HARD­SHIP HONKERS

A mi­grat­ing Canada goose makes a noisy land­ing.

Outdoor Life - - CONTENTS - by brad fitz­patrick and alex robin­son

Our fly­ways are full of Canada geese, but you’d bet­ter up your game if you want to shoot lim­its of these wary birds.

The great fall mi­gra­tion is on, but these aren’t your grand­dad’s geese. To con­sis­tently limit out on today’s honkers, you’ve got to get hard­core

The old­est known waterfowl to be banded and re­cov­ered in North Amer­ica was a Canada goose that lived for 30 years and four months. That’s 30 au­tumns of avoid­ing preda­tors and hun­ters’ guns.

The point: Geese are wa­ter­fowl­ing’s ul­ti­mate sur­vival­ists. We might have a bounty of birds—both res­i­dent and mi­gra­tory pop­u­la­tions of geese are ei­ther sta­ble or in­creas­ing in al­most ev­ery fly­way—but con­sis­tently tak­ing geese has never been more chal­leng­ing. That’s be­cause over just a few gen­er­a­tions, honkers have adapted to evade stan­dard hunt­ing tac­tics. Other forces working against the modern-day goose hunter in­clude more ef­fi­cient farm­ing prac­tices, un­pre­dictable fall weather, and chang­ing mi­gra­tion pat­terns. To kill ed­u­cated geese, hun­ters must adapt as well.

1. SCOUT­ING: WATCH AND WAIT

▶ Ryan Breish, an ac­com­plished wa­ter­fowler from Michi­gan and one of the creators of the Fowled Re­al­ity video series, scouts geese as care­fully as a white­tail hunter mon­i­tors a tro­phy buck. When Breish finds a mob of field geese (and gets per­mis­sion to hunt them) he doesn’t move in the next morn­ing. If the fore­cast calls for mul­ti­ple days of cold, sta­ble weather, he opts to watch the geese for an­other day or two, to see ex­actly how they are us­ing the field.

Breish moves in with a group of bud­dies to ac­tu­ally hunt only af­ter he knows where the geese want to feed, when they want to feed, how they en­ter the field, and where the best hide is lo­cated.

“Geese are pres­sured now and they get ed­u­cated fast,” Breish says. “You might only get one chance to hunt a field, so you want to do it right.”

2. DECOYING: GO BIG, OR GO SMALL

▶ Wayne Rad­cliffe, sales man­ager for Banded and a vet­eran Eastern shore goose hunter, opts for a mega spread dur­ing the last few days of the sea­son. He’ll find a hot field or a good lo­ca­tion to run traf­fic and gather up all his bud­dies who have de­coys. With this small army of hun­ters, he’ll set 35 to 40 dozen dekes. Only a frac­tion of the hun­ters ac­tu­ally sit in the blind to start (the rest wait at the trucks and watch the ac­tion from afar) be­cause it’s eas­ier to hide fewer hun­ters. Once the birds start drop­ping and guys limit out, Rad­cliffe ro­tates new hun­ters in to the blind un­til ev­ery­one in the group gets their geese.

John Tay­lor of Bay Coun­try Calls (and for­mer world-cham­pion caller ) likes the ex­act op­po­site tac­tic dur­ing the fi­nal days of the sea­son. He’ll use only seven or eight ul­tra-re­al­is­tic full-body de­coys and set them as far from the blind as he’s com­fort­able shoot­ing.

Both tac­tics are de­signed to do the same thing:

Show pres­sured geese a to­tally dif­fer­ent spread from what they’ve been see­ing all sea­son long.

3. CALL­ING: ONE PIECE AT A TIME

▶ Tay­lor is a goose call­ing champ who can belt out a ca­coph­ony of honks, clucks, and moans so that he sounds like a full flock of geese. But you won’t hear him do­ing that in the be­gin­ning of the sea­son. Tay­lor hunts fields around Ch­e­sa­peake Bay—a ma­jor win­ter­ing area for At­lantic Fly­way honkers. The birds he tar­gets are there to stay all sea­son; they’re not mi­grat­ing through. So Tay­lor calls only as much as is nec­es­sary to bring the birds in. His goal is to ed­u­cate as few geese as pos­si­ble on each en­gage­ment.

“Say you’ve got a flock of 12 geese. You call them

in with ev­ery­thing you’ve got and kill only three. The next day you see a flock of nine birds com­ing from the same di­rec­tion. You hit them with the same call se­quence as be­fore be­cause you’ve got noth­ing else left to throw at them. I’m bet­ting those geese are not go­ing to come in,” Tay­lor says.

So don’t give them the kitchen-sink ap­proach right away. Start with sim­ple honks and clucks. If that is enough to bring in birds, stick with it. As the sea­son pro­gresses, get more ag­gres­sive—add some spit­moans and mix in more peo­ple call­ing to sound like more geese. If the birds re­spond pos­i­tively, keep the vol­ume cranked up. But re­mem­ber that each day is dif­fer­ent. Read the geese and ad­just to their re­ac­tion.

4. HID­ING: THE OFF-CEN­TER U

▶ Low-pro­file lay­out blinds can get you only so far. Cole Fabro, a diehard goose hunter from Min­nesota, tweaks his decoy spread to help him hide bet­ter. Imag­ine the typ­i­cal U-shaped spread with a tight clump of de­coys at the bot­tom of the U and the open­ing of the U fac­ing down­wind. Most hun­ters set their blinds so that they are hid­ing in the bot­tom of the U and the geese are fin­ish­ing in front of them, fly­ing head-on into the wind. Fabro moves his blinds off-cen­ter (slid­ing up one of the arms on the U), so that when the geese fin­ish, they’re not look­ing to­ward the blinds. In­stead, they’re of­fer­ing up a broad­side cross­ing shot as they set down in the kill hole at the bot­tom of the U.

“When geese see spread af­ter spread that all look the same, just mak­ing a small change like mov­ing the blinds off to the side can make a big dif­fer­ence,” Fabro says.

THREE SLEEPER DES­TI­NA­TIONS

By Brad Fitz­patrick There’s an up­side to the chang­ing mi­gra­tion pat­terns: Over­looked spots all around the coun­try are see­ing more birds than ever. Here are my top three picks for the trav­el­ing goose hunter. 1. NORTH­ERN CAL­I­FOR­NIA

▶ The Up­per Butte Basin, a network of low-ly­ing sloughs and oxbows that cov­ers 9,600 acres in Butte and Glenn Coun­ties in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia, is one of

the most im­por­tant win­ter­ing des­ti­na­tions for waterfowl in the Pa­cific Fly­way. Canadas pour in here by the tens of thou­sands each fall, so this is a prime place to take your limit of birds. There’s a lottery sys­tem for hunt per­mits here, but with so much great waterfowl habi­tat and so many birds pass­ing through the area, this is one of the best waterfowl des­ti­na­tions in the West. The best time to visit is in De­cem­ber, and the bag limit is 10 dark geese.

2. SOUTH­WEST IDAHO

▶ Idaho is fa­mous for its big-game hunt­ing, but the south­west cor­ner of the state is a prime des­ti­na­tion for geese. That’s be­cause the Snake River ir­ri­ga­tion plain holds plenty of big wa­ter that stays open year-round, and it boasts mil­lions of acres of agri­cul­tural fields. It should be no sur­prise, then, that this area fills up with honkers through­out the fall. Plus, with a wealth of pub­lic land and nu­mer­ous ac­cess points, the Snake of­fers plenty of space to get away from the crowds. Goose sea­son runs Oc­to­ber through Jan­uary, and the daily bag limit is four birds.

3. FIN­GER LAKES RE­GION, NEW YORK

▶ More than one mil­lion waterfowl pass through Up­state New York each fall, ac­cord­ing to the U.S.

Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice. Dur­ing peak mi­gra­tion, the goose pop­u­la­tion in the Fin­ger Lakes re­gion ex­ceeds 50,000. The fields sur­round­ing the Mon­tezuma Na­tional Wildlife Refuge are the best spots in the re­gion for honkers. And with more geese over­win­ter­ing here, hunter suc­cess con­tin­ues to grow. You can ex­pect ac­tion from Oc­to­ber through Jan­uary.

A hunter hauls a full load of honkers from a corn­field.

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