by Gary Koehler
One of the most memorable open-water hunts I ever participated in occurred many years ago on Lake Senachwine, a historic Illinois River backwater. We had a successful morning duck shoot and were debating departure in order to catch the Bears game on television later that afternoon.
Longtime friend Paul Gillmann stood up to stretch, looked out over the back of the stake blind, and spotted a half-dozen Canada geese flying north to south somewhere between us and the hamlet of Putnam approximately two miles away. The birds were but flecks in the sky.
Gillmann dug into his blind bag, yanked out his trusty P.S. Olt goose call, and went to work on the far-flung Canadas. The third member of our group, Dave Moncrief, got up to take a peek. "Too far," he said. "No way they'll come all the way out here."
Undeterred, Gillmann cranked up his goose music. The small flock appeared to bend. And then they turned. These Canadas looked to be bound for the lake and our somewhat motley spread of two dozen floating goose decoys.
"You're not going to get those geese out here," Moncrief said before casing his gun and crawling into the boat hide to stow his gear.
But the geese remained on track. Gillmann's face was turning red. He took a breath and then continued his solo. My goose call, for what it was worth, was at home. All the pressure was on the maestro.
"Got 'em," Gillmann said minutes later, as the geese bore down on us full throttle, crossing the far bank and emerging over the lake. "They're comin' right in."
Moncrief was in the boat below. Hearing Gillmann's report and responding with an expletive, he began wildly tearing the camo cover off the hide's side in order to make room for the barrel of his 12-gauge and squeeze off a shot.
I was quivering as the geese set their wings. The Canadas looked as big as 747s as they applied the brakes and began gliding in for a landing. Gillmann shot first, which was only right. When the gunfire subsided, four Canadas were dead on the water.
"Too far, huh?" Gillmann said. "No such thing." Perfect.
We were at the right place at the right time with a caller who got the birds' attention, initiated a conversation, and kept the geese interested. That's always a good hand to play. But there are any number of subtle tricks and techniques that you can use to attract geese to your water spread. With any luck, fond memories will be included in the package.
There is no truth to the rumor that Field Hudnall has traded his shotgun for a video camera. It's just that these days–more than ever—he carries both.
Hudnall, the 2004 World Goose Calling Champion and a two-time International champion, stays busy filming waterfowl for Habitat Flats Productions and related ventures. Canada goose hunting remains a passion, perhaps even more so now that he's returned home to Kentucky. Hudnall cut his waterfowl hunting teeth gunning with family and friends along the Ohio River.
"We set the decoys more horizontal to the bank. If the geese land short, they're still within killing range."
"When you are hunting geese in a field, you have the advantage because the geese are coming in to feed," Hudnall says. "You can control the message to the geese where the food is in the field. When you are hunting geese over water, you lose that control because they're usually not going there to feed. Some guys hunt flooded corn, but in general geese are coming back to water to rest."
Canada geese are pursued along rivers, streams, lakes, farm ponds, marshes, reservoirs, flooded agricultural crops, and more. Each situation is unique, and the hunter's approach will vary according to the conditions.
"By nature, when geese land on water they generally won't mix with other birds," Hudnall says. "Ducks will land right in the middle of your decoys, but geese will often land short and swim into the flock. If you set a massive decoy spread and the farthest decoy is 35 yards out, you can pretty much count on geese landing 10 to 15 yards shy. When we hunt rivers or lakes, we love to set big goose spreads, but we've learned that we can't run the decoys very far out. We set the decoys more horizontal to the bank. If the geese land short, they're still within range."
There is not, however, a universal set that is going to work in every locale. On small waters, such as ponds, for example, Hudnall and his crew will do the reverse–and set their decoys well away from the blind. "In a farm pond situation, we'll put the decoys where we don't want the geese to land," Hudnall says. "We'll set the decoys farther away to create a closer landing zone."
Hudnall also modifies his calling technique when gunning for Canadas over a water spread. "We're much more aggressive with our calling when we're hunting fields," Hudnall says. "When hunting water, we lose that control. We use more excited clucks and moans–more of a hypnotic sequence. When geese get excited, it's a steady series of clucks and moans."
Migration days, the occasions when huge flocks of geese are on the move south to the wintering grounds, are among Hudnall's favorite times to hunt Canadas. "I really enjoy hunting the big water when the migrators are coming down," Hudnall says. "Clear, sunny, with a 10 to 15 mile-an-hour northwest wind are the traditional days in our area.
"I always like sunny days over clouds because on cloudy days the geese can see better; they see dark spots–maybe the opening in your blind—and they pick up movement easier. When there's a bright sun, they have blind spots."
Rick Hall has spent the past 25 years in specklebelly country, guiding waterfowlers from throughout the nation at Doug's Lodge near Gueydan, Louisiana. The Gulf Coast winters hundreds of thousands of whitefronts, so Hall has seen it all while pursuing these prized birds.
Decoys, Hall says, are a necessary evil, and quite often fewer are better than more. "We hunt both marsh and rice fields," he says. "I think specks look at decoys much harder than Canada geese do. They really look them over with a fine-tooth comb. We will use fewer decoys if we're hunting over water, and I almost always try to figure out ways to hide the decoys.
"I know that might sound odd, but we'll set the decoys by tufts of grass or where clumps of mud are exposed, just so it's not easy for the birds to see they are fakes. We look for ways to tone down the decoys."
"To me, specks look at decoys much harder than Canada geese do. They really look them over with a fine tooth comb."
Specks, Hall says, have seen plenty of decoy spreads before arriving on the wintering grounds. The birds become increasingly wary. They also have a knack for quick acceleration when they perceive danger.
"There are places in the marsh where the vegetation is really thick, and we don't use any decoys at all out there," Hall says. "The birds really have to stretch their necks to see where the calling is coming from. That's what we want–we want them as close as we can get them.
"You can figure that specks are going to look over your decoys really hard. You can baffle them with bulky spreads sometimes, but that's not often practical. We don't leave speck decoys out all the time. When you do that, the birds get wise," Hall adds. "I advise people not to put out more decoys than they're willing to pick up. In water, it's problematic, because there's gumbo under that water."
Specks are not deep-water birds. So, if Hall is gunning such an area, he'll use conduit to raise the decoys out of the water to make it look as if they are in a shallow feeding spot. He also commonly sets his decoys far upwind of the blind or pit.
"With specks, a lot of time, we will set our decoys upwind of us so the geese have to pass within gun range to take a hard look at the decoys," Hall says. "At the end of the season, we might put our decoys 60 yards upwind of the blind.
"In a flooded rice field, we typically use a dozen to maybe three dozen decoys. But the later in the season it is, the fewer decoys I use—maybe five some days. Or I'll set my Charlie-and-Agnes spread, which is two decoys."
Specks are talkers. Their propensity for banter makes calling a critical part of the hunt. "Specks are call-responsive," Hall says. "Old-time speck hunters always say try to develop a dialog with the birds. And that's good advice. If the bird hits a three-note yodel, give him one back and try to get a conversation going. He calls, you call. And keep that up until you pull the trigger.
"Everything is amplified over water," Hall continues, "and there's a tendency to tone the calling down a little bit. But that's not always a good thing. Sometimes you're better off sticking to whatever you used to create momentum. Every bird is different. You have to watch and see what's working."
Weather is always a factor. And Hall prefers the extremes. "The ideal conditions probably include a heavy fog, one that is thick up to an altitude where the geese have to fly under it. But I also like hunting them on clear, sunny days–because they have a harder time spotting us on a bright day," he says.
Brant gunners are a different breed, no matter which coast they frequent. Besides battling the vagaries of weather, tidal flow must also be considered before pursuing branta bernicla.
"The key is to play the tides because brant are tidal-influenced birds," says Brian LaFay, who grew up on the New Jersey coast and has guided for Reedy Creek Outfitters for the past 10 years. "Brant fly between tides, going into or out of highs and lows. They tend to sit tight on dead-low tides; that's probably the worst time to hunt them. They really don't move at all."
"Brant fly between tides, going into or out of highs and lows. They tend to sit tight on dead-low tides."
Shallow estuaries, bays, and tidal marshes are likely hunting areas. New Jersey typically hosts 75 percent of the Atlantic Flyway brant population. "Scouting is essential," LaFay says. "Brant frequent some areas more than others. And if they are hunted heavily, they start using areas where they don't feel that pressure. It's good to have a Plan B. Sometimes all it takes is to move a couple of miles down the shoreline.
"Brant love to feed in the shallows and gravel in the same areas. You need to know what they are feeding on, like bay cabbage and eel grass in this area. You aren't going to find brant around deep-cut banks or deeper shoreline shoals with three or four feet of water. They are not going to be using those areas because they're too deep for them."
Tidal fluctuation and food are important considerations when chasing brant, but the weather can also play a major role. "On warm and sunny days, brant will sit and enjoy the weather," LaFay says. "There's no reason for them to move, so they sit and conserve energy. The windier and colder it is, the better they move around. To me, a nasty day is always a better day."
Brant are vocal birds and quite gregarious. Promise of a party piques their interest. "I call quite a bit," LaFay says. "but calling is dictated by the response of the birds. You really don't want to overdo it with brant. When they turn to you, you have to shut it down some–maybe have one person do the calling instead of two.
"Flagging also works well with distant birds. If they're 400 or 500 yards out, they might not see your decoy spread, but they might pick up on the flag movement. We use flags to get their attention."
Huge decoy spreads are the exception rather than the rule when hunting brant. A typical spread will range from a dozen to two dozen decoys. "We try to show them something different, particularly late in the season," LaFay says. "That might be putting a few on the shoreline, using tip-ups, or splitting the decoys into groups. They get used to seeing the two-dozen decoy spread that everyone seems to have."
The Gulf Coast snow goose hunting game has changed over the years. It used to be that snows would head to coastal marshes upon arrival on their wintering grounds. The evolution of rice farming changed the rules. The birds quickly learned to take advantage of the handy groceries.
"I've done it, but it's unusual to hunt snows over water in Texas," says Tim Soderquist, a Ducks Unlimited regional director and a former waterfowl guide with 22 years of credits on his resume. "When we hunt, the majority of rice fields are drained. As a guide, we dreamed of hunting in dry rice fields. The ultimate is hunting on a levee with water in front of you because it makes for a great combo for shooting both ducks and geese."
Water is at the center of multiple issues. This year, Texas is gripped by a devastating drought. Water will be at a premium. Snows typically roost on large ponds, ranging from 40 to 300 acres in size. The problem is, if hunters shoot the ponds, particularly when the birds are returning to the water late in the day, the geese are not likely to come back.
"It's an important management issue," Soderquist says. "Most of the time, the birds will come back to the pond to get a drink of water, maybe a couple of times a day. Remember that snow geese are the Ph.D.s of waterfowl—the smartest birds I know. If you are shooting over your water—your roost pond–you're doing yourself in."
Soderquist says that scouting is a critical component to snow goose hunting success. "Scouting is at least 80 percent of hunting snow geese," he says. "You have to watch the birds and figure out what areas they are using, where they want to go. Snow goose hunting is a numbers game. You have to be at the right place at the right time. Birds dictate how and where you hunt."
"Clear days without a wind make it tough to convince them. An overcast day with a steady wind will make the birds work."
Once a likely field is found, the work begins. Because snow goose flocks can number hundreds, or even thousands of birds, huge decoy spreads are a necessity. "If you do hunt open water with floating goose decoys, know in advance how many people are going to be around to help get them in and out," Soderquist says. "There's a lot of work involved, much more than putting out 500 or so windsocks. We might even beef up the numbers early in the season when the birds are concentrated in big groups."
Then there's the weather. Heavy rains will keep the birds grounded. "Weather is a huge factor. Without a breath of wind, it is a challenge," Soderquist says. "Clear days without a wind make it tough to convince them. An overcast day with a steady wind will make the birds work."