Want to hunt Columbia River geese, but your wallet's too flat to join a private club? Public lands along the waterway offer hunters a honking good time. (December 2006)
Public lands along the Columbia offer excellent goose hunting, as this hunter shows with his lesser Canada geese.
Photo by Jacob Childers/Wild at Heart Photography.
Oregon and Washington share 300 miles of the largest river west of the Mississippi. The Columbia runs from dry wheat fields and basalt cliffs in the east, pushes its way through the Cascade Mountains and continues on to the Pacific Ocean. This huge waterway's fish and wildlife have drawn humans to its banks for more than 31,000 years. Goose hunters still come to the river, following the birds.
Public land abounds along the Columbia with thousands of acres located northwest of the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area. Even miles from the Pacific Ocean, the river is subject to strong winter tides.
Kristine Massin, the outdoor recreation planner for the Lewis and Clark, Julia Butler Hansen and Willapa refuges, cautions hunters to get familiar with tide charts, carry them along and know the area before you hunt.
WDFW has a keen web feature at www.wdfw.WA.gov/mapping/gohunt/index.html that provides maps of Game Management Units, public-water access sites, private lands available for hunting, wildlife areas, aerial maps and a whole lot more.
Here is a sample of public access land on the lower river:
EWIS AND CLARK
NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
This sprawling 35,000-acre refuge on the lower Columbia River estuary provides wintering habitat for local and migratory waterfowl. Accessible only by boat launched from John Day Point or Aldrich Point in Oregon or Skamokawa in Washington, the Refuge is a 27-mile long maze of mud flats, islands, sloughs, tidal sandbars and islands.
All of it is exposed to strong winter tides, rollicking Pacific storms, and commercial boat traffic. In a winter high tide, you can drive your boat over Russian Island. But at low tide, you can hunt from its shoreline.
It's easy to get disoriented or stranded, so it makes sense to go with someone experienced and to learn how to use a GPS.
In return for braving the hazards, you can set up on an isolated upland area with a shot at the geese heading into nearby grass fields. In February and March, the area boasts 50,000 ducks and 5,000 geese.
For more information, call (360) 795-3915.
JULIA BUTLER HANSEN
Created in 1972 near Cathlamet, Wash., for the protection of the rare Columbian white-tailed deer, this 5,600-acre refuge is made up of pasture, forested tidal swamp, brushy woodlot, marsh and slough. It's home to 300 deer, a small elk herd and waterfowl. Goose hunting is allowed along the shoreline of Hunting Island in Washington and Wallace Island in Oregon. Both are accessible only by boat from Cathlamet Boat Basin and Skamokawa in Washington or Aldrich Point in Oregon.
Tidal flows, storms and commercial boat wakes require skillful boat handling while getting to and from the island.
Once on the islands, hunters may construct temporary blinds, which would then be available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Just north of the Columbia's mouth, you'll find the 15,000-acre Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, which gives access to hunting in its Riekkola and Lewis units. Riekkola has 10 blinds, which are assigned by lottery on the day of the hunt. Hunters can use dogs. Twenty-five shells is the limit you can shoot. Here's a good tip: If you strike out on the blind lottery and opt to hunt for brant or sea ducks, you can go to the Ledbetter Point Unit for good shooting.
For more information, call (360) 484-3482.
Located just west of Ridgefield, Wash., this refuge was established to provide vital winter habitat area for wintering waterfowl, with an emphasis on dusky geese.
The Columbia is home to no fewer than eight subspecies of Canada geese: Aleutian, cackling, dusky, greater, lesser, Vancouver, Taverner's and western. Being able to identify which subspecies is winging towards you in the dim early morning light is critical if you hunt northwest Oregon or southwest Washington.
The 1964 Alaska earthquake dramatically altered dusky goose nesting grounds, essentially turning their traditional breeding grounds into easy pickings for predators to snack on eggs and goslings. As a result, these birds receive special protection under Oregon and Washington waterfowl regulations.
The Oregon and Washington Departments of Fish and Wildlife have devised a permit system to allow for hunts, but protects duskies. In areas known to hold duskies, hunters must pass a written test demonstrating their ability to identify the various subspecies of Canada geese.
The departments in both states publish free goose identification pamphlets to help hunters prepare for the test. In Oregon, call (503) 947-6303. For Washington, visit the agency's Web site, which is located at www.wdfw.WA.gov/wlm/game/water/water.htm, and then click on "Pacific Northwest Goose Management Booklet." Both departments suggest that hunters are more likely to pass the test if they also purchase a supplementary video for $12. Call 1-800-861-1342.
At the end of the day, hunters bring bagged geese to inspection stations where technicians examine the birds to determine the subspecies. All is not lost if a hunter accidentally kills a dusky. But the state does pull the hunter's permit for the rest of the season. The hunter can keep the bird, and he can continue to hunt anywhere else in the state, as long as the area is not subject to the permit system.
The Ridgefield refuge allows goose hunting in accordance with WDFW regulations -- which in the previous season meant Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Hunters may shoot from one of 10 pits or 11 box blinds. Wheelchair accessible Pit 1A is reserved specifically for disabled hunters. Pit 8 also is wheelchair accessible, but not reserved specifically for disabled hunters.
The area opens two hours before legal shooting time for hunters with reservations and drop-ins. There is a $10 per blind or $5.00 per person fee, whichever is greater
, and a 25-shell limit.
The State of Oregon owns 12,000 acres on Sauvie Island, just 20 minutes from Portland. The largest island on the Columbia is most easily accessed by Highway 30 northwest of Portland and then across the Sauvie Island Bridge.
The island provides good shooting throughout the season for local and migrant geese. The hunting permit system there varies by unit; some units are by reservation, others by random drawing and at least one unit is offered on a "walk-in" basis. Weather and water determine which unit currently provides the best shooting. Cold weather means better shooting, and high water means better conditions, particularly in the Northside Unit.
Although located in Oregon, about 10 percent of Sauvie Island hunters are from Washington and are willing to pay non-resident license fees. All hunters must purchase a Sauvie Island parking permit available either on a daily or annual basis. The permit and maps are available at the area headquarters -- call (503) 621-3488 -- or elsewhere on the island.
SHILLAPOO & VANCOUVER LAKE WILDLIFE AREAS
Located between Vancouver, Washington and the Ridgefield NWA, and adjacent to the Columbia River, are two small hunting access spots.
Smack dab in the middle of the Columbia between Portland and Vancouver, and just a couple of miles from Portland International Airport, sits the Government Island State Recreation Area. Oregon hunting regulations apply at both Government and Lemon islands.
On the Oregon side, at milepost 30 on Interstate 84, you can hunt from near the boat ramp up to Dalton Point at river mile 134.
Also on the Oregon side, hunting is allowed during the regular goose season on Sand Island and the bank that runs parallel to the south of the island.
River mile 159.6 to 160.2 is open during the regular Oregon waterfowl season.
On the other side of the Cascades, the geography changes from evergreen forest and marshland to basalt rock and sagebrush desert, cut by the Columbia. Wherever irrigation water reaches the land, crops grow in this fertile soil.
On the Washington side, around the wide spot in the road known as Patterson, fields of hay, grape and wheat seem to run on forever. Around Umatilla, Oregon, think grain fields.
The river, though broken by several Bonneville Power Administration dams, provides myriad nesting grounds for local and migrant geese. Goose hunting is easier on the eastern side of the Cascades: Hunters don't have to contend with the goose-identification permit system because duskies don't fly here.
Here are some of the better known public lands on the "dry side."
UMATILLA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Created in 1969 to mitigate the loss of wildlife habitat caused by construction of John Day Lock and Dam, this refuge spans 25,347 acres on both sides of the Columbia in northeast Oregon and southeast Washington. It includes open water, shallow marshes, backwater sloughs, croplands, islands and shrub-steppe uplands. In short, it's got all the prime nesting and feeding features that geese love. Located on the Pacific Flyway, the Refuge is visited by 30,000 Canada geese each year.
On the Oregon side, there are the Boardman and McCormack units. Boardman is open daily at 5 a.m. It also has the 200-yard spacing requirement and a 25-shell limit.
McCormack is open on Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays and Thanksgiving Day. Hunters check in and out, park in designated areas and shoot from designated blinds. McCormack offers a season-long advance reservation system. For season updates, call (541) 922-HUNT.
The Washington units are Paterson, Whitcom/Crow and Ridge. Entry is restricted until 5 a.m. Hunting from a boat is prohibited at Ridge, which is open every day of the week. The other units are open Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
COLD SPRINGS NWR
A few miles south of the river in Oregon is Cold Springs, which has 3,117 acres of land. Hunt there on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, as well as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
Hunters are required to enter through Standfield Loop Road and park in designated areas. Temporary blinds can be constructed out of natural materials. Hunting parties must be spaced at least 200 yards apart. Hunting on Memorial Marsh is from designated blind sites. There is a daily limit of 25 shells per hunter, and the refuge is closed after shooting hours until 5 a.m.
MAYER STATE PARK
Ten miles west of The Dalles, Ore., hunting is allowed in Salisbury Slough.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service determines the start of hunting seasons. Washington usually offers a two-week, early-season start in September in an effort to cull the local goose population. The regular season runs from about mid-November through mid-January and a late season -- open only to graduates of the Advanced Hunter Education program -- runs for roughly five weeks beginning in February.
In this late-season hunt, WDFW works with private landowners to control the damage geese do to property.
Oregon does things a bit differently. It has a mid-September season, then breaks the rest of the season into three hunting periods. Period 1 runs about two weeks, beginning the end of October. Period 2 runs about two months beginning in the middle of November, and Period 3 is three weeks in February.
The best advice is to read the regulations because the rules are downright complex. Official hunting hours in Washington are generally one-half hour before sunrise to sunset. One of the exceptions is that in Management Units 2A and B, goose-hunting hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., except for the early and late-season hunts. The Washington game regulation bulletin gives actual shooting hours for each day of the season, broken down between eastern and western Washington.
Oregon hours are also one-half hour before sunrise to sunset, except in the Northwest Oregon Permit Goose Zone where you can shoot from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. during Periods 1 and 2. In Period 3, starting time is 7:30 a.m.
Last year, Washington's early season bag limit was three in Unit 2A and five in Unit 2B. The regular and late-season limit was four, of which not more than one dusky or two cackling geese were allowed.
Oregon had more liberal limits of four dark geese and four white geese, but no white geese after January 15. The general statewide limit may not include more than one Aleutian or one cackling goose, although in the Oregon Goose Permit Zone, the bag may not in
clude more than one dusky, or two Aleutian or two cackling geese. The early season limit is five birds.
See what I mean about reading the regulations before you head out for a day's hunt?
Mike Franklin of Pacific Wings Waterfowl Adventures, at (509) 967-2303, and Curt Welch of Special Moments Guide Service, at (425) 830-4713, both offer guided goose hunting trips. Franklin typically hunts private land around the Columbia River. If the weather is cold, then he'll use shell or half-shell decoys to bring in the birds. Warmer weather allows the birds more airtime to scrutinize his setup, so he'll use "stuffers" -- real birds that have been stuffed.
He recommends that clients use a 12-gauge loaded with No. 4 non-toxic shot. In an effort to minimize wounded birds, he likes to hold fire until the birds are within 15 or 20 yards. Mike loves to call the birds, but warns against calling too frequently. He believes that over the season's duration, the birds actually learn his call and those educated birds will flare when they hear it.
Curt Welch, of Special Moments Guide Service, hunts public lands and offers what he calls the "sagebrush hunt." He sets up in the sage and the rocks, intending to get a south wind driving birds to him. He'll put out 6 or 12 shell decoys or 3 or 4 floaters in a bit of green grass to bring down the birds.
To get the attention of high flyers, a few shakes of a goose flag does the trick. On calling birds, Welch firmly believes that "silence is golden."
"If the birds are interested, then they'll come in. If not, they won't," he said.
So he rarely calls. Like Franklin, he notices that late-season birds get smart and are more likely to flare when called.
Welch warns boaters to remember that the mid-Columbia River is subject to daily water-level fluctuations, by as much as 10 feet in some cases because of diurnal power demands. It pays to keep an eye on the river to make sure you can get back to the boat launch.
Whether you favor a saltwater marsh, a freshwater slough or desert sagebrush goose hunt, the Columbia River has something for every hunter. l
Find more about Washington-Oregon fishing and hunting at: