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Bill Hilts Jr.: September nuisance goose season ends in jackpot

New York’s early nuisance goose season is like pulling a one-armed bandit at the casino – you never know what you are going to get.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. The season, held Sept. 1-25 every year in upstate New York, is often a hit or miss proposition based on weather and bird preferences. When temperatures are in the 80s (and higher like we saw this year), geese tend to lay low. Water is a preferential location. When they are in the air only a short amount of time, it’s difficult to pinpoint patterns for scouting purposes.

When John Van Hoff contacted me in early September to see when I might be available to chase some geese with him, I chose last Sunday, the last weekend of the September season. However, on Friday, I received a text from John: “Bill, we’re going to cancel Sunday. No birds are around, at least not that we can hunt. Matt’s been looking in the fields. No birds in them all week and not many flying either.”

That Friday was another 80-plus degree day with a “feel-like” temperature into the 90s. However, there was a front coming through and the temperatures were going to drop 30 degrees. Van Hoff decided to take a chance and see what might happen on Saturday morning in a favorite Niagara County field.

At 9:11 a.m., Van Hoff sent the text: “Bill, we’re hunting tomorrow now – birds are in heavy.” A few hours later, he sent a photo of 45 birds in front of Bob Lods of Cheektowaga, Kevin Schroeder of Lockport and Paul Sawicki of Angola. “Meet in our normal spot at 5 a.m.”

Kevin Schroeder of Lockport had the retrieve of the day in a nearby field. (Bill Hilts Jr./Buffalo News)

The first text had me scampering. I needed my federal migratory bird stamp and ran to the post office. Then I needed to sign up for my Harvest Information Program number to make me legal. I had already picked up an extra box of BB steel shot and needed to gather my hunting equipment to prepare for the 3:45 a.m. rise and shine. I wouldn’t be doing too much shining. Exactly one year ago to the day, this same hunt only produced a handful of birds because of warmer temperatures and a change of location as to where the birds wanted to be. That happens. Would it be a repeat performance?

As I arrived at the rendezvous point, I noticed vehicles in a nearby field. Could my group be out there already? With 120 decoys to assemble and set up, it does take time to put a plan together. No, everyone was ready to head down the farming lane, waiting for me. Who was in the field?

As we unloaded the trailer packed to the brim with decoys, I found out that some goose hunters had obtained permission in an adjacent field. It would be up to the birds whose decoy spread looked more inviting. Time would tell.

By 6 a.m., everything was in place. Legal shooting time was 6:33 a.m. and it was a beautiful sunrise with temperatures in the 50s. This felt more like goose hunting weather, a welcome change to the September weather we’ve had closing out the summer. Birds can come from any direction in this spot. Our crew of Van Hoff, Schroeder, Lods, Matt Foe of Cambria and I were ready.

Foe had taken the time to develop a makeshift metal fence blind that was outfitted with the vegetation of the area, a perfect alternative to the layout blinds we would normally struggle with each fall. Standing up from a chair is much easier than trying to sit up from the ground in a field or ditch, especially when you hit 60-something.

The first group of birds came in from the northwest and made a beeline for our spread, leaving an opening that was a special invitation for the resident birds. Five birds came in to see what was happening, none left. It was some pretty good shooting and it set the stage for an excellent morning. However, it could have been better.

Apparently upset that our location appeared to be a favorite of the area geese (or our decoy set was more appealing), the hunters on the adjacent property started to do a little sky busting to try and take birds that were working our decoy set or simply flying overhead on a string to our imitation birds. Sometimes, we would have a small flock of honkers circling our spread two and three times and, as they came close to the other field, the hunters in question would attempt a shot and spook all the birds in the air. They did have birds working their decoys on occasion and that was fine.

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From left, John Van Hoff of North Tonawanda, Bob Lods of Cheektowaga and Kevin Schroeder of Lockport pose in front of their successful Niagara County hunt. (Bill Hilts Jr./Buffalo News)

When we are calling and getting a group of geese to respond to our spread, though, leave it alone. They probably ruined a dozen different opportunities for us over the course of the morning. A phone call might be in order. It also appeared that they drove into the middle of a planted field, an unfavorable act that often leads to the closing down of a field to hunting. Ethics and common sense need to be emphasized in these kinds of situations, whether you are goose hunting, deer hunting or whatever. There is a lesson to be learned, too.

Our original plan was to hunt until 10:30 a.m. When we pulled the plug on the morning adventure, we counted 63 geese, a dozen short of our 15-bird limit per person. This was an amazing number when you consider that we had almost cancelled the hunt two days before due to lack of birds. Van Hoff and company had taken 108 Canada geese in two days.

We had not taken our limit of birds. Had the neighboring field of nimrods been more sportsmanlike, we would have completed our 75-bird limit much quicker and they could have had the fields, and birds, to themselves. They still did well considering, but there’s a right way and a wrong way. Let’s hope they learned which was which.

We did our part to help control the nuisance population of resident birds. In a recent 2018 survey, the Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that there are more than 325,000 resident birds who call the Empire State home, a record. The population goal deemed by wildlife biologists is 85,000 geese. To help trim those numbers, the DEC offers more liberal regulations like the 15-bird hunter limit in our area, along with a larger magazine capacity, during the September hunt. We did our part to reduce population levels. We hit the jackpot.

Van Hoff’s comment at the end of the hunt was: “I thought three boxes of shells would have been enough for me.”

The regular waterfowl season for ducks and geese in Western New York opens Oct. 27. To encourage more youth involvement, there are Youth Hunting Days set aside in each region. For the Western Zone, Oct. 13-14 are the dates. Consult the DEC regulations at www.dec.ny.gov.

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