By Phil Bourjaily
The call came at three o'clock on a cold December afternoon. "Can you hunt right now? Six of us are done and the geese won't stay out of the decoys." I was out the door and down the road in 10 minutes. Geese were flying overhead the whole way, but I worried that each passing flock would be the last one of the day and I'd arrive just in time to help pick up decoys under an empty sky.
I pulled into the field. Then a friend drove my Jeep back out as I jumped into a blind. Five minutes later, I took a double out of the first flock that decoyed. Several minutes after that I bagged my third goose. All the birds were giant Canada geese weighing 12 pounds or more, and one of them had been banded, as I later discovered, just a few miles away.
From a remnant flock found on Silver Lake in Rochester, Minnesota, in 1962, giant Canada geese have spread across the country to become a mainstay of 21st-century waterfowling. They make up a growing portion of the harvest in the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways, and not just in the early seasons specifically established for these big birds. Giants compose more than 60 percent of the Canada geese taken in the Atlantic Flyway and 75 percent of those bagged in the Mississippi Flyway. Overall, honker hunting has never been better in many places, thanks in large part to the remarkable recovery of these large geese.
A BIG COMEBACK
True giants (Branta canadensis maxima) historically bred throughout north-central North America, from southern Illinois into Canada, and from the Great Plains east to Ohio. They were large birds, sometimes weighing up to 20 pounds. They were also adaptable, nesting almost anywhere, including on limestone cliffs along the Missouri River and beaver ponds in the north woods. By the early 20th century, however, unregulated hunting, habitat loss, and egg gathering eliminated these big geese from most of their original range, and they were thought to be extinct by the 1950s.
In 1962, goose expert Dr. Harold Hanson of the Illinois Natural History Survey worked with Minnesota Department of Conservation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel to trap and examine a flock of about 200 unusually large Canada geese on Silver Lake, a power plant impoundment in Rochester. The geese were so big that researchers weighing the birds assumed that the scales were faulty. The story goes that to test the accuracy of the scales and verify that the birds really weighed from 12 to 16 pounds apiece, the biologists had to send someone to a local grocery store for a five-pound bag of sugar and a 10-pound sack of flour.
Hanson's "discovery" of the giants led to renewed interest in the geese and boosted efforts that were already under way to reestablish breeding populations of these birds from the offspring of captive flocks that were originally used as live decoys or as poultry. State agencies began trapping, trading, and transplanting giant Canadas in pairs. Some private individuals released geese as well. States closed areas to goose hunting to help build flocks. And the geese took well to artificial nests made from washtubs, tires, and steel drums. In some cases, workers stacked up steel drums, shot drain holes in them with revolvers, and then mounted the makeshift structures on poles over water to provide safe nesting sites.
Restoration efforts worked so well that by the mid-1990s, states with too many geese couldn't find takers for their surplus. Every place that wanted geese had them—and so did some places that didn't want them. Today there are an estimated 3.6 million giant Canada geese in North America. Although some have worn out their welcome with homeowners and farmers, the birds have truly been a bonanza for hunters.
"Humans have created great habitat for giants," says Dr. John Coluccy, director of conservation planning in DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic Region. "Canada geese are grazers, and make great use of suburbs, golf courses, and office parks with lots of short grass for them to eat and many ponds to rest on. Also, widespread grain agriculture provides them with high-energy foods for cold-weather survival."
Coluccy, who did his doctoral work on giant Canada geese, adds that by removing wolves from most of the birds' range, we've eliminated their main predators as well. "Few animals are big enough to kill a goose," he explains. "In a safe environment, geese can live for over 20 years. A bird I banded in 1995 was just recently recovered."
Giant Canadas are commonly known as "resident" geese because in most cases they don't migrate in the fall. This distinguishes them from their smaller migratory cousins. Like all Canada geese, however, giants do make a molt migration to find open water where they can safely sit out their flightless period as they grow new feathers. Some resident geese will fly hundreds of miles during the molt migration. Those banded in eastern South Dakota have been found as far north as northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The molt migration usually takes place in summer, and many early-season goose hunters key on it as the birds return to their breeding sites in September. In some cases, however, molt migrants don't come back home until later in the fall. The longest known molt migration for a giant Canada goose nesting in South Dakota was 1,300 miles—from Brookings County in that state to Ferguson Lake in Canada's Nunavut territory.
Aside from the molt migration, giant Canada geese typically stay in one area year-round. They are hardy birds, and they generally live in temperate regions where inclement weather doesn't force them to move. But when extreme cold locks up open water and deep snow covers fields, the geese will move south until they find food and a place to roost. The bands that my friends and I have collected during our late-season goose hunts bear this out. Almost all the birds were banded within 20 miles of where we shot them. The one exception is a band from Owatonna, Minnesota, which is about three hours north of where we hunt. I shot that goose on a day when the high was zero degrees, at the end of a prolonged cold snap that presumably pushed the bird into our area.
TIPS FOR HUNTING GIANTS
There's one more movement pattern you'll see with giant Canadas. Late in the season, as smaller marshes and ponds freeze, the geese will flock to rivers, larger lakes, and bodies of warmer water that remain open in winter. Generally, the colder the weather the better the hunting. Jeremy Zuend, a Hard Core Decoys pro staff member from Dixon, Illinois, is among the hunters who take advantage of it.
"It's not a migration," Zuend says, "but it looks like one if you're in the right place. A couple of good weeks of bitter-cold weather freezes up ponds and sends our birds to the Rock River. You'll find several thousand big geese rafted on the river. It usually happens just about the time our duck season goes out. That's when goose hunting gets good." According to Zuend, all the geese they shoot are giants. "Most of our geese weigh about 15 pounds. Last year we had a big-goose contest among the pro-staffers, and I won with a bird that weighed 16 pounds and some change," he says.
Late in the season geese need to consume high-energy foods, like corn, which they find in harvested grainfields. Typically, the X changes as the birds eat all the waste grain in a field, but sometimes you can find a field that you can hunt for a number of days. "Last year we had a field that was on high ground close to the river," Zuend says. "Geese were coming to it from 20 miles away. It was a seed-corn field that was picked in September, and it attracted geese all year. In the late season, we would shoot our limits, get out quickly, rest the field for a couple of days, and then go back to hunt it again. We shot almost 100 geese out of that field."
Zuend believes in increasing decoy numbers as the season progresses. He starts with smaller spreads, then gradually adds more decoys. He and his friends may put out as many as 15 to 20 dozen full-body goose decoys, and add sleeper shells when there is snow on the field. If the group can't get permission to hunt on the X, they will add even more decoys to their spread to pull passing geese into a field located between the roost and their feeding areas. "We might add five to eight dozen more decoys to our already large spread," Zuend says. "It all depends on who we can get to go with us and how many decoys they have."
When it comes to decoy patterns, Zuend tries to mimic what he sees geese doing in the field. "I don't like to do hooks or J patterns, like some people do," he says. "Instead, I'll clump decoys around the blinds to help hide them, and then run strings of decoys downwind." Sometimes he'll set the blinds in crosswind positions so the geese won't be looking right at the hunters on the birds' final approach, but he prefers having the wind at his back. "I like to see geese coming right at me," he says. "There's nothing better than having them bowed up in your face."
During the waning days of the season, Zuend will sometimes hunt directly over water. He scouts rivers, and depending on where the geese are, he'll set up a spread of floaters on the water or a mixed spread of floaters and full-body decoys on and around a sandbar. He and his buddies hunt at midday as the geese fly to the rivers to loaf between meals. And whether he's hunting over land or water, Zuend has learned to go big when it comes to guns and ammunition. "I went to 3 1/2-inch loads of T shot a few years ago, and I have a lot fewer cripples now," he says. "Our geese are already big, and late-season birds have a lot of fat and feathers to get through."
My own experience with giant Canada geese near my home in Iowa follows a similar pattern. As early December cold snaps freeze ponds and marshes, the birds flock to the rivers close to town. There they find safety and open water out in the river, below dams, and near warm-water outlets. The same movements of geese occur all over the country, and waterfowl hunters have benefited from them for decades. Ironically, however, the city that helped bring back the giant Canada goose sees far fewer geese than it used to. Hunters around Rochester still shoot geese, but the Silver Lake power plant closed in 2015, and the lake now freezes in the winter, forcing the birds to find open water elsewhere.
As I watch from my blind and see geese flying over lumberyards and car dealerships as they stream out of town to feed, I realize we've come a long way from Aldo Leopold's plaintive question in A Sand County Almanac: "What if there be no goose music?" Today there's goose music everywhere. For many hunters like me, it's become part of the clamor of modern life, something purely wild that somehow manages to coexist closely with people, and a testament to the resilience and adaptability of the once seemingly lost giant Canada goose.