by Gary Koehler
What began as a grand experiment to discover a more effective means to harvest snow geese yielded huge dividends this spring during the course of the annual conservation order hunting season. Think full-body decoys. Think mammoth spreads. Now think huge numbers of feet-down adult snows and blues hovering over well-concealed layout blinds. Think consistently, as in day in and day out, from central Missouri on north into South Dakota. Think incredible results. And you would be right on the money.
There will inevitably be naysayers to this claim of snow goose delirium. The doubters will say that they have seldom seen mature snows behave that way. They will say that the birds have simply become too smart to be so easily tricked. They will say that they have hunted snows over several hundred rags, and windsocks, and shells, and maybe even white trash bags and paper plates, to little or no avail. Yes, adult snows will sometimes decoy, they will say, but on a regular basis in big flocks? No way.
But these skeptics were not in the company of Tony Vandemore, Tyson Keller, and assorted accomplices from February through April. And the skeptics probably did not put out as many as 1,700 full-body snow goose decoys on any given day while following the migration. This exercise involved more than a little manual labor. Three trailers were required to haul the enormous rig. The pick-up, move to another field, and set-up chores sometimes concluded at 1:30 in the morning.
"We really didn't know how it would work," says Keller, who, like Vandemore, is a member of the Avery Outdoors pro staff. "I experimented with field-testing full-body snow goose decoys a little bit last spring and some during the fall, but this spring was going to be the big test for us."
The mind behind this madness was Tom Matthews, the Avery Outdoors/Greenhead Gear guru, who was compelled to put his company's full-body snow goose decoys to the test in a big way. When Matthews sent out a call for volunteers, Vandemore and Keller, who rank among his crew's most experienced and accomplished snow goose hunters, responded with enthusiasm. Both in their 20s, they had the time and the energy to tackle this daunting project.
"Tom wanted to put together a huge, full-body decoy tour," Vandemore says. "He said he wanted the biggest in the nation, and he wanted it to be mobile. He asked us to try it and see how it worked."
Keller got a glimpse last fall when he employed a large full-body spread in his native South Dakota.
"What I noticed in the fall when we were hunting over full-bodies quite a bit was that we had tremendous luck with them as far as finishing the birds," Keller says. "Usually with mature snow geese it's awfully difficult to get their feet down like a Canada goose. I thought maybe our success in September and October was because they were younger birds, but our luck did not change one bit this spring.
"On our Missouri hunts, about 75 to 90 percent of the birds we've shot have been adults," Keller adds. "We had a few days here and there where things were tough, but every bird we have shot has been totally committed, and totally fooled. It has been absolutely incredible."
I joined Vandemore, Keller and three other cohorts early in March in Rock Port, Missouri, a quiet little farm town, population 1,349, situated in the far northwest corner of the state. We can see Nebraska from here, and, if we squint, Iowa, too. The 7,350-acre Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge is about 15 miles to the south. The refuge plays host to hundreds of thousands of snow geese during fall and spring migrations. The count during my stay peaked at 470,000.
The pro staffers and crew arrived a day ahead of me and, after considerable scouting, selected a harvested cornfield located just this side of nowhere. After contacting the landowner for permission, they towed a trailer into the field and began the tedious task of unloading the decoys to construct the spread.
"Really, it's not all that bad," says Vandemore. "Whenever we can, we just drive right into the field and dump the decoys out a hundred at a crack. Then we'll move the trailer a little bit and dump some more."
The cornfield we will be hunting is about 500 acres and full of short, rolling humps. The decoys—all on motion stakes—are placed atop the tallest hump in the field, somewhat of a wide plateau, actually, which provided the spread maximum visibility from a distance.
"When we are looking for a field, we try to find a cut cornfield, rather than a disked field or a silage-cut field, because there is more cover on the ground," Keller says. "We can hide the blinds a lot better. Another thing we typically try to do is run our decoys in the same direction as the rows. Most of the time the birds like to feed with the rows, so if you have a south wind and a field with rows running north and south, that's a big help. The snow geese will naturally feed in line with the rows because it's easier for them."
There are approximately 850 full-body snow goose decoys wiggling in the wind when I arrive. More than 250 members of this faux flock are located within the upper 40 yards of the spread, with the layout blinds hidden among this upwind group. These decoys are set close together to simulate feeding geese. At the other end of the rig, the decoys are much more spread out, with lines and fingers tailing off the rear. The motion stakes are critical in bringing the decoys to life.
"We really don't use a pattern," Keller says. "We run a thin, long line of decoys on the downwind end to make it look like the birds are walking ahead. Then we will have a number of tight little bunches. We leave a small hole, maybe 10 or 15 yards wide, and put only a few decoys in there. What we are trying to do is get the birds to come across the entire spread to where we are sitting."
The decoys are complemented by a customized electronic calling system that employs two callers and multiple speakers. Three speakers located in the lower third of the spread are set to run a feeding-style call. Toward the downwind end, the speakers produce actual calling flock sounds intermixed with the sounds of feeding birds. And, there are no tapes or compact discs for these guys—bird sounds are downloaded off a computer onto an MP3.
"The e-callers are another essential element," Keller says. "With what we use, there is clarity and no scratching. The birds have heard e-callers along the way, so we try to make ours as realistic as we can. The sound from the MP3s is crystal clear."
"One thing we are trying to figure out is the magic number of decoys," Vandemore says. "Will 400 be as effective as 800? We've been experimenting to see what works and what doesn't. I believe in having numbers when hunting geese, but from what I've seen, I don't think you're going to need a thousand full-body decoys to be successful."
The sky is cloudy, with temperatures in the mid-50s, and humid. There is only a slight wind. The conditions are less than ideal. Earlier today, following an early morning rain, this band of 20-somethings killed 72 snows. Ruff, Vandemore's three-year-old black Lab, chased down his share, and then some.
"This afternoon," Vandemore says, "we will be waiting for the birds to come off the refuge to feed. Because we don't have any wind to speak of, we're probably not going to see many flight birds. This might be a whole lot different from what you're used to as far as snows are concerned."
In all honesty, I am somewhat skeptical. Snow geese have tortured me with their merciless teasing in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and on at least a couple of occasions in Canada. And all these young guys are talking about are flocks of feet-down, flaps-down snows hanging over the decoys. Right. Oh, I know it happens, but the classic, edge-of-gun-range snows are much more familiar. Painfully familiar.
"Mark right," Keller says. "Turn on the e-callers. And make sure the cover is closed on your blind all the way."
And so I watch through the mesh blind cover as 400 or maybe 500 snows descend from the clouds, barking, looking. They obviously have no brakes. And no fear. For in minutes, they are hovering over the open hole, wings flapping, maneuvering toward what they think is the head of the on-the-ground feeding flock.
The afternoon quiet erupts with a six-gun barrage.
When the birds are collected, identities are checked. No youngsters here. All adults.
"That's the way it's been from when we started a couple of weeks ago in central Missouri," Vandemore says. "We're killing mature snow geese."
"The migration is really spread out this year," Keller says. "Usually you get a two- or three-week push. But this year the birds are spread out from South Dakota all the way down to Arkansas."
Not too spread out. Flock number two is closing fast. A half-mile away. A quarter-mile. The swarm arrives with a flourish. They make a couple of tight loops but display no hesitation. Here we go again. Birds are in our faces.
"I told you that this might be different from what you're used to," Vandemore says before climbing out of his blind to help round up the downed birds.
No doubt about that. No less than five flocks find this mega-spread enticing enough to visit. All are committed to land. We quit before dark. The day's kill totals 141 birds, and 70 percent of them are adults. Many of these geese are headed to a church food pantry, with others bound for the freezer of a needy family an hour's drive south.
Another 150 decoys are added to the spread the next morning, and an equal number are moved to adjust to the change in wind direction. Keller is fussing with a half-dozen decoys in the hole when the call goes out.
"To the left," Vandemore says. "And there's a bunch of them."
There is seemingly no end to this flock. Birds on top of birds.
"They're tornadoing," someone says. "Look at that."
We watch in awe as high drama assumes center stage. The sight of countless geese gliding on parachuting wings takes my breath away. There is thunder in the air from the cumulative wing strokes of their counterparts high above. Birds begin spiraling down en masse. It is as if someone opened a zipper in the dark clouds and heaps of white laundry came tumbling out. The image is almost surreal. I am convinced that if we don't shoot soon, there is a good chance that snow geese are going to be landing on top of the layout blinds. Birds are already walking among the decoys.
"Three thousand in that flock," Keller says later. "Every bit that many. That's the most snows I've ever seen decoy."
Well, until half-an-hour later.
It's déjà vu, plus. A veritable cloud of snows and blues, with Ross's geese mixed in. Mud is visible on their dangling feet. Wings are cupped. And big, wide bodies are rocking, jockeying for position in the late-winter sky. They're carrying hearty appetites and thinking that breakfast is being served below. This time, 5,000. No exaggeration. We are completely surrounded. The din from their calling is deafening. And they all want in.
"Never saw anything like it," Vandemore says when the shooting subsides. "These full-bodies have been unbelievable."
Unbelievable. Exactly the word that I would have used had I not seen this scenario play out firsthand. Time will tell if huge spreads of full-body decoys are the ultimate answer to snow goose hunting frustration. During my stay, they left no doubt.
Spring Season Created to Keep Snow Goose Population in Check
The Snow Goose Conservation Order was established in 1999 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create a special spring hunting season for snow geese. This move came as the result of an environmental assessment that determined that snow geese were literally eating themselves out of house and home on their Arctic breeding grounds. Simply stated, the burgeoning population was stressing the breeding grounds to the point where if the flock went unchecked, the habitat would be ruined for years to come—negatively impacting not only snow geese but other wildlife as well. Hunters participating in the spring snow goose season are allowed a number of special privileges, including using unplugged guns and electronic callers. The effectiveness of large, full-body decoy spreads may help hunters harvest more birds. The season typically begins early in February in the Mid-South and runs through April in northern states. Popular hunting venues include Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Dakota. This special season has had a positive impact: Snow goose numbers remain high, but the population is growing at a lesser rate than during the 1990s.