Splash! Ice, my hunting buddy’s black Lab female, raced out to get the downed bird drifting amongst the decoys.
It wasn’t a typical water hunt. We were hunting in T-shirts, standing in buck brush and trying to fight off the ever-present swarm of mosquitoes behind a brown wall of tall grasses and limbs. After Ice delivered the bird, I picked it up to admire the lines and colors of an adult Canada goose that had succumbed to the temptation of 100 floating decoys set strategically in front of us. We were hunting the shores of the Great Lakes.
The cold, nasty weather most waterfowl hunters envision in dreams was two months away. We were hunting resident Canada geese over water, instead of the traditional field spread commonplace for the early-goose season. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a warm September day.
The hunt began like so many others: An early wake-up call, a long drive with trailer in tow and chilled morning air greeting hunters. The difference was the urgency and timing.
After all of the gear was prepped and unloaded, we launched the boat and held it firmly against the docks, waiting for the sun to rise.
You see, we weren’t hoping to be out before legal shooting time and be watching the clock tick as birds flew overhead. We were waiting for the sun to rise enough to wake the birds resting within earshot on this large body of water. After the birds began to move, we slowly motored past the roost to an area where geese had been loafing at midday. We were careful not to bump any birds from the roost, but rather to allow them to leave on their own. Then, using floater decoys, we set up to wait for them just as if we were hunting geese in cut corn and grain fields.
Setting a Loafer Spread
As Frank Clifton halted the boat, we quickly dismounted and pushed the barge as close to shore as possible. Like clockwork, we quickly unloaded our gear and devised a plan to set decoys in a relaxed, spread-out pattern just like we had seen before on our scouting mission. We placed a few resters, sleepers and even a couple lookers along the sandbar and shoreline. We arranged the floaters to allow geese a good look and landing spot plenty close to the guns hidden just feet off of shore.
After we emptied the boat of every decoy we had brought, Rick Murphy stowed the boat behind a fallen tree, while the rest of us got set and moved our gear to our hiding spot. It wasn’t long until some geese that hadn’t left to feed identified the decoys as family and friends and began their descent to the kill hole.
As singles and pairs worked the decoys, we took careful turns to allow everyone a good chance at decoying birds. Even before the flocks returned from the fields, we were closing in on each hunter’s daily bag limit.
The sun and warmer breeze really didn’t scream waterfowl hunting to any of us, but watching good dogs make long retrieves, both blinds and marks, and the birds overhead circling and calling as they approached the spread made the weather seem almost unimportant as we hunted for waterfowl in a different way than normal. It had been a grand day, with 32 geese and one band for our group. It was a super way to end the early season, and a lucky one for Clifton, the winner of the coveted band flip.
Waiting Out the Fog
Fast forward a year. Mike Bard and I had every intention of doing the Great Lakes hunt again, same place, same time. Bard was unable to make the first year, but was nice enough to lend his equipment so I wouldn’t have to tow my boat or bring decoys. This year, he was not going to be left out. Plans were set for the same weekend. Arliss Reed, Rick Murphy, Ron Zega, Clifton, Bard and I were set to take the trip, but this time, make it last longer than one day.
Preseason scouting by Clifton and Reed shed insight on new areas to hunt. We were excited as we pulled out at 3:30 a.m. With a long drive ahead of us, I quickly assumed my signature position — sleeping — as Clifton and Bard drove to our meeting spot. We had two boats and six guys, so hopes were high for a great weekend.
A severe drop in temperature brought thick fog, which covered the water as we launched the boat. The fog cleared late, and birds had already begun to move all around the water.
We found a suitable spot and got set up. Not long after, a pair of Canada geese approached and decoyed perfectly. Bard promptly missed three times, and I dispatched his goose as it was escaping. Nothing needed to be said to Bard about his ability or inability to shoot, but the relentless group of friends quickly made it known we were well aware of
what had just happened, and it wouldn’t be the last time he heard about it. (After a few good ribbings from Bard during past hunts, it was due time he got a little of his own medicine.)
Overall, the hunt was much slower than the prior year’s effort. Most of birds were either feeding all day or using a separate day roost unbeknownst to us. With a few geese in the bag, Bard and I decided to go on a scouting trip in hopes of finding a better area for the next day’s hunt. Just a few miles down the shoreline, it quickly became apparent the geese in other areas on the same water were returning to the water after feeding to loaf along sandbars and rocky points. We located a few groups on the open water and at some strategic spots, helping us formulate a good plan for the next day.
Back at the spread, a few more geese had been added to the total, so we decided to hold out most of the day in hopes of afternoon returns. The evening didn’t disappoint. We ended short of a limit, but we had geese decoy throughout the day, which made the hunt much more enjoyable.
With still-high hopes for the next two days, we packed up our growing spread of 120 floaters and full bodies and headed back to the boat launch. After getting supper, cleaning birds, prepping gear and reliving the day, it was well past our bedtime. We all fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows.
The alarm went off early. Bard and I ignored it, not once, but at least twice. It wasn’t until Reed poked his head in the door and shamed us into to getting up quick that we awoke and finished getting ready for the morning. We had intended to split into two groups. Bard and I had found four spots holding birds, but none good enough for six hunters. Each held 40 to 80 geese.
After getting set up earlier than we expected, we watched a mixture of teal and other puddle ducks, along with mergansers, buzz the spread relentlessly. After working a single goose very hard on the call and finally getting it to turn, Clifton quickly ended our threat of a skunk by dispatching the early single over the decoys. Things were looking up.
Shortly thereafter, another single, and then a flock of eight approached the spread. After the shot was called, five birds laid on the water — four of them sporting little bonuses on their legs. What a day! No matter how many more we killed, four out of five with bands was a great way to start the day, and made the overall lack of geese a little easier to handle.
Because the other guys hadn’t gotten into the birds, we invited them to hunt with us.
After more banded geese worked our spread, the guys joined our hideout. Unfortunately, the birds had shut off for the morning for the most part.
When Bard and I went on another scouting mission, another small group decoyed. Four more Canadas — one wearing a band — were added to the bag. The day hadn’t been stellar in terms of goose numbers, but shooting seven banded birds in one day was worthy of being deemed a great hunt, and something none of us had ever seen before. We decided to pull out a little early and look for the next day’s spot.
With heavy winds and dark skies, we launched the boat on our final morning. The forecast was clearly a day for migrating, so we had low expectations as we started across rough waters. We had located a suitable field the night before, but arrived minutes after other hunters had secured permission. We were still kicking ourselves from missing our chance on a good field, especially given the weather.
At daylight, geese were already on the move. High and in form, they began migrating south as soon as it was light enough to see. Local birds that had been using the area proved to be hunkered out of the wind. When it finally calmed enough for birds to move, it was almost time for us to depart.
Just before the close of our hunt, a large group was spotted out front. With aggressive calling and an attractive spot hidden behind trees that broke the wind just enough to provide calm-water shelter, the birds locked on 300 yards out. As they began to dump air, the lead bird proved to be the flock’s downfall by approaching just left of the kill hole.
With only three hunters able to safely shoot, six birds fell, ending our third day of big-water Canada goose hunting. What a weekend it turned out to be!
Just Like Over Cut Corn
Hunting Canada geese over water brings a whole new dimension to the game. Calling, flagging and decoys spreads take completely different turns. Typically, we tried mellower wood calls to soften the sound as it traveled across the water. We flagged sparingly when geese were way out. Decoy spreads and formations carefully guided the geese to where we needed them for easy shots. We made sure the birds were in tight to avoid cripples.
All in all, hunting Great Lakes geese over water in loafing areas is an effective way to put more birds in the bag, all while watching these giants decoy just like they do over a cut cornfield.
David Rearick is an experienced waterfowl hunter from Butler, Pa.