by Will Brantley
Harvest statistics and expert advice reveal the best spots in the country for Canadas, light geese, whitefronts and brant
Dwight, Illinois, a tiny town 80 miles southwest of Chicago, should be an easy six-hour drive from Dawson Springs, Kentucky. But after five hours on the road, my friend Matt Seymore and I still have 200 miles to go. Just 50 miles into Illinois we saw the first snowflakes. Now, there's nearly a foot of snow on the ground.
Abandoned cars dot the ditches and shoulders. I keep the four-wheel drive on and the speed slow. For miles, we see no one else on the road, so stopping in the middle of the interstate to break chunks of ice from our windshield wipers isn't a problem. Still, we push northward.
Thousands of Canada geese are stacked up on Braidwood Lake near Dwight, and over the next three days, we plan to hunt them with longtime friend Richie McKnight. At 5:30 the next morning, only a couple of hours after checking in to our motel, we layer on heavy clothes and step into the parking lot to shake hands with McKnight, who is a champion goose caller and a guide for North Fork Outfitters (270-797-8641). I can see McKnight's eyes, but not much else, as he's covered by layers of warm clothes. "Put your helmets on, boys," he says. Steam erupts from under his neck warmer. "There's gonna be geese falling this morning."
The birds are reluctant to fly in the cold at first, so we wait. A couple of hours into the morning, we hear a honk behind the blind. A small flock approaches, half-gliding, just over the treetops behind us. Most of them begin a nervous circle, but a single takes particular interest in our calling and flagging. The goose wastes no time setting its wings on a slow drift to my end of the blind. "Shoot him, Brantley," McKnight whispers from behind his call. I ease the Browning to my shoulder and fold the big bird into the snow at about 15 yards.
A hundred or more geese are now pouring over the tree line, and McKnight is pleading to them. Many are circling our spread, some of them whiffling down, and soon a dozen are backpedaling over the decoys. I fire another two shots to bring down my second bird and then trade my shotgun for a camera the rest of the morning.
Everyone else follows suit, taking turns shooting. The scenario plays itself out with near monotony over the next three days; the hunting is so good it seems almost surreal. "I've hunted every province in Canada," McKnight says. "And I've never seen it any better than northern Illinois can be."
Indeed, this is one of the best goose hunting spots in the country. But waterfowlers can find action like this—whether for Canadas, specklebellies, snow geese, or brant—in every flyway. Based on harvest data collected each year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we've compiled a list of some of the best goose hunting destinations in the United States.
Hunters in many parts of the Atlantic Flyway enjoy great Canada goose hunting, but the best is in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York. Pennsylvania hunters shot 276,000 Canada geese during the 2007 season, more birds than any other state in the country. "During the early season, the hunting is good all over Pennsylvania," says Scott Reinhart, a DU regional biologist. "Resident birds are feeding on silage from the early corn harvest, as well as in the hayfields. Later in the year, you want to look for areas in the Susquehanna River Valley. Lancaster, York, and Dauphin counties are phenomenal. Our volume of agriculture provides a ton of food, and we have a near endless amount of water."
On Maryland's Eastern Shore, goose hunting and, indeed, all things waterfowl are part of the daily fabric. Abundant agriculture and immediate access to Chesapeake Bay provide ideal wintering habitat. Over the past three seasons, Maryland hunters have averaged more than 161,000 Canada geese.
New Yorkers have averaged nearly 124,000 geese the past three years. Paul Hess, a DU regional biologist and former New York guide, says the Finger Lakes region is his top pick of hunting areas. "This area is not only a great migration corridor but also a good wintering area," Hess says. "It has two very deep lakes that rarely freeze, and there's a tremendous amount of agricultural land around them. There are also good opportunities around the St. Lawrence River, although that tends to be an early-season spot because it freezes up much sooner."
Goose hunters in the Mississippi Flyway have seen a major shift in the action over the last couple of decades. Southern Illinois and Ballard County, Kentucky, were once among the best goose spots in the nation, but spreads in those areas have been eerily quiet for years.
These days, the northern stretches of the flyway get the nod. With an average harvest of more than 143,000 geese per season, Illinois is still a hot spot—it's just that hunters need to continue northward for the best action.
In Minnesota, numerous lakes and abundant agriculture, particularly in the western portion of the state, provide ideal staging habitat for the birds. Minnesota goose hunters (and there are nearly twice as many in Minnesota as Illinois) have averaged more than 217,000 geese the past three seasons, more birds than any other state in the flyway.
Jon Schneider, DU manager of conservation programs for Minnesota, said hunters often see a variety of Canada geese over their decoys when the migration is on. "There are resident giant Canada geese as well as a big influx of Eastern Prairie Population Canadas," he says. "On occasion, you'll see a few cackling geese as well."
Michigan hunters have averaged more than 149,000 geese the past three years. Most of these birds are shot in the agricultural lands in the southern portion of the state. "In the early season, hunters are trying to find dairy operations where they're chopping corn for silage," says Michigan waterfowl biologist David Luukkonen. "Other good areas to look for geese are recently harvested wheat and small-grain fields, as well as hayfields, provided they're close to roosting areas. We have a large local goose population in Michigan, but about 70 percent of it is in the southern part of the state."
With an abundance of habitat, Canada goose hunting is good throughout the Central Flyway. Hunters shoot impressive numbers of birds and enjoy high success rates in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and Texas. But waterfowlers in the Dakotas shoot the most birds. From 2005 to 2007, North Dakota hunters averaged nearly 121,000 Canada geese per season.
Beginning in mid-August, North Dakota hunters participate in a "managed take" of Canada geese outside of the regular waterfowl season. Hunters target over-abundant resident geese with a liberal five-bird limit. Migrant geese begin filling out the bag when regular waterfowl season opens, particularly in the Prairie Pothole Region.
"Hunters are setting up on birds in barley fields and cornfields for the most part," says Mike Szymanksi, North Dakota waterfowl biologist. "We also have more and more pea fields in the state, and these are usually pretty good for goose hunting. Peas and barley are grown more in the northern portion of the state, where they don't grow as much corn."
South Dakota hunters averaged nearly 99,000 Canadas per season the last three years. "The Missouri River area is a big draw for hunters," says Bruce Toay, a DU regional biologist. "It gets a good push of birds, and the hunting is good there late in the season. The northeast part of the state is also a good pick, as there are a lot of potholes and lakes, as well as grain agriculture up there. Also, most landowners in that area are pretty receptive to goose hunters because of depredation issues from giant Canadas."
Hunters in the Pacific Flyway need to look northwest for Canada geese. Oregon has led the way with the highest average harvest the last three seasons at more than 70,000 birds, with Washington and Idaho both close behind at around 65,000 birds. Although there are resident geese around, many of these birds are migrants.
"The Pacific Northwest is highly diverse for goose hunting," says Chuck Lobdell, DU's manager of conservation programs for the Lower Columbia River. "That's part of what makes this area so interesting. There are so many different types of areas to hunt and so many subspecies of geese in the area that a hunter could spend his whole life here and never fully figure out everything there is to know about goose hunting in this area. But the most consistent hunting seems to be the Columbia Basin in Washington. If I had to schedule a week to hunt where I was pretty sure I'd be on geese, it would be a late-season hunt either somewhere off the Snake River in Idaho, or in the Columbia Basin. Birds are going to be in the corn, barley, potato, and alfalfa fields in those areas."
"Hunters can find decent goose hunting anywhere in southern Idaho, but there's less competition in the east," adds Tom Hemker, wildlife program coordinator for Idaho. "The area around American Falls Reservoir is a classic spot with abundant grainfields and roosting areas.
Light and White-fronted Geese
The Mississippi and Central flyways get the nod for high-volume light goose hunting with Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas consistently leading the way in lesser snow and Ross's goose harvest. White-fronted geese utilize much of the same habitat, so good hunting for them is generally found in the same areas.
Texas has a rich light-goose hunting tradition. Over the past three seasons, Texans have averaged nearly 218,000 light geese per year, by far the biggest take in the country. "The agriculture has changed a lot, and we're seeing birds pop up in different parts of the state," says Dave Morrison, waterfowl program coordinator for Texas. "But the hot spots are still generally the same. There's still a lot of rice on the coast, so if someone is going to come to Texas to hunt snow geese, the coast is the place to go. We're also seeing more birds in the Panhandle, but hunting up there can be really tough." Texans have also shot an average of 90,000 white-fronted geese the past three seasons, tied with Louisiana for the highest take in the country.
In addition to white-fronted geese, Louisianans have averaged about 74,000 light geese the past three seasons. Blue-phase lesser snow geese make up a large portion of the Louisiana harvest. Agricultural land along the Mississippi River Delta, as well as the Gulf Coast, provides abundant wintering habitat for these birds.
Arkansas hunters have averaged about 84,000 light geese the past three seasons. More and more specklebellies are also showing up in Arkansas every year, and hunting them is increasing in popularity. Arkansas hunters shot more than 38,000 specks during the 2007 season.
"Arkansas is a huge wintering ground for both snow geese and whitefronts," says Luke Naylor, Arkansas waterfowl biologist. "At any time of the season, there can be geese anywhere throughout the Mississippi River Delta, and with all the agricultural land out there, the geese can be spread across a wide area. Those birds have an amazing ability to find and utilize new food resources in a short amount of time."
With abundant rice agriculture, California's Sacramento Valley is another area worth noting for light geese and specklebellies. Californians have averaged more than 51,000 specks and 55,000 light geese the past three seasons.
Hunting light geese in the Atlantic Flyway means targeting greater snow geese for the most part. New York and Pennsylvania hunters shoot the largest total tally of these birds, with New Yorkers averaging 8,566 snows the past three seasons and Pennsylvanians averaging 10,400. Maryland and New Jersey hunters also contribute heavily to the snow goose harvest. However, Delaware hunters enjoy the highest success rates on greater snow geese. Even with a fraction of the active goose hunters in Delaware (4,000) than are in New York (17,467) and Pennsylvania (36,200), Delaware hunters have taken more than 7,100 greater snow geese the past three seasons.
"While Delaware used to support less than 1 percent of the greater snow goose population, it now supports more than 30 percent," says Matt DiBona, Delaware waterfowl biologist. "Peak numbers observed in aerial surveys the last five years have ranged from 91,000 to 328,000. Studies have shown the birds are all roosting in the coastal wetlands at night and then flying west at dawn to feed in wheat, barley, and rye fields."
Brant hunting is a specialized pursuit practiced primarily in the coastal waters of the Atlantic Flyway. The coast of New Jersey hosts more wintering brant than any other place in the flyway and consistently has the highest brant harvest in the country. In fact, some years more than 75 percent of the Atlantic brant population winters in this area.
"Brant are in our shallow coastal estuaries and are primarily found along our southern coast," says Paul Castelli, New Jersey waterfowl biologist. "For most of the fall and winter, they're in those shallow bays feeding on sea lettuce and other algae, as well as eelgrass where it's available. Hunting access for freelancers is actually quite good. There are a lot of public wetlands on the coast of New Jersey. Several state management areas, as well as the E.B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, provide good public hunting grounds."
Pacific (black) brant hunting opportunities are much more limited within the United States than Atlantic brant opportunities. More than 80 percent of the population typically winters in Baja California, Mexico. In the United States, California hunters take the largest number of black brant in the flyway and have averaged more than 1,800 the past three seasons.
That said, most black brant nest in Alaska, and there are early-season opportunities for them there. Although there are fewer than 2,000 active goose hunters in the state (and no doubt even fewer who hunt brant), Alaskans have averaged more than 900 birds the past three seasons.
"All the black brant gather in Izembek Lagoon (within the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge) near Cold Bay," says Tom Rothe, Alaska waterfowl biologist. "They build up throughout September, and by October, the whole population is in that lagoon, which is full of eelgrass. Then, around the end of October or first of November, they pick up and fly across the Pacific to California and Mexico."