By John Pollman
They're smart, hard to decoy and will humble even the savviest of waterfowl hunters, but those who pursue spring snow geese know that the end result is worth the effort.
If you've never taken in a day of decoying snows, blues or Ross's geese as they wing northward on the heels of a retreating winter, maybe this is the year to see what you've been missing.
Martin Hesby has been chasing spring snow geese on the northern plains since the first conservation season was enacted in the late 1990's. While the Avery pro-staffer has experienced his fair share of frustrating days in the field, decoying spring snows remains a highlight of each hunting season.
"The sights and sounds of hundreds of birds, jockeying and positioning themselves on a quick approach is simply awe-inspiring," says Hesby. "When everything comes together and you have a mass of snow geese finishing tight into your rig, you will end up witnessing what I feel is one of the most amazing spectacles Mother Nature could drum up."
When scouting snow geese, much is often made of focusing along the snow line, where eager adult birds will stage in an effort to push north toward the breeding grounds.
Hesby says that while it is true that big masses of migrating birds will concentrate just south of this line of snow and ice, these early geese are often some of the more difficult birds to hunt.
"I like to view the migration in three stages, and during this first wave, the birds are moving fast and hard and are very difficult to break down and work," says Hesby. "They consist mainly of adult birds that have breeding on their minds and are on a mission to get up north."
Hesby explains that during this early part of the season, hunters need to align themselves within a traditional migration corridor, giving them the best opportunity to decoy these first birds as they fight to push into areas still covered with snow.
As the second migration wave pushes north toward a retreating snow line, Hesby says that hunters can expect to see a flight of birds that consists of a mix of adult and juvenile geese.
These birds will often stall out along the migration route, providing hunters with a more fall-like pattern of flying from a roost to an established feed. With flocks filled with more juvenile birds, hunting success tends to pick up, too.
Long after the initial wave of adult birds first pushes against the snow line, Hesby says that hunters typically see a final movement of juvenile birds and a few older geese that are non-nesters. This is a time that Hesby says a snow goose hunter can get even with all of the more difficult hunts earlier in the migration.
"These birds loaf their way north and will roost and feed in an area for longer periods of time," says Hesby. "This makes for excellent gunning, as these birds are very easily patterned and are all about feeding, which makes them dependable.
Decoys and E-callers
If there is one constant through the different stages of the migration, it is that snow geese are voracious feeders.
Avid snow goose hunter and guide Ben Fujan says that hunters should use this habit to their advantage when it comes to setting up decoys.
"Snow geese are aggressive feeders, and new birds will always try to concentrate on the upwind side of a flock on the ground, where the fresh food is," says Fujan. "Naturally, that's where we hunters are going to want to be."
Fujan usually runs between 800-1200 full-body decoys in a teardrop pattern, with the bulk of the decoys tightly packed around the blinds near the crown of the spread.
Fujan says that decoying birds will often get lower over the downwind decoys and then fly up the spread, their eyes drawn to the mass of decoys on the upwind side. A landing space in the decoys should concentrate these birds directly in front of the hunters.
"We leave a hole for the birds to focus on about 6-10 yards in front of our blinds, with decoys completely enclosing the hole," says Fujan. "Be sure to make the landing area large enough for several birds to feel like there is enough room for them all to land."
When it comes to using e-callers, Fujan likes to run one pair of callers upwind around the blinds and another pair at the downwind portion of the spread. Hunters should scatter the speakers within the decoys and keep an eye on the volume of the callers, especially those downwind.
"You want to always make sure that there is sound coming from all parts of your spread," says Fujan. "But you don't want the downwind callers to be too loud, or you run the risk of spooking the birds as they are setting up on your decoys."
Go with a Guide or Freelance? There Is No Wrong Answer
With a list of required gear a mile long, decoying spring snows can be an intimidating – and expensive – undertaking. For that reason, many hunters opt for hiring a professional guide.
Tony Vandemore leads one of the country's top snow goose hunting operations out of Habitat Flats (habitatflats.com
) in north-central Missouri. Vandemore explains that going with a guide is a logical choice for someone who doesn't want to tie up large amounts of money in equipment that he may only use a few days a year.
And Vandemore disagrees with the notion that those who hire a guide simply don't know how to hunt.
"I guide waterfowl hunts for a living, but if I had four days off where I could go to a part of the country I have never been to before and hunt, I'd hire a guide," says Vandemore. "By doing so, I know I'll have access to prime lands, I'll have somebody out there that is keeping tabs on the birds daily and has all the equipment ready."
In terms of finding a snow goose guide, Vandemore says to be sure to do your research, ask a lot of questions, and talk to the references provided by the outfitter.
But for some, freelancing is the only way to go about spring snows.
While Mike Bard spends some time guiding snow goose hunters in the Midwest, the Avery pro-staffer spends as much time as possible freelancing with friends for greater snow geese near his home in central New York.
The Atlantic Flyway has enjoyed a spring conservation season the past two years, and Bard says that is has given him and his friends a chance to spend more time together doing what they love.
"I feel very lucky with regard to the group of guys I chase snow geese with," says Bard. "We are all pretty dedicated to being successful, and everyone takes time off during the peak migration so we can take full advantage of the conservation season."
Besides being able to pool resources, Bard says that another benefit of hunting with a group of friends is the ability to divide up scouting responsibilities and, more importantly, making quality contacts with landowners.
"One thing that really cannot be overlooked is the relationship between landowner and hunter," says Bard. "There are a couple of guys in our crew that seem to have a knack for maintaining great relationships with the farmers, who have been so kind to let us hunt their property. This is probably one of the most important pieces of the puzzle."
After a week or so of hard hunting, Bard says it can be tough for a crew of freelancers to remember that 16-hour days filled with muddy gear and dogs should be fun. But when times get tough, Bard says his friends really only need to look to the sky.
"Just seeing the hundreds of thousands of snow geese migrating north is worth the price of admission," says Bard. "Every serious waterfowl hunter should try to experience this at least once."
Gear to Remember
Mike Bard is no stranger to long days in the field decoying spring snow geese. Having spent every spring in the field for more than a decade, the New York hunter has developed a list of must-have gear that make life a little easier.
Your favorite retriever – "We always hunt with at least, if not two, retrievers. A good toll of snow geese can put 20-plus geese on the ground at one time. Having a retriever pick up the birds is often faster and less noticeable to geese passing over than a hunter running around the field and trying to tip-toe through the tightly packed decoys."
ATV with a light-weight trailer and/or large sled – "They really are a must have. They greatly reduce the time and labor of setting up and taking down a spread, not to mention getting hunters, birds and personal gear in and out of the field."
Cooler with snacks and drinks – "You typically are out hunting well before sunrise until after sunset, so both you and the dogs get hungry and need something to drink throughout the day."
Spare batteries – "Keep some spare batteries on hand for anything that might need one; e-callers, motorized decoys, headlamps – all are part of the day and run off of batteries. It's also good to have a tool kit, electrical or duct tape and some miscellaneous electrical connectors."