Come the new year, Texas waterfowlers get an infusion of great new goose hunting opportunities. How is the best part of the season shaping up across our state?
By Lee Leschper
There are few things emptier than a cornfield full of goose decoys but devoid of real geese.
For the hundredth time I peeked out through my camo burlap cocoon, scanned the Panhandle sky and strained an ear to catch any suggestion of a honk.
"Guess they decided to sleep in," I offered hopefully to guide Michael Sparks, who was watching the sky to the south behind us.
"Maybe. They flew late yesterday," he admitted.
I shrugged deeper into my camo.
Now, there's cold - and then there's goose-hunting cold. We'd warmed up nicely before dawn, even in the 15-degree air, putting out 30 dozen decoys in this cornfield in the southern Panhandle. But after lying there for an hour under a burlap "gillie suit," watching the sunrise come and go, with no geese yet to show, my appendages were turning to ice.
With a growing south wind, the wind chill was near zero. By 8:30 a.m. I was sure we'd been skunked.
"Geese out in front! Cover up!" Darrell Sparks hissed from somewhere behind us. He switched to goose talk, alternating honking and groaning on a goose call.
Camo netting pulled over my face, I couldn't see, but could now hear the geese honking in reply, growing louder. And louder. And louder. Just at the point I began to cringe, expecting a fat goose to land on my head, Darrell sprang the trap.
"Take 'em!" he yelled.
I struggled to throw off the shaggy blanket and rose to face a brilliant blue sky filled with geese. Several dozen Canadas were stacked in layers in front of us, legs outstretched, just inches from the cornfield.
I swung the 12-gauge Benelli Nova ahead of the closest, folding it just a few feet off the ground. To my left my companions were also punching geese from the sky, several of the birds thumping to the frozen ground.
"Now that's the way it should be!"
We rolled out to gather geese and stomp warmth back into our feet.
"Get down! More geese coming! Cover up!"
Photo by Marc Murrell
And so the next 30 minutes or so went: Cover, call, shoot, repeat. As an old hunting buddy likes to say, we went from zero to hero in the course of a half-hour, quickly filling our limits of three Canadas each.
That December hunt points out the value of patience - both late in the day and late in the year. And it's late in the season that many Texans get serious about their goose hunting. After the deer tags are filled and most other seasons are closed, goose hunting across the Lone Star State really comes into its own.
Each year up to 100,000 resident and non-resident hunters pursue honkers in Texas, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department waterfowl program leader Dave Morrison. "We've averaged over the past five years 80,000 to 100,000 goose hunters in Texas. The bulk of those are on the coast."
Federal Harvest Information Program data on waterfowl harvests, collected when hunters purchase their annual license in Texas, is beginning to show some basic information about Texas goose hunters.
Since HIP data is organized differently from the annual harvest date that the TPWD used to gather, it's hard to make out longer-term trends. But the TPWD's data from the decade of the 1990s provides some valuable insight into Texas geese and goose hunters.
The epicenter of goose hunting in Texas remains three counties in the heart of the Coastal Prairie: Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda.
Colorado County remains the undisputed king for Texas geese, and by a large margin. Colorado County hunters, on average, harvest about 65,000 geese per season. Wharton County hunters collect about 41,000, while Matagorda County hunters gather in about 22,000 per season.
By species, those are the top three counties for harvest of both snow geese and white-fronted geese.
Canada goose hunters need to shift their attention north, to the Rolling Plains. Haskell County is the top Canada goose county, with about 7,500 harvested per year, followed by Knox County, at about 5,300, and Castro County with about 4,000.
Those lower harvest numbers reflect the lower total number of hunters, rather than hunting opportunity.
The average Texas goose hunter will hunt about three days per season.
Hunter success is also pretty gratifying, considering the wide range of hunting conditions and hunter expertise. Texas goose hunters average 6.4 geese per season, comparable to other Central Flyway states, Morrison said. By comparison, Kansas goose hunters average 10 geese per season, while New Mexico hunters average four.
Trends by species are not surprising, Morrison says. "We've certainly got more white geese than we've ever had," he noted. "White-fronted numbers are down, shortgrass prairie Canada geese are down, while tallgrass prairie Canada geese are about even."
Regardless of how good or bad statewide trends may be, most Texas goose hunters only care about what's visiting their own decoy spread. "We've been beaten up by hunters about 'Where are the ducks?' But 70 to 80 percent of the ducks in the Central Flyway winter in Texas, not in Kansas or Nebraska. By last year's midwinter survey it was 80 percent of the ducks.
"We need to be thankful that, say, versus North Dakota - which has a 25-day season - we can hunt (waterfowl) in Texas nearly 160 days, from September teal to the end of March in the late conservation season. That's portions of seven months! We are pretty blessed."
Local conditions, especially water and food, will determine where these mobile game birds choose to settle, he said. That's especially true in January, when forage gets scarce and birds concentrate on remaining food in preparation for heading north.
Here's a look at our top regions for gathering a New Year's goose.
PANHANDLE & HIGH PLAINS
In the Panhandle, the big news is the explosion of the population of wintering white geese.
"One of the things we've seen in the High Plains is the increase in white geese," Morrison said. "They're now running neck-and-neck with Canadas."
The Panhandle really fills with white geese in February, just in time for the late conservation season. But it might surprise Texas goose veterans to learn that these are not the same snow and blue geese they're used to seeing along the Texas Coast.
"It's a different breeding population, and not the coastal birds moving up here," Morrison said. "If you look at the harvest structure across the state, probably less than 5 percent of our waterfowl harvest is out on the High Plains. There's fantastic duck and goose hunting up there, but there's just not many people. The population base isn't there."
White geese continue to grow like the proverbial weed throughout North America, including the populations that winter in Texas.
"This year we expect the production to not be very good, for any goose species," Morrison said. "There was a late ice-out (on the nesting grounds), and miserable nesting conditions by and large. If they have an average hatch, we'll be lucky."
The special conservation season for white geese, implemented several years ago to stem the flood of birds threatening to destroy their nesting habitat, has had an impact on the geese, Morrison said. But he's cautious about saying whether that change was what was intended.
"The final impact is yet to be determined. We have shifted when the harvest occurs. Now the bulk of white geese will be harvested in the special season. Are we killing more? I don't know. Are we having enough impact to stem the tide? That's still to be determined."
Morrison does agree that today's snow goose is a wary beast. "These are old birds that have played this game more than once!" he said.
Snows can sometimes pull decoying dark geese away from a decoy spread, making them pretty unpopular with Panhandle guides.
Weather can be brutal here, with high winds, ice and snow on sub-freezing temperatures. Clear skies and consistent weather are most productive on the High Plains, giving the birds a chance to settle into a regular feeding pattern and fields before the next norther blows through.
While there are scattered concentrations of geese throughout the Panhandle, the biggest concentrations roost on major lakes like Rita Blanca, near Dalhart, and the refuge lake at Cactus, north of Dumas. Donley County, east of Amarillo, now holds concentrations of geese on Greenbelt Lake.
The peanut and wheat fields of Haskell and Knox counties hardly seem like goose country - until you see the tens of thousands of Canadas feeding there.
Winter hunts concentrate on the wheat fields, which may cover hundreds of acres, because the geese have polished off most remaining peanuts and milo.
There, Haskell and Knox counties produce more Canada geese for the hunter than any do others in Texas.
There's been concern for the past two winters about what seems to be a decline in the dominant species in the Rolling Plains and Panhandle - the shortgrass prairie Canada goose.
Biologists know that they've counted fewer of these medium-sized geese during the winter surveys. But because those counts are made only in the winter, not on summer breeding grounds as are other waterfowl species, the jury is still out on whether there truly are fewer geese, or if they are relocating to other areas.
Last season the TPWD and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to cut the Panhandle bag limit for Canadas from five to three per day. "We've not reached the trigger mechanism to get a more restrictive season, but we are concerned, so we decided to change the bag limit."
The long-term trend is for most Panhandle goose hunters to harvest two to three Canadas per day, so that three-bird bag limit probably doesn't hamper most hunters. That can be hard to remember when you're limiting out in short order and having to shoo honkers away while you gather up your Panhandle decoy spread!
"The bottom line is when you look at the midwinter surveys and are seeing a decline in these birds. That's one of the problems with not having any breeding ground surveys. There may be a shift in these birds; the shortgrass and tallgrass birds look very similar. But if we're going to err, it's going to be on the side of conservation."
Late-season hunting can be excellent, but the wary birds often demand more precision in decoy spread. Instead of huge spreads of windsocks, savvy guides will switch to a few dozen full-bodied decoys. A few even use "stuffers" - real mounted Canada geese - as decoys.
Any way you slice it, the crescent of farm and pastureland from Wharton and Colorado counties down to Matagorda and Victoria counties represents goose heaven for both the honkers and the hunters.
Hunting pressure is an issue, as is forage. By January, most rice and soybeans will be gone, and the battle-seasoned flocks of geese will be dispersing to primarily green fields.
"Along the coast, the biggest issue is the white-fronted goose," Morrison said. "Specklebelly numbers have declined for the last several years."
Morrison says that the annual count of white-fronted geese on a Saskatchewan river, on which harvest regulations are based, reflects this decline. "For the last several years, we've seen declines," he reported. "We're right at the trigger level to go to more restrictive regulations. Based on this September's counts, it's possible next year's white-fronted season may be more restrictive."
New restrictions might include a smaller bag or shorter season. "Right now we have 86 days and two birds," Morrison said. "It could be 86 days and one bird, or 74 days and two birds."
The current two-bird limit has been in place since 1996.
Texas waterfowl, both ducks and geese, are pioneering new wintering grounds throughout the state, especially down South, Morrison notes. "Duck numbers in the South Texas Brush Country have showed a tremendous increase - from 100,000 up to 500,000 birds - because they've had some pretty good weather conditions there," he said. "It's been pretty impressive. And they have little hunting pressure down there."
It's likely at least some of those birds are getting away from the heavy pressure on the traditional Anahuac to Sealy to El Campo waterfowling grounds.
One of the joys of December and January goose hunting is that there's room and time for more than just geese. Almost everywhere in the Lone Star State, there's a combo hunt to help fill the day after you've bagged a limit of honkers.
Ducks and quail are a great late combo with Panhandle geese. With the new longer pheasant season, so are ringnecks.
Take the hunt at the beginning of this story, for example. After stowing our Canadas and taking a quick lunch, we met outfitter Randy Goen of Golden Spread Outfitters, for whom Darrell and Michael guide, and then headed out for Round 2: an afternoon hunt for ring-necked pheasants.
Randy has access to thousand of acres of cropland around Olton. On this afternoon hunt we let the dogs out at the edge of an expanse of head-high grass and willows surrounding a pond in the midst of three cornfields. It looked like pheasant heaven - and it didn't take long to discover it was.
My shorthair, Sadie, was running far ahead and flushed the first rooster. It was far, but not too far for Rob Leivo's 20 gauge. Then birds began popping out all over.
While these birds kept flushing wild, they were also reluctant to leave the thick cover. Several flushed out of range, but made the fatal mistake of circling back toward the cover and in the line of my companions.
At the end of the field, we quickly took stock and realized we'd all limited out in one short walk.
Don't care for pheasants? This month, quail are still going strong on the Rolling Plains, and are a great partner to a honker hunt in the peanut fields of the Rolling Plains and eastern Panhandle.
Along the Coastal Plain, you can go wet or dry. Combine a morning goose hunt with ducks in the afternoon. Or if you get a clear, warm day, hit the bay flats for redfish and speckled trout that move to the shallows warmed by the afternoon sun.
Who says things slow down in January?
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