Geese Under the Arch
September 30, 2010
Gas is expensive; time is scarce. So why drive mile after mile for a few geese when you can get them right at home — especially if you live near St. Louis?
By Ed Harp
If you want to understand geese, and to hunt them successfully in the St. Louis area, you first must understand their world, their movements. They travel south in the fall and north in the spring with amazing accuracy and timing. They do this every year, as they have for eons past.
Their main pathway along the eastern half of our country is the Mississippi Flyway. It stretches from well into Canada all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The geese interrupt their trip along the way - sometimes to rest, sometimes to feed. After all, it's a long flight.
Most of them continue on south or north as the case may be. A few will take up permanent residence where they stop. Why, no one really knows. They do not share their reasons for doing this with us.
St. Louis lies on the eastern edge of at least two principal routes within the Flyway. The area is blessed with two major rivers - the Mississippi and the Missouri. Both offer vast areas of open water, no matter how cold the weather, sharp the wind or miserable the conditions. The geese need open water. It's a necessity. Open water provides them a place to rest along with protection from most of their predators.
The confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi also offers food. The land is farmed heavily. Corn and beans are the main crops. After the fields have been harvested, there's plenty of stubble and spilled grains. The grasslands are important to them as well. St. Louis has a lot of such land.
According to David Graber, waterfowl biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, the early goose season is confined primarily to private and urban lands. Early in the year there's an almost limitless supply of food in the area. The corn and beans have been cut. Their residue is fresh and easily picked from the stubble. Mostly the fields are still inhabited by huge numbers of insects.
Along with food, there's an ample supply of open water. Farm ponds, urban water sculptures, golf courses, fishponds and seasonally wet areas all offer geese a place to rest safely after dark or when they're finished feeding for the day. At most, the water is just a short ways from their feeding grounds.
The geese, some permanent residents and some migratory, tend to hang around these areas. It makes sense. They have everything they need. Why go elsewhere when they can stay right where they are and do just fine?
As fall turns into winter all that changes, however. The farmland still offers plenty of food, but it's harder to get. Cold weather, rains, snow and ice have made eating a chore, not a pleasure. Even worse, the easy morsels have long ago been eaten.
Winter also brings problems with water. Many of the farm and urban water sources are small, shallow and weedy. They freeze quickly, making them useless for rest and safety. In others, the water levels drop and they become nothing more than common mud holes. All in all, it's not a good situation, especially if you're a goose.
Canadas, giant Canadas and blue geese make up the bulk of the goose action near the Gateway City. Photo by Keith Sutton
Faced with these conditions, they move from the urban areas towards whatever open water they can find. That's almost always in the rivers. It would take a long and bitter cold spell to freeze the Missouri or the Mississippi. Sure, it happens, but not often enough to worry about. The geese sense this and take advantage of the miles and miles of open water the rivers provide.
Of course, they still feed in the corn and bean stubble, as well as the grasslands and pasture, but they live on the water. It's just a short flight away. The Mississippi and Missouri rivers may not be as comfortable and convenient as the local farm pond, but they beat the alternative.
The rivers change at this time of year, as well. They become more hospitable to hunters. The water levels drop in both as the weather turns cold. The current slacks and the water clears. As this happens, huge areas of sand and gravel are exposed. This makes for perfect habitat for geese and hunters alike.
Along with changing water conditions commercial navigation is sharply curtailed or becomes nonexistent. The rivers become almost peaceful, tranquil. This favors the geese. It also favors the hunter.
This year, late-season river conditions are expected to be especially attractive. Drought conditions in much of the country should push water levels to record lows. As the weather "up north" turns cold and nasty, this will move the geese down the Flyway and should make for a great year for waterfowlers. If St. Louis experiences a cold winter, so much the better.
Access to the Missouri or Mississippi rivers is no problem in the metro area. Adequate ramps are too numerous to mention individually, but there are many. Purchase a metropolitan road map and mark the ones in your area. It's best to scout them before you hunt. Find one you like, make certain it's useable in low water conditions, and you're good to go.
Hunters working the metro area can expect to find blue geese, Canadas and giant Canadas late in the season. Many of the Canadas and giant Canadas will be local residents although a few of them will be migratory. The blue geese will be migratory for the most part.
Giant Canadas are the most common species bagged by hunters. According to statistics from the MDC, they comprise at least three-quarters of the geese harvested in the St. Louis region.
Tom Leifield, MDC wildlife management biologist assigned to the Columbia Bottom Conservation Area (more about it later), has a solid working knowledge of goose hunting in eastern Missouri. He recommends that hunters look upstream on the Mississippi River for their late-season hunting. "St. Charles and Lincoln Counties can be productive," he opined, "Naturally, it all depends upon the weather. The colder it is, the better the hunting will be."
Leifield says that water conditions on the Mississippi favor late-season hunters. The combination of favorable conditions combined with the urban geese movement makes for good waterfowling. He reports that geese tend to congregate in areas of the river where the newly exposed sandbars offer both water and land opportunities.
Hunters expecting to be successful must do their homework, Leifield stresses. Not all areas of the river are productive. Scouting the river is an absolute m
ust. The geese usually congregate in relatively small spots. Hunting time is precious and hard to come by. Don't waste it on unproductive spots.
The geese seem to prefer areas, bars or islands of newly exposed sand that have troughs or saddles between them. A little deep water nearby is a plus. Look for spots that break what current there is at this time of year.
DECOYS AND CALLING
It seems that there's a wide diversity of opinion on the proper use of decoys. Some hunters swear by spreads that are mixed - that is, spreads that offer both Canadas and blue geese. A few hunters put out a handful of snow geese replicas, as well. Others believe, just as strongly, that all decoys should be of the same species. Both bag geese on a consistent basis, so use your own judgment or experiment and find what works for you.
As for decoy numbers, the same diversity of opinion exists. Some spread just a few - maybe fewer than a dozen. Equally successful hunters, on the other hand, believe that 200 may not be enough. Let common sense, past experience and your budget guide you in that decision.
Nearly all agree on one thing, however. Hunters expecting to be successful need to learn to call. Selecting the right call and learning to use it properly is beyond the scope of this article. Nonetheless, you should stop by a couple of local sportsman's stores for advice in selecting and using the proper call if you feel you need help.
Take the time to practice before you go to the field. It'll make all the difference in the world the morning of your hunt.
Leifield strongly cautions hunters to review all the applicable rules and regulations before they hunt. He points out that much of the Mississippi and parts of the Missouri River as well are in the Upper Mississippi CA. It begins very close to the city.
This area is the subject of several special rules and regulations that can get hunters into trouble if they don't know what the rules and regulations are and how to abide by them. Be especially knowledgeable about blind placement and the rules on permanent or designated blinds. In some areas, permanent or designated blinds are the rule. You need to know what you're doing.
LET IT SNOW, LET IT SNOW, LET IT SNOW
Hunters looking for a long season, fast action and generous bag limits should consider snow geese. Although they typically don't get the coverage of Canadas or blues, they offer superb sport for those hunters who take the time to learn their habits and haunts.
Snow goose season typically runs from early in the fall on into late spring. That's not likely to change in 2005. According to Graber, there's a Conservation Order that will allow unlimited bag limits once the Canada season is closed. "Because of the damage they're doing to the Tundra, the order is likely to run into the spring again this year," he said.
And that's just the beginning. Owing to their migratory patterns, the hunting is best when they're returning north. Snow geese are legendary for their large flocks. It is not unusual to see thousands of them, all in tight groups, descending upon the Mississippi or Missouri rivers in the spring as they head towards home. That means plenty of fast action long after other hunting seasons have closed for the year.
"For some reason, they show up in heavy numbers on their way north around here - more so than when they're headed south in the fall or winter," remarked Garber by way of describing springtime snow goose hunting.
Despite the birds' high numbers, taking snow geese does require some effort. They can be a hit or miss proposition. They tend to fly in very narrow lanes and land in very specific spots. And of course, not every day shows large numbers. The flocks are big, but they don't necessarily show up every day. It may take several days of hunting, but when you catch them in the "on" mode, harvests of over 100 geese per day are not uncommon. (After the close of the Canada season there will most probably be no harvest limit on snow geese.)
Snow geese offer another important if little-discussed advantage for some sportsmen: Not all hunters are able to withstand the bitter cold, ice, snow, sharp winds and miserable conditions of winter. Snow geese are a welcome addition to their hunting schedules. The best hunting is during the milder weather of spring. This is wonderful for the elderly, the physically challenged and those who prefer the great indoors when the weather's inhospitable.
They also work well for youth hunts. For while not every day will provide heavy action, the days that do will allow youngsters to experience hunting like no other. That's a rarity should be taken advantage of at every opportunity. The memories will last a lifetime.
COLUMBIA BOTTOM CA
FOR A YOUTH ADVENTURE
St. Louis area hunters should be aware of potential opportunities in the newly created and renovated Columbia Bottom Conservation Area. Located just a few minutes from downtown, off I-270 and a little north of the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, it's a true multiuse facility.
Currently, Columbia Bottom consists of more than six miles of river frontage, 800 acres of forest and over 3,000 acres of croplands.
The levee along the river offers an unobstructed view of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. This alone is worth a visit. There are a number of hiking and biking trails that crisscross the acreage. The public boat ramp is excellent - one of the best in the metro area - although it can be somewhat crowded on weekends when the weather's good.
In summary, Columbia Bottom is a first class facility. It has something for everyone. And with construction not yet complete, it's only going to get better.
According to Leifield, resident biologist for the area, the goose population is not sufficient at this time for open public hunting. "Unfortunately, not many geese are using the area at this time - the habitat is not that desirable, the wetlands are not yet in place," is his assessment.
He has scheduled a couple of youth hunts, in years past, on those occasions when the geese have arrived. These hunts are generally scheduled on short notice, so you need to stay in touch. Call (314) 877-6014 for up to the minute information about what's going on.
Columbia Bottom's goose hunting future looks bright. In short order it may be one of the premier spots in the eastern half of the state. Plans have been finalized for an extensive artificial wetlands project. The pumps to flood the wetlands are being installed. Leifield hopes for a substantial and huntable waterfowl population in the near future. This could happen as early as the fall of 2005.
There doesn't seem to be anything standing in the way of Leifield's hope. Columbia Bottom is right under the Mississippi Flyway. There's plenty of cropland for food with plenty of open water for rest and safety nearby.
And, once the pumps are operational, there'll be plenty of wetlands. It should attract good numbers of waterfowl, geese included. They'll certainly have everything they need.
* * *
Give St. Louis goose hunting a try this year. Just because you live in the city doesn't mean that you can't bag your share, right near home.
Neither complete information on dates, bag and species limits nor updated rules and regulations were not available at the time of this writing. They change from year to year subject to bird counts, water conditions and other considerations. Some of those changes are within the control of the Missouri Department of Conservation; some are not. Check the Internet at http://mdc.mo.gov/hunt/ for current updates.
Booklets detailing up-to-date information will be available by the time this article is published. Call (636) 441-4554 for a copy or a location near you where one can be obtained.
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