They say the simplest things in life are the best. I suppose that’s why my fondest Canada goose-hunting memories take me back to a small Utah ranching community many years ago. There weren’t a lot of geese in the area, which was good news and bad news. The good news was that only a handful of locals bothered hunting them; the bad news was that if the few geese didn’t fly your way in the morning, you’d go home without firing a shot.
All my hunting was done over decoys–three dozen beat-up cardboard silhouettes–but they seemed to do the job. I’d set up in a grain field next to a river where the geese roosted, and on a cold morning I could rely on the birds lifting off the riverbank at around 8:30. On really frigid mornings they’d have frost on their wings.
I hunted either alone or with my wife’s uncle, Lynn Dudley, who ranched in the area. Lynn was one of those old-timers who never threw away a piece of baling wire or hay twine and was often cussed by tourists as he drove his old pickup truck 45 miles an hour on major highways. I have two fond memories of Lynn. He grew the sweetest carrots I’ve ever tasted and kept them that way for half a year by burying them in sand in his shed. And he could honest-to-God fall asleep at 20 below zero while we were hunkered in irrigation ditches waiting for geese to fly to my decoys. Lynn was a model of slow motion; he never much cared about doing things quickly. When a flock of geese headed our way, I’d hastily awaken him, but by the time he was composed and ready to shoot, I’d already have punched my three shots at the birds. Lynn would grin and look up and say, “How many’d ya git?” And that was that for the geese that morning.
Because there were so few geese, it was vital to know what fields they were feeding in. The birds are habitual when they feed, usually returning to the same fields day after day until they’re disturbed or the food runs out.
Geese are largely vegetarians and are especially fond of grasses and grains. During hunting season they’ll target a variety of crops, with barley usually at the top of the list. They’ll also eat rice, wheat, corn, oats, alfalfa and a sampling of grasses and other crops. Geese normally aren’t early risers and typically head out to feeding areas well after the sun comes up. However, it’s a good idea to be set up by shooting hours for early birds that are the exception to the rule. Geese normally will feed for two to four hours in midmorning and then fly to a roost area, which may be the bank of a river, the shore of a lake or the middle of a large reservoir. During cold weather, birds may also feed later in the afternoon.
The best way to learn goose patterns is to watch the birds for a day or two before you hunt. That’s often not possible, but I’ve had success asking ranchers to keep tabs on the flocks’ movements. Many landowners aren’t happy about geese consuming their crops, so they’ll often gladly cooperate. It’s not necessary to set up in exactly the same place the birds have been feeding, although that’s the optimum strategy if you’re using decoys. You can hunt in an adjacent field where you have access. If you do this, remember that it’s always best to match preferred foods. For example, if geese are feeding in a cornfield, set up in a nearby cornfield rather than in a field that has alfalfa or oats.
In addition to the small flocks I’ve hunted, I’ve also done my share of hunting geese in places where you can see thousands of birds in the air at one time. These are usually places near refuges, sanctuaries or large reservoirs where birds fly in enormous flocks to feeding areas, which are typically huge grain fields. This is often a pass-shooting opportunity where you hunker down behind a stack of hay bales, in a pit or in a blind of some sort and take your best shot at birds flying overhead. Decoys usually aren’t used, since birds are committed to a certain route and won’t be swayed into landing anywhere else.
I’ve done plenty of pass-shooting like this; one of my favorite places is near Pierre, S.Dak., where birds lift off huge Lake Oahe and fly to fields several miles away. By finding a position on high ridges beneath major flyway routes, my pals and I are able to get within shotgun range of the geese more easily and have had good success.
Pass-shooting lends itself to long shots. So how do you tell how far is too far? I look for the goose’s eye. If I can see it, the bird is in range. I also listen for wingbeats. If a bird is close, you can hear a sound like whirring ball-bearings.
When it comes to selecting the right loads for goose hunting, it partly depends on the type of hunting you’ll be doing. If you’re pass-shooting, you need all the help you can get. I use a 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge if I can. Shooting over decoys, I’ve probably killed more geese with 2 3/4-inch shells than anything else, but my preference is to use 3-inch shells stuffed with BB- or BBB-sized steel or one of the heavier nontoxics in No. 2 shot size.
To deke or not to deke? That depends on your hunting strategy and the shooting pressure the birds have faced. While you may need decoys to coax some geese to the gun, in other instances heavily hunted birds might be decoy-shy. In the case of decoy-wary geese, set up exactly where the birds were last seen feeding. Don’t put decoys out, and take extra care to conceal yourself, since these birds have been shot at and are educated. The geese will be temporarily conditioned to land in that particular field, although they may quit coming after the initial shooting.
How many decoys to use? When it comes to geese, the old saying, “If a little is good, a lot would be better,” is often good advice. You can work small flocks with a few dozen decoys, but bigger bunches may require more decoys. I’ve hunted with avid folks who use a hundred or more quality decoys, in some cases several hundred.
If you watch birds that fly to a feeding area, you’ll see a routine pattern. The first arrivals will land, and then they’ll be joined by every other flock. Rarely will a new batch of birds land apart from the bigger group. Geese are gregarious and like to feed together. That being the case, you almost can’t have too many decoys.
Unlike snow geese, which will jostle each other in a mass of bodies when feeding, Canadas like their space. Set your dekes at least 5 feet apart and use both feeding and upright types, the latter being the sentinels. Since geese travel in family flocks, I like to set my decoys in groups of 6 to 12 birds.
Position the decoys about 20 yards from your blind, leaving a spot for birds to land [see illustration]. Be aware that they might approach from any direction, regardless of the wind, but geese will most assuredly land into the wind.
If you watch a bunch of feeding geese you’ll notice two things: There’s plenty of movement as birds flap their wings and walk about, and there’s very little honking, if any. About 25 years ago, flagging became popular in the goose fields. You simply wave a black flag that’s on the end of a small pole when you see geese in the distance. Keep it up once the birds are committed in your direction, and then get down. If the birds hesitate, continue to wave with only wrist movement, staying low in your blind. This seems like an outlandish trick, but it works like a charm. Sometimes geese seem to have poor eyesight. More than once I’ve seen a flock attracted to a spread by a hunter who walked out of the blind to pick up a dead bird or make a nature call. In my opinion, that “safe” distance is about half a mile. Anything closer and birds will be alerted to something amiss.
There are various kites available that simulate moving geese, requiring wind to activate them. Other types have moving wings; one model actually moves on a track.
I believe calling is a waste of time if you’re pass-shooting but a very valuable strategy when you’re hunting over decoys, even though birds, especially those in small flocks, aren’t very vocal when feeding. I’ve turned birds many times to my spread after they seemingly changed their minds and veered off in another direction. Most calls these days are easy to use.
Geese don’t fly as fast as ducks, but they aren’t exactly pushovers. I like the swing-through method if the bird is in a cross-over pattern, but if it’s coming in to decoys I’ll aim for its beak and touch off the shot. Though they look big and present a large target, don’t try a body shot. Geese can take a lot of punishment, unless you break a wing or hit one in the head or spinal column. I always try for a precise head shot.
Canada goose populations are in great shape, with plenty of birds in most regions of the country. Bag limits are more liberal than ever in some areas, and many municipal areas have problems with geese on golf courses, in parks, on industrial lawns, in cemeteries and elsewhere. Some areas have special hunts to keep goose numbers down. In my mind, too many geese is a good thing. I figure there’s plenty of room out there for this magnificent bird. The more, the better.
Dekes that Dupe ‘Em
A. ROBO GOOSE: This decoy has spinning wings powered by a direct-drive quiet motor. The new model features increased wing size and a timer, allowing you to change the time sequence that operates the wings. (Robo Duk, $139; 530-743-8322, www.roboduk.com)
B. BIG FOOT: These are realistic, life-size models that stand upright on feet. The decoys will fool wary birds, but they’re cumbersome and difficult to carry. If you use large numbers, it’s best to carry them to the field in a vehicle. (Clinton Decoy Co., $300/doz; 563-242-8801, www.clintondecoy.com)
C. G&H FIELD STAKE: These decoys are hollow plastic shells with realistic raised-feather detail. The heads are removable and the shells stack inside each other. Available in standard, magnum and super magnum sizes. Carrying the larger sizes a long distance is difficult. (G & H Decoys, Inc., $99/doz; 800-443-3269, www.ghdecoys.com)
D. FEATHER FLEX: Made of flexible, polyethylene foam, these decoys can be crushed and crammed into a decoy bag. These are good choices if you must walk a long distance to your hunting site. They’re very light with good detail, but strong winds may blow them around. (Outland Sports, $75/doz; 800-922-9034, www.outlandsports.com)
Make Your Decoy Spread Irresistible
Once you’ve located a field that geese are visiting to feed, you’ll want to employ a spread of decoys that will help guide birds within shotgun range. To do this, position several “family groups” of 6 to 12 geese (leaving about 5 feet of space between decoys) around your blinds while creating an open patch for geese to land in about 20 yards from where you’ll be shooting. Make sure the wind is to your back, because even though the geese may approach from any direction they will almost certainly circle around to land while coming into the wind.