Early Vs. Late
November 03, 2010
As the season wears on, honkers demand new tactics
As my truck carved through the darkness towards our hunting location the conversation turned to goose hunting strategy. "What do you mean we're going to use less decoys this morning?" my buddy questioned. Before I could say anything, he continued on, "the spread we used a couple of weeks ago when I was out with you worked just fine '¦.don't you remember?"
Early season geese can be hunted over small family groups of decoys.
Oh I remembered all right, however, that was two weeks ago. Since that time, the birds' habits had changed. So too had my hunting strategies. My buddy hadn't been out for a couple of weeks and figured what worked then would work again this morning. It might have worked, but I wasn't going to risk it. I had a new plan in mind.
There's a large lake in the middle of the city where I live which has a large population of resident Canada geese. In addition to the resident birds, each fall thousands of migrating geese pass through the area and stage here for several weeks. Once things start to get cold, many of the migrators move on, leaving the resident birds behind until everything freezes up. It's everything a goose hunter could ask for.
Over the years, I've learned that to successfully hunt Canada geese from the early season through the late season requires constantly changing tactics. Based on years of hunting my home stomping grounds, I've observed that goose habits change throughout the season due to hunting pressure and weather. I now try to key in on what the birds are doing at various points throughout the season and duplicate their behavior in my decoy spreads and calling. I've also learned that I can apply the same principals when I travel across the country in pursuit of Canada geese.
The Early Season
When the goose season opens in early September, the temperatures are generally very warm and the geese are usually still in small family units. Food sources are abundant at this time of year and geese show a definite preference for wheat and barley fields, especially those that have been swathed and not yet combined. In addition, they also like to eat greens such as grass or newly sprouting winter wheat.
Even with such abundant food sources, the geese start to congregate and feed in the same fields. However, during this time period, they are still very much in "family mode" and even though several family groups of geese will utilize the same feeding field, they'll spread out and keep their distance from other family groups.
When setting up for an early season hunt, I'll set up four or five family groups of decoys. Each family group consists of five to seven birds and the spacing between my groups will be at least 25 yards. To create a landing zone, I'll set the family groups of decoys into a large horse-shoe pattern, and leave a large landing zone right in the middle. I will then set up my layout blinds in the middle of one of the down wind family groups. By so doing, I am in position to get shots at birds working into the landing zone and at those that want to land short or wide of the landing zone.
When hunting in the early season, I limit the amount of calling I do and will call very sporadically as the geese approach. As soon as they are committed and working towards my spread I quit calling. For such hunts, I usually use a wooden short reed call as I find such calls have a rich tone and can easily produce soft clucks and moans.
Migrating geese such as these lessers often trigger geese to start congregating.
Early season temperatures are generally quite warm. As a result, goose activity often occurs early in the morning and late afternoon when temps are cooler. I find it imperative to be afield scouting just prior to it getting dark so I can find and observe geese. As well, I find it vital to be set up and ready for action as soon as it's legal light.
The Mid Point
As the season progresses the geese start to become more gregarious. I'm not sure what actually triggers this gathering process, but from what I can tell, it all seems to be in conjunction with the first heavy frosts of the year, early season snow storms and the presence of migrating geese. Regardless of what triggers the geese to start bunching up, I do know that during this time frame, it is very common to see family groups of geese intermixed together into one big feeding flock. When this starts happening, I immediately up my spread from the 24 to 30 decoys that worked so well in the early season and hunt with a minimum of 120 decoys to duplicate gathering patterns.
When setting up bigger spreads of decoys, I try to set up a spread as close in appearance as possible to how the geese were feeding when I scouted them. With that said I always leave an open landing zone within my spread to draw and focus the incoming birds. As a result, my mid season decoy patterns are generally U, Z or X shapes with a definite landing zone.
My mid-season spreads are set up to replicate aggressively feeding geese. This means a minimum of 50 percent of my decoys are set up on motion stakes. The bulk of the main body of my mid-season spreads consists of feeder decoys with a splattering of active decoys mixed amongst those feeder decoys. To complete my set up, form the shape of my spread and make my landing zone very obvious, I also run a line or two of active decoys down wind of the main spread.
The mid-season point is typically when I see the most competition from other hunters. If there has been little hunting pressure in the area, the geese spread out when feeding and in turn, I will space my decoys five to six feet apart. However, if there has been plenty of hunting pressure in the area, the geese will bunch up closer together and therefore I will space my decoys three feet apart.
During these mid-season hunts, I usually set up my blinds in the main decoy spread slightly upwind of the landing zone. Mid-season birds are much savvier than early season birds, so I go to great extents to brush my blinds and have them blend in perfectly with the environment being hunted. If the birds have seen a fair amount of hunting pressure I will attempt to fool them by positioning my blinds along one of the lines of active decoys leading up to the landing zone.
I found that during mid-season hunts aggressive and loud calling seems to work best. This means using acrylic calls and hitting the birds with loud hail calls the moment I see them approaching the field I'm s
et up in. Once I have the bird's attention, I will stay on them and work them right into the spread with a series of loud clucks, moans and double clucks. If the geese start to veer off, I'll get on them with very loud come back calls. Amazingly, such calls are very effective at turning geese around and once they turn back towards my decoys, I immediately start into them with aggressive double clucks.
Early and mid season, honkers will feed twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, but they feed once a day or less later on.
During the mid-season, Canada geese will feed every morning and afternoon. The only thing that can alter their twice a day pattern is early morning fog that forces the birds to stay on the roost until the skies clear or some very inclement weather that may cause the birds to head out earlier in the afternoon to feed.
At this time of the year, geese start to utilize a variety of food sources. They start to seek out high protein food sources such as peas, lentils and corn, especially on colder days. As well, they continue to feed in wheat, oat and barley fields they have been using earlier in the year. During this time frame, I've noticed that geese will often fly longer distances to feed than they did early in the season. I chalk this up to them starting to strengthen their wings and to seek out prime feeding locations for the cold and nasty days that are just around the corner. Whatever the reason, I keep this in the back of my mind when scouting and make sure I don't restrict my scouting to areas close to the roosts.
The Late Season
By the time the late season rolls around, the geese have become very educated. The naÃ¯ve ones were harvested weeks ago and only keen birds remain. They've seen all kinds of decoys and spreads and as they work towards my spreads, I know they are on red alert. I also know if the birds sense something is wrong, they quickly flare.
Not wanting to risk flaring birds, I get quite anal to paying attention to details when it comes to late season hunts. Everything must be just right. For example, if the blinds don't blend in, if a decoy is lying on its side, a dead bird is lying in the spread belly up or an errant hull is shining in the stubble, I know the birds just won't work close enough for a shooting opportunity. Therefore, I'm always on the look out for anything that's wrong or out of place. When I find anything out of place, I'll go to great efforts to make it right.
During late season hunts, geese will congregate in tight numbers on the best feeding spots. Therefore, when setting up my decoys for a late season hunt, I put them in a tight group to replicate geese keying in on a prime feeding source.
However, I don't put them too close together as this gives the impression of danger. My best results have come when spacing the decoys a couple of feet apart and using a fish hook pattern with my blinds positioned in the middle of the decoys. However, if the birds do not decoy well and are decoy shy, I will move my blinds well downwind of the entire decoy spread in order to get under them as they approach the spread and start to scrutinize it.
During mid season, the author hunts over large decoy spreads.
While watching late season geese, I often observe them sitting on the ground and feeding as opposed to actively walking around. This is especially true when snow is on the ground and they nestle right into the snow. In addition, it is also common to see late season geese sleeping in stubble fields with their heads turned and tucked in on their backs.
With the intention of keeping my decoy spread as natural as possible, I cut way back on the number of decoys on motion stakes and go with a still set. I do so by taking the legs off some of my full body goose decoys and setting those decoys right on the ground. I will also use a number of shell style goose decoys to further add realism to my spread. My final touches will include a few sleeper decoys on the outer edge of the spread to represent geese that have finished feeding and are having a rest.
For years, I had the bigger is better strategy when hunting during the late season. I went with mega decoy spreads. When using mega spreads, I had some good shoots; however, it seemed that I had more poor shoots than good ones. While scouting one day, the lights went on. I always knew that late season geese often make feeding sessions an all day affair. However, on that day, I suddenly became aware of how the geese would toggle back and forth between the roost and the feeding area all day long with the majority of flights occurring during the mid-morning and mid-afternoon time frame. There always were geese feeding in the field at any given time, but the number of geese in the field was never overly excessive.
Based on my observations, I've started down scaling the size of my late season spreads to a maximum of five or six dozen decoys. At times, I even run as few as a dozen to a dozen and a half decoys. Since changing to smaller spreads, I've seen my late season success rates go way up.
When I downsized my spreads, I also scaled way back on my calling. Mega spreads meant loud calling and lots of it. Now I call very little on late season hunts. I don't call when I see birds approaching. Instead, I wait until they are locked in on the decoys. Only then do I start calling and at that, I only blow the occasional soft cluck or moan to keep the attention of the incoming birds as they close the distance.
With cold temperatures often being the norm and birds trying to stay warm and bulk up to continue their migration, late season geese will focus almost entirely on high protein foods. However, I've also discovered that once every few days, the geese will change their routine and feed on a wheat or barley stubble field. From what I've seen, this food source change is generally a one day affair and they quickly resort back to feeding on high protein fields.
Tough, late-season Canadas.
After being burned one too many times by hunting a food source switch field, I'll not set up there the next day. Instead, I'll set up back in the same high protein field the birds were using prior to changing their food source or look for a similar high protein fields between the roost and the switch field where I can run traffic and cut off the geese.
Canada geese change their habits as the season
progresses. Thankfully, I've caught on to these subtle changes and learned that as the season progresses, Canada goose hunting becomes a game of revolving tactics. By being able to adjust my hunting methods to match what the birds are doing, I feel I harvest more birds than when I used to play the same game from the start of the season until the end of the season.
Early or Late?
Early season goose hunting is a great time. The weather is mild and the birds are cooperative. I've waited a whole off season for these first hunts. It is a fine time of the year to be afield.
Late season goose hunting is generally tough. The birds are smart and the weather is often miserable. It's a battle of hunting tactics versus smart birds. It's also a mental game of staying warm and believing you can be successful. A good late season hunt is often the fuel that keeps the off season fire burning.