Hunting Southern Michigan Geese
October 04, 2010
Savvy waterfowlers know the best time to outwit Canada geese is when there's snow in the Lower Peninsula. Here are some late-season tactics to help you score this winter. (Dec 2006)
Perhaps the best way to outwit wary pressured Canada geese is to hunt them in the snow during Michigan's late season. While some waterfowlers have put away their gear, savvy hunters know some of the hottest shooting of the season comes when snowflakes are dancing in the wind. This brand of waterfowling provides hot gunning action, fun-filled adventures and piles of huge birds -- if you follow a few important rules, including scouting to locate private-land hotspots, realizing that camouflage is key, how to set up properly, and using calls and decoys that produce results.
Scouting is the most important variable for goose hunting success. The key to shooting fun is you must set up in the exact location where birds want to land. Forget state or public land for serious hunting, because late-season adventures take place on private property. Begin by learning the fly patterns of southern Michigan geese and locate spots where you can set up decoys that almost guarantee success. The trick is to use quality binoculars and follow flights of birds while using your vehicle. Identify roosting areas and follow flocks to feeding fields. Next, get permission from private landowners. Then set up decoys in the exact location where you scouted birds, and you should be on the road to goose hunting success.
Try not to disturb birds while scouting. Avoid the urge to walk property or allow geese to see you. If you find a hotspot, stay away from feeding locations, keep your vehicle out of the field and observe birds with binoculars from afar. If you spook wary geese, they may not return for several days.
Some of southern Michigan's best goose hunting is found close to metropolitan cities. Geese roost on golf courses, ponds, city parks with lakes, or on rivers in cities like Saginaw, Flint, Ann Arbor, Livonia, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and more. Here, they are protected. They can roost on the water at night and make daily flights to private fields for breakfast.
Geese during late season seek corn fields. They usually fly from the roost at dawn, return to the roost before lunch and make an afternoon trek for dinner. During severe cold weather or when snow gets deep, they make a single daily trip. They will visit a corn field until the crop is devoured, and then "scout flocks" locate new fields that have fresh reserves of the golden nuggets. Savvy hunters find fields that geese are working, which requires plenty of recon work, door knocking and a run-and-gun approach to secure a place to hunt. Smart hunters locate several spots geese prefer, because when one field is burned up from overhunting, they move to the next. This strategy can keep you on fresh geese the entire season.
Fast-paced late-season shooting hinges on how successful you are at scouting geese and getting permission to hunt private land.
Just about any decoy spread will get results if you are lying on a goose's dinner table. I have shot limits of geese in fields by using only a few full-body decoys that I had to carry because the field was too wet to drive or the landowner didn't want vehicles on his land. That's not the way to guarantee success. You want to get permission to drive into the center of the field and lay out a large spread of decoys that will suck any flock of geese into point-blank range. Some hunters like to match their decoy spread to the number of birds visiting the field. Not me. I'm more from the bigger-is-better persuasion, and prefer to place at least six-dozen dekes in any given field. There are a number of quality decoys on the market today that will decoy geese kissin' close, provided you know how to use them. Today's decoys are made with rugged construction, provide outstanding performance and are lifelike. Their exacting realism decoys birds from far and keeps their attention until the shooting starts.
The way you place decoys in a field has a profound effect on whether birds give you the flyby or cup their wings and dump into close gunning range. Rookie hunters make the mistake of setting up too close to fencerows, trees and clumping decoys in a bunch rather than placing them in family groups. The point is this: You will increase the number of birds you decoy if your spread has a natural look. Try setting them in a "J" shape or "fishhook" pattern with sentry and active decoys at the long end of the "J." Place decoys facing upwind, toward the main body of the "J" or hook, where you concentrate decoys to look like a feeding group. Incoming birds will swing downwind, follow the long lead or string of decoys that look like birds walking to the feeding hotspot.
The feeding area is made by brushing snow away and placing feeding decoys where you want birds to land. One of my deadliest tricks is to expose bare dirt by spinning my tires when I set up decoys. Feeding decoys are placed around the exposed dirt, somewhat close together, say one yard apart. Incoming geese will see the exposed soil in snow from extremely long distances. To them, the feeding decoys look like live birds that have dug through the snow to find corn. Geese gliding into the spread will follow the string decoys and try to land in the open areas around the feeding decoys.
Decoying wary geese is an art. There are plenty of tricks used to pull birds from the heavens and provide close-up shooting. If your spread is perfect, you can shoot your limit without calling. One tactic is to use motion decoys. Some hunters prefer to flag birds, while others use windsocks, spinning-wing decoys, flyers, pole kites and other goose-motion devices to make decoys look like live geese.
Feeding geese during late season tuck their feet into the warm feathers under their belly. Geese in snow conserve energy by lying on their belly while eating, and they avoid standing erect, which would expose their feet and neck to cold elements. Smart hunters use shell decoys and full-body decoys that are feeding or relaxed profile to mimic these geese. Decoy spreads that have more resting birds, sleepers, feeders or relaxed-body styles will pull more geese than spreads filled with upright heads or stand-up alert sentry decoys. The point is this: Your spread needs to look natural. Use relaxed-profile decoys to appear like a flock of birds joined together to fight the cold. Last year, I field-tested some decoys with flocked heads and the results were impressive. Wild geese can see flocked head decoys much better than conventional plastic, which makes them easier for birds to spot at long distances and mimics the realism needed during the low light of winter to draw flocks closer for a better look.
The goal of every goose hunter is to bring birds into close range without being detected. Obviously, late-season gunners have relied on white camouflage clothing to hide their human form from the sharp eyesight of wild geese. Some hunters use painter's white coveralls, but most wear lightweight cover-ups designed by Canadian
outfitters who spend a great deal of time pursuing game in snow. The Seclusion 3D camo winter pattern is effective in snow and very durable. White pullovers come with hood, button or zipper front, and are made from quiet polyester.
When you wear white camo in snow, it dissolves your human outline. You become somewhat invisible, and geese are totally fooled by snow-camo-clad hunters who layout-shoot in decoy spreads. Some wear white gloves, white facemasks and spray-paint boots white to become totally concealed. Gunners conceal shotguns by spray-painting them white or using white tape to hide the gun from ever-watchful wild geese. Dark boots stick out in snow, so savvy hunters spray-paint them white, or cover their feet with a camo decoy bag or toss snow over them.
Hunting in snow can be a brutally cold sport. One trick to help you stay warm is to use finger mitt-style gloves with a mitten that pulls back to expose your fingertips and give you the dexterity needed to push the safety off, pull the trigger and load more shells. Some hunters use foot, toe or hand warmers inside boots and gloves to protect extremities from the cold. Camo facemasks, turtleneck sweaters or pullover hoods protect the back of your neck and face from frostbite during extreme cold conditions or howling winds.
Most gunners lay flat in the decoy spread. When incoming birds are spotted, they lie on their back, hold the gun across their chest and wait until geese are in range before they pop up and open fire. The trick is to remain totally motionless when geese are circling the spread. You can be fully camouflaged, but if you turn your head to follow circling birds, they will easily see you and spook or flare, thus offering no shot.
The trick to accurate shooting is to lie on your back with your gun shoulder turned upwind. When birds come into range, you can sit up, shoulder the gun and turn your torso as you shoot. Rookie gunners make the frequent mistake of lying in snow facing the wrong direction. When all heck breaks loose and guns start poppin' they have to turn their body around in order to get a smooth lead and consistently drop geese.
There is a growing army of goose hunters who love manufactured ground blinds. They come in a variety of sizes and styles, each is developed to provide maximum comfort and unmatched concealment, and they are specifically designed for field goose hunting. Accessories include an aluminum frame, holes for flagging, gun rest, insulated backrest and floor, padded headrest and more. Snow covers are available for late-season hunts.
Wild geese are very deceptive targets. When they lock up landing gear and slowly glide downward into the spread, they look like they are easy targets. Their precarious profile quickly shifts after the first shot, and birds turn on the afterburners, frantically push air with their huge wings and quickly climb out of range. Smart hunters allow incoming birds into easy shooting range at about 30 to 40 yards. However, in a matter of milliseconds, geese will climb to 50 yards, and your third shot is often at a bird pumping his wings to escape at around 60 yards.
Geese are large birds. Adult southern Michigan birds can weigh 12 to 16 pounds, and some weigh an amazing 18 pounds. It takes plenty of firepower to bring them down. Most gunners use 3 1/2-inch magnum loads in shot sizes from BB to F. Try BBB for the first shot and T for the last two. If birds are slightly out of range and you are taking longer shots than you prefer, make the switch to all Ts. Keep in mind that late-season geese are educated, and many times they will set wings, glide toward your decoy spread, and at the critical moment -- usually when they are about 40 yards out -- they will flare. In addition, the extra firepower is required because winter birds have a fully developed protective layer of thick feathers.
Call-shy winter birds can be very difficult to decoy. Each day is different. Sometimes you can wail on a call, while other times a couple of toots is all birds will withstand without flaring. If you find birds that have not been hunted, chances are good you can pull them down by calling loudly and frequently. Start with loud greeting calls when incoming flocks are far away. Flag to get their attention, and call loudly and frequently by using hail honks to draw birds to the spread. Once they are coming, don't give up calling unless they flare. Talk them down with a series of clucks, and mix in a honk or two to make calls mimicking several different geese. Some people prefer to soften the calls as birds get close, while others keep up the loud music to imitate a flock of unalarmed geese. The sequence, tone and loudness you use while calling can vary with how birds react. If they lock wings and dump for loud calling, keep up the racket. If they flare and swing away after you talk to them, tone it down.
Winter birds talk very little and they keep calling somewhat subdued. Perhaps they do not want to attract attention of predators or hunters. Some flocks -- after they have been hunted -- will fly to a corn field, land and feed without making a loud call. They will actually travel and land without making a peep. This silent treatment is the result of gunning pressure that makes birds go silent. If you are hunting heavily pressured birds, use hailing and greeting calls sparingly. Wait for a member of the flock to return a call before you honk back, and lower your volume as birds get close. The trick to success is to read your birds, and if they are flying into your decoys without making a peep, keep calling to a minimum. Most geese expect return calls from birds on the ground. If you are silent when they are calling to you, they will become suspicious and avoid close encounters. Large flocks often require more calling than small scouting groups.
There are few hunting experiences that compare with the thrill of giant Canada geese floating into close gun range like feathered B-52 bombers slowly gliding to the runway. When geese are close, I'm talking kissin' close when you can hear the raspy "swoosh" of their massive wings and feel their awesome power. The adrenaline rush is intense. Such waterfowl experiences are addictive, and Michigan's late goose season provides an opportunity for you to sample some of the finest hunting the Great Lakes State has to offer. Don't miss a golden opportunity to cash in on the excitement. Plan now, call your hunting buddies and start scouting. The extra effort can produce impressive results.