by Gary Koehler
The skies over these varied outposts have long been flecked with ribbons of Canadas, snows, or specks. Hunters followed the flights, like magnets. Times have changed, and so have migration patterns in some cases, but these and similar scattered venues have become a part of America's waterfowling heritage
Eagle Lake/Katy, Texas
Perhaps because of the prevailing geography, Texans are inclined to think big. Take rag goose decoys, for example. Elsewhere, a bundle of white T-shirts, pillowcases, or diapers may have been deemed sufficient to initiate this popular waterfowling deception. Not so in the Lone Star State.
Nope, when Marvin Tyler, a restaurant owner, plotted strategy with a friend, they decided tablecloths would be a better choice, if only because they were larger, and a ready supply was at hand. Or so the story goes—a tale that has become a part of Texas goose hunting folklore. Enormous spreads of white rag snow goose decoys, in varied forms, remain part of the seasonal landscape. This is goose country, after all.
Check out the tall sign greeting visitors entering Eagle Lake. Large letters spell out "Goose Capital of the World." This may not be an idle boast. During any given year this region will winter more than one million snow geese, in excess of a half-million white-fronted geese, and 300,000 to 400,000 lesser Canada geese. Ducks are conspicuous, too.
The birds come here to feast, rest, and soak up the Texas sun in the rice stubble. Capt. William Dunovant has been credited with first cultivating rice here in 1896 via an irrigation system linked to Eagle Lake, a 1,400-acre body of water adjacent to the town. Convict laborers from a local prison farm were recruited to build levees and harvest the initial crop. More than 60 years later, commercial goose hunting began to take hold, with Jimmy Reel, Tyler, and a handful of others generally recognized as the pioneers.
"There was a whole generation here before we started," says waterfowl hunting guide Kim Martin, who's been in the game for the past 21 years. "I think it's probably a lot bigger now than anyone ever thought it would get."
"Back then," Martin adds, "outfitters didn't have to pay to lease land like they do now. There weren't as many people in the business and, if you knew some farmers, you always had a place to go. That's all changed."
Exactly how big this business is now is conjecture, but about 100,000 hunting licenses are sold in Texas each year. In addition to the natives, let's not forgot the thousands from across the country who travel to Colorado County and surrounding areas—many in search of geese.
It may not seem fair to single out Eagle Lake and Katy as the goose towns. Like most of the municipalities featured in this report, they are but focal points, these two being situated southwest of Houston in the vast rice prairie region. Neighboring Garwood, Altair, Wharton, East Bernard, Hockley, Brookshire, Lissie, and others have all had their share of memorable days, too.
There is, however, something vaguely alluring about Eagle Lake, population 3,500-and-change. One factor is the Prairie Edge Museum on Main Street, but, more so, there is the Farris Hotel at the corner of Post Office Street and McCarty Avenue.
The Farris, which was founded in 1912 and earned a listing on the Texas Historic Register, is, after a brief hiatus, now open once again. This hotel is a landmark to countless road-weary goose hunters, having served as a rest stop and waterfowlers' gathering point for nearly 30 years. New owners took over this spring.
Just up the road apiece, Michelle Phillips is pouring a cup of steaming coffee at Snappy's, formerly known as the Country Kitchen restaurant. It is mid-morning and the goose hunters have long since departed.
"We open at 4 a.m. during the hunting season. The rest of the year, we open at 6," Phillips says. "I don't know what kind of average crowd we have during the goose season, but I know sometimes we have a hundred people in here early in the morning. Other days, maybe 25 or 30. Weekends are busier."
Katy also gets plenty busy each October when it hosts crowds of up to 40,000 at the annual Rice Harvest Festival. The Texas State Championship Duck Calling Contest, sponsored by Ducks Unlimited and Bass Pro Shops, coincides with this event. In August, as one might expect, Katy entertains what is billed as the World Snow Goose Calling Championship.
Goose country? Big goose country.
Numbers Game: Southeast Texas hosts the largest concentrations of wintering snow, blue, Ross', white-fronted, and lesser Canada geese in North America.
Having been flooded, dredged, ditched, drained, burned, and otherwise manipulated over the years, it may seem a wonder that the property contiguous to Horicon National Wildlife Refuge now attracts more Canada geese than ever before. But that just may be true.
At 32,000 acres, Horicon has long been touted as the nation's largest cattail marsh, which is not necessarily a compliment. Improved water- and land-management techniques during the past decade, however, have resulted in extraordinary goose usage, as well as increased on-site duck numbers.
"We usually peak around 200,000 geese at a time, but you have to realize that some of the birds leave, and we have others take their place. So, a million birds might come through here," says Patti Meyers, who has served as the federal refuge manager for the past 12 years.
"It's hard to say when the peak buildup is, but the last few years it has been getting later and later," Meyers adds. "The peak years ago might have been late October or early November. But it has been going into December now. I think some of that has to do with the weather pattern."
The Green Bay Lobe of the Wisconsin Glacier, roughly 10,000 years old, formed Horicon Marsh. The marsh stretches 14 miles long, with the northern two-thirds controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the southern one-third managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The state bought up nearly 11,000 acres of wetlands in 1940, with the USFWS one year later purchasing 18,000 adjoining acres to create the refuge. In 1943, the Wisconsin Conservation Commission gained control of the Rock River dam that regulated marsh water levels.
"In the early 1940s, you were lucky to see a Canada goose out there," says Jack Nugent, a Waupun native who has been hunting waterfowl in this region for nearly 50 years. "There just weren't any in the early years of the refuge."
Nugent, a longtime Ducks Unlimited volunteer and former Wisconsin DU state chairman, adds that, before the creation of the refuge, two exclusive hunting clubs (the Diana Shooting Club and Chicago Shooting Box) at one time controlled 14,000 acres of marsh. The duck hunting opportunities were stunning.
"But for years the marsh was pretty much left alone," Nugent says. "Not much was done to it, and the cattails took over everything."
That is no longer the case on this southeastern Wisconsin waterfowl magnet. Three large-scale DU projects have had a positive impact, and extensive water management is at the heart of Horicon's current good health.
"It's a very labor-intensive task," Meyers says. "What we decided to do was, through water management, create a number of moist-soil units. That is hard to do when you have a cattail marsh. We have 15 units, and each year there are several that are extremely attractive to waterfowl."
Goose hunters have made the towns of Waupun, Horicon, and Mayville popular destinations for generations. Simple blinds scattered around the refuge's perimeter are available on a daily rental basis. The only catch is that the bag limit occasionally has dropped to as low as one goose per person a year in this hunting zone. Special permits must also be acquired well in advance of the season.
How deep does the tradition go? Winnebago, Fox, Sauk, and Menominee Indians, among other tribes, relied on the marsh for sustenance before European settlers moved in. Waupun years ago began billing itself as The Wild Goose Center of Wisconsin. This is the home of the Wild Goose State Trail. Horicon High School athletic teams are called the Marshmen. Local businesses incorporate the Canada goose into their logos. The state's first youth waterfowl hunts were launched here 20 years ago. And an estimated 400,000 tourists visit the marsh each year just to look at the geese.
"We're known for the geese, but the refuge is much more," Meyers says. "In fact, the duck production here has really taken off. I know it's nothing like the Dakotas, but for Wisconsin, this past spring was absolutely incredible."
Horicon. Oft-wrinkled, but aging well.
Slippery Slope: While relatively few waterfowlers employ them these days, marsh skis were first introduced in Wisconsin more than a hundred years ago. Many Horicon gunners used skis to trek to hard-to-reach potholes in the thick cattail marsh.
Olive Branch, Illinois
The wooden sign along Route 3 at the south edge of Olive Branch is in dire need of touch-up paint. Age may have faded the message, but not the memories of the huge numbers of birds that once supported this dauntless proclamation: Horseshoe Lake, Goose Capital of the World.
These are the distant reaches of the Southern Illinois quota zone, where once upon a time as many as a half-million Canada geese could be counted on to wile away a good portion of the winter gleaning leftovers from row after row of picked corn and soybean fields.
The quota zone was established by the state wildlife agency in 1960 to better monitor the goose harvest. While special regulations have been in effect in Jackson, Union, Williamson, and Alexander counties ever since, the region's status as a prime goose-hunting destination was recognized nearly a century before.
Waterfowl hunters began flocking to Mississippi River sandbars to hunt migrating Canadas shortly after the Civil War. It has been said that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant helped feed his Union forces by sending troops to the river to shoot geese.
"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.
When the regulatory ax fell in 1995 on the Atlantic Population Canada goose season, reverberations thundered across all of Maryland's Eastern Shore. The closure, caused by a precipitous 75 percent drop in this flyway's migratory goose population, figured to cost the region anywhere from $20 to $40 million annually. That's the loose price tag some attached to the value of the goose-hunting industry.
"Obviously, it was painful for everybody," says Larry Hindman, waterfowl project leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "It really hurt gas stations, motels, and restaurants, which lost a lot of business. As far as outfitters, goose hunting was not a full-time business for most of them anyway. Most of those people did other things."
Thirty years ago, Eastern Shore waterfowlers would have scoffed at the notion of a closed season on Canada geese. Recreational hunting and the commercial guiding business were booming back then, with bag limits topping out at three birds a day, and seasons running as long as 90 days. Times were good. And goose hunting was a way of life.
"There's still a lot of interest in goose hunting because of the great tradition," Hindman says. "The goose is a mainstay of our waterfowl hunting. We've enjoyed some of the most incredible goose hunting to be found anywhere."
Preliminary spring 2003 survey numbers indicate that the birds continue to make a strong comeback. The Atlantic Population Canada goose numbers have rebounded nicely over the past several years, increasing from an estimated low of 29,000 breeding pairs nine years ago to more than 164,000 breeding pairs today. Seasons have been reinstated for migratory Canada geese up and down the Atlantic Flyway, with restrictions varying by state. Shooting returned to Maryland in 2000 with a two-week-long season; the next year afforded 30 days; and last year the dates were extended to 45 days (one bird limit).
Folks have begun smiling again in Chestertown, located on the banks of the Chester River, which is recognized as the heart of Eastern Shore Canada goose hunting country. Kent, St. Anne's, and Talbot counties are undisputedly the top dogs, and have been for some time.
"There's a lot of history here," says Tom Marvel, a fourth-generation Kent County goose guide whose family has been involved with commercial waterfowl hunting since the 1920s. "My grandfather had a 1930 Model A Ford that he would take hunters out into the field in.
"He would drive the hunters to a hedgerow and put out two live Canada geese as decoys, one on each side of the hedgerow. The geese couldn't see each other, so they'd call back and forth."
Live decoys are long-gone, but Chesapeake Farms lives on, only eight miles east of Chestertown. Formerly known as Remington Farms, this 3,150-acre wildlife and agricultural demonstration area has been managed for waterfowl since the early 1940s. That's when the late Glen L. Martin began improving the property by building ponds; he also introduced a flock of Canada geese.
The E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company bought the property in 1956 and named it Remington Farms. Agricultural practices were maintained, and trained biologists managed the acreage for wildlife. That has remained stable, save for the name change. Driving tours are now available at Chesapeake Farms—but not from October through February.
One does not have to travel too far down the highway before landing in Easton, whose Waterfowl Festival this year will celebrate its 33rd anniversary November 14-16. Those looking for a goose and duck weekend can't miss with this one.
The makeup of the event has changed, to be sure. Where at one time visitors were likely either goose hunters or Eastern Shore residents, these days the entire eastern seaboard is represented. A license plate check might reveal as many vehicles from New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut, Florida, and elsewhere, as those from Maryland.
"The festival was founded in 1971 by a group of people in this area with the support of Ducks Unlimited," says Judy Price, who has served as the festival's executive director since 1996. "Basically, it was a tribute to the migration of the goose and coincided with the initiation of the goose hunting season, which traditionally opened about the middle of November each year."
"Now, I think we appeal to different types of visitors," Price adds. "There are art collectors who are looking for the best in wildlife art. There are hunting enthusiasts. There are decoy collectors. And families on weekend getaways."
And why not? Goose hunters from across the nation still consider this region a hallowed pilgrimage. And while Canadas may or may not be in season during festival weekend these days, everything else is in place.
Many activities—all geared to wildlife enthusiasts—are available. There are retriever training seminars, fly-fishing demonstrations, a sporting clays tournament, a decoy show and auction, arts and crafts, wildlife art, sculptures, shooting exhibitions, decoy carving classes, the World Goose Calling Championship, Mason-Dixon Regional Duck Calling Contest, and more.
"The involvement of our volunteer corps has been the primary reason our festival has remained strong," Price says. "We have more than 1,500 volunteers offer their time and services. More than 50 committees work year round to organize the exhibits and the events. Community pride is a part of this, and it is truly a community effort in many ways."
This is also big business—up to 20,000 people attend the event each year. To date, the Waterfowl Festival has donated more than $4.2 million to help fund wildlife habitat conservation projects throughout the Atlantic Flyway, including nearly $1 million to Ducks Unlimited.
Giving something back to the resource is simply seen as the right thing to do.
Sights and Sounds: If you visit the Eastern Shore, the 27,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge at Cambridge is a natural side trip. Or, stop by the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury, which features an outstanding decoy collection and related artifacts.
And from among the rest...
Those historic goose towns featured are not the only municipalities with a goose-hunting pedigree. Not by a long shot. There are many, many others. Here is but a sampling of additional places to get goosed.
Consider Sumner, Missouri, which this fall celebrated its 49th annual Wild Goose Festival. Located near the Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, this region has, for decades enjoyed some of the finest goose shooting in the nation. Sumner is the home to "Maxie," a fiberglass Canada goose sculpture that stretches 40 feet tall, boasts a 61-foot wingspan, and weighs more than two tons. And wouldn't you know it, locals call this The Wild Goose Capital of the World.
Or how about Kenmare, North Dakota, which this year hosted its 15th annual Goosefest, a seven-day hunting festival? Up until a few years ago, Kenmare was a traditional stop for up to 400,000 snow geese. Since then, however, mild weather has kept the birds holed up in southern Saskatchewan much later than what had been the norm. Tabbed the Snow Goose Capital of North Dakota, Kenmare's high school mascot is named Honker.
In the Pacific Flyway, don't count out the Tri-Cities (Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick) in south-central Washington. Situated at the confluence of the Columbia, Snake, and Yakima rivers, the Tri-Cities region has, since the development of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project more than 40 years ago, developed into a big-time Canada goose wintering site. Up to 300,000 geese will move through the area during migration.
(Those seeking more information on the Easton Waterfowl Festival are advised to check the organization's Web site at www.waterfowlfestival.org. Information about the Southern Illinois quota zone can be acquired by calling 1-800-GEESE-99. For information on Horicon Marsh, visit www.horiconmarsh.com. And to learn more about Texas rice country goose hunting, visit www.eaglelake.com or www.katy.com.)
Goose Droppings: Looking for a Snow Goose Festival? There's one each year at the Gunnison Bend Reservoir (February/March) near Delta, Utah, and another in Chico, California (January). Aleutian goose fans can watch the birds at the Aleutian Goose Festival (March) in Crescent City, California. And don't forget the Washington Brant Festival at Blaine/Birch Bay (April).
Goose Lost: At one time, there were at least three municipalities known as Goose Creek—one each in Kentucky, South Carolina, and Texas. Don't bother looking on the map for the Texas version—it disappeared via city consolidation in 1948.
Border Jumping: Quill Lake may be known as the Goose Capital of Saskatchewan, but the province's largest goose monument resides in Kindersley. And it is a far cry from the mammoth 22-foot-tall, 28-foot-high Canada goose sculpture that has been perched in Wawa, Ontario, since 1963.
More Caps: Additional self-appointed titles from the hinterlands include Kirwin Reservoir, the Goose Capital of Kansas, and Lac qui Parle near Watson/Milan, the Goose Capital of Minnesota.