CHICAGO -- Ordinarily, the place to be next Sunday would be in a southern Illinois goose pit.
That's when new rules kick in allowing hunters to shoot until sunset in the last five days of the quota zone season.
These new rules were implemented to pursue sharply increased quotas designed to thin a burgeoning Canada goose flock that last year reached 900,000 in Illinois from 1.2 million in the Mississippi Flyway.
In past years, goose flocks had learned some tricks of dealing with hunters near state and federal refuges.
They would wait until hunters began leaving the pits at 3 p.m., when shooting hours normally end. Then, as one, the flocks would rise. Tens of thousands of honking geese would stream over the hunters' heads, passing the empty pits to feed in surrounding corn and bean fields.
The frustration was maddening. Hunters gazed helplessly at a sky darkened by the wings of geese. After a day in the pits with hardly a shot, now the birds were flying. The geese had learned to read a clock.
But now things would be different. At the stroke of 3 next Sunday, with their stomachs demanding corn, the geese would rise from the refuges and, lo, hunters would be there. Bookings have been made for weeks at more than 140 commercial hunting clubs in the quota zone. For five days through Jan. 24, there would be dream shooting at last.
Well, don't count on it.
The geese have thrown another curve at hunters this year. They've learned to fly high enough throughout the day to avoid most pits near the refuges -- and, hence, most of the clubs. That automatic 3 o'clock flight no longer exists.
"What we're seeing is the aging of the flock," said Dennis Thornburg, the Department of Conservation's chief waterfowl biologist. "For the first time, there are far more older geese than juveniles, and these older geese are smarter. They've avoided hunters through Ontario and Michigan and Wisconsin, and they've been doing this for three, four and five years now. They've learned the ropes and they're adapting."
How well they're adapting is reflected by extremely low harvest numbers. Despite an estimated 840,000 Canada geese now in southern Illinois, the harvest there since early November has been just over 24,000, compared to a quota of 71,100 in the zone (142,200 statewide). It's unlikely that Illinois -- or any state -- will come close to any harvest goals.
"It's not just us," Thornburg stressed. "Wisconsin is more than 50,000 below its quota. Michigan did not make quota in any of its zones. In Ballard County, Ky., where the quota is 23,000, they've so far killed -- and you won't believe this -- only 2,400."
My phone has been hot with calls from livid hunters. Most accuse government biologists with supplying too much corn on the refuges.
"They don't want those geese to move," one caller told me. "It's a conspiracy to keep the geese in Illinois, to prevent them from migrating farther south. But if they won't fly and they can't be hunted, what's the point of having them? I took a group of 30 hunters to Union County for three days and all we killed were 18 geese, and the weather was perfect for hunting. Those geese just wouldn't fly."
Thornburg said the geese not only are flying, but they're going far off the refuges all day long.
"They're flying high over the clubs and going 20, 30, 40 miles to feed," he said. "There aren't any clubs that have done consistently well, even those that have been consistent in the past. Yet, there's been some excellent hunting far from the clubs. I know of hunters on Beaucoup Creek north of Murphysboro who are getting limits every day. And it's not just at Union County Refuge. Crab Orchard is seeing the same thing. The birds are flying north of Campbell Ponds, past Devil's Kitchen and Lake of Egypt. They're going farther to feed.
"I sympathize with the guys, I really do. I don't blame them for being upset. We'd expected a very good season. Normally, when you have lots of birds, the hunting should be very good. But these birds are different now. There have been important changes in the flocks."
Thornburg said the balance of birds should favor juveniles, which are much less wary. But harvest counts now indicate two adults per juvenile, showing how geese have survived hunting pressure in recent years.
"These birds are smart," Thornburg said. "They know about hunters and decoys. You can't get nine of 10 flocks to even look at decoys. If you're lucky enough to have one even look, they might get as close as 200 yards before they recognize the decoys, and then it's 'flare city.' Forget about even taking a shot."
Thornburg has first-hand knowledge of hunters' frustration. "I had my brother here for three days, and I couldn't get him under a goose, and the weather was right. It was pitiful," he said.
Thornburg discounted as ill-informed any assertion that biologists don't want to thin the flocks. He cited efforts for several years to maintain the Mississippi Valley goose flock below 1 million to reduce agricultural depredation and potential catastrophe from avian illness relating to overcrowded refuge conditions. For example, bag limits in Illinois increased this year to three Canadas and two white-fronted geese per day. So far, the geese have not cooperated.
Surely, we'll get the formulas right one day. Meanwhile, no one knows where to hunt all those hungry birds.