Scheduled Vs. Unscheduled flights: Sometimes you find the "X", other times you have to create your own.
"Let's get the show started. There's a flock of geese in the distance," I hollered to my hunting partners. Instantly, the four of us started waving our flags and honking loudly on our goose calls with the intention of catching the attention of the distant geese. After a minute or so, we high-jacked the geese and caused them to change their flight path.
Even though the birds had started to veer toward us, we continued with our aggressive flagging and calling. In short order, the deal was sealed. The flock of geese was locked in on us and rapidly approaching. At that point, we quit flagging, but continued calling. The geese kept coming. Before long, they were on the outer edge of the right side of our spread and checking things out. Within seconds, the geese quickly flew past our spread and started hooking around for another look.
As they did so, I quickly lifted my flag and started to "stair-step" it downward to represent a landing goose. This action caused the geese to cut hard and in short order, they were headed for the open landing zone within the decoys. Moments later, we popped up from our blinds and interrupted the landing process.
In similar fashion to an air traffic controller communicating to incoming flights, I can and do communicate with airborne ducks and geese with the intentions of coaxing them into my landing zones. While airports and air traffic controllers use a series of radar, GPS co-ordinates, radio communication, flashing lights and smooth runways, I rely on scouting, calls, flags, decoy spreads and the strategy of adequate decoy spreads with open/obvious landing zones.
The vast majority of my field hunting takes place in the mornings, with afternoon scouting sessions. Hunting the X is my favorite method of field hunting. By taking the time to scout and pattern the birds, I can determine when and where the "scheduled flights" are arriving and be set up and waiting in the exact spot to welcome the flights as they arrive.
However, there are times when I can't secure permission to hunt the X or someone else has obtained permission to hunt there prior to me asking. When these situations arise, it's time to run traffic, take control of the birds flight patterns and work some "unscheduled flights" towards my landing zones.
When hunting the X, I try to duplicate exactly what was observed during late afternoon scouting sessions. For starters, I always try to pinpoint the exact location where the birds were feeding. To determine the last and exact spot in the field where they were feeding before heading back to the roost, I'll find a vantage point and watch the feeding birds until dark.
While watching the feeding birds, I'll look for obvious landmarks that can be used to assist me in finding that exact spot when it's time to hunt. Implements, rocks piles and sloughs within the field work well. Large distinct objects such as barns, silos or clumps of brush that will easily show up in my headlights the next morning. When possible, I try to locate multiple items, so that I can triangulate the exact spot.
On other occasions, I'll count and keep track of fence posts, hilltops or swathes so that I'm able to quickly get to my spot under the cover of darkness. If there's ever any doubt about not being able to find the X the next morning I'll head into the field once the birds have left for the evening and set up some flagging to help guide me back to the right spot.
Becoming one with the windsocks...
Over time, I've learned that the better I can duplicate the previous days feeding pattern, the higher my odds of success are at luring the birds into shooting range. Hence, while figuring out how to find the X the next day, I also take note of how many birds are using the field, what species of birds are in the field and how they spread out as they feed.
Based on my observations, I know exactly how many decoys and what species I'll be using the next day, what pattern they will be deployed in and how far apart the decoys will be spaced out.
The only thing I do different when setting up the decoys to represent the previous days observations is make my landing zones or "runways" a little more obvious. This is achieved by exaggerating the landing zone by making it very large and obvious. In addition, active style decoys are strung out downwind of my blinds and landing zone to create the illusion of "lunch lines" of birds that have just landed and are running to join the feeding masses.
As incoming flights of ducks and geese approach my X spread, I'll watch them to see how committed they are. In most cases, if things are going well and the birds are approaching the landing zone as planned, controlled calling such as feeding calls, clucks and the occasional double cluck are all that is required to help draw them within shooting range. However, in instances where the birds start to slide or want to finish short of the landing zone, louder and more aggressive calling with lots of double clucking is used to grab the birds' attention with the intention of making them refocus on the landing strip I've prepared.
Experience has shown that in X situations, incoming birds are very aware of their surroundings and in control of where they want to go. Thus for these types of hunts, I try to use only my best decoys, the prettier the better, and typically use all full body goose and/or duck decoys on motion stakes. My reason being that the motion from these decoys is generally enough to keep things looking natural and allow the hunt to take place without the use of flags or spinning winged decoys.
Where I live and hunt in Saskatchewan, X hunts are the most predominant hunts. However, there are times when I am forced to hunt birds with the intention of trying to highjack their flight pattern and lure them into my field
. While I often find these hunts challenging, I also find them to be very rewarding.
When running traffic, scouting plays a major role in the outcome of my hunts. After locating where the birds are feeding and where they are coming from, a considerable amount of time is then invested in finding just the right field to set up in. When scouting for a location to set up a traffic hunt, I look for fields that are on the direct route between the roosting areas and the X or as close to the birds' direct flight path as possible; fields that are of the same crop type that the ducks or geese are feeding in; and fields that have a high ridge where my decoys will be very obvious to flying birds.
In the majority of cases, I try to short cut birds going to their feeding location and set up in a direct line between where the birds are feeding and where they're roosting. By doing so, the birds will naturally fly over my spread, which helps increase the odds of them actually working the decoys. While being exactly under the birds' flight path is the best case scenario, I've also had good luck setting up within a half mile or so on either side of the main flight path.
There are only two occasions that I'll actually try to hunt traffic in a field that is behind the X where the birds are feeding. The first scenario is when someone is actually hunting the birds' preferred feeding location. In such instances, I'll look for a field where I can set up within a mile or so of the X and usually just off to one side or the other of the X with hopes of duping birds that have been either shot at or have flared off the other hunter's decoys.
The second scenario is when hunting the resident geese close to my home city of Regina, where I try to lure birds out of a protected buffer zone and into areas where they can be hunted. This luring tactic seems to work best early in the season, when the birds have not seen a lot of pressure and on very nasty weather days when the birds are trying to cope with high winds, rain/snow or cold temperatures.
When running traffic and trying to lure birds into my decoys, I've found it vital to be set up in the same type of feeding field that the ducks and geese are utilizing. From my experiences in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba, it is almost next to impossible to get birds to give my spread a look if it's set up in a different crop type than the variety the birds have chosen to feed on.
My goal is to make sure that birds coming off the roost and winging it towards the X, can or are able to see my decoys. Thus, I always look for a field that has a ridge or a high spot where I can set up my decoys. If the luxury of finding multiple fields with similar characteristics comes along, I always choose the field that has the highest and most obvious ridge.
When setting up my decoys on the highest ground possible, I try to make my spread as visible as possible. This means spreading out my decoys so that my flock of imposters covers as much ground space as possible. As a rule of thumb, I try to double the distance between my decoys compared to what I observed while watching the birds on X. In most cases, this means putting my decoys three to four feet apart.
When running traffic, I also try to use as many decoys as I can possibly get my hands on. This means deploying multiple decoy styles such as full bodies, shells and silhouettes as well as multiple species such as ducks and geese with my best decoys farther downwind and my older less realistic decoys upwind. In addition, I'll also occasionally try to hook up with a buddy or two to set up a massive decoy spread.
Flags and calls play a very import role in my traffic hunts. The moment that distant birds are spotted, it's time to put on a convincing visual and sound show that will cause the birds to either land short of their intended feeding destination or to fly farther than they had originally intended.
Flags can be used for ducks and geese and are awesome for catching the attention of distant birds. By waving a flag in a stair stepping motion, I can make it look like a duck or goose landing.
A couple of cacklers that fell to the author's gun.
Even though I'm trying to catch distant birds' attention, I try to utilize controlled flagging and avoid violently shaking the flag like I would if starting a race. I also try to avoid moving my flag unnaturally by shaking it haphazardly or moving it in a figure eight pattern. Instead, I methodically twist, turn and flap my flag to imitate the actual movements of ducks and geese.
While I don't use my flag violently, I'm not shy about using it. To help ensure that distant geese are able to see my flag, I'll hold it in a vertical position so that the geese are able to see the entire surface area of the flag. While doing so, I strive to get my flag as high into the air as I possibly can and at times I'll even stand up to make my flag more visible.
Once my flag is at maximum height, I'll flap it several times to look like a hovering goose. Then I'll rapidly stair step the flag downwards to imitate a landing goose. By doing so, I create the illusion that all is well and birds are pouring into a prime feeding area. By having my partners do the same thing, we create the illusion of several birds dropping from the sky and into a prime feeding area.
Once the birds are committed and headed my way, I'll slowly reduce the amount of flagging that is used. At the same time, I'll watch the birds. If they start to slide off or start shifting back to their original flight path, I'll start flagging more aggressively with the intention of getting them to come to my landing zone.
Over time, I have found that loud and excited calling can be used to catch the attention of distant birds, change their flight patterns and draw them into gun range. My repertoire of attention grabbing calls includes hail calls, high balls and double clucks. While calling to the birds, I always watch their body language to see what calls and what series of cadences and pitches bring about the best reaction. Once I find what sounds or series of sounds are working, I keep working the birds until it's time to call the shot.
Although I never use spinning winged decoys for goose hunts, I'll occasionally use them when running traffic for ducks. While doing so, my typical set up involves two spinners set up in the landing zone in front of my blinds. I always set up the two spinners perpendicular to one another so that incoming ducks can catch the flash from 360-degree radius which greatly increases my chances of catching their attenti
In terms of motion for traffic goose hunts, I try to use as many motion decoys as possible and will mix windsock decoys amongst my stationary decoys to help bring life to my spread.
While I doubt that I'll ever get the opportunity to spend time in an air traffic control tower helping airplanes land, you can bet that when the waterfowling seasons are in full swing, I'll be somewhere in the cockpit of my layout blind trying to control the flight patterns of ducks and geese.