Ahhh, there's nothing like the smell of fresh acrylic in the morning.
New honker hunters are showing up in fields and marshes all over North America. And nearly all of them have calls dangling from lanyards, like kids with new toys. They sit in their blinds — wide-eyed, nerves tweaking, adrenaline pumping — and watch the skies for the first sight of a goose. When they see birds or flocks, they start hammering away on their calls. And that, unfortunately, could be their undoing.
"A lot of new hunters get in the field and all they want to do is call, call, call," said veteran Canada hunter and callmaker Fred Zink. "What they should be doing, is listening."
"The calls on the market today are really good, and hunters can pick one up and make a lot of goose sounds pretty quickly," Zink said. "Geese have become conditioned to that. It's kind of like too much of a good thing."
When it comes to calling Canada geese, there are times to be aggressive, and there are times to back off. Knowing when to pull back on the throttle depends on the birds. By watching the body language of incoming geese, and listening to how those birds are calling, our experts say you can determine how much air (if any) you should be pushing down the barrels of your calls.
"Read the geese," said Dave Rhine, owner of Final Glide Championship Calls in Pennsylvania. "You have to learn to read the geese to avoid overcalling."
Geese are gregarious creatures. They like to be in a crowd. They like to join the group. And they like to converse. Birds in the air talk to each other and to geese on the ground, and vice versa.
Twenty years ago, Zink and his buddies could break out their calls in the middle of a Wal-Mart parking lot, work them at a flock passing overhead, and those geese would give serious consideration to landing amid the shopping carts and minivans.
"If you knew what you were doing, it was easy to call geese back then," he said. "Hardly anybody could call well, so those who could were really effective."
Back in the 1990s, short-reeds were in their infancy. The call market was dominated by flutes and simple honker calls. Honker calls were just that — calls that honked. Anyone could pick one up, push some air through it and say "her-onk, her-onk, her-onk." Yes, they sounded goosey, but it would be like walking around a party and saying only "Hello" over and over to every person you see.
Geese grew wary of that sound, but they were suckers for a skilled, thoughtful mix of notes played on a flute, or, even more so, a short-reed.
"It was amazing how effective good calling was 20 years ago," Zink said.
Today, it's a whole new ballgame, according to Zink. Good calls that sound awesome are everywhere, and guys are taking the time to become skilled with them.
"What happens now, is geese come in to a decoy spread and they hear all this calling," Zink said. "A couple of birds get shot, and the rest leave educated. If they survive a couple of those situations, they're going to be nervous when they hear that calling."
To illustrate his point, Zink pointed to one of his friends, Steve Todtz, owner of Grey Bruce Outfitters in Ontario. Todtz's hunting parties annually bag as many as 3,000 honkers as they head down the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways.
"They kill 3,000, but how many do they educate?" Zink said. "Twenty thousand? Thirty thousand? It's a lot of geese. And he's just one outfitter."
Bottom line is, since Canadas these days now hear a lot of good calling, it's easy to overcall.
Know Thy Fowl
Having said that, calling still has its place in the blinds. Josh Dokken, marketing specialist for Maxx Outdoors, the makers of Banded Calls, can't imagine not taking a goose call on a goose hunt.
Geese already have a certain interest level when they're coming to your decoys, Dokken said. "I use my call to play with that interest level."
Not all Canada geese are the same. There are many subspecies. You need to know which ones you're hunting to get an idea of what kind of calling you'll need to do.
"If you're hunting a bunch of giants, it's probably not going to do any good to hit them with a ton of fast clucking," Zink said. "Those birds make more moans and slow clucks, and that's what they like to hear. But the cacklers and lessers, they love the fast, high-pitched stuff.
"I like to say, 'The smaller the geese, the more you call. The bigger the geese, the less you call.'"
Also, it's generally the strangers in town (migrators) that will show the greatest interest in decoys and calling.
"It seems like when a new bunch of birds moves in, they like to hear a lot of calling," Rhine said. "They'll be calling a lot, so you want to call back to them."
That changes as the season wears on, though. A bunch of migrators that show up on Maryland's Eastern Shore in late December is new to the area, but they've certainly heard plenty of calling on their trip south from Canada. With migrators, you might have to call fast and loud to them from a distance, then tone things down as they get closer.
Resident geese are a different beast. These birds are in the area all year long, they know their territory and they know where they're going.
"You might be able to call to the locals the first couple days of the season, but after that, they're on to calling," Rhine said. "There are times later on in the season where we don't call to them at all."
Scouting should let you know what kind of geese you'll be hunting.
"So many people just go and look for geese in a field to find a place to hunt," Zink said. "It's very important to watch those geese. See how they communicate with one another. Listen to the calls they're making. All of that information is important when it comes to figuring out the right way to call so that you don't overcall."
Read the Birds
So how do you know when you're calling too much?
"Watch the geese and listen to them," Zink said. "Take their temperature first, rather than just roll out and start calling like crazy."
When Zink sees a flock of honkers winging toward his rig, he listens.
"Geese that are comfortable will be talking," he said. "If you see geese coming at you that aren't making any noise, or geese that start out calling and then quit — those are geese that are nervous. You have to be careful with those geese."
So long as the geese in the air are calling, Zink will call back. But when he encounters those quiet, nervous birds, Zink shuts up.
"There are a lot of times that I don't even pick up my call," he said. "I'll grab the flag and show them a little movement, but I won't call."
Rhine follows the same pattern. He's been in the field, calling to flocks that flew right past his rig without showing any interest.
"We quit calling, and the next flock comes right in," he said.
Dokken operates a little differently. He said there's rarely a time when he stops calling altogether.
"I think that signals to the geese in the air that something is wrong," he said. "I don't want the incoming birds to suddenly become alarmed."
But that doesn't mean Dokken is blaring away, full-bore, on his call as geese work his rig. He watches the wingbeats of incoming birds to figure out what he needs to do.
"You want to see very little movement in the wings," he said. "As long as that's what I'm seeing, I keep calling the way I've been calling.
"If you see the wings start pumping and the birds pick up, you have to change. You're losing those geese."
Dokken said he has no set call that he switches to when he sees geese start pumping. He just tries something different to see if he gets a favorable reaction.
All three experts agree that the primary sin of many goose over callers is turning up the volume too much. There are geese that want to hear chatter until they drop the landing gear. But that doesn't mean callers should be huffing out all the air in their lungs with each note, barrels wide open.
"You can tone it down, but keep calling," Rhine said.
The simplest method for dialing back the volume is to close your hand around the end of the barrel. Call with the barrel uncovered, then call again with it covered. The difference is readily apparent. You can squeeze your hand tighter and tighter around that barrel to close it off even more. Eventually, you'll close it off entirely and no sound will come out. Find that point and remember it to know how much pressure is too much.
You can also ease back on the air you put through a call. When you're trying to reach out to distant geese, you're probably pushing a ton of air through the barrel. Veins in your temples and neck will bulge from the internal pressure. Ease up. Find out how lightly you can blow to get your call to produce the sounds you want.
Changing calls can allow you to tone down. The way a call works is by air blown into the mouthpiece causing a reed to vibrate while sitting on a tone board. Some reeds are stiffer than others. They require more air to generate vibration, and so they tend to be louder than calls with more flexible reeds. If you know what you're doing, you can shave a reed's thickness with a knife to make it more flexible.
Have calls made of different materials that you can switch between. Acrylic is the hardest, and so the loudest. Delrin is a bit softer and therefore mellower.
"Wood calls are the most mellow," Rhine said. "You can really get quiet and goosey with a wood call."
So as you're hailing to a distant flock, you might want to blow an acrylic call with a stiff reed, with the barrel unblocked. As the honkers close in, Rhine said a caller might consider switching to a softer style call (a wood one if you can find it) with a thin reed, and squeeze in on the barrel, to produce quiet, soft calls.
Have a full vocabulary at your disposal, and know when to blow which notes. The hail call is obviously for distant birds. Be able to cluck fast and slow, with a lot of volume and a little. The little geese Zink talked about often like to hear quiet clucking until they're on the ground. Big geese, on the other hand, might prefer to hear growling or feeding murmurs. If you can make all these sounds, then you can play around with them.
"Experience is going to be your best teacher," Rhine said. "The more things you try, the faster you'll figure out what works and what doesn't."
Hunting With the Band
One of the great things we all love about honker hunting is it's a team sport. It's something to do with buddies. We share the work of setting up and tearing down a decoy rig. We love the stories and jokes during the slow times, and high-fives when the barrels get hot.
When you've got a bunch of guys together for a hunt, it's imperative that you organize the calling.
"If you just have everyone doing their own thing, all you're going to do is create this wall of sound," said Dokken. "I've never been on a hunt where a wall of sound did any good."
In squads that he's leading, Dokken actually prefers that he be the only caller.
"I've found that, in most situations, one caller is enough," he said. "I can read the geese, figure out how I need to call and then do it. I don't have to worry about someone else calling over me."
Zink and Rhine are both fans of letting several people call, but declaring one person the band leader.
"You have one person in charge and everybody else kind of feeds off of that person," Rhine said.
The head caller is responsible for reading the birds and dictating what he wants the group to say. He can do that simply by calling and letting the others follow his lead. That requires having experienced callers in the group, Rhine explained. Callers who can recognize when the leader is backing off the pressure he's putting through his call, or when he's changing notes to something more subtle.
Or the boss can bark out orders for what he wants the others to do.
"Only one person can be in charge," Zink said. "Sometimes it's hard to be the other three or four guys, but the calling has to be organized."
One of the joys of goose hunting is working calls. But if you want to kill geese, it's critical to learn the difference between calling and overcalling. We don't deprive ourselves of sleep to get to the field early to deploy a fine spread of decoys, just to sit in our blinds and listen to each other call. We want the smell of gunpowder in our noses and the feel of downy feathers in our hands.
As the goose guru Zink says: Sometimes, less is more.