Operation Goose Comfort Zone
September 24, 2010
While field-hunting can provide good shooting for honkers, launching a covert amphibious operation can result in a cache of giant Canadas on the water.
The author with proof that water spreads for geese work great.
Photo courtesy of Mike Gnatkowski
Hunting geese on the water versus in a field has its advantages. With either you need to scout, but when hunting over water, the scouting options are far fewer. Geese heading out to feed can spread out far and wide, and their destination can change with the wind -- and in the amount of time it takes to chop a cornfield. Just finding the field they're feeding in requires time -- time many of us don't have.
Finding just the right field is only half the battle. Then you have to get permission to hunt. In this day and age, a good goose lease can cost plenty. That is if the farmer who's worried about liability, theft and his land is even willing to take your money in trade for a good goose hunt or two. Find the right combination and it can be heaven, but it requires a lot of time, expense and effort.
Hunting geese on the water, on the other hand, is relatively simple compared to field-hunting. Most large reservoirs, lakes and impoundments have public access, which makes them open to public hunting. That's one major hurdle already solved. Rules and regulations may vary from state to state, but I don't know of anywhere where you can gain public access that you can't hunt if your feet aren't on the bottom. Of course, there are safety zones around cabins and homes that you have to be aware of, but for the most part, lakes and reservoirs offer plenty of room to roam and a lot of goose hunting opportunities. The lake I frequently hunt is ringed with cottages and resorts on about half of the lake. The other half is state park that offers miles of shoreline open to hunting. There are similar opportunities in every state. You just need to find them.
Locating concentrations of geese when they're around is not difficult. Get yourself a good pair of binoculars and glass the water during midmorning through mid-afternoon to locate geese that are resting on the water. Water usually means roosting areas when it comes to geese. The geese will feed in the fields early and again late in the day, and spend the hours in between resting, preening and sleeping on the water. During periods of nasty weather the birds may trade back and forth all day. The geese will use established routes when trading that you can home in on. Finding a concentration of geese is a start. Find the same group of birds in the same location two or three days in a row, and you have a pattern.
Just prior to the late segment of our state's goose season last year I spent parts of several days watching a location where geese were roosting on our local impoundment. Initially, there were only a couple of dozen birds using the area, but as the week wore on, more and more geese were attracted to the area. The birds were feeding in some cornfields to the south and returning to the lake to roost. Some were sitting on the water while others had made their way to a sandbar to rest on shore. I'd found their comfort zone. It was the perfect water setup. Opening day of the late season found me situated exactly where I had seen the geese, and it didn't take long to down my limit. I quickly got out of the spot so returning birds would continue to use it. The hotspot provided several more limits that week.
While scouting is still important when hunting over water, it seems the locations that geese will use are much more predictable on water than on land. Sandy shorelines, the lee sides of islands, shallow sandbars, shallow bays or points are places to set up for geese. Geese quickly learn that shorelines mean danger, so the best locations to set up on are near islands, off points or by using a boat blind to get away from the shoreline. Getting away from shore also makes your decoy spread more visible. You can tuck a few decoys backing the cattails, but keep the bulk of your spread out in the open where they're highly visible.
That doesn't mean that you can't do well with a shoreline setup -- it just takes a little more convincing. If possible, I like to employ a Paul Revere spread -- one if by land, two if by sea -- when hunting shorelines. I combine my floating goose spread with some field silhouettes or shells. The floaters are placed in shallow water just offshore, and the shells and silhouettes are placed on a sandbar or along the shoreline. The decoys in the water simulate geese that have just landed and are joining the group. The decoys on shore look like birds that are content, preening and resting. The varied positions of the silhouettes give added realism to the spread. In fact, if there isn't a sandbar to put field decoys on, I get double duty out of my field decoys by cutting 2- to 3-foot lengths of 1-inch PVC pipe, spray paint them black, push them down into the shallow water and then drop the stakes of the field decoys into the pipe. Silhouettes in particular can give added realism to your spread, they take up little space and they can pump up the number of decoys in your spread.
The beauty of hunting geese on the water is that you don't need as many decoys as you do in the field. Usually three or four dozen on water is plenty, but it helps if they look ultra-real.
Many floating goose decoys have only sentry or resting heads. Geese with their heads up are alert, if not alarmed. You want to give the impression of contented, resting birds. To do this, add some sleeper and feeder decoys to your spread. Goose butts or feeders are highly visible and give the impression that there might be some aquatic vegetation in the area worth checking out. Limit the number of decoys with sentry heads in your water spread to just a few. Buy the best decoys you can afford. The added detail of quality decoys will help fool educated geese. Cheap decoys with rounded bottoms or water keels tend to rock unnaturally in even the slightest waves.
I generally set the decoys in a wide C- or J-shape with the open end facing downwind. I'll place one decoy at each end of the spread and at the outside of shooting range, or about 40 yards, and then fill in the blanks. Ideally, the wind should be at your back, but there are times when geese are spooky that a crossing setup works better. Place the bulk of the decoys on the upwind side of the spread. Decoy spreads can be bunched a little more tightly when hunting water versus on land. Put your feeders and sleepers on the inside of the spread, and the sentry decoys at the head and tail of the spread. I like to leave an opening directly in front of the blind and then put a half-dozen decoy slightly downwind of the blind. The small group simulates birds that have just landed and are swimming into the decoys to join in on the fun and investigate. When using flying decoys, I place them at the tail of the spread to mimic birds that are just coming in to land. Ideally the geese will be landing head-on when you take them to expose their vitals and ensure clean kills.
Motion is a big factor when trying to attract geese to your field spread. There are decoys with rotating wings, kites, flags and more all designed to attract attention to your spread. And yet, few waterfowlers use motion to their benefit when hunting geese over water.
One simple way to add motion to your water spread is to attach plastic wings called Flapperz to your decoys. The wings easily attach to your floating decoys with hook-and-loop fasteners. The wings flap in the slightest breeze, giving your spread movement and that added touch of realism. Whether sitting in the field or on the water, geese are continually flapping and stretching their wings. It's a natural movement that you can use to attract birds to your spread. The wings are inexpensive and can be purchased online at
www.flapperz.com or by calling (269) 857-4838.
I don't know of too many field goose hunters who would be caught dead without a flag, but I don't know of too many guys who hunt geese on the water who use one. Why? The purpose of flagging is to get the bird's attention. It works just as well on the water as it does on land, sometimes better. Use a flag sparingly when hunting water, though. Use it to get a flock's attention, and then lay off and let your decoys take over.
I also use flying decoys occasionally with my water spread. I made extensions for the stakes so I can use the flying decoys at the outer edge of the spread in 2 or 3 feet of water. The cupped wings on the flying decoys simulate birds coming in to land, and the flapping wings add more subtle motion and attraction.
Calling is not nearly important when hunting geese on the water as it is on land, but it still can be an ace in the hole for luring geese into shotgun range. Geese sitting on the water are relatively quiet. You will on occasion hear them gabbling or honking though, especially when other birds are passing by. Calling is used mainly as an attention-getter. The earlier you start calling when you see an approaching flock of geese, the better. Calling attracts attention to your location and decoys. Call when the birds are approaching you, not after they have passed. Rarely will they turn around after they've gone by. I usually start with a few loud hail calls and see what kind of response I get. If I don't see that slowing of wing beats, then I'm probably wasting my breath and time.
My hunting buddy Rick Morley and I were hunting on opening day of duck season last year. The morning had been pretty uneventful. The marsh was full of hunters, and by midmorning the duck flights had come to a screeching halt. Many of the hunting parties picked up their spreads and headed out. As one group vacated a prime location, we decided to improve our lie. The grassy island located near the center of the lake that some hunters had just vacated provided an ideal location to set up.
We had barely gotten the decoys in place when I heard some faint honking in the distance. It was probably close to noon by then. A line of about 15 geese was passing on the far side of the lake, probably a mile distant. I figured I had nothing to lose so I put the flute call to my lips and let out a long, loud series of hail calls. To my surprise, the flock wavered slightly, and instead of the single-file path they were taking, the geese balled up, fluttered, began honking excitedly and veered toward the center of the lake.
Obviously interested, I stayed on the call and the lead goose started to answer as the birds began to lose altitude. About 500 yards out, the honkers locked their wings and began a slow decent. Rick had his head buried in the blind, but I chided him that he had to peek. He peered through the mesh to see the entire flock 100 yards out, rocking from side to side with feet extended.
With a big grin, Rick said, "Tell me when." I waited until the geese were hanging over the decoys 30 yards out before I yelled, "Take 'em!"
Sound really carries over water, so don't be afraid to call to geese that seem too far away. You never know. Calling can be especially effective when hunting over water when visibility is poor. In fog or blinding snow, geese get turned around, they're looking for company or a place to sit down. Calling then can help them home in on your decoy spread, and your calling should be more animated. Usually, I use just the hail and greeting calls until the birds are relatively close, and then a few excited clucks and double clucks seal the deal.
Geese don't seem to fly as early as ducks, so don't be in a panic if you don't see geese right off the bat in the morning. On extremely cold days, the geese may not even leave the water until midmorning. Usually there are ducks flying all over the place before geese even think about getting up. It is usually well after daylight before the geese start honking excitedly and lift off to head for the fields. Often a good ploy is to wait until the geese leave before setting up. It's kind of "banker's hours waterfowling." Once the geese have fed and return, you'll be in position.
Geese have keen eyesight. Any hint of unnatural movement will send them backpedaling, so you need to stay super-still when birds are approaching. We all know how hard it is to stay motionless for hours on end, but resist the temptation to move around. Just about the time you get up to stretch or do the necessary deed, the geese will show up. Keep dogs, shiny Thermos bottles and spent shell casings out of sight.
And your camouflage needs to match the surroundings. During the early season, use camo patterns that have more green in them to match the still-green foliage. Add more dead grass and earth tones later in the season to blend in with the surroundings. On bright days, a facemask is a good idea.
If you do your homework, the geese should be in easy shotgun range when you decide to take them. Generally, water spreads aren't the place for tightly choked guns. In fact, you'll find that a modified choke or even improved cylinder will work well with geese over water. No. 1 shot in loads like Heavy Shot or Kent's Matrix work great. BB-sized shot is a better choice in steel loads for giant Canada geese.
Once the bird is down, dispatch it quickly if its head is up before it gets out of range. While geese are strong swimmers, they don't always dive like ducks. If you can catch up to them, you usually can retrieve them. I like to have a handful of light No. 7 steel loads handy for dispatching birds on the water.
There aren't too many more satisfying sounds than the one of a big goose thumping the ground. But if you lack the resources or the time to hunt the fields, look to the water for geese. After all, they don't call them "waterfowl" for nothing!