The Magnolia State is likely to have plenty of geese again during the coming hunting season. But that does not mean the shooting will be easy!
By Robert H. Cleveland
You'd have thought it had snowed at least a foot overnight.
Out across what should have been a dark brown muddy field, there was a sea of white as far as the eye could see. The odd thing about it was that the sea seemed alive. It was spreading east and there was nothing in its way but the wide-open field.
"Like Sherman's march to the sea, leaving nothing but mud," said George Turner, who shook his head in amazement. "This field is over 250 acres and you'd be hard-pressed to stick another goose in there. You'd have to pick one up to make room for another."
Turner was right. A waterfowler his entire life, Turner, at 58, is not one to overstate any web-footed matter. When he said there were 30,000 geese in the field, I believed him.
Then, after issuing that estimate, he said something else that amazed me even more.
"We'll be lucky if we can kill 20 of them."
Huh? Just 20?
Photo by Fredrick Sears
"But there are 25 of us here with shotguns. Surely we can do better than that," I argued.
"No, you just watch," Turner assured, his eyes scanning the field in the rising sun as he formulated a strategy of how to best hunt the snow mass. "It looks easy, but I promise you, once the action starts you'll be surprised at how difficult this is."
We were on the edge of a series of huge soybean fields in January in Issaquena County, just a few hundred yards from the Mississippi River levee. The geese, wads of snows, grays and Ross', had been in the fields since the previous afternoon, never leaving even during the night and constantly moving east across the fields. They were not leaving behind anything but bare ground - not a hint of stubble - as they marched. Just foot prints and scat.
Turner had discovered the geese late the previous afternoon while driving home from his nearby duck lease. He saw them from a mile away, stopped and heard the cacophony from that distance.
He raced home, got on the phone, got permission (actually, the landowner was pleading for help), and rounded up a bunch of hunting buddies. We had shown up before daylight this morning, met at the road adjacent to the field, and could barely hear ourselves talk.
When the sun broke over the field, I almost fainted. I'd seen geese like this in videos from southeast Texas, but never thought I'd see it in Mississippi.
I looked around and noticed that we appeared to be about the most ill-prepared group of hunters ever. There were no decoys, no rags and no calls.
"No need," Turner said. "Waste of time."
He explained that because the geese never left the field, there was no way to lay out rags or put out decoys. Turner didn't have to tell me why calls were useless. They couldn't be heard over the natural noise.
Finally, with the aid of the landowner who came an hour after sunrise, Turner developed a plan. Once he knew the geography of the land, it didn't take the veteran hunter long to figure out our best shot.
We gathered and Turner laid it out.
"There's a high-banked ditch on the far side of the field that they are moving toward," Turner said. "It will take them about two hours to get there, but once they do, they'll have to pitch over to the next field. That field is too open to try to set up on. They'll see us for sure.
"What we have to do is get a few hunters into that ditch before they get there. It's got high banks and they should be able to make it all the way to where they can cut off the geese. The rest of us will walk down the weeds and trees along the ditch on the opposite side of the field and space out around the tall rough to hide. It won't be easy, and it will be muddy and wet, but we've got to do it."
The plan, he said, was for the first group of men to wait until the geese reached gun range at their side of the field. The geese were steadily feeding toward that ditch, with the birds at the back of the pack leapfrogging the ones at the front to get at fresh ground. Eventually, they'd reach the ditch.
"Once they do, and the hunters stand, the geese will spook," he said. "Once they start getting up, those guys will get some shots, and that will really get things going. All the geese should flush back across the field. That should bring them back over us at the other end and we can shoot.
"Then, it's just a matter of luck. If the geese keep flying west, then it's over, but if we can turn them back to the east, it will send them back toward the other guys. Maybe we can hotbox them like a run-down in baseball. Unless somebody's got a better plan, that's the best we got."
Nobody, including Turner, liked the idea of laying a trap for the geese. But we had no other alternative.
The younger, more agile guys headed for the far ditch and slowly got in place. The rest of us lined the opposite ditch and watched the white plague slowly cross the field from behind.
About two hours passed before it finally happened.
We saw the guys rise, watched the front of the goose pack jump to fly and then heard the shots in series of threes as the automatic shotguns emptied their limits of shells.
"Here they come," I hollered, wishing I had four loaded shotguns beside me instead of just the one I was holding.
It took forever for the entire flock to rise and begin flying toward us, and just as the first birds approached Turner issued a reminder with a scream.
"Don't let the first birds pass!" he yelled. "We've got to turn them."
His shotgun immediately roared three times and we followed suit. It was hilarious. The geese never slowed down, except for the few that we blasted. We all got four three-shot volleys, reloading between each, before the jig was up.
"Well," Turner said, "That's that."
The geese, now a cloud instead of a snowfield, flew all the way to the first field about a mile to the west before c
ircling and landing. Turner said it wouldn't take them long to realize they had already eaten everything in that field and leave.
He was right. After resting a few seconds and recovering their composure, the geese rose again in a cloud and started heading east again. By the time they reached us, they were too high to shoot. We watched as they flew out of sight.
The total take for the efforts of our 25 hunters was 15 snows, three blues and a Ross'. That's 19 geese.
"That's why goose hunting has never really caught on here in Mississippi," Turner said. "We don't have the big numbers of geese here like they do in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana. Over there, you shoot at one big flock and there's always a few more flocks coming.
"Here, we get a few big flocks and a few smaller ones scattered across the entire Delta (that's 13 counties), and once they get shot, they just go away and they won't come back."
Anyone who has ever seriously goose hunted the Delta's 13 counties knows just how hard and how frustrating it can be. Consider having to take two hours in the dark before sunrise to spread hundreds of white rags to mimic geese in a muddy field, then rely on hope that the geese that were using that field the day before will return to that spot again.
"That's a 50-50 shot, at best," Turner said. "If they go elsewhere, all that work is wasted and you still have to go back out there and collect the decoys and rags."
Even if it works as planned and the geese return, once you rise to take the first shots, the jig is up. They leave, and all the rest of the geese go with them. You shoot a few, wind up with purple meat, unless they are specklebellies, which are the best to eat, and bag a limit of disappointment.
Mississippi can be a winter home to over a million geese in January and February, with the vast majority being snows and blues. They stay mostly in the western Delta counties in the large open grain fields near the Mississippi River levee. Despite the great number of geese that migrate here - a number that has really grown in the last decade - the sport just hasn't taken root in the Magnolia State.
"There have been a lot of people who tried to start and maintain a goose hunting operation in Mississippi, both as a booked hunting operation and just for fun," Turner said. "They give it up pretty quick, or they move their operations to Texas or Louisiana and try to get a lease."
Harry Thompson of Southaven is one of those.
"We tried to get one going," said Thompson, a 36-year-old former duck guide for different outfitters in Mississippi and Arkansas. "In 1998, when we really started seeing a lot of geese coming into Mississippi, we figured we could make a killing selling goose hunts. There were four of us and we had all been to Texas a few times, having traded them some Delta duck hunts for some goose hunts.
"We saw those geese in the fields by the thousands from Tunica to Yazoo City, and we saw dollar marks. Funny thing was, all that we had learned in Texas was of no use."
The first year, they had two good shoots and about 10 bad ones. He said that on five hunts, not a single goose was seen.
"That's when we decided to get some of our Texas guys over here for some help," Thompson said. "They came the next year and after looking around and seeing what was happening, they told us to forget it. The best they said we could hope for was one or two decent hunts a year and there was no guarantee of that. There was too much ground in the Delta for the number of geese we had."
Game biologists say Mississippi's light goose harvest is composed mostly of birds killed by duck hunters who make good on the few opportunities they get during a season to collect a snow, blue or a Ross'. As for the dark goose harvest, duck hunters claim a lot of specklebellies (white-fronted) during the season, and most of the Canada geese harvested are those that are now resident birds that inhabit catfish ponds and other lakes like Eagle or Barnett Reservoir.
Pat Murphy of Brandon is a long-time duck hunter who killed his first banded goose during the 2002-2003 season. The snow goose had both a leg band and a neck collar when he shot it near Ruleville.
"I wish I had a great story to tell you, about us being on a great goose hunt, but that's not the case," Murphy confided. "My friend and I and our sons were duck hunting on some old catfish ponds in the Delta and there weren't many ducks flying. We'd been there a while and a few geese had flown past us, and I told my son that if one flew by any lower I was going to try.
"About 10 minutes later, I heard this one goose honking and I looked back over my shoulder and there he came. He was not too low but I figured what the heck, I had a bunch of No. 2 steel with me and a 3-inch mag so I gave it a shot. I couldn't believe it when the goose fell."
Keith Partridge pulled off an equally rare feat last season - he killed one while hunting at a public area in the Delta.
"Two friends and I put in for draw hunts at Muscadine Farms Wildlife Management Area near Hollandale," Partridge said, "and we all got drawn. On the third and final hunt, we got there and were disappointed in the ducks. We were just about ready to leave when I heard some snow geese somewhere.
"I kept listening and looking and, sure enough, I finally saw a small gaggle of them making their way toward us. I couldn't believe they were that low. I can mimic most anything with my natural voice, so I tried to call them and it must have worked. When they came over the tree line, they were coming right at us. I shot the lead one at 40 yards and couldn't believe it when it fell. If I hadn't been using some No. 2 tungsten shot, I don't think I'd have had the knockdown power to kill it."
Partridge never thought he'd kill a goose on public land in Mississippi.
"But you know what, I could have limited on specklebellies that morning," he said. "After the snows came in, we were sitting there laughing about it and all of a sudden we heard specklebellies. Sounded like a bunch of them, too, and turns out it was. There were several small groups of specks that came in around us for the next half hour.
"We didn't shoot because we weren't sure if the season was still open on dark geese. Turns out it wasn't, so I'm happy we didn't shoot. You are limited to only 25 shells each per day on Muscadine, and I promise you we could have shot all we had between the three of us at specks that morning."
Duck hunters who frequent the upper river area of Barnett Reservoir often come back to the boat ramp with a Canada in their harvest.
"That's not a problem," said Billy Bounds of Jackson. "There are so many Canadas on Barnett now that it's harder to find a place where they aren't than it is to find
where they are. What I don't like about it is that they are almost tame. I know bass and crappie fishermen who kill a few every winter by carrying a shotgun with them in their boats. They do it legally, with stamps and steel and keeping their boats stationary. The thing is, if you sit in one place long enough, one or two are going to fly right by you."
Keith Partridge, who has made several Texas goose trips, said he enjoys that sport. "I don't mind getting up and trudging through the mud for a mile and having to lay out a few hundred rags," he said. "But it would get old fast if you never got any shooting. There won't ever be enough geese in Mississippi to pull that off here. Not on a regular basis."
Partridge said it really doesn't matter when the goose season falls.
"The only thing you need to know in Mississippi is when the duck season is," he said. "That's when all the geese will get shot, and it will be duck hunters who shoot them."
For information on goose hunting regulations and public lands available, visit the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks online at www.mdwfp.com.
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