Biologists are expecting high numbers of migrant and resident Canada geese to winter in the Susquehanna River valley, which means great hunting on nearby public lands. Here's where! (December 2005)
By P.J. Reilly
It's December, and most of the hunting attention in Pennsylvania is focused on deer, but deer aren't the only game in town during this busy month. In fact, one of the hottest hunting opportunities of the year occurs during December, and it has nothing to do with deer.
December is prime time for hunting Canada geese, especially east of the Susquehanna River. In eastern Pennsylvania, migratory geese headed south from their breeding grounds in Canada are thick at this time of year. Some flocks will move through this part of the state and into Maryland or Delaware, but southeastern Pennsylvania is the ultimate wintering destination for a substantial number of birds.
According to population estimates provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the number of migratory Canada geese headed for Pennsylvania this year is higher than it has been in 20 years. When you add in the increasing numbers of resident geese that never leave the state, it's easy to understand why many Keystone State waterfowlers believe the good old days of goose hunting are right now.
According to John Dunn, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's chief waterfowl biologist, the state's resident goose population in 2004 was estimated at 299,000. That's up from the 254,000 estimate from 2003 and well above the 10-year average of 216,000.
As far as migratory Canadas are concerned, eastern Pennsylvania is a major migration route for birds in the Atlantic Flyway, hence the name Atlantic Population of Canada geese. In 2004, USFWS biologists estimated there were 174,000 breeding pairs of Atlantic Population geese. That figure represents a remarkable recovery for this population from just a decade ago.
Back in 1995, Atlantic Population goose numbers were estimated at 29,000 breeding pairs -- a significant drop from the 1988 estimate of 118,000 pairs. As a result of the sharp decline, all goose hunting outside the September season was closed in southeast Pennsylvania from 1995 through 1998 to help the population rebound. The change affected Keystone State hunters in a big way because southeastern Pennsylvania is the state's primary host for wintering, migratory Canadas.
During the moratorium years, the USFWS set a goal of maintaining 150,000 breeding pairs. When that number was reached, the population would be deemed to have recovered. In 2003, the population hit 156,900 breeding pairs -- the first time it exceeded the target goal.
Thanks to the population rebound, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year boosted the daily bag limit for Pennsylvania's Atlantic Population Zone from two to three geese during the traditional fall and winter seasons.
Unlike other huntable species in Pennsylvania, Canada geese and all waterfowl are not managed according to the Game Commission's wildlife management unit system.
For Canadas, the state is divided into three zones -- the Atlantic Population Zone, Resident Population Zone and Southern James Bay Population Zone. The Southern James Bay Zone is in the extreme northwest corner of the state, the southeast corner of the state comprises the Atlantic Population Zone, and the rest of the state is considered the Resident Population Zone. For this article, we're talking about areas in the last two zones.
Hunting seasons and bag limits for waterfowl in 2005-06 are expected to mirror last year's. Expect the winter season in the Atlantic Population Zone to open around the middle of December, with a three-bird daily bag limit, with one exception: The bag limit will be one bird per day on State Game Lands 46, which surrounds the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on the Lancaster-Lebanon county line.
In the Resident Population Zone, the winter season last year began Dec. 10, and hunters were permitted to take five birds per day.
Before you go out goose hunting this month, be sure to check the Pennsylvania 2005-06 Guide to Migratory Game Bird Hunting that's issued when you buy your state migratory game bird license or your federal duck stamp. Hunters may also view the state's waterfowl regulations online at the Game Commission's Web site at www.pgc.state.pa.us.
MIDDLE CREEK WMA
Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on the Lancaster-Lebanon border in the Atlantic Population Zone has to be considered the best goose hangout in the region. This Game Commission-owned property is a major resting place in the fall for migrating Canadas and it has a dense population of resident geese. With its network of ponds and wetlands emanating from the 400-acre main lake, Middle Creek is the ideal destination for waterfowl hunters.
Middle Creek is part of State Game Lands 46, though much of the property is posted as a propagation area where hunting access is restricted or prohibited. The game commission maintains a number of pit blinds inside the restricted area at Middle Creek, which waterfowlers may hunt on a lottery basis.
Hunting is permitted on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays during the open seasons for Canada geese.
Hunters may gain access to the pits in one of two ways. Inside the Pennsylvania Hunting and Trapping Digest issued with every hunting license is a goose blind application for Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area. Fill out the application and mail it in by the prescribed date. Game Commission officials publicly draw applications at random and assign hunting dates for successful applicants. It's too late to enter the drawing for this season's hunt, but keep this opportunity in mind for next year.
The other way to get into a blind is to show up at Middle Creek's visitor's center early in the morning on a hunting day, and, if hunters assigned to a pit for that day don't show up, you can put your name in a hat to apply for a "no-show'' blind. Call the visitor's center at (717) 733-1512 to find out when you need to be there to apply for a "no-show'' blind.
There is some flat, open ground on SGL 46 just outside the propagation area around the main lake that is open to general hunting and is ideal for a goose setup. Corn, alfalfa and other crops are planted on these tracts to provide food for wildlife, and wintering geese feed there regularly.
Check out the SGL 46 grounds open to general hunting on the east side of Middle Creek Lake. Head east on Route 897 from Kleinfeltersville to Cocalico Road and turn right. Take another right onto Shenks Mill Road and turn right again onto Furnace Hills Road. The area on the left side of the road is planted with crops perfectly suited for a December goose hunt. From those fields, you'll have a clear view of the lake, so you can enjoy watching hungry flocks lift off and head your way.
Another good bet is the SGL 46 land open to general hunting on the west side of the lake. Take Hopeland Road south from Route 897 in Kleinfeltersville and turn right onto Sunnyside Road. Once you get past the propagation area, you'll see a huge field on your left. Canada geese regularly feed in this field on the crops planted by Game Commission personnel.
Remember, although the bag limit is three geese per day in the South Zone, it's only one goose per day on SGL 46 and inside the Middle Creek propagation area. For a map of SGL 46, call the Game Commission's Southeast Region office at (610) 926-3136 or visit the agency's Web site at www.pgc.state.pa.us.
SUSQUEHANNA RIVER SOUTH
December goose hunters can find good concentrations of birds on the Susquehanna south of Harrisburg down to the Holtwood Dam in Lancaster County. Some of this area is in the Resident Population Zone and some is in the Atlantic Population Zone, so be sure you know where you're hunting. Below the dam, the river runs to Maryland between steep mountains and the hunting is not productive.
There are many rockpiles and small islands in the river from the dam upstream to Harrisburg that offer ideal ambush points. Some of these areas are off-limits to hunters, so keep an eye out for restrictive signs.
Waterfowlers may find public boat launches up and down the river on both sides, including ramps in Columbia, Pequea and Bainbridge on the Lancaster County shore and York Haven and Long Level on the York County side. Check a map for the one that's closest to where you want to hunt.
Much of this stretch of the Susquehanna is extremely shallow and rocky, so exercise caution when you're hunting the river and always wear a personal flotation device.
The geese that roost and loaf on the Susquehanna River have to eat. A short flight to the east takes them to some prime farmland, much of which is enrolled in the Farm-Game program. Under this program, farmers allow public hunting on their private property in exchange for certain concessions from the Game Commission. The properties are posted with special signs signifying their participation in the program, but you should always ask permission before you hunt out of courtesy to the landowner. There are quite a few Farm-Game properties very close to the river around Marietta, Mount Joy, Bainbridge and other towns along routes 441, 743 and 241.
Less than a mile east of the Susquehanna River, near the town of Holtwood on Route 372 in southern Lancaster County, is Muddy Run Recreation Lake. Owned by the Exelon Power Company, the 100-acre lake at Muddy Run is well known as a roosting site for resident and migratory Canada geese during the winter, because no hunting is permitted on the lake or the land immediately around it. But waterfowlers may hunt Muddy Run Canadas on the Farm-Game properties north of the lake around Mount Nebo and to the east around Buck and Mechanics Grove.
West of the Susquehanna in York County, goose hunters would do well to check out the Farm-Game properties around Mount Wolf along routes 181, 295 and 24.
SUSQUEHANNA RIVER NORTH
Another good section of the Susquehanna River for December goose hunters is north of Harrisburg, roughly from Fort Hunter to Halifax in Dauphin County. This area is in the Resident Population Zone. On this stretch of river, there are two parcels of game lands.
For maps, contact the Game Commission's Southcentral Region office at (814) 643-1831.
SGL 290, which is locally known as Haldeman Island, is a waterfowl mecca. It's such a goose and duck magnet that the northern half of the island is posted as a propagation area and is off-limits to hunters. A bridge provides access to the island off Route 22 near Amity Hall.
Head about three miles upriver from Haldeman Island and you'll hit a cluster of three islands -- Bressler Island, Clemson Island and Lingle Island -- which all are part of SGL 254 in Dauphin County.
The only access to these islands is via a boat, which you can launch directly opposite the islands on the east shore of the river in the town of Halifax. Try setting up a blind on one of the islands and pitch your decoys in the river to catch low-flying birds that move up and down the Susquehanna all day.
East of the Susquehanna, between Haldeman Island and Mahantango Mountain, you'll find a plethora of Farm-Game properties that are visited by Canada geese that roost on the river. Look for these properties along Route 225 from Powells Valley to Fisherville. Another good concentration of birds may be found along Route 25 from Killinger to Berrysburg.
BLUE MARSH LAKE
A few miles north of Reading in Berks County is 1,150-acre Blue Marsh Lake, which lies in the Atlantic Population Zone. Including the lake, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages a total of 6,173 acres as part of the Blue Marsh property. Much of the land and water here is open to hunting. In addition, SGL 280's 2,630 acres abut the Blue Marsh acreage, adding even more open area for hunters to access.
Much of the Blue Marsh and SGL 280 land is planted each year with crops, such as alfalfa and corn. It is in these fields that December goose hunters should set out a spread of decoys.
On the north side of the lake, check out the SGL 280 lands north of Route 183 and on both sides of Bright School Road. You'll find a series of farm fields in this area, all of which can be goose magnets this month.
Another good bet is the farmland between Rebers Bridge Road and the Blue Marsh Lake dam west of Tulpehocken Creek. Or there's a series of farm fields, separated by tree lines along the west shore of the main body of the lake, which is adjacent to the dam. Hunters may reach these fields via Highland Road, off Brownsville Road.
For information on hunting Blue Marsh Lake property, contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office at (610) 376-6337. For information on hunting SGL 280, contact the Game Commission's Southeast Region office.
In the northern end of suburban Bucks County -- in the Atlantic Population Zone -- hunters will find the 5,283-acre Nockamixon State Park, which surrounds and includes 1,450-acre Lake Nockamixon.
According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Bucks County has one of the highest populations of resident Canada geese in the state. Add those birds to the fall migrants and you can count on seeing hordes of geese in December all over Bucks County -- and especially at Lake Nockamixon.
The largest impoundment in Bucks County, Lake Nockamixon is just a few miles from the Delaware River, which acts as a natural funnel for migrating Canadas. Birds traveling on the river regularly swing over Lake Nockamixon as they search for feeding areas.
About 3,000 acres of Nockamixon are open to hunting, including sections of the lake. If you divided the lake into four parts, the center and westernmost sections are the areas closed to hunting.
The eastern end of the lake is a good bet for waterfowlers looking for a hunt on the water. Put your boat in at the Haycock launch off Route 563 and head either north or south to one of the bays jutting off the lake. Geese seek out these "dents" in the lakeshore to get away from wind and boat traffic.
Gas-powered engines used on Lake Nockamixon cannot be more than 18 horsepower. For a map of Nockamixon, call the park office at (215) 529-7300.
For assistance with lodging, meals and other amenities in the Harrisburg area, contact the Hershey Capital Region Visitors Bureau at (800) 995-0969. In the Lancaster-Lebanon-Berks area, contact the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) PADUTCH; and in the greater Philadelphia area, contact the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation at (215) 599-0776.