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Salt Grass Snows

By Scott Sommerlatte

The snow goose population is exploding, yet hunters have begun to notice declines in the numbers of geese in areas that were once considered the best of the best. While their inland haunts are increasingly hard to predict, the snow geese continue to flock to their traditional wintering grounds — the salt grass prairies and marshes of the Texas Gulf Coast.

It would not be a stretch of the imagination to say that as a teenager, waterfowl hunting was my life — and nothing else got in the way. Homework, classes, football and even girls all became secondary once the fall migration hit its full peak, which was signaled by the arrival of the first sizable flocks of snow geese along the Gulf Coast.

Every year it was the same. Starting the last week of October, I would sit outside at night and listen for the migration to arrive. It always amazed me how there would be a few small groups of a few hundred birds scattered here and there throughout the marshes of Brazoria County and then one night, just like someone flipped a switch and cranked up the volume, the air would fill with the sound of geese as thousands of snows would arrive in a single wave.

One year, 1987 to be exact, the migration arrived at the most inopportune time. I was playing defensive end for the Brazoswood Buccaneers at Hopper Field in Freeport and the opposing team had just broken up the huddle and was lining up on the ball. To this day, I still do not know how I heard them above all the racket coming from the stands, but I turned to the right and yelled to the defensive tackle, Darrel Schuster, who just happened to be one of my best friends, a hunting buddy, and my partner in crime (if you asked our coach).

“Hey Bubba! Do you hear them?” I shouted. “Hear what?” he yelled back as he took his stance on the line. “Listen!” and no sooner did that come out of my mouth did we both look to the sky, then back at each other and simultaneously yelled with our eyes wide, “Geese!” Maybe the word “geese” was the signal for the snap because that was about the time we both were flattened. Fortunately, the wounds were superficial, and by the next weekend, we could be found winding a boat through the marshes looking for a place to set out a spread of goose decoys.

Then one night, just like someone flipped a switch and cranked up the volume, the air would fill with the sound of geese as thousands of snows would arrive in a single wave.

I have always been spoiled when it comes to waterfowl hunting. I’ve been able to experience the best waterfowl hunting areas that Texas has to offer. My snow goose hunting experiences have ranged from shooting birds over full-body dekes in the peanut fields in the northern regions of the state to lying among 2,500 white rags in the rice fields of the Katy Prairie and everywhere in between. But I have yet to experience anything that compares to the hunts that I have experienced in the coastal salt grass marshes of Texas.

This past season, we had one of those spectacular days that sets marsh hunting apart from shooting birds over grain. Waterfowl guide and friend Burt Moritz and I arrived at our chosen blind, which was nestled in the salt grass and situated at the junction of several sloughs. On that particular morning, the air was soupy with a thick blanket of fog and the sound of goose music was coming from every direction. Several thousand geese had taken flight from somewhere nearby when they heard the sound of the marsh buggy trudging through the soggy landscape.

“Do you think we should put out a goose spread?” I shouted to Burt while he readied the blind and I tossed out the duck decoys. “I don’t think we have time,” he replied, “but we should at least get out the floaters. Or, we can set a few full-bodies out behind the blind,” he added.

We managed to get out a half-dozen floaters and about a dozen full-bodies before I heard the announcement that it was only 10 minutes until shooting time, which incidentally was the signal for me to go park the buggy. On the walk back, I listened to the geese circling in the fog, calling and listening for replies from other geese that might lead them back to the ground. Minutes before arriving back at the blind, the alarm on my watch went off signaling that legal shooting time had arrived, and I began to hear the sounds of goose calls coming from my destination. Before long I heard several shots and the hunt was on.

All morning, small groups of geese descended from the fog, doing their best to land among the small goose spread that we had laid out behind our duck blind. In fact, the geese were so persistent that we abandoned all hope of bagging a duck, which was the main reason we had chosen the spot to begin with. Later that morning, we became grateful when the fog finally lifted and the birds began to shy from the fakes on the ground, none of us wanting to put our shoulders through any more punishment than we already had. When it was all said and done, we all agreed that the day could not have been more perfect.

While that particular day’s success could be attributed to the perfect hand that Mother Nature had dealt us — willing birds and a fog so thick that the mosquitoes had to swim rather than fly — it also proves the simple fact that the key to success is being exactly where the birds want to be. And, while hunting geese in the fog usually provides the best shooting, it is also hard to beat the crystal clear skies of winter after the passing of a good cold front. The ripping north wind keeps the birds low to the deck and there is something magical about looking out across the salt grass prairie and seeing thousands of geese coming in waves off the roost against a vivid sunrise.

Back when the Karankawa Indians made their home along the Texas Gulf Coast and later, when Spanish conquistadors sought out ports where they could fly their flag, a snow storm (of geese) blanketed the Texas Gulf Coast every November.

The reason for the consistent success that I, and so many others, have experienced is that the salt grass prairies and marshes of the Gulf were the traditional wintering grounds of the lesser snow goose. Many, many years ago, back when the Karankawa Indians made their home along the Texas Gulf Coast and later, when Spanish conquistadors sought out ports where they could fly their flag, a snow storm (of geese) blanketed the Texas Gulf Coast every November. By then, tens of thousands of birds arrived, weak and weary from the long journey that had begun in their nesting grounds along the Arctic Circle near Hudson’s Bay. In those days, the long journey was necessary for the snow geese to find a suitable food source.

While no one knows for sure, I have read various estimates of the numbers of migrating snow geese, back before the days of urban sprawl, to be somewhere just over 1 million birds. In the past couple of decades, this number has increased dramatically to more than 4 million. This increase is attributed to the fact that the huge flocks of snow geese no longer are required to make the long journey (from the Arctic Circle to the Gulf of Mexico) to find food. Incidentally, this strenuous trip was Mother Nature’s way of weeding out the sick and old birds. Nowadays, the birds can stop numerous times during the long journey and find food in the form of grain fields up and down their migration route. This allows the sick and old the opportunity to recharge their batteries and finish their journey to the Gulf Coast. Then in the spring, those birds that, years ago, would have perished during the long migration, start their trip back to the breeding grounds, again finding food all the way back, and nest again, thus creating a huge overabundance of snow geese.

A few years back, biologists realized that the booming population of geese was becoming a danger. The nesting grounds were becoming overcrowded, and this posed two potential problems. First, with so many birds concentrated in one area, in the event of an outbreak of avian cholera or any other disease, it could annihilate the population. Second, the birds were destroying their food source, turning the tundra (estimated to take more than a decade to regenerate) into sprawling mud flats. For these reasons, waterfowl managers decided that hunting seasons for the birds should be extended and limits removed to help manage the number of birds returning to the nesting grounds. This unprecedented move by managers became known as the “conservation season.”

In the early days of the conservation season, the idea seemed to work. Hunters took to the field with unplugged guns, electronic calls and no bag limits. Success was almost guaranteed (again, if hunters were where the birds wanted to be). I was involved in one particular hunt where eight hunters enjoyed unprecedented success. The geese flocked to our spread and the sound of thousands of geese that played through the electronic caller. However, as the season went on, the snows became wary of the electronic calls and large decoy spreads and before long, unless the weather was just absolutely horrible, it was difficult to lure a snow goose to within shotgun range. The geese had, in fact, figured it all out, proving how intelligent they are.

This intelligence could partially explain why hunters are seeing fewer geese these days. It is the same story over and over coming from hunters who traditionally have enjoyed great hunting in the rice and grain fields that line the Interstate 10 and Highway 59 corridor.

Brothers Grayson and Fletcher Pipken, ranchers from the Beaumont area, say that they used to have 20,000 geese or more wintering on the ranch. Now they see only a few small groups of a couple hundred birds in the whole season.

When asked why they thought the birds were not wintering on their property any longer, they both indicated that they believe the implementation of the conservation season was responsible. “When everyone got after them, they got smart and moved on,” Fletcher Pipken explains.

“Don’t kid yourself, these birds are smart and they are resilient,” says Texas Parks and Wildlife Department waterfowl guru Dave Morrison. “Sure we have more birds, but we are starting to see them wise up and move into areas that traditionally do not have any hunting pressure. That is why all of the guides and outfitters are reporting fewer birds. Heck, one of the best goose bags I heard of from last season happened near Waco. How weird is that?”

The answer to the problem is not clear. We obviously cannot let the snow goose population go unchecked. If we were to let them be, they would probably destroy themselves. One thing is certain, though, the birds are moving around to avoid hunting pressure. More and more snow geese are showing up in areas such as the Texas Panhandle and in small fields all across the state, and fewer are showing up in the rice fields. The good news is, as long as a few of the older guide birds survive to lead the young, the snow geese will keep coming to the salt grass marshes of the Texas Gulf Coast.

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