Hunt Country Honkers
November 03, 2010
Saddle Up For Outstanding Goose Action In Virginia's Farm Country.
The first flock caught us off guard. Four of us were standing outside the blind, hands in pockets, when the faint honk of a lone goose snapped us back to attention. It was barely 7 a.m. The eastern sky was just starting to turn from dull gray to subtle pink, and we didn't expect any action for at least another 30 minutes. But there they were, a dozen or more, wings locked as they sailed into the river-bottom pasture over the distant tree line. We ducked into the makeshift blind and started stuffing shells into shotguns. "Are we legal?" whispered one of my friends.
I fumbled for the button to illuminate my watch in the dark blind, looked down, and then assured the group that we were good to go. The geese never doubted our spread.
They sailed straight into range, backpedaling only when we jumped up, raised our shotguns and unloaded everything we had. Seven birds fell among the decoys. Less than an hour later, we were casing guns, picking up decoys and shooing away more geese that tried to settle into the field we were hunting. Twenty birds made for an impressive pile.
My friends and I weren't guarding a field in some fabled waterfowl destination. Instead, we were hunting a 700-acre farm in Rappahannock County, Virginia, hardly a well-known waterfowl destination. Don't be fooled, however. This area, with the Shenandoah Mountains to the west and the rolling farmland of north-central Virginia to the east, is loaded with geese. We easily limited out on that opening day of the early resident season a few years ago, but limits don't always come easy, even though the region holds thousands more geese as autumn blends into winter.
Rappahannock is part of a block of counties in northern and north-central Virginia where hunting is a cherished sport, but not the kind of hunting most of us think about when the image comes to mind. Many of the local residents are indeed avid hunters. For many of them, however, "hunt" is a noun and not a verb.
Dead honkers: a welcome addition to any decoy spread.
Instead of guarding a pond or cornfield for geese, they prefer to climb onto a horse and chase a pack of tail-high hounds on the trail of a red fox. Rappahannock, along with Loudoun, Albemarle, Orange, Culpeper, Loudoun, Prince William, Fauquier and others, is in the heart of Virginia's Hunt Country, and most of these places are just an hour or less from the nation's capital. It's where the upper-class gentry follow generations-old tradition, wearing a scarlet or black jacket, tan breeches, knee-high black leather boots and a hard cap with a short bill as they sit atop a horse that costs more than the average goose hunter's house.
Mention "hunt" to these people, and a blind, a shotgun and a spread of full-bodied goose decoys would never enter their minds. Too bad. Geese outnumber foxes by the thousands.
The farmland, dotted with ponds, corn fields and pastures, holds a huge number of resident birds all year, and migrants invade Hunt Country starting in October.
The hunting can be downright incredible, that is, if the fox hunters don't beat you to the prime ground. Conflicts do arise, and it's not out of the question for a pack of foxhounds and horse-bound hunters to traipse through a spread. So far, that's never happened to Teddy Carr.
"They don't really bother me, and I don't think I get in their way either," said Carr, a hunting and fishing outfitter who runs goose hunts on million-dollar farms in Orange County. "It's understood that when they are holding a hunt on the farms I lease, I can't be there, so there are no actual conflicts. I don't mind giving up a day here and there."
Takin' aim at some Virginia longnecks.
Tons of Birds, Limited Hunting
Both Carr and Paul Kupka, a general contractor and fanatical waterfowler, said there are far more geese now than just a decade ago, although efforts to reduce resident birds in other parts of the state have generally worked. The Fish and Wildlife Service recently gave Virginia and other states the freedom to allow a whopping 15-bird limit in the early season.
Virginia decided to up the limit to a generous 10 birds per day from what used to be a five-goose daily limit. Even with such a liberal limit, Carr figures the resident goose numbers will stay about the same in areas he hunts; so does Kupka.
That's due largely to a large number of landowners that don't allow any hunting, at least not by strangers. Both hunters estimate about 60 percent of the land in Hunt Country is off-limits to hunting for one reason or another.
"I'm sure some landowners allow farmhands to hunt, but a lot don't allow any hunting at all, so the geese have these permanent refuges. The increase in development is also creating more refuges," explained Carr.
Those refuges not only fuel the steady increase in bird numbers, it can create tough hunting conditions as geese know which farms are safe and which ones aren't. Carr said some flocks spend their entire lives on just two or three farms that don't allow hunting.
The sign of a hardcore 'fowler.
"If it's a horse farm," added Kupka, "you can pretty much forget asking for permission.
And you can be sure it's going to be covered with geese. That doesn't mean you can't get permission on some farms. Plenty of farmers will allow hunting, especially for geese, because the birds eat their winter wheat and pasture grass, and they foul up their ponds."
Restrictions on hunting are both helping and hurting outfitters and freelancers alike. The closure of farms that used to be open to hunting is forcing those hunters who remain onto smaller parcels of land, and the few outfitters like Carr who run successful guide businesses are h
aving to work harder--and pay a little more each year--to keep good land under their belts. He has exclusive access to five large Hunt Country farms, and between his Potomac River duck hunting operation and his goose hunts, Carr stays busy the entire waterfowl season.
"I wish more farms would allow hunting. Mostly, I would just like to see more opportunities for more people. Everybody would benefit from that," he said. "More hunting pressure would keep the birds bouncing around a little more. That can only help."
Early and Late Tactics
On a mild winter morning I spent in an Orange County cornfield with Carr, moving birds weren't the problem. As he predicted, there were plenty of geese in the sky about two hours after sunrise. Flock after flock lifted up off a distant pond and winged their way in our direction. We pulled the flaps closed on our layout blinds and peered at the birds through the screen as they closed the distance.
A typical sight when hunting Hunt Country's late season.
Most had their minds set on a farm to our north; some, however, zeroed in on our hundred-decoy spread. A few flocks settled in the far end of the field, others flared, but a handful locked their wings and dropped into Carr's mixed spread of full-body and shell decoys. We finished the morning with a trio of fat Canadas, a marginal morning by Carr's standards. He said limits definitely aren't guaranteed, but his clients typically have better success than we did.
It was proof that even with diligent scouting and prime land, Hunt Country geese can be hard to pattern and harder to lure into shotgun range. These geese are much more sedentary than birds in other areas like the Eastern Shore, flying only when the mood strikes them and pitching in to a decoy spread under certain circumstances. They've got plenty of food, often within the very farms they roost on, so they don't always have to move far to find what they need.
If it sounds like chasing these geese isn't worth the time, you'd be dead wrong. Despite their quirks, Hunt Country honkers do fly regularly and with the right set-up, they can be pulled into a decoy spread, sometimes with baffling ease. Carr and Kupka, however, said it's important to understand goose behavior as it relates to the changing seasons.
Hunt Country geese are completely different creatures in September than they are in November or February. That's partly because thousands more birds move in from the north in October and November.
"You have to remember that early-season birds have seen all the other geese in the area. They travel in family flocks. They can be easy to fool in the first few days of the season, but they get real tough to hunt once they've been shot at once or twice, and they'll avoid that spot for quite awhile," noted Carr.
Later in the season, new arrivals can be pretty easy, as well, as those tourist birds look for company in unfamiliar territory. But like resident birds, they can figure out the game pretty quick. That's why both Carr and Kupka try to avoid hunting the same farm or the same area of a large farm regularly. Once a week in a single spot is plenty, said Carr, and he combines intense scouting with common sense to put his clients on birds regularly. He looks for geese feeding and loafing in fields late in the morning, and he tries to get in that exact spot early the next morning. Kupka looks for the same thing, adding that if the geese look content, there's probably plenty of food on the ground.
"You definitely want to be there the next morning. If you wait a couple of days, they may have picked the field clean and moved on to another one," he noted.
Most early-season action takes place during the first hours after sunrise before the late-summer heat bakes the landscape. They typically don't move until an hour after sunrise, flying out to feed in cut corn, pastures or on short grass around ponds, where they stay for a few hours. Often, geese that work fields in the morning will head back to a pond a few hours later, but they'll sometimes stay put until the moments before last light, returning to a roost pond right at dark. Still, both Carr and Kupka like to be ready before legal shooting light just in case.
While many hunters would never consider hunting over ponds because they serve as refuges, Carr hunts water every chance he gets under most circumstances because in order to kill geese, you have to hunt where they are. He does, however, have some limits.
Virginia is home to a large number of both resident and migrating Canada geese. That's the good news. The bad? Land access isn't easy to come by.
"I won't hunt them in the evening because the birds are using it as a nighttime roost, and I want them to have a place to return to without getting harassed," he said. On the other hand, if he notices birds loafing around a pond in the middle of the day during his scouting trips, he won't hesitate to be in that spot the next morning. Sometimes the birds will still be there at first light as they take their time to get up to go feed. Once they leave, Carr will typically throw out a few floaters and then set some full-bodied decoys around the edge of the pond as if they were feeding on the short grass on the water's edge.
Eventually, they'll come back. Neither Kupka nor Carr will use large spreads in September, because these birds generally don't travel in large groups. A dozen or two is plenty, and anything larger might draw a suspicious glare from passing geese. These are resident birds, and they know who lives in the neighborhood. A 100-decoy spread just won't fit in.
As the season progresses and more birds filter in from the north, Kupka switches from pastures to grain, and he and Carr increase the size of their spreads. Farmers in this region are fairly diverse, so geese have the choice of corn, winter wheat, soybeans, barley and grass. They will often gather in large groups if a field has lots of food.
However, mid-season Canadas tend to shun grass because it's dormant and becomes too coarse to digest. That's not to say they won't feed on grass, and in some areas, grain just isn't widely available. For whatever reason, many local birds won't leave their home ranges and will continue to trade between farms that offer little more than grass and other natural greens.
Late-season geese can also sit tight for several hours after first light, especially during a deep freeze. Eventually, however, they'll get up and head out to corn or winter wheat, where they pitch in to a well-placed spread among hidden hunters. I hunted late-season geese in Loudoun County with Western Loudo
un Outfitters several years ago and watched thousands of geese fill the sky throughout a cold, snowy day.
We never saw a goose until nearly two hours after legal shooting time. We did, however, watch a big red fox sneak up on the outer edge of our decoy spread at first light, fcompletely unaware that five men were anticipating the inevitable surprise that was coming to the fox.
There were no hounds or men and women on horseback that morning, but sooner or later, that fox would take part in another Hunt Country adventure.