by Gary Koehler
Late-season waterfowling can present the worst of times and the best of times. Depending on one's place of residency, this portion of the year can bring plunging temperatures, snow and ice, and winds that slice the air like a razor. Canada geese, having been pursued for months, parlay their in-season education into a wariness that borders on avian paranoia. Gunning conditions can be physically demanding and the birds extremely tough. But, for those who take the time to properly prepare, the rewards can be exceptional.
"Because of the weather, late-season Canada goose hunting can be some of the best hunting of the year," says Bill Saunders, a professional guide for the past 10 years at Pacific Wings Waterfowl Adventures, located in Washington's Columbia Basin. "If there is snow on the ground, they get pressed for food. They have to eat. You capitalize on that.
"But that doesn't necessarily mean cornfields. For me, that means going to the green, which, out here, is bluegrass, alfalfa, timothy hay, and winter wheat. If it's really cold and there's snow on the ground, Canada geese can have a hard time getting to the corn because it's frozen to the ground. So they'll go to the green, sit, and wait. Once it warms up, they'll go to the cornfields."
Saunders, who has won just about every state and regional goose-calling title to be won in the Pacific Northwest, markets his own Guide Series goose and duck calls. His approach to luring late-season Canadas to his spread can be much different than the calling techniques he employs earlier in the year.
"It's all about reading the birds," Saunders says. "That's something, I guess, that I've got a knack for. I can read birds pretty quickly before I call at them. Generally, on tough late-season birds, I will call less. I'll take it easy. You react to how they react.
"I always use a high-pitched call late in the season. I tell guys that if they use a low-pitched call all year, then, during the late-season, when the birds get squirrelly, to go to the high-pitched call. The geese will often respond to that sound much more quickly."
When times are tight, Saunders seldom gets fancy with his calling style.
"Guys have to remember that if the birds are coming at you, are bowed up, and they are doing what you want them to do—keep the call in your pocket. If they waver, or start to pull off, then go back to calling," Saunders says.
"As far as sounds are concerned," he adds, "I will stick to two-tone clucks and true double clucks. Stay away from anything that sounds like a contest routine. A lot of young callers feel like they have to blow a routine. Late in the season, I think that is going to hurt you in the long run."
Steve Panaroni, who has guided professionally for 20 years, and who spends six months on the road hunting—from his Connecticut home to venues in Canada, Illinois, and Missouri—concurs. Keeping things simple can pay big dividends on late geese.
"Early in the year, Canada geese are very vocal, but late in the year they don't tend to be that way, especially in a pressured area," Panaroni says. "They are going to tell you what they want. You have to watch and listen. I just try to mimic what I hear birds doing when they are coming in. One of the biggest mistakes is calling too much and blowing birds out of the field. I see that over and over again."
"I think it's important on late-season geese to do a lot of moaning when you are calling," Panaroni adds. "There are usually one or two birds who are masters of the flock, or head birds. If you can get them on the hook you can bring the whole group in. Give them a cluck or two and two or three long moans. You don't hear them doing a lot of that fast stuff."
In the Midsouth, Steve McCadams has been guiding hunters on and around Kentucky Lake for 30 years. With three refuges located nearby, late-season geese are a bonus bird on the lake's secondary waters, just off the main Tennessee River channel.
"I do a lot of calling if it's a windy day, or if I think they are new birds just arriving," McCadams says. "And, if the geese are vocal, then I respond with a lot of calling throughout the sequence until I call the shot. However, sometimes, if it's a calm day or I'm calling at geese that have been here for several days or weeks, then the birds are more skeptical. In that case, just a few clucks to get their attention is all I do. If they head my way, or show a little interest, then I ease off on the calling and let my decoys do the work.
"It's easy to overcall late-season birds on a calm day," McCadams adds. "They make one or two wide swings and fade off on you as they sense something wasn't quite right.
"I let the geese tell me what to do—their behavior is the ultimate judge. That's why experience is so important. The caller needs to know the reaction, or body language, so to speak, of geese as they hear your calling or see your decoy spread. You adjust to what they want."
If calling strategy is an important component of hunting late-season Canadas, so too is decoy selection and placement.
"I'm not necessarily a pattern-type person when it comes to decoys," says Saunders. "I want lanes and landing holes, but I don't use a particular pattern. Growing up as a kid, I had 16 decoys in my spread. When hunting gets tough, I drop to 16 decoys. I know that's just a random number, but that's what I go with. The point is, I use less."
Decoy grooming has long been a part of Saunders' gear maintenance routine.
"Before the season ends, I'll probably wash my decoys half-dozen times. I want them looking clean and fresh," Saunders says. "A real goose spends about half his day cleaning himself. So, clean decoys make sense to me. I know it's hard for guys late in the year to get that motivation, but it's worth the effort. It's different early in the season when the birds haven't colored out yet, but late in the season clean, fresh-looking decoys help."
Panaroni thinks that success is determined, at least in part, by taking care of what some people might consider small details.
"Late in the season it's time to pay attention to detail. You can't be sloppy with your decoys. I make sure mine are clean—no mud on them. About once a week I am pressure-washing decoys to get them looking right. I also flock all my decoy heads and tails. I feel that takes the glare off the decoys," Panaroni says.
"I match the number of decoys to what I'm going to be hunting," he adds. "If I scout a field and count 50 to 500 birds, if I see something like that, then 100 to 150 decoys is what I'll put out there the next day. And I'm particular how I put them out. I put walking lines on each side and have them funnel to the layout blinds. This kind of a V or U shape. This forces geese to come right down the chute."
While Panaroni sometimes goes with a less conspicuous spread, the placement remains the same.
"The colder it gets, the tighter the decoy spread becomes. The decoys should be grouped much tighter together in a snowy field or a cornfield if it's cold. Birds squeeze together when the weather's like that. I put more geese per area in terms of decoy placement," Panaroni says.
Late-season gunners are sometimes required to spend extra time in the field. Canadas quite often do not start moving until mid-morning.
"When it's really cold, it's not at all uncommon for the geese not to hit the fields until 10 or 11 o'clock," Panaroni says. "They won't leave the roost until they know it is not going to freeze."
McCadams often hunts from open-water blinds. The Canadas he pursues are typically seeking places to rest, as opposed to feeding sites. His spread comprises a mix of floaters, shells, and full-bodies.
"When hunting my open-water setups, I use a large spread with a combination of floaters adjacent to sandbars where I have full-bodies and shells mixed. And, I also use some silhouettes to give bulk to the spread," McCadams says.
"Often, I'm attempting to get the attention of distant or high-flying geese, and the large spread is important," he adds. "Exceptions to that would be hunting a dry corn or wheat field either next to a refuge or perhaps a some other field that geese have been using for a few days. In that scenario, I would drop down to a small spread of top-quality full-bodies—maybe a dozen to 18. This gives a more realistic setting."
Whether hunting from layout blinds, pits, boats, land blinds, or sitting in the weeds along a fence row, keep your head down and your face covered. And don't squirm around.
"You have to be hidden," Saunders says. "If you're not, it doesn't much matter what you do with the call or how the decoys are set."
McCadams says, "Late-season birds are more leery, and that's likely because we're seeing a larger percentage of adult birds by the time they make it down South. If you look up, and tip them off, they're gone."
Panaroni concurs. They will hover over you and pick you apart—like radar," he says. "They are looking for something from you that gives yourself away. Don't help them out."
And don't forget to dress warm. And shoot straight.
Random thoughts and words of wisdom from goose-hunting pros…
• "Snow is not a bad thing, but too much snow is. If you get a foot of snow on the ground, that's a bad thing. But if you can get right out there within a couple of days after a two- or three-inch snowfall, hunting can be great. The birds lose their minds with a little bit of snow on the ground."—Steve Panaroni
• If you leave your decoys out overnight, and they get dusted with snow, use a broom to clean them off.
• "The bitter cold days when the ground is frozen hard doesn't seem to work as good as those warming trends just a day or so after the fronts have come through. I think the birds let the sun warm things and melt the frost or ice off the ground, which better enables them to scratch and browse."—Steve McCadams
• Two things are necessary to hold geese: food and open water on which to roost. Locate those ingredients and you will likely find the late birds remaining in an area.
• "Have an ace in the hole when you're hunting late-season geese. If they are not responding to easy, laid-back calling, then let it out and try being more aggressive. You're sure not going to hurt anything."—Bill Saunders
• Scouting is important. Keep in mind that when the temperature falls below 20 degrees, Canada geese seldom fly far to feed. Track the birds from the roost to their buffet.
• "I always turn a couple of sentry decoys into those that are coming in. I have them facing in the direction where the geese will be coming from. Geese on the ground will do that. It might look like they are greeting the birds in the air, but what real geese are really doing is telling them to stay away."—Steve Panaroni
• Pick up any spent shell casings and any other trash on the ground around your hide. A Canada goose's vision is estimated to be at least eight times as powerful as a man's.
• "On a warm-up, after cold weather, when we get a Chinook wind, that's when things really get tough. Those can be the toughest geese you have ever seen."—Bill Saunders
• "Every day is different, as the climatic conditions and wind, or lack thereof, often dictate the calling sequence, volume, and cadence, or rhythm."—Steve McCadams
• "I would not hunt without a flag. That's a critical thing."—Steve Panaroni
In case you were wondering...
For more information on Bill Saunders of Guide Series Calls and Pacific Wings Waterfowl Adventures, visit their respective Web sites at www.guideseriescalls.com and www.pacific-wings.net. Steve Panaroni, who guides, edits hunting videos commercially, and manages his own waterfowl hunt club, may be reached by phoning 203-234-1689. Steve McCadams, who is a past world crappie-fishing champion, as well as an accomplished waterfowl hunting guide, can be reached by phoning 731-642-0360.