February 10, 2022
Years ago, when Texas was still king of the snow goose hunting world, my late waterfowl hunting mentor Mike Horn, took a mutual friend hunting down in the Eagle Lake area that used to host a blizzard of light geese every winter.
Never having been to the fabled area—including the Sportsman’s Café launching pad where hunters met guides every morning against the backdrop of mounted birds, John Cowan paintings like Rags to Riches, and bacon and scrambled eggs—Joe didn’t know what to expect.
But a couple of hours later, as the light of a begrudging dawn was breaking over the southeastern Texas rice country, he began to get an inkling about what snow goose hunting was all about as huge waves of snows and blues began to lift off the nearby roost ponds hunted by guide services operated by famous names like Jimmy Reel, Clifton Tyler, and more.
“What’s that?” Joe queried as one particularly heavy column of geese began to rise in the distance like smoke from a building prairie fire.
“That, my friend, is what we came for—those are snow geese, probably 10,000 or more,” said Mike.
Joe turned, soaked in the spectacle for a moment, and then grinned as the loud cacophony of goose music began to waft on the southerly breeze off the Gulf.
“Well, I believe we’ve come to the right place, then,” he smiled.
Snow in the Forecast
If you’re a snow goose hunter, especially in the spring of the year as blizzards of geese gather and push north in the migration back to the breeding grounds, then you understand fully what it means to be in the right place as a tornado of snows and blues circles above.
And with the 2022 spring snow goose season—or the Light Goose Conservation Order Season as it is more technically known—getting ready to open up around the country, there’s all kinds of opportunity to be in the right place over the next several weeks from Valentine’s Day through St. Patrick’s Day.
As long as you don’t forget a box of chocolates, a dozen red roses, and a card for your spouse, that is. And you don’t want to be in the doghouse in coming days since once again, it looks like another great spring goose hunting campaign is starting to shape up in a state near you!
With spring snow goose seasons have already kicked off in the southernmost states after that pesky groundhog saw his shadow last week, what can snow goose hunters expect this spring?
In all honesty, that’s a bit of an unknown since biologists are flying a little bit blind right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects over the past couple of years.
As we’ve chronicled here at Wildfowl over the past couple of years, the ongoing battle against the coronavirus in 2020 and 2021 has kept the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service from being able to conduct their annual spring breeding population surveys over the past couple of years.
Thankfully, however, there is anecdotal data to consider from individual states like North Dakota where the spring survey show went on.
So, while there’s very little hard data to comb through from the past 24-months, there are hints and a few clues elsewhere, allowing hunters to make a few educated guesses about the state of snow geese heading into this spring.
First, we know that in general for a number of years now, snow geese have been doing quite well, thank you very much. In fact, too well on their fragile Arctic nesting grounds where they are literally in danger of eating themselves out of house and home. That has meant liberal hunting regulations in the fall months and very liberal hunting regulations in the spring with the Conservation Order Light Goose Season.
Second, we can also take a glance backwards at what was expected goose wise this past fall, trends that were reported in places like Delta Waterfowl’s 2021 Goose Outlook. And in general, geese—including snow geese—were doing fairly well last year according to the Delta Waterfowl report:
“(Conditions) appear to have been average to excellent for arctic-nesting species like snows, white-fronted geese, cacklers and Canadas, with a few areas that may have low production due to late springs,” said Delta’s lead waterfowl scientist, Dr. Chris Nicolai, in that news release.
“Overall, the three eastern flyways should see a much stronger fall goose flight than last season while the Pacific Flyway should have another stellar season similar to last year.”
All in all, the fall 2021-22 goose season was supposed to be a strong one, and that’s a good place to begin our spring goose hunting outlook for 2022.
Delta Waterfowl then noted that Ncolai has a deep network of colleagues and friends that he was able to poll extensively last fall, data or no data.
And those contacts gave Nicolai and Delta Waterfowl a feeling for how all geese were doing last fall, including the snow geese, despite a lack of on-the-ground survey work in the northern arctic nesting areas.
Snow Goose Spotlight
Here’s a look at a few of those spots and the thoughts of Nicolai, his colleagues, and Delta Waterfowl a few months ago:
Wrangel Island (Russia): Nicolai’s contacts indicated that this Russian island, a breeding ground for a large snow goose colony that flies down the Pacific Flyway, was generally unsampled because of the pandemic and the necessity of helicopters being used to fight big wildfires in Siberia. Still, he indicated that the spring was earlier than normal last year and that suggested another banner year of snow goose production in a location already seeing exponential growth of the species.
North Slope of Alaska: While only producing a small number of snow geese—the Ikpikpuk River Delta colony typically has 20,000 or so snow goose nests—that locale was likely impacted by brown bears raiding and destroying nests last spring according to North Slope Borough biologist Brian Person. However, Nicolai’s contact Vijay Patil of the U.S. Geological Survey noted that in the Colville River Delta and Teshekpuk areas, reports were of well above-average snow goose production.
Canadian Arctic Nesting Areas: Nicolai’s information from this important snow goose nesting region that supplies the center part of North America indicated that no crews were able to be on the ground on Banks Island, Queen Maud Gulf, Southampton Island or Baffin Island.
However, his contact Frank Baldwin of the Canadian Wildlife Service, indicated that weather patterns across the Canadian Arctic last year indicated that summer temperatures seemed to be somewhere between the bust nesting year of 2018 and the boom nesting year of 2019. That led Baldwin to hypothesize that a solid to average year was taking place in 2021 in these vast snow goose nesting regions of extreme northern Canada. There could have been some weather related issues that delayed nesting efforts on the western side of Hudson Bay, however, and Baldwin felt that might impact small numbers of mid-continent snow geese in that region of Canada.
Ontario: In this area of Canada, which is important for snow goose flocks in the southern Atlantic Flyway and eastern Mississippi Flyway, Nicolai’s contact Rod Brook of the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources, and Forestry indicated that production might be good in some areas like Akimiski Island to Cape Henrietta Maria. However, Brook noted that production might be poor in other areas like southern James Bay. All in all, a mixed bag here.
Quebec and Bylot Island: Nicolai’s contact Josee Lefebvre of the Canadian Wildlife Service indicated that there were some banding crews on site at Bylot Island, a spot where a large concentration of greater snow geese are found each spring. Even so, she had no reports from them about nesting success or population numbers of light geese. In northern Quebec, an important area to the Canada geese found in the Atlantic Flyway, snow and ice were basically average and temperatures early last year were warmer than normal. So in Quebec, weather did not appear to be that much of a limiting factor in the province.
Also note that in addition to the various reports above, there is some additional anecdotal evidence that can be gleaned from an examination of goose harvest numbers in the Lower 48 states, which jumped 7 percent from 2.69 million in 2019-20 to 2.88 million in 2020-2021 according to Delta Waterfowl.
In that news release, the Canada goose harvest is said to have accounted for about 65,000 of the increase reported by the USFWS. But despite the fact that the 2020 breeding season for light geese wasn’t regarded as a good one, the USFWS report noted that last year, the number of light geese taken also increased by more than 110,000 birds.
Delta speculates that the reason for this, even in light of a generally poor nesting year in 2020, could be due “…in part, to the 2020 explosion of the snow goose population on Wrangel Island feeding the Pacific Flyway.”
What does all of that biology speak mean for the 2022 snow goose migration as winter slowly fades, spring starts to slowly appear on the horizon, and hunters gather hundreds and hundreds of light goose decoys for the coming snow goose blizzards flying across the North American landscape?
Simply this, that there were a LOT of snow geese before the pandemic began, and despite the absence of a lot of hard biological data and serious survey work the past couple of springs, there’s little to indicate that much has changed and that the snow goose population has come down.
In fact, in some cases, there could be a decent number of juvenile birds out there this year, which means that even though they’ve now survived the fall hunting seasons up and down the flyways over the past several months, there could still be some naïve birds getting ready to fly over a decoy spread as the less restrictive regulations of the 2022 Conservation Order season arrive.
What is actually happening on the flyways right now at hotspots like Tony Vandemore’s famous Habitat Flats Waterfowl Lodge in the Golden Triangle region of Missouri?
Well, so far, as Valentine’s Day 2022 looms in a few days, the migration reports at Ducks Unlimited’s website aren’t lighting up just yet. And neither is Facebook and Instagram with photos of smiling hunters, tired retrievers, and huge snow goose drifts piled up after an epic morning or afternoon shoot.
But it’s coming, and it’s coming soon as a DU migration report from Jim H. in northwestern Missouri indicated earlier this week. In that report, he indicated that: “Woke up this morning and all of my corn fields are draped in snow geese; any fellow waterfowlers looking to plow some snow, look me up if you need good fields.”
I’m sure there will be no shortage of snow goose hunters wanting to take him up on that offer!
And not far away in west central Missouri, well known for its annual spring snowstorm blitzes, Kevin J. reported on Jan. 29th that he: “Saw about 8000 snow geese flying high going north. Took 5 minutes for them to go through. Even though we are getting snow and bitter cold Wednesday (last week), thinking spring will be early.:
Certainly, as the DU migration reporter above noted, the weather is going to play a key role in how the 2022 spring season unfolds over the next few weeks. In just the last week alone, a huge arctic cold front brought sub-zero cold to portions of Kansas, as well as a big snow and ice storm to the south in portions of Oklahoma, Texas, southern Missouri, northern Arkansas, and western Tennessee.
All of those are important states in the northward snow goose migration every spring and weather forecasters warn that similar winter weather could be lying ahead the week after Valentine’s Day on Monday, Feb. 14.
But as the snow goose spring migration begins to pick up steam and push north over the rest of February, wintry weather maps shouldn’t keep hunters from asking their spouses and loved ones for a few gifts on Cupid’s day of love and romance coming up on Feb. 14.
And what’s that, you ask? Simple—a few boxes—heck, even a case—of high powered goose loads. Because what waterfowler worth their camo parka needs a dozen roses next week when shotgun shells are currently hard to find?!?
Those shells will make a great Valentine’s Day gift because in the traditional spring snow goose hunting hotspots like Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and more, the 2022 spring snow goose season looks to be another in a long line of springtime light goose blizzards pushing up the flyway. In the absence of two years’ worth of biological data, we won’t call it an A+ season this year, but how about a B+ kind of season that few will complain about?
And with unplugged shotguns, electronic callers, and tons of geese spiraling above in a Category 5 blizzard of snows, waterfowl hunters are going to need all the non-toxic shotgun shells that they can get ahold of in these challenging times.
Because this spring, like so many other seasons over the past couple of decades, there’s more snow geese than most hunters can shake a stick—oops, how about a goose flag—at.
And that will lead many of them to conclude at some point over the next several weeks that just like my friend Joe opined in southeastern Texas once upon a time, they’ve indeed come to the right place.
At least where an epic snow goose shoot is concerned, that is!