As goose numbers increase, farmers are more willing to open fields to hunting. Here's a primer on field hunting for geese in Virginia, Delaware and Maryland. (November 2009)
Aside from being able to get some shots at geese, one of the nicest things about field hunting is how easy it is to retrieve your birds.
Photo by Mark Fike.
Over the years, my goose harvests have never been as good as they have become now that I field hunt. Some spots along the tidal rivers or bays in the Chesapeake Bay area and Delaware are great for water spreads, but unless you have a blind in those exact spots, it may not be worth setting up a goose spread. However, by doing your homework to determine which fields the geese light into each season, you can have consistent gunning all season long.
The only way to figure out which fields the geese like is to do some scouting. Agricultural fields that are close to a water source are magnets for geese. In Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, hunters will find thousands of acres of such fields -- places that snow geese and Canada geese find ideal for feeding. This can be good news for the hunter but bad news for the farmer. Winter wheat, spinach, corn and soybeans are popular agriculture crops that often get decimated by the thousands of geese that use the Atlantic Flyway to navigate their way to warmer climates for the winter.
Fields need not be right next to a river. If there is a nearby lake, swamp or pond on the farm, then hunters can count on smaller flocks to use the area. This is particularly true for late-season hunts when the geese need ice-free water on which to rest. Some ponds or swamps have warm springs that keep them clear, while the bays and sloughs of the tidal water may be frozen.
Scott Rollins of the Northern Neck area of Virginia hunts geese on a regular basis with his father. When he looks for a new place to field hunt, he rides the back roads watching for geese. His search starts near waters such as rivers, but he expands his search to include large farms with ponds or farms that are near lakes.
Rollins describes an ideal field to hunt geese as flat with a few gentle rolls being acceptable. When he finds a probable field, he then approaches the farmer and asks about hunting the field. Once permission is secured, Rollins goes into the field and looks for tracks, droppings and feathers.
I was amazed at how much time Rollins invests in scouting his locations.
"I watch the fields beginning in September when we have our early season and usually will ride by the fields at least several times a week. Doing so allows me to pinpoint not only which fields the geese are using but where in the field they land, which direction they like to approach from, and it gives me an idea of where they are coming from."
We used just that technique when I secured a farm to hunt in Virginia last year. I had spoken to the farmer, secured permission, got a tour of the farm, had the farmer tell me when the geese liked to arrive and from which general direction they came. My next move was to call Rollins, as I knew he had the gear and the experience to make the hunt successful in short order. He suggested we meet at the field at daybreak. When we arrived, we watched and then moved to alternative fields to scout for tracks, droppings and feathers just as he suggested.
Later that evening, he called me and suggested I visit www.ducks. org/hunting and click on "migration," and from there he dialed me into the location we were hunting. I immediately noticed a huge subdivision on the map and then a very large lake between our location and the subdivision. The lake offered a nightly resting spot for the geese that was close enough to the farm that they could fly over to eat and then go back to the water to rest.
The next time we hunted, Rollins pointed out where he determined the "X" of the field to be. He described the X as the place where the geese landed and fed the most when they came in. We set up upwind of this location for a successful hunt.
Once a field has been secured to hunt, it is time to inventory your gear. Some of the basic pieces of gear that a field goose hunter will need include a reliable gun in either 12 or even 10 gauge, a layout blind or ground blind of some sort, decoys, calls and the proper clothing to stay hidden and keep warm.
Most hunters are likely to use a 12 gauge. Depending on your calling ability and shooting ability a 12 gauge capable of punching 3 1/2-inch shells is not a bad idea. This is especially true later in the season when shots may be longer as wary birds circle more before coming on in. Be sure to pattern your loads before going hunting. While I prefer to use HeviShot for long-range shots or passing shots, Rollins has used Black Cloud with great success, and I have since tried a few boxes myself. They pattern well and I have witnessed Rollins cleanly drop geese with the loads.
A layout blind or standard blind is crucial to any field setup. Our local source is now using Gander Mountain layout blinds. Rollins does a bit of running and gunning in various fields and therefore uses layout blinds that are properly camouflaged with stubble and other nearby vegetation that he finds where he is hunting. As a former Marine, I could appreciate the time and effort he spent in covering the layout blinds we used, even though they were already camouflaged. Our blinds have loops sewn in and a reclining portion to help you watch the sky without killing your back.
Some guys that own or have a long-term lease on a field build elaborate stationary blinds once they figure out where the geese fly each season. Rollins has used a permanent blind that he constructed into a hedgerow dividing two corn and soybean fields. He did this only after making sure that many goose flights took the birds close enough to decoy into the kill zone in front of the blind.
Decoys are a personal preference, but there are some things you should consider before buying the cheapest thing you can get. Be sure to research the brands and examine them closely before buying them. Some hunters feel the magnum size decoys scare younger geese. This may be true, but a larger decoy may also draw in highflying birds.
Another choice you have to make is whether to get plastic at a lower cost or flocked. Flocked decoys shed snow better but wear out faster. Plastic may need brushing off if it is snowing but will take a beating. Rollins is very partial to Big Foot decoys because they are not quite as expensive as some brands and they hold up very well.
On the subject of calls it comes down to the money. If you are on a budget but want a decent goose call, you can pick up a Honky Tonk by P
rimos. If you are serious about your goose hunting and want the best call you can get, be sure to look at Zink calls. Zink has a call that Rollins is fond of called the Money Maker. However, Rollins also noted that the Little Man offers users a variety of sound potential for subspecies of geese. You really cannot go wrong with either of these brands depending on your budget.
Our source has perfected setting up field spreads for geese in a variety of situations. He invited me to hunt with him several times last season. I jumped at the chance to be guided by a local pro and was careful to watch how he set up his spread.
I asked Rollins about hunting earlier in the season when the birds first start arriving in November. He stated that you can get away with fewer decoys in some situations until the birds get wise to the "perfect dozen decoy spreads." The birds tend to be less wary earlier in the season before they get shot at and there is more food available to them.
He tends to position his laydown blinds in the middle of his spreads during the November and December seasons. The birds will often decoy in closer and shots are not as far.
Later in the season, things change up a bit. Normally, when hunting late in the season, we use more decoys than we normally do to make sure any call-shy or decoy-shy geese buy into our spread. However, each field situation is different, and the number of decoys will vary depending on conditions, such as hunting pressure, weather and amount of field acreage, plus the altitude the birds are flying.
Leave a pocket or area free of decoys so the birds will have a spot to land where you want them. You can direct their landing by arranging your decoys in various ways. Experiment with different arrangements, but keep in mind that the birds will fly into the wind as they land.
Rollins also explained that good calling is very important anytime, but even more so during the late season when the birds are used to hearing the same calls with the same type of setups. Vary your calling and be sure it sounds realistic. Rollins even suggested getting a good recording of geese and playing it on the way to work so you can begin to pick out those different tones and grunts. Then try to mimic these sounds.
When putting out layout blinds in fields, it is important to use plenty of natural camo. Don't rely on the camo pattern of the layout blind. If you are in a soybean field or a corn field, use the stalks (no grain or beans attached) to break up the outline of your blind. From above (that is, from the perspective of the geese looking over your setup), a rectangular shape placed near decoys can end up giving a hunter away. Give your blind a 3-D look too. Use the straps and pockets to add more material and freshen it up after getting in and out of it.
I noticed that Rollins uses face paint to dull the flesh tones on his face. I prefer a mask as it is less mess, but both work well.
This season don't give up on goose hunting if you don't have a good water blind. Scout farm fields for geese and ask the farmers if they would like some help reducing crop damage. Offer a dressed bird as thanks and use the tactics above to get started figuring out what works best in your area.
WHERE TO GO
Virginia hunters may be more likely than Delaware or Maryland hunters to find private land to hunt geese. That is not to say it will be easy. Knock on doors and do your scouting ahead of the season. Focus on smaller farms off main roads with water nearby.
In Delaware, the best Canada hunting will be in Kent and northern Sussex County, according to Rob Hossler, Program Manager for Game Species. However, most of that land will be in hunting leases. The opportunity for snow goose hunting is better because they have become more of a nuisance to farmers. Hunting for snows can be had in the same counties. Public land opportunities in Delaware are found at www.fw. delaware.gov. Regional managers can give hunters updates on which fields are hot once the season starts. Public land opportunities are by lottery for pit selection.
In Maryland, private land is locked up tight. If you know of someone in a club or lease, you can get in some outstanding field hunting. Larry Hindman, waterfowl program manager for the state, told us that going with an outfitter is the best bet for a successful day. He did note that there are great public hunts at Wye Island Natural Resource Management Area. Lottery and standby hunters hunt unharvested corn fields in blinds.
For more information, check out http://dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands/eastern/wyeisland.html. There are other natural resource management areas such as Sassafras NRMA too.