The late season is upon you with snow, sleet and wind. So, grab the shotgun and the Lab, and hit these five Michigan hotspots for one last goose hunt! (December 2009)
In Michigan, the early goose season has much to offer goose hunters. The weather is mild, there are usually lots of local geese, which result in great hunting, and by September, most goose hunters have been waiting months to pull the trigger.
Joe Robison of the Michigan DNR displays the results of a late-season Canada goose hunt.
Photo courtesy of Tracy Breen.
But the late season has a lot to offer as well. Granted, January is colder and many goose hunters don't want to venture to the water's edge or find a good corn field to sit in to tough it out, but according to waterfowl biologist Joe Robison from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the late season is worth braving the elements. "During the late season, there are less hunters and large concentrations (of geese) in certain parts of the state if the weather is right," Robison explained.
Many late-season goose hunters complain that the hunting is very weather-dependent. If we have a mild winter, the late-season goose hunting is great. If we have an early winter, all of the efforts required to hunt the late season probably aren't worth it. "Many believe that the first week of January is probably the best week of the season versus later in the season," Robison explained. "It changes every year. For a few years, we had mild winters and the late-season hunt was great. Last year, we had a harder winter so the hunting wasn't as good. One thing is certain: As soon as all of the open water freezes up and the food sources like corn fields are covered in several inches of snow, the hunting quickly goes downhill because most of the geese head south." Even when we have a hard winter, a few places in Michigan consistently hold large numbers of geese. "There are a handful of areas around the state that sometimes hold thousands of geese," Robison said. "The key ingredient is open water. All of the areas that hold lots of geese are large rivers that stay open even when it is very cold. Open water is critical, and having fields that provide food is also important. There are several areas that offer both, and it is not uncommon to get a limit of geese -- or close to it -- on a good day of hunting."
Below are several of the places Robison recommends. The good news is they all offer easy access and are near public land.
One of the most popular places to hunt late-season geese is the farm unit found in the Allegan State Game Area located in southwest Michigan called Todd Farm. It's a farm the state purchased from the Todd family decades ago. When they purchased the property, a few thousand geese regularly used the farm. Now, it is not uncommon for tens of thousands of geese to frequent Todd Farm. It is tightly managed by the MDNR. In order to hunt the area, hunters must arrive first thing in the morning and apply for a zone to hunt. When their name is drawn, they can hunt the field they drew. If you want to be alone when hunting, this is not the place to hunt. "There can be thousands of geese coming into the area in the late season, but there can also be lots of hunters. The good news is there are typically plenty of geese and some good hunting," Robison said.
Hunter Engle from Saugatuck regularly hunts Todd Farm during the late season. Engle is a champion goose caller and guide. He says scouting is the key to success when hunting here. "I scout before and during the season to determine where the geese are going and when they are going to certain fields," Engle said. "The more educated hunters are (about) where the geese are feeding and roosting, the better chance they have of bagging a few birds at Todd Farm. Regardless of which field is drawn, knowing where the birds are feeding is critical. There are usually lots of hunters who have dozens of decoys out. The name of the game is having as many decoys as possible. The hunter with the largest spread of decoys often wins at the Todd Farm."
Since goose decoys are big and bulky, Engle often uses goose silhouettes when hunting during the late season. "Silhouettes are lightweight and small, so I can pack hundreds of them if I have to, and they work well," he said. "Snow doesn't stick to them as much as it does regular decoys. When placed in a field, the silhouettes appear to be moving as geese fly over. As they fly, they are directly over some decoys so they somewhat disappear from view, while others are just coming into view. It looks like the decoys are constantly on the move."
Few people call geese as well as Engle, but he says fancy calling doesn't do the trick at Todd Farm. "I hear many hunters using fancy calls with a lot of different notes mixed in," Engle said. "This often doesn't work. By the time the late season arrives at Todd Farm, the birds have heard it all and are often call-shy. I try to mimic whatever the geese are doing. Sometimes this requires a lot of aggressive calling; other times it requires giving the birds the same note or two consistently."
Hunting Todd Farm during the late season is worth the trip. It has plenty of standing corn and other crops that the MDNR plants for the wildlife. With the river nearby, the geese have everything they need. When hunters draw a zone for Todd Farm, they can drive right to that zone and unload all of their decoys and gear, so a long hike in is not required.
For more information about Todd Farm, call the Allegan County State Game Area at (269) 673-2430 or visit the Michigan DNR Web site at www.michigan.gov/dnr.
Robison also frequents the Detroit River during the late season. The Detroit River is a large river that is wide open much of the winter, which makes it a great place for geese to congregate. "The lower Detroit River offers some great late-season hunting when many of the area lakes start freezing up. Once the lakes freeze and geese are forced to find open water, the Detroit River is the best place," Robison said. "The river is close to large fields, so the geese have plenty of places to feed and water to hang out and roost." The best place to access the river is Lake Erie Metro Park. The best places to hunt are Stoney Island and Selron Island. Both islands offer public hunting. "Hunting the Detroit River is done completely from a boat," Robison said. "In order to seduce birds within shooting distance of a boat during the late season, hunters need to make sure their bow is well-concealed. I use an Avery blind that works great and blends in well."
Since the Detroit River is one of the few places that offers open water in the late season, the river experiences a lot of pressure on the weekends. "There is a night-and-day difference between hunting the river during the week versus the weekend. Anyone who can take a few days off during the week will see less hunting pressure and likely be rewarded with a better hunt," Robison explai
ned. The best time to hunt the Detroit River is first thing in the morning or early afternoon. "Between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., the birds are often returning from feeding in the fields, offering plenty of shooting action."
Robison strongly discourages hunting the roost. "It is tempting to set up in the afternoon at the location where the geese spend the night, but I avoid hunting the roost," he said. "If you shoot lots of birds at the roost, they probably won't come back again, so you would only get one good hunt. I hunt loafing areas on the water where birds like to hang out or nearby fields so I can get several days of good hunting."
For up-to-date Detroit River information, contact Lake Erie Metro Park at (800) 477-3189, or go to www. metroparks.com.
Robison is not afraid to knock on doors to get permission to hunt fields. One area that often holds large numbers of geese is the Grand River in the Lansing area. "There is a fair amount of good field hunting around the Michigan State (University) campus. There are a lot of farms in the area, and the Grand River is right there. I don't think there is as much hunting pressure in that area of the state as there is in other areas," Robison said. "It is often difficult to get permission to hunt the early goose season or to deer hunt, but there aren't many hunters who hunt the late season, so knocking on doors and gaining permission in January is much easier than most hunters think."
MUSKEGON RIVER BOTTOM
Another place in West Michigan that provides good hunting is the Muskegon River Bottom. The Muskegon River drains into Muskegon Lake, and the mouth of the river and Muskegon Lake can offer good hunting. "Sometimes Muskegon Lake freezes early," Robison noted. "Other times it is open well into January. When it is open, the river bottom offers good hunting. Muskegon Lake often partially freezes over, leaving a small amount of open water near the river mouth, which keeps the geese concentrated in one small area and makes figuring out the birds' patterns relatively easy because they don't have many places to go."
Many local geese call the Muskegon River Bottom home year 'round. They will stay in the area unless there isn't any open water. During the winter, they live in a small area. With a little scouting, the Muskegon River Bottom geese provide some good action. "When hunting open water, I usually set out about six dozen decoys," Robison said. "It is less than I use when field hunting, but still a lot of decoys to set out. It is well worth it."
Whether you are hunting the Muskegon River or any other open river system, remember that by the time the late season rolls around, the geese have been hunted hard for months. "When January rolls around, geese have been hunted for six months and are very hard to decoy. The more decoys you have out, the better chance you have of drawing birds in."
Contact the Muskegon State Game Area at (231) 788-5055 or visit www.michigan.gov/dnr for more information.
Harsens Island on Lake St. Clair is a great place for late-season hunting. The MDNR manages certain parts of the island for waterfowl and has planted crops for the wildlife. The island is located at the mouth of the St. Clair River, so the geese have open water nearby and food available on the island. The managed waterfowl area is flooded during much of the year, but the MDNR starts removing the water during the late fall. There is plenty of standing corn for geese to eat. "Hunting Harsens Island can be great," Robison said. "It isn't too far from Detroit or other metro areas, so hunters from the suburbs who want to get away for the day can have a great day trip at Harsens Island."
Harsens Island is divided into zones, and hunters must show up early in the morning to apply for a zone to hunt. "Harsens Island is a fairly easy hunt. All of the channels around the island are frozen over and hunters simply walk in with a sled with all of their gear on it," Robison said.
For more information on Harsens Island, contact the St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Area at (810) 748-9504, or visit www.michigan.gov/ dnr.
These aren't the only places in Michigan to find good late-season goose hunting. According to Robison, there are a few key ingredients to having success in the late season. "For starters, finding geese isn't very difficult if it isn't really cold," he said. "Hunters just need to look for food and water. Any open river system near farm fields is likely to hold geese in the late season. Sometimes the best hunting is out in the middle of nowhere or on the edge of town, like it is when hunting the Muskegon River Bottom."
After locating geese, Engle suggests scouting as much as possible. "Geese are fairly easy to pattern because they often head to water and back to fields about the same time every day," he said. "If you know that time, you know what time to be in the field or on the water." Geese often land in the same spot in the same field several days in a row. Knowing these locations can help a group of hunters bring home more birds.
If you are serious about late-season goose hunting, plan on bringing plenty of decoys. "In many cases, the group with the most decoys wins, so the more decoys you have, the better," Engle explained. "Decoy formation is very important. I often set my decoys out in a J formation and put some sleeping-decoy shells at the base of the J. This little detail tends to bring in a lot of birds. The geese typically fly over and observe some geese feeding and some resting. This, combined with aggressive calling, usually ends successfully."
Engle isn't afraid to flag. "Sometimes my dad and I double-team the birds. We both call and flag at the same time to look more realistic. If you're hunting near other hunters, you need to do everything you can to stand out. Flagging is one way to do that."
Based on last year's regulations, bag limits for the late-season goose hunt will probably be five birds per day, but check the 2009-2010 regulations to be certain. Keep in mind that many waterfowl management units have managed goose hunts in December as well. The weather is usually warmer, and there is more open water. The Muskegon Wastewater and Saginaw County goose management units are a couple of options. Whether you hunt during December or the late season, one thing is certain: If you do a little scouting and lug around enough decoys, you are sure to bag plenty of birds.