A New Year of Geese
The peanut and wheat fields of Haskell and Knox counties hardly seem like goose country - until you see the tens of thousands of Canadas feeding there.
Winter hunts concentrate on the wheat fields, which may cover hundreds of acres, because the geese have polished off most remaining peanuts and milo.
There, Haskell and Knox counties produce more Canada geese for the hunter than any do others in Texas.
There's been concern for the past two winters about what seems to be a decline in the dominant species in the Rolling Plains and Panhandle - the shortgrass prairie Canada goose.
Biologists know that they've counted fewer of these medium-sized geese during the winter surveys. But because those counts are made only in the winter, not on summer breeding grounds as are other waterfowl species, the jury is still out on whether there truly are fewer geese, or if they are relocating to other areas.
Last season the TPWD and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to cut the Panhandle bag limit for Canadas from five to three per day. "We've not reached the trigger mechanism to get a more restrictive season, but we are concerned, so we decided to change the bag limit."
The long-term trend is for most Panhandle goose hunters to harvest two to three Canadas per day, so that three-bird bag limit probably doesn't hamper most hunters. That can be hard to remember when you're limiting out in short order and having to shoo honkers away while you gather up your Panhandle decoy spread!
"The bottom line is when you look at the midwinter surveys and are seeing a decline in these birds. That's one of the problems with not having any breeding ground surveys. There may be a shift in these birds; the shortgrass and tallgrass birds look very similar. But if we're going to err, it's going to be on the side of conservation."
Late-season hunting can be excellent, but the wary birds often demand more precision in decoy spread. Instead of huge spreads of windsocks, savvy guides will switch to a few dozen full-bodied decoys. A few even use "stuffers" - real mounted Canada geese - as decoys.
Any way you slice it, the crescent of farm and pastureland from Wharton and Colorado counties down to Matagorda and Victoria counties represents goose heaven for both the honkers and the hunters.
Hunting pressure is an issue, as is forage. By January, most rice and soybeans will be gone, and the battle-seasoned flocks of geese will be dispersing to primarily green fields.
"Along the coast, the biggest issue is the white-fronted goose," Morrison said. "Specklebelly numbers have declined for the last several years."
Morrison says that the annual count of white-fronted geese on a Saskatchewan river, on which harvest regulations are based, reflects this decline. "For the last several years, we've seen declines," he reported. "We're right at the trigger level to go to more restrictive regulations. Based on this September's counts, it's possible next year's white-fronted season may be more restrictive."
New restrictions might include a smaller bag or shorter season. "Right now we have 86 days and two birds," Morrison said. "It could be 86 days and one bird, or 74 days and two birds."
The current two-bird limit has been in place since 1996.
Texas waterfowl, both ducks and geese, are pioneering new wintering grounds throughout the state, especially down South, Morrison notes. "Duck numbers in the South Texas Brush Country have showed a tremendous increase - from 100,000 up to 500,000 birds - because they've had some pretty good weather conditions there," he said. "It's been pretty impressive. And they have little hunting pressure down there."
It's likely at least some of those birds are getting away from the heavy pressure on the traditional Anahuac to Sealy to El Campo waterfowling grounds.
One of the joys of December and January goose hunting is that there's room and time for more than just geese. Almost everywhere in the Lone Star State, there's a combo hunt to help fill the day after you've bagged a limit of honkers.
Ducks and quail are a great late combo with Panhandle geese. With the new longer pheasant season, so are ringnecks.
Take the hunt at the beginning of this story, for example. After stowing our Canadas and taking a quick lunch, we met outfitter Randy Goen of Golden Spread Outfitters, for whom Darrell and Michael guide, and then headed out for Round 2: an afternoon hunt for ring-necked pheasants.
Randy has access to thousand of acres of cropland around Olton. On this afternoon hunt we let the dogs out at the edge of an expanse of head-high grass and willows surrounding a pond in the midst of three cornfields. It looked like pheasant heaven - and it didn't take long to discover it was.
My shorthair, Sadie, was running far ahead and flushed the first rooster. It was far, but not too far for Rob Leivo's 20 gauge. Then birds began popping out all over.
While these birds kept flushing wild, they were also reluctant to leave the thick cover. Several flushed out of range, but made the fatal mistake of circling back toward the cover and in the line of my companions.
At the end of the field, we quickly took stock and realized we'd all limited out in one short walk.
Don't care for pheasants? This month, quail are still going strong on the Rolling Plains, and are a great partner to a honker hunt in the peanut fields of the Rolling Plains and eastern Panhandle.
Along the Coastal Plain, you can go wet or dry. Combine a morning goose hunt with ducks in the afternoon. Or if you get a clear, warm day, hit the bay flats for redfish and speckled trout that move to the shallows warmed by the afternoon sun.
Who says things slow down in January?
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