Waterfowl Bonus: Small Waters, Bigger Deal
December 10, 2018
Note: Game & Fish Magazines teamed up with our sister publication Waterfowl to bring readers pertinent info, stories and tactics for this waterfowl season.
"Cover up, guys, we’ve got geese!” As the blind doors slammed closed, all eyes turned toward the sound of clucks and moans beyond the dam of the small pond we were hunting. All at once, the sounds turned to sights as the 12 geese locked their wings.
I held my breath as they glided closer, knowing that if they were going to flare, it’d be now or never. Black feet extended downward. I simultaneously exhaled in relief and called the shot. My only fear at this point was not getting hit with the splashes as the dead birds hit the water.
Scenes like this can often result from hunting Canada geese on small water. Strategies and setups vary depending on whether you’re running traffic or hunting the “X.” One thing that does remain the same, however, is the potential for in-your-face action and excellent bird work, making this some of the most exciting honker hunting you can experience.
It happens every year. September rolls around, and I blow through a ridiculous amount of shotgun shells and bacon strips just to get sick on dove poppers. That keeps my attention for a while, but soon clip-on dove decoys and pass shots leave me wanting more. The minute the little devils stop zipping overhead, the truck starts wandering around the familiar early season goose spots in preparation of goose season. The early days are hardly enough to quench the off-season thirst, but with an abundance of young uneducated local birds can come some insane hunting action.
Although the birds are workable, there aren’t nearly as many in the resident goose population as when the late-season migrators arrive. This can make scouting difficult at times. The abundance of corn, the occasional rye field and open pastures give the birds many feeding options.
On one particular day, I had scouted for a couple hours and found myself struggling to locate birds. Feeling a bit discouraged, I burned down a gravel road to a big private lake that sometimes holds geese in the summer and early fall. As I crested the hill near the lake I saw three geese circling a small pond about three quarters of a mile from the big water. This particular pond lay just over another hill out of sight of the road, so I climbed up the gate at the field entrance, and was happy to see the three honkers through my binoculars, along with about 100 of their closest friends on the water. My fingers couldn’t dial the number quickly enough, and after securing permission, I began devising a plan.
The next morning, I rolled up to the pond bright and early. I wasn’t going to figure on hunting the birds until I’d had more of a chance to make sure they were in a routine hitting this pond. The grass around the water was mowed down and scarcely ankle-high, so I brought along and scattered a few arm loads of hay on the bank to hide layout blinds. While it didn’t exactly match the color of the grass, it was only mid-week, and I felt confident the birds would get used to it by the weekend.
I buzzed past again around 9 a.m. and saw a nice group circling the pond. This scene repeated the next morning as well.
The musty smell of year-old hay and beaming headlamps surrounded us the next morning. My buddy, Brandon Drummond, and I carefully covered our layout blinds and began to set decoys. We kept the numbers relatively small; 18 loosely spaced floaters swayed in the gentle breeze not far from the edge of the water. Six full-bodies were used in total, one in the shallow water, three on land near the blinds and two staggered between to mimic birds transitioning from water to land. It was well past daylight when we settled in our blinds.
The birds we were hunting would be a while yet. They were roosted on a large body of water nearby, feeding in a cornfield down the road, and hitting this pond mid-morning to loaf throughout the day. Within an hour or so, we could hear them feeding in the field. Now all we had to do was wait.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement. A single goose flew past from behind, and without making a single sound swung around in front, locked his wings, and fell into the decoys at eight yards. He never knew what hit him. Neither did his two friends, who took a similar path a few minutes later. These birds came in talking, and I hit them with a few soft moans and clucks. They did it just as pretty as the one previously and my yellow lab Rudy was enjoying the fast-paced action.
We were expecting all the geese to follow the same path, but the next group was a five-pack traveling side-to-side in front of us. We hit them with a call and flag, and they turned toward us. A single dropped out of the group and landed, and the other four birds circled twice and worked relatively close. They either heard my pounding heart or saw Rudy inching out of his blind toward the single, and they’d had enough. We rose up and folded two along with the one that had landed.
One even had a little extra leg jewelry, which is pretty common for resident birds in many areas. The small decoy spread allowed us to pick up quickly and get out of there while only being busted by two more small groups. This meant we’d be able to hunt these birds again the following morning. As we left the field, a dozen birds dropped to the water.
Early season hunts can often produce some excellent decoying action. It is a chance to get after the birds when they haven’t been bothered for months. Small groups of honkers are often all you need for a successful hunt. When hunting the “X,” I take time to make sure my decoy numbers and positioning closely resemble the way the birds that have been using the pond seem to organize, which helps to ensure they don’t get suspicious. On this hunt, the time spent scouting had paid off, and quick execution had allowed us to try to kill more the following day, which is exactly what we did.
THE BIG SHOW
Last winter, I’d been focused on geese since the end of duck season, but the mildly variable weather made their activity inconsistent at best. I was looking forward to a hard freeze and new players to re-shuffle the deck. Finally, as can happen overnight in early January, an arctic blast swept the north and with it came thousands of migrating geese. We’d gone from scattered groups to extremely large concentrations of birds on the big water.
So just how do you handle the arrival of big numbers of late-season birds? A fine field hunt is the most common method, but small water can help you in such situations along established flight lines of migrators new in the area.
The majority of the geese were roosted on a large public lake near town. The hungry birds were finally leaving the roost to go feed. Some returned, and others continued west several miles toward a large private lake that allowed no hunting. This lake also had birds roosting on it, and the back-and-forth travel established a nice line.
While scouting, I found the field the birds were feeding in. Unfortunately, the dirt had been worked bare. Lack of stubble made the chances of getting hidden very slim. Getting under or near the line the geese were trading on was now the task at hand. The birds were going from roost to feed, to water, to feed and back to roost. I hit the road and soon found a pond that looked promising. It was small and not exactly under the line the birds were traveling, but it was close enough to be within sight of them. On the early season hunt, we’d been hunting the “X.” Geese were coming to the pond already. We called very little and kept the decoy numbers small. Our current setup would require a different strategy.
Instead of the small spread we used early season, we deployed a few more troops. The hole was about 30 by 40 yards, and we ran three-dozen floaters. A mix of 18 sleeper shells and full bodies in the water and seven-dozen full-bodies were placed along the bank. These late season birds had seen about everything by this point, and I felt good about the fully flocked decoys and the overall realism of the spread.
Darkness had all but gone, revealing cloudy skies. Thankfully, we had a nice breeze. As is often the case, the wind (or lack there of) can dictate the outcome of a hunt. Getting birds into our decoys would take a bit of convincing, and persuading them would be much more doable with a little decoy movement. Nearly an hour had gone by when the first group appeared on the horizon. In an attempt to grab the attention of the birds, we hit them with a series of loud, fast-paced notes and aggressive flagging. As can be the case on traffic hunts, it seemed as though they’d give us a chance, but no sooner had they turned our way than they set back upon their original course.
Ten minutes later, a group of five followed the same path. We hit them again. In unison, they turned and headed our direction. Closer they came, until all at once their wings weren’t pumping any longer. Forty-five seconds seemed like an hour, but finally the birds were backpedaling into the floaters. At 10 yards, we killed all five. I hadn’t even grabbed the last bird from Rudy when I heard Kylen’s call hammering away. Rudy ran for his blind, and I did the same just in time for a group of 15 or so to start looking extremely interested. They got a bit wishy-washy as they turned the corner, but a well-timed flag brought them back on line. Twice they circled before dropping within range. Four more. It was time to head out.
Throughout the final weeks of season, I had several more successful hunts. While enjoyable, none came together more perfectly than the two before-mentioned outings. Even though both hunts were very different from one another, scouting played a major role in each. Early on, things had been relatively simple. We set up on the “X” and the birds came to us. Later in the season we had to use aggressive calling and more decoys to bring them our direction. By using different tactics, we were able to find success in both situations.
As successful as this type of hunting can be, it’s often overlooked because many folks only focus on hunting the food source. This can no doubt be effective and is at times the best option. But don’t let small water setups be an afterthought, because they can produce limits in the right conditions for both ducks and geese.