To me, few things are more satisfying than enjoying a big meal, kicking back in my favorite over-stuffed chair and taking an afternoon snooze. It's the ultimate state of contentment. Many hunters don't realize it, but geese feel the same way. Give them a belly full of corn on a cold day to stoke their internal furnace, and they're likely to tuck their head under their wing and take a nap. A sleeping goose is a content goose and there's nothing that signals all is well more to a passing flock of honkers than to see birds sleeping.
Most hunters don't utilize sleeper decoys enough, especially during cold weather. "I tend to use more and more sleeper shells in my spread as the weather gets colder and the season progresses," claimed waterfowling aficionado Zack Rednour of Flambeau Outdoor Products. "When I'm using a smaller spread, say three or four dozen decoys late in the season, up to 75 percent of my decoys will be sleeper shells. Sleeper goose decoys exude an air of contentment and a relaxed feeling that is the ultimate confidence decoy for late-season geese."
During cold weather especially, Canada geese that are intent on feeding will land and plop down to melt any snow that might be on the ground and then start feeding. They'll feed for a while and then move to melt another spot. In between, they'll often take a nap. As the season goes on, sleeper goose decoys should become a larger and larger portion of your spread.
Sleeper goose decoys have a number of advantages over full-bodied decoys, especially late in the season. "Sleeper decoys are great for bulking up your spread," offered Rednour. "If I can drive into the field I'm hunting, space is not an issue and I can use more full-bodied decoys, but if I have to walk or transport decoys into the field or I'm hunting by myself, I can carry more shells." Shell decoys can be stacked and are more space efficient. You can stack four dozen shells in a decoy bag that you could only fit a half-dozen full-body decoys in. For the hunter that is building a spread or working on a budget, shell decoys are also less expensive than full-bodied decoys. Sleeper shells also exhibit the posture of a sleeping goose to perfection. Geese don't usually sleep standing up, so a squat sleeper shell is perfect for mimicking a honker at naptime.
Flambeau Outdoors Products offers two Canada goose shell decoy options in their new line of Storm Front Decoys. The 24-inch honkers are available in several different 12-packs that feature life-like paint schemes, UV paint and anatomic perfection. The decoys are available in a semi-active/semi-feeder 12-pack or flocked-head versions in a dozen that include semi-feeder, semi-active, sleeper and resting heads, all sleepers or a sleeper/rester pack. The ideal late-season spread mixes lots of shell sleeper decoys with a few full-bodied or shell decoys in active, rester and semi-resting postures.
Where you place sleeper shells in your spread can have a big bearing on their effectiveness. "I like to place my sleeper decoys at the back of the spread," said Rednour. "Usually I'll run the sleeper shells off one leg of the spread and I'll use more as the season goes on. You want it so those are the first decoys that approaching birds are going to see. It kind of gives them the impression that all is well and often after seeing them the geese will drop their landing gear and come right in."
In cold weather, it's always a good idea to bunch decoys tighter than you normally would, but it's also a good idea to place tight-knit groups within the bigger spread. I like to place five or six sleeper shells in a group and then add a rester or semi-active decoy to the pod and then move a short distance and create another group.
Normally you'd want to keep a reasonable distance between decoys, say four to five feet, to simulate birds that are contently feeding and resting, but that's not the case with sleepers in cold weather. "It's all about conserving energy in cold weather, so I bunch my sleepers together so they're almost touching. That way, they look like they're trying to conserve heat and break the wind just like the live birds."
Normally, you'd want to place your decoys so they face in different directions with the majority facing upwind and a few facing downwind or to the side, but not with cold-weather sleepers. Sleeping geese are going to be facing into the wind so the wind travels with their feather contours and not against it, where it could ruffle feathers, or penetrate to the skin, sapping precious body heat.
Sleeping geese, of course, are not talking geese so calling should be limited, but purposeful when featuring sleeping decoys in a spread. "You need to minimize your calling when you have a lot of sleeper decoys in your spread," offered Rednour. "I use a lot of clucks and moans then, which mimics a single goose calling. You can throw in a few double clucks, too. Basically you're trying to imitate just one or two birds calling. You want your calls to be rhythmic, fluid and solitary, not sound like a whole gaggle of birds like earlier in the season."
While the majority of hunters target geese in the fields, sleepers excel if you can find some open water during the late season. Nothing looks more natural than a flock of geese that are huddled up, taking a nap on the edge of the ice. "One of my favorite applications for sleeper shells is to bust open a hole to create some open water, put a few floaters in the water and then line up some sleepers and a rester or two on the edge of the ice," advised Rednour. "Geese love using these loafing areas during cold weather and nothing looks more natural than a flock of geese sleeping on edge of the ice soaking up the sun."
Last year, late-season goose hunting got pretty tough. Cold, snowy weather to the north had pushed plenty of birds into the area, but they had been around for a while, were quickly learning the ropes and were getting more difficult to fool by the day. Our last few trips had not been very successful, so my hunting partner, Cory Brown, and I decided to change things up. Rather than put out a massive spread, we decided cut it back to just a few dozen decoys and the majority of them were sleepers with a very few resters mixed in. I told Cory we needed to resist the temptation to call, too, because that just seemed to be counterproductive.
The next morning we placed the decoys in two tightly bunched groups with our layout blinds concealed in between and waited. As geese started lifting off a couple of small ponds to the north where they had been roosted, Cory and I fought the temptation of calling at the birds, instead hoping the attraction of the spread would be enough. The first flock of about a dozen suspicious geese circled a couple of times. We never made a sound. On the third pass the birds were well within range on Cory's side and he dumped two honkers from the flock. As they caught the wind and sailed over me, I peeled another goose from the survivors.
The dogs had barely enough time to retrieve the birds before another group lifted from the east and came in our direction. The geese were strung out in flocks of two to 20 geese and they were all heading in our direction. The first pair that arrived didn't circle and they were close enough that I could make out their beady, black eyes. I swung on the lead goose and slapped the trigger. Both honkers crumpled when the load of Winchester Blind Side steel reached the target.
"Two for one!" I yelled over to Cory.
Realizing that not calling seemed to be a key, we decided to give the birds the silent treatment again when the next bunch of birds began circling the spread. They cautiously swung wide around the decoys several times with very little sound before peeling off, seemingly loosing interest and headed for the river. I had nothing to loose, so I gave the geese a couple of quick, pleading comeback calls. The sight of contented, sleeping honkers must have been more than they could stand because they did a U-turn as if on a string. They cautiously surveyed the decoy spread again just at the edge of good shooting range.
"I hit one of those birds hard!" I exclaimed shaking my head.
"Me too," offered Cory. "I saw feathers come out of him!" Late-season geese can be tough customers.
We both watched closely as the flock departed. Nothing dropped initially, but as the geese got about 150 yards out, one goose did a spiraling summersault earthward. Another goose began loosing altitude before he too tumbled into the picked cornfield.
The hunt was a perfect example of how changing tactics, using more sleeper decoys and swallowing your call maybe be the key to harvesting more late-season honkers.