January 21, 2024
Throughout the season, you’ll find certain spread designs and sizes just flat-out work. Whether you’re hunting lesser Canadas in the wheat fields of Texas, or giants in the vast cornfields of South Dakota, there’s almost always a spread that will work more days than not.
The weather conditions, timing within the season, group size and hunting the “X” versus traffic birds will always play a critical role in determining the spread size, layout, and location within the field. A word to the wise—relying on hitting the location of the “X” in the field may not always be your best option. Several times you will watch birds jump field to field while snow goose hunting, Canada geese hit different areas of fields when weather conditions change, and stale birds make you scratch your head.
This year, my buddy Corey and I set out to shoot Canada geese in a genuine SD whiteout blizzard. To a waterfowl hunter, there’s very little that can top strong winds, blowing snow and cold temps.
Knowing the layout of the field and how birds react to windy conditions, we set up at the southern edge in a lowly pass of the field. Our spread consisted of 120 SX fully flocked decoys and two blinds with snow covers. Normally, we park hundreds of yards away from the spread, but on this day, we parked 80 yards upwind, the white truck not visible from the decoys.
What started off with a couple small pairs of geese quickly turned into flocks of 30-40 birds. The view from the blinds was like nothing I had witnessed before as these birds would suddenly appear as a dark smudge mark, turning into the shape of a goose around 40 yards away, and by 20 yards they would be visible. Corey and I each called our own shots into the flock, shooting one or two birds until we quickly reached our limit.
If we would have relied on the location of the “X” from the previous day, these birds would have short- stopped us couple hundred yards.
In waterfowl hunting, wisdom almost always comes with experience, but following some of these tips will help make you more successful in the field.
CANADA GOOSE SPREADS
This past honker season, we found several days of success and failure throughout the season. Personally, I felt two of the largest contributing factors to my failures were stale birds in the area and warmer temps. The geese would play follow the leader and turn decoy-shy in a hurry. It didn't matter the spread size or pattern; they would simply pass over like there was a large “don’t land here” sign.
We would let the fields build up for a week or two at a time, but still found these birds acting wary, even to the fully-flocked decoys. Once a storm would hit and new migration would push in, the game was back on.
There are five things that come to mind when Canada goose hunting that will help you set the perfect spread. These are weather, hunting in snow, spread size, spread layout and an organized trailer.
Prioritize days off for hunting around winter storms that will push new migrating birds to your area. We will watch the forecast closely and plan to hunt days that show more favorable wind speeds/directions, snow, or winter squalls. Anytime you have windy conditions of 25 mph+, know the birds are typically going to land at the back of the spread. Try setting your spread in an upside down “Y” shape with the small landing zone 20 yards downwind of your blinds. Our experience on these days leans towards the birds wanting to get down as fast as possible. If you can hold up in the grueling conditions, chances are you’ll have great decoying action.
HUNTING IN SNOW
There is something about hunting hungry Canada geese in a snow-packed field. I’ve found more close-action success day in and day out when hunting birds with a fresh blanket of snow on the ground.
If I have the opportunity, I will let the field rest for an extra day knowing there’s fresh snow coming in. The contrast of the decoys to the snow helps you gain visi- bility to these birds coming in, there’s far less shadows seen when the birds get close, and if you take a rake and shuffle the snow around making the landing zone look like birds have been hitting the ground and feeding, they feel comfortable and float right in.
Another tip whether you’re in snow or a dry field, get a couple dozen square base stands that are approximately 12-14’’ taller than regular bases to help hide the additional height of the blinds and give a better percep- tion of being flat in a field. We store these in the front of the trailer, making a quick set up when pulling the blinds out.
QUALITY VS QUANTITY
If we could all hunt with 50 decoys and find success every day, what a wonderful world that would be—unfortunately, that’s just not the case. While this can be a blast shooting honkers over smaller spreads, I’ve noticed that hunting with four or more friends and a small spread can be quite challenging, especially when trying to hide the blinds. We have made the investment to go with a larger spread consisting of 350 - 400 decoys, giving us a much easier pathway for birds to overlook the blinds, gain confidence in numbers and focus on the landing zones when hunting with groups of 5-8 friends.
Running a spread of fully flocked decoys is undoubtedly more work, but the reward with no shine on sunny days and the extra contrast in snow is worth every penny. Even having a couple dozen fully flocked decoys around the landing zone can help tremendously to fool the birds.
From spread designs looking like U’s, straight lines and about anything else imaginable, we’ve noticed breaking up our decoys into small family pods with additional space between them will help create a natural look and give a landing bird or flock more options when picking out their spot.
This year, our spread layout consisted of two pods of 15-30 shell decoys at the back of the spread, followed by a gap of 20-30 yards into 350 full bodies in what looked like an upside-down McDonalds arch. We would place the blinds in the middle bulk of decoys, give another 20–30-yard gap and set a final family pod of 30 decoys. This layout gave the birds multiple landing zones in the event of a wind change and allowed birds roosting in different locations to float right in without having to make multiple passes to center up.
To set the perfect spread, the information above is only three-quarters the battle. If you’ve been with friends that have a disorganized setup, the amount of time wasted can be tough to swallow, especially when you’ve shot your limit for the day and are trying to get out of the field quickly to save it for another day.
You must organize your trailer so that it allows for a fast set up and easy take down. We bungee our blinds on the sides of the trailer for easy access and ability to keep stubble in throughout the season. Next, we keep all our shells and tall stand decoys in the front of trailer. When we get there, we start at the front of the trailer with setting the shell decoys. Once completed, we pull the trailer forward to set the next portion of the spread. This continual moving of the trailer will not only save time but saves countless steps and helps lay out the spread design more efficiently.
GREATERS VS LESSERS
If you’ve had the opportunity to hunt both greater and lesser Canada geese, you know the methods for hunting these birds are completely opposite. Let’s discuss the main differences:
Hunting in Pierre, SD while I was growing up gave me opportunities to target lesser Canada geese. These fun little devils can be quite challenging, and I like to compare lessers to snow geese. They pack in tight, love tons of calling, and make grown men cry. Hunting these birds typically require several dozen more decoys because of the nature of setting up the spread. You almost make 500 decoys look like 250 in the field, and your layout is typically more of a donut looking shape with a landing zone in the middle.
To accommodate for the additional decoy setup time and to help spread out the calling, guys will generally run larger groups for these birds. When calling we hit it hard to keep the birds excited and locked on. The thrill of the hunt for these little geese is well worth the sore cheeks you have from calling. Watching hundreds in a flock get loud and start racing down to the spread is a sight to see.
If you hunt greater or giant Canada geese, you know the tactics are about opposite the strategy for lessers. These birds like their space, (typically) are a lot quieter, and seem to have a much more relaxed floating-in approach when coming into the decoys.
Generally, a couple callers are all it takes to successfully interact with these geese. You can make 500 decoys look like 750 in the field with these geese, and the layouts will be much more inviting with several open pockets for landing zones. Rather than a huge spin, you’ll tend to see these birds in smaller flocks of 20-100 birds. I’ll tell you one thing though... when you have a flock of B-52’s coming your way, it’s one of the most remarkable views in all wingshooting.
After hunting snow geese, most guys’ answers for setting a spread is this: “There is no perfect spread for snow geese, they do what they want.”
While this is partially true, let’s look at the nature of snow geese. They have a very aggressive attitude toward feeding in a field. Like the great Ricky Bobby said, “If they aren’t first, they’re last.” Watch a group and you’ll constantly see them jumping ahead of each other to have first shot at untouched grain.
Knowing whether you’re hunting adults or juvies will determine the spread size. Typically, juvie spreads are a lot smaller, consisting of 250-1,000 decoys, whereas your migration spreads can consist of 3,000-8,000 decoys.
Hunting these magnificent headaches from God make you realize humility, patience, and hard work. Usually, one or two out of ten hunts you have are going to result in harvesting over 35 birds, and to hit the triple digit mark—well, that is more like one of twenty to thirty hunts.
At the end of the day, you’ll get beat up, worn down and muddy as hell—but it will all be worth it when the stars align, and you get to experience a tornado of thou- sands of geese falling from the heavens.There’s two main ways we set up: Migration and juvie setups. If you hunt juvie sets, try to keep family pods at the back of the spread, making it look like those are your relaxed birds that aren’t necessarily feeding, but just grazing in the field. As you work towards the leading or feeding edge of the spread, you’ll start bunching up the decoys tighter to resemble highly aggressive feed- ing flock. Any motion is generally at the top end of the spread and your blinds will be up in this area as well. We would always try to leave an open hole in the decoys for a landing pocket that resembles an “A” shape.
Migrators are a different animal. We set up around 2,500-3,000 full body decoys in more of a “U” or “W” shape at the leading edge. Down 150-200 yards below us we would set out a “J” with rthe emaining 2,000-3,000 socks as filler to make the spread look giant.
If you can add more sound throughout the spread in the springtime, that never hurts. Try and keep the directional power horn speakers positioned so the birds never have an audio gap. And always come prepared with an extra flat of shells because you never know when you’re going to be in the middle of a tornado.
Shoot straight and best of luck going forward!