Greater snow geese storm north to the Arctic breeding grounds
"I want this field to be white from one end to the other," declared Mike Clingan, as he, Jerry Grube and I danced on our toes to keep warm in the stiff, predawn wind.
Clingan's charge was brash. The cut cornfield he wanted us to slather with snow goose decoys was a good 300 yards long.
"If we cover this field, anything that flies by will have to come check us out," he said. "They won't be able to resist it."
Of course, we knew Clingan was right. It was the last week of March 2009 -- the final week of Pennsylvania's inaugural, spring conservation season for greater snow geese. Only a few thousand birds remained on the nearby roosting ponds at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in southeast Pennsylvania. Tens of thousands more had recently moved out on their long journey north. And the snows that lingered had seen their fair share of decoy spreads over the past few weeks.
Simply put, if we wanted to draw in birds, we were going to have to go big. So the plan was to spread out 1,000 socks, shells and full-bodies in the cornfield in a long, tapering line. We'd pack 'em in thick at the upwind end and thin them out as we moved downwind.
Through several years of watching live birds and experimenting with decoy spreads, Clingan and Grube had learned greater snows are aggressive feeders. They tend to move en masse across a field -- usually into the wind -- with birds in the back continuously jumping up and flying to the head of the chow line.
We hoped to mimic that feeding pattern with our spread, thereby encouraging incoming birds to fly to the congested, upwind end, where we would by lying in wait in coffin blinds camouflaged amid the decoys.
Twenty years ago, few, if any Pennsylvania waterfowlers put such thought into a snow-goose decoy rig. Heck, few, if any waterfowlers even hunted snows in the Keystone State back then. Not many snows migrated through, and when a nice flock did show up, hunters went after them using traditional, Canada-goose-hunting tactics, which didn't put a lot of birds in the bag.
For the most part, overwintering greater snow geese stuck to the Atlantic Flyway's marshy coastal areas of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, where waterfowlers have a longer, more intimate relationship with the white devils. But that was back when the Atlantic Flyway population of greater snow geese stood at around 200,000 birds.
That was before the explosion.
Today, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate about 1.1 million greater snow geese migrate south each fall from their Arctic and sub-Arctic breeding grounds down the Atlantic Flyway. As their numbers have grown, the birds have surged inland from their traditional wintering grounds along the East Coast to feast on the fertile farmland that abounds in the region, including areas of southeast Pennsylvania.
Over the past two decades, greater snows have exposed themselves to more and more hunters, who have shown great interest in pursuing this novelty species. But like their lesser cousins that migrate through the middle of the continent, the greater snows were undaunted by the increase in hunting pressure. The population continued to flourish.
Late in 2008, USFWS officials set a population goal of 500,000 for greater snow geese. To help achieve that goal, they allowed states within the Atlantic Flyway to hold spring conservation seasons in 2009, similar to those of recent years in the Midwest. During these extended hunts, waterfowlers would be allowed -- with the blessings of their respective state game departments -- to employ non-traditional tactics such as using unplugged shotguns and electronic callers, and hunting beyond normal shooting hours.
Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland scheduled conservation seasons that generally ran from mid-March to early or mid-April. Pennsylvania's season spanned about three weeks. Electronic calls and extended shooting hours were allowed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, but shotguns had to remain plugged.
Clingan and Grube, and their friends Kevin Addy, John Zunner and Bill Receski, are diehard Pennsylvania waterfowlers. They're regular guys with regular jobs who have dedicated themselves the past few years to learning how to consistently put greater snow geese on the ground. They heard the local chatter that these birds are tough to bag because they won't decoy. But knowing goose hunters have been shooting greater snow geese over decoys for decades in neighboring states, they dismissed such banter and set about finding the recipe for Pennsylvania snow goose success.
They discovered it takes a big rig of 1,000 or more quality decoys -- no milk jugs or baby diapers -- set in a field snow geese are known to feed in or one that sits under an established, daily flight path. Blinds must be we
ll camouflaged. Overcast, windy days are best. For optimum results, hunting from sunrise to sunset is imperative.
"You never know when it's going to happen, so you have to put in the time," Addy said.
I had a chance to hunt with the guys in late February, during Pennsylvania's regular snow goose season, about two weeks before the conservation hunt began. We surrounded a pit blind, sunk in a soybean field just a stone's throw from the Middle Creek boundary, with 700 decoys.
It was a sunny, windless day, but our luck was good, no doubt because a lot of fresh birds had recently arrived at the refuge. We managed to pull 12 out of the sky by noon, when I had to leave. The group added 14 more snows to the bag by sunset.
Coaxing with Electronics
On opening day of the conservation season, Addy, Receski and I headed to Lehigh County, well away from the Middle Creek flocks, to hunt a smaller group of snows gathered on the nearby Delaware River. Like many Pennsylvania snow goose hunters, we were eager to see if electronic callers would have some magical luring power that would scuttle the snows' uncanny ability to smell a rat as they circled our rig.
So Addy rigged up an e-caller, covering the receiver with a camouflage jacket near his head and planting two white loudspeakers amid the decoys. With no known recordings of greater snow geese available on the market at the time, Addy played a series of lesser-snow-goose sounds. No one knew if greaters and lessers speak the same language.
We saw far fewer geese on this day, and while the e-caller seemed to do a good job of drawing flocks to our field, it didn't cause them to throw caution to the wind and put their landing gear down in a hurry. They still acted like snow geese, circling incessantly overhead as they slowly spiraled downward. Some bailed out before they got within shotgun range. Others kept coming. We shot six birds before the flight ground to a halt for the day.
1,000 Decoys, 3 Hours
Those were the experiences I took into the cold darkness alongside Clingan and Grube the last week of the conservation season, as we busied ourselves stuffing sock decoy stakes into the brittle earth of a cornfield Clingan wanted to turn white. Planting 1,000 decoys -- all on stakes -- is a heck of a chore no matter how many hunters are in the group. For three guys, it's a Herculean task.
We'd been working feverishly for three hours when daylight began to creep across the countryside. The first small strings of snow geese soon appeared, snaking their way out of Middle Creek, but we weren't ready for them.
"Oh, man! Look at those birds," Grube said as he stood with his hands on his hips. "They want in here bad."
Indeed, the little groups of snows that passed over us all locked their wings, sacrificing altitude to dip down for a closer look at our field. Of course, once they eyed the three vertical beasts running around on the ground like madmen, their wingbeats resumed and they went on their way.
Fortunately, we only missed a couple of flocks before all was ready in our field and we tucked down in our layout blinds. Barely an hour had passed when a good-looking group materialized on the horizon, winging our way. We didn't have an e-caller with us, so we stayed silent and let the decoys, which were bouncing nicely in the stiff breeze, work their magic. The 15 flying decoys mounted on flexible, fiberglass poles of varying lengths to look like birds landing in our spread, added even more realism.
Snows swirled overhead, making tornado-like circles as they inched ever lower toward the ground. After six or seven loops, the bulk of the flock of 30-some geese slid off to the right side of our spread, obviously intent on finding somewhere else to catch their breakfast. But six others didn't stick to the flock. They glided up the length of our field of decoys, sinking lower and lower as they aimed for the bare patch of corn stubble behind our blinds.
When they were 20 yards out, Grube made the call.
I sat up, shouldered my semi-automatic shotgun and trained my fiber-optic sight on a locked-up goose. At the shotgun's report, the bird folded neatly and plummeted to the cornfield. I swung on another snow that was making a hasty retreat, but it somersaulted before I could squeeze the trigger. One of the other guys beat me to it. By the time I recovered, the two geese that managed to escape the barrage were well out of range. We had four on the ground and the day was just beginning.
Over the next couple of hours, tundra swans taking refuge at Middle Creek began pouring out of the project. The graceful giants obviously were enthralled by our setup, because they dumped into our field by the dozens. They'd feed for a little bit and then take off.
We were a bit surprised when a big flock of swans descended on our field and a pair of snows that apparently was traveling with them, suddenly appeared on set wings, with their feet down, right on top of us. We fumbled for our shotguns and three shots rang out. Both birds tumbled.
The sky that morning was a mix of streaks of blue wedged between big, fluffy clouds -- some of which were grey, while others were white as snow. I was leaning back in my blind, staring up at a large white cloud, when I noticed a series of black specks in its center. The more I stared at the specks, the more they began to look like a flock of snow geese with their wings set. I couldn't believe my eyes, though, because this flock was so high up, I thought there was no way they were dropping down toward our spread.
"Are those geese up there?" I asked.
"Yep," Clingan said. "Get ready. They're coming in."
Incredibly, he was right. The flock of 25 geese sailed down from the stratosphere. It took them several minutes to get to us. But without ever circling, they parachuted toward the upwind head of our decoys. We intercepted their descent with a volley of gunshots and managed to anchor six birds.
Around 1 p.m., during a lull in the flights, I made the mistake of offering to run out for lunch. I arrived back at the field with a sack full of sandwiches just in time to see the biggest tornado of the day breaking up over the decoys. From a distance, I soon spotted Clingan and Grube jogging around to pick up birds. When I got over to them, they gleefully told me about the 300 or so snows that locked on the spread and dropped down into shotgun range as if on cue. They killed five on six shots.
The activity essentially died until around 4 p.m., when one of Clingan's buddies showed up for the evening hunt with an e-caller. With the CD player
blaring at flocks making their return flights to Middle Creek for the night, we managed to add four snows to our day's tally.
It had been an exhausting, but successful, day of hunting. As darkness fell across the fertile farmland around us, we clicked on our flashlights and began the long, satisfying task of picking up a field full of decoys.
P.J. Reilly is a freelance outdoor writer and avid goose hunter from New Holland, Pa.