They appeared out of the early morning haze, like a ghost carried on winter winds. The distinctive calls reached us from 500 yards across the Arkansas rice field. The sound of electronic callers, and windsock style decoys flapping in the stiff wind, called back to them. Laying, on my back, shielded from their view by a sarcophagus like layout blind, I shivered in anticipation of what was to come.
Fighting the wind, the small flock of snow geese inched their way closer to our ruse. 100 yards, 50 yards, 25 yards. Our guide for the hunt gave the command to shoot, and moments later three rice and winter wheat fattened geese were hand delivered by two happy Labrador retrievers.
This was my first experience hunting snow geese and I was loving every moment. Snow geese had been on my bucket list for quite a few years. So when I had the opportunity to travel to Arkansas, in February, for a conservation hunt I jumped at it.
Before I proceed any further I feel a little history is in order. In the early 1900's there were an estimated 3,000 snow geese left in North America. Due to market hunting and lack of suitable wintering habitat, the populations were in a dire situation. Then, in 1916, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act between Canada, the United States and Mexico paved way for regulation limiting the numbers of birds to be harvested and season lengths for all migratory birds. Subsequently the harvest of snow geese was outlawed.
By the 1960's the population of snow geese had risen to 60,000. In 1975 they had recovered enough to again have a hunting season. Over the following 25 years the population exploded, 300% by most estimates. Due to changes in snow geese wintering grounds, namely more agricultural lands, more birds were surviving the winter for a return trip north, to nesting grounds in Canada.
More breeding age birds equaled an exponential increase in population. With this increase in numbers came an increased demand for food in the arctic tundra. Snow geese were essentially eating themselves and other arctic inhabitants out of house and home. Concerns were raised over the fragile ecosystem, and in 1999 a special conservation season was created from February to April, in order to control the population. Even with the liberal regulations for harvesting snow geese their numbers have continued to increase at an average rate of 5% per year. Current estimates place their flock at somewhere between 5 and 15 million birds.
Primarily snow geese migrate either east or west of Indiana. It was hard for me to comprehend the sheer numbers of birds when all I had ever witnessed in Greene County were a few scattered flocks. It would seem that is changing, however. Only days before I was to head out for Arkansas the goose pond had a count of 10,000 snow geese. Furthermore, as I was driving to work that week, I was amazed to see a massive flock of snow geese feeding in a corn field, only a few miles from home. My expectations were soaring for what lay ahead.
Then the dreaded phone call came. Our guide called to inform us that a cold front was coming just prior to our hunt and that our chances for a success were greatly diminished. Nothing will halt the northern migration of snow geese quite like a major cold front. He gave us an option to postpone our date, but with the schedule of four working men that would have been nearly impossible. After much debate, we decided our hunt would go on as planned.
Which brings us back to the beginning, a harvested rice field, in east Arkansas, three snow geese on the ground, surrounded by 400 decoys. As the four of us gathered around our prize the guide looked at us and said "That's three more geese than I expected you guys would get this weekend." Somehow, I got the impression our guide was not an optimist!
Despite the odds, we remained in the field from sunrise to sunset, and managed to get 10 geese by the days end. Exhausted we made our way back to the small town of Pocahontas. There we ate an excellent southern meal and headed for the hotel for some rest before our second day's hunt. By the way, if you ever happen to be in Pocahontas, Arkansas be sure to stop in at Don's Steakhouse. It was one of the friendliest environments, with some of the best food I have had in a long time.
Day 2. The winds had calmed and we were greeted with an amazing sunrise. Unlike the previous day, there were was not an early flock of geese to greet us. In fact as the hours ticked by and noon rolled around we had nothing to show for our efforts. The guide was restless and with our blessing he left for lunch. Then, an hour after he left, flocks of geese started approaching from the north. Every time a flock would pass over a few dozen birds would peel away from the group and start circling our decoys. This went on for about 5 minutes as thousands of snow geese made the progression from north to south.
By this time we had 300 geese circling us. The cacophony of their calls filled our ears. Every direction I looked was filled with hovering geese. My friend, to my left, could vaguely be heard giggling like a small child opening a long awaited Christmas gift. From the end of our line of blinds, the last hunter, a grizzled veteran of snow geese said "It's fixin' to get nasty boys!" With that the command was given, everyone jumped up from their blinds and we opened a volley of fire onto the otherwise unsuspecting geese. Five men with guns, each with five to six rounds of ammunition in them, unloaded in an attempt to make contact with the rapidly departing targets. In spite of all that firepower we only managed to get six geese. Five men, 25 shots fired and six geese.
That's the paradox of snow geese. It takes a massive outlay of decoys and equipment to harvest just a few. It takes a tremendous amount of scouting and work to set out 400 plus decoys. But when it all comes together, and it's "fixin to get nasty," there are few sweeter moments in a goose hunter's memory. That's why I'll be back again next year chasing those white devils, that "scourge of the tundra."
Jon is a staff writer for the Greene County Daily World. He can be reached by telephone at (812) 847-4487, ext. 21. He can also be reached via email at email@example.com.