It felt like yesterday that honker season came to an end in southwest Washington. And here we are again, just a few short weeks away from another opener.
I remember one of the last hunting days of 2015. It was Feb. 21, and we had been chasing geese since mid-September. Tired from six months of early mornings fraught with brushing in layouts and setting spreads, I turned off the 4:30 a.m. alarm, rolled over, and went back to sleep.
But I couldn't stay away with so few days remaining to pursue these tough western birds, and by 10 o'clock was at the farm near the coast with a small group of full-bodies set.
The honkers worked like clockwork after a couple clucks turned them, and the decoys did the rest. Unfortunately, all those days of hunting hadn't made my shooting any better, and just one bird fell from the pair. Thirty minutes later, I managed to pull another two out of a gang of six. Another half hour went by, and I pass-shot the last bird — four and done.
Stretching, I folded the blind, bagged my 14 decoys, loaded the cart and hauled the small pile 200 yards back to the pickup. I was already planning to cut my spread in half for the next morning. Call me a minimalist. I'm 51, and been packing decoys for over four decades now. Lots of decoys.
If I can kill a couple Canadas over seven full-bodies, well, I'm OK with that. Do these micro-spreads for Canadas work every time? Absolutely not; nothing's 100 percent. I've had hunts like this one, but blanked too many times to count. It all boils down to what you know, and how you use that information when it comes to setting successful small spreads.
A Matter of Opinion
Small Canada goose spreads mean different numbers to different hunters. For the man in southern Illinois used to hunting migrators, a small spread might be 100 full-bodies complemented with another 100 socks and shells.
I've helped Travis Mueller, national sales guru for Avery, set 250 full-bodies for a bitterly cold eastern Iowa hunt on more than one occasion; however, the young man will, if circumstances dictate, downsize to a mere four dozen.
To Mueller, 48 fakes is small. Me? I'll agree that my 14 aren't much to work with, and seven even more so, but I get results — usually. Again, there are days when 1,000 fakes won't do it; days when two will.
Small, when it comes to the number of goose decoys you're throwing on the ground, is in the eye of the beholder. But there are other factors at play when giving thought to shooting over small spreads.
Life's all about pros and cons, and so is the art of effectively deploying small rigs. Pros and cons boil down to why these mini-spreads work, and why they don't. On the positive, today's Canada geese are accustomed to seeing larger spreads. Most guys will set as many decoys as they can put on the ground. Bigger is better, right? Depends. In some cases, less is more.
Now I'm not going to go so far as to say geese are deep thinkers, but I do feel Canadas used to seeing field after field of 50-plus decoys may act a bit more secure committing to 10. It's different and unique; something they don't encounter on a daily basis. And later in the season, different can be key.
Although there are exceptions, my theory on Canada geese — and this is especially true with the larger subspecies — is this: Big flocks often consist of a series of smaller flocks. Rather, 100 Canadas in a field are in reality five groups of 20, or 10 groups of 10.
Thus, it's natural for Group 2 of 10 to see Group 1 already on the ground and feel safe. You can use that to your advantage by emulating Group 1 with decoy placement. Remember, the purpose of decoys is to attract attention and put wary birds at ease. Small spreads provide the comfort cautious birds are looking for.
"When you scout, remember close isn't good enough. If you're not setting your layout blind in goose crap, you're off the mark."
If you've hunted over 100 full-bodies, you've experienced the frustration of having birds land at the edge of the spread, out of range. No matter how masterful a kill hole you have made, sometimes they don't want in. Take away the wind, and those Canadas are going to finish where they please in most cases. But if eight honkers commit to 10 fakes, mayhem is almost assured, because it's near impossible not to be in shooting position when birds commit to a 10-decoy spread.
Hunting alone is a fine time to employ a small spread too. I timed myself one day last season. It took exactly one hour from my driveway to settling in behind 14 GHG Lessers with a half-dozen Pro-Grade silhouettes at my back.
It doesn't always work that way, and the hunt isn't always a success. But consider this: Slow mornings mean you can pick up quick without much effort; the same is true for quick limits. Kill your birds, pack up and get home while the wife and kids are still in bed — none the wiser.
Don't waste time setting up small for small geese. Cacklers like big numbers and lots of high-pitched calling racket.
After three or four failed attempts in 2015, I came to the conclusion 36 one-piece cackler decoys just won't work very well on the squeakers. Here in southwest Washington a flock of 100 to 200 is as small as they travel.
They also show a tendency to be inconsistent and field-hop, making it tough to get on the X. No matter where they are, most cackler hunts are traffic-bird shoots requiring a big number of decoys to grab their attention.
It seems the larger the subspecies, the smaller the spread can be. Big geese in eastern Iowa? Eighteen decoys was plenty. Great Basin honkers here in western Washington? Fourteen was the magic number.
So what's this mean to the small spread enthusiast? Now, more than ever, it's vital to be where the birds want to be — in fact, apply that rule to all your hunts whenever possible. Small spreads must be precise. You have to do the scouting and make sure the decoys model the previous day's feed.
Don't forget to consider the calendar either. Early in the season, birds are going to be in family groups, and as it gets later into winter, the birds will return to their mating pairs (honkers typically stay together for life). So mirror that with your decoys depending on what time of year the hunt is taking place. Mid-season proved a bit more challenging for the little rigs due to the migration and swelling numbers that came with it. But, that's not exactly a "problem."
Strategies for Downsizing
It's tough to toss out 10, 12 or 14 full-body Canadas, sit down, and shoot your limit day in and day out. It happens, but only if timed right, and done right.
First, buy the very best full-body decoys you can afford. Will eight silhouettes work? Maybe. Eight shells? Perhaps. But good full-bodies make the difference because they're three-dimensional, move with a little wind (if they have motion bases) and look like the real thing. I like the GHG Lessers — typically, four or five upright heads with nine or 10 feeders.
The FFD series are fully-flocked and ultra-realistic, falling just shy of the taxidermied decoys guys like Washington callmaker Bill Saunders sometimes employ. But not everyone has the time or money for such luxuries. Though if you can find, afford or make them, nothing comes closer to real birds, just make sure they're legal in your state.
I like lesser decoys for two reasons: one, they are the size of about four of the seven subspecies of Canada geese I hunt in southwest Washington. And two, they are small and light. And at my age, I like everything a little light. Except beer.
Just remember, with these mini-spreads, you're not afforded the luxury of numbers compensating for realism. What the birds see at first glance is it. So make it good, and leave the bargain bin fakes at home.
The Next Level
For those of you who have made your bones scouting hard, the small spread will serve you well, and take your scouting prowess to the next level. I'll set 14 full-bodies in an area the size of my living room right where the green goose poop is deepest.
And why you need to ultimately be on the X is because with a small spread, you are limited in the distance you can pull birds from. With only 14 fakes, you're not going to pull birds 200 yards — maybe even 100 yards — off their flight line. When you scout, remember, close isn't good enough. If you're not setting your layout blind in goose crap, you're off the mark.
The hide has to be spot on as well. Don't skimp on the brush in. Make sure those birds cannot see you, because they're not going to be as focused on the spread with such small numbers.
With few exceptions, working birds are picking your spread and your blind apart. Those birds that hover above the rig with a stiff wind in their face, but just out of shotgun range, will pick you apart if the hide isn't right.
If you've spent the money on some high-end decoys and taken the time to scout it properly, then do what needs to be done and pile as much corn stalk, wheat chaff — whatever — into the stubble straps. Bring a shovel and dig it in too. And then if you don't get the best results at least it wasn't because you half-assed it at the goal line.
Don't Eyeball Me
Where you position the blind plays a role, also. Sure, it's nice to put birds feet-down in your face, but that's not always the smartest way to fill a limit. My goal is to have the birds eyeballing the decoys, not the blind.
So, I'll quarter the blind to the wind and the spread. Instead of shooting oncoming birds, they work left-to-right or right-to-left, depending on the wind. This way, working birds concentrate solely on the decoys. And it will help when you hunt with folks who don't necessarily understand the importance of hiding, though I don't recommend taking the guy in your group who can't keep his head down.
Setting an ultra-small spread doesn't take much physical work, but it does require a little more planning and, well, goose smarts. Remember that mid-season problem with the migration transforming flocks of 20 into groups of 200? Typically, if I looked hard enough, I could find small flocks to pick on throughout the season. Often, these birds were residents, and always a bit standoffish, even at the peak of the migration.
My strategy was to duplicate the feeding and loafing patterns of these birds. Maybe it was 22 birds split into small family groups in an adjoining green field. Or in a pasture a half-mile to the north. The bottom line was I looked for what I could copy with my handful of plastics; then, I copied it as precisely as possible. And right on top of the goose poop.
Are small spreads suitable for every situation? No, but what rig is every day of the season? We are bird hunters, and because the weather and birds we chase are always changing, so must our decoy spreads.
But the reason why so many of us love to hunt is the chase — the different tactics we must use to fool birds. And when every hunter in the county is relying on a trailer full of full-bodies to entice the geese, find a small feed, do it right and you'll avoid the dreaded all-day grind in the blind.