Our Dutch Country January Geese

Our Dutch Country January Geese

The best winter goose hunting in Pennsylvania takes place in the state's fabled Dutch Country counties, where wintering Canadas offer hot shotgunning action through Jan. 20.

By P.J. Reilly

Drive through the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country in early winter and the first thing to catch the eye is the seemingly endless succession of manicured, harvested farm fields. Alfalfa, hay, corn and soybean fields stretch along both sides of the roads for miles.

This area, which is includes all of Lancaster County, southern Lebanon County and the western portions of Berks and Chester counties in the southeast corner of the state, is the most intensely farmed region in Pennsylvania. It's where the state's heaviest concentrations of Amish, Mennonite and other Pennsylvania-German-speaking farmers make their homes around small towns with names like Womelsdorf, Kleinfeltersville, Schaefferstown and Reinholds.

The second thing that's obvious at this time of year is the large number of waterfowl in the area - especially Canada geese. With all the food sources in this region, not to mention myriad lakes, farm ponds, rivers and streams, it's no wonder the Pennsylvania Dutch Country counties consistently produce some of the top Canada goose harvests each year.

During the 2001-02 hunting season, the four Pennsylvania Dutch Country counties were among the top 10 counties in the state in Canada goose harvests. In fact, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Lancaster County waterfowlers bagged the most geese in the state, followed by Chester County hunters. Berks County waterfowlers posted the eighth-highest goose kill, followed by Lebanon County hunters.

"There's so much food and water in that area, it really holds geese,'' said John Dunn, the Game Commission's chief waterfowl biologist, of Pennsylvania Dutch Country hunting. "The good old days of goose hunting in Pennsylvania are right now.''

The Canada goose season this year will run from Nov. 15-29 and Dec. 15 through Jan. 20, with a two-goose-per-day limit.

Photo by P.J. Reilly

Waterfowlers interested in pursuing Dutch Country geese in December and January should plan on hunting in fields. Ponds and lakes are prone to freezing at this time of year, and ice will drive geese away. Farm fields, on the other hand, are always open for business. Find a flock of geese feeding in a field, or find a field that's on the daily flight path of a flock, and you've got your spot.

You'll need at least three- or four- dozen decoys to attract passing geese, but you can never have too many. In fact, the more you put out, the better. My waterfowling partners and I regularly put out as many as 300 decoys on our January Dutch Country goose hunts.

When placing decoys, remember that geese land into the wind. They might approach your spread from any direction, but when they make up their minds to land, they'll do whatever it takes to put the wind in their faces.

Place your decoys in the shape of the letter "J'' or "U,'' with the leg or legs extending upwind. Hunters should hide at the rounded end of the spread so incoming geese will be gliding toward the blind as they prepare to land.

Hunters may hide in a brushy ditch or fenceline, or even better, lie on the ground among the decoys. Simply lie on the ground in camouflage clothing, or hide in a low-profile coffin blind that provides some protection from the elements and a little comfort while hiding from approaching geese.

A 12-gauge shotgun fitted with a modified choke and loaded with 3-inch shells bearing nontoxic No. 4, 2 or BB shot works perfectly for Canada geese in January.

Have each hunter in the party blow a goose call to mimic the sound of a feeding flock of geese on the ground. This noise, coupled with an ample decoy spread, should have the drawing power needed to bring even distant passing flocks within shotgun range.

There are some publicly-owned hunting grounds in Pennsylvania Dutch Country that are suitable for goose hunting, but the best hunting can be found on farms enrolled in the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Farm-Game Cooperative program.

These lands are privately held, but the Game Commission has agreements with landowners who graciously allow public hunting. Though public hunting is permitted, hunters must still ask permission before they hunt on Farm-Game properties. When you're hunting these farms, remember that you're essentially a guest on private land - act responsibly. Don't drive in fields unless you have the farmer's permission. Take care not to molest or injure any livestock, and don't leave post-hunt trash in the field.

Unfortunately, the Game Commission no longer publishes a map indicating the location of these Farm-Game properties. The only way to find them is to drive around looking for farms posted with Game Commission signs. However, we'll suggest some likely areas to conduct your search.

Here's a county-by-county breakdown of some of the hotspots for Pennsylvania Dutch Country goose-hunting action.

Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on the Lancaster-Lebanon border is probably the best January goose hangout in the region. This Game Commission-owned property is a major resting place in the fall for migrating Canadas and it has a dense population of resident geese. Middle Creek was built for waterfowl with its network of ponds and wetlands radiating from the 400-acre main lake.

Middle Creek is part of State Game Lands 46, though much of the property is posted as a propagation area, where hunting access is restricted or prohibited.

The Game Commission maintains a number of pit blinds inside the restricted area at Middle Creek, where waterfowlers may hunt from on a lottery basis. Hunting in those pits is permitted on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays during the open seasons for Canada geese.

Hunters may gain access to those pits in one of two ways. Inside the Pennsylvania Hunting and Trapping Digest issued with every hunting license, there is a goose blind application for Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area. Fill out the application and mail it in by the prescribed date. Game Commission officials publicly draw applications at random and assign hunting dates for successful applicants. It's too late to enter the drawing for this season's hunt, but keep this opportunity in mind for next year.

The other way to

get into a blind is to show up at Middle Creek's visitor's center early in the morning on a hunting day and, if hunters assigned to a pit for that day don't show up, you can put your name in a hat to apply for a "no-show'' blind. Call the visitor's center at (717) 733-1512 to find out when you need to be there to apply for a no-show blind.

There is some flat, open ground on SGL 46 outside the propagation area around the main lake that is open to general hunting and is ideal for a goose setup. Corn, alfalfa and other crops are planted on these tracts to provide food for wildlife, and geese feed there regularly.

East of Middle Creek, there are clusters of Farm-Game properties around the villages of Reinholds and Blainsport along Route 897 that draw hungry birds from the refuge. The heaviest concentration of Farm-Game properties, however, is to the south. There are plenty of hunting opportunities north and south of Route 322 around Ephrata, Akron, Schoeneck, Hopeland and other nearby towns and villages.

The Susquehanna River forms the western boundary of Lancaster County. Goose hunters should stick to the northern two-thirds of the river in the county above Holtwood Dam. Below the dam, the river runs to Maryland between steep mountains, and the hunting here is not productive.

There are many rockpiles and small islands in the river from the dam upstream to Elizabethtown that offer ideal ambush points. Some of these areas are off-limits to hunters, so keep an eye out for posted signs.

Waterfowlers can find public boat launches up and down the river on both sides, including ramps in Columbia, Pequea and Bainbridge on the Lancaster County shore and York Haven and Long Level on the York County side. Check a map for the site that's closest to where you want to hunt.

Much of this stretch of the Susquehanna is shallow and rocky, so exercise caution when you're hunting the river and always wear a personal flotation device.

Obviously, the geese that roost and loaf on the Susquehanna River have to eat. A short flight to the east takes them to some prime farmland, much of which is enrolled in the Farm-Game program. There are also several Farm-Game properties close to the river around Marietta, Mount Joy, Bainbridge and other towns along routes 441, 743 and 241.

Less than a mile east of the Susquehanna River near the town of Holtwood on Route 372 in southern Lancaster County is Muddy Run Recreation Lake. Owned by the Exelon Power Company, the 100-acre lake at Muddy Run is well known as a roosting site for good numbers of resident and migratory Canada geese during the winter, because no hunting is permitted on the lake or the land immediately around it.

Waterfowlers may hunt Muddy Run Canadas on Farm-Game properties north of the lake around Mount Nebo and to the east around Buck and Mechanics Grove.

Octoraro Reservoir in the southeast corner of Lancaster County off Route 472 is a 528-acre lake owned by the Chester Water Authority. It had previously been closed to all hunting until a few years ago when the Game Commission negotiated an agreement with the property owners. Over the decades it was closed to hunting, Octoraro Reservoir became a major holding area for migrating Canada geese and built up a substantial population of resident birds.

Game Commission officials have posted some of the water as a propagation area to provide a sanctuary for migrating ducks and geese.

Since heavy pine forests completely encircle the lake, hunting geese on the water at Octoraro is difficult anyway. Without a grassy bank for the birds to rest on, they tend to loaf in the middle of the lake a good distance from shore. Waterfowlers would be better off setting up on nearby Farm-Game properties. There are quite a few farms enrolled in the program west of the lake from Kirkwood on Route 472 south to Little Britain on Route 272.

Southern Lebanon County draws the bulk of its geese from Middle Creek, although the area is rife with farm ponds that also attract and hold Canadas in the fall and winter. What makes this area so special is it's very flat, open and heavily farmed, so geese don't have to fly far to find a meal in southern Lebanon County. And waterfowlers don't have to look too hard to find places to hunt.

There's a large band of Farm-Game properties stretching east to west across a good portion of the county a few miles north of Middle Creek. The areas around Schaefferstown and Iona on Route 897, Newmanstown on Route 419 and Quentin on Route 72 are well known to local goose hunters as January hotspots.

Roughly 10 miles north and east of Middle Creek, Blue Marsh Lake is in neighboring Berks County. This 1,150-acre jewel owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides prime habitat for Canada geese in the fall and winter. Much of the total 6,173 acres of land and water owned by the Corps of Engineers is open to hunting.

The Game Commission leases 2,500 acres of Blue Marsh land for wildlife management. Goose hunters should seek out for their setups the flat, open areas that the Game Commission farms around the lake.

SGL 280 along Route 183 abuts the Corps of Engineers' land to the east. Much of this property is farmed and planted with corn. Once the corn is harvested, those fields are perfect for fall goose hunters. There are also a good number of Farm-Game properties west of the lake. Concentrate on farms around New Schaefferstown between routes 183 and 419. Also, the farms between Blue Marsh and Womelsdorf and Robesonia are known to be productive.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission owns Struble Lake on Morgantown Road in western Chester County near Honey Brook. This 140-acre lake and the 240 acres of land around it are open to hunting. Struble Lake holds a good number of Canada geese through the fall and winter. Try hunting Struble Lake in the afternoon when geese that have been feeding all day return to the water to roost for the evening.

Southwestern Chester County is second only to the Middle Creek area as the hottest spot in the region for hunting Canada geese in winter.

According to Dunn, this is as far south as many geese migrate from Canada, making it a major wintering destination. In the mid-1990s, USFWS biologists fitted a number of geese with radio transmitters on their breeding grounds in Canada. Dunn said a good number of those birds turned up in southern Chester County around Oxford during the winter.

The Octoraro Reservoir, which is on the Chester-Lancaster line, harbors a lot of the geese that are hunted in this area, but there are hundreds of farm ponds available to the geese as well. Waterfowl hunters can find some productive Farm-Game properties south of Oxford around Nottingham and Chrome on Route 272.

The best concentration of farms enrolled in the program, however, is north of Oxfor

d around Atglen and Parkesburg. Many of the farms along routes 10, 41 and 372 in this area are Farm-Game properties.

For lodging information in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, contact the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau at (717) 299-8901. For assistance with locating Farm-Game properties in the Southeast Region, contact the Game Commission's regional office at (877) 877-9470.

Farming is more than an occupation in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. It's a way of life. And as the people who live here revel in the annual rite of the fall harvest, flocks of Canada geese are winging their way south to revel in the fine dining they know will be waiting come winter.

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