Because light geese are extremely difficult to decoy, sneaking up through drainage ditches and laying in wait of feeding geese to get within shotgun range is one of the most effective ways to hunt them.
The murmur of 10,000 feeding snow geese echoed across the 2,000 acre corn field. Our hunting trio sat in my pickup truck along the highway plotting an approach to the mass of white birds 400 yards away.
Most Canada goose hunters had never heard of a snow goose thirty years ago. Sometime since then, agricultural practices began to change in the Midwest and Southern United States. Tens of thousands of acres of grain fields started popping up on a regular basis. Corn, soybeans, wheat, milo and rice acreages grew by leaps and bounds over a twenty-year period to meet the growing food demands of a burgeoning world human population. Opportunistic migrating snow geese reaped bountiful rewards as well.
Snow geese feeding on the rich food sources found across the Midwest and South began returning to their nesting grounds on the Tundra only to produce larger clutches. Survival rates among young increased and more and more birds answered Nature's call each fall to migrate south. Snow goose numbers skyrocketed in less than 20 years.
Hunters began taking advantage of the newfound multitude of migratory birds. However, frustration soon overwhelmed many new snow goose hunters, because they simply did not know how to hunt them. Tactics which worked for Canada geese simply did not produce much shooting action when it came to snow geese.
In the mean time, snow goose populations continued to climb. Biologists discovered that the huge populations of snow geese had exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of their breeding habitat. Their foraging activity has degraded artic and sub-artic habitats, thus posing a threat to the long-term health of the artic eco-system and associated wildlife communities. Snow geese are grubbers. They have a tough tongue lined with small teeth. Combined with short, stout bills used for rooting, snow geese have the uncanny ability to snip vegetation off below the ground. The end result of millions of geese exercising this feeding behavior on the fragile Tundra soils is damage that will last for decades.
Snow goose populations far exceed the carrying capacity of their breeding habitat. Hunters are needed to help reduce the population.
Biologists quickly realized that hunting would be the primary management tool necessary to reduce snow goose numbers to acceptable levels. A Conservation Order was established in 2000 to allow hunters to remove the plug from their shotgun and use electronic callers. Shooting hours were extended until 30 minutes after sunset and limit restrictions were removed. Gunners are allowed 20 snow geese per day during the regular hunting season. The plan was to reduce the light goose population by 50% by the year 2005. That did not happen because of the difficulties associated with hunting light geese.
Hunting buddy Bill McKinney and I plotted tactical maneuvers against the snow geese feeding contentedly far out in the corn field. McKinney is a Lieutenant Colonel in the National Guard. I served as an Army Officer during the Vietnam era. We both take pride in our understanding of tactics. We were ready to circle, surprise and charge.
Fortunately for McKinney and I, Bill Cobb, a veteran snow goose hunter, accompanied us. "Hold on boys," he said. Let's sit and study this group of geese a bit longer." McKinney and I wanted to slip up a fence row and hope for the best chance to get a shot.
Twenty minutes later Cobb noted that the birds were gradually feeding to the southeast. "There is a big ditch over in that direction," he said. "Let's drive the mile around to the other end of that ditch, get in it and sneak a half mile or so up it towards the birds. It could take a couple of hours for them to feed close to us, but we don't have anything better to do."
Cobb's unusual patience and well laid plans took some adjustment in attitude for mine and McKinney's frontal assault idea.
Our trio, and Cobb's spectacular black Lab, Oreo, began the crawl up the ditch. The low crawl came natural to at least two of us. Oreo crawled with her master, obviously having had much experience at sneaking on snow geese.
Masses of snow geese continued to pour into the field. Ten thousand geese soon grew to 15,000 or more. Tornado shaped forms of white geese circled and circled before committing to joining the birds on the ground.
We hugged the ditch back every time a flight circled over us. On numerous occasions we could have taken shots at birds 20 yards above us. "Don't shoot until I give the signal," Cobb had instructed earlier. I kept thinking about the bird in the hand theory.
A good retriever reduces loss of crippled geese enormously.
Large groups of geese kept rising and falling, each frog hopping over the last, steadily moving towards our position in the drainage ditch. Birds began hopping across the ditch 100 yards ahead of us. Hundreds of white and blue heads appeared through our scant cover.
A steadily growing murmur of feeding geese, like hordes of ants moving across the landscape, edged closer and closer to our position. "Get ready to stand and shoot," Cobb whispered. McKinney lay three feet from me. "The idea is to shoot for the heads and take down as many as you can." Sounded simple enough.
I envisioned there being a mass of goose bodies at 25 yards when Cobb gave the order to fire. Surprise is a great advantage in war or hunting. I stood to fire at the geese and surprise overwhelmed me. Thousands of geese stood 20 feet away! The noise level of three shotguns roaring three times each and a mass of geese pitching into the air at the same time created one of the greatest highs I have ever encountered while hunting.
I heard Cobb give Oreo the order to fetch. The splendid dog realized that she should chase the cripples first. Ten minutes later, Oreo had 11 snow and blue geese lying at our feet. "Those geese were too close for our patterns to spread," Cobb quipped. "I was with a couple of guys last year. We had a similar situation, but the geese were further out. We killed fifty two geese on our first volley."
The Conservation Order allows for spectacular hunting opportunities. However, a special set of ethics must play a part in these extraordinary hunting circumstances. Because of the sneak and shoot tactics required to approach white geese, cripples are a given. "Using a good retriever is the best way to go," Cobb pointed out. "Guys hunting without dogs either don't retrieve all of their cripples, or they spend a lot of time chasing them. I never have to chase cripples. Oreo gets them all and she loves doing it."
Large, open tracts of agricultural crops attract snow geese by the tens of thousands. Geese can quickly destroy winter wheat crops; therefore, farmers are often anxious for hunters to pursue white geese.
The geese flew the tornado pattern for a few minutes and landed again at the far end of the field. "Let's watch them for a while,' Cobb instructed. "We'll sneak 'em again."
Thirty minutes later Cobb gave the order to fire again just as thousands of geese got up 20 yards in front of us. We dropped five more. Oreo charged across the muddy field to retrieve a downed goose 100 yards away. Our hunting party reveled in the sight of thousands of swirling geese and a champion class dog doing what she loved to do.
Sweat poured down my back as we assembled the last of our kill. The enormous mass of geese landed on the far end of the field again. "Several times I have been on hunts where we killed 150 to 200 snow geese," Cobb chuckled. I began calculating in my head. We took 16 geese on two sneaks and had duck walked and crawled over a mile in the process. "The number of sneaks that would be necessary to harvest 150 geese would kill an ordinary man," I commented. "How 'bout McKinney and me working on our shooting abilities and we will join you again sometime. We'll work on that 150 number then!"
Snow goose hunting opportunities abound in the Central and Mississippi flyways. They are very destructive to farmers' crops. Most farmers welcome hunters and they understand the nature of hunting them. Seldom do you get the opportunity to plan ahead. Plan on driving lots of miles through farm country to locate geese and then seek permission.