Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 24, 2013

Bob Gwizdz: Goose season gets a later start

BY BOB GWIZDZ, Outdoors columnist

---- — WALTZ — The late Canada goose season in southern Michigan is even later than usual this year.

Ordinarily, the 30-day season begins the first Saturday in January. This year the Natural Resources Commission pushed it back another week. Why? Joe Robison explains.

"We always talk about having as much overlap in duck and goose seasons as possible," said Robison, a wildlife biologist in southeast Michigan and quite possibly the Department of Natural Resources' most enthusiastic resident waterfowler. "But it's always good to allow some time, at least a week, between seasons, to give the birds a rest and give them time to settle back down.

"This year, we had that four-day late split for ducks and geese and with all those duck hunters out there, those birds were heavily pressured. I watched migrating geese from 9 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon — nonstop all day v geese leaving Michigan. They got out of town."

But there was an additional reason besides giving 'em a rest for the later season, Robison said. Ordinarily, there is an early February thaw when geese that left Michigan in December and January begin drifting back. Robison said he thinks there will be some good goose hunting late in the late season this year as the birds come back.

As it turned out, the first winter thaw this year occurred just a week or so after winter weather actually hit. The opening weekend was well above freezing and some birds had already begun drifting back. Robison invited me to join up with him and three of his buddies on the second day of the season in southern Wayne County.

We set up a portable blind in a wetland on the edge of a grass field on a chunk of property that also contained a couple of some cornfields (one picked, one not). The birds began arriving, as singles or in pairs, about an hour after sunrise and we took them (mostly, there were a few missed shots, too, I have to admit) as the opportunities presented themselves.

Ninety minutes or so into it, we had 11 geese on the ground. That's when things changed

The geese began skirting our spread to land in the picked corn field. And Robison said it sort of figured.

"The biggest thing I know about the late season is you can scout an area two or three days in a row, see where the birds are, and then they change," he said. "They'd been in here; I thought they'd come back to the wetland areas and feed on the smartweed and the other grass near the wetlands.

"But the temperature's falling pretty rapidly right now and when that happens, the birds go to the corn. And that's what we're seeing."

We might have set up on the cornfield in the first place — "It was a 50-50 gamble," Robison said — and perhaps had done as well or even better than we did in the wetland. But we didn't out of respect for the land, he explained.

"That chisel-plowed corn field was a muddy mess," he said. "It's difficult enough to get permission to get on a field in the first place but then, when it's warm and muddy, is it worth tearing up a farmer's field? You'd be tearing the field up, even just walking out, carrying out decoys and setting them up. Then you have to try to get permission again?

"If you wait until everything freezes up, those birds will still be there. It's just good manners."

Robison, who is something of a gear geek, had the latest in field blinds — an A-frame blind, made by Avian-X — which is totally different than the low-profile lay-out blinds that have been standard with field hunters for about two decades now. The blind — which featured a lightweight, shock-corded plastic frame with a rip-stop nylon outer shell — is sort of a return to the old days of goose hunting.

"It's like a permanent blind on the edge of a field, but it's portable," Robison said. "It's something these geese haven't seen. For the last 20 years, hunters have been using ground blinds and for, whatever reason, the geese are catching on to them. "

The nylon shell has straps attached to allow the use of local vegetation to complete the camo job. We stuffed them with smartweed and marsh grass, but we could have just as easily used corn stalks.

"It's very important when you get out there to add whatever natural grass or vegetation that is out there to blind," Robison said. "You need to match your surroundings."

Similarly, Robison had the latest in decoys — beautifully painted with flocked heads, mounted on metal stakes that allowed them to pivot in the wind. It was hard to believe they didn't sucker every goose in the county into the set.

But in the end, selling geese on a decoy set is a lot like selling real estate. The three most important features are location, location, location.

"This is just not where they wanted to be," Robinson said as we watched geese fall into the corn field a couple hundred yards away. "We are not on the X."

But were close enough, early on, to get in some good shooting on the opening weekend of late goose season.