By Joe Weimer
It was quiet. Quiet enough that the only thing keeping me awake was the occasional blast of the oldies mixed with static from the radio that only worked when my old Ford Ranger hit a pothole just right. The music didn't seem to have the same effect on my yellow Lab Rudy however, as he lay motionless opposite me on the bench seat.
We dropped down the hill into the river bottom and soon slowed to a roll and turned the headlights into the stalk field along the road. Mud. My only option was to pack in on foot. Well, there was one other possibility...the one that made sense: calling it a night and sleeping in the next morning. It was tempting, but if making logical decisions had been the goal, I wouldn't have been dragging a thousand decoys, a blind, and equipment into the field in the first place. Nobody I usually hunted with had time or felt like going, and who could blame them? But the only thing more miserable than working for hours to set a spread alone was not hunting at all, so I grabbed a car battery and draped a bag of decoys over my shoulders and took the first of thousands of steps to hunt snows solo.
As a loner snow goose hunter, a sound strategy is a must. Other than the maddening white birds, time is the biggest enemy. Most regular snow goose hunts are a team effort, several guys pitching in to scout, secure permission, set up decoys, and brush blinds. Each of these tasks takes time, and an experienced group can move quickly and efficiently. A one-man hunt requires nearly the same amount of work, but with only a single pair of hands. It takes tons of time, sweat, and a damned understanding wife to turn a night of setup into a morning pile of white.
Decoys are important. Full-bodies offer unmatched realism. They also take up a lot of space and are expensive. I rely on compact, economical decoys that can fit in my small rusted-out two-wheel drive pickup, and for those reasons I run primarily windsocks. Although not equal to full-bodies, you can have similar success with the right conditions.
Scouting, the most integral part of waterfowl hunting, becomes down-right crucial. A feed can pop up anywhere, and ideal scouting requires several guys putting in ridiculous amounts of drive time. As a one-man show, I often focus on nearby river bottoms due to quantity of acres I'm able to cover. This wide open, hi-viz country helps to identify where geese are and what route they're taking to get there.
Knowing the conditions is crucial, and they don't stop at wind speed and direction. Being aware of the age structure of the population in your area may be one of the more important things to consider. Adult snow geese are some of the most frustrating birds on the face of the earth and seem to have learned enough about hunters to have a master's degree in decoys. Facing off against front-line adults is a surefire way to get schooled. I still do it simply because I'm a glutton for punishment, but my higher expectations and kill numbers come about as the younger birds show up. Juvies haven't experienced a migration and are much easier to trick than their older, seasoned relatives.
I hurried down the narrow road as daylight faded, glancing into the truck bed every few seconds to make sure my life's savings (snow goose decoys) hadn't bounced out. I had finally spotted a feed in the distance and was running a race against the setting sun to see exactly where they were. Thankfully, the birds were swarming into a field I had permission to hunt. And more thankfully, there were several juvies in the mix. I waited there until the last group settled back into a nearby wetland and began deploying my spread.
With two inches of rain falling earlier in the week, walking in was my only option — again. I decided on 500 windsock decoys, 12 full-bodies on higher stakes around the blind, and a vortex rotary machine. This was a manageable spread for one guy, but at the same time plenty of work with the sloppy ground conditions. Generally, I preferred to run at least twice that many decoys, but it was a half-mile walk from the truck, so this smaller spread would have to do.
I began stabbing the fiberglass stakes in the soupy mud. The upwind side of the spread contained over half of the decoys packed tightly to mimic snow geese racing ahead of one another while feeding. Moving below the kill hole, I allowed more space between each sock, and ran the tail out quite a long way with groups of two and three sporadically placed here and there to make my offering cover more surface area and look bigger than it actually was. I am always pleased with how good things look after setting up, only to re-arrange several times the next day depending on how the geese react. This was a good enough starting point though, so I headed for home.
Upon arriving the next morning, the barks and moans of a snow goose roost filled the air. Thankfully, the birds hadn't moved on during the night. Despite having to switch hands five times carrying the car battery into the decoys , the rotary and e-caller were now hooked up and ready to go. After adding a few more pieces of stubble to Rudy's dog blind, I crawled into mine. The last shell clicked into the gun just as the clock struck shooting time, and on cue, a small pack of juvies appeared out of the dimly-lit sky. They couldn't have finished better, and I pulled the trigger on the backflappers as the group in front of them touched down. Groups of two to 10 dove into the stiff north breeze for the next half hour. A wad of 20 Ross's geese flip-flopped toward the vortex machine. They were unalarmed by the extra 500 breakfast guests, but unappreciative of the dinner bell as shots pierced the morning air. I quickly remembered that I wasn't totally alone, as the swishing of an excited dog's tail beat off the canvass of his blind.
Hunting feeding birds can be a huge rush. Frantically searching to find a field, securing permission, and setting up quickly is tiring by yourself, but knowing that birds have been using the field you are in is a good source of motivation. Long story short, you know you've at least got a chance when you are hunting feeders. Migrators are a different story. It can be feast or famine. You may set up under a line that's been killer every day for a week and when you hunt, stare at an empty sky. On the flip side, you can set up along a historical flight line with zero recent activity, get a good wind, and have the hunt of your life.
Regardless of the situation, hunting migrating snow geese darn near REQUIRES a good breeze. Stopping these cross-country travelers means presenting something that looks exciting and realistic from a mile high. Limp, lifeless windsocks fulfill neither of these criteria. Sunshine and help from other hunters setting out the largest spread possible for pulling power are ideal. When hunting alone, the best you can hope for is two out of three, so the birds are already at an advantage.
Rolling the Dice
It was late February. Many of the birds had passed through central Missouri on their trek north. A lull of sorts was occurring between the majority of the population and the smaller pockets of juvies remaining in Arkansas and southeast Missouri. Migratory activity was at a standstill, but strong north winds and sunny skies were forecasted for the next day. I decided to set up on a hill overlooking the river bottom near a large lake in a good flyway. The ground was dry, so driving into the field was possible. This would be one of the last hunts of the year, and since I'd need to be as visible as possible to stop the high-fliers, I put out everything I had. The line-up consisted of 1,100 socks, half a dozen fliers, and two rotaries. The way the hill fell off toward the bottom made for a cool formation, positioning the head and kill hole on top of the rise and running the tail down the side of the slope.
The wind was supposed to build as the day went on, so I arrived to the spread just as the sun was rising. If the birds didn't show, I'd have gotten a nice workout the day before. If they did show up, we could be in for something epic. Later in the morning, a friend hunting a feed to the southeast texted. He reported seeing large numbers of white pushing my direction. The day wore on, the breeze picked up, and I began to see a trickle of geese working their way through the bottoms. They were far enough away that I had time to sprint to the road and grab the e-caller remote I'd left on my truck seat. By the time I returned, they were close enough to get excited.
Now, the group was passing directly overhead. And then it happened, the most glorious sight a snow goose hunter can see unfolded above me. The tiny hanging white dots grew bigger, and louder. They were tin-canning. My term for crumpled up kamikaze snows. Necks out, heads back, and wings doubled over in free fall. The excitement was building and they began to race to the ground. Side to side they swung, never beating a wing. This was it. The pinnacle of snow goose hunting, the sun-lit migrator bunches falling from the heavens. I couldn't help but think of the countless hours I'd spent waiting for a moment just like this, oftentimes going home empty handed. The shrill barks and beeps became frantic and with one final slight swing, it was over. The sight of committed geese was traded for the smell of gunpowder and blood-stained hands.
The Bottom Line
There's a reason the most successful light goose hunters roll with several friends and monster spreads. It works. The successes of a solo snow goose hunt, like many things however, comes down to a matter of perspective. If your measuring stick for a good day hinges on killing a hundred birds, you may leave the field disappointed more times than not. When setting out on a solo grind, I accept that kill numbers most likely won't be as high as if I had a few good shooters in the spread with me. I also accept that like any other snow goose hunt, I could get beaten badly the birds. And make no mistake, do it enough, and you will get beat.
A good solo day for me includes the satisfaction of successful scouting, careful planning, and the reward of a single bunch finishing into the decoys. It's not that I don't enjoy hunting with good friends, because that's half the fun. The white birds have a power over me come spring. In today's busy world, not everyone can make time to hunt when I want to. That leaves a passionate snow goose addict with two choices, go alone, or don't go.
Running a single-handed snow goose hunt isn't for everyone. It is however, something that everyone can do. Understanding your area, being cognizant of the migration, and possessing determination are the keys to consistently giving yourself a chance. There's nothing like the sense of pride found in single-handedly chasing snows. Your palms will be callused and cut by bag straps and stubble. Your feet will be sweaty and blistered from the steps your buddies should have been taking to help setup. But if by chance you somehow enjoy the process, if you're downright nuts about it, and if you can appreciate the magic in even just one group free-falling into the trap you have set, your one-man hunt won't be a one-time deal.