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When Opportunity Honks

GIVEN THE HIGH humidity, the flock’s flight was more like a breaststroke. Giant Canada geese, 15 strong, oozed through the dense air as silent as a patrol of unmanned spy drones.

I would have missed them, too, had the lead gander not sent out a single “her-ONK!”

They were a few hundred yards to the right on a path due west, and appeared steadfast on reaching their destination — a field other than mine — in time for breakfast.

A bit of flagging and a few honks on my call wouldn’t hurt, I reasoned. After all, they were the first workable birds I’d seen all morning. The frequent shots from the hunters who’d beaten me to my “A” field proved that someone, at least, was having luck on North Dakota’s 2012 early Canada goose opener. While my left hand played a lonely short-reed waltz, I reached through the layout blind’s flagging port and gave a half-hearted whip of the black T-flag. Remy, my hunting dog, perked up from his nap just in time to see the lead goose waver and bank left. His cohorts followed.

“Woah!” I hissed, preemptively, as the wirehair’s haunches coiled. Remy froze belly down, save for his cropped tail that whipped an arc through the field stubble like a scythe at harvest.

Flagging completed, I drafted the assistance of my right hand to orchestrate the melody: rising double clucks followed by a sprinkling of murmurs and longer honks. As the audience drew near, they joined the chorus, and I played off their squawking with the best mimicry I could muster.

The decoy spread and inviting landing zone had them convinced this was an appropriate establishment for morning vittles. As the first black webbed feet tickled the stubble at 20 yards, I sent my three-shot greeting. Thirteen geese, now a bit wiser, flared wildly and high-tailed it toward the flat horizon. Remy dutifully retrieved the pair left behind.

The waterfowl hunting season ice was broken — and it was only Aug. 15.

Although 9 a.m. and still far short of North Dakota’s 15-goose daily limit, I called it quits as the mercury climbed to 80 degrees. Besides, I wasn’t worried about jamming the action into one day. With the prospects of many good waterfowling months ahead, and the regular-season opener still weeks away, this was the beginning of what would hopefully be a long, fruitful fall. It would be a season made longer thanks, in large part, to bulging populations of resident Canada geese. Hunters across the United States get the chance to frequently fill freezers because of liberal bag limits and more days afield. When it comes to goose hunting, the opportunities are many, and growing.

A Canada Comeback

Canada geese always have had their adoring fans, but there was a time when bagging a giant Canada was a rare trophy akin to dropping a Boone-and-Crocket buck. In fact, the subspecies was thought extinct until 1965, when the late Forrest B. Lee discovered a small resident flock of giants, Branta Canadensis maxima, at Silver Lake near Rochester, Minn.

Lee moved to Jamestown, N.D., where he led a Canada goose production and restoration program at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. By 1982, more than 6,000 giant Canada geese, produced from 64 captive breeding pairs, had been released in 26 North Dakota counties. Today, that numbers has exploded to more than 400,000 — five times higher than the state Game and Fish Department’s management goal of 80,000 birds. Similar success stories occurred in other states. After reintroduction in Michigan, for example, the number of giant Canada geese counted in the spring of 1970 had grown to 9,000. By 1986, Michigan held the first experimental early hunting season in the United States, just six days long, in September to help control its expanding resident flocks. Today, there are 279,000 birds there.

It gets better. The Mississippi Flyway giant Canada goose population, the largest resident flock in the United States, was last tallied at 1.78 million geese. That’s a whole lot of honkers.

Not only have Canada geese made a comeback, they’ve surpassed waterfowl managers’ wildest imaginations. It’s a success story to be celebrated.

“When I was a kid (I’m 47 now) it would be a big thing when you’d hear migrating geese overhead, and they wouldn’t stop until they hit the eastern shore,” said Pam Garrettson, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Migratory Bird Management in Maryland, and former Delta Waterfowl student researcher. “Now they’re everywhere.”

That’s probably not an exaggeration, either. It’s also a testament to the early work of managers like Lee, and the overall resiliency and adaptability of geese as a species. With an abundance of resident geese in a large chunk of the continental U.S., there also are ample prospects to target them, usually before the regular waterfowl season begins.

The ubiquitous early goose season typically begins in early September, and includes increased daily and possession limits. In 2006, the USFWS expanded that to allow states to begin harvesting resident Canada geese as early as Aug. 1. These conservation seasons weren’t even considered hunting seasons, instead referred to as “management takes” that include the option to eliminate daily bag limits. As of 2008, only North Dakota and South Dakota have implemented their own management takes for resident geese, however, Garrettson said Minnesota has requested authorization for an August start this year. “We’re trying to get the director to sign the letter of approval as we speak,” she said during an interview in late June.

Although not required, the state Game and Fish Department set North Dakota’s daily goose limit during the 2012 early season at 15. This was done purposefully to respect the resource, and to avoid pitfalls learned from past snow goose management strategies.

“We wanted to hinder the ‘sky carp’ mentality. Snow geese went downhill when people started referring to them that way,” said Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “Eliminating the bag limit devalues the bird. We didn’t want to see Canada geese go down that road, especially since so much work has gone into bringing them back.” “And besides, 15 Canada geese is a lot of meat,” he added.

August seasons, liberal limits, and the prospects of increasing hunting days all are measures meant to give hunters a crack at population control before more intense management tools are implemented. Crop depredation and nuisance calls put pressure on state wildlife agencies to become involved. Depredation permits can be offered to landowners with problem geese, which allows them to implement such measures that harass geese, or in extreme cases, destroy them or their nests. This is a last-ditch scenario. State wildlife agencies hold a philosophy that increased hunter opportunity should be the primary method of goose population management, which is why hunters get the opportunity to decoy honkers from August to January.

Making Memories

Early seasons offer the perfect scenario to introduce youngster or prospective waterfowlers when the weather is pleasant and geese still are relatively easy to fool.

For guys like Delta Waterfowl regional director Scott Terning, hunting early season Canada geese is a tradition spanning two decades. It’s also how the Minnesota native began his passion for field hunting.

“I remember my first time hunting early season geese well,” recalled Terning, who lives in Bismarck, N.D. “I didn’t have any field decoys, so I borrowed three-dozen shells from a friend.”

As a sophomore in high school, Terning worked for a farmer from time to time. One day, he noticed geese lighting in an alfalfa field and procured permission to hunt them the following morning.

“I had to ask the farmer where to go, how I should do it, everything. I was clueless,” he said. “A friend of mine and myself went out in the morning and set up. I remember we had some ducks give us a look, which was neat, but the biggest thing from that day were the mosquitoes: hordes of them. We literally put our jackets over us like a tent because the bugs were so bad.” The lone goose to give Terning’s spread a look got a free pass.

“We weren’t even ready because we were trying to save ourselves from the blood suckers,” he said, with a laugh.

Even though he was a pint or two low, Terning didn’t stay out of the goose fields for long. Now, 20 years later, he still manages to make it out during the early season to take advantage of the opportunities presented by an abundance of resident Canada geese. “I’ve hunted the early season ever since,” he said. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

Dust Off the Decoys

That homegrown bounty can be found across North America. Each state in the Atlantic Flyway has an early Canada goose season, and only two states (Missouri and Louisiana) don’t have seasons in the Mississippi Flyway. That could change, since Cajun Country is in the midst of possibly getting its own early Canada season, Garrettson said. North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas offer the same resident goose seasons in the Central Flyway, as do the Pacific Flyway states of Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. What that boils down to is more chances to hunt geese, in more states, more often.

“I would think that, nowadays, there are a lot of people who have access to hunt geese, who might not have had access 30 years ago,” Garrettson said. “And since landowners complain, you should have a fairly easy time finding places to hunt, at least compared to the regular hunting season.” Terning has experienced the evolution of Canada goose hunting.

“The popularity of the early Canada goose season has increased,” he said. “With the amount of birds around and the ability to get after them, it’s no wonder.”

In the mid-1990s when Terning first went afield after September geese, the wave of popularity was barely a ripple. As more and more people were drawn into the prospects offered by resident geese, that ripple grew to a tsunami. Part of that was because of the drastic rise in the waterfowl industry. Decoy companies seemingly sprang up over night in response to demand for innovative field fakes. Call companies by the dozen began making new-fangled acrylic short-reeds that people just couldn’t get enough of. Layout blinds, flagging, decoy trailers and in-your-face video action fueled the movement. Then, the Internet happened.

“I remember in high school going to the library, and there was this massive thing to find the ISBN number and author in order to locate a book on hunting in the library,” Terning said. “Now, there’s Google.”

With so much information literally a click away, hunters took to the web to ask questions, trade tips and brag about their hunts. Chat forums geared specifically toward waterfowling became melting pots of hunting knowledge. Today, it’s nothing to see a hunting sticker-clad trailer filled to the brim with lifelike full-body goose decoys, the latest in layout blinds, calls, flags and gadgetry — proof that hunters are taking advantage of copious Canada geese.

Get After ’Em

Szymanski refers to those hunters as specialists.

“They make up a small portion of hunters,” he said. “They utilize big spreads, scout a lot, and hunt in a little bit larger groups. Those guys are taking full advantage of the bag limit increases.”

Hunting August or September homebody honkers doesn’t require a trailer full of sculpted replicas, however. Terning’s three-dozen shells from 20 years ago will still bring in the big birds today. Like all waterfowling, being successful in the field means knowing the quarry, doing your homework and being patient. “Guys who may not specialize in geese but go out during the early season are still shooting between five and 10 birds a day,” Szymanski said.

Terning brings young hunters out to the field during the early season knowing they can sit all day in relative comfort, and maybe get the chance to shoot one of the largest game birds in North America.

“Even my kids, who are too young to hunt, come out and enjoy the opportunity. It’s a great time for anyone to come out, get their feet wet before the actual season, and spend time with family and friends. And, hopefully, bag a goose or two.”

By Tyler Shoberg
Photos by Fred Greenslade

Delta Waterfowl Foundation is a leading North American conservation organization, tracing its origins to the birth of the wildlife conservation movement in 1911. The Foundation supports research, provides leadership and offers science-based solutions to efficiently conserve waterfowl and secure the future of waterfowl hunting. Delta Waterfowl is based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Bismarck, N.D.