December 25, 2019
By Brad Fitzpatrick
The greatest natural spectacle I ever witnessed occurred while I was peering from under the roof of a metal box buried in an Arkansas wheat field. In the sky above, silhouetted against the gunmetal gray clouds of February, were tens of thousands of snow geese.
The birds moved unidirectionally, in pairs or vees or giant masses, and from one horizon to the next there were living creatures blanketing the dark winter sky. It was the peak of their annual migration on the Mississippi Flyway and it was extraordinarily loud: Even over the raucous honks of the electronic calls I could hear the collective voice of the birds cackling overhead.
“They never stop,” I said.
“Not this time of year,” said Chris Jennings from Ducks Unlimited. Chris was a veteran of late winter/early spring snow goose hunts, but that was my first time pursuing the birds. Pursue may not be the right word, though. The geese were, quite literally, everywhere. But the trick, I soon learned, was getting them down out of the sky.
Almost as impressive as the birds overhead was the massive decoy spread all around us. There were, I was told, roughly 1,200 hard-body decoys and socks, and from the air it must have looked like an impressive gathering even to the birds high overhead. But despite the decoys, the e-calls, and our snow goose flag waving, most of the birds seemed uninterested. What had seemed like a sure bet was quickly becoming a frustrating lesson in the inevitability of the sport. There were thousands of birds, but they didn’t want to drop into shooting range, and that’s sometimes the reality of light goose hunting. It felt very much as though I’d found the world’s most productive fishing hole but didn’t have enough line on my reel to reach the water.
I was still so shocked by the sheer number of birds that I almost missed the fact that, at our 2 o’clock position, a trio of snows were dropping down out of the sky toward our spread. Chris saw it first, and when I caught sight of the birds I swung the barrel of the Franchi Affinity toward their position.
The geese dropped low enough that I could see the details of their feathers and bills, and then I could make out their calls among the roar of the birds overhead and the e-caller. When they cupped-up and got set to land Chris called the shot and we sprung up out of our subterranean hide. In the flurry of shots I’m not sure which (if any) of the birds I killed, but by the time the roar of the electric squawk box washed over the echoing gunshots all three snows were down.
Too Many Birds
The time of vast buffalo herds and million-bird flocks of passenger pigeons has passed in the United States. The closest event we have to these spectacles from days gone by, I believe, is the annual snow goose migration. And populations of snow, Ross’s, and blue geese populations (known collectively as “light” geese”) show no signs of declining.
In fact, those booming bird populations are coming ever-closing to eating themselves to starvation and destroying their native nesting grounds in the Arctic tundra. That’s not only bad for the birds but could have serious, long-lasting negative impacts on the ecosystem and other tundra species. Light geese are also a major nuisance for farmers who lose millions of dollars in profit collectively as the birds migrate each year. The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission (AGFC) is one of the state agencies that believes that extending the hunting season on the birds is the best course of action.
“Biologists can conduct eradication efforts to balance the population but do so only as a last resort. Increased hunting opportunity is the first wildlife management tool biologists turn to, because it costs very little to implement and is much more socially accepted than other population control measures,” the AGFC says.
To help manage the issue of light goose overpopulation state wildlife agencies offer extended seasons, liberal (or no) bag limits, and the use of equipment like electronic calls and extended magazine tubes that are traditionally forbidden during the traditional waterfowl season. Market hunting managed to wipe out the passenger pigeon and huge bison herds during the frontier days, but modern biologists are using hunters (and hunter funding) to help properly maintain and monitor bird populations this time, and the skies show no signs of clearing. Regulated hunting is the best solution.
The state of Arkansas, for example, offers four separate Light Goose Conservation Order seasons. The fall 2019 seasons were Oct. 5 to 25 and Oct. 31 to Nov. 22, while the late seasons run Feb. 1 to 7 and Feb. 9 to April 25, 2020. Hunters don’t need a Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, Arkansas Waterfowl Stamp or HIP registration, but must have a valid hunting license from any state.
Hunters under the age of 15 are exempt from license requirements, but all light goose hunters must obtain a free registration permit number by calling (800) 364-GAME. Arkansas allows the use of unplugged guns and electronic calls, and there is no daily bag limit or possession limit. Nontoxic shot is required for hunting.
Light goose seasons provide hunters with a way to extend their hunting season and fill their freezers following the close of the traditional waterfowl season. What’s more, hunters who participate in controlling light goose populations help reduce financial loss to farmers whose crops are targeted by the birds and help save tundra habitat. But hunting light geese can be a challenge, especially if you’ve only ever hunted puddle ducks on small properties. You must have the right equipment and the right attitude, and you have to think big.
With so many birds you’d think that light goose hunting was a cinch, but that’s not so. Yes, these birds pass in flocks that seemingly block the sun, and you may drive past wheat fields that are littered with thousands of geese, but many of the birds have become wise to the ways of hunters. Most of the light geese that I’ve killed have been young birds, and I believe that’s probably true for most hunters. They come to decoys more easily than older geese and don’t have the experience to bypass setups when they smell (or, more aptly, see) a rat.
The first requirement for success on these birds is a suitable place to hunt, and that means scouting. There are public land areas and many farmers are more than willing to allow hunters to come and harry the nuisance birds that relentlessly chow down on their crops. But some of those farms will already be booked with hunting outfits, and that’s probably your best bet for your first light goose hunt. Hunting snows, Ross’s and blues is a game unto itself, and you need to learn the tricks. A competent guide will have areas to hunt, blinds set up, and a trailer loads of decoys—and, if you’re lucky, they’ll even set those decoys for you.
That’s no small task. Most successful snow goose hunts consist of not dozens but rather hundreds or even thousands of decoys. To really draw in light geese you need to sell your spread well. Is that to say that you can’t kill birds with a couple dozen decoys in the perfect spot? No, but this is a numbers game.
The best guides consistently put out a thousand or more decoys and socks, and they don’t get up at 2:30 a.m. to set those dekes because they have insomnia. You’ll also notice that most every successful light goose hunter has a few flags, and these do seem to offer the incentive that wary birds need to drop down into your lap. Like other waterfowl species light geese key on movement—or, more specifically, a lack thereof. A dead still set on a dead calm morning makes for pretty poor shooting, and I’ve seen flags draw birds in that wouldn’t have been killed otherwise.
To compliment your spread you’ll need an electronic caller. A massive gaggle of geese makes an awful lot of noise, and birds expect to hear that. Several companies that make e-callers for predator hunting also offer snow goose calls on their playlists, and if you own a high-quality varmint/predator call there’s a good chance that there’s already a snow goose call sequence pre-loaded. What’s more, you don’t want the sound to be coming from a single source, so directional speakers are an important investment. Place the speakers so they call toward opposite directions of the spread, adding authenticity to the clamor.
The last and perhaps most important factor in your success as a light goose hunter revolves around your ability to stay hidden. A single overturned decoy can ruin your hunt. (Do you have any idea how hard it can be to keep 1,200 dekes upright and looking reasonably lifelike on a windy day?) Dead birds also scare away subsequent flocks. Camo everything in sight and hide yourself well. One item that’s often overlooked is black, shiny call speakers. They glow like flashing beacons on a sunny day, and they’ve ruined more than one hunt. Step out of the blind and surveil the spread from time to time, making sure that you’re still giving the appearance of nothing more than a massive group of live birds resting in a field.
Handling High Volume
I’m a fan of 20-gauge shotguns for just about every form of hunting, but I believe that light goose hunts warrant stepping up to a 12-gauge. Bigger guns offer heavier payloads, and while snows, blues and particularly Ross’s aren’t oversized geese, they are still relatively large birds. What’s more, you may be shooting them on the extreme limits of your shotgun’s range where extra pellets might make the difference between a kill and a cripple. Although 3 1/2-inch shells are an obvious choice, and they really set the 12-gauge apart from the 20, I’ve found 3-inch shells work fine. Plus, they’re not as brutal during long shooting sessions.
Doubles, single-shots, pumps, and semi-auto guns will all work, but if you get into really high-volume shooting you’ll want something that doesn’t beat you to death.
The Franchi Affinity that I used in Arkansas worked fine thanks in large part to the TSA recoil pad, but Benelli’s Super Black Eagle (which offers Comfort Tech 3 and CombTech recoil reduction) is another great option. Gas-operated semiautos like Browning’s Maxus, Winchester’s SX4, Remington’s VersaMax and Beretta’s A400 with Kick-Off are also great choices, and the gas system helps reduce perceived recoil. Mossberg’s 930 Snow Goose is a purpose-built gas-operated shotgun that comes ready to hunt light geese with a Kryptek Yeti finish and a 12-round extended tube. You can also purchase aftermarket extension tubes from companies like Carlson’s Choke Tubes to extend the magazine on your existing shotgun.
Choke selection varies on presentation and how the birds are approaching your set. You may be shooting birds on the fringes of the spread or at self-defense distances. For this reason, I always take multiple choke tubes along. I’m not a persistent choke-swapper, but you’ll find that each day brings it own challenges and opportunities and it’s best to be prepared. I also bring along a small gun cleaning kit: if the shooting heats up and your shotgun needs a quick cleaning or lubrication you’ll be glad you have it along.
Light goose hunting might be the best-kept secret in waterfowling, but the habitat, farmers and even the birds themselves need hunters. In addition to filling your freezer and extending your season, light goose hunting also offers you a chance to witness one of nature’s greatest spectacles. Be prepared to be hooked, because the first time you find yourself in a whirling cyclone of birds wondering how 13 shots isn’t enough you’ll be branded a light goose hunter for life.
Winchester Xpert Snow Goose
Winchester Xpert Snow Goose is a dedicated light-goose load that combines the company’s Xpert steel shot with its Diamond Cut wad. The 3-inch 12-gauge load offers 1 1/4 ounces of steel shot delivered at 1,475 fps, and the 3 1/2-inch load offers 1 3/8 ounces of steel at an impressive 1,550 fps. Both are available with No. 1 and No. 2 shot or BBs, and these high-velocity loads offer excellent terminal performance and reliable cycling. What’s more, the matte-finish hulls reduce glare that can cause geese to flare. These loads offer consistent patterns out to extended ranges, and that makes them an ideal option for shooting birds at widely varying distances. I shot the 3-inch loads in Winchester’s SX4 12-gauge semi-auto and found the combination to be effective, yet recoil was manageable. Price is reasonable, making the loads a great option for high-volume hunts where ammo costs can rise quickly. MSRP: $15; winchester.com