They were roosted south of us, several thousand snow and blue geese mixed with specks and ducks.
While scouting here in a cut rice field the afternoon before, we found them methodically eating through the waste grain that the combines had left behind. Experience told us that they would return to finish the job tomorrow morning. We would be there well before dawn to set the spread, a mixture of shells, windsocks, and kites weaving in the sunrise breeze.
Arriving a little before 5 a.m. we hoisted decoys and white parkas onto our backs and trudged across the muddy stubble. We found the spot in the field where the geese had left off the evening before and started setting decoys. Finishing just before the light began breaking in the east, we donned the white parkas and settled into our locations in a straight line near the edge of the spread. Soon we could see the lines of geese lifting from the roost and heading to our location. Ragged V’s of snows and blues barked out high pitched calls as they neared the spread and we answered them on our mouth calls as loud and fast as our lungs would muster.
As the first group closed the distance the geese knew something was not right even in the low light. But we continued to work our calls and a pair split from the main group on bowed wings. When the range was within 30 yards we fired and the geese tumbled and fell. Not a bad start for a warm December morning on the Texas prairie.
That hunt took place in the mid-1990s before the term “conservation season” became synonymous with light goose hunting. The vast majority of snows and blues wintered on the Texas coast then, primarily on the prairie rice growing region southwest of Houston. Towns like Eagle Lake, Katy, and El Campo were the most popular destinations for hunters seeking snow geese.
We used modified Olt 800 goose calls and tried our best to sound like a large flock. It was hard work but we took pride in fooling our prey and accepted the challenge with enthusiasm. We still duck hunted but that was just for fun. Hunting geese was our passion.
A change was coming however. The United States Fish and Wildlife service had become concerned with the effect that the large numbers of light geese were having on their breeding grounds. As the population has grown, the damage they are causing to the tundra in the Northwest Territories of Canada is alarming. They are literally eating their house and home.
Biologists studied the problem and concluded that the best way to combat the excessive population is through relaxed hunting practices. Thus the Arctic Tundra Habitat Emergency Conservation Act was born. More commonly known as the Light Goose Conservation Order, this act allows for early fall and spring seasons for snow geese only. Included in the package are new regulations allowing the use of electronic callers, unplugged shotguns, no limits and later shooting times.
Some resistance from the non-hunting public was overcome and the first season began in the spring of 1999. Early success caused the popularity of light goose hunting to grow. Then another change began taking place, a shift of the geese away from the Central Flyway and into the traditional duck hunting grounds of the Mississippi Flyway. Northeast Arkansas in particular has witnessed a huge surge in wintering populations in the last decade. There is a main reason why this has happened, says Travis Schneider, a Texas native who guides for snow geese in Alberta, Canada, and Arkansas.
“I first started to notice the numbers of geese dropping on the Texas coast around 2003,” he said. “When I was a kid you could drive around anywhere on the prairies and see birds by the thousands. Then the rice farming dropped off dramatically in the area. Now you see those concentrations of birds around Stuttgart, Jonesboro, and Harrisburg.”
’Tis The Season
Schneider leaves Canada and heads for Almyra, located southeast of Stuttgart, every November. He guides for Goosebusters Guide Service owned by Johnny “Hoot” Gibson who has been at the game for 31 years. They hunt during the regular season as well as the conservation season.
“I use a mouth call many days a year so I really enjoy being able to push play on that caller,” he said with a grin. “I have been guiding in Arkansas for six years now and it just seems to be getting better. Once we get into January the snow hunting starts getting good and that normally carries forward all the way until the middle of March.”
Tony Vandemore grew up hunting ducks in Missouri and wasn’t interested in hunting snows until the conservation season came into play.
“We started out with around 150 windsocks that first couple of years and did pretty well,” Tony said. “Then we had to start using better decoys after that and more of them as the geese became less attracted to our spread. Finally, in 2004, I really started thinking we were going to need a full bodied snow decoy to really be effective.
“I am an Avery Pro-Staffer so I contacted them and they built some for us to use. We hit the road and were so successful that the decoy went into full production. I use around 700-800 full bodies per spread now. I have found that this is really the magic number. Birds do not finish any better with more decoys.”
Habitat Flats is the name of Vandemore’s guide service. It is based in northern Missouri but this past season he and his guides headed south to Gregory, near Wynne. This was their first experience with hunting snows in this region and it was an eye opener.
“We hunt near the Squaw Creek Refuge in Missouri which can hold millions of geese at a time,” Vandemore said. “The birds are constantly moving in and out of the refuge so we will hunt all day due to the amount of traffic. It doesn’t work that way farther south we soon learned. The geese will move out early and will generally not move much past 10:30. So we quit hunting afternoons and focused on scouting and moving spreads for the next day’s hunt.”
Vandemore tries to keep his scouting area within an hour of his home base, an hour and 15 minutes tops. Once the geese are located, he and his guides will let the geese leave and set spreads in the dark the night before the hunt. Vandemore learned a new technique in Arkansas that they had never used in Missouri — placing the ground blinds on the roads near field edges that had green vegetation growing on them.
“We clothed our blinds in winter wheat covers and hunted the roads with no other cover,” Vandemore said. “We are used to having heavy corn stubble to hide our ground blinds in. So we didn’t know if this would work or not. To our surprise the birds were in our face.”
Using large numbers of decoys is a must for snows, along with plenty of motion above the spread needed as well. Vandemore uses flyers on stakes to simulate geese rolling forward and coming in to feed.
“Watch a flock and there is constant movement going on,” he said. “We will put out flyers and spinning devices with flyers on them in large numbers to draw geese where we want them to finish. Without motion in the air you will not decoy many snows.”
Snow goose hunting is a lot of hard work, no doubt about it. But there is nothing in waterfowl hunting that can compare to thousands of screaming geese wheeling over your head on cupped wings. The tactics have changed but the goal remains the same, to fool the wariest of waterfowl.
So if you haven’t experienced it get out there and give it a try. A warning though, snow hunting can get into your bloodstream and it will never let go.
Keep An Eye Out
Snow geese congregate in large numbers. It’s not unusual to see 10,000 or more in one flock.
So many birds in such close proximity create the perfect environment for the spread of disease. One ailment that must be watched closely for is avian cholera. This bacterial infection attacks the heart, liver, and respiratory system of the geese and can cause death in as little as 6-12 hours.
Anne Ballmann is a wildlife disease specialist for the USGS-National Wildlife Health Center. She is a veterinarian who also has a PhD in animal population medicine. Ballman is on the front lines of animal disease control.
“We had 15 different reports in 2014 from three flyways of avian cholera,” she said. “These all came from the Pacific, Central, and Mississippi flyways. We depend on hunters in the field to report their finds to their state departments as soon as possible. That way we can destroy the carcasses right away to keep spreading to a minimum.
“Scavengers can carry the bacteria to other populations quickly so if you find dead waterfowl in your area please let someone know immediately.”
Thousands of waterfowl could die quickly and have done so in the past. If you find a suspicious number of dead geese or ducks on your property please notify your local warden. Then the proper steps can be taken to minimize the impact of the disease.