Less hunting pressure means more elbowroom right now for sportsmen seeking white-fronted and Canada geese in our state. Here's where you should try. (January 2007)
Photo by Neal and MJ Mishler
Late last summer, personnel with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) transported several hundred resident giant Canada geese from central Kentucky to the Ballard Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Since Ballard is one of the Bluegrass State's top two public areas managed for waterfowl, doesn't that strike you as a little strange?
If you've hunted that area, and other spots in far western Kentucky consistently for the last several years, you can probably suspect the reason for this stocking. If not, here's the scoop.
KDFWR officials are trying to bolster the number of homegrown geese in the Ballard County area to supplement a reduced migration coming down the Mississippi Valley Flyway.
Even though goose numbers may increase in the flyway in some years, fewer birds have been reaching Kentucky in recent winters. Often these birds aren't even reaching southern Illinois, but are staying up near Chicago and places in Michigan.
These Canada geese seem to be finding what they need for stopovers farther north. Milder winter conditions don't shove them down our way as frequently. If these geese stop in states north of Kentucky, and a cold snap hits with some decent snow cover, then they'll fly in across the Ohio River to give Kentucky hunters a chance at some decent winter wingshooting.
That just doesn't seem to happen as often as it used to in the late 1980s. Today, it's a whole new ball game.
To do what they can to improve things in the Ballard area, the KDFWR thought perhaps a boosting resident geese numbers (which now make a up a good deal of Kentucky's overall harvest, especially in the state's west and central portions), might provide more hunting opportunity in coming seasons.
This may be particularly true where migratory geese were traditionally dominant in hunters' daily bag. It certainly can't hurt.
"We're still going to have goose-hunting opportunities in the traditional areas such as around the Ballard Refuge and Sloughs WMA near Henderson, when good hunting conditions occur," said Rocky Pritchert, the KDFWR's Migratory Bird Program coordinator.
"Use of those areas by migrant Canada geese is highly dictated by the weather well to the north of us. It's ideal when we see a freeze and snow cover down to about I-64. The geese come farther south because they can't get to the food on the ground, even if it's there, since it's under a few inches of snow.
"We've found out, too, that patterns for Canadas have changed some over the last few years, which is spreading them out to other waterways, in addition to the wetlands provided by our two primary waterfowl areas in the west."
For those sportsmen interested in white-fronted geese, your best chance to kill one is in the Ballard County area, although Pritchert says Kentucky winters up to only 5,000 of these birds, and they are still considered "trophy geese" due to their lower numbers in our neck of the country.
Other species of blues and snows as well are mostly found in the Ballard area, and they too are pretty tough to hunt. You can do it, but it takes patience. Blues and snows are hard to decoy, but sometimes they will drop in with Canadas and let you get a shot.
"Geese, especially Canadas, aren't all concentrated in two or three places anymore. And it's causing goose hunters to have to change where they look, and be more flexible in setting up and learning new territory," said Pritchert.
Goose hunting isn't as predictable as it once was. These days, it takes a lot more scouting, thought and, in some cases, luck. It used to be you could more or less load up, go over to Ballard County, and hunt on a private farm or a lease area managed for waterfowl, and have a reasonably good chance of knocking down a couple of birds about anytime in January.
Sometimes that's still true, but not as often as it was a decade ago. Waterfowl behavior has changed a lot.
It's sort of ironic. While our state doesn't get the 150,000 or more migrant geese these days as it did 15 or 20 years ago on the Ballard and Sloughs WMAs, Kentucky hunters are now taking significantly more geese statewide. About 35,000 geese were harvested last season, with about 15 percent being Mississippi Valley Flyway birds. The rest were either resident or migrant giant Canadas.
There has been an increasing harvest trend over the past two decades overall. It's changed to where the migrant birds are the bonus, with the resident birds found more consistently. You have to play the odds now for best success.
When hard freezes occur to the north, or on the smaller bodies of water within Kentucky, they force the geese to move to rivers or large lakes. In the late season, keeping up with where open water is makes a big difference in your potential for success. When all the region's water is open, you'll find geese in a lot of different places, not just the handful of spots where they always used to be.
"There's a distinct difference in the types of areas, and the methods used, between hunting where most of the birds are migrant, versus where the area's is primarily populated with resident birds," explained Pritchert.
In the west, most of the hunting happens around expansive wetlands or large reservoirs and flooded grain fields. Sportsmen using big decoy spreads will often hunt day after day from the same spots. We have some resident birds in the far western counties, but when the push comes, most hunting is for the migrants.
A new approach on one of the WMAs in Kentucky's western tip may offer hunters better success this season. On the Boatwright WMA, south of Ballard, the KDFWR is going to start conducting daily blind drawings, rather than using an apply-in-advance system. In recent years, managers have noticed that fewer hunters who've gotten a reserved blind for a weekend hunt are showing up when they're supposed to.
Goose hunting isn't as predictable as it once was. These days, it takes a lot more scouting, thought and, in some cases, luck.
To offer more utilization of what are sometimes the best blinds on Boatwright, hunters can show up on the day they want to hunt, and be pretty much guaranteed a blind on this area. Drawings will be held during the
season at the Ballard WMA lodge early each morning.
Remember, you have to supply your own decoys. Check with the KDFWR about that procedure, watch the weather -- and when it gets nasty to the north, head that way and give it a try.
In mid-west counties -- the Pennyroyal Coal Field region, for example -- hunting usually takes place around small lakes and ponds with smaller decoy spreads. Every day or two, hunters move from one location to another. If you don't, the birds will move somewhere else to avoid being shot at. Since resident giant geese are in the vicinity all year long, they wise up quickly, whereas migratory birds will usually come in "uneducated." They can be fooled more easily into using the same spot day in and day out. But it's usually a different flock of birds each day.
Pritchert says that Peabody WMA, in the western coalfield region, is one of the best places to hook up with local birds, migrating giants, as well as migrating birds from the St. James Bay flyway population.
On the 60,000 or so acres within the Peabody public hunting boundaries, there is a boatload of ponds. Geese will use any of them, but you can't expect them to be on all of them. You'll have to spend time finding them. Just stay clear of the two or three refuge waters noted in the Kentucky Waterfowl Hunting Guide.
If a good winter storm hits to the north, and the waters remain open on Peabody, the area's ponds will sometimes be loaded with geese. This region offers pretty good food sources from farming activities -- another attractant to geese as they come down to escape adverse conditions.
Follow up quickly on any period where temperatures north of the Ohio don't climb above 32 degrees, but are warmer in Kentucky, by watching for spots where local birds are. It's almost like having live decoys for the passing birds to come in to. Find a pond or two with geese on them, and get in there fast. It's your best chance to catch them coming through and unaware.
The Ohio River runs 600 miles from one end of Kentucky to the other, yet it may be the most underused resource for goose hunting in the entire Commonwealth.
According to Pritchert, geese will use this corridor and stack up on or near the river at times, all the while offering some excellent wingshooting opportunities.
"If I hunt the river, I'm going to be somewhere in the vicinity of a power plant, most likely," said the biologist.
"We've found geese on nearly every cooling pond along the Ohio, whether the plant is on the Kentucky side or the north side, when we've flown aerial surveys.
"These ponds don't freeze over, so they become havens for local geese (and ducks) when it ices up elsewhere," said Pritchert.
"The river attracts birds in a similar fashion. They move up and down, going from roosting spots to feeding fields in the area. They'll give you a good chance to intercept them in between.
"As long as you set up on the water, you can hunt almost anywhere within reason. There's a lot of territory available away from houses and bridges and so forth, some islands here and there to break you up a bit, embayments and feeder creeks and a good number of boat ramp access into the various pools you want to try," he said.
"January is probably the best time to try the Ohio because it's the coldest period of the season in Kentucky," he added. "But you need to be appropriately prepared with cold weather gear and use good judgment in your boating habits and shot selections."
LAKES & PONDS
In the state's midsection, there are two primary opportunities to score on resident giant Canadas, and you can have surprisingly good luck.
The best way is to drive some back roads to locate farm ponds where geese lounge during the day. In the mornings, it is common to see large flocks of geese in cut cornfields close to a body of water.
Much of the time, landowners will have no objection in allowing you to hunt, because they are experiencing increasing numbers of birds on their property. Many have no real interest in geese and won't mind if you take a few -- as long as you respect their property.
You can walk in and jump-shoot them sometimes, or watch where they go to feed and decoy them in with a simple blind and a relatively small spread. On the larger farms and bodies of water, some local flocks may have well over 100 birds.
Also look for property to hunt close to golf courses, horse farms with big ponds, and around any of central Kentucky's state-owned lakes.
Another excellent choice, after a hard winter rain, is to watch in a flood-prone area, whether it's a grain field or just a pasture. Until the water recedes, if there locally raised geese are around, they'll often pile into these makeshift waterholes and dunk around feeding or resting. For a couple of days, you can have some excellent hunts, but you have to be observant, check them when the areas should be under water -- and be sure and get landowner permission first.
CAVE RUN LAKE/VICINITY
The goose-hunting opportunities drop off quickly the farther east of Lexington you get. But one resident flock established several years ago continues to hold its own and offers hunters in the Cave Run Lake vicinity some wonderful winter waterfowling.
While the lake itself is off-limits, some areas on the southern end of Cave Run are used by geese fairly regularly. Remember, local birds become wise fast. After a day of hunting, they may change location on you. Be prepared to move around as best you can, and to give them something different to look at, rather than the same setup they saw yesterday.
A good plan is to visit an area well before you intend to hunt it. Check the lay of the land and become familiar with
the places you'll likely be hunting over.
A good plan is to visit an area well before you intend to hunt it. Check the lay of the land and become familiar with the places you'll likely be hunting over. Find out where you can hunt long before you plan to go, and check regulations closely.
Talk with some local hunters or anglers when you get the chance. Sometimes fishermen are more forthcoming with information about waterfowl hunting. They can be good sources of waterfowl activity because they're on and around water a lot.
In the Northeast Goose Zone, where Cave Run Lake is located, be sure you understand that special season dates apply. Shooting hours are different than for the rest of the Eastern Goose Zone. This area is usually open in late December into early January, then again toward the end of January for a few days.
The flock in the Cave Run Lake area is regulated pretty closely to try to ensure a continuing
supply of birds, since this particular flock can't withstand the pressure of the full goose-hunting season. Other close-by areas to hunt geese are very limited. To have any success at all, everybody around would wind up hunting these birds, which sooner or later could knock their number down too low to recover in a year.
Another couple of lakes to check outs include Grayson and Yatesville. Both waters have local goose flocks, as well as birds in the surrounding area. There aren't thousands of geese around, but according to Pritchert, flocks are slowly increasing. There's just less habitat in the eastern end of the state than elsewhere, but where it does occur, you can find isolated groups of birds Even some reclaimed mines will draw flocks of geese. Growing flocks of geese is like anything else -- it takes time.
When the surface of the little waters freezes, outlying birds will go to the big lakes. If you're on these big waters when it happens, you will at least be located where the biggest number of geese should be at one time. Just watch the weather and do a drive-by along roads close to these lakes. If geese are there, you ought to get an eyeball on them somewhere.
Late-season goose hunting in Kentucky can be truly superb or absolutely terrible. It's the nature of the beast. The areas we've highlighted and suggestions we've made will help you maximize your hunts when the weather cooperates.
Concentrate on finding some local birds to keep you busy while waiting for the wave of migrants to show up when it gets cold. Be mobile, scout and get a couple of options available so that you can react to what the weather forces the birds do.
For more information on waterfowl seasons, boat access to various waterways and contact information for Kentucky's WMAs, log on to fw.ky.gov, the agency Web site, or call 1-800-858-1549 weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Eastern Time.