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A New Year of Geese
Come the new year, Texas waterfowlers get an infusion of great new goose hunting opportunities. How is the best part of the season shaping up across our state?
By Lee Leschper
There are few things emptier than a cornfield full of goose decoys but devoid of real geese.
For the hundredth time I peeked out through my camo burlap cocoon, scanned the Panhandle sky and strained an ear to catch any suggestion of a honk.
"Guess they decided to sleep in," I offered hopefully to guide Michael Sparks, who was watching the sky to the south behind us.
"Maybe. They flew late yesterday," he admitted.
I shrugged deeper into my camo.
Now, there's cold - and then there's goose-hunting cold. We'd warmed up nicely before dawn, even in the 15-degree air, putting out 30 dozen decoys in this cornfield in the southern Panhandle. But after lying there for an hour under a burlap "gillie suit," watching the sunrise come and go, with no geese yet to show, my appendages were turning to ice.
With a growing south wind, the wind chill was near zero. By 8:30 a.m. I was sure we'd been skunked.
"Geese out in front! Cover up!" Darrell Sparks hissed from somewhere behind us. He switched to goose talk, alternating honking and groaning on a goose call.
Camo netting pulled over my face, I couldn't see, but could now hear the geese honking in reply, growing louder. And louder. And louder. Just at the point I began to cringe, expecting a fat goose to land on my head, Darrell sprang the trap.
"Take 'em!" he yelled.
I struggled to throw off the shaggy blanket and rose to face a brilliant blue sky filled with geese. Several dozen Canadas were stacked in layers in front of us, legs outstretched, just inches from the cornfield.
I swung the 12-gauge Benelli Nova ahead of the closest, folding it just a few feet off the ground. To my left my companions were also punching geese from the sky, several of the birds thumping to the frozen ground.
"Now that's the way it should be!"
We rolled out to gather geese and stomp warmth back into our feet.
"Get down! More geese coming! Cover up!"
And so the next 30 minutes or so went: Cover, call, shoot, repeat. As an old hunting buddy likes to say, we went from zero to hero in the course of a half-hour, quickly filling our limits of three Canadas each.
That December hunt points out the value of patience - both late in the day and late in the year. And it's late in the season that many Texans get serious about their goose hunting. After the deer tags are filled and most other seasons are closed, goose hunting across the Lone Star State really comes into its own.
Each year up to 100,000 resident and non-resident hunters pursue honkers in Texas, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department waterfowl program leader Dave Morrison. "We've averaged over the past five years 80,000 to 100,000 goose hunters in Texas. The bulk of those are on the coast."
Federal Harvest Information Program data on waterfowl harvests, collected when hunters purchase their annual license in Texas, is beginning to show some basic information about Texas goose hunters.
Since HIP data is organized differently from the annual harvest date that the TPWD used to gather, it's hard to make out longer-term trends. But the TPWD's data from the decade of the 1990s provides some valuable insight into Texas geese and goose hunters.
The epicenter of goose hunting in Texas remains three counties in the heart of the Coastal Prairie: Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda.
Colorado County remains the undisputed king for Texas geese, and by a large margin. Colorado County hunters, on average, harvest about 65,000 geese per season. Wharton County hunters collect about 41,000, while Matagorda County hunters gather in about 22,000 per season.
By species, those are the top three counties for harvest of both snow geese and white-fronted geese.
Canada goose hunters need to shift their attention north, to the Rolling Plains. Haskell County is the top Canada goose county, with about 7,500 harvested per year, followed by Knox County, at about 5,300, and Castro County with about 4,000.
Those lower harvest numbers reflect the lower total number of hunters, rather than hunting opportunity.
The average Texas goose hunter will hunt about three days per season.
Hunter success is also pretty gratifying, considering the wide range of hunting conditions and hunter expertise. Texas goose hunters average 6.4 geese per season, comparable to other Central Flyway states, Morrison said. By comparison, Kansas goose hunters average 10 geese per season, while New Mexico hunters average four.
Trends by species are not surprising, Morrison says. "We've certainly got more white geese than we've ever had," he noted. "White-fronted numbers are down, shortgrass prairie Canada geese are down, while tallgrass prairie Canada geese are about even."
Regardless of how good or bad statewide trends may be, most Texas goose hunters only care about what's visiting their own decoy spread. "We've been beaten up by hunters about 'Where are the ducks?' But 70 to 80 percent of the ducks in the Central Flyway winter in Texas, not in Kansas or Nebraska. By last year's midwinter survey it was 80 percent of the ducks.
"We need to be thankful that, say, versus North Dakota - which has a 25-day season - we can hunt (waterfowl) in Texas nearly 160 days, from September teal to the end of March in the late conservation season. That's portions of seven months! We are pretty blessed."
Local conditions, especially water and food, will determine where these mobile game birds choose to settle, he said. That's especially true in January, when forage gets scarce and birds concentrate on remaining food in preparation for heading north.
Here's a look at our top regions for gathering a New Year's goose.
"One of the things we've seen in the High Plains is the increase in white geese," Morrison said. "They're now running neck-and-neck with Canadas."
The Panhandle really fills with white geese in February, just in time for the late conservation season. But it might surprise Texas goose veterans to learn that these are not the same snow and blue geese they're used to seeing along the Texas Coast.
"It's a different breeding population, and not the coastal birds moving up here," Morrison said. "If you look at the harvest structure across the state, probably less than 5 percent of our waterfowl harvest is out on the High Plains. There's fantastic duck and goose hunting up there, but there's just not many people. The population base isn't there."
White geese continue to grow like the proverbial weed throughout North America, including the populations that winter in Texas.
"This year we expect the production to not be very good, for any goose species," Morrison said. "There was a late ice-out (on the nesting grounds), and miserable nesting conditions by and large. If they have an average hatch, we'll be lucky."
The special conservation season for white geese, implemented several years ago to stem the flood of birds threatening to destroy their nesting habitat, has had an impact on the geese, Morrison said. But he's cautious about saying whether that change was what was intended.
"The final impact is yet to be determined. We have shifted when the harvest occurs. Now the bulk of white geese will be harvested in the special season. Are we killing more? I don't know. Are we having enough impact to stem the tide? That's still to be determined."
Morrison does agree that today's snow goose is a wary beast. "These are old birds that have played this game more than once!" he said.
Snows can sometimes pull decoying dark geese away from a decoy spread, making them pretty unpopular with Panhandle guides.
Weather can be brutal here, with high winds, ice and snow on sub-freezing temperatures. Clear skies and consistent weather are most productive on the High Plains, giving the birds a chance to settle into a regular feeding pattern and fields before the next norther blows through.
While there are scattered concentrations of geese throughout the Panhandle, the biggest concentrations roost on major lakes like Rita Blanca, near Dalhart, and the refuge lake at Cactus, north of Dumas. Donley County, east of Amarillo, now holds concentrations of geese on Greenbelt Lake.
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