Southeastern Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River Valley attracts and holds resident and migrant Canada geese all winter. Here's where to find some great field or river shooting this month. (Dec 2006)
December provides the backdrop for one of Pennsylvania's most exciting outdoor experiences. Daylight is just beginning to filter through thin gunmetal clouds. You're resting comfortably inside a coffin blind that protects you from the icy breeze that's keeping the windsock decoys flying.
Someone in the group utters a harsh, "Shhh! I think I heard a honk."
Instantly, the whole crew strains their ears for the telltale sound of approaching Canada geese. The next time a goose honks, everyone begins a visual search for the birds.
"There they are," someone calls out. "One o'clock!"
Sure enough, the flock appears -- an undulating, horizontal black line in the distance. The hunters quickly reach for their calls and strike up a raucous chorus of clucks and moans.
The birds draw closer, flapping their wings on the approach.
Eventually the flapping stops. The geese lock their wings in the shape of an inverted U. Their feet drop as they descend toward the decoys.
And finally, someone utters the magic words: "Take 'em!"
A BANNER YEAR
According to John Dunn, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's chief waterfowl biologist, Susquehanna River Valley goose hunters are in for a banner season -- because the Atlantic population of Canada geese had a good spring nesting season.
The Atlantic population is the migratory flock that wings through eastern the Keystone State each fall from Canada on its way to wintering grounds in southeastern Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. This year's population estimate of 165,000 breeding pairs is similar to last year's and is a sharp increase from the estimated 29,000 breeding pairs that flew through the state only one decade ago.
Added to those birds are the roughly 300,000 resident Canadas that live in Pennsylvania year-round.
As of the writing of this article, the 2006-07 hunting seasons and bag limits for Canada geese were not yet set. But Dunn said that waterfowlers should expect this year's seasons and bag limits to be similar to last year's.
Before you go, be sure to check the Pennsylvania 2006-'07 Guide to Migratory Game Bird Hunting, issued wherever state migratory game bird licenses or federal duck stamps are sold. Hunters can also view the state's waterfowl regulations online at the Game Commission's Web site at www.pgc.state.pa.us.
In December, Susquehanna Valley hunters may hunt geese in either the Atlantic Population Zone or the Resident Population Zone. These two areas are designed to manage the different subspecies of Canada geese.
Last year, the Game Commission reduced the Atlantic Population Zone, which generally covers the extreme southeast corner of the state. Be sure to check the waterfowl regulations to see where the new boundaries lie.
In 2005, Canada goose hunting in the Atlantic Population Zone was allowed from Dec. 14 through Jan. 21, when hunters could take three geese per day. In the Resident Population Zone, the season ran from Dec. 9 through Feb. 15, and hunters could take five geese per day.
Here's a look at some good bets for Susquehanna Valley goose hunting this year.
WEST BRANCH SUSQUEHANNA RIVER
One of the most successful winter goose season tactics on a big river is drifting. Simply launch a boat and let the current carry you down into flocks of unsuspecting geese. Remember, it's illegal to use a motor to chase geese while hunting. Also, always wear your life vest. The Susquehanna in winter can be a dangerous place to fall into!
Try floating the West Branch, either from Muncy to Montgomery or from Montgomery to Watsontown. The Fish and Boat Commission has a boat ramp off Route 405 in Muncy on the east side of the river. From Muncy to Montgomery is a distance of about five miles.
The Fish and Boat Commission also maintains a boat ramp in Montgomery. This one is also off Route 405, but on the west side of the river. The distance from Montgomery to Watsontown is about eight miles.
These two float trips are productive in winter because of the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company's Montour Preserve, which lies about 12 miles east of this stretch of the West Branch in Montour County. This preserve, which includes Lake Chillisquaque, is a major gathering place for resident geese from all over north-central Pennsylvania at this time of year. Many of those geese will fly out to the river to spend their day.
The main stem of the Susquehanna River is littered with islands large and small. Any uninhabited rockpile in the river is fair game to set up on for waterfowl hunters. Some of the larger islands, however, are privately owned and are posted against hunting. The Game Commission owns several islands in the river, and these are posted with the agency's official signs. If you come upon an island in the river with no signs on it, check with the regional Game Commission office to find out who owns it and whether or not hunting is permitted.
Three islands are part of State Game Lands No. 254 in Dauphin and Perry counties. They are Bressler Island, Clemson Island and Lingle Island, all in the river off Halifax. There are two public boat launches on the east shore of the river near these islands. Both can be accessed off Route 147 north of Halifax.
SGL 290, also known as Haldeman Island, is upriver from Clarks Ferry in Dauphin County. The Game Commission has a boat launch upriver from the island near New Buffalo, off Route 11/15 on the river's west shore. Also, the Fish and Boat Commission has a boat launch a few miles away on the nearby Juniata River. If you launch there, follow the Juniata south to the confluence with the Susquehanna and head upriver to Haldeman.
To hunt geese in the river off these islands, plan on setting up on the downriver ends, where you'll find the best protection from the river's flow. Pitch your decoys in a calm area and then hide in some nearby shrubbery or set up a makeshift blind using camouflage netting.
If you have the equipment and your boat is large enough, you can also turn your boat into a blind and anchor it in the river off one of these islands or a boulder pile. A large, wide flat-bottom boat is perfect for this kin
d of hunting. All you need to do is rig up some poles in the four corners of the boat and stretch some camouflage netting around them. Dress up the netting by stuffing some grass and branches into the fabric to make your blind look like it belongs in the river.
For maps of the game lands in and around the Susquehanna River, go to the Game Commission's Web site and click on "State Game Lands."
One of the best places to hunt Canada geese in the Susquehanna valley is in farm fields, which serve as dinner tables for local flocks. Migrating geese frequent these fields to build up calories for their southward journey. Resident geese feed in the fields to fatten up in preparation for the cold weather ahead.
Thanks to a special program run by the Game Commission, hunters don't have to be related to a farmer to gain access to private farmland in the Susquehanna Valley. Under the Game Commission's Farm-Game Cooperative Program, owners of private farmland agree to keep their lands open to public hunting in exchange for various compensations from the Game Commission.
Hunters can find these farms by visiting the Game Commission's Web site and then clicking on "County Information." Choose the county in which you want to look for farms, and a general map of that county will appear -- for example, a link for "Lancaster County Map." Click on that link, and a new map will be generated, listing the locations of all the farm-game properties. Use that map to guide you to those properties in the field. Always ask permission before you hunt.
In York County, look for concentrations of farm-game properties in the southern end of the county around the village of Brogue on Route 74; around New Bridgeville off Route 425; and around Muddy Creek Forks near the junction of Downs Road and Muddy Creek Road. There's another cluster worth checking out in the northern end of York County, west of Mount Wolf off Route 181 and around Strinestown along Route 295.
In Dauphin County, look for farm-game properties near Killinger along Route 25 and Middle Road. The area along Powell Creek from Powells Valley to Waynesville east of Route 225 is another part of Dauphin County worth checking out. There are farm-game properties there along Matamoras Road, Lehman Road and Camp Hebron Road.
Cumberland County is littered with farm-game properties in the area between Lisburn Road and Yellow Breeches Creek to the east of Carlisle. This area is well known as a goose-hunting hotspot because it has lots of water for roosting, plus lots of farm fields for forage.
Take Route 74 east from Carlisle and turn right on Martin Road to find a few farms. Continue on Martin Road and turn right on Lutztown Road to find a few more.
No discussion of goose hunting on farm-game properties in the Susquehanna valley is complete without a mention of Lancaster and Lebanon counties. Every year, according to the Game Commission, more geese are killed in these two counties than anywhere else in Pennsylvania. One of the primary reasons for this is the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on the Lancaster-Lebanon line near Kleinfeltersville.
Owned by the Game Commission, Middle Creek is managed primarily for waterfowl. There's a main lake with a series of small ponds scattered throughout the project area. Crops such as corn and alfalfa are planted specifically for wildlife. Hunting on a large part of the property is either severely restricted or prohibited entirely. Access to the restricted area is by lottery drawing.
Contact Middle Creek's office at (717) 733-1512 for information on accessing this area.
Adjacent to the management area is SGL No. 46, where public hunting is permitted. For geese, plan on hunting the fields east of Middle Creek off Girl Scout Road and northwest of Middle Creek along Sunnyside Road.
Most of the land surrounding Middle Creek is privately owned farmland. While some of it is leased by a select few hunters, there are quite a few farm-game properties near the property in Lebanon County to the north, and in Lancaster County to the south.
In Lebanon County, a large band of farm-game properties stretches from east to west, north of Middle Creek. The area between Schaefferstown and Iona on Route 897 is worth investigating, as are the farms on Route 419 between Cornwall and Buffalo Springs, and along Route 501 and Reistville Road outside Reistville, north of Schaefferstown.
BLUE MARSH LAKE
A few miles north of Reading in Berks County lies 1,150-acre Blue Marsh Lake. Including the lake, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages a total of 6,173 acres as part of the Blue Marsh property. Much of the land and water here are open to hunting. In addition, abutting the Blue Marsh acreage is SGL 280's 2,630 acres, adding even more open area for hunters to access.
Much of the Blue Marsh and SGL 280 land is planted annually with crops, such as alfalfa and corn. It's in these fields that December goose hunters should set out a spread of decoys.
On the north side of the lake, check out the SGL 280 acres north of Route 183 and on both sides of Bright School Road. You'll find a series of farm fields in this area, all of which can be goose magnets this month.
Another good bet is the farmland between Rebers Bridge Road and the Blue Marsh Lake dam west of Tulpehocken Creek. There's also a series of farm fields separated by tree lines along the west shore of the main body of the lake, adjacent to the dam. Hunters can reach these fields via Highland Road, off Brownsville Road.
For information on hunting Blue Marsh Lake property, contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office at (610) 376-6337.
GIFFORD PINCHOT STATE PARK
About eight miles west of the Susquehanna, in northern York County, lies 2,338-acre Gifford Pinchot State Park. The crown jewel of the park is the 340-acre Pinchot Lake. Every year, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources encourages waterfowlers to hunt geese at Pinchot because of they are so abundant.
Take Route 74 north from York, then turn right on Route 177. On the north side of Route 177 there's a boat ramp that gives you access to a small cove north of the ramp. Head to a secluded corner of the cove and set up your decoys.
Another good bet is to hunt the extreme east end of the lake near the dam. To reach this end of the lake, take Route 74 north of York and then turn right on Alpine Road before you reach Route 177. Follow Alpine Road to a parking lot just before you cross Beaver Creek. You can park there and hike north with your gear to the lake shore just west of the dam.
For a map of Gifford Pinchot, contact the park office at (717) 432-5011.
SWATARA STATE PARK
Situated along Interstate 81 in Lebanon and Schuylkill counties is 3,515-acre Swatara State Park. Take Route 72 north from Lickdale in Lebanon
County to Inwood. Just past Inwood, turn right on Iron Bridge Road to get to Old State Road and turn left. Old State Road runs into the park, following Swatara Creek.
Known locally as "The Swatty," this creek is a good place to find flocks of resident Canadas in December. The migrants don't really know the Swatty is here, but plenty of resident birds call the creek home year-round.
Try parking on Old State Road in the park and hiking north to the creek. Sneak along the edge of the creek and try jump-shoot unsuspecting Canadas.
Or pick a spot that offers good cover and pitch a few decoys into the Swatty. Geese flying up and down the creek may spot your dekes and dip in close enough for a shot.
Also try taking Route 645 south from Brookside in Schuylkill County and turn right on Swopes Valley Road. Take Swopes Valley Road to Route 443 and turn right until you reach the Irving Station access road on your right. Park here and head south and east with your decoys and shotgun to Irving Pond.
For a map of Swatara State Park, contact the park office at (717) 865-6470. For information on lodging in the Susquehanna valley, contact the Hershey Capital Region Visitors Bureau at 1-800-995-0969.
For Pennsylvania's goose hunters, the Susquehanna Valley is the Promised Land. If you're looking for a goose on the Christmas dinner table, this is the place to be this month.