September 23, 2022
While hunters have long pursued Canada geese in autumn and winter, more and more people are recognizing the value of early goose seasons. The explosion of locally breeding honkers across much of the country has resulted in unparalleled hunting opportunities. And many of these begin before the leaves turn color and early migrants arrive.
This is great for waterfowlers eager to dust off their shotguns a bit early. And, even better, unlike other times throughout the season, you don't always need a trailer full of expensive decoys to find success. In fact, a truck bed full of fakes—say two or three dozen—often suffices. With that in mind, here are a few surefire spreads to try this month for local honkers.
As the name implies, this spread consists of three small groups of decoys, and it works for a simple reason: It's realistic. During early seasons, locally breeding honkers often remain in family groups or smaller mixed flocks. Setting three separate blobs of decoys mimics this perfectly. In fact, during most early hunts, this is my go-to configuration.
Use eight to 10 full-body decoys per group and include fakes with various postures. Each blob should contain mostly feeders, but also a couple of loafers and one or two alert sentries. Face most of the feeders—especially decoys on motion stakes—into the wind, but also separate some in other directions to make it appear geese are spreading out to find food.
Set one group just upwind of where you hope geese will finish. If you're using layout blinds, those upwind blocks should go around your hide. Just ensure the blinds are slightly left or right of the kill hole so geese don't look directly at them when committing. When hunting standing corn or other thick cover, place the upwind blob close to your hide. In either situation, set an alert sentry decoy near the main caller so it appears as though that goose is doing the talking.
Place the other blobs about 15 to 25 yards downwind of your hide and 15 to 25 yards left or right of the upwind group. Spacing them in that manner leaves a large, inviting kill hole.
BY LAND OR WATER
You can't always find a hot field or get permission to hunt the X. However, in most areas you can locate small waters—farm ponds, river backwaters or small lakes, for example—where geese spend most of midday after morning feeding shifts and before evening flights. Many of these areas offer public access. On private ground, landowners might allow hunting if loafing geese have become a nuisance.
An easy, basic combo spread works well in such situations. In fact, less is often more, as you don't want to overdo your setup. Remember, it's already a destination for geese. You're just making it seem like a few of their buddies have already arrived.
In areas with little shoreline cover (where geese might have munched much of the vegetation), place six to eight full-body blocks along the bank. As with the blob spread, include at least one sentry. Then, throw a half-dozen floaters in the water to imitate birds that have just landed and are swimming ashore.
When hunting marshy environs, where cattails or other cover might choke the shoreline, ditch the full-bodies and use a dozen or so floaters in two small groups. Pay careful attention to how geese react to decoys in these scenarios. If the first group seems hesitant to finish, reduce your spread by half. You don't need attraction power—just reassurance that everything is safe.
Breezy conditions typically spur good waterfowl activity, but they can also present setup issues for geese—especially if you're limited on decoy numbers. Birds fighting against the wind and hovering over decoys have more time to spy a rat and flare. This can result in only fleeting shots or completely ruined opportunities.
You can combat this in two ways. Whether hunting fields or water, tighten your decoy spread so it doesn't extend too far downwind. Typically, traditional V- or J-shaped spreads work well, provided the tip of the V or J is well within shotgun range.
That way, geese that flare over the farthest downwind decoys still offer quality shots. V- or J-shaped spreads aren’t quite as realistic as a three-blob approach, but they let you pack decoys tight while still allowing a large, open kill hole. Also, don’t set blinds directly upwind from the spread. Instead, set up perpendicular to the spread so geese will approach from the side instead of head-on. This takes their eyes off the hunters and still allows for quality crossing opportunities, assuming birds finish decently.
Running traffic—that is, trying to lure passing geese bound for another destination, whether water or a hot feed—can often be difficult. However, it’s especially tough with limited decoys. When numbers matter, supplement full-bodies with shells, silhouettes or even rag decoys. They won’t look as good as flocked full-body fakes, but, if presented correctly, they boost attraction power without sacrificing realism. And you can probably pack a dozen shells and two-dozen silhouettes in a truck along with your full-bodies, essentially doubling your spread size.
The shape of your spread isn’t as critical here, but you should maintain a good-sized kill hole. First, ensure geese can see your blocks at a distance. With light to moderate winds, space decoys liberally so your spread appears larger. Also, set up in areas with good visibility, such as high points in fields or relatively large areas of open water.
Most important, set your best-looking decoys at the downwind edge of the spread, as approaching geese usually see those first and longest during their approach. With a mixed spread, place most of your full-bodies downwind and then mix in rags, silhouettes and shells closer to your blind or hide. Large shells are especially handy near field blinds, as they help hide you in cover-challenged situations.
Don’t panic the next time you see a truck towing a giant trailer around your early goose haunts. Location and smart setups usually trump numbers. And, after filling your straps with early-season honkers, you'll have a far easier cleanup, too.