By Wade Bourne
With few exceptions, these are good times for goose hunters
in North America. Most Canada goose
populations are large and stable, and resident flocks of honkers continue to grow unabated in many areas. The midcontinent light goose flock is bursting at the seams, offering long seasons and liberal limits (or no limits during the special conservation order). Cacklers
are rebounding from low numbers of a few years back, and white-fronted geese
are doing well. The only significant decline this year was in the Atlantic brant
population, which suffered a sharp drop from 2012 numbers.
Viewed cumulatively, there are plenty of geese in all four flyways
, and you don't need an expensive lease or a trailer full of decoys to take advantage of the abundant hunting opportunities provided by these birds. Many goose hunters are enjoying great success by staying mobile and using small spreads. They are scouting to find where geese are feeding, and then setting up on the X with portable blinds and just a few dozen decoys
Following are five highly effective goose spreads to help you get in on the action.
1. Vance Stolz's Canada Goose Spread
Vance Stolz of Johnstown, Colorado
, is an Avery Outdoors pro-staffer who hunts big Canada geese along the northern front range of the Rocky Mountains. Honkers swarm over this area's grainfields, and Stolz often pursues these birds with a small spread of three dozen flocked full-body decoys. He also mixes in several shell decoys on motion stakes to provide movement when the wind blows.
"Most big concentrations of feeding geese start out as small groups that just build up, so you're not really handicapped by hunting over a small spread," Stolz says. "You just have to be where the geese want to be and hide effectively, and you should pull in plenty of birds."
Stolz's first consideration is concealing his layout blinds
. "We rarely set our blinds among the decoys," he says. "Instead, when we find where geese are working, we look for nearby cover or a depression in the field, and we put our blinds there. We line them up almost touching each other, and we use artificial camo [Avery KillerWeed] and natural vegetation to make one big mound of cover."
Next he arranges his decoys to look as natural as possible. "I set some close together in little family groups, and I spread others apart. But there's no uniform pattern," Stolz says. "I think many hunters make a mistake by spacing their decoys the same distance apart. That's not how real geese look on the ground."
He positions his decoys so the downwind edge of the spread is centered in front of the blinds, leaving plenty of room for incoming geese to land. "I set a big group of decoys on the upwind edge of the spread, and then taper the numbers down toward the downwind edge," Stolz says. "My goal is to have incoming geese land right in front of us, 15 to 25 yards from the blinds."
2. Kevin Addy's Snow Goose Spread
Avery pro-staffer Kevin Addy of Morgantown, Pennsylvania
, has several years of experience hunting greater snow geese
in fields around upper Chesapeake and Delaware
bays. He rates adult snows among the smartest and most difficult of all waterfowl to hunt, especially in areas with heavy hunting pressure.
Late in the season, when geese become extra-cautious, Addy adjusts his tactics by scaling down his decoy spread. "I use a lot of decoys early on, but when the geese start getting spooky, I reduce the size of my spread," he says. "The more decoys you use, the greater the chance the geese can tell they're not real. So during the late season, I put out just three to six dozen decoys."
Though Addy goes light on decoy numbers, he doesn't skimp on quality. "I use the most realistic decoys I can find," he says. He takes special care to conceal his layout blinds for the same reason: "If one goose spots something suspicious, he'll take the whole flock away, and you can't call or flag them back."
Addy and his hunting partners often conceal their layout blinds along a hedgerow bordering the field. They set their decoys downwind from the hedgerow with the upwind edge of the spread about 30 yards from the blinds. "Snow geese are greedy," he explains, "and incoming birds will usually land upwind of a flock on the ground so they can get the freshest food. The idea with this spread is to pull the birds into the gap between the upwind edge of the decoys and our blinds."
The upwind edge of the spread forms a feeding line that trails off in a loose triangle downwind. "We want it to appear like a flock that's just landed, and we try to make it random-looking, not symmetrical.
It's a very simple setup," Addy says. "We rarely get geese to land. Instead, we just try to lure them to the upper edge of the spread into close shotgun range."
Over the years, Addy and his hunting partners have used these tactics to decoy huge flocks of snow geese. "If you're in an area where a lot of snow geese are flying, and if your decoys look natural and your blinds are well hidden, you're probably going to get some shooting. These birds are tough to hunt, but they can be had," he says.
3. Eric Strand's Cackler Spread
Cackling and lesser Canada geese winter en masse in Oregon's Willamette Valley, where they feed on grass and in winter wheat fields. Hunting pressure in this area is heavy, but Avery pro-staffer Eric Strand of Scappoose, Oregon
, has an advantage over the competition. While many hunters use standard Canada goose decoys and tactics, Strand fine-tunes his hunting methods to fit the distinct behavior patterns of these smaller geese.
"Cacklers and lessers fly in big flocks," Strand says, "so it's not unusual for me and my hunting partners to decoy 50 to 500 geese at a time. Still, we routinely decoy large groups of these birds using only three to five dozen decoys. We do this by setting a spread that mimics a flock of geese that has just landed and started feeding."
Strand's spread consists of a combination of Greenhead Gear full-body cackler and lesser Canada goose decoys. This is important, he says, because these smaller geese respond better to decoys that match their own size. Feeders outnumber upright decoys two to one in his spread to complete the scene.
Strand and his buddies usually hunt from layout blinds situated in a fence row or ditch line between two fields. Natural cover is a must. "Being well hidden is a big key to success with these geese," he says. "Cacklers and lessers are very spooky birds, and if they see anything suspicious, they'll flare away quickly."
These hunters set up with the wind at a crossing angle, leaving a 15-yard gap between the blinds and the edge of the decoy spread. The decoys are arranged in two groups—one to the left of the blinds and one to the right. Each group has roughly the same number of decoys. "We leave about a 15-yard gap between these two clusters of decoys," Strand says. "And since cacklers and lessers
feed in tight groups, we space our decoys only eight to 18 inches apart."
Strand scatters another dozen decoys in the opening between the two main groups. He leaves plenty of room between these "straggler" decoys for incoming geese to land. Because cacklers and lessers are aggressive feeders, they will typically land directly in the spread or just on the upwind edge of the decoys.
"We don't call much, and we don't flag at all," Strand adds. "And I can't emphasize how important it is to have a good hide! The more attention you pay to covering up well, the greater success you'll enjoy on these small geese."
4. Curt Wilson's Specklebelly Spread
Curt Wilson lives in Oroville, California
, a small town on the eastern rim of the Sacramento Valley. Each winter this area attracts hundreds of thousands of white-fronted geese, or "specklebellies."
Wilson hunts these birds over a spread of three dozen flocked full-body specklebelly decoys. "You don't need a huge number of decoys for specks," he says. "If you're in the right spot, three dozen decoys are plenty."
Wilson and his hunting partners scout extensively to find places where white-fronts are working a harvested rice field. They typically set up with a levee at their backs to help conceal their layout blinds.
They camouflage their blinds with ghillie covers augmented by rice stubble or other natural vegetation.
Wilson positions his decoys so the geese come in from a quartering angle instead of head-on. With such a setup, the birds are less likely to see the blinds as they approach the spread.
The hunters deploy the decoys in two groups. The smaller group consists of eight to 10 decoys placed on the downwind side of the blinds. Wilson spreads these decoys several feet apart to simulate a flock of geese feeding in a "relaxed" manner. He also uses two feeders for every upright decoy to give the impression that an abundance of food is available.
A larger group of approximately 24 decoys is set upwind from the blinds, leaving a big opening between the two decoy groups. "I don't set these decoys in any special pattern," Wilson says. "But I do make a distinct feeding line on the upwind edge of the spread. The farthest decoy is about 45 yards from the blinds."
For a final touch, Wilson lines three or four decoys in single file leading from the smaller group of decoys toward the open hole in front of the blinds. The idea is to make these decoys look like geese walking from the little group toward the big group. "I leave plenty of room between the last walker and the big group, since this is the main landing zone for incoming geese," he explains. "The birds will usually fly past the small downwind group to land in the hole in front of the walkers. This gives us easy crossing shots when the birds prepare to land."
Wilson calls to the geese to supplement the attraction of this spread. "I'll do a mix of yodels and clucks, mostly clucking to finish them," he says. "But if an incoming flock starts drifting away, I'll get on them hard to regain their attention."
5. Wayne Radcliffe's Atlantic Brant Spread
Avery pro-staff member Wayne Radcliffe of Glen Arm, Maryland
, shot his first brant more than 25 years ago, and has pursued these birds enthusiastically ever since. Today he hunts mostly along the east coast of Maryland and Virginia
, where large concentrations of Atlantic brant winter, feeding on sea lettuce, eelgrass, and other submerged aquatic vegetation. These birds move from feeding site to feeding site as the tides rise and fall.
Radcliffe studies tide charts and water depths in various feeding areas to figure out where brant
will be moving. He and his hunting partners then set up layout blinds on islands or shorelines, or hunt from boat blinds
on shallow flats. His decoy spread is simple. He uses homemade V-boards—three silhouette decoys mounted on two-by-two-inch wooden slats that are hinged together to open as a tri-fold. He cuts these silhouettes from lightweight plywood and paints them black, brown, and gray to resemble brant.
"I typically put out three dozen V-boards at a time, setting them in a U or J configuration with the outer edges of the pattern downwind," Radcliffe says. "Brant always decoy into the wind, so I concentrate more decoys in the back of the U or J to give the birds a more obvious landing zone."
Radcliffe also places six to eight black duck
decoys along the edges of the V-boards. "This way my spread works double duty for brant and ducks," he says.
His final tip: "Since brant are very susceptible to calling
, it's important to call a lot to get their attention, and to keep calling as the birds come in. Brant aren't hard to decoy. Sometimes they'll fly right to you."