November 03, 2010
Hunting whitey solo style.
Cautiously circling with heads turning side to side, 40 snow geese slowly dropped down, just 10 minutes after the sun had melted into the western horizon. Their wariness ebbed as they bunched together making a pass less than 15 yards above the center opening of the decoys.
Waiting for the wind.
No words were spoken or command given as I rose from my lay down blind and swung my barrel onto its first target. I saw a bird crumple with the first shot and quickly swung to the second bird and watched it fold as well. The third and fourth shots brought similar results on this close decoying flock. My fifth shot saw the frantic geese still on the edge of shooting range as I jerked the trigger and watched a blue shudder.
As the geese flew west, I watched as three of them were losing altitude from the flock. A quarter-mile later, I saw one of those geese drop into a pasture, and the others disappeared into the growing darkness. I jumped from my blind and found three geese lying in my decoy spread and a fourth a few yards outside. I had marked where the floater had dropped and after a quick walk punctuated by a short chase, in the growing dusk, I had my fifth goose from the final salvo of the day.
It was the spring conservation season, and these geese had been fooled by a mere spread of 220 decoys that I had set by myself. Earlier that morning, three snows and a blue had fallen to my gun, and an hour before sunset, a small flock of Ross' geese left two of their group behind. I had never dropped five geese from a single flock before, so that brought a great finish to what had already been a really good day in the field.
Snow goose hunting is usually done with 500, 800, 1,000 or more decoys and multiple hunters, but spring snows can be decoyed in close and taken with smaller spreads and a single hunter.
Gear intensive is an understatement. Downsizing is crutial when going solo.
If you are unsure about getting started on your own, a trip or two with a guide can be very helpful. I went with two different guides before I started on my own to get varying ideas on decoys, decoy placement, blinds and calls. Each guide used some different techniques and equipment, and I considered what would work best for me and the birds that I would be hunting.
With light geese, snows, and Ross', decoy movement is always important. The bulk of my decoys are basic windsocks to which I've added feather details. There are some excellent windsocks on the market with stenciled and printed feather details, but if you want the satisfaction of detailing your own decoys, as well as saving some expenses, it can be done quite easily.
For the snows, use a can of flat black spray paint and make an X near the tail of the white decoys. Or, you can cut your own pattern into a piece of cardboard to use for adding some wing tip black feather details. Lay this pattern on a decoy that you've spread on the ground, spray it, carefully lift the piece of cardboard, and you're done. You can also use a can of flat gray spray paint to streak a few of your white windsocks to give them the look of juvenile snows.
For the blues, using the brown windsocks, take the gray and paint a streak where the upper wing would be. You can lay several down on the ground or garage floor at once to do this. Then for some extra realism, after the gray had dried, fold or crumple the decoys long ways, use a can of flat white spray paint, and spray or streak the wing tip areas. This will give an extra real-life appearance to your blue goose windsocks. Leave some of them solid brown to simulate young blues.
Rigged and ready.
I also use two- to four-dozen windsocks with heads in my spread. Some of the white decoys have feather details, and those that don't, I paint just as I did the other snow goose windsocks. For an added touch, I use a black marker for the eyes, and some pale flat pink paint for the bills of those that have no detailing. If you want close decoying birds, some of these details could make the difference.
To add blue goose windsocks with heads, start with the economy Canada goose windsocks and paint the bodies as you did the other blue goose windsocks. The entire head and neck can be painted white, or white on the head and brown on the neck.
A couple of goose magnets, especially when there is some wind, looks like geese dropping into the spread or hop scotching over one another as they feed. There are other "flying" decoys, but with the heads on the goose magnets, they have a good up-close appearance.
Shell decoys will add a lot to your spread, especially in low or no wind conditions. The newer models now come with a straight plastic stake which is quick in setting up and gives some motions in wind conditions compared to the older models that used to a have a "T" stake. Using the stakes also gives better visibility to the decoys when hunting in corn stubble.
The full body decoys are very lifelike but if you are going to be hunting alone and have to carry decoys any distance at all, they will be quite cumbersome. If you will be able to drive out to your hunting spot and can afford some full bodies, then they could be an added advantage.
Just out of range, but not for the camera...
A goose flag can add some movement or be used as an attention grabber in low wind conditions, but when there is enough wind to move the windsocks and flyers, it probably isn't quite as important to use a flag.
For spring snows, an electronic call, when used properly, is a big help. Some flocks may start as small specks in the sky and take 20 to 40 minutes to drop down into shooting range, and the electronic calls allow continuous "goose music" throughout that time. It's also difficult for one person to sound like a flock of geese. The white birds won't drop recklessly to these calls,
but there are techniques that seem to help. Start with a good recording.
There are many on the market, some sounding like large flocks and others have more individual sounds. When working a flock, start the call loud while they are high or distant and cut the volume as they get nearer. Different flocks may act differently to the volume change so watch their reactions and try to adjust accordingly. Sometimes, when they turn away or drift downwind, increasing the volume gives a more insistent sound. A mouth call can also be used in conjunction with the electronic call.
The author after a great day afield.
As a flock gets closer and the volume on the electronic call is cut, a few barks or some feeding gabble on the mouth call can seal the deal. I have used this method on a couple of stubborn singles, but most times I'm too caught up in enjoying the show of the working birds and adjusting the volume of the electronic call and my mouth call remains dangling at my side.
You could lie on the ground in the decoys, wearing a white parka, but a field blind is warmer, more comfortable, and covers some movement. There are many types of blinds including hay-bale blinds, low profile blinds, and goose chairs. Think about where you might be hunting and which blind would work best for you before you make a purchase.
A lot has been written about guns and loads for snow geese, and much of it can be personal preference. I use a 12-gauge pump loaded with 3-inch 11„8- or 11„4-ounce of number 2s, BB, or BBB steel shot, and an open or improved-cylinder choke tube. Using a pump in tough conditions, I don't have to worry too much about dirt or grit. Patterning different loads at 30, 40 and, possibly, even 50 yards will show what pattern your gun will throw at these distances.
Ten- and 12-gauge 31„2-inch loads provide more shot for those who prefer these guns, but if you are flinching because of the extra recoil, the advantages can be for naught. The most important thing is the gun and load you are most comfortable with, so you can put the shot where it needs to be. When the migration is at its peak, be sure to have a good stock of ammo because two boxes of shells in a day is not unusual.
The mid-continent spring migration brings most of the geese through Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota. Some intranet scouting and calls to state wildlife offices can be helpful. If you can find private ground in one of these states along a regular travel corridor and are the only person hunting the field or area, so much the better. If conditions allow you to drive near, or to the spot that you want to hunt, you're on your way. Be sure to get permission to hunt, and ask about driving into the field, and where best to park your vehicle. When you finish hunting, be sure to pick up any trash including spent shells, because you don't want to lose access to a hunting spot because of litter.
Great public hunting areas can also be found with a little effort. One year after some scouting, I hunted a field on a public hunting area in Missouri. It took two trips to carry all of my equipment in nearly three quarters of a mile, but it produced some very good results. Because of the long walk and light winds, I used only 140 decoys that day, including two-dozen shell decoys, three-dozen windsocks with heads, and the rest were headless windsocks, and this spread worked very well. The first day that I hunted this spot, during the peak migration, I took four trips to carry everything back out because it included 17 geese by 2 p.m. I didn't mind the extra trips at all.
Though that wasn't a normal day there, I have had many great days and good hunts on public fields, and after that first year I added a large two-wheeled cart for hauling my gear. A lot of decoys and equipment can be hauled on the larger carts if you use several nylon cinch straps.
There are many decoy setups that will help bring the geese into your spread, including a "U", a "V", an "X", or an oval spread with an opening in the center. Often times the geese will gravitate towards the openings, but there will also be times when they drop down toward the outside edges. Setting your blind toward the lower, downwind side and facing it with the wind will usually put you in a position for good shooting. I often turn my blind slightly to the right, since I'm right handed, and this allows me to swing my gun to the left, covering a larger target area.
Depending on the field and wind direction, I've also set up at the edge of a field along a fence row with my blind 15 to 20 yards downwind of the decoy spread and the wind in my face. As the geese come into the decoys, they're looking away from me, and when I pop up out of my blind they don't flare because they haven't seen me.
I was using this type of setup recently on a very windy day. Watching a large flock of geese out of the back of my blind, I could see that they were flying very low as they were fighting the wind coming toward my spread. When they came over the top of my blind at 10 to 15 feet, the excitement was more than I could stand... I rose from my blind just after they came over, almost able to see each wrinkle of their feet!
I "tenderized" the first bird and swung hard to my left for my second shot and saw it glide toward the ground after the shot. Surprise and disappointment came over me as I saw nothing but empty skies around me after that second shot. They had caught the wind and made a quick retreat behind me. I knew that I should let them go past me and over the decoys, but the sight and sound of snows that close caused a temporary loss in sound judgment on my part.
Will these tips and setups work all of the time? No, because something that works one day may not work the next. These are still snow geese, and though many hunters degrade them or give them a bad rap, they will always have my respect and admiration. They are cautious and truly wild birds, nesting where the roads have ended, and polar bears and caribou call home.
After nesting and rearing broods, they are hunted for the next nine months from Canada, down the flyways of the U.S., and some as far as Mexico on their southern migration, and then on their northward migration back through the U.S. and Canada as they return to their breeding grounds. They are wary, and at times frustrating beyond imagination, but when the hunt works, it can bring a lot of excitement into a day afield.
Waterfowling, including snow goose hunting, is usually a gathering of friends or family, a time to get together in the outdoors, but if your hunting buddies can't go out when you're ready, or you just want to get out by yourself, spring snows can be hunted on your own. It's a great time to get out and fill the void between the end of the regular waterfowl season and the opening of spring turkey season. It will be a lot of work, and there won't be anyone else to pick up the slack, but solitary time outdoors is great for contemplating and reflecti
ng on everyday life and the world around you.
In those quiet moments, the sights and sounds can seem so much more vivid, but be ready; as the sky takes on the colors of a rainbow in the eastern horizon and that first flock of the day starts to break up and swirl above you, your heart will begin to pound like a drum and the chores of setting up by yourself will soon be forgotten.