By Chris Jennings
Hope springs eternal among avid snow goose hunters at this time of year. With duck season in the rearview mirror, waterfowlers set their sights on the swarms of light geese passing through the nation's heartland during the spring migration. The birds are eager to return to their Arctic breeding grounds, and hunters are excited for the chance to convince large flocks of snows and blues to work their decoy spreads.
When everything comes together as planned, the action can be white-hot. But this isn't a sport that you should take lightly (pun intended). The more snow geese you bag, the better the prospects for saving their fragile habitats and ensuring the species' long-term survival. Best of all, hunting these birds can be extremely challenging and incredibly fun.
Check out these 10 expert tips and products to help you make the most of spring light goose hunting opportunities in your area.
1. Blend Layouts with the Landscape
John Gordon is media relations coordinator for Banded Holdings and a veteran snow goose guide. Having spent nearly 30 years pursuing these wary birds in the Mississippi Delta, he's a big believer in the need for putting more effort into concealing layout blinds.
"I've learned that an adult snow goose can pick out almost any unnatural change in the landscape," Gordon says. "That's why concealment in the field is job one in my book. Anything you can do to break up the outline of the blinds to help them blend in with your surroundings makes a difference."
Because Gordon hunts primarily in winter wheat fields, he puts a base coat of flat green paint on his layout blinds. "A light coat of paint allows the camouflage pattern underneath to still bleed through, which darkens the blind to match the field's color," he explains. He then builds on this base layer by adding synthetic and natural grasses to complete the blind's look."
His final tip: "Step back and take a look at your blind and everything around it. If anything looks out of place to you, it certainly will to the geese. Brush up the blind some more until it all but disappears from sight."
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2. Take Your Time with Each Shot
Tony Vandemore, co-owner of Habitat Flats in Sumner, Missouri, says it's crucial for waterfowlers to keep their cool when hunting snows, especially at the moment of truth, when layout blind doors open on hundreds of potential targets. "When that big flock comes in, I've seen guys so revved up by the fact that they now have an extended magazine with up to 11 shells, they become determined to fire them all. That's a bad approach. They usually end up missing every shot," he says.
Vandemore stresses that the accuracy of the shooting matters more than the sheer number of shots taken. Although he uses a magazine extension on his shotgun when hunting snows, he rarely empties the gun. Experience has taught him that while it's fine to have all those extra shells, an efficient shooter will probably get off five to six well-placed shots when a big flock decoys.
"There may be hundreds of geese, but you have to pick out each bird and take your time with each shot," he says. "To be honest, people always ask me how we get so many 100-bird days. I tell them that it's all about making your shots count when you get the opportunity. That's the difference between a 100-bird day and a 25-bird day."
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3. Follow the Birds to Better Hunting
The competition for hunting spots is often stiff in major snow goose migration corridors. Rusty Burnam, pro-staff manager for Hard Core Brands, suggests putting in some extra scouting time to find good hunting locations away from the burgeoning crowds.
"When you have to compete with 50 other decoy spreads, the only option is to go bigger and bigger. But if you follow the geese when they leave their roost, many times they are going 20 to 25 miles away to feed. Effective scouting can put you in an area where birds become much easier to decoy, even with a smaller spread," he says.
Following flocks of geese as they depart a roost will show you not only the birds' feeding spots but also their flight lines. As snow geese trade back and forth between roosting and feeding areas, they often follow the same flight patterns. Identifying these flyover areas can help you locate a lot more hunting opportunities.
"You aren't always going to be able to set up in the exact field the birds are feeding in, but you can get close," Burnam says. "If you've followed their flight line, you will know that if you set up somewhere between the feeding and roosting areas, the birds are likely to pass overhead. And once you've got some distance between your spread and other hunters, the geese can sometimes be a little easier to fool."
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4. Layer Up for Quick-Change Comfort
The weather is often highly unpredictable in February and March, when the snow goose migration is at its peak. This can make knowing exactly what to wear a challenge, says Rob Weishaupt, a snow goose guide with Heartland Lodge near Nebo, Illinois. He advises his clients to be prepared for drastic weather swings, even over the course of a single day.
"In the Illinois River Valley, where we hunt, the early mornings will always be chilly, but by midafternoon it can warm up quickly," Weishaupt says. "I tell everyone to avoid wearing big heavy jackets, to dress instead in thinner layers."
Weishaupt says that layering allows hunters the flexibility to adapt to changing temperatures. "If the weather cools or warms, you can add or remove layers as needed," he explains. "The idea is to stay comfortable throughout the day—in cold and warm weather. So you have to be prepared for both."
According to Weishaupt, waterproof bibs and rubber boots are also a must for spring snow goose hunting. "Of course, you're also going to need durable waterproof clothing for getting in and out of a pit or layout blind. You never know what the temperature will be, but I can guarantee it will be muddy," he says.
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5. Add Motion to Finish Wary Geese
Using motion decoys to create the illusion of geese landing in a spread is a common ploy, but Weishaupt adds his own spin to this time-tested ruse. "We use any advantage we can to create motion, including flappers and extra-tall stakes on our full-body decoys," he explains. "But we've found a way to more closely mimic landing birds by using a Reel Wings spinner attached to a 15-foot fiberglass rod."
The rod sits in a fiberglass holder attached to the top of the blind. As the geese approach, Weishaupt removes the rod from the holder and gently lets the Reel Wings Flying Decoy glide to the ground, creating the impression of live birds landing in the field.
"The flappers and Vortex decoys are effective from a distance," he says. "But this technique also prevents the birds from shifting to one side or the other as they close in on the spread. It definitely helps us finish more snow geese."
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6. Give Geese a Different Look
In spring, partially flooded grainfields can create unique opportunities for snow goose hunters, says David Foret of Marion, Arkansas. He takes advantage of these conditions by setting up a combination land-and-water spread on flooded rice fields in the northeast corner of the Natural State.
"These big rice fields can hold lots of water," he explains. "By using floater decoys along the water's edge, we're able to give the birds a different look from what they see in most of the other setups in the area. This gives us a real advantage."
Foret's spread consists of a mix of floaters and SilloSocks arranged in a U-shaped pattern. He sets the floaters, which form the first arm of the U, as far out in the water as he can. Then he hooks the SilloSocks into the dry field to complete the configuration. Instead of decoying straight on, as with a typical spread, the geese will decoy right to left or left to right, depending on the wind.
"It's a pretty nontraditional way to shoot geese, but when it works, it can be a great setup," Foret says. "The trick with this spread is to get the blinds hidden in the dry field, and then be prepared for unexpected decoying angles. Basically, you have to take the shots you're given."
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7. Let the Right Sounds In
The need to protect your hearing can take on a new urgency during the light goose season, when throngs of hunters shooting magnum loads out of big guns with extended magazines ratchet up the noise levels. You might want to think twice, however, about shutting out all the sounds of the hunt, says Billy Rogers, owner and operator of Rogers Goosedown Outfitters near Kennett, Missouri.
"Every year I have a couple of clients who are wearing their hearing protection but then can't hear me calling the shots, or any other commands," Rogers says. "This is a problem. I've watched guys assume they've heard something and open the blind doors well before I call the shot."
Of course hunters who pop up early in their layouts can flare birds, but such actions can also put other hunters in jeopardy by creating unsafe situations in the field. Lack of coordination can be dangerous, especially in fields packed with eight or more hunters.
"Hearing protection is great," Rogers says. "But I recommend wearing earplugs or muffs that block shooting noises while still allowing you to hear the guides and your hunting partners. That will make for a safer, more productive hunt."
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8. Keep Your Retriever Steady and Safe
"The excitement and frenzy of a light goose field can make it a dangerous place for an inexperienced retriever," says Burnam. "The best way to protect your retriever is to train him to hunt out of a dog blind. You never want a retriever in the layout blind with you; he needs to learn to be comfortable and steady in his own blind. Introduce him to the dog blind during preseason training to make sure he's prepared to go in and remain steady."
Where the dog blind is positioned is another important factor in keeping your four-legged friend out of harm's way. Because he's a right-handed shooter, Burnam positions the dog blind on the right side of his layout blind. The front of the dog blind is aligned with the back of the layout blind so the dog stays slightly behind him.
"With the dog positioned behind me and to my right, he can see what I'm shooting at, and I can quickly correct him from my position if necessary," Burnam says. "As an added precaution, I recommend taking along a short lead to stake down the dog once he's inside the blind. You want the dog to be able to get up, but you don't want him running around freely in the decoys."
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9. Cover Up Reflective Objects
Snow goose hunters often rely on state-of-the-art equipment to tilt the odds in their favor, but technology can have its drawbacks. For example, when hunters get careless with their cellphones, cameras, and video equipment, the glare from the reflective screens and lenses can flare cautious birds.
According to Vandemore, the problem can sometimes get out of hand. "On different occasions, I've peeked out of my blind to look across the field at the other hunters only to see sunlight reflecting off GoPro cameras in the other blinds," he explains. "Now I'm all for taking video of the hunts, but not at the expense of scaring geese away from the decoys."
Vandemore cautions clients to keep their equipment well hidden from the prying eyes of snow geese. "I like to tell people to wrap a little corn stubble around the base. That way the camera can blend in without jeopardizing the footage. If you're going to take pictures and make videos, spend a little time checking to make sure the cameras and camera bags are out of sight," he says.
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10. Share Your Bounty with Landowners
Because there are no bag limits on lesser snow geese during the Light Goose Conservation Order, the number of birds harvested can grow quickly. "Waste not, want not" is a good phrase to keep in mind, says Rogers, who turns the bulk of the birds he harvests into goodwill by sharing them with landowners.
"I take the birds and breast them out, then grind them with a 25 to 30 percent pork-fat mixture to make summer sausage," Rogers says. "I use a commercial recipe—it's a great way to spend a weekend when the weather is bad. Then I take the sausage and deliver it to farmers in the areas where I hunt. They appreciate it."
This kind gesture lets the farmers know that Rogers appreciates the opportunity to hunt on their land, and that he doesn't take it for granted. The farmers, in turn, enjoy the summer sausage and the token of goodwill. "This is the best way to use up the meat when you're shooting geese at such a high volume," Rogers adds.
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