With Canada geese, what you show and tell them can often make the difference between a rousing hunt and a so-so outing. Here, veteran waterfowlers offer tips to set you on the road to success.
By Jack Michaels
A flock of Canada geese with wings locked approached the decoys, gliding in to crash the party. At 80 yards the massive honkers appeared to be close enough, but I knew from experience that shots 50 yards or closer are best, so as not to cripple.
Our decoy setup proved itself (with the aid of a few growls on our goose calls) by duping the Canadas into easy shotgun range. At just the right time, my hunting partners and I rose and took several geese as the flock backpedaled in retreat.
Canada goose hunting gets better every year! Although some waterfowl populations have fluctuated, you can count on good numbers of honkers to be around this season.
In addition to the migrants, many states now are home large numbers of resident geese year 'round. In some areas these geese are actually becoming a nuisance, overrunning parks, golf courses, and even residential housing areas.
When concentrated, Canada geese do a significant amount of damage to farm crops, making area farmers more receptive to granting permission to hunt. Finding a good spot to hunt is generally easy for hunters willing to knock on a few doors.
Now that all of this Canada goose talk has you interested, how do you get started enjoying more of this type of hunting? Glad you asked. Here I'll cover the basics, and throw in some expert tips to make your goose hunts more successful.
Though many Canada geese are taken by pass-shooting each season, most ardent goose-chasers prefer decoying the birds in for closer shots.
Decoys come in several shapes and sizes. Hunters can pick from a plethora of imitations: plastic, hollow shells, photorealistic silhouettes, motor-powered and even wind-activated decoys.
Some Canada goose decoys float; others are flown in the air like a kite; others are large enough for hunters to hide beneath. However, some of them seem to be built for hunters with the dimensions of a horse jockey. Those will leave us normal-sized strapping (fat) boys balled up in a fetal position for way too long.
Rigging up a spread of Canada decoys is not a cheap proposition. Shell decoys can range from $80 a dozen for the standard size, on up to $300 to $400 for 12 super-magnum decoys. Silhouette decoys, which are painted or imprinted with photo-realistic copies of geese, look awesome and do a fantastic job but, once again, are not cheap.
Some hunters prefer the full-body decoys, which, averaging $200 to $300 for 12, can put an unhealthy dent in your pocketbook. Some purists even use actual taxidermist-mounted geese to add realism to their spreads. The cost of the feathered replicas can run from $200 to $400 apiece: just the ticket for the goose hunter who has everything.
Any route you decide to go, decoys are an integral part of goose hunting. I've used as few as 12 and as many as 12 dozen of the honker imitators. My choice now is to incorporate photo-realistic silhouettes with my shell decoys. The flat replicas are easy to tote and a breeze to set up quickly - like when your hunting buddy oversleeps and you arrive at the field when the geese are already approaching.
Barnie Calef heads back to his blind with two Canadas he lured in close with the right decoy setup and some sweet talk from his goose call. Photo courtesy of Hunters Specialties
PATTERNS FOR SUCCESS;
It's essential to keep wind direction in mind when you're setting up decoys. Always remember that geese prefer to land into the wind, to slow down their approach.
That in mind, I like to position my decoys in family groups of four to eight decoys facing into the wind. Generally, I place sentry decoys, which are decoys positioned in alert position, on the perimeter of my spread, to serve as "lookouts."
The outer edge of my decoys generally is 20 yards away. Typically, I position my spread in an elongated cigar shape, perpendicular to where I'll be hiding. I place decoys behind me as well as around me, since I prefer to hunt while lying in my decoy spread.
Early in the season, I use as few as four dozen decoys, but later on I'll use all the decoys I can get my hands on - generally 10 to 12 dozen.
Remember that the most crucial part of decoying geese consists in reducing the hunter's movement to a minimum. Most camouflage patterns will adequately break up the outline of a hunter who remains motionless, while overhead, the birds contemplate landing.
Geese can also be taken over water by using floating decoys. In some states, or some hunting regions, hunting over water is the waterfowler's best option. When using floaters I like to complement the spread with shell decoys positioned near the water's edge. I use decoys set in a resting position to simulate different characteristics of geese near water.
Hunters in groups will have their best success by spreading gunners out among the decoys. The hunters should be positioned parallel to each other to avoid accidents.
Lone hunters would be wise to bunch their decoys close together and lie in the middle. That way, they'll still be within gun range of any geese that land on the corners of the spread.
THE RIGHT "HIDE" FOR
To fool geese, hunters can conceal themselves by means of a variety of things. These "hides" can vary from available habitat - simply crouch or lie behind or beneath it - to pit blinds, which are elaborate excavations for below-ground concealment.
Numerous spring-activated blinds position a hunter flat on the ground with the head slightly elevated. These spring open when activated by the user, allowing for shots at nearby geese. There are even blinds made to resemble round bales of hay, inside which two hunters can hide. These natural-looking blinds can achieve remarkable results.
I took two banded geese one morning during an early-season hunt simply by lying down next to a wire fence bordering a known feed field. I covered up with a burlap sack that hid me perfectly in the knee-high grass growing near the fence.
However, many times geese don't like to land near a fence or a timbered area. Instead, they prefer the comfort o
f a vast feed field, where they can see any potential predators approaching from a distance.
One of my favorite, and probably least expensive, ways to hide from wary geese is to lie in the decoy spread beneath camouflaged burlap sacks or OD-green military netting. This relatively economic means of camouflage works well, but it takes practice to throw the cover back efficiently and then rise to shoot. Any goose within range can quickly withdraw to a safe distance if a hunter is slow to act. It goes without saying that hunters should exercise care in handling a shotgun under these conditions.
Perhaps the ultimate form of concealment is a pit blind, which, as remarked, is a subterranean box that positions a hunter below ground level. Hunting from a pit blind can sure spoil a goose hunter. Many times I've hunted from a concrete or wooden pit blind and relished the comfort of a catalytic heater on a chilly morning. These blinds allow for hunter movement and enable waiting waterfowlers to drink coffee and eat snacks while awaiting the next volley. However, most farmers are not open to digging pit blinds in their agricultural fields.
CALLING AND HUNTING TIPS
Arnie Jonathan is a goose-hunting expert who says that he'd rather hunt geese than anything else. He turned that passion into a business and has been a goose guide for the past 10 years. He offers newcomers to the sport some savvy advice.
"Calling," Jonathan said, "is easy when the setup is right. If you are in a spot where the geese want to be, then not much calling is necessary."
Jonathan likes to make feeding chuckles when geese are approaching, and relies on flagging to close the deal. His experience has taught him to listen for the flock's lead goose to call and then try to duplicate those calls.
In Arnie's view, goose hunters should use top-of-the-line calls, because he believes that such models more accurately render flock talk. He hones his calling skills by listening to resident geese during the off-season and observing how they communicate with each other.
Barnie Calef also lives to hunt waterfowl, and he too makes his living at it; he's also a three-time world-champion waterfowl caller. Each season, Calef pursues waterfowl all over the nation. This seasoned veteran has learned a great deal about goose hunting and shares his expertise through seminars. Recently he shared some of those tips with me.
"The main key to goose hunting is adaptability," he said.
To be successful, Calef explained, hunters have to do whatever it takes (legally!) to get the geese. That means knowing where to lie when you're field-hunting wary birds, when to use more decoys, when to downsize your spread, and when -and when not - to call.
Calef believes that geese are more challenging late in the season and has learned to alter his tactics to take more geese then. This goose-hunting veteran knows when to use several hundred decoys, and when he can get by with only a dozen.
Calling to incoming Canada geese can add the realism necessary to make a spread of decoys appear lifelike. Blowing a goose call is not a simple feat, but it can be mastered with practice.
For calling Canada geese, Calef likes a short-reed goose call because of its versatility and the authenticity of the sounds it can make, and recommends that hunters learn to blow one. He encourages learning to make two basic Canada goose sounds: the cluck and the honk. The cluck is made by blowing a short burst of air from the diaphragm and saying the word "whit" into the call. The honk is made the same manner: Lengthen the tone from a high to low note while making the sound whoooo-wit.
"The real skill," Calef said, "is knowing when to call and when to stop."
Buck Gardner, another champion caller, thinks of goose calling as an art easily mastered with proper instruction. "Today, with the availability of numerous videos and audio cassette tapes, nearly anyone can be proficient with practice," he said. "Goose calling is not an art that only a few can master." Indeed, of the numerous goose calls on the market today, many come with a how-to course in one or another audiovisual medium (audio cassette or CD, or videotape or DVD) as a bonus, and beginners should, Gardner says, definitely consult such instructional materials or expert callers in order to learn to make the various goose sounds properly.
Gardner offered a bit of advice learned from his years of experience. "Be careful not to overcall to geese. Like the old saying, less is more when goose calling." He added that in his view, two or three average callers calling in unison will do a better job than one really good caller can. (He also advocates practicing calls while driving to and from work - so as to avoid incurring your spouse's wrath!)
Calef shared this tip: "While hunting wheat fields, sometimes the cover is so sparse I use a giant shell decoy to cover up my head, and then place several decoys around my body to break up my outline. There are a variety of goose decoys made today that allow the hunters to hide under and then see through slits in the decoy." He also suggests that you might want to use two or three dozen floating decoys for realism, with several shell decoys spread around the bank, if you're hunting near water.
"Scouting is one of the most important aspects of goose hunting," Gardner added. "Doing your homework before the hunt will lend to your success. Geese are wary, and look for places that have the least amounts of human activity."
Buck suggests that hunters drive the roads surrounding wheat fields and glass for daytime goose activity. He also recommends checking fields for feathers and droppings - telltale signs of goose activity.
Gardner stresses the importance of using an adequate amount of goose decoys. "Geese feel safest when they are in large numbers," he explained. "Your successes or failures many times directly hinge on the amount of decoys you use."
If he has truck or four-wheeler access to the field he's hunting, Buck likes to use as many as 12 dozen decoys. Preferring to arrange the decoys in family groups to resemble feeding geese, he believes that the addition of full-body decoys in a spread adds a touch of realism.
Gardner emphasized that hunters can stack the odds in their favor by "flagging" distant geese, a method that's deadly for attracting the attention of flocks up to a mile away. Flagging is accomplished by waving a black flag in a side-to-side motion to imitate landing geese or goose movements generally. As geese approach, lay down the flag and grab your shotgun! The flags can be purchased from waterfowl supply outlets, or made at home. Try this trick next time you hunt geese and you'll be amazed at the results.
Jonathan offered this last bit of advice for luring in the late-season's call-shy geese: "I will set five or six decoys 100 to 150 yards away from my main setup, and position a hunter inside the small group. I the
n remain with the large group of decoys and continue calling. Almost every time, approaching geese will land in the small group instead of in the main bunch of decoys. This tactic works incredibly well."
Canada geese generally feed twice a day when the weather is cold. Additional feeding allows them to store fat, which keeps them warm during inclement weather. By driving rural roads in the hunting area in the afternoons, hunters can spot flocks of geese feeding and just about rely on the fact that the same geese, left undisturbed, will return to that same spot the next morning. Hunting permission can then be secured, and you'll have the makings for a morning of great goose hunting.
If you've never experienced a goose hunt, you're missing a real treat. If you're interested in hunting geese in your area and don't know how to go about it, a good way to start is by calling your local wildlife agency office to see what public opportunities are available. I also recommend contacting the Ducks Unlimited representatives in your area. Consider attending a DU banquet as a means of networking with other goose-chasers.
So here's hoping that all your hunts are successful, and that your lanyard is soon filled with shiny leg bands to serve as reminders of your latest obsession - goose hunting!
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