Numbers of resident Canada geese are on the rise again, and the migrant population is up. This should result in a banner season for our state's goose hunters in 2006. (Nov 2006)
The success or failure of Michigan's goose season is dependent on two distinct populations of birds -- our resident giant Canada geese, and migratory birds comprising the Southern James Bay Population (SJBP) and the Mississippi Valley Population (MVP).
For decades, populations of resident Canada geese have been expanding exponentially. It was only recently that the number of resident geese has slipped below population goals. Populations of migratory geese, while somewhat steady for the last decade, tend to be boom or bust depending on the weather and nesting conditions in the spring in northern Ontario.
The good news is that the number of resident giant Canada geese has rebounded from a population estimate of 169,000 in 2005 to 187,000 birds in 2006, which is well within the population range of between 175,000 and 225,000 the Michigan Department of Natural Resources strives for. Even better news is that migratory populations of geese responded well to an early spring in northern Ontario and had excellent nesting conditions. Breeding population estimates for the SJBP were the highest estimates since the breeding ground survey was initiated, and population estimates for the MVP flock were the highest since 1999. Biologists are predicting with guarded optimism that 2006 will be a banner year for Michigan goose hunters.
The bread and butter for Michigan waterfowlers is the state's resident giant Canada goose population. During a typical year, 70 to 80 percent of the birds harvested are resident giant Canadas. The majority of these birds are killed during the special early-season hunt in September. The balance of Michigan's goose kill is consists of 15 to 20 percent MVP birds, 3 to 7 percent SJBP geese and the balance being lesser Canadas.
"On the surface it looks like a good production year as far as the Michigan giant Canadas go," stated wildlife biologist Dave Luukenon, who works out of the Rose Lake Research Station and is Michigan's goose guru. "The results we hoped for by reduction in bag limits and adjustment in season dates seem to have had the desired results."
Last year, the bag limits during the special seasons were reduced from five to three birds to help let the state's resident population of giant Canada geese rebound. "The population is age-structured," said Luukenon, which in layman's terms means that giant Canadas don't breed until they are 2 to 4 years old, so their overall contributions to the breeding population of geese won't be felt for a few years, but hunters should see more geese this season.
Even though the number of giant Canadas has been reduced in many areas, in other locations the goose numbers remain a problem.
"The number of giant Canadas across the state has been pretty much controlled or reduced where they are vulnerable to hunting," Luukenon said. "There are still population peaks where geese are off-limits to hunting." Luukenon said places like Oakland County, Alpena, Sault Ste. Marie, Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo have urban refuges that are off-limits to hunting and provide havens for geese.
The DNR just completed a four-year study on molt migration. Researchers have found that giant Canada geese that are too young to breed or are unsuccessful nesters make a false or molt migration during the year. The birds leave during late May or early June for northern Ontario and return in late September. Luukenon said that in past years the hunting season has been set to focus on resident Canada geese. By structuring the regular goose season so it includes the molt migration period in late September, biologists have found that urban geese normally off-limits to hunting methods become vulnerable during the migration. The egg rolling and oiling that is often used to control goose numbers in urban areas that do not permit hunting has been a blessing in disguise for hunters.
As in past years, waterfowlers were offered an early September season in 2005 designed to target local geese. The season typically runs from Sept. 1 through Sept. 10 in the North Zone (Upper Peninsula), and from Sept. 1 through Sept. 15 in the Middle Zone and South Zone. The only change was the reduction in the bag limit from five to three geese. Even though resident populations of giant Canada geese have shown signs of rebounding, limits will not be changed for 2006. Early-season dates are likely to remain the same, too. That probably won't be the case with the regular goose season.
"Early indications are that we should have very good goose hunting this year," suggested Luukenon. "The spring population of giants is up. The numbers of migrants appears to be up, so it's likely that we'll have a more liberal season for the migratory birds."
Last year, waterfowlers enjoyed a regular goose season that ran from Sept. 24 through Oct. 21 in the North Zone. In the Lower Peninsula, the season ran from Oct. 1 to Oct. 16 and from Nov. 24 through Dec. 5 in areas outside the local goose management units.
"Even if we have the same length of season, we should see more geese harvested," observed Luukenon.
Hunters traditionally enjoy great sport during the late season held in January across the South Zone.
While hunting for the resident giant Canadas is a given, hunting for migratory birds can be feast or famine. Early indications are Michigan waterfowlers can look forward to great shooting this year. Typically, waterfowlers on the east side of the state rely on birds comprising the SJBP. Hunters on the west side kill mainly MVP birds. Preliminary spring surveys are very optimistic for both populations.
With regard to the 2006 spring population estimate for the SJBP of Canada geese, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources wrote, "Spring once again arrived very early in northern Ontario, perhaps as much as a week ahead of 2005 and likely the earliest since we started our annual nest monitoring of the SJBP (1993). Similar to last year, preliminary assessments from the nesting ecology study on Akimiski Island show high nest densities, large clutch sizes and good nest success. The 2006 spring population estimate for SJBP Canada geese was 160,430, up 59 percent from 110,037 in 2004, and the highest estimate since the breeding ground survey was initiated. The number of breeding pairs on the mainland was up 77 percent from 2004, and was the highest ever recorded. The number of non-breeders also increased, but not outside the normal range of variation that has been observed during the history of this survey. On Akiniski, it is the first year since 2001 that there has been an increase in the number of geese."
The news from the OMNR was equally positive with regard to the MVP of Can
"Spring 2006 was exceptionally early on the MVP breeding grounds," they said. "As in 2005, snowmelt occurred almost one month earlier than in 2004 throughout much of the range. Spring conditions are well advanced, and 2006 should be a good production year for MVP geese. The estimated breeding population of 384,353 was the highest recorded since 1999 and was 6 percent above the 1989-2006 average. Nest densities were slightly above the average in all three strata. The spring population estimate was 704,954, 8 percent above the 1989-2006 average."
Meanwhile, closer to home, waterfowlers enjoyed improved hunting and more success on the managed areas around Saginaw Bay last season. And with both migratory and resident giant goose populations up, hunting should be even better in 2006.
"I would say goose hunting at the managed areas was average, with the exception of Shiawassee, which had improved hunting," stated wildlife biologist Barb Avers, who overseas the managed areas around Saginaw Bay. "Fish Point had a very average season and didn't reach its quota. Shiawassee didn't reach its quota either, but had the best season in five years."
Avers indicated that hunters at Fish Point harvested 646 geese in 2005 during the Oct. 15 to Dec. 3 season compared with 690 in 2004. The number was well below the quota of 750 birds. The percentage of juveniles in the harvest was above average. The overall harvest in the Tuscola/Huron Goose Management Unit was likely much higher, though, because of a change in habits of the geese using the managed areas.
"I think at the managed area around Saginaw Bay, the geese are using the area up and then leaving the managed units for areas outside the GMU boundaries," suggested Avers. Food and cover at Fish Point shouldn't be a problem this season, because as of early May, everything was planted.
Once food supplies are exhausted at the managed areas, geese shift into another mode. Hunters who are willing to freelance will find great hunting on private lands to the east of Saginaw Bay near places like Akron, Fairgrove, Bach and Unionville where there's a bounty of corn fields in which geese can feed. To be successful, hunters need to scout to find concentrations of geese, and get permission to hunt the land, which requires an investment in time, but the rewards can be some great shooting.
While the harvest in Saginaw County's Goose Management Unit was far below the allotted 2,000 Canada geese, hunters saw more birds, and the harvest was up accordingly. According to Avers, hunters killed 1,250 geese at Shiawassee last season, a substantial improvement over the 655 birds taken in 2004. Again, the harvest for the area is much higher if you factor in the kill at the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding private lands. It was the seventh consecutive year that the goose harvest quota has not been reached in the SCGMU. Both hunters and geese should find plenty of food and cover at Shiawassee this season.
For more information on conditions and goose hunting opportunities in the Saginaw Bay area, contact the DNR's St. Charles Field Office at (989) 865-6211.
Goose hunters enjoyed a great season in 2005 at the Muskegon County Wastewater Goose Management Unit, according to wildlife biologist Nic Kalejs. The season at the MCWGMU varies each year according to crop harvest. In 2005, the season was scheduled to run from Oct. 25 through Nov. 14 and from Dec. 1 through Dec. 4, but the 500-goose quota was reached in November.
"Goose counts on the MCWGMU were approximately 20 percent higher last season than in 2004 and were among the highest recorded in the last five years," Kalejs said. Goose numbers were very similar to the previous year in September, but cold and snow pushed the geese southward much earlier than in previous years. "Goose harvest reports from September were similar to 2004, but the overall goose harvest at the MCWGMU was up significantly."
In 2004, hunters took 234 geese compared with 514 in 2005. One of the reasons for the significantly higher harvest rates was the unusually high number of juvenile geese in the population. Sixty-three percent of the geese examined were juveniles in 2005 compared with 34 percent in 2004. Young geese are usually dumb geese, and it was evident in the kill last year at the MCWGMU.
For more information on season dates, hunting opportunities and maps of this hunting area, contact the Muskegon Waste Water Treatment Plant at (231) 788-5055. For information on lodging and accommodations in the Muskegon area, contact the Muskegon County Convention & Visitors Bureau at (231) 722-3751 or online at www.travel-muskegon.com.
Areas like the Fennville Farm Unit, Allegan High Banks, Bravo Unit and Ottawa Marsh Managed Waterfowl Unit in western Allegan County and the Allegan State Game Area offer waterfowlers over 50,000 acres of public-hunting land. The area is very popular with Michigan goose hunters, and last year they enjoyed some exceptional sport. The season in the Allegan County Goose Management Unit ran from Nov. 24 to Nov. 27 and Dec. 24 to Dec. 31, with a one-goose daily bag limit. The season reopened from Jan. 1 through Jan. 13 with a two-goose daily bag limit. The quota for the unit in 2005 was 1,500 geese.
"Geese showed up later in 2005 due to the milder temperatures," observed wildlife biologist Tyson Edwards. "The goose numbers, though, were higher than in the last several years. The highest counts were in mid- to late December."
The December season coincided with peak numbers of migratory birds, so hunters enjoyed great hunting. Milder temperatures in January dispersed the birds into open water and feeding areas, but it also kept the geese around. As a result, hunters bagged almost twice as many geese -- 1,106 in 2005 versus 662 in 2004 -- but were still far short of the 1,500-bird quota set for the ACGMU.
For information on goose hunting opportunities at the Fennville Farm Unit or the Allegan Highbanks, call (269) 673-2430. For information on amenities and accommodations in the Allegan area, contact the Southwest Michigan Tourist Council at (269) 925-6301, or on the Web at www. swmichigan.com.
Western and northern Michigan don't have managed areas to concentrate and hold geese, but that doesn't mean you can't find some good shooting.
"It was so hot during the early season that the geese didn't move very much," said avid waterfowler Mike Smith, who hunts west Michigan. "You might get a few birds early or late in the day, but for the most part, the hunting during the early season was pretty slow." Smith noted that the number of local giant Canadas in the areas he hunts seemed to be down considerably.
Smith said hunting during the Nov. 24 to Dec. 5 split in the regular season was fantastic.
"There were just a ton of migrants around when the season re-opened and a lot of fields still had corn," Smith said. "We limited out more often than not."
Hunters who don't have access to private lands can find some great shooting on
the larger inland lakes in western and northern Michigan.
Most U.P. residents are off chasing grouse and deer in October and November.
"Canada geese are probably the most underutilized opportunity for waterfowling in this area," said DNR western U.P. wildlife biologist Bob Doepker. "There's a limited amount of agriculture, so when you find a good field, it can be a real bonanza."
One popular place that attracts plenty of geese is the Baraga Plain in Baraga County. But even there you won't find the number of hunters that you'll see almost everywhere downstate. Besides field-hunting, there are countless reservoirs, floodings and miles of Great Lakes shoreline in the U.P. that attract geese. You just need to scout to find the places the birds are using. And because of the unpredictable U.P. weather, your window of opportunity is often short and sweet.
With numbers of local giant Canada geese on the rise again, and with outstanding reproduction of migratory birds this spring, Michigan goose hunters can look forward to a dandy season in 2006.