Take It To The Limit
September 28, 2010
Change is good -- except when it comes to geese. How can you change your tactics and get your fill of the Bayou State's specks and snows again? (December 2007)
Photo by Holger Jensen.
Too bad that over the years so many young people haven't realized just how smart their parents are. I was one of those kids who think that they know everything. Nothing my parents ever said made any sense to me. I just knew that there was a better way -- and that way was my way.
Thankfully, my hardheadedness didn't get me killed. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was always walking a tightrope of temptation that should have done me in.
So typical of a youngster, my naÃ¯ve attitude was something like that of the young bull looking out from his pen at all the cows in the field below. To an older bull in the same pen he said, "Hey, Mr. Old Bull! Let's run down the hill and make friends with one of those cows."
The old bull had been around the block a time or two, though, and thoughtfully responded, "Naw -- let's walk down there and make friends with all of them."
With age comes wisdom. It's amazing how smart my parents seem to get the older I get. Smart old people just don't do the same stupid things as young dumb people. That's why their insurance rates are lower.
The same could be said for geese.
Twenty years ago, Capt. Erik Rue of Calcasieu Charter Service used to be able to kill as many geese as the law would allow over a couple of spilled crates of baby diapers. It's not like that today, though: Geese, snows mainly but specklebellies too, are getting harder to kill. Rue's theory is that both species of geese are living longer, and are thus just a little bit wiser.
"I think the main reason geese are getting more wary is because of all the increased hunting pressure," said Rue. "Hunting pressure had a tremendous affect on duck hunting, and now we're seeing it with the geese."
It only stands to reason that if more people are hunting geese and exerting the same effort they used on ducks, the geese are getting shot at with increasing frequency every year.
"What we've got now are geese that have been through the gauntlet," Rue said. "Those that made it through learned from what they saw."
It's getting hard enough to just take your two specks, but the limit of snows that fluctuates from 10 to 20 on any given year is getting downright impossible to fill.
"You can shoot more snows because the limit is higher," Rue said, "but it's not very often that you actually kill your limit. And to make it worse, there are thousands of them around. The problem is that they have gotten supersmart. The same can be said for the specks. They're not as tough as the snows right now, but you can see them trending that way."
Rue also explained that one of the trends he's seen around Lake Charles is indicative of the increased interest in geese: more hunters getting caught up in buying specialized gear just for geese.
"In my area, it seems like more people are getting worried about call and decoys and guns and blinds . . . it's the same kind of effort usually reserved for duck hunters," Rue said. "I'm primarily talking about increased interest in the specks, but you can see it with the snows, too."
Rue also figures that hunters' having suffered through sub-par duck seasons has added to the new interest in geese. If the ducks aren't there, and the geese are, it's only natural that hunters migrate towards the latter.
GLORY DAYS GONE
Rue can recall the glory days of goose hunting -- just 15 or 20 years ago. Back then, hunters didn't have to do very much to shoot some birds. Put out some white in a field and hunker down to hide, and you'd have geese falling in all around you.
"They were all pretty stupid back then," Rue said. "We still get some birds that attack our spread, but they're mostly young, dumb birds, the ones not following the advice of the older and wiser birds."
"What we've got now are geese that have been through the gauntlet. Those that made it through learned from what they saw." --Erik Rue
To put a little science behind his belief that he's hunting older birds today, Rue recalled a test hunt he did with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
"When the electronic callers came out, I did some test hunts with the LDWF," Rue said. "The results we got from those hunts several years ago were amazing. At that time, before all this pressure really even started, the average age of the geese we killed in those test hunts was 7 or 8 years."
Rue went on to say that he's got to believe that the average age has to be even older today. And older birds mean wiser and more experienced birds that have seen it all.
Another factor changing the geese is the increased number of magnum guns in the boats and blinds. "Hunters are taking longer shots than they used to," said Rue. "No way are those birds that are getting sky-blasted going to come any lower. They learn just how high to fly."
Anybody who doesn't believe in educated birds only needs to look at the relatively recent introduction of the spinning-wing duck decoys. When they first came out, they were as deadly as any piece of duck hunting gear that had ever entered the market. Now, hunters actually have to wade out and turn them off because the devices are flaring the ducks.
Rue believes that one of the reasons for the specks being somewhat behind is that the older ones -- known in south Louisiana as "generals" -- are frequently targeted as trophy geese.
"As far as my operation goes," Rue said, "we're constantly targeting the bigger specks with bars on their chests. We try to pick those out of every group we get and shoot them first."
A lot of prestige is associated with the big generals. A big speck is a prized goose in Southwest Louisiana. "I think that approach may be keeping as many specks from reaching those high levels of intelligence," Rue said.
And while Rue makes every effort to shoot the older, fully-plumed snow geese, he suggested that a large percentage of snow goose hunters don't ever notice whether they've got a mature bird in their sight or not.
TIPS TO SUCCEED
To be successful with these changi
ng geese, Rue changes up his decoy spread and his calling. Mastery of both variables gets more important as the season goes on, and hunters that find the right combination will often kill more geese.
"Talking about specks," Rue said, "it's pretty easy during the first part of the season. As long as you have some good calling, don't overcall, are well concealed and time it right, you'll kill birds. But as the season goes on, those easy birds get tougher. They have a great memory for where the blinds are and what the decoys look like."
Rue often sees the number of geese in his area fall from 1,000 at the start of the season to 500 by midseason. He and his hunters have killed hundreds by that time. The wise birds that remain get tough -- but Rue has a solution for that, too.
"We get some specks that like to follow the snow geese around," he said. "When you have a big flock of snows, it's easy to kill your specks because those aren't resident birds, and they aren't as gullible. They haven't seen the blinds, and they don't know where all the fake geese are on the ground."
Calling becomes the most important element in getting wary birds within shooting range. Some of the guides that work for Rue have reported to him that when they get to go after the less-pressured geese in a nearby field, it's like hunting a different goose.
"That tells you that these geese get used to the calling," Rue said. "Most geese are killed by the call rather than the decoy, and getting it right is paramount to having a good hunt. I've found that the better-looking your decoys, though, the less calling you need."
David Smith is another hunter who has used calling to his advantage, killing snow geese when others can't. Smith, of David Smith Hunting, in Welsh, recalled a hunt many years ago that convinced him he had to learn more about calling.
"I was out trying to get close to some geese one day and a blue goose flew right over my head close enough I could see his tongue every time he honked," Smith said. "The sounds that came out of that bird's mouth were simply amazing. None of it sounded like anything I had ever heard coming from a mechanical goose call."
"Hunting a decoy spread without movement is like going fishing in a boat without a motor: You'll float on the water and catch a fish or two. But put a motor on there and watch what happens." --David Smith
It wasn't long after that bird that another blue goose flew over Smith. "The same thing happened," he said, "but this time it was an entirely different sound coming from this goose. I realized right then and there that geese are just like humans, in that no two sound exactly alike. When you blow the same goose call over and over, you make the same sounds. Learning to call with your own vocal cords will help you kill more geese today."
According to Smith, that's why so many Cajun guides help their customers to straps full of geese. They eat, sleep and breathe goose hunting, and they learn how to call vocally. There isn't any technique involved in learning, though -- other than just getting out in the field and practicing until you get it right.
"You can get blues and snows in with one note," Smith asserted. "If you can learn that note it will work for you. It doesn't have to be the clearest or sharpest note, either. I've gotten to the point where I don't even carry a goose call to the field. Specks, though, are a different story because they speak their own language with a series of notes that are hard to mimic vocally."
Like Rue, Smith recalled the good old days, when he could kill a limit of snow geese over newspaper placed out in a decoy spread. Of course, Smith used windsocks too, like most other hunters back then. Needless to say, geese don't respond to newspaper anymore, and are rarely fooled by the socks.
"What I see with the rags now is that you'll get geese coming dead at you while you're just sitting there with your gun in your hand getting ready," Smith said. "They'll get down to that range just above where your shot will be effective, then flare and go back the direction that they came from. It's getting to the point that they see that erratic movement that the socks present, and they hear the popping sounds they make in the wind."
Smith has remedied decoy-shy birds by using only full-bodied decoys that sit on pendulums allowing the decoys to move when the wind blows. The only movement you're going to get out of a decoy with the legs attached, he said, occurs when the wind knocks it over.
"Movement in decoys is everything," Smith added. "Hunting a decoy spread without movement is like going fishing in a boat without a motor: You'll float on the water and catch a fish or two. But put a motor on there and watch what happens. The same goes for decoys. You can kill birds over a spread that isn't moving, but put some movement out there and watch what happens."
But don't think you can add movement with a spinning-wing decoy. Smith said that anything that moves as fast as those spinning-wing duck decoys won't do anything but scare the geese out of the country.
"Geese have more of a power stroke every time they flap their wings," he said. "Ducks are like a hummingbird. Geese don't have to move their wings that fast because their longer wingspan gives them move lift with every beat."
Smith has also gone to hunting blues and snows over fewer decoys. Rather than spend all morning setting out 500 to 1,000 decoys, he only sets up 50 to 100. The key to using so few is making sure to put them in the right spot.
If you're hunting a field in which the geese are feeding, all you've got to do is show them where you want them to light and put them in your lap," Smith said. "Get out there and find some geese before they go to roost.
"Go back to that field the next morning and set out those 50 to 100 decoys where you want them to land. It's like I always tell people: If you're having a hard time finding me, find out where my breakfast table is --because you can bet I'll be there the next morning."
While all these tactics can help you kill more geese these days, there's another tip that could help you succeed. Hunters who have large tracts of land can manage that land as a grit pile.
"It's getting more and more popular," said Rue. "Pile up some sand with heavy grit in the fields near your blinds. Geese need that grit for their gizzards, and hunting a grit pile is the closest thing to bait that you've ever seen. You can't establish a grit pile hunting it every day, though -- you've got to be able to rest it so the geese can get their grit without being shot at all the time."
Grit piles take some time and effort to establish, and they can get costly, but for hunters with big tracts of property, it can help them kill more of these geese that seem to be getting older and wiser by the season.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Contact Erik Rue at (337) 598-4700 or www.calcasieucharters.com. David Smith is at (337) 546-6492 or www.davidsmithhunting.com.
Find more about Louisiana fishing and hunting at: LAgameandfish.com