Early goose season allows hunters to target stay-at-home birds
Undoubtedly, a lot of people will start their Labor Day holiday by sleeping late and enjoying a leisurely morning.
Don Taylor won't be among them.
The Lower Burrell man will be up, dressed and out the door hours before the sun has shouldered aside the night. Anticipation will have made sleep impossible anyway.
But that's the nature of obsession.
Pennsylvania's resident Canada goose hunting season begins Monday. It's the first opportunity of the year for waterfowlers, and Taylor will be out there looking to knock a few birds out of the sky.
“It's a rush unlike anything else in Pennsylvania. It's a completely different experience, to call birds in, to make them come to you,” said Taylor, who serves as chairman of the Allegheny Chapter of Delta Waterfowl.
Wildlife managers wish there were more Taylors out there. Pennsylvania's resident geese — birds that live in the state year-round, rather than migrating — number about 279,000. The population goal is 150,000.
“Canada geese remain abundant in the state. Really, they're overabundant,” said Kevin Jacobs, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's waterfowl biologist.
Yet only about 30,000 people will hunt them this year, if history holds, a pittance in a state where 150,000 people pursue squirrels, 240,000 chase spring turkeys and 800,000 hunt deer. Jacobs said that's partly due to the unique economic barriers of the sport; decoys, for example, can be $150 or more for a half dozen.
“It takes a motivated individual to do it,” Jacobs said.
Hunters — even new waterfowlers — can have some success at this time of year without first having to acquire a garage full of gear, though, Taylor said. In fact, early-season waterfowling is the easiest waterfowling.
The flocks out there now are full of younger birds. They've never been shot over, and that lack of experience makes them more vulnerable than the wiser birds of later fall, he said. The fact they live in smaller family groups means they're more likely now to come in to smaller spreads, he added.
That won't be the case in, say, November, “when you really can't have too many” decoys, Taylor said.
But right now, less is more.
“If I'm on the water, I generally use between six and 12 decoys. If I'm in a field, I try to mimic what I see when scouting, but not go over,” Taylor said.
Calling is less critical now than later, too, Taylor added. In fact, early in the season, he calls “only when absolutely necessary” to coax birds in.
What you do need to do is figure out where the birds want to be and make sure you get there first, he said. He calls it “getting on the X.” That “X” often involves farm fields where the birds are feeding.
Canada geese are grazers, so low-cut grass and fields are prime places to find them, Jacobs said.
“Oat stubble is a real big thing this time of year. Geese love waste oats,” Jacobs said. “If you can find fields where dairy farmers have chopped down their corn for silage, that's probably the second-best kind of habitat. Pastures are also good places to hunt, probably No. 3 on the list.”
In some places, hunters hunt fields almost exclusively. That's the case in southern Westmoreland County, said Matt Lucas, the commission's wildlife conservation officer there. In others, like central Somerset County, it's lakes surrounded by agricultural fields where hunters do best.
“We've got some bigger bodies of water, Lake Stony Creek, Indian Lake, Somerset Lake, surrounded by farm fields, and there are a lot of opportunities to hunt geese there,” said conservation officer Brian Witherite.
Wherever you hunt, you need to stay hidden.
“Concealment is probably No. 1 in waterfowl hunting. Their eyesight is so keen,” Jacobs said. “If they see anything they don't like or that looks out of place, they'll fly right by.”
If you use something like a lay-down ground blind, you need to “muddy” or “stubble” it up to make it match the cover you're in, Taylor said. If you're on a river bank or public spot where it's either illegal to build a permanent blind or unwise, in that it gives away your spots to other hunters, tucking yourself in some weeds and sitting still can be enough, he added.
Resident geese, which live around people all the time, are almost trained to ignore some things. Movement where there should be none is not one of them, he said.
He's also always sure to cover his face with a camouflage mask, too.
Follow those suggestions and you may have some success, he said. You'll at least have fun while you're learning.