Cover Line Tactics for November Geese
November 18, 2010
Tired of watching flock after flock of Canadas pass by your wood lot decoy setup? Our expert explains how to fool wary November geese this month.
My heart slowed to a merely rapid beat, and my breathing was no longer audible. Through the flaky, tan-colored leaves, I saw my dad 50 yards down the first row of once-lush field corn; he was staring in the direction of the dozen raucous Canada geese that had roused us from the cool, cloudy mid-November morning calm.
Dad watched the geese continue out of sight, and then he turned and put up both of his arms, palms turned up, and yelled, "What can you do?"
I responded with a wry grin as I held up a full thermos of fresh coffee. He nodded in agreement and raised a steaming toast to the elusive Canada goose.
As I sipped my cup of bittersweet coffee, my muscles reluctantly relaxed, but my mind worked overtime in an attempt to conjure up the distant honks of unseen geese. Anxious anticipation kept my senses alerted while memories of more cooperative Canada geese, birds that locked up and landed in easy range right in the middle of our decoy spread.
If you have hunted Canada geese before, you can attest to the peaks and valleys of emotion hunters experience while sitting next to a spread of decoys. That emotional roller coaster is part of goose hunting's appeal, blood- pumping, heart-pounding action separated from utter disappointment by the whims of a bird with a brain the size of a shotshell primer.
Goose hunting takes place within a host of venues. At times, geese are hunted over water in preferred resting areas such as lake bays, backwaters and swamps, ponds, rivers and wide creeks.
Photo by Joseph J. Workosky
COVER LINE TACTICS Canada geese are usually hunted in large, open fields within the general vicinity of these resting sites. These feeding fields are typically composed of clover, grass, alfalfa or cut corn. Hunt in the center of these fields in layout setups or from pit blinds or even behind cattle silhouettes, and you can bring geese close enough to see the glint in their eyes. However, the most common, most comfortable and most practical way to hunt geese is from existing cover lines. Standing corn, hedgerows, tree lines, baled hay and cattle fences adjacent to feeding pastures are typical examples of prime November ambush cover.
Cover line hunting is a popular strategy because it can be comfortably done in wet or damp conditions (rather than out in the mud when cold rain is smacking your face); it greatly diminishes the effects of movement (imperative for compulsive coffee drinkers and 12-year-old hunting partners); setup is simple and mobile (I never met a portable pit blind!); and (perhaps most important) you can stand when shooting, which significantly improves accuracy.
COMFORT IN COVER When those first nasty November cold fronts blow down from Canada, cover line hunting may offer its greatest advantage: comfort. Waves of Canada geese fill the sky in advance of those wretched cold fronts; unfortunately, so do waves of rain, sleet and snow. But if you set up in cover, you can take what you need to mitigate the effects of miserable weather conditions.
Movement and visual oddities are mostly hidden from incoming geese within prepared ambush cover, too. You can't expect to wave orange flags and have a party, but you can make yourself a snug little blind with the little amenities that create a comfortable hunt and increase your time in the field, hence giving you more chances at incoming geese.
Take what you need to help yourself stick it out in wicked weather, including camouflaged umbrellas or tarps, portable heaters, high-energy food, propane stoves (I've seen guys make grilled cheese sandwiches and fry bacon in their blinds), thermoses of hot cocoa, coffee or soup - anything that will make you more comfortable as you take advantage of the ideal hunting conditions that come with bad weather. If your decoys grab the attention of passing geese, the birds will be most concerned with joining your decoys, not whether you're frying bacon in the bushes.
Cover hunting, for all its advantages, does have one major disadvantage: Geese tend to shy away from cover because they know it provides a superhighway for predators.
When cover line hunting, your setup must make geese feel comfortable in an area that is not naturally attractive to geese. This is one of the major challenges when decoying from cover lines, but remember that a well-presented setup will toll in a lot of geese.
COMFORT DISTANCE VS. MAXIMUM RANGE There are many factors that produce a successful cover line hunt, but the difference in time spent watching geese and time spent shooting geese depends largely on a well-laid spread of decoys. One of the most important cover line decoying principles is that your setup is merely an invitation for geese to land or at least fly within the range of your shotgun. The little section of field in which you can shoot at geese is miniscule compared to the endless landscape that surrounds you. Therefore, any signs of danger suggested by your decoys or the surrounding environment will quickly turn geese away in search of another place to eat. It is true that, sometimes, even textbook-perfect setups will leave you flustered, but you will be successful more times than not if you follow some basic principles of decoying geese.
DECOYING BASICS A natural-looking spread of decoys is any hunter's trump card. A proper setup gives geese an instinctive feeling of security and safety. But, if even the perfect setup is too close to cover, incoming geese will fly on to find another place to land. No matter how appetizing an alfalfa or clover field may look, geese will shy away if they feel vulnerable, and, to geese, proximity to cover exudes vulnerability.
To entice birds within shotgun range, you must neutralize their wariness by placing your decoys far enough from ambush cover to make geese feel absolutely secure.
So exactly how far is "far enough?"
Geese are usually comfortable setting down 200 yards or more from cover. Comfort distance varies by setting and sometimes by day, sometimes even by flock, but the bottom line is that geese need security to approach any setup, and hunters need to be able to hit the geese. A good general rule in solving this quandary is to set up decoys at your consistent maximum effective shooting range.
"Consistent maximum effective shooting range" is the maximum range at which you consistently hit the object you are
shooting at, not the yardage you once hit a goose and said, "I can't believe I hit that goose!"
For most hunters, consistent maximum effective shooting range is around 40 yards, so the nearest decoys should be no closer than 30 yards. Match your consistent maximum shooting range to the farthest third of your decoy spread. That distance will give most geese a feeling of security and give you a high-percentage shot.
ADJUSTMENTS IN WIND If geese have been heavily pressured, 30, 40 or 50 yards may not be enough comfort distance, though you can still be successful by taking advantage of the wind.
Decoys can be moved out to 60, 70 or even 80 yards from cover to entice super-spooky geese. The key is to set up with the wind blowing directly, or even quartering, in your face. You can still get some shooting because, when landing with a stiff tailwind, geese will generally circle to get a headwind for better landing control. In this case, the geese will circle back to your blind and may seem as if they are hovering overhead.
If the geese come from behind you, they will probably pitch directly into the decoys, so keep a sharp watch for tightlipped loners and pairs.
In some instances, the only cover in which you can set up puts the wind at your back. This makes for a pretty tough day of hunting, because you cannot rely on geese circling toward your blind, so you must move your decoys out to accommodate nervous birds.
DECOY CONFIGURATIONS In this case, decoy configuration becomes important. Use a long, vertically stretched, J-shaped spread. The bottom of the J should be at your consistent maximum shooting range, and the top of the J should be at least 25 yards from the bottom of the J, an extra 25 yards from the cover line, which can help make cautious geese comfortable on their way in. You may not decoy as many geese or have as many quality shots as you would in better situations, but you can salvage a day's hunting.
There are other concerns with the wind at your back, even if the geese are decoying well. If a strong wind is at your back, the geese will usually land straight into a headwind or circle in the opposite direction of your blind, and that could take them to the far edge of your decoys. This is a good time to move the decoys five or 10 yards closer and use a stubby, T-shaped spread (the top of the T should be twice as long as the vertical part of the T). Place the horizontal or top part of the T closest to your blind, as geese will likely land in the 90-degree pockets toward the top of the T.
SET TO LAND No matter what decoy setup or situation you encounter, patience is imperative for high-percentage shots. If geese are landing in your spread, make sure you wait to shoot until the geese have their feet dangling toward the ground. Their air speed will have decreased, and you will have the best shot possible. If you must shoot at circling geese, take into consideration the arc of the bird's flight path, and take your shot as the bird reaches the point closest to your blind.
LANDING AREAS Even when geese are decoying well, close attention to the configuration of your decoys and concern for landing areas will yield the best results. Smaller groups and flocks of geese feel more secure landing into a flock of decoys. For this reason, situate your decoys in a shape that includes an open space for geese to focus on. Give them every reason to be comfortable. Be sure the landing areas within your decoy spread match the wind direction. That is, the wind should be blowing in the face of the geese as they land in the pockets.
When geese are decoying well, a wide, W-shaped arrangement makes an attractive spread. When light or variable wind conditions exist, try a loose X-shape to provide landing pockets in four different directions. Experiment a little, and pick something that works, based on the day's conditions.
Within any configuration, decoys should look relaxed and open to company. Comfortable-looking decoys will be five or six feet apart, with mostly feeding geese and a minimum number of head's-up or "alert" decoys. Use a ratio of four or five feeders-to-one watcher. This gives the decoys the appearance of an undisturbed, feeding group of geese.
CALLING Calling plays a minimal role in cover line hunting. Even though Canada geese are raucous birds, you do not have to emulate a brass symphony to make them lock up on your decoys. Knowing when to call and when to keep quiet is especially important when you are cover line hunting because, as geese near your setup, they are better able to pinpoint sound. If they recognize something amiss, like a goose wildly "ker-onking" from the woods, the birds will turn and head for another pasture.
Use a slow, distinct "ker-onk" to grab the attention of distant geese. As the geese get nearer, they will get louder and sound more excited. At this point, your calling should become softer and less intense.
When the birds circle overhead for a better look, use a feeding growl, a low-pitched, low-volume call used by feeding geese that is almost a humming sound.
Calling is important, but consider it the cue geese need to turn and pay attention to your setup. Endless, uninhibited calling often hurts rather than helps your cause. Probably the best advice is to leave the honking to the geese once they have turned and are locked up on the decoys. Keep your calling to a minimum when geese are at a distance. Once they close the distance, depend on your location and decoy setup to bring them into range.
MAINTENANCE One final variable to consider for cover line hunting is the condition of your decoys. Geese are keen-eyed creatures and can spot trouble a mile away, so keep your goose decoys freshly painted. You may think it a trivial matter, but do whatever you can to minimize the variables. Faded decoys may warn off heavily pressured geese as they make their final approach. Nature keeps goose feathers looking fresh, so keep your decoys looking fresh as well. Besides not spooking geese, freshly painted decoys can bring distant geese closer.
The paint around your goose decoys' eyes and under the back half of the wings should be kept a vibrant white because it helps distant geese spot your spread, and distant flocks of geese may be the only attention you will get on a slow day.
TINKERING It is worth reiterating that no decoy setup will bring in every goose in the world, so avoid the temptation to adjust your decoys with every passing flock. If a negative pattern emerges, though, with even loners and pairs blatantly ignoring your decoys, do some thinking and tinkering.
If tinkering does not make a difference, move your setup to another location. Use logic and your own observational insight to make a more effective spread.
Effectively decoying geese from cove
r does not take a doctorate in physics or biology. Discounting the instincts of geese and goose behavior regarding wind conditions may find you watching rather than shooting geese. There are an infinite number of things that can go wrong while in the pursuits of Canada geese, and these have racked the brains of hunters for eons. Nevertheless, if you utilize cover lines, create a natural-looking decoy spread and take advantage of the wind, you'll be chewing on goose jerky all year long.
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