Maybe more geese, but not down here

A recent newsletter I received from Ducks Unlimited has a very interesting piece on the Canada goose on the Mississippi flyway. DU is greatly pleased with the overall numbers and general condition of the birds and their future. The report contained a number of figures that rather astonished me. The population, DU states, is much, much higher than it was back in the 1940's when for a while I remember that the bag limit was one bird per day.

The cited population numbers are ironic to learn of as an old goose hunter, since the very best hunting those of us along the lower reaches of the Mississippi River remember was back in the 1930's and 1940's. This can be understood, however, since this was before the advent of all the refuges that have since sprung up around the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers,

Horseshoe Lake Refuge just outside of Cairo, Ill., was the first of the big refuges to come to the attention of hunters along the lower end of the Mississippi River. Mississippi River sandbar hunters in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana began to notice that around 1949 goose flights that took up residence in our vicinity fell off each year quite noticeably.

With my friend Newt McWilliams, who lives within rock-throwing distance of the river, I maintained one of the finer sandbar box pits in Coahoma County. Our most productive pit was located on an island sandbar that eventually became part of Island 63. This happened when a dyke constructed by the Corps of Engineers brought on a situation that eventually added this entire sandbar island to the rest of the mostly wooded island. This in no way harmed the goose hunting and down through the years these accretions have added a section or two to the island.

I would be hesitant to try and estimate how many Canadian geese wintered and fed all winter in this locality. I very well recall that at the same time a few growers that farmed land lying between the main levee and the river planted huge acreage in corn. Most of the geese we hunted on these sand bars roosted in the river, flew out and fed in the big corn fields and then came back to the sand bars for grit.

Of course, not all of them flew out to these fields and sometimes we would lure in a drove early in the morning. However, most of the good shooting that we had was well up in the morning and in the afternoon.

You can well imagine that it was distressing to say the least when every year we would get less and less geese. About 1953 most of us gave up hunting the geese there entirely.

We had learned, of course, that the refuge system was proliferating greatly upriver, especially all around the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi. Kentucky entered the game with the big Ballard County acreage. As time went on, refuges were enlarged, new ones sprung up and eventually very, very few geese ever ventured down this way. Hunter complaints were of no use and hunters in the lower end of the river gave it up or found some way to hunt upriver in the Cairo, Ill., vicinity.

Some of us here in Coahoma County were lucky since we'd made friends with the then-Illinois Director of Conservation, Mr. Parker, and were regularly invited to hunt on the department hunting area that was part of Horseshoe Refuge.

Even better for me, I had the privilege of making some fine, new friends — Sam and Jackie Barker, who live in East Prairie, Mo. The Barker's family owns superb goose hunting land in Kentucky and Missouri. For many years we “swapped out hunts.” I provided fine spring and fall turkey hunting to help repay the wonderful goose hunting that we enjoyed up there.

Ironically, the great increase in refuge land with abundant feed, has even greatly reduced the quality of private land hunting up there. Those smart Canadian geese stay right on the refuges until an occasional heavy freeze drives them out. However, they quickly return to the refuge when the weather warms up.

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