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Windsock Spreads for Snow Geese

Many hunters think full-body decoys are essential for decoying snow geese during the spring migration. But, if you set up in the right place, all-sock spreads can work wonders.

Windsock Spreads for Snow Geese

With enough windsocks, hunters can set out a large, permanent spread for migration days and keep a mobile spread or two for feeds. (Matt McCormick/Images On The Wildside)

There is no gray area for spring snow goose hunters. They love to hate the unpredictable nature of the white birds that can arrive by the hundreds of thousands one day and be completely gone the next. All that hard work of setting trailer loads of decoys can be for nothing as millions of birds continue north, chasing the snow line until they reach their breeding grounds on the Canadian tundra. It’s the price you pay when you’re trying to get under huge spins of snows. It’s also likely why the number of snow goose hunters has dwindled over the decades. Only the ultra-passionate hunters have stuck with it.

When the first conservation order opened in 1999, more than 75,000 hunters participated. Today that number is less than 42,000, but hunters continue to kill more than 1 million birds each year. In 2015 and 2018, more than 2 million snows were shot by fewer than 50,000 hunters. That data is pretty telling. Those snow goose hunters that remain have proven to be a very effective core group.

Clearly, it’s not easy. Birds concentrate in condensed areas, as do the hunters who pursue them. That makes for some stout competition. But if you can get away from the crowds and focus on smaller populations of snow geese, that can lead to success. You also won’t need a massive rig of full-body decoys if you decide to go this route. In fact, the group I hunt with has had success running strictly windsock spreads.

WHERE TO HUNT

Mid-continent snow geese—birds that nest on the grassy tundra plains, coastal areas and inland lakes of Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Queen Maud Gulf and Hudson Bay—migrate south through the Central and Mississippi flyways, spending the winter in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, Kansas and Oklahoma. In late January and early February, they begin the trek back north to the breeding grounds in Canada. Thousands of hunters eagerly lie in wait with magazine-tube extensions affixed to their shotguns, hoping for a 100-bird day. Once the conservation order is underway (it opens as early as Feb. 1 in some states), there are no daily limits on snow geese.

There are a handful of historic snow goose stopovers in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and the Dakotas, but industrious hunters will want to avoid the crowds. In the last 15 years, the mid-continent population has continued to spread farther east and has stayed to the north of its traditional wintering area of south Texas.

From 2016 to 2020, Kansas supplanted Texas as the chief snow goose wintering state in the Central flyway. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), nearly 800,000 mid-continent snows winter in the Sunflower State now, compared to an average of 303,067 in Texas. From 2011 to 2015, USFWS surveys showed an average of 83,792 snows in Illinois during the mid-winter counts. By 2015 the population had ballooned to 213,652. You will find a similar uptick in numbers in Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota.

Joe Genzel snow geese scouting
Scouting is essential with snow geese. When hunting with a large group, send a contingent to locate the next active feed while the rest pick up decoys from the previous hunt. (Mike Clingan photo)

“We have definitely seen a distributional shift of mid-continent snows from the Texas coast to the east and the north,” says Josh Dooley, a USFWS wildlife biologist and co-chair of the Arctic Goose Joint Venture. “They are showing up in areas like Illinois and Indiana—places we haven’t seen them before. It’s kind of hard to tease out what is causing this distributional change because the mid-continent population is stabilizing, not growing. But certainly, you can point to shifts in agriculture and even climate.”

As snows have spread their wings (so to speak), it has created smaller, huntable populations in pockets throughout the Midwest. For years, a group of friends rented a farmhouse from late February to early March in a remote location in the Central Flyway (I’ll never say where because I still like being invited to hunt there). At the height of the migration, around 300,000 snow geese were in the area. At other times, wave after wave of juveniles flew over our spread several days after the adults had passed through.

The best part: There was no competition and fields were accessible. Most snow goose hotbeds see fields going to the highest bidder. You’re also at the mercy of other hunters’ tactics, which can ruin a hunt, particularly if it’s an inexperienced group. Sick of the nonsense, we decided to find smaller populations of birds so we didn’t have to compete for real estate or against other hunters.




PERMANENT VS. MOBILE SPREADS

Once you find a pocket of snow geese, it might take you a few seasons to determine the best flight lines, but when you do, try to get access to a field those birds continuously fly over. That’s where your permanent rig of socks should be set. We have deployed upwards of 5,500 socks, but that is after years of multiple hunters acquiring decoys. If you can afford a rig of 2,000, that is a good start.

Joe Genzel hero geese
Results vary widely depending on the day and the setup, but when things go right with light geese, it can be as satisfying as a waterfowl hunt gets. (Mike Clingan photo)

Permanent spreads make good sense for hunting migration days, as it’s likely new birds haven’t seen a massive sock spread (ours was several hundred yards wide or long depending on how we set it). This is especially true with juvies that have never been through a northerly spring migration. It won’t have the realism of full-body decoys, and you likely won’t land many flocks of snows, but it will pique their interest enough to draw birds into shooting range. And if you can set the spread near water, that will give you an even better chance of tricking these wary white birds.

“Snows will almost always give you a look if there are decoys and water,” says Joe Weimer, an obsessed snow goose hunter from Missouri. Weimer told me this while we hunted the last flocks of snows together in Arkansas a few years ago. It was March, and these geese had seen it all. We hardly fired a shot in three days, but every morning the same birds would come over the top of us, start to kite (glide without making a wing beat) and circle a few times.

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“If this impoundment weren’t at our backs, I would bet you these birds would keep going without a second thought,” Weimer said as we lay in the Arkansas mud. “But that water at least keeps them interested.”

Having a mobile spread of at least 750 socks (1,500 is ideal) allows you to hunt feeds as snows begin to trickle into the area and need calories to continue north. This lets you keep the permanent spread in place and have a second, smaller spread at your disposal. The first few years we had just one rig, and tearing down and setting up all the time got old quickly. Or, we would find a feed, drive back to the permanent spread, pluck several hundred socks from it, drive to the field we wanted to hunt the next morning and set up there.

Having two mobile spreads can make life even easier. While one crew is tearing down, others can get on the road and scout. If they find a feed or a flight line that looks promising, they can start getting stakes in the ground.

GEAR ESSENTIALS

There’s no end to the amount of gear you can buy as a snow goose hunter, but we do try to keep it simple. Outside of the windsocks, which we pack in plastic storage totes, a comfortable backrest is essential. Tanglefree makes an all-white Snow Ghost blind and offers a snow blanket for its Swag Blind. MoMarsh makes the InvisiLounge, which is a five-position ratchet chair. All three options are basically sleeping pads that allow you to lay in the spread. If you use the InvisiLounge, wear a Tyvek suit or cover up with a white sheet—it will help you blend into the spread.

A shotgun that will accept an aftermarket magazine tube extension is a must for snow goose hunters. Some manufacturers, like Mossberg and Stoeger, make specialized snow goose guns that come standard with extension tubes. I like a gas-operated autoloader for snow goose hunts. It’s been my experience that they cycle more reliably when churning through multiple loads. Much of that is probably because an inertia gun operates off recoil and needs your shoulder to act as a backstop to function. When you’re shooting 10 times in one volley, it’s easy for your mount to become compromised. If the buttstock slides off your shoulder, an inertia gun may not cycle. Gas guns don’t have that issue, but you must clean them more regularly.

Having an open trailer that you can load an ATV and decoys onto is an invaluable addition. Open trailers are much lighter than enclosed trailers, and it’s easier to access gear. We strap down all the totes to keep them from falling off in transit (though we have lost a few over the years). Where this setup comes in most handy is when the field is too muddy to drive a truck into. Then, you haul everything to the field behind your truck, unload the ATV, unhitch the trailer from the truck and then pull it into the field with the ATV. That will save you from walking decoys into the field.

“With decoy spreads, e-callers, blinds and other gear, you have to be able to drive in and out of the field,” Weimer says. “The constant freeze and thaw of early spring makes for a muddy disaster. Walking everything into the field is an option, but if you care about your physical and mental well-being, I don’t suggest it.”

SEEING RED

Turkey and deer hunters often rely on red-dot reflex sights to increase the accuracy of their shotgun, especially when longer shots are required on a tom or whitetail. Duck and goose hunters traditionally don’t use an optic. Finding a flying target in the small window of a reflex sight is tough. You likely wouldn’t want to teal hunt with one, for example.

Joe Genzel Mossberg
Mossberg 940 Pro Waterfowl Snow Goose

But geese move much slower than puddle ducks and divers, at least when you get them in the decoys. A few years ago, a couple of friends who guide for Canada geese started putting sights on their shotguns to kill crippled birds on the ground and water more efficiently. They typically only have clients shoot into flocks over the decoys, but they’re always on the lookout for a banded bird or hybrid. If they see one, having a red-dot ensures they don’t whiff.

A reflex optic also makes a lot of sense for snow goose hunters. Most of the time, when a big flock comes into shotgun range, hunters send a wall of steel shot at the birds, hoping they knock down as many as they can. But I have found that using a sight, like one of the Holosun 510 series optics, on my Mossberg 940 Pro Waterfowl Snow Goose kills more snows (I’ve also employed a Vortex Venom). If you put the red-dot on a bird, it will die—even at extended ranges.

Spend some time shooting your snow goose gun with an optic on skeet or five-stand. These targets fly much faster and the shooting windows are smaller than when you’re hunting snow geese. Just be sure to shoot low gun so you get used to shouldering the shotgun and then finding the target in the reflex window.

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