Southwest Louisiana's Goose Hotspots

Southwest Louisiana's Goose Hotspots

There are plenty of places around Lake Charles at which to take your limit of geese this season. Heed our expert's counsel and you'll be well on the way to success.

We heard them long before we could see them, their unmistakable raucous cackling marking their flight path.

Over the trees lining the horizon perhaps 15,000 white objects rose from a scarred field east of Lake Charles to condense into a writhing cloud of individual geese, the gleaming snows contrasting with their drab "blue"-phase cousins. So gigantic a concentration could quickly strip whatever grain remained in a field.

In the half-light of a gray, overcast winter dawn, we couldn't see them just yet. However, to guide their path, we answered them, several skilled callers broadcasting our own boisterous cackles. The huge white and gray formation broke up into clusters of color punctuating the matte sky to form a massive, swirling white tornado. Some smaller clusters broke from the cloud to head our way. Enough flew within range overhead for us to open fire. We 10, lined up along the bushes on an old rice field, let loose with our Magnums.

Soon the thud of large bodies plopping into mud after falls from a great height mingled with the tumult of live snows sounding the alarm. Dogs barking approval rushed into green rye grass to impress masters with their fetching abilities. Spent shells ejected from shotguns flew amid the gleeful hollers and scalding curses distinguishing great shots from near-misses. The swirling flocks spiraled up to escape us, and the feathery tornado clamored above until reaching altitudes securely out of gun range.

Record snow goose populations threaten to eat themselves out of house and home on the ecologically fragile tundra of their Canadian breeding grounds. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the snow goose population rose almost 300 percent from 1969 to 1994 - from slightly less than 1 million to 2.7 million. And it continues to rise, with the latest estimates running at about 7 million.

Such tremendous concentrations make life difficult for farmers in southwest Louisiana. When monster flocks of geese descend on a field, they can eat an enormous amount of grain and cause catastrophic damage.

Patrick Milligan keeps a sharp eye out for more incoming geese as he hefts a nice specklebelly. Photo by John N. Felsher

"If 5,000 to 10,000 geese get in a rice field, they can make such a mess that sportsmen can't even hunt ducks in it for the rest of the year," said Phil Bowman of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "Some fields are so damaged that farmers have to drain the fields and relevel them before they could replant rice."

Finding geese in southwest Louisiana doesn't take much effort. After the birds arrive for the winter, you can ride down just about any country road in rice or rye country near Lake Charles and see splotches of white blanketing partially denuded fields. A few honks on a car horn might cause the white tornado to lift from a field as thousands of geese squawk for altitude in spiraling white streamers.

Finding a place in which to hunt, though, presents more of a challenge. As agricultural practices have changed over the decades, ever more geese have opted to drop into crop fields in preference to their old marshy habitats. Few crops grow on public lands, and farmers, now less inclined to give access away, usually lease their fields out at steep rates.

However, if enough geese drop into an unleased field, the landowner might beg someone to shoot them, or at least drive them away. To find geese, drive around with a pair of binoculars and look for concentrations of white geese. After spotting a flock, knock on a few nearby doors to seek permission to hunt; the worst the landowner can do is say "no."

"Scouting is always the key," said Patrick Milligan, manager of the Grosse Savanne Lodge south of Lake Charles. "It's the number-one thing for killing geese. Geese move around. Hunters cannot expect them to be in the same areas every day. Don't hunt in the same place twice. Hunting an area more than once or twice a week will chase them away. Geese get wise to people very quickly."

Those obtaining permission to hunt farm fields can bag geese in two ways: decoying or creeping. Identify an area that geese seem to favor as a landing site and put out a bunch of rag, shell or full-bodied decoys there. To add realism, a few taxidermied birds or recent kills can be pressed into service in the spread.

"It takes several people calling and lots of decoys to hunt large groups," observed Bobby Stansel of Hackberry Rod and Gun Club, southwest of Lake Charles. "We put out about 1,000 to 1,500 decoys and post several people around the outside edges of the spread. Normally, the more decoys the better, but toward the end of the season, smaller spreads could work better. In fog, hunters don't need that many. In clear weather, hunters need more decoys."

Hundreds of sharp sentries can quickly alert an entire flock to anything out of the ordinary, so many goose hunters avoid permanent blinds, instead using any available cover. Some quickly construct temporary blinds, but most simply crouch amid whatever cover is present: in high grass or brush, for example, or behind a low levee. More important is movement control: Remain absolutely still when geese approach.

You shouldn't set up directly under huge goose concentrations; individuals within such gargantuan flocks probably won't respond to decoys. Even a few hundred decoys can't compete with several thousand loud and lively geese in a nearby field. However, birds traveling in small groups decoy much easier than do large flocks, so if hunters can locate two concentrations, they may score by setting up between them and picking off smaller groups flying between the two big groups. Hunters trying this tactic should set up on flyways between groups, but do so far enough away that gunfire won't spook the entire flock. In the mornings, snow geese tend to assemble into large flocks; in the afternoon, smaller groups break away from the concentrations.

Goose hunters must keep up with the travel patterns of flocks; geese may devastate one field today and move on to another tomorrow, never to visit the first again. To target constantly shifting geese, hunters may want to creep up on them. If they spot a huge concentration of geese in a field, they might - provided that the landowner has granted permission to hunt on the property - sneak within shotgun range.

Split into two or three parties and surround the flock; using available land contours or terrain features providing concealment, position one or

two groups in strategic locations. Another group might serve as the driving group and, advancing on the flock; fire into it if they get close enough. As the flock rises to escape, geese may break into smaller groups and scatter, and some of these may fly within range of the other hunters positioned around the field perimeter. Make every shot count: You probably won't get another chance.

Public-land hunters might meet with better luck if their quarry is the speckle-bellied goose. Speck hunting more closely resembles duck hunting in traditional blinds than it does snow goose hunting. Specklebellies tend to travel in singles, pairs or small groups and may visit the same places repeatedly; they also respond better to calling and decoy placement. While specklebellies prefer drier ground than do ducks, they will from time to time drop into marshes.

When hunting specks, don't put out a big bunch of decoys. Sometimes one or two will work better than will a king-size spread; at other times, half a dozen to a dozen may be called for.

Waterfowlers can place both duck and specklebelly decoys around the same blind, but it's necessary to keep the two species separated. Place about two to 12 speck decoys about 10 to 30 yards from the blind on the opposite side of the duck decoys; place speck decoys on dry ground or in marsh grass instead of in the water. Put one or two at extreme shotgun range to mark the kill zone's limit. Geese separate themselves more, so place speck decoys a little farther apart than the duck decoys are set out.

When duck hunting in southwest Louisiana, keep a speck call handy. Most of the specklebellies seen in Louisiana will winter south of Alexandria and west of Lafayette, although one might occasionally be bagged anywhere in the state. Even without decoys, a skilled specklebelly caller can bring the birds in more effectively than any spread will.

"If you can get specks talking back and forth to you, they'll usually come in," noted Lake Charles guide Sammie Faulk. "Snow geese usually travel in larger flocks, so there's more calling. Two or three people in the blind could call. With specks, I like only one caller in a blind. Most of the time, the caller is talking to one specklebelly goose in a one-on-one conversation."

Convince the lead specklebelly to come visiting and the entire flock might swing within range. However, specklebellies often frustrate hunters with their annoying habit of passing over a blind to land in grass just out of range. One false move, and the entire flock disappears at high speed. Therefore, blind material should look as natural as possible. In fact, it shouldn't look like anything at all.

On public lands, more geese fall to duck hunters as bonus birds than to those intentionally targeting the species. One of the best public places for bagging birds in Louisiana, the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge (near Hackberry southwest of Lake Charles), has about 125,000 acres of waterfowl-attracting habitat. Duck hunters kill the odd snow, blue, Ross' or specklebelly geese in these marshes.

In the fall of 2000, the refuge opened an additional 10,000 acres to the hunting public, which pushed the refuge's total huntable acreage to about 35,000 acres. The new section is sited north of the Central Canal and east of the Beach Canal in Unit E off state Highway 27. It's adjacent to an impoundment that typically has ducks. Other areas offer hunting in units A, B, C and D south of the Central Canal, east of Burton Canal and north of the Southline Canal.

"Hunters may access the new area through Vastar Road off LA 27," said Ben Mense, assistant refuge manager. "Hunters can drive into the area, but can only walk into the marsh or hand-launch boats. There won't be any boat trailers in that new area. People can throw a pirogue in the water if they want."

Except for Christmas Day and New Year's Day, Sabine NWR allows hunting every Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday throughout duck season. State licensing laws and limits apply, but the federal refuge imposes a few more rules.

Hunters must carry a free refuge permit that's available from refuge headquarters (on state Highway 27 south of Hackberry). The hunting brochure doubles as the season permit; it contains a map of the hunting areas. Hunters don't need to buy the state wildlife management area permit to hunt on the federal refuge. You may enter the refuge up to three hours before legal shooting time but must leave the marsh by noon. Hunters report their harvest results through a self-clearing station.

During waterfowl season, the popular marsh attracts large crowds. Many vehicles line state Highway 27 as their drivers wait to launch boats or park. The problem escalates on weekends, and is especially acute on the two opening weekends of the split duck season. During the week, and as the season progresses, crowds thin. To beat the crowds, some hunters head for the best ponds at the earliest legal time, or run as far as they can with outboards, and then launch pirogues to go deeper into the interior.

Hunters may not build permanent blinds in this area. They may use any available native vegetation or portable blinds to set up on a first-come, first-served basis. Whatever they take into the refuge that morning, they must remove by noon, including spent shell hulls. Camouflage netting draped over a pirogue or boat makes an effective and highly mobile blind.

Hunting parties must remain at least 150 yards away from other groups. They must also remain at least 50 yards off the main canals. Boats with outboards may not leave the designated canals and major bayous. Boaters may use trolling motors on pirogues, but they may not use go-devil type motors, airboats or mudboats on the refuge. For more information about Sabine NWR, call the headquarters at (337) 762-3816.

Lacassine NWR (near Lake Arthur just to the east of Lake Charles) contains 35,000 acres of fresh and brackish marshes; habitat here is primarily duck-friendly. Refuge hunters now and then bag snow, blue, Ross' or specklebelly geese. Many geese feed in nearby rice fields and return to the refuge to escape hunting pressure. In 2001, the federal refuge opened an additional 3,300 acres for waterfowl hunting, a move that brought huntable acreage to about 9,300 acres.

"We get about 150,000 to 200,000 geese each winter," reported Wayne Syron, a game biologist for Lacassine NWR, "but most are north of the hunting area. The new hunting property is a marsh with some open water. It has one place called the Duck Pond with shallow open water. The additional acreage is along the Streeters Canal between the Mermentau River and Lacassine Bayou. Hunters can also hunt on 6,000 acres south of the Intracoastal Waterway."

Hunters must obtain a free seasonal permit from the refuge office. The refuge allows hunting every day except Monday and Tuesday. Regulations similar to those governing Sabine NWR also apply at Lacassine. For more information about hunting on Lacassine NWR, call (337) 774-5923.

In central Louisiana, duck hunters at Saline or Catahoula lakes kill a few

geese each year. Dewey W. Wills Wildlife Management Area's 60,276 acres of swamps and open water draw in many ducks and some geese. Some geese visit the nearby 25,043-acre Catahoula National Wildlife Refuge after fattening up in surrounding crop fields.

Hunters might bag an occasional snow or wayward specklebelly at a few other public lands in southeastern Louisiana. Salvador WMA (St. Charles Parish) comprises 30,600 acres of fresh to brackish marshes, open water and ponds. The 33,488 acres of Pointe aux Chenes WMA (near Houma in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes) cover habitat ranging from almost fresh in places to very salty marshes. Atchafalaya Delta WMA (in St. Mary Parish near Morgan City) stretches over 137,000 acres. Hunters might spot some geese on the mudflats of this largely brackish marsh and open-water area.

Geese require heavy shot sizes, like BB or BBB, or "T" shot. Some hunters prefer a few large pellets; others prefer a larger number of smaller pellets. During duck season, BB or No. 2 shot works well for geese and ducks. When possible, aim for the head to guarantee either a clean miss or a clean kill. The broad wings of a goose can absorb tremendous punishment. The densely feathered chest and stomach can also take huge shot loads without much damage being done to vital organs.

For more on Louisiana waterfowling, call the LDWF at (225) 765-2358.

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