February 19, 2021
By Joseph Albanese
We joined the convoy of pickup trucks and trailers around 3 a.m. and worked our way south into the farmlands of New Jersey. Though legal shooting time was several hours away, we had plenty of work to do before the sun came up. As soon as we made it into the field, the trailer doors were opened to reveal the giant heaps of decoys that had to be set.
The frozen earth made getting the stakes into the ground a chore, but we managed to set out the nearly 750 full-body snow-goose decoys by working in teams. Holes were punched with a piece of rebar, and decoy stakes were inserted into the freshly created holes. Somehow, we managed to get the large A-frame blind that would serve as our hide in place and brushed with enough time for a cup of coffee.
Shortly after the sun rose, a flock of greater snow geese trading along the horizon line added to the din of the electronic caller blasting guttural feeding sounds. The large flock of snows wheeled toward our spread, their calls getting louder as they closed the distance. Once they were directly over the outsized decoy spread, they threw the anchor and began their descent from the heavens.
After what seemed like an eternity, part of the 400-strong flock was on the ground, settling in the ample space between decoys. "Take 'em" was called, and the white birds rained down all around us.
A Greater Game Plan
When most folks think of snow geese, their minds turn to the lesser snow geese of the Central and Mississippi Flyways, which outnumber the greaters found along the Atlantic coastline by nearly five to one. Even so, the population of greaters nears a million, giving East Coast hunters plenty of opportunity.
What the greaters lack in numbers they make up for in intelligence. If lessers have bachelor's degrees in avoiding decoy spreads, greaters hold doctorates. Those who have hunted both will tell you the larger birds are even warier than their mid-continent brethren, and consistently scoring takes a novel approach. New Jersey pro Roy Trainor of Muddy Waters Waterfowling has it dialed in enough that he can coerce large flocks to land alongside A-frame blinds in nearly barren fields.
"You have to adapt. You have to do something that everyone else isn't," says Trainor. "You can't just set out a huge decoy spread and expect to be successful. It's not a numbers game."
To make the wariest of snow geese comfortable enough to land near a big blind placed in ankle-high cover, you need some serious drawing power. Instead of opting for the giant spreads of 2,500 to 5,000 rags or windsock-style decoys that are standard fare, Trainor relies on the larger profile and life-like motion that full body decoys provide. It’s a unique approach that has paid off in spades, allowing him to be successful when others are not.
"If you want your dog to retrieve the newspaper, you don't smack him with it when he brings it you," says Trainor's friend and Avery pro-staffer, Kevin Addy. "Every time geese see a field full of rags, they get shot at. They're conditioned to avoid them. We're giving them something different."
The larger size of the full bodies provides plenty of visibility, so Trainor can downsize his spread, employing anywhere from three dozen to 750 decoys. He scouts constantly and tries to mimic the size of the first flock that touches down in a field. If there are 300 geese in that flock, he'll put out 300 dekes.
"You want the second flock to see what they have been seeing when they fly out in the morning," he says.
He also impersonates how those birds are acting. "Snow geese are greedy," says Trainor. "They tend to land upwind of a flock, getting ahead of them to take advantage of the feed."
He doesn't rely on traditional patterns when laying out his decoys, but takes advantage of this ravenous nature, leaving a large hole on the upwind side. This is where he places the blind, as well, counting on the tendency of the incoming flock to cut off their rivals for food and offering close-up shots. He sets them heavier on the bottom but leaves lots of space between each individual deke so big flocks have plenty of room to finish.
If you're fortunate enough to hunt a field that has a decent amount of stubble left when the snows arrive, you can conceal yourself in well-thatched layout blinds hidden in depressions. More often than not, however, fields in which snows are feeding are nearly bare and lack any standing cover.
For many years, hunters have employed white Tyvek suits and laid on the bare ground amongst the decoys. That approach can be very effective, but it's cold and uncomfortable, and even seasoned waterfowl hunters can struggle with accuracy when rising to shoot from such a position, especially on frigid days.
Trainor turned to A-frame blinds in an effort to make clients more comfortable on all-day hunts, and they've worked quite well. He places his A-frames near the edge of a field, using the backdrop of a hedgerow or other brush as concealment. He then covers the blind with materials from the field to disappear into the background. Once that's done, all that's left is to turn on the heater and enjoy the show.
A Simple Decoy Setup
While many snow goose hunters will employ thousands of rag or windsock-style decoys in their spreads, New Jersey guide Roy Trainor opts for full-body dekes—and far fewer of them. He relies heavily on scouting in order to match his spreads to the size of the flocks using the fields he hunts. A typical spread will feature anywhere from a few dozen to 750 decoys, and he bunches the downwind fakes closer together than the ones positioned near his A-frame blind, which is usually tucked against a hedgerow.
Goose Chase: Top East Coast Destinations
Hunters looking to score with spring snows in the East have several solid options within a few hours’ drive. Here are a few places to try.
1. Delmarva, a large peninsula comprising Delaware and parts of Maryland and Virginia, is one of the better places to find snows on the East Coast. The landmass, bordered by the Chesapeake Bay, the Delaware River, Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, draws hundreds of thousands of snow geese every winter. Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge is located in the heart of Delmarva and offers excellent public hunting opportunities.
2. New Jersey is a snow goose hotspot, with the agricultural fields and coastal marshes in the southern part of the Garden State providing plenty of food and habitat. Hunters can score here with either land or water spreads. Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge has recently opened snow goose seasons to mitigate the damage geese are causing to the marsh. Inquire with staff about hunting opportunities there.
3. The sprawling agricultural lands of northern New York are an important stop for snows on their way north. Timing is everything, but hunters can be rewarded with large flocks of snows on the right day. The various wildlife management areas along the shores of Lake Champlain are excellent places to look for snows, as the geese often hit the large body of water.
"Don't get intimidated by large flocks. When it's time to shoot, try to pick out one bird," Trainor says. "If you can stay on a bird, you'll end up taking more than if you flock shoot."
It can be hard to concentrate when you're facing a wall of white, but unloading into a flock won't result in the rain-out you were hoping for. Worse, you can end up crippling birds that you will have to chase when you could be decoying new flocks.
"I like a brisk wind, and I like it cold," Trainor says when asked about his favorite snow-goose weather. If the seasoned pro had to pick the ideal day to hunt snow geese, it would be a cold, sunny day with a 20- to 25-mph wind. The sun's rays help make decoys visible from a distance, the wind keeps snows on the move and the cold forces geese to consume enough calories to stay warm, increasing the chances they’ll be on the lookout for food.
The next time the wind kicks up and the mercury drops, give Trainor’s tips a shot. Snow geese can be tricky, but the best way to learn is to get out there after them.