Texas' Late-Season Honkers
There's still plenty of time left for you to get in on some late-season goose shooting. Here's how the remainder of the season is stacking up across the Lone Star State.
North of Dumas, the bright white horizon was waving against an orange dawn sky. Then those wind-whipped ripples turned to wings. Long waves made up of hundreds of black-tipped wings, growing larger and larger into snow-white geese, winging just a few feet over the plowed cornfield.
Then, just as they reached the edge of the white imitation geese in the field - they began to gain altitude.
"No! No! Stay down! Stay down!" I hissed under my face mask.
Too late. Just 80 yards out, the mixed flock of snow and blue geese - at least 200 strong - climbed, caught the north wind and glided off to the west. They did it again!
Amid a thousand decoys, we were like four men dying of thirst in a flood, except this flood wore feathers. And we thirsted for a shot at some late-season snow geese.
That winter morning we lay amid a huge spread of white decoys in a corn field north of Dumas in the Texas Panhandle. The field had been plowed and replanted in wheat. There was still corn in the sandy soil where we lay, and the geese had fed there by the thousands the day before.
We were overwhelmed by snow and blue geese teasing us just out of shotgun range. How mean is that?
Greg Stasney took this trio of lesser Canada geese on a hunt in the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle. The big draw here is that more than half a million Canadas winter in the area and the bag limit is five per day -- far more than farther south in the state! Photo by Lee Leschper
To my left, Amarillo goose guru Terry Cooke of Straight Line Outfitters along with Jack Turner and Steve Wright were doing a pretty fair imitation of three stacks of corn stalks. We were flat on our backs, camouflaged from head to foot, trying to blend into the blowing dirt. Jack's huge black Lab Trace was doing what all good duck dogs do - waiting expectantly for the birds to start falling.
We'd set out several hundred white shell decoys before dawn and then stretched out to wait.
The geese had been leaving the roost lake about 8:05 a.m., Terry said, and it was just a couple of minutes after 8 when the first flock of geese swooped in from behind us, only 50 yards high, banked once and dropped into our decoys.
Even though we'd been waiting an hour, they caught us by surprise. My companions were still shoving shells into shotguns, but the birds were so fooled we managed to get off a few shots and drop two geese before they flared away.
"That's the worst thing about hunting in this wind," Terry hollered above the gale. "One flap in the wind and they're out of range."
It quickly became obvious that most of the geese were going to flare off before they reached the middle of the spread where we were waiting.
"Let's move up!" Terry hollered.
We scrambled from our hiding spots, grabbed shotguns, gear and camo and sprinted 100 yards downwind, then flopped down again. But the birds kept flaring out of range.
"Let's move up again!"
And we did. Now most of the decoys were behind us, with a few dozen of them spread 50 yards in front. Now there was a constant parade of geese on the horizon. Thousands. Most flocks numbered in the hundreds. They were mostly snows and blues, but with lots of Canadas mixed in as well.
Most flocks still flared away, well out of range. Some would swing to the east, catch the wind and drift overhead. When they did we'd spring up, try to pick a single goose and shoot with abandon. Geese started to fall with more regularity.
Because we adapted to the birds, adjusting our tactics, we cashed in on another day of superb late-season goose hunting on the High Plains.
* * * For many Texans, goose season begins with the New Year. Other hunting seasons are over, or rapidly winding down, and good fishing is still months away. But right now begins several months of superb hunting for the biggest, wariest, winged game birds in the Lone Star State.
There are really two Texas goose seasons after New Year's Day. The first consists of the final weeks of the traditional goose hunt, which means hunting harder and smarter for all the goose species, north and south.
The other is the special white-goose-only season, that no-holds-barred special season that begins down south when the dark goose seasons close in late January, and in early February in North Texas.
In both cases, the rules change on late-season geese. For one thing, these geese are smart. They've been hunted for four months and from one end of the continent to the other. They've seen more decoy spreads and heard more off-tone goose calls than you or I will encounter in a lifetime of hunting. They've been fooled, shot at, missed and chased. There are no pushovers by now.
But they still have to eat, especially as they try to rebuild fat reserves for the flight back north. So the trick is hunting where they eat, and using refined tactics.
Hunting "where they eat" means switching to green fields. The birds "go for the green" after New Year's, switching to winter wheat fields in North Texas, rye grass pastures down south.
The morning we hunted, Terry's guide Kelly Knight took five hunters to a field of new wheat and mopped up. They had 37 white geese by 11 a.m. The only problem, Kelly said, was waves of Canada geese that drifted over the decoys at hand-shaking distance.
"We could see the whites of their eyes," he laughed.
Any grain left in stubble fields will be around the edges and that's the other place where the geese will concentrate. With less food in one area, the birds will begin breaking into smaller flocks. Instead of a rag decoy spread covering acres in the middle of a field, you might have more luck with six or 10 dozen full-body decoys positioned near a fencerow.
The geese also relocate to new areas late in the season. This is a trend that's been accelerating in Texas for several years. There are now honkers wintering in areas that never saw a goose a generation ago.
"They've dispersed considerably," said Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist David Lobpries, who supervises waterfowl from Galveston to Brownsville along the Texas Gulf Coast.
"The (goose) population on the Texas Coast has not changed. But more and more what happens is they're dispersing east into Louisiana and Arkansas, for example. They're seeking out other areas. We're losing birds shifting south and east."
Hunting pressure, urban sprawl from Houston and its suburbs, more water and changing crop patterns all play a part in this trend.
There are even geese wintering on winter wheat and stock tanks between San Antonio and Corpus Christi!
That other season, the special white goose "conservation action" season, began as an all-out effort to slash numbers of these big birds before they destroyed their arctic nesting grounds. During that season, which runs through March 31, there's no bag limit and expanded shooting hours. Hunters can unplug their shotguns and use electronic calls.
These tactics have worked to make a dent in the white goose population. So have natural die-offs on the breeding grounds.
But each year the white geese become more difficult to fool. Today hunters must be in the right place, with the right gear and still use lots of skill to decoy these birds into range.
There's also finesse to using electronic callers. Hunters who just turn on the tape player and let it run will quickly educate geese in their area. The birds are less likely to respond a second time to the same calls. Most guides now alter the volume, just as they do with mouth-blown calls. Instead of setting the speakers out in the spread, they will "aim" the speaker ahead of passing flocks of geese. This seems to reach the birds farther and turn them quicker.
Shots at late-season geese are probably going to be longer and harder, so this is no time to be under-gunned.
Wind has an adverse effect on lightweight steel shot at long range. That 30 mph wind can blow a shot pattern several feet off course at 50 yards. To be effective you have to shoot a few feet upwind to center that honker. That's easy to talk about, but hard to remember when geese are overhead and you're trying to bring shotgun to bear, and make one solid shot before they're out of range. I always carry four to five boxes of 3-inch and 3 1/2-inch Magnums, usually steel BBs. The big shells will crunch a goose a little farther out, but honestly - my shoulder is only good for about one box of 3 1/2s before I have to switch to the "softer" 3-inchers!
I've had superb luck for several years with Winchester's High Velocity Steel loads. This particular 3-inch load zips 1 1/4 ounces of steel BBs at 1,450 feet per second, at least 10 percent faster than conventional steel. That makes it easier to score solid hits and this load definitely slams long-distance honkers with authority.
Open chokes help, too. To a man, the guides I hunt with have topped their 3 1/2-inch shotguns with improved cylinder chokes. I switched to an IC choke on my goose gun last season, and found that not only did I hit more geese, but I also seemed to hit them with more pellets, dropping them quicker.
Here's a north-to-south look at what New Year's goose hunters can expect in the new year.
THE PANHANDLE More than a half-million lesser Canadas winter in the Texas Panhandle, in addition to a few thousand specklebellies and a booming population of snow and Ross' geese, now nearing 200,000 birds.
During the dark goose season, which runs into early February, Panhandle hunters are allowed five Canada geese per day. Add an unlimited supply of snows and you have the potential for shooting more geese than you'll want to carry from the field!
That's a big attraction to southern Texas hunters who have to settle for one or two dark geese a day. Hunting will usually be in harvested corn or bean fields, or on new-growth winter wheat.
More geese wintered here in 2001-2002 because mild temperatures never forced them farther south. There were geese migrating back to the Panhandle from the Gulf Coast in January last year.
Don't count on most Panhandle winters being that mild, though. The constant wind with cold, snow and ice can make for bitter hunting conditions. While my best hunts have been on overcast days, the guides prefer a string of bluebird days to let the geese establish a routine and stick to it.
Traditionally, the best hunting has been on irrigated croplands north and west of Amarillo, from Hereford to Dumas to Dalhart. But in recent years the Canadas are spreading into the Rolling Plains of the eastern Panhandle. Find winter wheat or corn near water and you're likely to find geese.
ROLLING PLAINS Most Texans think of the Rolling Plains as deer and quail country. However, huge flocks of Canada geese also gather on the enormous peanut and grain fields stretching north and west from Abilene to the eastern Panhandle.
Canadas migrate into the area by Thanksgiving, find the country to their liking and often never move farther south. Most of the white geese, of which there is only a small population, will be Ross' geese rather than snows.
Shackelford, Knox and Haskell counties are the best goose counties there. By this late in the season, most of the hunting is on green fields instead of on grain fields, says Roy Wilson of Krooked River Outfitters in Shackelford County. "That's where the wheat comes in - later in the season, when usually the milo and peanuts are about gone."
Water, either in the form of conservation lakes or flooded fields, holds both ducks and geese in this area of the state. The peanut fields draw huge flocks of mallards, too. Early-season hunting is usually easier, although the number of geese is smaller. There can be tremendous flocks of Canadas late in the season, but they will be more wary and harder to call.
As in southern Texas, the guides will often switch to small spreads of full-body decoys in late season, Wilson said. Sometime that can be as few as three- or four-dozen decoys.
Confident guides often let the first flock of geese mingle with the decoys, to add realism to their spreads, and then bust the second or third flock that pours in to join the others.
Rolling Plains geese have lots of company, which offers hunters a real chance for combo hunts that can include ducks (the mallard and pintail action can be unbelievable), quail, feral hogs or predators.
Plan a combo trip if you have time, because you'll want something to do after you fill your goose limit by mid-morning!
COASTAL RICE PRAIRIES Once the majority of Texas' goose hunting was in the narrow strip of coastal marshes and rice fields from Louisiana to Bay City. This forage-rich country drew and held most of the geese wintering in Texas.
Today there are still millions of geese there, but they've expanded their range dramatically: as far south as Victoria and Corpus Christi, as far north as Navasota and Brenham.
This region will hold 750,000 to 1 million snow geese, about 500,000 specklebellies and 100,000 or so lesser Canadas.
The specks arrive early, and move off to Mexico earlier, while it takes colder weather to move Canadas down to the coast. Later in the season, the white geese will move farther south, starting with those on the prairies around Houston and moving steadily south toward Victoria as the winter progresses. The two-specklebelly per day limit, implemented in 2000, has helped hunters here early in the season. But by January, these supposedly "dumb" geese get wise to the new rules and can be just as hard to decoy as snows.
The rice country rag spread is still popular early in the season, but has been pretty much replaced by full-body decoys by this late in the season, simply because the birds see so many spreads that only the best will draw the geese in to them.
"It takes more quality stuff," said guide Mike Ladnier. "These geese have seen everything. You better have good equipment, good decoys, to fool 'em."
Later in the season, as the geese break up into smaller flocks, guides switch from huge spreads of rags to smaller groups of full-body decoys.
This is superb territory for combo trips, blending morning goose hunts with afternoon bay fishing or duck hunting. Mild January and February days can provide superb fishing for speckled trout and redfish on the bays from Sabine Pass to Corpus Christi.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION Panhandle goose guides: Straight Line Outfitters, (806) 376-8118 or (806) 355-5929, Web address www.straightlineoutfitters.com; Black Sky Outfitters, (806) 857-9112 or (806) 659-3051; Golden Spread Outfitters, (806) 285-3032 or (806) 638-5174. Lone Star Outfitters, (806) 435-2503. North Texas Outfitters, (806) 249-8477 or (806) 249-8043; Panhandle's Best, Inc., (806) 467-0273.
Rolling Plains goose guides: Krooked River Outfitters, (915) 773-2457; Stanfield Hunting Outfitters, (940) 658-3172, www.lameduck.com.
Coastal Prairie outfitters: Bay Prairie Outfitters & Lodge, Midfield, 1-800-242-1374, or e-mail [email protected]; South Texas Hunting Co., 1-877-999-HUNT or (979) 543-3013, www.southtexashunting.com; Paradise Hunting Club, 1-800-368-4769; Texas Waterfowl Outfitters, 1-800-899-2650; Third Coast Outfitters, 1-888-TX-GEESE or (979) 245-3071; Eagle Lake/Katy Prairie Outfitters, 1-888-TX-GOOSE.
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