Canada goose production was up -- way up -- last spring. That bodes well for waterfowlers this fall in the Wolverine State. (November 2007)
The pushover birds of Michigan's early goose-hunting season have learned quite a bit about being shot at by the time the late season arrives. Hunters now need to put out ultra-realistic spreads with many quality decoys to be successful. And good calling increases the chance for success.
Photo by Tom Migdalski.
Michigan goose hunting basically goes the way that resident giant Canada goose populations go. This year it looks as though that trend is up, and waterfowlers can look forward to a banner season.
'The population of resident giant Canada geese appears to be up significantly this spring,' said goose specialist Dave Luukkonen of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 'Spring surveys placed the resident giant population at right around 219,000.' That figure is up from 184,000 posted last spring. The MDNR population goals for the resident giant Canada goose population in Michigan are between 175,000 and 225,000 spring breeders.
'The production this year was incredible,' revealed MDNR wildlife biologist Joe Robison, who works out of the Point Mouillee State Game Area office. Robison reported seeing big increases in the number of resident giant Canadas at Point Mouillee SGA. 'We were seeing an increase during our banding operations. We usually band between 400 and 600 geese during an entire season, and we've already banded 900 geese this year.'
Other MDNR officials who have been in the field this spring report similar increases around the state. It seems there were nesting pairs of giant Canadas just about everywhere. That bodes well for hunters this fall.
Goose Numbers Gaining Again
Michigan's population of resident giant Canada geese is again nearing its optimum level. Just a few years ago, when Michigan's giant Canada population dropped close to the lower end of the scale, resource managers opted to lower the daily limit on geese during the special early and late seasons from five to three geese. With goose populations again burgeoning, changes to increase Michigan's goose bag limits could be seen in a couple of years, Robison added.
Michigan waterfowlers rely heavily on the resident population of giant Canada geese. According to Robison, the goose harvest in Michigan is typically made up of 75 percent resident giant Canada geese; 21 percent are geese from the Mississippi Valley Population (MVP); another 3 percent are from the Southern James Bay Population (SJBP); and the balance is from the Tall Grass Prairie Population. During the 2005 season, the total goose harvest in Michigan was 189,039 birds. Michigan typically ranks in the top three states in the Mississippi Flyway for annual goose harvest. Without kill totals available at press time, wildlife officials estimate the harvest last season likely topped the 200,000 mark.
With a very stable to expanding population of resident giant Canada geese, Michigan goose seasons are set to take advantage of the local populations. Michigan waterfowlers again enjoyed an early goose season that targets resident geese, which in 2006 ran from Sept. 1-15 in the Middle and South zones and from Sept. 1-10 in the North Zone. Michigan waterfowlers also enjoyed a late season that ran from Dec. 31, 2006 through January 29, 2007 in the South Zone excluding the local GMUs.
At press time, neither the 2006 early goose-hunting season or late goose-hunting season had yet been set. Similar seasons are likely to be seen in 2007. Both seasons take advantage of burgeoning resident giant goose populations. Visit the MDNR's Web site at http://www.michigan.gov/dnr for this season's hunting dates from the 2007-2008 Michigan Waterfowl Hunting Guide, published in late summer.
The Early Season
Michigan's early September goose-hunting season is a ritual for many hunters and has become increasingly popular over the years. The season is an important tool for regulating localized goose numbers. Several reasons account for the popularity of the early season. The early season accounts for upward of 50 percent of the total harvest across all seasons, and hunter-success rates are high.
Just about anywhere in the Wolverine State can be a hotspot for Michigan goose hunters. Resident geese populate just about every pond, lake and stream -- even those that are far removed from traditional goose strongholds. The geese are usually very successful at bringing off a brood, and, when you have numerous family groups in a small area, the location can suddenly become a waterfowler's hotspot.
The majority of these birds are young, naÃ¯ve birds that haven't seen a decoy or heard a goose flute yet. The September season offers great weather, although sometimes it's downright hot. To be successful the early season doesn't require a whole bunch of decoys and the places where the birds concentrate are very localized. Find a newly harvested wheat field, pasture, hay field or water roost and you're almost guaranteed a good shoot or two. The geese wise up quickly, though, and find sanctuaries where they know they can't be hunted. Scouting becomes doubly important then to find a place where the geese are feeding once they leave their havens.
The Late Season
Michigan's late goose season is an entirely different ballgame. Young-of-the-year geese have now had an entire year of on-the-job training and are wise to the ways of hunters by the time January rolls around. The migratory birds that remain have been gunned from the time they left their Canadian breeding grounds, and there are no pushovers left. Hunters need to put out ultra-realistic spreads with plenty of quality decoys to be successful. In addition, good calling increases the chance for success, along with being in the right location.
Weather is another factor. Cold weather and snow can force birds out of the state before the season ends. Last year, that wasn't a problem. Mild weather and a lack of snow during January kept plenty of birds in Michigan. However, the mild weather also had the birds widely scattered, which made for some inconsistent hunting. Michigan hunters usually harvest between 20,000 and 35,000 geese during the late season.
Managing Michigan's goose populations is difficult because it is made up of several distinct populations. Besides the resident giants, Michigan sees migratory influxes of geese from the Mississippi Valley and Southern James Bay populations. Migratory geese make up 25 to 30 percent of the annual harvest. The MVP makes up about 21 percent of that harvest; the SJBP contributes another 3 percent to the harvest; and the Tall Grass Prairie Population (TGPP) provides between 1 and 3 percent of the harvest.
As a general rule, the MVP flo
ck is a large population of birds prone to dramatic population fluctuations. In recent years, the MVP population has been increasing and has provided excellent opportunities for hunters across the western U.P. and the west side of the L.P.
The SJBP flock consists of a smaller, stable population of geese that migrates down the east side of the state. Resource managers use different zones and season dates to maximize the harvest of these migratory geese, while staying within the harvest quotas.
One concern resource managers and members of the Citizens Waterfowl Advisory Committee (CWAC) have sought to address in recent years is the desire by hunters to be able to hunt both ducks and geese at the same time. Most waterfowlers would like the opportunity to harvest geese while they are hunting ducks. Some years, resource managers' hands are tied because of season-length restraints imposed by the federal framework for hunting migratory birds.
Last year, the regular goose season ran from Sept. 18 to Oct. 29 in the Upper Peninsula; from Sept. 30 to Oct. 29 and again from Nov. 23 to Dec. 12 in the Lower Peninsula MVP Zone; and from Oct. 7 to Oct. 16 and again Nov. 23 to Dec. 12 in the Lower Peninsula SJBP Zone.
Because the population of MVP geese is near record highs and enjoyed a record reproduction year in 2005, Michigan was allotted a 50-day season in 2006 for the MVP flock that made waterfowlers happy. The prospect this year for flights of migratory geese that pass through Michigan looks bright.
In their report earlier this year, MVP population researchers state, 'Spring 2007 was very early on the MVP breeding grounds, second only to 2006, which was the earliest recorded. However, there was less snow on the ground during the 2007 survey than for the 2006 survey. The snowpack was less than normal last winter along the Hudson Bay coast, which may have been the reason for the relatively quick snowmelt.
'The estimated 2007 breeding population of 402,640 was the highest recorded since 1999 and was 10 percent above the 1989-2007 average,' the report continues. 'Nest densities were above average in all three strata (areas.) The spring population estimate was 681,029 and was 4 percent above the 1989-2007 average. The transect level count of indicated breeding pairs was significantly higher in 2007 compared with the previous five years.'
The bottom line is this: MVP numbers are up, goose reproduction was excellent, and hunters who target the U.P. and west side of the state would enjoy a long season and see plenty of birds.
Spring 2007 population estimates for the SJBP Canada geese were not as promising, according to researchers. Studies showed approximately 98,000 geese on the breeding grounds this spring compared with 160,000 last year.
'As occurred in the previous two years, spring arrived early in northern Ontario,' stated the report issued by SJBP researchers. 'Below-average snow accumulation during the winter made for an early peak in runoff and may make for dry conditions earlier than average. Similar to the last two years, a preliminary assessment from the nesting ecology study on Akimiski Island showed high nest densities, large clutch sizes and good nest success. In fact, crews found the highest number of nests on record on Akimiski Island.' A large portion of the SJBP nests on Akimiski Island.
The SJBP geese that nest on the mainland didn't fair as well, according to the researchers.
'Clearly, the estimated number of indicated breeding pairs was much lower on the mainland than in 2006 and was almost significantly lower than the previous five-year average,' their report stated. 'The apparent decline in the mainland population is only noteworthy in light of last year's record high population estimate. A third consecutive early spring throughout the range should result in good production of goslings, and so far all signs from nesting studies currently under way on Akimiski Island point to that being the case.'
What does this mean to Michigan waterfowlers? Goose-hunting seasons and bag limits in the eastern portion of the state will probably be similar to 2006.
Having the goose-hunting season run concurrently with the duck-hunting season into October allows hunters to capitalize on migratory geese moving through the state. Their numbers generally peak in November, but plenty of migratory birds were around even in early October, as illustrated by a hunt I was fortunate enough to take part in last year.
An Anecdote of Action!
My son, Matt, asked me last season to join him and some of his buddies to hunt a chopped corn field they'd been scouting. The field had just been cut a few days earlier, and the geese were pouring into the field. I wasn't keen about hunting in a group of eight hunters, but Matt assured me that there was plenty of room and everyone would get some shooting.
Shooting time had just arrived as we gathered up some cornstalks to put the finishing touches on our ground blinds. There weren't any signs of geese yet, but wood ducks began to buzz the spread in the faint light, and we bagged a couple of bonus woodies before the geese made an appearance.
Everyone dove for their blinds when someone yelled, 'Geese!' The birds were headed straight at us from the southwest when a voice said, 'No, they're ducks.'
'No, they're not.' I said, 'They're geese.'
As the geese came closer, we could make out the raspy barks of the lesser Canadas. The birds answered our deeper Canada calls and circled a couple of times before dropping the landing gear and passing over the hunters on the far end of the spread.
'Take 'em!' I yelled when the birds were directly overhead. A volley of shots rang out, and four of the geese cartwheeled to the ground. The lucky hunters sprung from their blinds and took off on a sprint to secure their birds.
That's when Kevin Pomorski came stumbling across the field from where his goose had fallen yelling, 'I got a baby goose! I got a baby goose!' It wasn't a baby goose at all, just a very small version of a lesser Canada goose. The lessers are becoming a more common sight in Michigan each season.
We quickly scrambled back into our blinds, as the sound of geese was again in the air. This time, big giant Canadas were coming from several directions. All were on a beeline heading for the field. The sky became a milling mass of geese before a volley of shots brought four more geese to the ground. The scene was repeated a few minutes later. Within an hour and a half, we had our eight-man limit of birds. You just can't get any better goose hunting than that!
A Good Year All Around, This Season and Last
Many Michigan waterfowlers report they, too, experienced great gunning last season.
'It was a good year all around,' confirmed wildlife biologist Earl Flegler of the MDNR's wildlife office in East Lansing. 'We had the best ear
ly season in five years, and the regular season was OK. The geese were widely dispersed and abundant for the January late-season opener. We had very few complaints on the seasons or season dates.'
Central Michigan doesn't have an abundance of water, but where you find ponds, marshes and larger river systems, geese thrive. And the one thing central Michigan does have is agriculture, so there is plenty for the geese to eat and many opportunities for hunters.
For more information on goose-hunting opportunities in central Michigan, contact the MDNR Rose Lake Wildlife Office at (517) 373-9358.
Southeast Michigan is a stronghold for resident goose populations and offers plenty of hunting opportunities.
'There were more geese last year than compared to the last three years,' claimed wildlife biologist Joe Robison. 'We had very good goose production and having the goose opener coincide with the duck opener helped duck numbers build with little disturbance prior to the opener. Hunting pressure was very, very high last year.'
Robison said southeast Michigan goose hunters willing to do their homework will find plenty of opportunities this season.
'The Waterloo Recreation Area has some goose-hunting opportunities, and the fields west of Ann Arbor can be very good,' Robison reported. 'Just about anywhere you find water can be good -- places like the lower Detroit River around Celeron and Stony Islands.'
Myriad lakes in Oakland County have always made that area a goose nirvana, but competition for hunting space is intense.
For more details on goose-hunting opportunities in southeast Michigan, contact the Southeast Management Unit of the MDNR at (248) 359-9040.
Waterfowlers looking for plenty of geese and less hunting pressure might want to head north -- way north. The U.P. offers some great hunting. In fact, for many years there have been so many geese in and around Sault Ste. Marie, wildlife officials have taken special measures to control their numbers.
'There have been public hunts on the green spaces around the city since 2000,' said MDNR wildlife biologist Rex Ainslie. 'The hunt is run by the city and takes place on the athletic fields, golf courses, airport and islands. The hunt is very well managed.'
Ainslie added that many geese are still trapped in the U.P. and relocated toward the middle of the region, creating goose hotspots there.
For details on goose hunting in the eastern U.P., contact the MDNR's Eastern U.P. Management Unit at (906) 293-5131.
You'll find some great goose hunting wherever you go in Michigan right now. With burgeoning numbers of local giant Canadas and a good fall flight, this might be the year to spruce up those decoys and buy a couple of extra boxes of your favorite goose loads.