For many Texas waterfowlers, the best shooting for ducks and geese starts right about now. Here's how those hunts are shaping up.
PHOTO BY KEN ARCHER
There wasn't much to quack about for duck and goose hunters last season, a year that saw some of the least productive hunting in almost 20 years. And that's in a state known for excellent waterfowling opportunities.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's July report detailing goose harvests in particular showed that waterfowlers harvested fewer birds of all species than they have since 1992, and the last time hunters took as few light geese was in 1986.The poor hunting was mostly a result of a near complete failure of snow goose nesting efforts during the summer of 2009, and the resulting absences of young birds in wintering flocks. Those first-year geese are the most susceptible to hunting, and as any savvy hunter will tell you, adult snow geese are among the most wary of waterfowl.
USFWS estimated goose harvest in Texas last season at 196,500, including snow, blue, Ross', Canada and white-fronted geese. The most recent low to that was in 1992-93 when hunters took only 158,110 geese, which also occurred as a result of poor goose hatches.
This past season Texas hunters took 89,680 light geese, fewer than half as many of the 188,120 they harvested in 2008-09. It was the lowest one-season harvest estimate of light geese since 1986, when Texas waterfowlers took 53,590 light geese.
One silver lining to that otherwise dark cloud was the higher number of white-fronted (speckle-bellies) and Canada geese taken than the previous season. Goose hunters killed an estimated 52,240 specks this past season, up from about 40,000 the prior season, while Canada goose harvest was up to 54,580 from 44,000, the majority of those birds being taken in the Panhandle.
The federal numbers also show that hunters simply didn't head afield as much, mainly due to boggy conditions that made things tough across the state last winter, along with the poor outlook for young birds. Approximately 36,700 waterfowlers hunted geese in Texas last season, spending about 109,000 days afield. That's down from the 49,400 goose hunters who spent 170,700 days pursuing geese in 2008-09. The federal data pins the total number of geese taken per hunter at 5.4 birds, almost exactly the same as the 2008-09 average of 5.5 geese per hunter.
While last season turned sour quickly, this year's seasons, especially the later season, is shaping up to be much better, mainly due to improved production of young birds.
Michael Rezsutek, a waterfowl biologist on the Upper Gulf Coast, said that from all indications this should be an average to a better-than-average winter for waterfowl and goose numbers.
"The numbers in the prairie regions have been looking good, and the overall numbers are not significantly different than last year, which turned out decent for hunters in most places," he said.
Rezsutek said that heavy rains in July and previously have set the stage for improved habitat conditions, which could make it tough if geese and ducks have more places to seek.
"All the ponds, rice fields and other places where they head to have been holding water and the overall outlook on habitat conditions is very good," he said.
Rezsutek said the coastal region -- like other locales in the state and in neighboring Arkansas and Louisiana -- have seen shifts of geese but also a somewhat steady decline in numbers.
"We aren't seeing them come down here as much as in the past," he said. "That doesn't mean there isn't still good quality numbers and it should be on par with the outlook in average past seasons. There aren't quite as many birds on the Upper Coast as there are in Central Coast areas, though.
"The geese decline has been a slowly building trend for any number of reasons over the past couple of decades. There have been numerous changes to the landscape and birds have simply found other places to winter."
HUNTING A NEW YEAR
There really are two Lone Star goose seasons after Jan. 1. The first one is the final weeks of the traditional goose hunt, which can mean harder hunting for smarter geese across the state. The other is the special light-goose only season, which begins when the dark goose season ends.
Whether you're gunning for dark or light geese, the rules change for late-season honkers and it's pretty easy to see why: They've migrated from one end of the continent to the other and have checked out every decoy spread imaginable. If they were fooled once, they are sure to not make the same mistake, and even if you're the savviest goose caller, sometimes they just have the upper hand because they've also probably heard hundreds of variants of the tones they make over their flights of thousands of miles.
Despite being at the top of their game, they still have to fill their bellies, and that means you can overcome their "smarts" by hunting green fields ranging from winter wheat stands in the northern part of the state to rye grass pastures and rice fields in the south.
The light goose "conservation order" season began as a push to thin numbers of the birds before they destroyed their arctic nesting grounds because of their numbers becoming too large. During that season, there's no bag limit and the shooting hours are expanded.
However, the conservation order season isn't a slam-dunk, and light geese have become more difficult to call into range, leading some guides and outfitters to actually call off their hunts at the end of the regular season. Most guides agree that using electronic calls by simply turning them on and letting them run usually will educate light geese and almost work as a deterrent when they figure out how hunters are trying to play the game.
Just like when a wily whitetail buck figures out how to stay just out of range from a particular odd tree where a hunter might be sitting, wily geese will learn to stay just out of or at the far edge of effective shotgun range during the end of the goose season. Shots at these birds are more than likely to be harder and longer than in the early season and this is no time to go out under-gunned.
One standard load to use for geese that might be out a bit farther are the 3-inch or 3 1/2-inch magnums of steel BBs. Winchester's High Velocity Steel loads seem to do as well as any load, and the 1 1/4 ounces of steel BBs seem to punch through even stiff winds at about 1,450 feet per second, giving you plenty of power to slam geese with authority at tougher distances.
Many guides also swear by using an improved-cylinder choke. I've also found that choke helps me to hit more geese with more pellets.
Anyone who has hunted geese with any regularity gladly will tell you that knowing where to throw out your decoys is only half the battle. What they likely would say is that figuring out the right mix and placement of your spread takes plenty of trial and lots of error. Though times have changed and hunters have the best tools at their disposal, these game birds are as wily as ever. They provide as challenging a hunting experience as you can find, especially as the season progresses.
What that means in many cases is that you're forced to tweak your decoy display and tailor it to the terrain or conditions you're hunting, or to the birds you're targeting.
"You try to change up the look all the time so it's new and different," said veteran guide Terry Cooke of Amarillo-based Straight Line Outfitter. "They'll figure out what you're up to if they see the same setup more than once."
Cooke often will walk away from the spread at least a couple of times during a hunt to see if he needs to make a correction here or there on the decoys or to his hunters' hiding spots.
"One of the things about a spread is that you can change it up according to the number of birds you're seeing or the number of people you're hunting," he said. "Sometimes you'll want it bigger and other times smaller. Later in the season you may only put out 150 decoys, but if you're dealing with snow geese and seeing a lot of birds, you might put out 300 to 400 decoys -- or more.
"The biggest thing is to just kind of match the spread to what kind of birds you're seeing and go from there."
The top of Texas is the winter home to more than half a million lesser Canadas, in addition to a good number of snow, Ross' and speckle-bellied geese.
Goose hunting in the Panhandle most often will be done in new-growth winter wheat or harvested corn or bean fields. Most of the best hunting traditionally has been on irrigated croplands north and west of Amarillo in areas near Dumas, Hereford and Dalhart. However, in recent seasons the geese have spread into the eastern Panhandle and down into the Rolling Plains. Hunting a stand of crops near any kind of water source is almost always one of the best ways to find good numbers of geese.
Here more than almost any other place in Texas, hunting pressure is a major factor later in the season. A few hunting guides I've tagged along with, and most others, believe that the key to success is switching things up with your decoy spread and moving often -- if you have access to multiple properties. It is especially vital when more snows than Canadas are flying around, and it doesn't take long for the wary birds to figure out where and when not to fly.
When most hunters in the Lone Star State think of this region, sizable deer and quail populations come to mind, but there also are big flocks of Canadas that congregate on the large fields of peanuts and other grains extending in a line from Abilene north to the bottom of the Panhandle.
In many seasons, the Canadas will migrate into that area and find it to their liking, keeping them from going farther south. The majority of the light geese, which aren't seen in the same kind of numbers as in other locales, will be Ross' geese rather than snows.
Just like in the Panhandle, any kind of water is a sure bet to hold geese. Whether it is flooded fields or conservation lakes, the geese and ducks love to have the wet stuff nearby. Hunting the Rolling Plains, especially hotspots like Shackelford, Haskell and Knox counties, is easier in the early season, but the numbers of geese aren't as great before the birds really start to migrate into the area later in the season. As in other places, the birds will be much more wary and tougher to call into effective shooting range by then.
Some guides may choose to let the first flock of geese pass by and land in a decoy spread to add realism to the spread. Those spreads may not need to be as large as in earlier months because the geese may have become more scattered in their search for food. After the first flock settles in, gunners then bust the successive flocks that come in.
There has been a shift in this region of the state as more geese are changing their winter patterns, and areas such as the plains west and south of Abilene are beginning to host more birds. As with other regions, it all comes down to what food sources are where, and this time of year green fields should be the first places to target if you have access.
COASTAL RICE PRAIRIES
There was a time when the majority of goose hunting in Texas was done in the strip of coastal marshes and rice fields from Louisiana to Matagorda County. That area harbored loads of forage sources and drew and kept most of the geese that wintered in Texas.
While there still are geese in that part of the world, they've expanded their range in a dramatic way, as far south as Corpus Christi and as far north as Brenham. The region is famous for holding massive numbers of snow geese, numbering more than a million, and good numbers of specklebellies numbering up to half a million. The region also will hold about 100,000 or more Canadas.
Veteran guides in that part of the state increasingly have cut down on late-season hunts aimed at light geese simply because of the shift and unknown decline in numbers, but that doesn't mean there aren't still birds to be had. Any area holding water or flooded crop fields almost always will have geese skulking nearby, but the toughest part of any hunt is simply finding a good place to set up. The traditional snow goose rag decoy spread has been a staple for years, but this season might be one to try and switch things up, integrating different decoy setups into your arsenal.
Hunting a new year will present the same old problems for many waterfowlers. However, there still are geese to be had for those audacious souls who are willing to put in the required effort to take them. This year's seasons are sure to be improved, and with a little effort -- or a lot -- this should be a season that could be talked about for years.
Let's just hope predictions hold true and it's something good to talk about around the coffee shop!