How To Fool Open-Field Geese
September 28, 2010
For November Canadas, think high and dry. Our expert explains how to find and fool geese that are focused on inland crop fields this month.
No longer is hunting Canada geese considered to be only a water-based sport. Over the past decade, field-hunting has become one of the hottest -- and most surefire -- ways to put birds in the bag.
A successful field hunt for Canada geese, as with most species, begins with scouting. Your best bet for all but guaranteeing a slam-dunk hunt is to go out the day before you plan to hunt and find a field full of geese.
At this time of year, you can count on finding Canadas feeding daily in harvested fields of corn, soybeans, peas and other crops. In November, the birds normally leave their river or lake roosting sites each morning to go stuff themselves with food to nourish themselves on their annual southern migration. Flying several thousand miles over the course of a few weeks, they burn a lot of calories.
Scouting for fall geese is easy! Simply drive back roads near farm fields at dawn, and you can literally follow incoming flocks to their final destination. During the fall migration, most working dairy or crop farms will have birds on them almost daily.
See where they land, find the landowner and ask him for permission to hunt them.
When you see a flock, hit the ground. Take note of the exact spot in the field where geese are feeding. For whatever reason, that's the area they prefer, so that's where you want to set up your blinds and decoys. Get a general idea -- from a distance -- where the geese are feeding.
Then, the next morning when you go out to hunt, look in that area for fresh droppings and for the down that the birds pulled while preening the day before. Such sign will help you zero in on the exact spot in the field where the geese want to be.
If you can't gain access to a field where geese are feeding, try to find a field nearby that the geese tend to fly over as they travel to and from their nighttime roosting sites. If you can get under the geese with your decoys and blinds, you're still in the game.
Before we get into how to deploy decoys in your hunting field, first it's important to talk about what kinds of fake geese you have to choose from.
There are three basic types -- silhouettes, shells and full-bodies.
Silhouettes are the lightest and most portable. The shells stack nicely on top of one another and may be carried in bags. The full-body models are the most realistic, but also take up a lot of room and are difficult to transport in large numbers.
If you don't mind buying a trailer and can drive into any field you want to hunt, then spend your money on full-bodies. They are, hands-down, the best option for fooling even the wariest Canadas. If you don't want to spend money on a trailer, or if you know you're going to have to carry your decoys some distance by hand before you can set them up, consider shells and/or silhouettes.
Actually, all goose hunters would do well to have some silhouettes. They help add motion to a spread, even when there's no wind blowing. Because they are two-dimensional, silhouettes appear to move as live geese fly around your spread and shift from looking at the dekes' thin edges to getting a profile view of them.
If you mix a few dozen silhouettes into your shell or full-body spread, and set them facing all different directions, then as geese in the air circle your position, it will appear to them that there's movement throughout your spread.
Movement in a decoy spread is crucial to luring in wary Canadas. After a few days of being hunted, the birds become suspicious of "lifeless" flocks of geese on the ground. It's just not a natural sight, and most flocks will ignore such setups.
Aside from using silhouettes, you can add movement to your spread by deploying shells and full-bodies that have motion stakes. These allow the decoys to bob and spin when there's a wind. Or -- where legal -- you can add hand-powered or battery-operated motion decoys that flap their wings and/or bob their heads.
How Many Decoys?
How many decoys should you deploy? That's a question with nearly as many answers as there are goose hunters. My advice is to put out as many as you can afford and transport.
My hunting partners regularly put out about 120 full-bodies plus about 100 silhouettes on our hunts, and we do pretty well.
Now that you have your decoys, it's time to talk about setting them up for a field hunt. Always keep the wind at your back, to keep approaching geese in your face because geese invariably land into the wind.
In my experience, the J-shaped spread is the best way to set up decoys and consistently put geese in front of a group of hunters.
(What to do if there is no wind? We'll discuss that in just a minute.)
I'm a firm believer in setting my decoys in the general shape of the letter J -- either forward or backward, depending on the field. The hunters spread out side by side among the decoys at the hook, with the wind at their backs. The plan is that approaching geese come in on the long leg of the spread and then land in the open area -- about 30 yards across -- directly in front of the hunters.
When I set up my dekes in the shape of a J, that doesn't mean I create a solid line of decoys in that exact shape. In a field, that wouldn't look natural. I'll scatter multiple family groups -- of four feeders, plus a sentry -- all around the field. But I won't encroach upon the J-shape that forms the open area in front of the hunters. Most of my decoys are spread out in no particular arrangement behind the blinds. That represents the mass of "birds" that incoming geese want to get to.
In my experience, the J-shaped spread is the best way to set up decoys and consistently put geese in front of a group of hunters. Simply spreading decoys willy-nilly around a big cut cornfield might look the most realistic, but approaching geese might land anywhere -- including in places that don't offer a shot opportunity.
Instead, use your decoys to direct the birds into your shooting zone. If you have good decoys and good calling, the birds will come in where you want them.
I know many wat
erfowlers who prefer to create an X or U with their spreads, and they swear by them. I've tried those setups, but watched more geese land to the side of the whole spread than I've seen with a J.
It's been my experience that getting wary Canadas to funnel in between two equal-length arms of decoys can be a hit-or-miss proposition.
When there's no wind, you're going to have to count on your scouting to guide your setup. Use the J formation, but instead of setting up based on the wind, set up facing the direction from which flocks typically approach your field. You want the geese flying right into your open landing zone as soon as they hit the field.
Hide among your decoys, either by using a low-profile coffin blind -- the comfortable way to go -- or simply by lying on the ground in full camouflage. If you choose the latter, pull some decoys up close to you for a little more concealment.
Most waterfowlers can mimic nearly every sound a goose makes by using a modern short-reed call. But, in my opinion, you really need to know only three calls -- the moan or lay-down call, the cluck and the comeback call.
When you've got flocks flying your way, you should be clucking like crazy. The faster, the better. And by all means, make sure everyone in your party has a call and is doing likewise. When the birds are directly overhead or are gliding in to the landing zone on cupped wings, then have a couple of callers switch to moans -- the long, low-pitched call that geese sometimes make right before they land.
If the birds don't land on their first pass, they'll probably start circling. When they're flying away from you, give them the come-back call.
This is basically a honk, where you hold the high-pitched end of the call for an extended period. If possible, make that extended note change in pitch from low to high as you hold it. This call will sound like you're pleading with the birds to come back to the party. As soon as the geese swing around and face you, hit them with the clucks and moans again.
As the season wears on, learn to modify your calling to match the moods of individual flocks.
Some birds will want you to call to them until their feet touch the ground. Others prefer mostly silence, with a few random clucks and moans occasionally thrown in.
If a flock comes at you and isn't making a sound, that's your cue to tone down your calling. Oftentimes, only one bird in the flock will be calling. If that's the case, then to entice the flock into shotgun range, have one caller imitate whatever sound that goose makes.
SHOTGUNS & LOADS
One of the biggest differences between hunting geese over water, as opposed to hunting them in a field, is in selecting the right shotgun and shotshell. When you're hunting on a river or lake, you're counting on incoming geese landing on the water, with shots ranging from 20 to 40 yards. That means tight chokes and big shot.
In a field, you have to be prepared for shots ranging from a few feet out to 40 yards. After all, since you're hiding in the middle of your decoy spread, you could have geese trying to land literally right on top of you.
Shoot a load of T shot through an Improved-Modified choke -- never use a Full choke under any circumstances -- at a goose that's five feet away, and you're very likely to miss. At that distance, the shot pattern will be super-tight. And if you do hit the bird, there won't be much left of it for the table, anyway!
I shoot a 12-gauge shotgun fitted with an Improved Cylinder choke. In it, I typically put two No. 2 steel shells followed by one shell loaded with steel BBs for my third shot.
With this setup, my first two shots spit out a lot of pellets that spread out nicely in close quarters. It's still pretty lethal out to about 30 yards, but that's my outer limit.
My third shot allows me to reach out to about 40 yards with a little more knockdown power.
It's true that Canada geese are considered waterfowl, but that doesn't mean you have to go to the water to hunt them. Quite frankly, I'll take hunting these great-tasting birds in a field any day over a hunt on water.
It's logistically easier to pull off, and far more exciting to have birds trying to land within inches of your boot laces!