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The Evolution of Goose Hunting

Honker Hunting is Changing—Whether You Like it or Not

The Evolution of Goose Hunting

(Photo courtesy of MD Johnson)

I killed my first Canada goose in ‘79. I was at the edge of my grandfather's sweet corn field, holding my old man’s 1966 Mossberg M500 pump, the Poly-Choke screwed down to XTRA-FULL, and filled with lead #2s. The 15 or 20 geese were on their way to the loafing pond. It was pass-shooting at its finest. Right place. Right time.

I pulled the trigger and watched, surprised, as the honker I aimed at crumpled and fell into the stalks. I scooped him up and ran to the house. After showing him off to my grandpa, I called my old man, who promptly made the 20-minute drive out to his folks’ place to see “my goose” and give me a hug.

That was a long time ago, 44 years, if my math skills haven’t eroded to nothing. And sure, it sounds like a cliché, but a lot has changed during those four-plus decades, including the art that is Canada goose hunting. The fact is, damn near everything about Canadas and the pursuit thereof has changed. Evolved. Gotten better. Gotten worse. Seldom staying the same. Populations. Distribution. Tactics and strategies. And my Lord, the equipment. Back in the day, I would have never thought—would have never dreamed—of 95 percent of this stuff. Tungsten shot. Short reeds. Anatomically perfect full-bodies and $1,000 chest waders.

Why this so-called "Goose Hunting Evolution?" Why not? Everything changes; why should Canada goose hunting be immune from such? Change is inevitable. But how has goose hunting evolved from what it was back in ’79 when I became a goose hunter? Or as my Pop put it, a goose shooter, as it wasn’t until much later that I became—or at least I’d like to think I became—a goose hunter. Still, the heart of the matter comes around to how. And perhaps a strong dose of what. 

The First Waves of Change

“Goose hunting has changed in so many ways, just like the world has changed,” said Sean Mann. Mann, 61, who lives in what many consider to be the epicenter of Canada goose hunting—Easton, Maryland—is the creator of The Eastern Shoreman, which, as he reminds me, “Is NOT a flute call,” but is one of the most recognizable goose hunting implements to ever jump from the drawing board into reality. If you don't know the name Sean Mann relative to goose hunting you need to spend a little more time out from under that rock.

hunter with a goose
(Photo courtesy of Sean Mann)

“When I was a youngster,” Mann recalls, "you read about hunting the Chesapeake Bay and Canada geese weren’t a thing. I was fortunate, then, to grow up during the rise of the Canada goose population in the Chesapeake Bay region. I’m like a dinosaur who’s happy to be a dinosaur because I watched the dinosaurs roam.”

 As Mann explains, the landscape of the Eastern Seaboard, where he spent his youth, was comprised of small family farms. That was until the poultry industry expanded. “These poultry businesses consumed more grain than Maryland could produce, so that gives you some idea of how agriculture changed here," Mann says. Waterfowling in the region then changed from a water-based experience to a dry field endeavor.

Other things changed in Mann’s goose hunting world. “People didn’t call geese out here much when I was a little kid,” he remembers. “During the time between 1969 and when I was 15 and started guiding and growing up in a gun shop, I watched the progression from us selling a dozen P.S. OLT 77s a year to selling 40 dozen. Calling became much more prevalent” So, too, did decoys. “The first commercially available goose decoys I saw,” he said, “were G&H shell decoys. They looked great, but they were brittle plastic. Made noise when the rain hit them. Silhouettes were a ‘thing’ out here. And tire decoys. We called them ‘junkyard rigs.’ We watched a lot of things happen,” he continued. “Hand-carved decoys. Paper mache’ decoys. Homemade silhouettes. Herter’s Styrofoam. Bigfoot. G&H kept getting bigger. Stuffers. Lead shot. Steel shot. All of it.”

Changes From Coast to Coast

On the opposite side of the country from Mann, Bill Saunders makes his home in Kennewick, Washington. When he isn’t chasing honkers or building calls, the 50-year-old indulges in his now-favorite outdoor activity: walleye fishing. That said, he’s never all that far from goose hunting. “My first Canada? It was on the north side of Lake Lowell near Nampa, Idaho,” he recalls. “In 1986 or ’87." 

Saunders surprised me, though, with his response to my query about the evolution of Canada goose hunting. “The simple answer? It’s easy,” he said. “It’s become so much easier.” Maybe, he explained, it’s the technology available today, like the uber-realistic decoys and the new-age blinds. Or Al Gore’s Internet. “A lot of it,” he admitted, “is because I’m 50. When I was younger, I thought being the best caller was the be-all, end-all. The best caller was the best hunter. Now that I’m older and been around it enough,” he continued, “it’s the experience that makes you the best hunter.”  

Bill Saunders with a goose
(Photo courtesy of Bill Saunders)

Saunders went on to speak about the technology of today. “Could I still be doing what I’m doing now with the equipment I had back in The Day? Probably not. I had Carry-Lites that my Dad bought for me in Meridian, Idaho. That’s what I started with. But the more things change, the more they stay the same…and now silhouettes seem to be all the rage again. This is what? The third time I’ve seen (the silhouette craze) go through.”

Understandably, given Saunders’ chosen profession, the conversation turned to calls and calling. “In my waterfowling lifetime,” he began, “the short reed has been the game-changer in calling. Before there were the flutes—Tim Grounds Guide’s Best, the OLT A-50, Sean Mann’s Eastern Shoreman. But in my lifetime, I saw the invention of the short reed goose call, with its range and realism.” In its infancy, the short reed, said Saunders, was a challenge for most to run, but that, he said, was “trying to change a flute guy into a short reed caller.” Today, things are different. “This younger generation,” Saunders explained, “who have never had a flute in their hands…they’re easy calls to run when you get right down to it. And, with so many people building calls today, I think it’s easy to find one that fits an individual’s style.”


Keeping Up With the Trends

It’s impossible to talk about Canada goose hunting and perhaps this evolutionary process without talking about decoys and social media. It sounds like an odd partnership, but it's one that 35-year-old Ashur Tolliver knows extraordinarily well. Tolliver, of Sherwood, Arkansas, shot his first Canada about 1998 at age 10 out of a group of snows that decoyed to his youthful collection of three dozen snows and six Bigfoots. “When I was young,” he said, “Central Arkansas would still get some migrating Canada geese. These days, there are zero migrating Canadas that make it down here.”

That was a quarter century ago. Today, Tolliver, a former MLB hurler with a World Series ring, serves as Vice President and Director of Marketing for the popular waterfowling outfit Dive Bomb Industries. It didn’t take the young man long to respond when asked about this evolution of Canada goose hunting. “Social media has played a big role in many of the changes,” he began. “(Canada goose hunting) has become increasingly more popular as other hunters have begun to see outfitters and guide services and reputable companies put up consistent results daily over silhouette spreads.” 

hunter carrying geese in a field
(Photo courtesy of Dive Bomb Industries)

BAM! There it is—silhouette decoys. New? Revolutionary? Absolutely not—but what Dive Bomb has done in the 12 years since founder Cody Stokes and company exploded onto the ‘fowling scene has been nothing short of revolutionary, breathing life into Canada goose hunting.

“When I say social media has played a big role in this “evolution,” Tolliver explained, “I mean one: people can actually see on screen the results, and two: you have people out there on YouTube and Instagram educating the masses on how to use these silhouette spreads.” Remember what Saunders said earlier about the more things change, the more they stay the same?

What's Next?

Not everyone loves change. In fact, most hate it. Especially when it comes to the things they love, like hunting geese. But there's no denying that goose hunting is changing. From tires and wooden heads used as decoys to full bodies painted to the exact feather to imitate a goose. It's no secret that hunters are a creative bunch, doing any and all things they can to give themselves an edge. 

So what's next? Inevitably there will be more change, as there always is. While we can't call much of the change going on today "ingenuity" since most of it has been done before, we can learn to adapt and use methods we haven't tried before to better our success in the field. 

Hunting methods and tactics will vary from flyway to flyway, state to state, and even county to county, but as the world of Canada goose hunting evolves, you can evolve with it, or you can be left hunting with the same tricks up the sleeve that geese have seen for a decade. And no one falls for bad tricks, including geese.

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