by Wade Bourne
A decoy spread for hunting waterfowl is like a fine recipe. First, you must select the right ingredients. Then, you must mix them in the proper proportions and with the skill of a chemist. And finally, you must serve up your concoction in a setting that enhances success. A gourmet meal served in a pigpen won't draw many diners.
This is all especially true when it comes to setting spreads for Canada geese. These birds can be choosy about keeping company. Wild geese are born wary, and their suspicion multiplies as they add on years. Try to work a flock led by an old bird to a shoddy decoy spread and see what happens. The geese might angle in for a look, but then the leader's discerning eye and precautionary instincts tell him "No, something's not right here," and he leads the flock away. This is why a Canada goose spread must have both the right look and location.
The location part is a given. Goose hunters must set up where these birds have been working or where they will work. There's no substitute for good scouting and positioning a spread where the birds want to go to start with.
Then, setting out a realistic decoy spread is the next requirement. Take this to the bank: A finely tuned decoy spread will always be more effective on Canadas than one that's haphazard and inanimate.
To learn more about Canada goose spreads, Ducks Unlimited magazine contacted three of the best honker hunters in the country: Sean Mann of Trappe, Maryland; Randy Bartz of Oronoco, Minnesota; and Brad Cochran of Lebanon, Oregon.
Mann is a guide, a world-champion goose caller and owner of Sean Mann Game Calls. He specializes in Canada geese, mainly in Alberta and on Chesapeake Bay's Eastern Shore. Bartz is known as the Flagman for his pioneering work in developing wing-simulating flags and flagging methods to attract geese. His Flagman™ Products company markets flags and dog-training devices to waterfowl hunters throughout North America. Cochran is a partner in Dave Smith Decoys, makers of ultra-realistic goose decoys. He has been an avid waterfowler for 20 years, the last 12 of which he has focused on Canada geese that winter in Oregon's famed Willamette Valley.
How do these experts deploy their goose spreads? What do they believe is important in making a spread look realistic, and what common mistakes do hunters make with goose decoys? Many of their ideas and opinions were different; others were amazingly similar. No question, goose hunters around the country can pick and choose from these hunters' decoy strategies, incorporate their ideas into their own spreads, and profit from them when honkers fly south.
Large Field Spreads
For many, going after Canada geese involves a half dozen or more hunters and a large decoy spread in a field where birds have been feeding. Such a spread is typically transported into the field and set out before daylight. It must be spacious enough to conceal hunters in layout blinds or pits. It must also have a natural appearance and a design that lures incoming geese into predetermined landing zones.
Mann uses only Real Geese silhouettes because of their toughness, lack of shine, and the fact that a dozen contains 12 different poses. "I use three dozen silhouettes per hunter," he says. "This provides a big spread with lots of attraction and plenty of concealment for my hunters. Also, three dozen fit inside my portable layout blinds for easy transporting."
Mann continues, "The different poses with the silhouette decoys give the illusion of movement built in. As geese circle my spread, all the variation looks like real birds on the ground.
"I've never felt like I needed full-body decoys in my spread. Geese can't see straight down. Instead, they see to the sides, so if they fly directly over my spread, they don't notice that all the 'geese' on the ground are flat-sided. Not having full-bodies doesn't matter."
Bartz says, "One-hundred-twenty or more decoys aren't uncommon in a field spread when I'm hunting migrators in the latter season." Unlike Mann, Bartz prefers a combination of fully-body, shell, and silhouette decoys. "I place the full-bodies up front (on the downwind side). This is where incoming geese will be looking, and I want my best decoys in this area. I'll mix some shells in with the full-bodies. When live geese are in a field, some will be up walking around and others will be resting, so the shells look like resting birds. And the silhouettes go in the back (upwind) part of the spread."
Cochran says getting decoys into a Willamette Valley field can be a challenge. Seasonal rains usually start by late October, and the fields become quagmires. Driving in is out of the question. Thus, decoys must be packed in, and spread size is dictated by number of hunters and their willingness to make trips back/forth to the truck. "I set out all full-bodies, and I'd consider a large spread to be anything more than 100 decoys," Cochran says.
In the area where he hunts, shooting is prohibited until 8 a.m. to protect the threatened dusky Canada goose population, which winters in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington. (Hunters in this area must pass a Canada goose identification test before taking to the field.) Oftentimes, geese will be working and landing in a spread long before shooting time. Cochran knows from experience that ultra-realistic life-size decoys will land and hold geese far better than less-lifelike decoys.
Designs for Field Spreads
What design works best with large field spreads? Again, each hunter has his own preferences.
"I usually deploy an X pattern, and I place my layout blinds and hunters in the middle of the X, facing downwind," says Mann. "This way if the wind changes, we can simply turn the blinds instead of having to move decoys. By swiveling the blinds 90 degrees, we're looking into a new landing zone." With a six-hunter 180-decoy spread, the arms of Mann's X-shaped layout will be approximately 50 feet wide at the center, tapering toward the tip. Mann continues, "If I'm hunting close to a tree line or fencerow, I might deploy a V-shaped spread with the point of the V pointing into the wind. Or, if the wind is from the west (geese will be coming from the east), I might set a V in the middle of the field and align my hunters in one arm or another for a crosswind shot, to keep them from having to shoot into the rising sun."
Bartz sets his spread so it "forms a funnel to lead birds into a trap." His favorite design resembles a Christmas tree (point facing upwind). Sometimes he also sets a mass of decoys with a long arm running at a 45-degree downwind angle. With either set, his hunters shoot from just inside the downwind edge of the spread. He spaces their layout blinds 10 feet apart so that they will blend in better. Thus, the number of hunters determines the width of the base of his spread. (A six-hunter set will be 70 feet wide.) Also, with the Christmas tree design, he arranges the downwind edge of the spread like a shallow U (pointing upwind) to funnel incoming birds to the center of the spread.
Instead of using a standard pattern, Cochran prefers setting his decoys randomly. "I place my decoys relative to my layout blinds, not the other way around. I look for the best place to hide, maybe a patch of higher cover or a low spot to conceal the profiles of the blinds. Once I position my blinds, I'll set the decoys around them, and I'll leave a landing hole in the spread from 15 to 30 yards from the blinds, depending on wind speed and quality of concealment.
"I try to make my spread as natural looking as I can. I face all my decoys in different directions. I put some decoys close together and others far apart. I want them totally absent of any order, the way real geese are in a field."
Beyond the Basics
Beyond basic configurations, what tricks do Mann, Bartz, and Cochran employ to make their spreads effective?
First, Mann: "When I'm setting out decoys, I place them at all angles, not just facing into the wind. This way circling geese always have (silhouette) decoys that show up. Also, I set my decoys 10 feet apart—no closer. This makes the spread look real to approaching birds. The decoys appear relaxed, not alert or anxious, and there's plenty room for geese to land in the decoys. This keeps them from cutting to the edge. Birds need to feel that there is room for them to land and take off in order for them to come in."
"I set my decoys in family groups of eight to 16 decoys per group, and I leave some openings between these groups," Bartz says. "Sometimes I put nonbreeding pairs out by themselves, a feeder and a sentry together. I leave from three to five feet between decoys. It's a mistake to bunch your decoys too tight."
If geese start skirting Bartz's spread, he will narrow it so hunters will have shorter shots to the edges of the spread.
"Also, using clean decoys is very important," he continues. "I'm careful to keep mud off my decoys. I like vivid blacks and whites on my decoys. Each season I brighten up the cheek patches and tails for better visibility and more realism."
Bartz adds, "Don't leave tire tracks around your spread. If there's snow on the ground or it's muddy, you're better off sliding or carrying your decoys into the field."
"I believe that controlling where geese land is the most important thing in arranging a large field spread," Cochran affirms. "If you don't have roomy openings in your spread where you want the birds to land, they may land long on you. If they're not landing where I want, I will adjust the hole by moving decoys closer or farther away. If I feel the geese are busting our blinds, I may move the hole farther away to take their focus away from the blinds. If the birds are landing long, I may open up the hole or bring the spread in closer."
Motion in Goose Spreads
All three hunters are adamant about using motion in a decoy spread to add realism, and all agree that flagging is one of the easiest and most effective ways to attract geese's attention at long range and coax them to the spread.
Mann says, "I flap a simple black flag to get the attention of birds that may not have seen me, or that might have changed their mind about my spread. Once I have their attention, I use my flag as a 'tease' to add the appearance of wings flapping in the spread, which live birds do routinely."
Again, Bartz has experimented extensively with flagging to attract Canada geese, and his tactics and Flagman products are the result of his discoveries. "Every hunter in the spread should have a flag, and all should use their flags intermittently when geese are a long way off. This simulates a flock landing. Then, when the geese start coming, the hunters in the line should let up on their flagging and let the main caller take over. He should be laying at the upwind edge of the spread, behind everybody else. When the geese are getting close, he should use a landing flag intermittently to focus the birds' attention and pull them up the center of the spread."
Cochran flags more at geese at a distance and less when the birds approach. "The closer they get, the shorter I flag them, and I never flag once they've locked up unless they turn away. Then I might use a flag to try to get them locked back in." Cochran also advocates use of other motion makers in a goose spread. His full-body decoys are fitted with wind-activated systems that generate movement when a breeze blows. He says, "I believe motion is especially important in a large spread. The more decoys without motion, the more apparent that lack of motion becomes. There are many options available to hunters to add valuable movement to their spread (kites, wing flappers, etc.), and they should avail themselves of them."
Downsizing a Spread
So what if you can't put out a large spread either because of a lack of decoys or manpower? How can the above advice be applied to a two- or three-man party and a few dozen decoys?
"Everything's the same, just smaller," Mann says. "I'd still recommend three dozen silhouettes per hunter. One man can easily handle this many, and I'd still go with the X or V design. I might put the decoys in little groups of three to seven in a skeletal version of the X or V, to extend the spread some, but everything else would be the same."
Bartz says, "Sometimes when birds have had a lot of pressure, a small spread will work better than a large spread. I've done great with 12 decoys per hunter. It takes this many to conceal a hunter in a layout blind.
"But when you're hunting with a smaller spread, it's critical to be in the exact spot where the geese have been feeding. You won't have as much long-distance pulling power, so you've got to be where the geese want to come. Good scouting is absolutely essential for a small spread to work"
Cochran echoes Bartz's advice: "You've got to be in the center of the bullseye—right where the geese want to go—when you're hunting with three dozen or fewer decoys. Now you've got to rely more on aggressive calling and flagging to gain the birds' attention. But I'll tell you, one or two dozen decoys can make an awesome spread, especially late in the season."
When setting a small spread, Cochran usually places the decoys a few yards away from his layout blinds. "A small spread doesn't afford the concealment that a large spread does, and when a flock is approaching, I don't want them looking toward the blinds. I'll put the decoys where they're highly visible, like on a rise or where the stubble is low, and I'll try to position the blinds where they're less noticeable, and I'll go to extra lengths to conceal them so they will blend into the terrain."
Decoy Spreads for Hunting Canada Geese Over Water
Today, most Canada geese are taken over dry ground, but these birds aren't called waterfowl for nothing. Honkers routinely feed and rest on lakes, marshes, and ponds throughout North America, and many water areas offer top-notch hunting opportunities.
So how can hunters set an effective decoy spread on water? For starters, using floating decoys is obvious.
"I build floats for 42-inch shell decoys, and I put 24 of these out for hunting over water," says Flagman Randy Bartz. "These oversized decoys show up a long way over water. Sometimes, I'll also put shells on long motion stakes in shallow water."
Bartz sets these decoys in a U- or crescent-shaped pattern, with the middle of the crescent upwind, near the blind. "Having a good landing pocket is just as important with a water spread as it is on land," he asserts. "You've got to funnel the geese into easy shotgun range."
Sean Mann uses "from six to 150 decoys" in a water spread. In a large spread, he uses 25 V-boards (three silhouette decoys per board) and 75 full-body floaters. In small sets, he uses fewer, but always in equal numbers. "The reason I like the V-boards is that they sit higher than the floaters, and they're more visible over longer range." Mann arranges a water spread in a J design with the blind at the end of the long (bottom) part of the J. He hunts over such spreads from shore or from a stake or boat blind.
"Here's an important tip," he adds. "I like my anchor cords to be two feet longer than my deepest hunting depth, and all lines should be equal in length. This keeps decoys from tangling and retrievers from getting caught up in the lines."
The Final Word
Canada goose populations in North America fluctuate up and down each year, and opportunities to hunt honkers do likewise. In 2004, the numbers of these birds are rebuilding in the Atlantic flyway, and seasons and bag limits are expanding. Shifting migration patterns in the mid-United States are hurting some areas and helping others. The expansion of resident flocks of giant Canada geese across the country is causing nuisance problems, while also creating new hunting prospects.
Wherever these birds exist, there is a common thread in hunting them: Having an effective decoy spread is a must. Canada geese are exposed to growing hunting pressure. Realism and motion make decoys more alluring to live birds. Calls and calling know-how are better than ever. Hunters are more mobile now than in the past, and they can travel to where hunting is good. All these things combine to educate honkers as to hunters' means and methods.
This is why haphazard spreads don't get it anymore. Instead, serious goose hunters must pay attention to detail and take advantage of all the gear and good advice available. Indeed, these are days of super geese, and it takes super spreads to lure them into close shotgun range.