I learned a huge lesson about snow geese while hunting with Will Beatty of Central Flyway Outfitters near Winnie in 1999. It was on the very first day the “conservation order” allowing electronic calls was put in to play.
We hit the field at 4 a.m. to set up a huge decoy spread consisting of close to 1,000 shells, rags and silhouettes. Nearby was a roost of 10,000-plus geese that had been flying right over this field every morning.
After we completed the task of setting up the huge spread, Beatty put us about 125 yards away from the spread itself. I questioned the logic in this, but he was confident about the tactic.
“I’m telling you the geese will see the spread and then immediately veer away from it,” he said. “Hopefully they will veer toward us hidden in this brush and give us a chance at them.”
As the huge flock rose off the roost, the formerly quiet morning was now filled with the near deafening sound of calling geese. About 1,000 of them moved in our direction. Almost as if someone programmed them to do so, the geese veered directly away from the decoys and flew right over toward us.
The calls were set up in a spot where the decoys were, and we were away from the calls and decoys.
“See, these birds are smart. You just have to try your best to be smarter than they are,” Beatty said as our party fired and a bunch of geese fell to the ground.
Sometimes being smarter than the geese is easier said than done. Those first shots were the only ones we took that day. This taught me a great lesson about electronic calls and geese and set the tone for what we are experiencing in Texas today.
Although we used the calls and decoys, they had minimum effect. We had to actually set up away from the decoys to get a shot. Also, this was the first time the calls were legal, and the birds were not just falling into the decoys.
The conservation order was intended to help reduce snow goose populations, which had grown so large they threatened to literally eat themselves out of house and home on their arctic nesting grounds. So, how good of a job has it done in that regard?
According to a paper titled, “Harvest, Survival and Abundance of Midcontinent Lesser Snow Geese Relative to Population Reduction Efforts,” the answer might just shock many hunters.The researchers in this paper represented everyone from the Canadian Wildlife Service to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
They wrote, “Overall, all three populations of light geese now exceed numbers present when the conservation order was initiated. We are confident that the abundance and population growth rate of midcontinent snow geese (as well as by Ross’s and greater snow geese ) currently exceeds the ability of existing numbers of hunters to exert harvest pressure that is necessary to impose sufficient additive mortality and thus effectively influence population growth.
“We suggest that abundance of midcontinent snow geese was seriously underestimated in the past, and that this underestimate may have contributed to an overconfidence which suggested harvest levels could achieve a goal of reduced survival and population reduction.
More geese should equal more goose hunting opportunities, right?
Wrong!—especially in Texas.
We first addressed the decline six years ago where we detailed a unique testimony given by then TPWD Migratory Bird Program Leader Dave Morrison before the TPWD Commission where he detailed how Texas’s population is decreasing while other states such as Kansas are on the rise.
“…They (Kansas) had 350- to 400,000 birds in their state, they killed 15,000. They are not putting pressure on their birds like we do. We had a mid-winter estimate of around 350- to 400,000 the year before last, and we shot about 250,000 birds.”
Texas hunters shot more than half of the light geese that wintered in Texas while Kansas only took a very small portion.
“Now that’s a direct relationship. I understand, that is just the indices compared to population estimates, he testified. “But the decline—you can see the decline—what’s going on. Now, understand that the intent was to cause birds to go down. That was the intent of the expanded and liberal seasons. But the continental population has not gone down. It’s simply a Texas problem.”
The wisest waterfowler I have ever hunted with is William L. (Bill) Sherrill who operates in Wharton County. I am not one to throw the word “guru” around, but if there is a waterfowl guru in Texas, he is it.
For years, he has put a strict limit on the number of geese taken and has been vocal over disapproval of the conservation order since its inception.
“There is a such thing as putting too much pressure on the birds, and with geese it seems like that’s exactly what we’re doing,” he said.
So, what about those stories of hunters taking hundreds of snows on one hunt?
They happen every once in a while, but with far less frequency in the past simply because there are not as many geese, and the ones we are hunting have been shot at from November through March throughout the Central Flyway.
In short, snow geese are adapting to hunting pressure; and it seems in large part, Texas is becoming a much less important part of their wintering plans.
That is not to say there aren’t huntable populations, because there are. Those populations however are far lower than the “glory days” of the past and probably will not improve with time.