Set For Success
September 24, 2010
There's nothing like a flock of geese settling out of the sky to make a hunter's heart hammer. The key to coaxing geese close lies in the selection and use of decoys, blinds and calls.
The upper Midwest/Great Lakes region hosts some of the top goose hunting in the world. With vast areas of water available, as well as an incredible amount of the region's landmass devoted to farm crops that geese love to eat, the places and methods hunters use for taking geese here are almost infinite.
But veteran hunters know the key to success with geese lies in the use of decoys, blinds and calls. The more experience a hunter has, the more likely he will come to depend upon specific types of decoys, calls and hunting blinds for certain situations. But for most beginning hunters, the tricks of veterans appear merely to be subtle differences adapted to local conditions. Every hunter needs a basic set of equipment and calling skills that will take geese under the majority of field conditions.
One experienced hunter who optimizes his goose efficiency with a modest amount of gear is Ray Heidel of Onalaska, Wis. He hunts waterfowl -- and Canada geese in particular -- extensively across the upper Midwest. Heidel is so successful that he's on the professional staff of Knight & Hale Game Calls and Pradco Hunting Products, which sells Carry-Lite hunting decoys.
"I have a 300-acre goose-hunting field in front of my house, and I have access to the entire upper Mississippi River system virtually from my back door," Heidel said. "I've hunted waterfowl most of my life and I can tell you geese are not all that smart. But they are wary and have excellent vision."
Excellent vision is a two-edged sword. It is key to bringing Canada geese into the decoys but can also flare them away. For any type of hunting, whether over a water set or field spread, Heidel begins by putting on a camouflaged facemask.
"I cover all exposed skin," he said. "That means gloves, too. You can't look up without wearing a mask or use a flag with an ungloved hand. A goose can recognize human skin at incredible distances. They see lots of hunters who aren't cautious about covering up. That's what educates them about decoys and calls."
Likewise, the same fantastic eyesight that can alert geese also attracts them to decoys.
THE WATER SET
"The Carry-Lite Dipper decoy imitates a feeding goose," Heidel said. "It's essentially a goose's rear end sticking up, and it shows lots of white. That little bit of color added to the spread really makes the difference, particularly in an area where there are lots of hunters. Hunters flock to this region of North America, just like the geese. Most of those hunters don't pay any attention to what the big flocks look like when they're feeding and resting. But a few geese are going to be upended. It's the first thing that attracts your attention when you're trying to spot a flock. Think how visible it is to a flying goose."
While Heidel has used several styles of full-bodied floating goose decoys, he prefers the Carry-Lite Aqua-Vac. Since this decoy has no keel, it can be used under many types of hunting conditions. Keel-less decoys can be used in very shallow water or set on sandbars and banks without tilting like a decoy with a keel. However, the real key to their attraction is their lifelike presentation when floating.
"Many areas I hunt have lots of current, and Aqua-Vac decoys ride the current very well," Heidel said. "The way they ride is much more lifelike than a keeled decoy. A keeled decoy is more influenced, tending to float in a straight line and may bounce. But the keel-less decoy floats on the water like a real goose. It's almost like a feather. Another thing that helps it bring in geese is the oversized head, which increases visibility."
There is a downside to using a decoy with a suction bottom rather than a keeled bottom in a water set. Unlike a keeled decoy, which rights itself after being tossed to the water, a keel-less decoy must be placed or it may lie on its side. Having a decoy floating on its side when daylight comes is not conducive to convincing keen-eyed geese to come closer.
Heidel, like many hunters, prefers using a lead strap anchor and a no-tangle decoy line. But the way he uses the anchors for water sets is unlike the method most other hunters use.
"I rig my floating goose decoys with Carry-Lite lead strap anchors and 8 feet of Carry-Lite No-Tangle Decoy cord," he said. "Most hunters wrap the line around the decoy or the keel, then wrap the strap anchor around the decoy's keel or neck. But a strap anchor can damage decoy paint. I built racks along the side of my boat to hold my decoys. All I do is pick up the decoy and drop the anchor in the slot beneath the rack. The line is piled on top of the anchor and the goose decoy goes into the rack above it. This method really speeds up setup and pick-up time."
While some hunters use big spreads for all conditions, Heidel downsizes the number of decoys he uses when he's hunting small waters. He seldom uses more than three-dozen decoys for water spreads.
"How many decoys I set depends upon the conditions," he said. "I set two or three dozen if I'm hunting a big river. When I'm hunting a beaver pond, I only put out a few, perhaps a dozen or less."
But the basis of the decoy spread remains the same. Heidel sets his goose decoys in small family groups.
"I space the decoys well apart," he said. "I set three to six decoys per bunch, with about 10 or 15 yards between the groups. Too many hunters pack their decoys tightly, which looks unnatural and leaves no landing space.
Heidel leaves a landing zone right in the middle, with a Dipper decoy set right in front of his 16-foot boat blind. Geese are attracted to the Dipper. He prefers the wind at his back and sets the decoys no farther from his blind than 40 yards in any direction, with an opening leading from the downstream edge of the decoys into the landing zone.
"Geese may slide off to the side or set down in the holes between the groups," he said. "You want to keep them within gun range, wherever they decide to land."
THE FIELD SET
Field hunting requires different tactics a
nd gear from water hunting. For field hunting, Heidel uses eight to 10 dozen shell decoys, or whatever amount below that number he and his hunting pals can carry into the field.
"I use Carry-Lite shell decoys because they're easy to stack," he said. "Field setups take lots of decoys. As with water spreads, the number of decoys is limited to what you can carry. Most places, especially public areas, are not suitable or legal for driving across with a vehicle towing an enclosed trailer full of full-bodied decoys. Full-bodied decoys are great when and where you can use them, but shell decoys will work under nearly any situation."
Heidel sets field decoys in a similar fashion to his water spreads, with small family groups of up to a half-dozen or so with 10 to 15 yards between groups. On normal days, he leaves about 40 yards between his hunting position and the outside edges of the decoys. He leaves a 20-yard opening for geese to land, which extends in a U-shape all the way to the downwind edge of the spread. He sets up about midway of the decoys, with a greater density of decoys upwind of his blind location at the curve of the U.
"On cold days, I tighten up the decoys," he said. "Geese leapfrog when they are feeding in cold conditions. I want to imitate this behavior by eliminating the gaps in the spread, and I might finish with a decoy spread that has its farthest decoys only 30 yards from the blind. I set up about midway of the decoys."
Motion is important for field set-ups. To impart the illusion of a contented flock, Heidel depends on flags.
"When I'm hunting in a field, I flag heavily," he said. "Anybody who is hunting with me is also going to have a flag. It can be a commercial flag that flutters like two goose wings or a black cloth. Waving a flag in a figure 8 gets their attention. Once they commit, I put the flag down. I don't flag when they're within 100 yards unless they start veering away. Then I might flag to turn them back toward the decoys."
For field setups, Heidel is very specific about selecting a hunting site. He would rather set up in a corn field than an alfalfa field. He said corn stubble offered some cover, while a harvested alfalfa field left little to hide hunters and blinds.
"Summit has an Ambush layout blind and it looks exceptional," Heidel said. "The key to using a layout blind is having enough cover to hide it. You should mud the outside of any layout blind to dull the glare and make it blend into the surroundings. You should also use blinds with camo loops that hold vegetation from the hunting area."
Heidel also reverts to using nothing more than a piece of net or fabric to cover his body, applying natural cover over it to hide himself. Then he rests his head on a goose decoy.
"Take advantage of terrain and the angle of the sun whenever you can," he said. "You don't want the blind to cast unnatural shadows, so you should set up in the shadow of a knoll. Keep the sun and wind at your back. It's not always possible, but creating these advantages with your setup will increase your success.
"All of the hunters should have a safe, efficient shooting zone," he said. "If everybody is right-handed, everyone can sit at the same location relative to the decoys in the center or center-right of the decoys. But if there's a left-handed shooter, he may have to move farther left of center. Everyone should take a few practice swings so they are certain they can cover the landing area."
HEED THE CALL
Heidel uses short reed goose calls because of their versatility. But he has tried several styles, including flutes.
"Now, I exclusively use the Knight & Hale Magnum Clucker or Knight & Hale Pit Boss goose call," he said. "They are both short reed calls. I think you can do a lot more with a short reed call than any other style. You can manipulate your breath and hands to create all of the sounds you need to make for goose hunting."
When first spotting geese, Heidel goes for volume with the Magnum Clucker. He begins with a loud hail call.
"I just want them to notice my set-up," he said. "I give a long, loud highball. If they aren't taking any notice, I keep trying until I'm sure they aren't going to respond. If they get quiet, I get quieter. If they take notice and start coming in, I just give very soft calls. The mistake most hunters make is mimicking the sounds they hear on TV or during competition calling, which are different calls than are used while hunting. You have to read the birds and adjust your calling according to their response. The geese are your only audience."
If the geese veer away, or even if one or two geese start fraying from the flock's edges, Heidel coaxes them back on course with a few more highballs. Excited calls usually keep the flock in formation. He also makes sure all the other hunters in his group are calling.
"I stick a call in everybody's mouth and tell each hunter to at least cluck if they aren't experienced callers," he said. "A flock of geese makes lots of noise. I encourage the other hunters to follow my lead and call loud when I do and call softly when I do. The most important thing is to stop calling when I stop."
Heidel said each hunter should know his effective shooting range. He tries to be sure that when the shot is taken, there is a high probability it will result in one or more downed geese to retrieve.
"I want the geese to be close, but not too close," he said. "Once you can see the feather patterns on their wings, they are within range. Inexperienced hunters get too excited and tend to shoot too soon. The geese also need to be in a good shooting zone. You don't want them to make a pass and get behind your head before calling the shot or try making other long-odds shots."
It's also important for one hunter to call the shot. Heidel said it should be the most experienced hunter.
"I call the shot while the geese are still out in front," he said. "Some hunters make the mistake of waiting until the whole flock is in range. But that isn't a good idea. If a goose is in range, I want someone to shoot it. You might go all morning and find out that you've blown your only chance if you get too greedy."
For More Information:Carry-Lite Hunting Decoys, www. carrylitedecoys.com.Summit Tree Stands, www.summitstands.com.Knight & Hale Game Calls, www.knightandhale.com.