Each fall, when the cold winds come, light geese follow the fronts in clouds that block out the sun. Their sheer weight of airborne numbers offer a stunning sight, one much more appealing to hunters than to farmers and habitat managers.
Across the South, regular waterfowl seasons are now closed, but in each of the last several years, as now, a federal conservation order seeking to manage the explosive growth of light goose populations not only extends the shooting opportunities for certain species for many weeks yet to come, many regulations on the hunting itself are relaxed as well.
This year’s migrating numbers of greater and lesser snow geese, blue geese and Ross’s geese, known collectively as light geese, are as strong as have been seen in many years. Abundant water and flooded fields can actually help hunters at this time as well, because these geese prefer to be dry ground feeders. Located on higher patches of soybean or corn fields now long since harvested, these birds can be a great joy and challenge to hunt.
Light geese were found in the late 1990s to be growing to levels that threatened the future of other waterfowl. Although these geese don’t generally use the same feeding ground as ducks on their way south in the winter and north in the spring, they do occupy the same nesting habitats in the arctic and sub-arctic, as well as many of the same pre-migration staging areas around James and Hudson Bays.
Quoting information from Ducks Unlimited, light geese were largely confined to a few small colonies in the far north as recently as the middle of the 20th century, but those colonies have expanded both their populations and geographic footprints at a worrying rate since.
Migration and wintering population surveys indicate the birds that numbered fewer than a million in the late 1960s now total more than 17 million today and are doing serious damage to fragile, slow-mending habitats in the north as well, an impact sorely felt by other waterfowl.
In 1999 the Arctic Tundra Habitat Emergency Conservation Act, more commonly known as the Light Goose Conservation Order, expanded the shooting seasons, removed magazine restrictions and bag limits and allowed the use of electronic callers. Once, light geese made direct migrations from staging areas along the coasts of James and Hudson bay to the coastal marshes of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean in the east, and from western staging areas to the central valley of California.
A big and growing job
Today, growing populations and changes in farming practices have led them to winter across a much greater area than ever before. When fall begins to give way now, colossal flocks descend upon Arkansas and Mississippi as well as adjoining states where water is plentiful across great swaths of cropland.
Hunting the birds successfully requires work, commitment and skill. A typical decoy spread must number in the hundreds to get their attention, which can be brief and fickle as such things tend to be, and the successful deployment of that spread requires skill born of experience. The rewards for shooters, though, can be more than worth the effort.
Decoying in singles and pairs, in tens and twenties, in skeins of a hundred or even by the thousands, the maelstrom of winged activity brings with it a level of excitement unlike any found elsewhere in the waterfowling world.
Wild geese, unlike their domestic cousins, present to the palate a texture similar to beef. They’re easily made into jerky or gumbo. The meat is well received when ground for sausage or burger and, with proper brining and care, can be smoked or grilled for a fare that brings all the memories of time afield back fresh again. Filets of goose breast are an excellent addition to any hunter’s freezer.
In Mississippi, hunters may shoot light geese through the end of March. There is no bag or possession limit. Hunters may use shotguns of any magazine capacity and may employ electronic callers as well.
Baiting is not allowed, and non-toxic shot must be used.
In Mississippi, hunters must have a valid state hunting license and state waterfowl stamp, and must also have in their possession a light goose conservation order hunting permit, which is free, but must be acquired online at mdwfp.com.