December 15, 2015
Driving to the field we'd been watching for the past two days, my windshield wipers could barely keep up with the falling snow. It would be an interesting day with the heavy white flakes quickly accumulating on the ground.
It was near the end of November, meaning the sun wouldn't rise until late morning on most days. We had arrived early to set up and needed to keep moving to stay warm. I continued to fuss with the blinds and clean off decoys until the sound of incoming honkers had me running for cover.
Close to 50 giant geese carefully circled and after three swings around the field, the leaders splayed their feet to touch down just in front of our blinds. I let the rest of the flock drift into range before yelling the command to shoot.
The large, heavily-feathered birds hit the ground hard, and when the snow settled, we had six big birds on the deck.
Late-season geese are challenging, as any experienced waterfowl enthusiast can attest. These birds have been hunted for months, and have seen practically every decoy spread imaginable. The late geese in western Canada often don't migrate south unless forced to and are very difficult to bring in consistently.
It is the challenge that draws me to the frozen fields at a time when the birds don't expect to see hunters.
Finding Late Season Geese
The key to finding late-season birds is looking for the obvious. There are few pockets of open water, so starting at a river or other area where ice won't develop makes sense. Watching the agricultural fields and taking note of any that haven't been worked under can help narrow down feeding areas.
Most farmers will have their fields worked by November, but those that practice zero tillage will still have good feed available.
If you can't find a field where the geese are feeding, following them from the open water source, where they roost at night is always a sure bet. Rivers, power plant cooling ponds, aerated lakes and natural springs are all potential holding areas late in the year.
As long as there is open water, birds will stick around, even if the temperatures drop to bone-chilling digits. When most of the water freezes up, there aren't many options left for birds, making it easier to key in on hot spots.
The more years you hunt the late season, the more predictable they become. You will find birds on the same water sources year after year.
I like to check the water regularly just to ensure the birds don't pack up and head south without notice. When in the fields, I like to watch feeding geese for several days, if possible, before the hunt.
These birds have endured months of hunting pressure and can be painfully skittish.
Watch for comfortable geese that are quick to commit, and you'll know you are ready to hunt. Here are some great goose hunting tips when challenged with frozen temps:
Since gun-shy late-season birds have been hunted hard, your strategies for decoy layout — and blind placement — become critical. Watch the geese on the ground and note what they are doing. They are usually extremely territorial and some may already be paired up for the following spring.
They become protective of the area around them and to replicate this I like to place decoys five or six paces apart to make the spread look realistic.
While goose hunting late-season birds, they tend to travel in large flocks, so a minimum of six- to eight-dozen decoys is my preferred method. The main spread will be extended out over a sizable area, with the blinds concealed on the downwind edge of the decoys. Watch the birds and adjust as required.
On a late-December hunt in southern Alberta, I was having great success with early birds committing to the big spread of decoys. As the morning progressed, however, the birds became shy and started to land short.
Moving the layout blinds 70 yards downwind of the main spread and creating small groupings of decoys around us allowed us to continue to have birds finish tight.
You must be well-hidden when the geese turn your way. Low profile blinds are best for blending into featureless fields. I like to place the layouts in shallow pits to completely eliminate any profile that may extend above the decoys.
Natural cover from the field should be added for better concealment. Chances are you will need snow camouflage covers too.
Good calling will make a difference. In the north, late-season honkers aren't very vocal, so you only need a couple of callers, and don't overdo it.
When to Hunt
Late-season birds must feed steadily to ensure they take in enough calories for winter reserves, and to fend off the cold. As a result, it's not uncommon for them to bounce between open water and their feeding fields all day.
Gunning can be just as productive in the early afternoon as it is at first light, so hang in and be patient.
Big honkers in November and December are heavily feathered, and it takes a hefty load of steel to bring them down. A 12-gauge with 3-inch loads of BB, BBB or larger pellets will do the trick on birds that are cooperating and coming into your spread.
A 10-gauge can deliver more payload, but it's a lot more punishing to shoot.
I always bring along some 3.5-inch Winchester Xpert Hi-Velocity in case birds are hovering within range, but not committing.
Late-season goose hunting isn't for everyone. Most of the locals have hung up their shotguns and are busy chasing big game, leaving the birds to a handful of die-hard waterfowlers.
The cold months while goose hunting can be the most frustrating of the season, but can be the most memorable of the year. And the birds will be in prime condition for the table, having fed heavily in protein-rich fields for three to four months.
Proper apparel is essential too. A warm parka, set of bibs, cap, gloves and winter boots are particularly critical. I prefer loose-fitting outerwear, which lets me shoulder my shotgun without having it bind up with my clothing underneath.
A favorite trick to keep warm is picking up downed birds. Placing them in your blind with you provides instant heat. Bury your fingers in the down and your hands will be warmed up immediately.
Bring hand warmers and place one in each glove or coat pocket to keep your shooting fingers nimble. You can even put one in a shirt pocket and another in the small of your back to help keep your torso warm. For frosty conditions is to try ThermaCELL foot warmers, they can make the difference between staying out all day and having to call it quits to warm your toes.
Finally, always remember to take a broom with you. When the snow is falling or the frost settles in, it's difficult to keep the decoys cleaned off without melting the delicate white flakes, which will make your decoys shine.
A few swipes with a broom prevent this — and get you quickly back in the game. Hope these late-season goose hunting tips will prepare you mentally and physically, for the tough, but rewarding season.