by Gary Koehler
One of the coldest days I've ever spent hunting occurred in January a number of years ago in northern Illinois. The temperature was in the teens. Six inches of snow covered the ground. A bitter wind cut the air. And our hide was less than stellar in terms of protection and warmth.
Arriving at daylight, my buddy and I sat there shivering for six bone-chilling hours. Although large numbers of geese were in the area, the lone flock of Canadas that flew over the picked cornfield we were hunting did so with a somewhat predictable 10 a.m. flight. They were headed out to feed—somewhere else.
Late-season geese can be boom or bust depending on the conditions and how well one prepares. But when things go right, goose hunting in January can be extraordinary.
Sound Like Contented Geese
Some hunters begin calling as soon as they see Canada geese, no matter how far away the birds may be. They call and call and call some more. John Taylor, who has hunted Maryland's Eastern Shore his entire life, favors a different approach late in the season.
"I call only at birds that I think I have a chance at," Taylor says. "If geese are leaving the roost and going the other way, I don't try to change their minds. I just wait for a bunch that looks workable. And I never, ever shoot the roost.
"When calling late-season geese, I try to focus more on sounding like geese than someone calling geese, and there is a difference," Taylor continues. "By that I mean you should try to sound more like contented geese feeding in the field. More times than not, a caller will call as fast as he can to sound like as many geese as he can. It usually sounds like one goose on steroids. Practice overlapping high and low notes to replicate good multiple sounds of a few different geese."
Taylor has hunted geese over everything from old tires and homemade silhouettes to stuffers—and everything in between. Decoy numbers and detail are important, but so is presentation.
"I like to constantly change what I'm doing with decoys," Taylor says. "Some hunters will go out with the same rig and set it up the same way every time. If geese see the same thing all the time, trust me, they will get used to it quicker than you think. The message here is to try different things.
"Late in the season, goose hunters often want to go with bigger rigs, and maybe they'll get together with friends and pool their decoys. That can be very effective. But, if I go that way, I do so only when I know our spread is going to be bigger than anybody else's in the area because that huge rig is probably something the geese aren't used to seeing.
"Pay close attention to what others around you are doing. If a lot of hunters are going with a bigger decoy spread, sometimes I do the exact opposite and go smaller with my spread. I like to put out a small family group and make it look like it's the first bunch that has hit the field."
Temperature, precipitation, and wind also help Taylor decide how he's going to set his decoys. "If it's really cold and there is snow on the ground, I like to bunch my decoys close together, and I set a lot of sleepers. The geese will huddle up to help keep warm, conserve energy, and ride out a front. I take the feet off my full-bodies and set them on their bellies. I also use shells with sleeper heads," Taylor says.
"Some hunters will bunch their decoys together too close and right up around their blind with a little landing zone out front," Taylor adds. "I don't think this looks very natural, and it puts too much focus on your blind. Don't be afraid to spread your decoys out and have some confidence in your calling."
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
"Scouting late-season honkers is critical to goose-hunting success," says Sean Hammock of Stillwater, Minnesota. "By January, the birds have been hunted for four or five months and have seen every decoy spread you can imagine. So, being exactly where the geese want to be is very important. Finding a good food source and an area with little pressure from other hunters is crucial. Hunters need to get outside their comfort zone and put some miles on their pickup trucks. Travel to new areas, and get away from all the other hunters. Sometimes it's better to have fewer birds you can hunt with success than thousands of birds you just watch fly over."
Hammock, who grew up in the upper Midwest, is well acquainted with late-season snow common to the region. Experience has taught him to pay heed to the small details.
"I love hunting late-season honkers and mallards in the snow. But, snow can either make you or break you," Hammock says. "Waterfowl hunters need to remember how well the birds can see. When hunting in layout blinds, taking extra time to bury the blinds in the snow or using a spray snow on the material is important.
"Always keep a couple of shovels in your truck or trailer to move snow around and use it to your advantage," Hammock adds. "The real thing is always better than using any kind of spray. If you need to, position layout blinds at the edge of fields or areas where the snow has drifted or is deeper. And always wear a white hat or facemask to blend in with the surroundings."
In the vernacular of the hard-line goose hunter, "running traffic" means intercepting birds as they move from Point A to Point B. Hammock enjoys his role as traffic cop. "Running late-season traffic on Canada geese is another way to increase your success," he says. "We all want to be on the X, but that is not always possible. Picking a good spot to cut geese off can be tough. Always look for a field with the highest elevation around and with little or no stubble. Keep in mind that when snow is on the ground, geese will be able to see your decoy spread from a greater distance because of the color contrast.
"When running traffic, do your best to get directly under the birds' flight path. Visibility is first. You want the geese to see you from a long distance, no matter where they are headed. Using large numbers of decoys and lots of flagging are good ways to get their attention. I do a lot of calling to get the birds coming and then slow it down when they are getting close."
Find or Create Open Water
While most late-season goose gunning occurs in agricultural fields, setting up on open water can also be productive—that is, if you can find open water, or make your own.
"We run a number of ice eaters for late-season Canada goose hunting. Waterfowl are suckers for open water when things are locked up, and late-season Canadas are no exception," says Tony Vandemore of Kirksville, Missouri. "Even though the geese are pressured by the late season, having the ability to keep water open coupled with relaxed/loafing spreads with lots of sleeping shell decoys can provide some of the most consistent and best hunting of the year."
Retrievers are often part of this exercise. And although most are tough by nature, dogs should be given special consideration when the bottom drops out of the thermometer.
"It is imperative to make sure your dog is keeping its core body temperature up when hunting in cold conditions," Vandemore says. "Late season, I move to a 5 mm neoprene dog vest, regardless of whether I'm hunting in a snowy field or over water.
"When hunting over ice holes or open water, a boater's dog parka with the handle on top is priceless for lifting the dog out of the water or up on the ice," Vandemore adds. "I don't condone hunting a dog in an ice situation where you aren't 100 percent certain of the water depth and know the dog can touch bottom if it falls through. Always be sure to keep an eye out for signs of hypothermia and have a plan of action in place—somewhere you can take the dog if it starts to have problems."
Weather changes can have a huge impact on Canada goose movement. Keep tabs on incoming fronts and on which areas the birds are regularly using. "Scouting not only tells you where the birds are moving, but when. Pay close attention to weather and get a better understanding of why the geese are moving and when they are doing it," Vandemore says. "On extremely cold, clear days, our geese move once a day in late afternoon. There is no sense being out there at daylight and getting cold.
"When it's cloudy, windy, or there is any kind of precipitation, the birds will move earlier in the day," Vandemore adds. "With precipitation coming, they typically move before it hits or right as it starts. If you get a warm-up after an extended cold snap, birds will move earlier regardless of sun, clouds, rain, or snow."
Keep Your Spread Realistic
Where and how you set your decoys are among the keys to putting together a successful hunt. Do not be afraid to alter the size of your spread. Be mindful of what other hunters around you may be doing, but do not be afraid to step outside the norm.
"As always, observe birds in your area and place decoys as you see birds feeding and loafing," says Bill Saunders of Kennewick, Washington. "But in general, I tend to set my decoys closer together and concentrated on a food source. I will use more resting decoys in colder weather.
"The number of decoys you should use depends on the number of birds in the area and the number of decoys other hunters in your area are using," Saunders adds. "On late-season pressured birds, go bigger or smaller with your spread compared with what you set earlier in the season. Mix it up. Remember, too, that late in the season geese are in full plumage, so make sure your decoys are clean."
Cold weather can often create frost on decoys. That shiny coating is unnatural, so do what you can to eliminate that look. "Individual decoy bags are a good investment to protect and transport your decoys, and after the decoys are set, the bags can be draped over the decoys' heads and backs to keep frost from accumulating on them," Saunders says. "When I hear or see geese leaving their roost, I will quickly remove the bags and stow them in the blind or pit."
Some goose hunters swear that one of the best times to hunt geese is the day after a heavy snow. But snow creates its own set of issues. "Late season for many goose hunters means snow on the ground," Saunders says. "Keep vehicle and foot traffic to a minimum around blinds and pits. Heavy traffic will create a bulls-eye appearance from the air, which looks unnatural and will alert birds to your presence. You may even want to unload trucks and trailers away from blind locations to keep things looking natural. Spray snow available from many stores is a quick and realistic way to camouflage pit doors and layout blinds.
"During heavy snowfall, make sure to keep snow off decoy heads and backs," Saunders says. "I carry several small whisk brooms to brush off snow. Geese typically will not let much snow accumulate on their backs."