February 10, 2014
Arkansas, like the entire southern flyway, has a goose problem. Barring something unforeseen, the problem's going to get worse before it gets better.
Light geese (snow, blue and Ross's geese) have become so plentiful, they're devastating the entire Atlantic flyway -- as well as their own nesting grounds in the arctic tundra.
The devastation along the flyway is so bad that flyway states from North Dakota to Texas have issued Conservation Orders designed to encourage waterfowlers to help reduce the massive flocks.
Last week, I was invited along on one of those hunts near Casscoe, Ark.
Even as I arrived, it was obvious the geese were making an impact on the area.
I made it to Arkansas during the latest southern ice storm, and thought the bands of white I saw across the huge fields were snow lines. They were snow geese; tens of thousands of them in flocks that covered acres of cropland along the highways.
And there were airborne flocks, each in their typical v-formations. But with the wings of each v was made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of geese. It looked like wave after wave of bomber formations winging over the fields from a World War II newsreel.
For the farmers under those wings, they do represent invading forces.
"They've completely wrecked a couple of my fields," one told me as we stood shivering in the icy rain while fueling our vehicles, "there's just no way to describe how many there. You have to see if yourself to see how many there really are."
No kidding. I wouldn't have believed it had I not seen it myself.
The light goose populations are so high they're literally destroying their own nesting grounds in the arctic
Since 2009, the problem has been growing, leading to conservation orders like the one currently extending the hunting season for Arkansas waterfowlers. Under that order, goose hunters can hunt from 30 minutes before sunrise until 30 minutes after sunset. And there are no no daily bag or possession limits.
Another easing of restrictions included the removal of plugs from shotguns. On this hunt, I was provided a semiautomatic shotgun from Franchi. It included a feature I'd never seen in a gun designed for hunting- an extended magazine tube, giving me nine rounds instead of my accustomed limit of three when hunting.
What we called the "3-Squared" capacities made ingrained shooting habits obvious. As flocks were called into range, I'd start shooting. After three shots, I instinctively stopped and reached into my bandolier for more shells.
It was funny in this context, but it proves a point tactical trainers make all the time: the habits we ingrain, whether on a square range or hunting blind, stick with us regardless of the situation.
My unnecessary cease-fire in a hunting blind was the cause of some good-natured kidding. In an emergency situation, however, stopping with rounds still in your shotgun could be considerably less amusing.
Arkansas' conservation order spared me the potential embarrassment of having to try and use the goose call hanging around my neck. After all, one of the guides in our group included the current world champion duck caller. For these hunts, electronic callers were permitted. Their incessant calling and volume controls proved essential in luring the gigantic flocks of geese into shooting range.
So, too did what appeared to me to be excessive spreads of decoys. Turns out the spreads were large, but dwarfed by the sizes of the flocks that occasionally circled
And I was carrying another bit of unnecessary bit of gear, too: a federal waterfowl stamp. Under the Arkansas order, no waterfowl stamps were required. And my Alabama hunting license was all I needed along with proof of electronic registration with Arkansas Game and Fish for a free registration permit number. I carried that along on my iPhone.
If you wanted to give waterfowl hunting a try without many permits and requirements, this would be the kind of hunt you'd want to try- if accompanied by experienced waterfowl hunters- which I was.
The only real obstacle to enjoying the hunting was the weather.
The ice storm had coated everything, and temperatures stayed in the low teens with sustained winds sometimes as high as 30 MPH. That made the chill factor brutal, and the occasionally stinging ice and snow flurries added to the misery. It was the kind of weather where even good hunting gear and pocket warmers couldn't keep toes and fingers from going numb.
But, as one of my experienced hunting companions pointed out, "if you're a serious waterfowl hunter, you expect some of this kind of weather."
The exceptionally cold temperatures were the subject of some discussion- and levity- in the blinds, but any mention of a potentially changing climate brought on some spirited exchanges. But not everyone laughed about "global warming" through chattering teeth.
There has been some recent scientific reporting of a change in the arctic climate that might bring some relief from the migratory assault of the light geese.
"Just before I left the office," said Ducks Unlimited's James Powell, "I saw a summary of a new scientific study saying that warming temperatures had polar bears moving further south than their normal territories. Far enough down that polar bears were actually seen eating eggs in the northernmost edges of the light goose nesting grounds last nesting season."
"If the polar bears help with the new birds up there," he said, "and we keep hunting them hard down here, we might make a dent in them."
"That," he observed wryly, "will take some time. Until then, we'll just have to keep hunting."
I'm never going to be accused of being a serious hunter of any sort, but having been hunting for late season ducks in Alabama and light geese in Arkansas - in unseasonably cold conditions, I'd have to say it's a great sport.
If you've ever thought you might enjoy waterfowl hunting, the current situation with light geese might offer you the chance to give it a try without a lot of the normal permitting and reporting requirements - and the accompanying blessings of the states and their farmers whose fields are being overrun along the flyway.