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Pennsylvania's heavy goose population can be rewarding to hunters

Bob Frye
| Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010

September is a busy month for Brian Pierog.

He's been a hunter for 37 years. For most of that time, he was into deer and small game, whose seasons kick off in October.

Then, he discovered Canada geese.

"I started hunting geese 15 years ago and ever since the very first time, I've been totally addicted," said Pierog, who lives in New Castle. "It's sort of like a spring turkey hunter. He goes out the first time, he hears that bird gobble and he's hooked. It was the same with me with geese.

"The only difference is that when that turkey hunter shoots his bird, he's done. I can shoot that first goose and still take more that day, and more the day after that."

Now, Pierog spends every day in September — when the state holds its "resident" goose season — either hunting geese or scouting out new places to do so.

He doesn't have tons of competition.

Pennsylvania had 33,814 goose hunters in 2008, according to Pennsylvania Game Commission statistics. It had more than twice as many groundhog hunters, more than five times as many squirrel hunters and more than 25 times as many deer hunters.

But that's still more goose hunters than anywhere else in the 17-state Atlantic Flyway. And Pennsylvania's gunners take lots of birds.

Before last year — when the harvest was an estimated 169,000, down from the long-term average of 180,000 — the state had led not only the flyway but the nation in goose harvests for about 15 years running, said John Dunn, the Game Commission's chief waterfowl biologist.

"We're the top goose hunting state in the whole country," Dunn said. "People think of the eastern shore of Maryland as sort of the goose hunting capital of the world, but actually it's Pennsylvania."

The September hunt is a big part of that.

It was established in 1992 to rein in the state's burgeoning population of resident geese, birds that remain in the state year-round rather than migrating. It's only recently seen any success as a control measure.

Pennsylvania had about 89,000 resident geese in 1989. Fifteen or so years later — thanks to good habitat, high reproductive and survival rates and the federal closure for several years running of seasons targeting migratory geese — it had 280,000.

That, despite a season that is long and liberal — it runs Sept. 1 to Sept. 25 this year, with an eight-bird daily limit in most places.

That turned "resident" geese into "nuisance" geese in a lot of places, from municipal parks and golf courses to private residences and state parks. Those problems remain in areas.

"Park visitors often complain about goose excrement on state park beaches and other facilities, and water quality at some state parks has been adversely affected," said Jeremy Peck, chief ranger at Laurel Hill State Park, in a statement announcing that the park is again welcoming goose hunters in September. "Resident Canada geese have been among the suspected cause of high fecal coliform counts at some Pennsylvania state park beaches, forcing swimming restrictions during peak use periods."

But hunting has helped some. The resident population has decreased recently, to an estimated 232,000 geese this spring, which is about where it's been for the last several years, said Kevin Jacobs, a Game Commission waterfowl biologist. The September season is partly responsible for that, as one-third of the geese harvested in the state annually fall in that month, he said.

And if the number of geese is still significantly higher than the goal of 150,000, well, that just means some great opportunities for hunters.

"When you've got that many birds overall, and that many juvenile birds, which are a little easier to call and decoy, you've got some pretty good hunting," Jacobs said.

Successfully taking home-grown geese in September requires paying attention to little details, though, said Pierog, who films goose hunting videos and will have a television show on In Country Television this winter.

"A lot of people don't understand early season hunting for resident geese," he said. "These aren't the migratory geese you'll see later in the season. They're different."

To start, you've got to do your homework. Pierog scouts constantly, early in the day and late in the evening, looking for fresh-cut oat, wheat and corn fields. When he spots such a place, he stops and asks permission to hunt it as early as the next morning.

When he arrives, he sets out his decoys — never more than a dozen at this time of year and, sometimes, no more than four or five — right where the geese were the night before.

"If they're in the middle of the field, or at the far corner of a field, they're there for a reason. You don't want to set up on the edge of the field because it's a shorter walk. Set up where they've shown you they want to be," he said.

He plays the wind, too.

"Birds are always going to land into the wind, just like an airplane. A plane lowers its flaps when it's landing; a bird settles into the wind the same way, so that it can go slow and get one last look at any predators that might be on the ground," he said.

"When you set up so that they're coming in to you, you can make the most ethical shot, when they're sort of hovering."

As important as anything is to be invisible, Pierog said. He lies in ground blinds and keeps his dogs camouflaged in others. And he's strict about keeping all signs of humanity — from water bottles to spent shell casings to cigarette smoke - hidden.

Failing to do so spooks birds, he said.

"Geese are always looking for something out of the ordinary," he said. "If they've been feeding in a field for five days, they're going to notice if something's moved or if something's different."

If that sounds like a lot of details, hunters can at least take heart in knowing that good goose hunting — now more than ever — is out there.

"Years ago, people from places like Pittsburgh used to have to go to Pymatuning or Middle Creek to hunt geese. Now, some of the best hunting is in the southern counties," Dunn said. "People can probably find some pretty good goose hunting close to home."

Count Pierog among those who understand that.

"Geese are my favorite thing to hunt. They can fly anywhere they want, and you're trying to lure them in with your decoys and calls," he said. "It's pretty rewarding."

Additional Information:

Keep it simple when calling geese

Sometimes, the trickiest part of goose hunting seems to be the calling required. That's not the way things need to be, said Brian Peirog, who films goose hunts under his 'Callin' the Shots' banner.

Goose hunters need to master just two calls, he said: the moan and the cluck. And even those should be used in moderation, he said.

'Most guys call too much. All you want to offer is just a little confidence builder and that's it. You want to call just enough to convince birds to come to you, and with the moan and cluck, you can do that and kill birds all year.'

You can see Peirog's videos or his upcoming television show at www.callintheshotstv.com .

He also has an interactive forum where waterfowlers trade ideas, tips, stories about their hunts and more. Find it at www.callintheshots.com .

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