The scene is a classic waterfowl setting. The hunter and his retriever crouch behind a makeshift blind of natural vegetation at water’s edge, watching as the birds hail to their plastic comrades.
The hunter lays his call aside, knowing that the birds have committed. A flock of Canada geese that numbers in double digits, each weighing between 6 and 8 pounds, looks like a Boeing 747 coming in to land.
“Where will they all fit?” and “Is it really safe to be sitting this close?” flash through the hunter’s mind just before he springs upward, takes a bead on the lead bird, and pulls the trigger.
Upon closer examination, this classical waterfowl scene has a few flaws.
First and foremost, the hunter who springs from the blind is clad in attire more suited for a dove shoot. He’s even wearing shorts! The scene further unhinges when the lab splashed out of the 75-degree water, deposits Goose No. 6 for the day in his master’s hand and returns to his post with less than half a limit in the bag.
The phrases “hot weather,” “liberal bag limits” and “Canada geese” have rarely been uttered in the same sentence before.
The establishment of an “early” goose season in South Carolina was in response to the establishment of a resident population of Canada geese by the SCDNR.
After a period of severe population decline along their annual migratory routes —stemming from commercial harvest during the early 1900s — several state wildlife agencies began looking at ways to protect the populations that remained. In the early 1960s, small groups of the “giant” Canada geese were rediscovered at a number of refuges in mostly northern states, and federal and state agencies began a concerted effort to rebuild populations.
“Basically, the people of South Carolina missed seeing geese in the air and in their local waters, and hunters missed the opportunity to harvest geese when the migratory population declined,” said Dean Harrigal, the SCDNR’s waterfowl biologist. “Geese were captured from states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island and moved into our state with the intention of establishing a resident Canada goose population.
“The effort has been a tremendous success. The initial populations we originally established back in the 1980s have morphed into what is now a statewide population of resident geese.”
The result has created new hunting opportunities for waterfowlers and a bit of a challenge for wildlife managers.
“We do get a few calls about nuisance geese from mostly urbanized areas, golf courses, public parks, and mall parking lots.” Harrigal notes “While people enjoy seeing 3 or 4 geese in a scenic setting, they get a little upset when that population turns into 25 or even 50 large birds. “
For the most part, hunters have enjoyed the additional opportunity to harvest geese, and state residents can again enjoy seeing geese flying over our state.”
Working within a federal framework for waterfowl seasons, the SCDNR has announced a Sept. 1-30 season and a 15-bird daily bag limit — identical to 2006 regulations.
With the hunting opportunity in place and the support of the SCDNR behind them, the only remaining question for South Carolina waterfowlers is how to hunt the geese.
“I’ve hunted Canada Geese in this state ever since there was a season established” said veteran waterfowler Scott Emery. “We used to see them on the area lakes and some farm ponds that we hunted for ducks during the winter. We really didn’t do anything different; if they came into the spread, we’d shoot them.
“Eventually, as we started seeing more of them, we’d add a couple of goose decoys over to the side of our duck spread, and we started increasing the size of our steel shot. Where we used to use mostly size 4s for ducks, we’d start carrying size 2 and sometimes carry a few rounds of BB size for the times we saw geese.”
This “learn as you go” practice, adapting duck hunting techniques to goose hunting, worked well enough over the years and is still pretty successful today. The problem is, hit-or-miss tactics that are fine during the winter don’t work nearly as well in September. In addition, there is no coinciding duck season to supplement shooting opportunities.
“When the DNR announced the early goose season a couple of years ago, I was real excited” said Emery. “Those middle weeks in September gave additional hunting time between opening day of dove season and the start of deer season. That first year, I packed up my goose decoys and headed out to one of my duck holes the first morning and set up. The only thing I got for my trouble was mosquito bites, and I almost stepped on a water moccasin.”
It was clear that different tactics were in order. First, the waders had to go, as Emery said that September was way too hot for them. After talking it over with some of his hunting buddies, the suggestion was made to try the last place any of them had seen geese.
Dutifully, Emery and longtime friend Stanley McGraw loaded up Emery’s bass boat and headed for Lake Russell, a 26,650-acre reservoir on the Savannah River. “I see geese all summer long milling around in coves and points ... while I’m bass fishing,” Emery said.
Within minutes of launching their boat that afternoon, they found 5 or 6 geese in a cut behind a main point. “We decided to just hang back and see what they did.”
They spent the remaining daylight hours fishing for bass within sight of the birds. They were convinced the geese would leave before dark but were surprised when a flock of 15 to 20 more geese swung in landed with the others as the sun started going down.
The next day, Emery and McGraw returned to find 3 more geese lounging within 100 yards of the same cut.
“We set up on the bank in that cut, and of course, the 3 geese nearby flew off,” Emery said. “I remember thinking that sunset was about 7:30, and we had an hour-and-a-half to go. About 7:05, we were about ready to give up when I heard that first far off honk up the Rocky River arm.”
The two hunters crouched behind the crude blind of dead tree limbs, and Emery blew 3 honks on his goose call. “I looked at Scott and said, ‘This is going to be just like deer hunting; we’ll either see nothing at all or it will happen all at once, right at dark,’” McGraw said.
Almost immediately, an oncoming flock, intent on settling in for the evening, announced its arrival.
“We didn’t hear another honk ’til a whole flock swung around that point, and they were dead on us with their feet sticking out.”
Emery and McGraw rose and unloaded on the flock, which they estimated at better than 20 birds.
“Stanley took out the lead bird and another one back in the pack, and I hit either the second or third from the front and killed another one trying to take back off,” Emery said.
The lessons learned that evening set the cornerstone of what has become a tried-and-true tactic. A daily pattern of movement from lakes, ponds or coastal wetlands to inland feed sites is established over the summer. While trying to target feeding areas is possible, it requires knowing the areas the birds are using in advance, obtaining permission to hunt there and getting to the feeding area and getting concealed before the birds arrive.
With daylight waning, geese feel much safer roosting in and around open water. It’s for this reason that Emery hunts mostly in the evening. Another key is setting up where you’ve seen geese milling around during the day. Emery likes to arrive an hour or so before the last hour of daylight and set up on the shoreline in a cove adjacent to where geese are present. Once there, he throws out the same number of decoys as geese that he’s seen while scouting to make the scene complete.
Another consideration is a lack of the usual waterfowl attire.
“This is dove-style shooting,” Emery said, “short-sleeve camouflaged shirt, shorts, camo hat and a dove bucket to sit on.”
While the water is generally warm enough for swimming, Emery prefers to leave retrieving the birds to Jake, his 6-year-old Lab. Emery said the open water of a reservoir makes for some easy retrieves, but it’s good practice for the dog with duck season ahead.
Emery offers some additional advice on increasing the number of shots per evening hunt.
He always tries to take the lead bird. “It seems like that front bird is the one who decides where the whole flock is going to spend the night. We’ve had hunts where we took the lead bird out, and the flock regrouped, swung around in a big circle and tried to land again.” He’s had days when the first volley broke the flock into smaller groups, some of which later returned and decoyed.
Public hunting land abounds in South Carolina, and almost all of the big reservoirs are fair game. Hunters need to bear in mind that certain bodies of water require written permission from a homeowner when hunting within 200 yards of a residence.
Even with that stipulation, plenty of unpopulated land remains with the state’s largest owning entities — South Carolina Electric & Gas, Duke Power, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — maintaining a right of way around the water’s edge and across any mid-lake islands. These areas have been granted public access, but if you are unfamiliar with a particular body of water, it’s best to inquire with a local game warden if it’s legal to hunt there.