White Out: Conservation season gives hunters a late shot at migrating snow geese

Published on Sunday, 12 February 2017 19:04 - Written by STEVE KNIGHT, steve@texasalloutdoors.com

DELTA COUNTY – Even from a half-mile you could tell there were a lot of geese sitting on the pond. A lot of geese.

It was more than an hour before daylight and the chatter from the roost pond was constant. Occasionally, a single or pair could be heard flying in or out of the field in the dark.

The regular goose season had been closed in the Northeastern part of the state. To be honest, most people didn’t even know it had ever opened. Geese during the regular hunting season are as rare as a banded bird.

The day after that season closed, the light goose conservation season opened, and that is why we were standing on a frigid morning alongside a dirt county road trying to come up with a plan. In recent years, the late season has gotten a little more interest from waterfowlers not quite ready to call it a year.

The conservation season is a no-holds barred, take all you can kind of hunt. Guns normally plugged to a max of three shells are now stuffed with as many 3-inch loads as they can hold. Mouth calls have been replaced by digital callers connected to a multitude of speakers.

It sounds illegal as all get out, but actually it is government approved. They want hunters to take as many snow geese as possible because they are a menace to themselves. Snow geese populations have grown so much in North America in recent decades, they are a threat to eat themselves out of house and home in the Canadian nesting grounds.

The best alternative to control numbers is to let the hunters have at them from late January until mid-March.

Hidden Lakes Hunting Resort’s waterfowl guide Daniel Cerretani had just come across this flock midweek. He knew the landowner where they had been feeding and obtained permission to hunt. It was less than 12 hours notice, but that is kind of the way with these northward migrating geese.

“It is hard. These snow goose hunts are a flip of the coin. Lot of it is based on the wind. It really depends on the weather and when the geese are there and I feel like it is a good time to hunt them in an area in a good situation as far as hiding. It is one of those deals I say you need to come right now,” Cerretani explained.

The farm we were hunting was 640 acres. The farmer did not discourage the birds from homesteading because by eating the wheat down they protected if from growing too much and being damaged by a late freeze.

As we walked to a spot next to a tank where we were going to set up a spread, it was easy to see how efficient the geese are. The wheat in much of the field was as flat as the ground. Only around the pond did any growth show, and in that spot there was plenty of sign the geese had moved in to work on what was left.

The five of us, Cerretani and guide Zach Hughes along with their friends, Dillion Henegar and Ryan Kultgen, began setting out the 800 white plastic sack decoys and hide layout blinds inside the spread. Easy to work with, the sacks are the modern evolution of the old napkin rags first utilized in the Texas rice marshes by goose hunting legends Marvin Tyler and Jimmy Reel in the 1950s.

The speakers Cerretani placed throughout the spread are as new as the late season that was approved in 1999.

“Four speakers spread out the sound throughout the spread. It is simulating the live geese on the ground,” he explained.

When the late season was first introduced, hunters thought the use of spreads and recorded calls would make it a slam dunk. They quickly learned there were going to be great days, good days and absolute crashes, especially in Texas, where the northern migration begins. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, harvest estimates in the state have been as high as 20,000 to as low as 9,000 since 2007.

“They are very educated by this time. There are a lot of greater snows, they are 3 or 4 (years old). They have seen it all. They have seen decoy spreads from the tundra in Canada all the way down to Texas. They get very educated, and when they fly in numbers like they do it is hard to decoy them into a spread,” Cerretani said.

That was the case on this hunt. At one point shortly after sunrise, the western skyline was full of geese. Thousands left the field to go to other places to feed. Thousands more stayed in the field sitting down about 400 yards away. Our best bet was a single or a small flock that would come by possibly looking to water. Most, however, were attracted to the real flock.

“You are competing with other geese. When we have 800 decoys, it is hard to compete with 10,000 birds over there. You get some of those birds that are just curious. Those curious birds are the ones you get to kill,” the guide said.

Because of that, Cerretani said a good half-day hunt is 25 birds, but he has had mornings with 50 or more. His best is a 76-bird day, but that hunt last into the afternoon.

The better hunts usually come on a south wind when migrants are moving in. We were caught by a north wind and looking at birds that had been in the area at least a week. We still ended up with 23 birds.

Having learned the difficulties, TPWD estimates late season hunter numbers have plunged from a high of 20,000 to 1,800 last year.

Goose hunting of any kind is relatively new to Northeast Texas. It has come with the expansion of winter wheat crops.

“I think back 10 to 15 years ago, there were a lot more snow geese on the coast. I think now weather changes and the flyways are starting to change a little, with crops and development (along the coast) with houses, I think the geese are starting to stay a little bit more north than they used to,” Cerretani said.

“We start seeing them at the end of December. About Christmas time, you will start to see a couple of thousand. After the first of January, you get those days where you might see 65 or 75 degree days and you will see some of those geese south of us start to move back north, and it might go from 2,000 to 10,000 or 15,000 in two or three weeks,” he added.

Northeast Texas hunters may also be benefitting from a growing number of wintering geese in Arkansas, which has attracted a number of outfitters and increased hunters in recent years.

Even with a Central and Mississippi flyways Conservation Season harvest of between 500,000 to a million a year, biologists are not seeing a positive change to habitat destruction in the nesting grounds.

The late season remains open through March 19.

For more information on hunting with Hidden Lakes, call 903-383-7100 or go online to hiddenlakeshr.com.