March 15, 2023
By Lynn Burkhead
Q&A With Champion Snow Goose Hunters
Expert snow goose hunters reveal several of their secrets.
What do you get when you mix the annual Light Goose Conservation Order spring snow goose season, the rice fields dotting the Grand Prairie of eastern Arkansas and Mack's Prairie Wings (MPW) together? A whale of a good time shooting, helping out the resource and hungry folks at the same time, and some of the best waterfowl hunting fun possible in North America every year. In short, you get the annual World Championship Snow Goose Conservation Hunt every February in Stuttgart, Arkansas!
Held annually since 2019, the one-day event is an endeavor designed to be a win-win scenario for everyone dealing with the clouds of snow geese that move up and down the flyways each year. While there are some specific rules in place, in general, 10-member teams pay a hefty entry fee of $1,250; are restricted to hunting somewhere in Arkansas; see all proceeds benefit Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl, and Arkansas Hunters for the Hungry; have a MPW observer present and overseeing each aspect of the hunt; and donate all of the snow geese killed to the Hunters for the Hungry program. And if you're on the winning team, you split up a prize package that last year was valued north of $43,000 dollars in gear, gift cards, and the like.
For the last three years, 40-year-old Chase Milligan has led that winning team, using tricks he's learned as part of the Wild Goose Chase Outfitters service and lodge in Dumas, Arkansas. And despite a chance for Milligan, his guide business partner Hunter Stafford, and his team to win again, the southern gentleman from Monticello, Arkansas was more than willing to share a few of his team's winning secrets about having a great spring snow goose shoot!
Expert Snow Goose Hunters Share Their Secrets
Q: You've been on the winning team for three straight years now and you lost the first event by only two birds. What has fueled that consistency in a highly competitive event in a very target rich environment?
A: “Like with all goose hunting, the first key is scouting. I want to put my decoys in fresh goose crap that isn't 12-hours old yet. We spend all day scouting and we fan out in every direction to do that the day before. We're talking to each other, comparing notes, and then when we get back the night before the event, we whittle it down and choose what's going to be the most reliable spot the next morning. And, of course, a lot of full body decoys.”
Q: It looks like that first flock provides some intense shooting and plenty of kills that can get a team off to a great start. How important is that first group?
A: “It's super important. There's a little risk there by letting them go on long enough to commit, that you might lose some or all of them. But if you commit too early, then you miss some good number possibilities too that you might have gotten by waiting a little longer. In a competitive hunt, I think it's worth that risk to wait because ultimately, you really need those big wads of birds. That's where a good full body decoy spread comes into play, because it gets them to commit and come down into the kill hole.”
Q: Last year, your team had 200+ snow geese and the year before, it was 473 light geese. Can you win this event nickel-and-diming your way forward, or do you have to get some big groups to come in and rainouts?
A: “It definitely makes me feel a little better to have some of those big wads come in. And you don't know what the others (teams) are doing. If you did, it would help you make some of your shooting decisions. But you don't, so I like to have those big spins coming down. You're already taking yourself out of shooting possibilities for the next five to 10 minutes while picking up and because you've alerted a lot of other birds in the area when you shoot. So, you've got to maximize your chances if you can.”
Q: Mind talking about the shotguns that your group is using for this event?
A: ”We're shooting a good smattering of shotgun brands—Beretta, Browning, Benelli, Winchester, Remington, etc.—basically covering the spectrum of waterfowl guns. And they're going to have to have the ability to pull the plug and hold numerous shotshells, up to nine or 10-rounds. That's a lot of steel in the air in three or four seconds and that's crucial for this conservation season hunt.”
Q: What about the goose music you're making, is it all electronic, or do you mix in some hand-held calling too?
A: “We use electronic calls and mix in hand-held calls. I can't say that it helps or that it doesn't, to mix in the hand-held calls. But after going through a full season of guiding and calling birds, it's just all but impossible for me to try to finish birds without a goose call in my hands. It may help or it may not, but I've got to be a part of it. We're mostly using Fox Pro electronic calls, but this last year, one of our team members brought a Snows Down Low electronic call. As for the hand-held calls, I like the snow goose calls of Singleton Game Calls and the RNT Barbelly calls. We do blow that last one a bit differently, because it's a specklebelly call and we've learned how to make some noise during the regular season that gets those snow geese a little fired up. That's a little trick we've got.”
Q: For the full body decoy spreads, how many and how are you using them?
A: “Most days, we're setting out 40 to 60 dozen of the Avery GHG snow geese decoys, the harvester pack mix of adult snows, adult blues, and juveniles thrown in together. You can mix them yourself by buying the adult decoys and juvenile decoys, and mixing however you want. And in our neck of the woods, about 1/3 of our light goose flocks are blue geese, so that's a ratio that we try to stay true to. As for how we set them up, since the birds feed into the wind a lot, we're going to put them in a group that looks like what we scouted the day before. And of course, as they leapfrog to the front, we'll be waiting for them there.”
Q: What about your blinds?
A: “We all hunt together and normally; we're using the Banded Panel Binds when we can. You can use layout blinds, but if there's any way possible, we're going to use those panel blinds somewhere out in front of the spread or off to the side, because it's easier to shoot, especially if you're standing up.”
Q: How important is the “Pit Boss” in something like this?
A: Very important, and I usually try to fill that role. Now, not everyone is going to like you and maybe you're going to have someone be mad at you (for how you call the shots). But the pit boss is trying to get the most geese in front of everybody. Decoying and scouting are super important, maybe the most important, and so are the blinds and being concealed. But you've also got to have a blind full of goose killers that can shoot and guys that you've got confidence in to get the job done when they're coming in.”
Q: You've already mentioned scouting, but how do you go about discovering that magical “X”?
A: “It's one of those things that we've learned how to do after 20-years of doing this. I'm sure there's a science to it, but, and not to sound arrogant here, there's also an art to it too. After 20 years, we kind of start knowing what to look for when we're scouting. Factors like how many birds there are in a big group, how far they are coming from the roost, where they are landing in a field, what kind of weather patterns we've got, the kind of food they want at that particular time of the season, what kind of hiding spot you've got to work with, etc.. Some feeds, they are there and you feel good about the next day. But some feeds, they are there and you don't (feel good about the next day). Like I said, I guess there's a little bit of an art to it.
Q: What role does the weather play in your success?
A: “The weather is super important, especially having stable weather from your scouting time to your hunting time. Sometimes, changing weather can work in your favor though. Two years ago when we got 473 geese, it had warmed up at the end of January and the birds were getting stale and we were starting to lose them to the north. Then that huge arctic cold wave hit and a lot of birds that had started north, suddenly had to turn around and come back south. They had no choice and the brutal weather wadded them up. Plus, there were lots of juvenile geese that year and the wind was blowing 7 or 8 miles per hour that morning, so we had a lot of young birds committing with their feet dangling down over the decoys. Last year, when we got a little over 200, we had bluebird weather, and while we had found a pile of birds and had a great first group overhead at shooting time, as the morning wore on in that high pressure weather scenario, they started getting higher. It ended up looking like we were hunting migrators. We would start working flocks high, but by the time they got down to us, there were only about 1/3 of what started above us.”
Q: You've got to make this happen pretty quickly since it's a morning hunt. Does this make it an all-or-nothing event or can you call an audible and throw in some “Plan B” action?
A: “It depends on the circumstances. Maybe if you have a good loafing spot somewhere nearby, and if your morning feed didn't work out, it's possible. But it would be tough. But you've already paid your money and the sun has come up, so what option do you have? We've done another set-up, or change, a couple of times, but we didn't have just a ton of luck after doing that.”
Q: For some Wildfowl readers, their spring snow goose hunting plans may be on the edge of the main migratory flyways. What advice would you give them if there are fewer flocks and fewer big numbers to hunt like you do in Arkansas every spring?
A: “I think snow geese are similar everywhere they go. During the first half of February each year, we're still in a roost and feed pattern and we'll try and find a good feed (mass of birds eating in one spot) and be on that “X” pattern every morning. But most years, the latter half of February turns into a migration kind of hunt and we're putting out a bigger spread and trying to get in a spot where they're going to be passing by overhead. Those tend to be all-day affairs, and not a burn-them-down kind of hunt for the first hour. No matter where you're hunting or how you're hunting, you need a good quality decoy, and a lot of them, a really good hide, and a willingness to stick it out since they can appear out of nowhere suddenly in the spring.”
Q: What tips would you give to make the skies rain down with light geese this spring?
A: “First, I'd say scout, know what the birds are doing in your local area, where they are roosting, what they are feeding on, and where they are flying. Second, have a good decoy spread to set out. And third, hide, hide, hide!”
Q: What mistakes should snow goose hunters avoid this spring?
A: “Well, I'd say to avoid doing the opposite of what we talked about above. Not being concealed is probably the biggest thing—you've got to be hidden. And because they're migrating and highly transitory at this time of the year, you've got to have some idea of where they want to be too, so not scouting isn't a good way to get after them. And then don't lose the mental battle, because this is tough and hard and they can bully you around a bit.”
Q: Last question, why is snow goose hunting in general, and the spring hunt specifically, so addicting?
A: “For me, it's a big game with big numbers of geese. You're aggregating a lot of birds and to get those huge numbers down into the decoys, man is that fun. I've seen it thousands of times, but every single time it seems like it's that first time when me and my buddies got under them, started calling them down, and looked at each other with the sky full of loud birds spinning around overhead. They were making a ton of noise and it was a sight to see and I've never forgotten it or how it made me feel. Now, pulling the trigger is fun, but figuring them out, setting up where they want to be, and fooling them to come on in, now, that's what keeps driving me to get up early every morning. That and the sight of several thousand birds making noise and spinning down, because that never gets old!”