Oklahoma's Goose Capital

Oklahoma's Goose Capital

When veteran Oklahoma waterfowlers talk about great hunting for migrant Canadas, this is where they usually point to as our state's top spot.

By Bob Bledsoe

All I had was a 20-gauge, bolt-action shotgun that I bought second-hand from a pawnshop.

It wasn't exactly the gun a goose hunter covets. But lacking anything better, and being youthfully optimistic, I killed quite a few geese with it.

I thought at the time I was probably a pretty good hunter. Looking back now, more than 35 years later, I realize that I killed geese with that popgun because I had lots of opportunities to shoot.

And that's because I was hunting in one of the best places in the Central Flyway for Canada geese.

I was a college student at Northwestern State College in Alva at the time, and I was hunting near the "Goose Hunting Capital of Oklahoma." If you don't know it already, I'm talking about the tiny farming community of Jet, which lies on the south side of Great Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge.

The town of Jet is only four or five blocks wide in any direction. It's made up mostly of wheat farmers and cattlemen.

Photo by John R. Ford

But it is located in an area that has been a traditional stopping place for migrating waterfowl for as long as anyone knows. And the creation of a reservoir north of town more than 60 years ago just made it better.

Biologists say Canada geese have been migrating through the central plains for a half-million years or more. Archaeologists examining trash middens in the Arkansas River valley in Oklahoma say there is evidence that prehistoric peoples ate a considerable amount of Canada geese at least 2,300 years ago.

Pioneer explorers were often captivated by the gleaming white salt flats in what is now northwestern Oklahoma, and many noted that the spot was a gathering place for waterfowl. Indians and early settlers hunted there using live decoys.

Dubbed "Grand Saline" by one early explorer, the area was important to all the southern plains tribes of Indians who harvested salt there to use and trade. When first seen from a distance, the salt flat is an impressive sight. It is several thousand acres of gleaming white, just as if it were covered by snow.

It has a unique characteristic that draws many visitors each year outside of hunting seasons. That is, the salt flats here, which are frequently flooded and drained throughout the year by natural water fluctuations, "grow" a crystal formation that is found nowhere else in the world.

Selenite is a common element that is found in abundance in many parts of the world, but only at Great Salt Plains do the selenite crystals grow in an hourglass configuration with a red-sand "hourglass" showing through the transparent crystal.

Rockhounds come to dig the crystals and sell them in shops elsewhere. Scout troops, college geology classes and curious individuals come by the thousands each year to dig crystals on the salt flats. That activity is prohibited during waterfowl hunting seasons, though.

The area is also popular with birdwatchers, for it attracts a tremendous variety of migrants, not just waterfowl.

The wildlife refuge, created for the migrating waterfowl, was set-aside in 1930. Construction of the reservoir, a dam on the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River began in 1938 and finished in 1941.

It's estimated that a quarter-million or more geese pass through the area in some years. Sometimes 35,000 or more geese are there at one time.

Refuge managers work to make the area more hospitable for ducks and geese. There are about 11,000 acres of salt flats on the refuge, and about another 10,000 or 11,000 acres of water. Then there's another 10,000 acres or so that are usually planted in wheat, milo, peas, rye or some other crop attractive to waterfowl. On top of that, there are thousands of acres of farmland stretching out in every direction from the refuge. Wheat is the most common crop in the area, but a variety of other crops are also grown.

There is half-day hunting allowed on portions of the refuge itself. Before going into the hunting units, you must fill out a hunter registration form at the "Refuge Regulations" boards, which can be found in the designated parking areas. Hunters are also supposed to carry a portion of the form with them while hunting, and record on them the number and species of waterfowl harvested. Ducks, geese and, occasionally, sandhill cranes are the most commonly hunted. Some upland hunting for quail and pheasants is also available.

Hunting on the refuge is allowed from a half-hour before sunrise until noon. At noon, all hunting stops.

As might be expected, hunting on the refuge must be done with federally approved non-toxic shot. Even possessing lead shotshells is prohibited while hunting there.

While hunting on the refuge can be productive, probably more hunters opt for hunting on private lands south of the refuge near Jet.

Several hunting guide services operate in the area, and local landowners rent blinds or sell access to their fields and ponds by the day.

Several guides and outfitters can be found on the Internet. Some advertise in this and other outdoor magazines. The managers at Great Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge can usually refer hunters to several local landowners who accommodate hunters. And if it's a genuine, spur-of-the-moment trip, you can generally find a hunting spot just by stopping and asking at the cafe, gas station or feed store in Jet. Bird-cleaning services are available locally most of the time.

Some of the guides and landowners put out semi-permanent decoy spreads, moving them around and adjusting them day-by-day. Some landowners provide access only, and it's up to the hunters to bring their own decoys and equipment.

Hunters from Enid, Alva or other nearby communities can often find good hunting just by driving around a day ahead of time and finding where the geese are currently feeding and over whose land they are flying. But if you're coming from afar, or want to get in a day or two of hunting without any advance scouting, then hiring a guide or buying access from one of the farmers around Jet is probably the way to go.

Back when I was a student at Alva,

hunters leasing land was virtually unheard of. These days, of course, it is very common. Some prime local hunting spots are leased up by deer, turkey and quail hunters, and they sometimes have all-inclusive hunting rights so that no one else can hunt waterfowl either. It is not as easy as it once was to get permission to hunt on some lands in the area. That makes the fee-hunting areas even more practical for most of us.

If you're going after geese at Salt Plains, take your biggest shotgun, one that holds lots of shot.

Yes, I know I said I killed geese with my short-chambered 20-gauge. But I was lucky. You can kill geese with a .410 at times, but as a general rule, a 12-gauge chambered for 3- or 3 1/2-inch shells is the best choice. Some goose hunters use the big 10-gauge guns, but since 3 1/2-inch 12-gauges came along, the big 10-gauge guns are seen less frequently.

It only takes two or three pellets penetrating in the head, neck or heart-lung area to kill a goose, no matter what kind of gun you're shooting. But in my experience, you're more likely to have to take longer shots - shots at the marginal range of the effectiveness of many shotguns - when you're hunting geese. So guns that hold a bigger load of shot and keep their pattern density out to 60 or 70 yards are valuable tools for goose hunting.

Steel shot holds great, tight patterns at longer ranges, but it also carries less energy out that far, compared to traditional lead ammunition. You can counteract that by using bigger shot sizes, but then you have fewer pellets in the load to maintain pattern density. That's why I like to shoot bigger shells, with bigger shot charges, when shooting geese.

If the geese are landing 20 yards in front of you, then yes, you can kill 'em by shooting them in the head with a 20-gauge. But for those 50-yard shots at passing honkers, which some days may be the best opportunity you'll get, a bigger shell sure increases your chance of bagging a goose successfully.

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