After every recent duck season, hunting partner Greg Churan and I find ourselves saying “We’ve got to do this” when we receive several invitations to spring conservation goose hunts.
We get all fired up about the opportunity then interest fades as we settle back into non-duck season schedules. That all changed last February as Ducks Unlimited extended an invitation to its annual spring snow goose hunt for members of the media.
A DU sponsored hunt, top-flight lodge, free ammo (kind of important on a no-limit goose hunt), easy driving distance from Little Rock and in the peak of the snow goose northern migration in northeast Arkansas. No brainer.
DU Director of Communications James Powell and Senior Communications Specialist Matt Coffey were running point for the mid-February hunt. Our accommodations for lodging were courtesy of Kirby Carlson’s Great River Lodge near West Memphis. Carlson and Chad Halbert provided the guides through their Arkansas Duckmasters guide service.
Greg and I were some of the first guests to arrive as many of the other hunters were from various parts of the country and flew into Memphis to make the quick drive east. We had photographers, writers and marketing guys from mostly national magazines in vertical industries that cross paths with waterfowlers. The lodge featured an outstanding great room that made mixing and mingling with new acquaintances easy.
Most of the participants had never been to Arkansas before and even fewer had ever hunted snow geese. But in all honesty, I am not sure Greg or I knew exactly what to expect. I had been on one “professional” snow goose hunt about 15 years ago. My only real recollection was the huge decoy spread … and the one lone snow goose our group shot.
Halbert and his assistants tried their best to be conservative in predicting how the hunt would go in the morning. They scouted the area pretty hard, driving miles and miles and watching the snows’ flight patterns. Despite their tempered observations, those paying attention could sense the excitement in their voices. They had found “the spot” but didn’t want to jinx the hunt.
This was hunting after all and the predictability of waterfowl isn’t always reliable.
Reason For The Season
The weather had produced some strong southern winds the previous few days and tens of thousands of snows had moved into the dry fields near the Mississippi River bottoms. Arkansas is one of the prime wintering spots for light geese and their numbers continue to explode. By the sounds of things, our timing was right.
Not only was our hunting party there to enjoy the fun and fellowship of the DU hosted event, we were also participants in an ecosystem conservation effort to reduce the overabundance of mid-continent snow geese.
DU chief scientist Scott Yaich said “The ‘conservation season,’ oddly enough, is called a conservation season because it was created to help conserve arctic and subarctic breeding ground habitats. The dramatic increase in the agricultural food base of wintering populations of white geese over the last 100 years has allowed their populations to grow to the point that the supply of food on their breeding grounds was no longer able to support their increased numbers. So, they were destroying the sensitive arctic habitats that they share with many other bird species by quite literally eating themselves out of house and home.
“The conservation seasons were developed as a socially acceptable way of attempting to keep the lid on their population size.”
Spring snow goose season in Arkansas begins as soon as the regular migratory bird season ends, typically the last weekend in January. The use of electric callers, unplugged shotguns, no bag limit and extended shooting hours after sunset make for a big time when you get on the geese.
After an early wakeup and a light breakfast, our hunting crew began to assemble into the various vehicles that would carry us to the field Halbert had selected for the morning hunt. DU engaged Cabela’s as a sponsor so each hunter was provided a coat, hoodie and hat as well as a Herter’s shell bag.
The weather was in that tweener stage where it was a little cool at sunrise but the temperatures escalated to warm by mid-morning. Deciding what to wear proved to be a challenge because a heavy mist had settled into the area and was supposed to linger through the early morning.
Despite that feeling of being inadequately dressed for the weather, the next order of business was selecting a weapon. Walking into the lodge garage to see shotguns and cases of ammo laid out turned grown men into kids in a candy store. Imagine one of those movie scenes in which the characters open up the secret armory to hand out weapons and keep an enemy at bay.
While we were offered the opportunity to shoot our own guns, Winchester had provided various models of their semi-automatic shotguns. I selected an SX3 with the extended 10-shot magazine and loaded up five boxes of the provided 3-inch Winchester Blind Side BBs. Maybe five boxes was optimistic but my theory was I would rather have than have not.
With gun and gear in hand, we loaded up in the trucks and headed out.
Decoys And More Decoys
Greg and I rode with head guide Chad Halbert and Spencer Jeu of Jonesboro. Chad has built a network of other snow goose guides in the area and brings them on board when he needs a hand with a large group and, more importantly, their gear. Spring snow goose hunting is no joke when it comes to the volume of decoys, mats, parkas, sheets and other necessities.
Our small sub-group was the first to load up and head out on the Polaris Ranger to the hunting spot. The Ranger slipped, slid and slung mud in every direction. Chad advised us to wear waders and I quickly discovered why. The overnight drizzle had created a completely sloppy, slick, sticky mess. We were going to be setting up in a dry rice field that had very little stubble left so basically it was one large mud flat. Perfect for a goose, tough on a hunter and his gear.
We received our marching order from Halbert on decoy deployment and quickly began setting out stakes for the Texas style rag decoys. As the rest of the hunting party and other guides made their way out to the spot, the decoy set started to fill in. I didn’t get an exact count but I would estimate we set out between 1,500 and 2,000 decoys. Not including the two flying “vortex” style machines to give the spread some life. The total time of deployment with a dozen or so hunters was just short of one hour.
Each hunter was provided a white parka, a white bed sheet, a mat and a bedroll as Halbert had us spread facing east along his selected firing line that included a small, high spot that once served as a road dissecting our field. We were instructed to set our mats directly in the middle of a pile of decoys and cover up. I placed myself on the far north end of the line, which allowed for a wide range of fire without being obstructed by the next hunter on the line.
Wave After Wave
Halbert definitely put us in the right spot. It seems we were triangulated by three different roosts that allowed our huge spread and blasting eCaller to pull in group after group of snows and blues. We even had some out-of-season ducks and specklebellies buzz the decoys.
The roar created when several hundred, then several thousand geese begin to tornado over you is something to see, hear and feel. I am not going to rank it up as high as mallards in the timber but it’s undoubtedly an experience to put on the waterfowler bucket list. Deafening comes to mind.
Words Of Advice
Spring snow goose hunting with the numbers we experienced brought a whole new element into the mix. Trying to pick which one to shoot out of a group that size is challenging. Especially after you drop the first one and move on to second, third and fourth birds.
I didn’t find many opportunities to get past five shells, much less the 10 my Winchester would accommodate. I found as the morning went on it was better to load five and not put all that weight in the end of the gun. Aiming was without question better.
And be sure to bring plenty of bullets. Shots are not selective when dealing with that kind of volume and chasing and shooting running cripples uses a lot of shells.
Until Next Time
The hunt ended with a total of 72 geese, lots of shell hulls, a few sore shoulders and everything and everybody covered in sticky east Arkansas mud. But the daunting task of breaking down our decoy spread wasn’t quite so painful after a successful hunt.
Thanks to the crew at Ducks Unlimited, Arkansas Duckmasters and the Great River Lodge for a remarkable spring snow goose hunt. Glad to do our part in an effort to save the tundra and to make some new friends at the same time.