Late Winter Snow Geese
Author: Philip Bourjaily
Snow and Ross geese have literally eaten themselves out of house and home. To keep them from destroying what is left of their over-populated breeding grounds, hunters have been called to arms. While at first, this seems like a waterfowlers dream come true, without the right know-how, you might as well be whistling Dixie through that goose flute!
Truth be told, we didn't start travelling to southwest Iowa five years ago fueled by a righteous sense of duty to save the snow geese from themselves. The mission entrusted to hunters by the Fish and Wildlife service to reduce snow goose numbers added a sense of purpose to the trip, but mostly, we just wanted to get out of the house.
We found only one other party of hunters checked into the Tall Corn Motel in Shenandoah, that first year of the late winter season. I talked to one of them in the parking lot the day we arrived. We'd come with 600 hefty bags and a vague idea of how to goose hunt. They'd just thrown their guns in the truck and driven over from Dubuque without a clue about how to hunt northbound snow geese in March. "We almost killed some today but we didn't have decoys," he told me. "So we looked all over town and couldn't find any snow goose decoys. We had to buy 50 garbage bags."
"Gee, I don't know much about this," I said, trying to be helpful, "but I've heard you need, like, 400 or 500 to do any good."
"I'm not blowing up any 500 garbage bags," he said angrily and stalked off. I didn't talk to him again, and I never found out how they fared with their spread of inflated white bags. The way the wind blew that weekend, though, I imagine they spent more time chasing decoys than geese.
We scattered our own bags in the corn stubble of a field, in the wide Nishnabotna river bottoms. We had a duck club on one side, the river on the other, a refuge a few miles away. It's the ideal spot for northbound birds to sit down after a long morning's flight; what snows like is a feed field near water when they're travelling. Skeins of geese on their way out to feed from the refuge and migrating birds alike travelled the river bottom by the hundreds of thousands, passing back and forth over our white plastic spread for three days.
Every once in a while a flock would spill air, dropping 100 feet in an instant, study our bags a little more closely, and go on their way. As we pleaded on our new goose calls a few juveniles split off the big flocks and came in. Our kill that year was seven birds in three days.
Jump ahead five years to last March. We're hunting the same field, but there are no garbage bags hanging on the corn stalks this year. We've accumulated a full 1,000 windsocks, 10 dozen silhouettes, a hundred shells and two electronic callers. It's a freakish 70 degrees with a 30 mile per hour south wind, and the snows are travelling north.
A hundred snow geese circle warily above our decoys as
Dave Kelsen twiddles the knobs on his electronic caller. "This is the part they don't like," he whispers, peering up at the birds through the slits in his goose chair, punching a button to fast forward through the sound of a lone goose on his tape. At the other end of the spread I can hear Dan Vonderhaar doing the same. The rest of us make noise on our mouth callers to cover the silence. The speakers once again grumble with the sound of hundreds of feeding snows and in the agonizingly slow way of snow geese, the flock drifts lower.
Lulled by the gabbling from the speakers, reassured by our big spread, the birds comes too close, hovering irresistibly just inside gun range as they give us one final, wary look. Will they commit, or slide off around the edge of the spread? After five years of frustration with these ornery birds, we bet on the latter. Our volley of high velocity BBs drops four and the rest catch the strong wind, riding quickly back out of range.
Dave adds the birds to the growing pile beside his chair. The heap of geese on the ground, 20 and counting, represents our best day ever in our five years of late winter snow goose hunting. The next morning we stare at empty skies all day; the geese have moved north on the warm wind. One lost single commits suicide in our spread before we pack up and call it a year.
Even with the last day a near total bust, by the end of a two and half day hunt, last March, we'd shot 35 geese. Granted, 35 snows is no world record; every year we hear about the parties who were in the right place at the right time to kill 100. But do the math: 35 is 5 times 7. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first called to hunters to help reduce snow goose numbers, biologists guessed we needed to triple the harvest to make a dent in the 6 million or more birds in the mid-continental flock. The mid-continental flock of snow geese, as almost every waterfowler now knows, has grown too large for its arctic habitat to support. Unless the population can be cut in half, they'll continue destroying their James Bay breeding grounds through overfeeding. If our group has quintupled its harvest, are other hunters doing the same? And are there enough of us in the field to make a difference?
Judging by numbers released from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, we're very close to killing enough geese to make an impact on populations. The magic number is 1.4 million birds a year, taken by all means in all seasons. According to the models, if hunters can sustain a 1.4 million goose harvest for 6 to 7 years, we can cut the population in half.
In 1999-2000, we hit the mark exactly. The U.S. harvest, including the regular 1999 fall season, the late winter 2000 season and the Conservation Order period (March 15 to April 15) totalled an estimated 1.3 million birds. Add a 100,000 for the Canadian harvest, and you reach 1.4 million. 73,565 hunters participated in the March 15/April 15 Conservation Order period alone, almost double the previous year's number.
Unfortunately, 2000-2001 saw the harvest fall to an even million birds. "It was a bad season," says Dr. Bruce Batt of Ducks Unlimited, who has worked extensively on the light goose issue. "The birds blew by in the spring on their way north. I refuse not to be optimistic that we can get harvest levels where we need to, because I don't think there's any other socially or politically acceptable or practical way to reduce numbers."
Guy Zenner, a biologist who served on the Arctic Goose Work Group that originally looked into measures to increase light goose harvest, says the use of electronic callers has definitely increased the harvest. "In field studies, electronic callers outperformed mouth callers by 7-8 to 1 in the northern states and 4 to 1 or so down in Louisiana," he notes.
While electronic callers increase hunter's effectiveness, a good decoy spread remains a must. Last year, we set the spread in the usual huge loose blob, a kind of fat banana shape with a landing hole behind our blinds. Spreading the decoys out, we've always reasoned, increases the visibility of our set up. Another party hunted about a quarter mile away from us. They had fewer decoys than we did -- 300 or so -- and they'd placed them in a tight ball. Consistently throughout the day, we decoyed and shot into flocks while the other group watched. The singles, on the other hand would come first to our spread, bounce off, and fly to the other party's decoys, almost every bird committing to land in the center of the tight ball of decoys and falling to a single shot at 15 to 20 yards. At the end of the day, we compared notes. We'd shot 22 geese, the other group, 23.
So here's the plan for next year: we'll go ahead and put the big spread out as always. Two or three hundred yards to the side, we'll set out a knot of our most realistic decoys, guarded by our one or two designated singles shooters. With luck, we'll get the flocks and the lone geese, too. We plan to tweak our gear collection, too. We've got a CD caller, some of G&Hs Mirage shells, and perhaps even a few full bodies on our wish list.
Where will it lead?
Often I wonder, as I'm rummaging through my decoys in a vain attempt to find something else buried beneath them in the basement, if it's worth storing all the decoys and blinds and other goose paraphernalia I've accumulated for 362 days a year just to use them on one long weekend in March. The answer, in light of the news that we're on the brink of shooting enough birds to make a difference, is yes. If we waterfowlers can solve the snow goose crisis with our shotguns we'll have written a unique chapter in conservation history, saving the tundra 35 birds at a time.
The Shooting Editor of Field & Stream magazine, Philip Bourjaily sold his first outdoor story in 1985. He is a 1981 graduate of the University of Virginia, and has written for a number of outdoor publications on hunting, fishing and conservation.