day. Other clubs with respectable kill numbers were Clear Creek (618-833-5992), Northfield Duck Club (618-833-6515) and The Flyway (618-833-3377). The Union County public hunting area on the refuge hosted 1,281 hunters, who took down 229 geese. Contact the DNR for permit applications.

At Crab Orchard Refuge near Marion, Crab Orchard Hunting Club (1-800-934-3373) harvested the most geese, 1,045, for an average of .69 per hunter. Based on hunter success percentages, some other clubs did quite well also. Try Bleyer Farms (618-997-1331), Burns Hunting Club (618-964-1806), Country Kitchen (618-997-3344), D&M (618-925-0545), Falmier Hunting Club (618-985-4561), Ferrell's Hunting Club (618-985-4561), Ferrell's Northwinds Goose Club No. 2 (815-438-3798), Fox's Hunting Club (618-997-4039), L&D Goose Club (270-826-4364), Grafton Hunting Club (618-964-1335), Honker's Corner (618-985-6542), Honker's Haven (618-964-1382), Jake & Norb's (812-838-5732) and Shirley Farms Hunt Club (618-987-2706).

The Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge provides both water and land blinds on a daily draw. Last season, 827 hunters took home 227 geese from this public hunting area. For full information on this facility, call 618-997-3344, extension 334.

While goose hunting in southern Illinois cannot be said to be what it once was, it remains a fine place to pursue the big honkers. Most of the clubs are first-rate, and the guides they provide are some of the best goose callers to be found anywhere. Act

ually, the major difference between now and 20 years ago is the timing required.

It used to be that the first flocks of migrating geese settled into the refuges in mid-September, and their numbers grew almost daily. When the hunting season opened, then in early November, 100,000 geese were already on hand. Good hunting began at once, with as many as 5,000 birds falling on opening weekend. Today, the season doesn't even get started until Thanksgiving, with the best hunting developing in January.

Still, it is goose hunting at a time when most other options have run out. The South Zone is a place where goose hunting is a way of life, a great place to learn and a great place to enjoy traditional waterfowl hunting that most folks only read about. For a great late-season hunting experience, head on down south.

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