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OUTDOORS: If only late waterfowl season was longer

THE GEESE HOMED in on the decoys in front of our carefully camouflaged boat, coming “on a string,” as the saying goes. Then, for no apparent reason, they veered right and flew away, never looking back.

That happened on one of my first waterfowl hunts. When I asked what happened, the short answer was, “Nobody knows a goose’s mind like a goose.”

Anything was possible. The decoys may have had an unnatural shine or gave another clue they weren’t the real deal. Maybe the boat looked unnatural against the nearby shoreline and the birds had been shot at before from similar settings. Maybe somebody moved in the blind and flared the birds. Or, simply, the goose making the decision on where to land had another idea.

I was reminded recently that a nice decoy spread often doesn’t mean squat, especially when hunting late-season resident Canada geese. Those geese truly have minds of their own.

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Mark Mackey invited me to a nearly 1,000-acre farm in northern Fauquier County’s “horse country” a couple of weeks ago. The limit was up to five birds since “regular” duck season had ended two weeks earlier.

Northwest winds gusted to 40 mph, pushing the chill factor to 10–15 degrees. Dutifully, we placed about 25 decoys along a small farm pond. The decoys were a mix of shells, floaters, and a couple that flapped in the wind or could have flapping wings activated by a pull string.

We hunkered low against the wind as daybreak arrived.

“Nice-looking spread,” Mackey said as he perused the array of dummy birds.

High winds also have a way of making waterfowl hunker on roost ponds. We patiently waited for the neighborhood geese to brave the elements and head out for breakfast. Finally, at 8 a.m., we spied a dozen lifting from an adjacent farm and winging our way.

“Get ready,” Mackey said, “They usually come over these trees, bank left and land right in front of us.”

True to, “Nobody knows a goose’s mind like a goose,” the birds ignored the decoys, banked right, cruised over the farmhouse and landed in a larger pond on the opposite side.

Still, we sat tight, at least until another group flew in from the same direction and headed to the same pond.

Well? We hatched a plan to infiltrate some bushes near the preferred pond and jump shoot the unsuspecting birds.

GOOSE HERDING

It almost worked.

Crawling like coyotes between some ancient boxwoods, we spied a couple of swimming geese. The larger flock loafed 80 yards away. Plan B called for Mackey to flank the bigger flock, possibly getting a shot or at least spooking them toward me.

Sneaking up on geese isn’t easy. As soon as Mackey hit open terrain, the geese began honking nervously. They swam toward the middle of the lake and lifted off. I unloaded my gun at them as I popped from my hiding spot.

None dropped! Surprisingly, one bird broke from the now-departing formation and circled back to the pond. We both fired and the first honker, a hefty resident Canada, was in the bag.

We repeated the scenario again after lunch, with me as the goose herder. Mackey collected one bird.

The late afternoon strategy was to move to the farm’s opposite end where a cut cornfield was close to a favored roost lake.

Some geese came off the pond at 5 p.m. and we popped up shooting. Not exactly covering ourselves in glory, we missed the wind-driven birds with each shot. Contemplating the long drive home, I announced, “I’m outta here.”

The sun was just setting over the mountains as I reached the hilltop and my vehicle. Hundreds of yards away, Mackey sat, watching a huge flock of mallard ducks swirl like a tornado over the cornfield.

Soon after, approaching from the setting sun, waves of geese appeared and headed toward the lake in a cacophony of sound. One group finally approached close enough for Mackey to shoot and he collected the final goose of the day.

Watching the action unfold from the hilltop vista was a nice finish to a long day.

DUCK SEASON ADJUSTMENT?

An increasingly common late-season waterfowl refrain in both Maryland and Virginia goes, “How great would it be if duck season could be moved at least a week into February?”

Instead of duck season beginning the same weekend as general firearms season for deer, some hunters wonder why the season can’t start and end a week later. Duck migration is usually weather-dependent, or at least heavily influenced. Lack of cold winter weather has been an issue in recent years.

Bob Ellis of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has represented Virginia on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Atlantic Flyway Council, which evaluates duck population assessments and consults on migratory bird hunting regulations and the “federal framework,” which includes season lengths.

Ellis said he doesn’t see duck seasons being shifted into February, mainly due to breeding pairs of black ducks and other species that get together early.

“They [the federal biologists] probably aren’t that crazy about the youth day in February,” Ellis added, restricting that to within 14 days of the main season ending.

Gary Costanza, DGIF’s waterfowl biologist, agreed, stating, “Birds start migrating back north in February and in some areas birds [such as wood ducks] start breeding at this time also.” Other species are “paired up and are feeding hard in preparation for the nesting season,” he added.

“Disturbance from hunting this late can also stress the birds enough to reduce their productivity,” Costanza said. “So, it’s a tough choice between hunting the birds later but potentially influencing their condition and reproduction in the coming breeding season.”

Glad I asked.

Ken Perrotte can be reached at The Free Lance–Star, 616 Amelia Street, Fredericksburg, Va. 22401, by fax at 373-8455 or e–mail at outdoors@freelancestar.com.

For more on outdoors things to do around Fredericksburg and the region, sign up for The Free Lance-Star’s newest e-newsletter, Mighty Outdoors, at http://fredericksburg.com/topics/mightyoutdoors/about.html

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