The geese—a flock of about 30—came from upwind, flying toward our decoy set from behind us. They seemed fixated on our dekes, ignoring the well-grassed, A-Frame blind the four of us occupied.
As they lost altitude, Joe Robison, the ramrod on this early season goose safari in Southeast Michigan, offered that perhaps we should take them, rather than allow them to swing wide and turn into the wind to land, as geese are wont to do.
When they drew even with the blind and were no more than a few yards in the air, Robison called out to take them. We did; I squeezed off three shells and dropped two geese. The others must have had similar success rates as there were eight geese on the ground scattered across the greening, cut wheat field.
We scrambled out of the blind and began picking up the geese. Robison, a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife biologist (and hard-core waterfowl hunter) surveyed the geese, studying their wing and tail feathers, and pronounced that we’d killed six juveniles and two adults.
“That’s about a typical ratio,” he said. “It’s like one family group—two adults and the rest juveniles.”
Robison, who had scouted the field for several days, said there had been 60 to 80 geese using the field when he checked on them mid-morning the previous day. By his logic, we had at least one, maybe two more flocks coming.
But it was not to be. There were more flights that morning, but most of them completely skirted the field, headed elsewhere. Maybe 90 minutes after our successful volley, a lone goose came by, but swung wide enough of the set that only the gunner on that side of the blind had a pop at them. He failed to connect.
So that was it; by 10:30 a.m. it was already hot and humid as a sauna; odds were we weren’t going to see any more geese fly until late in the afternoon. So we picked up the dekes and called it a day.
Although we were well short of a limit—five apiece—it was a good morning, especially if you have enough gray in your hair to remember when even seeing geese in Southeast Michigan was a minor miracle. Giant Canada geese, omnipresent across southern Michigan these days, weren’t always part of the September landscape. As a kid, I remember the family driving to the Jack Miner Bird Sanctuary in Ontario, just to see Canada geese.
Although the Lower Peninsula was part of the breeding range of Canada geese in pre-settlement Michigan, the birds had not only disappeared by the early twentieth century—Giant Canadas were thought to be extinct.
But several Michigan citizens (among them W.K. Kellogg of Battle Creek, who established a sanctuary for Canada geese near Augusta in 1927) took it upon themselves to try to re-establish the populations.
Along with H.M. Wallace of Howell, they located a flock of giant Canadas in Rochester, Minnesota, and several other sources of geese, notably some that had been maintained as decoys flocks. Wallace, in fact, provided some birds to the Michigan Department of Conservation, which began propagating the birds at the Mason State Game Farm.
Between 1928 and 1964, state wildlife officials released some 2,500 geese. By 1969 there were 14 established wild breeding areas in Michigan with a population of about 9,400 birds.
“By the 1970s, geese were abundant enough that they were being translocated to numerous places around the state,” explained David Luukkonen, a DNR wildlife research biologist who is big into geese. “That whole translocation effort evolved from a restoration effort to a conflict resolution.”
In 1977, Michigan became the first state in the nation to have a special goose season—in this case, post-regular season, after the sub-Arctic migrants had moved through—designed to manage resident goose populations. In 1987 the first early September experimental season was established.
To those who remember the early days, hunters were asked to collect parts of the geese they harvested, so they could be analyzed to make sure they were indeed local birds and not migrants. Eventually, federal wildlife officials made Michigan’s early goose season official.
By 1999, Michigan’s resident goose population was estimated at around 325,000 birds. Biologists noted that some sub-adult birds that were hatched here, were migrating north in May and June (joining up with the migrants in Canada) but returning to the state around the time the early goose season (10 days) was concluding. The September season was lengthened to 15 days in Southern Michigan (except in areas where migrants were known to gather) and the opening day of the regular goose season was pushed up to mid-September to take advantage of these “molt migrants,” as they came to be known.
“We now have 107 days of goose hunting allowed,” Luukkonen said, “and if you want to move around the state, you can hunt more than 107 days. You can hunt from September 1 until February 15, basically.”
The DNR has established a management goal of 175,000 to 225,000 birds in the spring. This year’s spring estimate was 217,000.
Had you told anyone, back in the 1950s, that one day we’d enjoy a 107-day goose season, some of it with a five-bird bag limit, they’d have told you you were dreaming.
Michigan goose hunting is a dream come true.
This article was produced in partnership with Pure Michigan.
Images by Bob Gwizdz