by Matt Young
Goose hunting, it seems, has always been one of the most labor-intensive forms of waterfowling. Legendary outdoor writer Nash Buckingham wrote extensively about the trials and tribulations of goose hunting along the lower Mississippi River before the advent of the outboard motor. To reach goose loafing areas on sandbars exposed by fluctuating river levels, he and his hunting partners rowed a boat loaded with heavy plywood "profile" decoys long distances across backwaters and up and down side channels, in some cases against heavy current. Once they reached their intended hunting area, they dug chest-deep pits in the heavy, wet sand for concealment.
All in good fun.
Such backbreaking physical labor has largely become a thing of the past, but goose hunters remain an extremely hardworking and innovative group. Many "serious" goose hunters invest hundreds-if not thousands-of dollars in decoys, blinds, and other equipment, and they spend years mastering the intricate language of Canada geese with high-tech acrylic calls.
While recent advances in gear and tactics have undoubtedly made today's goose hunters more effective than ever before, the sport has also become so complicated and gear-oriented that those who don't know any better could easily conclude that goose hunting is too difficult and expensive to get into. Which raises the question: How much time, money, and effort are really needed to hunt Canada geese?
Three expert goose hunters-Darrel Wise, Matt Wettish, and George Lynch-say it's a lot less than you might think. Read on to learn how you can get into goose hunting the easy way.
Decoys: Think Small
When it comes to decoy spreads, many goose hunters are convinced that bigger is better. Spreads of more than 10 dozen full-body decoys are now common on the goose hunting landscape, and many hunters use custom decoy trailers to transport their prodigious spreads to and from the field. But veteran outfitter Darrell Wise contends that huge rigs of decoys are often unnecessary to successfully hunt geese in many areas. "The number of decoys you use depends on whether you are hunting next to a refuge or hunting geese that are feeding in a field," says Wise, who has hunted Canada geese for more than four decades in the western United States and Canada. "Next to a refuge, you need to use a lot of decoys to confuse the birds as to which side of the fence you are on. Consequently, hunting in these areas is not recommended for beginners or those looking for an easy hunt. But if you find a field where geese are actively feeding, then the number of decoys you use isn't important at all. Because geese have already made up their minds that they are going there to feed anyway, all you are doing is marking the spot. That's why when I hunt geese on my own for fun, all I use is maybe 18 silhouette decoys."
Michigan outfitter George Lynch has also had good success for years hunting over small decoy spreads. "If you hunt by yourself or with only one or two other people, you don't have to use that many decoys," says Lynch, who is also owner of Lynch Mob Goose Calls and a member of the Avery pro staff. "A dozen or 18 full-bodies with motion stakes make a good starter rig. If you're on a tight budget, you can either buy them yourself four or six at a time or split the cost of a dozen with a buddy. I also like to mix in a half-dozen shells that I place on the ground to look like resting or sleeping birds. Then your rig includes decoys that are moving like actively feeding birds, as well as decoys that look like birds that are resting and content. It says to the geese that this is a place with both food and safety-everything the birds are looking for.
"Another huge advantage of hunting with a small spread is it enables you to pick up your decoys and get out of a field quickly after you bag your birds," Lynch continues. "This will allow you to hunt a particular field for more than just one day and bag more birds in the long run than guys who go in with a trailer and spend all morning in the field."
Another option for hunters who wish to build an inexpensive goose rig is silhouette decoys. "I have hunted over just about every kind of decoy imaginable and nothing beats the versatility of silhouettes," says Wettish, an avid Connecticut goose hunter and president of The Outdoor Media Group. "They are lightweight, easy to carry, and easy to put down and pick up. You can also place them on hillsides, and they look great in shallow water up to their belly. While hunting on ponds and tidal creeks, I might put a few in the water to look like birds that have just landed, and I put the rest on the shoreline to look like feeding and resting birds."
Lynch says another way to save money on decoys without sacrificing quality is to buy smaller full-body decoys rather than life-size models or magnums. "I like to use lesser Canada goose decoys," he says. "They are cheaper and lighter than standard decoys, and they are almost identical in size to juvenile Canada geese. The trend in goose hunting is to use bigger and bigger decoys, but I've found that geese will often finish better to smaller decoys, maybe because of the depth perception factor. And if everybody around you is using oversized decoys, going to a smaller decoy might actually give your spread a better look."
Wise has this advice for how to deploy small decoy spreads in a typical field-hunting situation: "When I get to the place where I want to hunt, I'll set my blind down, and then I'll set one decoy 25 steps away as a marker. This will be the farthest decoy from my blind. Then I'll set my decoys in two groups about five to 10 yards apart. I put about 10 to 12 decoys in one group and six or eight in the other. This looks like one smaller flock of geese has just landed next a larger flock of feeding birds. Most of the time, geese will try to land right between the two groups of decoys."
Wettish also believes that decoy placement is critical when hunting with a small spread. "On ponds and in small fields, you need to watch the birds once or twice before you hunt them," he says. "In many cases, geese-especially resident birds-will come in from a particular direction because of the location of trees, power lines, or other structures. It doesn't matter which way the wind is blowing. If there is a big oak standing by the pond or on the edge of the field, the geese are going to swing around it and come in from the opposite direction. I set my decoys where I expect the birds to land. That way, you will end up with better shots and cleaner kills."
Calling: Less is More
No other aspect of goose hunting has been the source of more growth and innovation than calling. The advent of the flute and more recently the short-reed goose call has revolutionized the sport by enabling hunters to accurately reproduce a wide range of Canada goose sounds. But the fact is, old school goose hunters like Buckingham bagged untold numbers of geese long before anyone had ever heard of a double cluck or spit note. "I hunted geese very successfully for 27 years without even owning a goose call," Wise admits. "I'm dating myself by saying this, but part of the reason was they didn't make very good goose calls back then. Today we have some good calls that will make every possible goose sound, and they will add life to your decoys in a way that can help you bag more birds. That said, in my opinion, calling is the least important element in a successful goose hunt behind scouting, concealment, and decoys."
Lynch agrees. "Calling is the finisher that will bring geese right into the landing zone," he says. "Everybody wants to blow their call when they are in the field, but a lot of guys are better goose callers than goose hunters. As I like to say in my seminars, how many champion-calling geese have you heard? I have learned to pay more attention to the body language of working geese than to their vocal language. If geese are relaxed and coming straight into the decoys, a lot of times I won't call at all."
And Wettish cautions that hunters can do more harm than good by overcalling in many situations. "You can definitely blow geese out with a call, especially in small fields and on the water," he says. "Don't do the fancy stuff if you can't pull it off. Hunters shouldn't call any more than the birds normally would in the area you are hunting."
In truth, Lynch says that hunters have to master only a few basic sounds in order to be effective callers in the field. "If you listen to geese while they are on the ground, they really say very little-just a few clucks here and there and a lot of feeding murmur," he explains. "Learn the basics of how to hold a call and bring air up from your diaphragm. Then practice until you can make a good single cluck and natural-sounding feeding murmur. If you can do this, then you've got what it takes to call geese. This basic approach is a whole lot easier than trying to learn all the double clucks, spit notes, and comeback calls, and you won't have to worry about overcalling either."
Concealment: Keep it Simple
If there is one thing on which all experienced goose hunters agree, it is that concealment, more than any other factor, can make or break a goose hunt. "In most cases when geese don't finish, it's not because of your decoys. It's because they are seeing you or recognizing your blinds," Wise attests. "It doesn't matter how badly geese want to be in the field. If you aren't completely covered up in a natural manner, you are going to have a bad day. But the good news is there is no reason why hunters shouldn't be fully concealed. It's something that you can control. There are plenty of things in goose hunting that you can't control, so if there are elements of a hunt that you can control-like concealment-you should take full advantage of it and tip the odds in your favor."
Whenever possible, Wettish uses natural cover for concealment. "Layout blinds are great inventions, but you don't have to use one every time you go goose hunting," he says. "You can save yourself a lot of effort by simply wearing a face mask and hunkering down in cattails beside a pond or in a brush pile along a fencerow."
Wise has used similar tactics with equal success. "I have literally killed thousands of geese out of what I call a wire blind," he says. "It consists of two panels of hog wire, six pieces of rebar, and a PVC-frame top that wires onto the back of the blind and flips back. It costs hardly anything, a kid can make one in about 10 minutes, and you can easily fold it up and throw it in the back of a pickup truck when you're done. The key is to thoroughly cover the blind with local vegetation by weaving it through the hog wire. The blind's only limitation is that you have to hunt on the edge of a field or a fencerow. A lot of people think you have to hunt in the middle of a field, but if birds like the look of your decoys and can't see the blind, they will often come right in. They just think the geese have shifted over to one side of the field on that particular morning."
Lynch, who prefers to hunt from an Avery Powerhunter blind, agrees that the key to concealment is to blend in with your surroundings. "If you are in a field with sparse stubble, mud your blind real well and put just enough stubble in the straps to match your surroundings," he advises. "If you are hunting in thick stubble, don't hesitate to cover up your blind with stalks. Another thing people neglect to do, especially early in the season, is to add some green stalks to the cover on their blinds. Many hunters don't do this because green isn't thought of as a fall color, but many fields have a lot of green vegetation in them, whether it's volunteer crop early in the season or winter grasses later in the season."
Another common mistake made by many goose hunters, according to Lynch, is hunting in groups that are too large to conceal. "It's much easier to hide hunters in smaller groups," he explains. "Instead of hunting with six guys, split up into two groups of three or three groups of two. This will even work in the same field. Geese often break up into family groups when they feed, so this will look very natural to the birds. It will also allow you to cover a larger area of the field, which will in increase your chances of decoying birds."
With Canada goose populations on the rise and long seasons and liberal bag limits in effect throughout much of North America, there has never been a better time to take up goose hunting. And as the aforementioned experts clearly attest, it's easy to get into the game without breaking your back or your bank account.