A migrating Canada goose makes a noisy landing.
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.