Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River Winter Geese

Biologists are predicting high numbers of resident and migratory Canada geese in the Susquehanna River drainage this winter. These proven public hunting areas should produce some hot shotgunning action.

Photo by R.E. Ilg

In the dense morning fog, you detect the distant honking of geese along the river. It is early morning, and you're not sure where they are or where they're headed because Susquehanna River geese can be going anywhere, in any direction, at this time of day.

As the sound gets louder, you decide the birds are coming from upriver. Just as you swing yourself and your shotgun to the north, the lead group of geese suddenly appears out of the haze. They're flying low and fast, but they are too far out for a shot. You relax and wait because you know there will be others.

Seconds pass and another group of geese comes on. This flock is closer to your boat blind, anchored at the end of a small island. The birds are edging along the land, and their trajectory is perfect. As the dark gray shapes appear out of the haze, you select a target, rise up and fire. Your partner in a nearby boat joins in. You fire two shots, your partner one, and then the sound of geese crashing to the water echoes in the fog.

This is what Susquehanna River goose hunting is all about, and according to state biologists, prime hunting is expected again in 2002.

The most recent available numbers indicate that Pennsylvania hunters harvested some 81,800 Canada geese during the 2000-'01 season. The figures break down to 48,800 geese taken in September and another 21,200 during the state's regular season, which typically runs in mid-November and again from late December to mid-January. The late Canada goose season, which normally runs from mid-January to mid-February, recorded another 11,700 harvested Canada geese.

Despite these seemingly good numbers, the harvest was actually down from a staggeringly good season in 1999-'00 when 94,000 geese were taken. Don't fret, said John Dunn, Pennsylvania Game Commission waterfowl biologist, the lower harvest was probably a factor of good weather. Yes, good weather.

"The weather wasn't the greatest for goose hunting," Dunn said. "There was not a lot of cold, snow or ice to move them around and make them more vulnerable to hunters."

Translation: Good weather is bad, for both the regular and late goose seasons, and bad weather is good. In fact, it's the weather, not the goose population, that determined the harvest in recent years.

Population numbers for resident geese are the most up to date of all figures currently available. The PGC completed its population count in June 2002; so, Dunn has good, recent statistics for both the number of breeding pairs and the total number of resident geese in Pennsylvania. Breeding pairs across the state were set at 85,192, while the total population of resident geese was estimated at 234,754.

Looking back at 2001's total population of 247,000 birds and 96,000 breeding pairs, there appears to be a decline in the population. However, Dunn said this is a statistical decline not a significant drop.

The number of breeding pairs back in 2000 was 85,400, practically the same as this year's count. In 2000, the total population was estimated to be 225,000 birds, which indicates an increase for this year.

Pennsylvania hunters do not rely totally on resident geese. Migratory geese from Quebec or James Bay make up a considerable portion of the total harvest. In this, there is both good news and a note of caution.

Dunn said biologists in Canada had completed their survey of migratory geese above the border, and the number of breeding pairs was quite good.

"It could probably be a record number of pairs," he noted.

Yet, there is some trouble. Late snow and ice in Canada resulted in poor nesting conditions, and the geese had not begun nesting when they should have. Dunn said it was not yet known whether the birds would have time to raise their young for a southern migratory excursion.

Since 1999, the number of migratory geese in the Atlantic Flyway has been relatively stable at about 1.01 million birds.

"I don't know what effect the late snow will have on the migratory population," Dunn said. "If gosling production is poor, it will temper any liberalization of the hunting season."

Nevertheless, Dunn still rates sporting opportunities for this year quite highly.

"With a resident goose population that is robust and tremendous numbers of migratory geese coming south, hunting should continue to be excellent," biologist Dunn said.

No matter what the season, goose hunting really heats up on the lower portion of the Susquehanna River from Sunbury south. This is wide, woolly water with many surface-touching rocks, ledges and islands.

North of Duncannon, the river is frequently divided into two or more channels. Large islands look like the edge of the main shoreline but are, in fact, just dividers with more river on the other side. Downstream, there are large islands (City Island and Three Mile Island are standouts), but these are in a thinner part of the river and do not create the "two rivers" illusion. Also, the islands from Harrisburg south don't have the elongated downstream shoals that the islands from Sunbury to Duncannon offer. All this comes into play when deciding whether to set decoys out or conduct a float hunt.

The best jump or float shoot for Canada geese occurs from Sunbury to Duncannon and particularly around Clemson, Crafts, Sweigert and Hoover islands. The Hoover Island and Sweigert Island chains are part of State Game Lands 213 and SGL 258.

Hoover Island is accessible from the Hoover Island ramp in Snyder County, 3.5 miles south of Selingsgrove on Route 11/15. Sweigert Island is reached via the Swiegert Island access that is three miles north of Liverpool, also on Route 11/15. Many of these island game lands contain propagation areas where it is illegal to hunt or trespass past the shoreline. However, it is legal to hunt in the shoals around the islands, and these shoals and backwaters are terrific places to plant decoys.

Also on the west side of the river, the Haldeman Island access in Dauphin County provides a ramp for a similar section of the river just above Duncannon. The Haldeman access is on Route 11/15, but it is not often shown on state recreational maps.

Below Duncannon, at the entrance

of the Juniata River, the lower Susquehanna River takes on a unique appearance. I like to call it, "The Grasslands." Around Dauphin, the river might remind you of a stagnant swamp, with small tussocks of grass and rocks sticking up everywhere. In low water, anglers can wade almost from shoreline to shoreline.

A quarter-size replica of the Statue of Liberty is stationed on a pedestal in the middle of the river. This section of the river is not particularly good for setting decoys because the pools created by the tiny tussocks are not very large. However, this is a superb section for floating and jumpshooting, just don't try to paddle or row back upstream. Jets are the only motor I'd take through this territory.

I have occasionally floated this section with goose hunting in mind. Using a short pole and a camouflaged johnboat, it is possible to maneuver upstream of the birds and then float down toward small flocks sitting around the spits of land. Accustomed to pleasure floaters, the birds are usually not inclined to get up until it is too late, unless they've already been shot at.

Free public launch access to this section of the river is not available, however, River Front Camp, a west side campground at Duncannon, allows launching for a fee. You can disembark on the west side at the Marysville Borough Access at South Main Street or at a commercial livery in Marysville.

On the east side of the river, in Dauphin County, a Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission access is at Fort Hunter, north of the Rockville bridge. From Route 22/322, take the Fishing Creek exit to the river, and turn left.

Downstream, with the Harrisburg airport and the famous Three Mile Island, you'll find excellent goose hunting. Guide Jack Boettner has worked this area for years, hunting both on and off the river.

"Last year, we set decoys in a field about a quarter mile of the way from the river and had terrific hunting," Boettner said.

The veteran guide also establishes blinds around Sassafras and Little Stoner islands. Other hotspots are around shallow shorelines north and south of the Harrisburg airport, and in the shoals at Middletown, where Swatara Creek enters the river below York Haven Dam.

Public access is available on both sides of the river in this region. On the east side in Dauphin County, the Middletown Access is at the foot of Union Street in Middletown, at the entrance of Swatara Creek. The Met-Ed access is along Route 441 south of Royalton. In Lancaster County, the Falmouth Access is one mile below York Haven Dam along Route 441. The Bainbridge Access is located at the foot of Race Street, also off Route 441. Both the Falmouth and Bainbridge ramps are in rocky sections of the river.

Some folks have suggested calling the Juniata River the "South Branch Susquehanna River." Indeed, as the Juniata River flows wide and strong into the Susquehanna at Duncannon, it seems more like an arm of the main river than a tributary.

While a portion of the lower Susquehanna River at Harrisburg may be closed in the late season, no such closures have taken place on the nearby Juniata River. Now that Route 22/322 has been rebuilt on the east side of the Susquehanna River, making it less than a 30-minute ride to Duncannon, the Juniata River can service a lot of center-state hunters. If there is one river in the state where access is generally good, it is the Juniata River. In the goose-rich section from Lewistown south there is a launch ramp at least every 10 miles and often a lot less. As a result, float trips are often the name of the game, but shoreline decoy sets also work.

There are no major islands in the Juniata River from at least Granville downstream through Millerstown. However, this section the river forms frequent shoals with long, rocky points, or gravel bars, creating what amounts to little bays or backwaters off the main flow. Many hunters like to set decoys in these areas or just pass shoot the birds from the extended points as they fly by.

Good access begins at Granville. Turn off Route 22/522 at the bridge in Lewistown onto Route 103 for three miles. The Victory Park Access is in Lewistown via Route 22 to East Third Street. A half-commercial/half- private ramp is at a gas station west of Lewistown on Route 22. This area includes the section known as "The Narrows," and while it is good for fly-bys, it does not contain a lot of good terrain for setting decoys. Donations for use of the ramp are accepted at the gas station.

For decoy hunts, begin working the river downstream of Mifflintown, where you'll find plenty of shoals and backwaters. The famous river-wide ledges of the lower Juniata River are evident from here to Amity Hall.

Beginning in Mifflintown, there are Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission ramps and parking areas every eight miles or less.

Access points are at Mifflintown, one-half mile west of town on Route 32, which is old Route 22. The Walker Access, six miles downstream, is in the village of Mexico also off Route 32. Five miles downstream lies the Muskrat Springs Access at the village of Center, which is also off old Route 22. Another six miles downstream is the Thompsontown Access, one-half mile south of Thompsontown, under the bridge on Route 333.

Farther along, the Greenwood Access is 2.5 miles south of Millerstown on Route 32. It's about 12 miles to the next PFBC access at Amity Hall off Route 11/15.

Between many of these state access points are municipal ramps and commercial canoe liveries that accept put-ins. However, the municipal ramps are generally not as well maintained as the PFBC ramps.

From Sunbury through Bloomsburg and to the nuclear power plant at Berwick, Canada goose hunting can be quite good. Access is available in Danville in Montour County at Bloomsburg Landing off Route 11 in Columbia County. For the Berwick launch, also in Columbia County, follow Warren Street to River Road.

I can't really recommend goose hunting the North Branch of the river in Bradford and upper Wyoming County. I've spent a lot of time in that region during the fall while fishing for smallmouths and walleyes, and the number of geese I've seen does not spark my interest in a hunt. There are some birds, of course, but the count never impressed me.

Nevertheless, there are riverside game lands from the Wysock access south to Terrytown that are perfect for a decoy setup or pass shoot.

SGL 237 contains 170 acres parceled throughout this section of the river. Much of it is sharecropped land that edges the river. During mild winters and when late-season crops have been planted, locals say this area can produce birds.

Goose hunting may get even better in the near future if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes the recommendation of the PGC and adopts a proposed General Depredation Or

der and a Conservation Order. The two orders would allow state agencies to reduce goose populations in areas where significant problems are occurring. A Conservation Order will allow the taking of resident Canada geese outside the existing migratory bird season framework.

However, Dunn noted that even this might not open the season statewide.

"I really don't have a clue as to what the USFWS will do," said Dunn. "Hunters should stay tuned to see what happens."

For additional hunting information on goose hunting in Juniata, Mifflin, Perry and Synder counties, which includes the Juniata River and the Susquehanna River to about Duncannon, contact the PGC's Southcentral Region office, toll-free at (877) 877-9107.

For information on Bradford, Wyoming, Montour and Columbia counties, which cover the North Branch Susquehanna River, call the PGC's Northeast Region office at (877) 877-9357.

For Dauphin, Lebanon and Lancaster counties, which includes the lower main stem, call the PGC's Southeast Region office at (877) 877-9470. For accommodations, call the Susquehanna Valley Visitors Bureau at (800) 525-7320.

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