Goose migrations are in full swing across the Lone Star State right now. Here's a look at how the remainder of our lengthy season is shaping up. (December 2009)
When it comes to goose-hunting opportunities, we have it good here in the Lone Star State.
Panhandle goose hunters Barry Bedwell, Rob Leivo and Will Leschper enjoyed obvious rewards on their hunt west of Plainview. That region hosts upwards of half a million Canadas each winter, and the Rolling Plains thousands more.
Photo by Will Leschper.
Texas hunters are able to hunt geese for nearly five months -- from the beginning of November through the light goose conservation order that runs until the end of March. But that's not to say the pastime is a walk in the park. While the birds often are relatively easy to pattern, based on food and water sources they frequent earlier in the season, most guides and hunters generally must put in a fair amount of scouting time to determine the best locations to set up.
And even though you've scouted birds last month or even last week, that's no guarantee they'll be there this week. More and more birds are seeking out new winter areas, which means there will be no shortage of birds again this month, but where you have to go get them could be a locale that traditionally may not have held waterfowl.
In looking at last season, Dave Morrison, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's waterfowl program leader, said Mother Nature certainly didn't do hunters any favors in a lot of areas of the state.
"It wasn't a good production year in the breeding grounds," he said, "and then you had Ike hit, and we're still in the throes of this drought, so there's no doubt it was tough in a lot of places. Down on the coast, the tides were some of the worst they've had in years. Guys have told me that it was just hard to hunt in places where you've had water in the past, but now you couldn't get in there. And the overall lasting impact of the hurricane is still yet to be seen in some areas. Then in East Texas, there was drought and that certainly didn't help that area that usually has water."
There are a number of areas that get a great deal of waterfowl hunting pressure, including the prairie west of Houston and the marshes of East Texas and the Gulf Coast, but there also has been a shift in recent years as birds move out of areas near population centers. For the most part, the birds have shifted their attention to West Texas and the Rolling Plains, which no doubt helped hunters in that area and in other parts of the state earlier this season.
Morrison said that especially with drought conditions taking hold, birds concentrated in areas with easy access to food and water, as is the norm.
"If there was a bright spot, it has been in playa country," he said.
Morrison said that overall, last year's waterfowl and goose seasons were average, which isn't that bad when you consider how tough the hunting was over a wide swath of the state.
When it comes to snow geese, Morrison said, a strange trend has surfaced in southern parts of the state.
"Snow geese are starting to be a real problem for me," he said. "People just aren't seeing snow geese in some areas where they used to be. Last year it started out in November with some pretty good numbers, but as the season progressed the birds just evaporated. Our midwinter numbers have been declining for the last several years, so we're actually taking a long, hard look at this and trying to figure out where we go."
HUNTING A NEW YEAR
For many hunters in Texas, "goose season" starts with the New Year. Other hunting seasons have wound down and many anglers are waiting for spring before chasing after largemouths and other game fish. There really are two Lone Star goose seasons after Jan. 1. The first one consists of 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 in the east and west zones.
Whether you're gunning for dark or light geese, the rules change for late-season honkers. The biggest reason for the change is that the geese you're hunting at this time of year are smart because they've been hunted for months from one end of the continent to the other. And they've seen every type of decoy spread imaginable. If they were fooled once, they are sure not going to make the same mistake, and even if you're the savviest caller alive, sometimes they just have the upper hand. That's because they've also heard hundreds of different variants of the tones callers make during 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 -- anything ranging from winter wheat stands in the northern part of the state to rye grass pastures in the south.
The special light goose "conservation order" season began as a big push to thin numbers of the large birds before they destroyed their precious arctic nesting grounds because their numbers became so large. During that season, there's no bag limit and the shooting hours are expanded. Hunters can even unplug their shotguns and utilize electronic calls in an attempt to fool the wily birds.
However, the conservation order season isn't a slam-dunk as the light geese are about as wily as any game animal out there, and they have become increasingly difficult to call into range. That's leading some guides and outfitters to call off their hunts at the end of the regular season. Using electronic calls by simply turning them on and letting them run will educate light geese and almost work as a deterrent to hunting when the geese figure out how hunters are trying to play the game.
Just as a wily whitetail buck learns to stay just out of gun range of a particular odd tree -- where a hunter might be sitting -- after their first encounter, wily geese learn to stay just out of effective shotgun range at the end of the goose season. Shots at those birds are more than likely to be harder and longer than in the early season, and so this is no time to go out under-gunned.
One standard load to use for high-flying geese is the 3-inch or 3 1/2-inch magnum of steel BBs. Winchester's High Velocity Steel loads seem to do well, 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 it helps to hit geese with more pellets, thus helping bring them down faster.
Anyone who has hunted geese with any regularity will gladly 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 and provide as challenging a hunting experience as you can find, especially as the season progresses and they've looked over countless numbers of decoy spreads.
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 the look up all the time so it's new and different," said veteran guide Terry Cooke of Amarillo-based Straight Line Outfitter. "You don't want to give smart birds the same-old, same-old each time. 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."
As far as decoy selection, it's kind of like going to Baskin Robbins and picking out a flavor. In the past, the rag decoy spread was a common sight from High Plains corn fields to coastal rice flats, but hunters now have the option of throwing out lifelike replicas that can fool even the most hardened flock of birds.
The biggest limiting factor is some of the more high-end decoys can set hunters back a couple of hundred bucks per dozen, but that's not to say time-tested silhouettes and windsocks won't still bring in plenty of birds. Just like arranging a spread, your choice of decoys is always subjective.
Here's a look at what goose hunters can expect this time of year.
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 specklebellied geese. In the western zone, hunters have been allowed to harvest five dark geese and 20 light geese per day during the dark goose season that runs into early February, meaning you could have the potential to shoot more geese than most hunters would like to carry from the field!
Goose hunting in the Panhandle will most often be done in new-growth winter wheat or harvested corn or bean fields. Most of the best hunting has traditionally 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.
Cooke said hunting pressure is one of the major things affecting geese later in the season.
"There are as many or more hunters in this area as there have ever been," he said. "You've got to keep things switched up. If the birds are looking at the same spreads in the same places, they're going to figure it out."
Cooke said that later in the season the southern Panhandle and Rolling Plains areas hold bigger numbers of Canadas.
"In mid-January to late January in areas like Dumas and Dalhart, you're going to see more snows than Canadas," he said.
When most hunters in the Lone Star State think of this region, sizable deer and quail populations are what 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 lower Panhandle.
In many seasons, the Canadas will migrate into that area of the state and find it to their liking, thus preventing them from going any 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 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 they migrate into the region later in the season. As in other places, the birds will be much more wary and tougher to call into effective shooting range.
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, which may not be as large as in earlier months because the geese may have become more scattered in their search for food. They then bust the next flocks to 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 harbor more birds. As with other regions, it all comes down to what food sources are available, and at this time of year any green fields you have access to should be the first places to target.
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 had loads of forage sources that drew and held the majority of the geese that wintered in Texas.
While there still are millions of geese in that part of the world, they've expanded their range in a dramatic way, spreading out as far to the south as Corpus Christi and as far north as Brenham. The region is famous for holding massive numbers of snow geese, numbering up to or 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 Canada geese.
The famous rice field rag decoy spread has become a staple for goose hunts early in the season in this area of the state, but later in the year, as geese have seen about every variant of the spread, many hunters go to a full-body decoy look to try and fool wily birds.
Morrison said geese in this part of the state have extended their range.
"They've dispersed a good deal," he said. "The birds are seeking out areas into Louisiana and Arkansas, as well as farther south down the Coast."
Based on waterfowl estimates from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in July, this season was primed to be above average as the overall duck counts showed an increase from about 37 million last year to more than 42 million this year. With better habitat and nesting conditions, the figures show a boom in waterfowl production, which always is good news for duck and goose hunters.
Though much of the state saw detrimental conditions for hunting waterfowl last year, hunters looking to fill their limit of geese, light or dark, should have plenty of opportunities to do so this year. Because the early season shaped up as one of the best we've seen in years, the late-season forecast certainly should be as good or better.
If I were a Texas goose hunter, which I am, I'd bet on it!
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Most regions of Texas have goose-hunting guides eager to take you into the field. These men do their homework and certainly earn their pay. For a list of contacts, check with the chamber of commerce in the area you want to hunt.