June 11, 2012
When we spotted the barley field for an early-morning shoot the next day, it wasn't hard to find the birds. The tornado of white geese descended, one after another, on the harvested crops. We tried hard to estimate the total number of ducks and geese covering the field, but it was impossible. The best guess we could come up with was 20,000 birds. Besides the ridiculous number of snows, there was also a spattering of specks, small Canadas and mallards. It was such an exciting sight; I knew sleep was going to be hard to come by.
We arrived early the next day, setting up 500 Tanglefree decoys, along with two custom-made e-callers and some raised flyer decoys. The spread looked impressive, and we wondered how the morning would play out as a dense fog settled in over our layout blinds.
A rising sun began to burn off some of the haze, and we waited — close to an hour — before the first birds winged towards us. We couldn't see them, but their shrill voices could be heard cutting through the fog. A small flock emerged from the sky, like white ghosts, zeroing in on our callers. When the birds saw the decoys they made a quick descent.
There were more birds following, but the first flight of 13 snows that flew over our blinds were knocked to the ground with the roar of six shotguns. The next hour was complete mayhem. Geese came in big waves, decoying as if they'd never seen a hunter before. I just happened to be with some snow goose aficionados on their third monster shoot of the week. In less than 90 minutes, we bagged 120 snow geese, 20 specklebellies and 25 mallards. We decided to call it a day and sat back to enjoy the incredible sight of birds decoying in tight.
There aren't many avid snow goose hunters in Canada. Most smoothbore enthusiasts curse whites for their fickle nature and tendency not to show up after significant effort has gone into setting up hundreds of decoys. They have been given nicknames like "sky carp," and somehow developed a reputation as poor table fare — nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, they aren't given the respect they deserve as being wary and smart quarry.
Snow geese feed, and act, much differently than other popular waterfowl pursued in agricultural fields. They feed and stage in massive hoards, giving them a sense of security. With hundreds or thousands of birds feeding in a single field, incoming snow geese will land over the leading edge of the birds, knowing that any available grain has already been gobbled up behind the masses.
They are loud, social birds, and if you don't have an extremely high-volume caller, there is no way that your spread will seem believable. If you pay attention to the details, hunting whites can be one of the most rewarding experiences a waterfowler could ever have.
The agricultural fields situated along the edge of the boreal forest are the first grain fields the northern birds see on their migration south. Not having seen the big decoy spreads or heard e-callers, the birds are often ignorant of hunters. They decoy with reckless abandon and young birds will often circle back into a spread after being shot at. When I regale tales about the naive birds, I'm often accused of being a storyteller. However, in true snow goose-style, they do clue in to the hunting action quickly. Within a few weeks of showing up, they become much more difficult to hunt. It is important to note, that if you spend the time and effort to spot, and set up right, the birds will provide exceptional hunting opportunities anytime you pursue them.
Plan Your Adventure
The first whites show up in September and continue to build in numbers through the middle of October. Depending on the weather, they will often be the last to migrate if there are plenty of feeding opportunities, providing good hunting right into November.
Manitoba and Saskatchewan have great numbers of whites, and the eastern half of Alberta is also prime for sheer numbers of migrants. There is also a Pacific migration that offers gunning in British Columbia. On the Atlantic flyway, hoards of whites work their way through Quebec, where there is a strong hunting tradition for these birds. There are some unique hunts available along the Arctic coastline, in remote areas where geese stage in huge numbers.
Opportunities have expanded over the years, in all jurisdictions, with long seasons and high bag limits. Saskatchewan and Manitoba even offer spring seasons, where gunning can be exceptional. When winter lingers in the north, white geese tend to hang around longer in the last agricultural fields before continuing on their way to nesting grounds in the Arctic.
There are outfitters that specialize in snow goose hunts in all regions of Canada. With the serious commitment required to hunt whites properly, outfitters are often the best option. Hunters can freelance in most areas, and hunting is often as easy as finding staging birds, spotting properly, and getting permission to hunt from landowners.
Honkers, mallards, and even divers tend to get the most attention from hunters, but for sheer volume, whites offer more than they are given credit for. Those that have keyed into them are hooked for life. The gents I hunted with last fall make an annual pilgrimage to Canada, targeting only snow geese. Of course, they end up taking lots of more popular species on the same hunt, but it is the snows that provide the most satisfaction.
How many waterfowl hunts can you go on where you shoot multiple boxes of ammunition in a couple hours and harvest more birds in a single outing than many hunters will see in a season? There's only one true option.
If you want to take advantage of the naive early birds, plan a trip earlier in the season. It is a special time of year when you can see thousands of birds and have them decoy so close you'd swear you could grab them out of the air as they come over the blinds. The late-season birds are fun too, and anyone that sets up right will be successful
Hunting snows is good management for the species, as sportsmen try to reduce overall numbers. With the incredible hunting, we can even hope these birds will someday get the respect they truly deserve.