by John Pollman
What are the odds that if given a choice between sitting in a blind without a gun or not going out at all, many hunters would choose the latter?
Let's be honest: hunters love trigger time, but a vast majority of folks enjoy soaking in the sights of a morning on a marsh or in the field just as much.
But how many hunters really watch what is actually going on?
For one of the nation's top goose hunters, a lifetime of observing bird behavior has helped him take some of the guesswork out of decoy spreads. The following are ways he believes hunters can capitalize on proven bird habits and put more geese in the decoys this hunting season.
The Missouri River runs through the heart of South Dakota, and each year hundreds of thousands of Canada, white-fronted and snow geese follow the natural corridor as they migrate south.
Having grown up on the banks of the Mighty Mo', Tyson Keller has long enjoyed a front-row seat to the habits of migrating geese.
Keller, media relations specialist for Avery Outdoors, says that observing how bird behavior changes over the course of a season has helped him put more geese in the decoys.
"Every day is a new day due to changing weather and the various stages of migration within a season," says Keller. "I have found that you want to make sure that your decoy spread reflects the birds you are targeting and the current hunting conditions."
In terms of weather, Keller explains that the warmer temperatures that often accompany early-season hunts tend to keep birds spread out in a field. Consequently, hunters should set up their decoys in loosely arranged family groups.
When the mercury begins to drop, geese like to get cozy.
"During colder weather, geese will typically become more concentrated on the ground and more apt to almost land on top of one another when hitting the field," says Keller. "In this type of situation, a hunter is better off setting a tighter-packed spread with a hole that is designed as a runway for incoming birds."
When temperatures bottom out and fields are snow packed, Keller says birds will concentrate even more, often standing shoulder to shoulder or lying down on the ground.
In these conditions, Keller recommends using shell decoys or full-bodied decoys with their bases removed. But be sure to mix in a few full-bodies to represent birds that have just landed or birds that are stretching or walking to a new food source.
Along with temperatures, Keller has also observed that the wind can play a key factor in decoy location.
"During windy conditions, birds will often seek areas in the field that are protected," Keller explains. "Look for low-lying swales or impressions behind hills. Birds will always tend to get on the protected side of a landform."
Conversely, on days with little wind, geese will often seek out high points or plateaus in fields.
Change with the migration
As a season progresses, and different species of geese begin to make their way down the flyway, Keller suggests hunters modify their decoy spreads accordingly.
"Lesser Canada geese tend to pack together on the ground and move rapidly as a group, whereas honkers will land with other flocks but then likely spread out into smaller bunches," he says.
Keller says the goal is just to keep things looking realistic, and sometimes that can also help a hunter get noticed.
"When there is a mixture of species in the area, I like throwing in a couple dozen snow goose full-bodies at the upwind side of the spread, and I often throw in a few specks to add color and realism," says Keller. "Not only does this represent the real flocks on the ground, the added color makes the spread visible from a much further distance to birds in the air."
Keller also recommends hunters take a look at the styles of decoys they are using. Sleeper and rester poses work great along a shoreline. In the field, he typically uses 70 percent feeder decoys to 30 percent active – a ratio that simulates birds attacking a prevalent food source and a flock that is not alarmed.
Keller says it all comes back to using decoy spreads that reflect observations of real birds in the field.
"Pay attention to the details and continue to observe bird habits," says Keller. "It is simply the best way to make your spread look realistic."
Picking up on bird behavior is something every hunter can do, and the more you know, the more likely you will be to stay one step ahead of your game this season.