Story at a Glance
Towns covered in this feature:
- Eagle Lake/Katy, Texas
- Waupun, Wisconsin
- Olive Branch, Illinois
- Chestertown/Easton, Maryland
- The Rest
"I don't know about that," says Russell Garrison, who managed the Horseshoe Lake Conservation Area for 34 years before retiring last January. "But I know things have changed here. It's less hectic. The goose hunting's more laid back now."
No longer are local motel parking lots filled with pickup trucks and rooms packed with hunters and their dogs from opening day until season's end. Rarely is it necessary to book hunting dates at local day-shooting clubs months in advance just to be assured a seat in a pit. The geese still come, but rarely in hordes that once tickled the imagination.
"Not for the past 15 years or so," Garrison says. "I personally think that changes in farming practices in Southern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois have had an impact. It used to be that the farmers would plow their fields after the harvest.
"Now, with no-till farming and similar practices, there's more waste grain left in the fields. The geese have learned that. Unless they get a foot of snow on the ground covering those fields up north, a lot of the geese stay up there. When they do get that foot of snow, though, the geese will come down here."
Snow and ice upstate stimulates Canada goose migration to the quota zone. But sustained warm, dry weather can make for long days afield in what is called Little Egypt. And that is regrettable, because this region is truly rich with waterfowling history.
Horseshoe Lake Wildlife Management Area, once the site of a private duck- hunting club, was established in 1927 when the Illinois Department of Conservation (now Illinois Department of Natural Resources) purchased the first 49 acres. The purpose was to create a Canada goose sanctuary. The property, a portion of which is open to public goose hunting, now encompasses 9,550 acres, including the namesake 2,400-acre Horseshoe Lake.
"This is the first one (refuge). This is where it all started," Garrison says.
Commercial waterfowl hunting was well under way here at least a dozen years earlier, but the refuge spawned a proliferation of goose hunting clubs throughout the region —totaling more than 90 at one time. In 1947, the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge was established about 50 miles north of Horseshoe. The next year, the state purchased the Union County Wildlife Management Area, which is right up the road. The purpose of these sites was to distribute the wintering geese.
The plan worked so well that the southernmost tip of Illinois became an annual destination for thousands of goose gunners. The Goose Pit, a restaurant whose walls were covered in locally drawn cartoons poking fun at the hunters, became a landmark before it was lost to fire. Call-making icons Ken Martin and Charlie Bishop crafted an untold number of goose calls while living in Olive Branch and Jonesboro, respectively. The Winchester World Open and the Avery International goose-calling competitions have well-established roots in Carterville. And an argument could be made that more world-class Canada goose callers reside here than in any other single locale.
All of which brings to mind a bumper sticker, perhaps now considered vintage, which once decorated vehicles from Marion—which is unquestionably today's quota zone goose-hunting epicenter--to Cairo: Honk if You Love Southern Illinois. An accompanying picture of a Canada goose provided a compelling visual. Honk.
Honker Heritage: In 1987, Tim Grounds became the first person ever to win the grand slam of goose calling—the World Open, National, and U.S. Open—in a single year. Three years ago, Grounds' son, Hunter, became the first youngster to win both the world's junior goose and duck calling championships the same year.