Southeast Region December Snow Geese

For a unique, unforgettable waterfowling experience, try hunting snow geese in southeastern Pennsylvania this month.

By P.J. Reilly

Every winter, tens of thousands of snow geese descend on the southeast corner of the state, offering waterfowlers a unique hunting challenge that's found nowhere else in Pennsylvania.

Snow geese have been hunted for decades in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and in the West, but according to John Dunn, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's chief waterfowl biologist, snow geese first started showing up in substantial flocks in our state about 15 years ago.

Snow goose hunting is a different game from other types of waterfowling. These birds are gregarious, traveling in great flocks often numbering in the thousands.

According to Dunn, the birds that visit the southeastern corner of the state are primarily greater snow geese. Their feathers are stark white except for black wingtips. Young-of-the-year greater snows are partially gray.

The snows generally start showing up in southeastern Pennsylvania in November and linger in parts of Lancaster, Lebanon, Chester, Berks and York counties through the end of March or early April. Weather is the leading factor that determines when the snows show up and how long they hang around. Ice and snow in southeastern Pennsylvania tend to keep the birds concentrated in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and North Carolina.

Photo by P.J. Reilly

In mild years, more than 150,000 snow geese have been estimated to spend at least part of their winter in southeastern Pennsylvania. In snowy, cold years, far fewer are seen here, or the birds stop at a lake somewhere for only a day or two before moving on.

Naturally, how many birds winter here and how long they stay has a direct effect on how many snow geese are harvested by hunters each year. That's why annual snow goose harvest estimates gathered by the Game Commission fluctuate from year to year.

In 2001, for example, waterfowl hunters bagged an estimated 3,300 snow geese in Pennsylvania. The year before, they took more than 5,000 geese. The record harvest was posted in 1998, when about 14,000 birds were taken. A year later, in 1999, hunters harvested only 2,900 snows.

There are two keys to hunting snow geese in southeast Pennsylvania - scouting and decoys. The goal of scouting missions is to find fields the snow geese are using. Unless they are disturbed, snow geese usually return to the same farm fields day after day until the food supply in the field is exhausted. Harvested corn, soybean and alfalfa fields are good bets. Winter wheat fields are even better.

The best bet is to find a flock of snow geese on the ground one day and then hunt that field the next day. At the very least, hunters will want to be very near a field where snow geese are feeding. Setting up under a flock's daily flight route, but nowhere near their feeding zone, won't put many birds in the bag.

Unlike Canada geese, which often fly from field to field all day long and can be called and decoyed from great distances, snow geese head off the roost in the morning with a specific destination in mind. The simple strategy is to get as close to their final destination as possible.

Once a field is found, it's time to put out the decoys. One can never have too many snow goose decoys! There is such a thing as too few decoys, however. A few dozen fake snows won't cut it. Snow geese seem to feel that there's safety in numbers. The best decoy setups mimic a huge flock of snows on the ground. Many experienced snow goose hunters plant as many as 1,500 decoys when they hunt!

Few hunters can afford such a spread of plastic, wood or cork decoys, but, fortunately, snow goose decoys don't have to be elaborate. Empty milk containers and diapers have worked for southeastern Pennsylvania snow goose hunters. Perhaps the most common snow goose decoy is the "Texas rag," a white plastic bag stapled to a wooden dowel to form a windsock. These decoys are light and inexpensive, and several hundred won't break the bank.

Hunting with a group of shooters lightens the workload and provides multiple callers. Give everyone in the group a call to mimic the sound of a feeding flock of snows on the ground.

Even with a massive decoy spread, don't count on snows to act like Canada geese. Draw birds to within 50 yards of your spread and you've successfully decoyed snow geese.

Plan on long shots! Snow geese are big, tough birds and require the strongest of waterfowl loads. A 12-gauge shotgun fitted with a modified choke tube and loaded with 3-inch T steel BBB or BB shot is a good snow goose rig.

Here's a look at some specific places to hunt for snow geese in southeast Pennsylvania

Middle Creek is the main gathering place in the Southeast Region for migrating snow geese. The 3,250-acre Middle Creek WMA on the Lancaster-Lebanon county border near the village of Kleinfeltersville comprises the bulk of 5,034-acre State Game Lands (SGL) 46. Middle Creek is managed specifically for waterfowl, and its protected main lake and adjacent ponds and fields offer a safe haven for snow geese.

General hunting by the public within Middle Creek WMA is not permitted. However, the Game Commission maintains pit blinds throughout the project area, which hunters can gain access to during part of the snow goose season through lottery drawings.

Aside from the project area, SGL 46 property abutting Middle Creek is open to public hunting. Hunters should concentrate on the farmed acreage along Girl Scout Road on the east side of the main lake and along Sunnyside Road to the west of the lake.

For information on hunting Middle Creek WMA and for a map of SGL 46, call Middle Creek's headquarters at (717) 733-1512.

Next to Middle Creek, the best place to hunt for snow geese in southeastern Pennsylvania is the Farm-Game Cooperative land that surrounds Middle Creek in northern Lancaster County, southern Lebanon County and western Berks County. The flat, fertile farmland planted with winter wheat, soybeans, alfalfa and corn hold snow geese there during the winter.

Under the Game Commission's Farm-Game Co-op Program, private landowners allow public hunting on their farms in exchange for

a variety of compensations from the Game Commission. Hunters must ask permission from landowners before hunting on Farm-Game lands. Farms enrolled in the program are posted with Game Commission signs to identify them for the public.

The best way to locate these lands is to drive past participating farms and look for the Game Commission signs. For snow goose hunters, good places to check are along Route 897 between Kleinfeltersville and Iona, and along Route 419 east and west of Buffalo Springs in Lebanon County, and along the same road in the vicinity of Womelsdorf in Berks County.

Another productive cluster of Farm-Game properties is around Octoraro Reservoir in southern Lancaster and Chester counties. Snow geese roost on the Octoraro and then fly out to surrounding farm fields to feed.

Look for Game Commission signs on farms along Route 272 outside Nottingham in Chester County and along Noble Road between Little Britain and Fairmount in Lancaster County.

Roughly 10 miles north and east of Middle Creek lies Blue Marsh Lake in Berks County. This 1,150-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake is a frequent holding place for snow geese in the fall and winter. Much of the 6,173 acres of land and water are open to hunting. Snow goose hunters should focus on the flat, farmed areas around the lake for their setups. For a map of the Blue Marsh project, call the Corps at (610) 376-6337.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission owns Struble Lake on Morgantown Road in western Chester County near Honey Brook. At some point every winter, snow geese are sure to be found on this 140-acre lake. Struble Lake and the 240 acres of land around it are open to hunting.

Try pass-shooting in late afternoon when the snow geese return from feeding to roost for the night.

For information on Struble Lake, call the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission at (717) 705-7800.

If you're looking for a unique hunting challenge this winter, give snow goose hunting a try. Once you've experienced a snow goose "blizzard," I guarantee that you'll never forget it!

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