By Wade Bourne
Ornithologists know that the "language" of wild geese includes calls that convey different meanings, such as recognition, excitement, and contentment. To be successful in the field, hunters imitate this language as naturally as possible. Many experts blow combinations of different calls to attract birds into close shooting range, but in most cases a few basic calls are all you need.
Professional callers understand that performing on the contest stage is one thing; luring geese into a decoy spread is another. The pros also know that calling wild geese is species specific. Canada geese, for example, have a language that is different from that of snow geese, and vice versa. It is essential for hunters to focus their calling on a target species.
Following are tips from some of North America's best goose callers on how to draw these big birds in close. Hunters who apply the advice of these experts on a species-by-species basis will soon be more proficient at calling all geese when these birds head down the flyways.
Big Canada Geese
Kelley Powers of Union City, Tennessee, is a competition goose caller with many national titles to his credit, including World Goose Calling Champion and Champion of Champions. He is also a veteran hunter who knows how to apply his calling talent on wild geese over fields and marshes. Powers's favorite targets are "big" Canada geese, including giant Canadas (mostly nonmigratory) and interior Canadas (mostly migratory). When hunting these birds, he uses a Tim Grounds Triple Crown Canada goose call.
Powers says goose hunters can call these birds effectively by mastering two calls, the honk and the moan. Hunters can then build variations of sounds and sequences from these basic calls. "The cluck is just a short version of the honk, and the murmur is a variation of the moan. So if you learn these two simple Canada goose calls, you can add more complexity to your routine as your calling skills improve," he says.
According to Powers, many hunters make a common mistake when calling big Canadas. "They call too much, too soon," he says. "They throw the kitchen sink at them right up front. Sometimes this will scare geese. And even if it doesn't scare them, what do you have left if they still don't come? You've already used your trump card."
When a flight of big Canadas is approaching, Powers will keep his calling to a minimum, maybe a couple of long-range honks and a few clucks. "Sometimes this is all I need," he says.
"They'll see my decoys and come. But if I need to use more persuasion, then I have more to give. I can start blowing louder and faster. I haven't risked anything by starting out with minimal calling, and I've avoided the possibility of overcalling from the start."
Powers tailors his calling style to the time of day and the type of setup he's hunting. "In the morning, when geese fly into a grainfield to feed, they're usually excited and vocal," he explains. "They make a lot of short, choppy notes, especially when they see other geese coming. But when they go back to their loafing spots at midday, they're in a lazy mood, and they don't do a lot of calling.
"So if I'm set up in a feeding situation, I'll call more. But if I'm set up on a mudflat, sandbar, or some other resting location, I'll typically call less to sound more natural in that environment."
Each day is different, and many factors-wind, temperature, hunting pressure, and so on-come into play when considering the best approach for calling big Canadas. Weigh all of these factors but don't overcomplicate things. Use common sense and begin with the basics.
"Start out sounding like one goose, then add in more erratic little side notes to sound like other birds," Powers says. "And try to avoid getting into a rhythm. Real Canada geese on the ground call unevenly and erratically, and that's how I try to call, to sound as natural as possible."
Small Canada and Cackling Geese
Many waterfowlers mistake lesser Canada geese and cackling geese (once considered Canada geese but reclassified in 2004 as a separate species) for diminutive versions of larger honkers.
Not Sean Mann. This world champion goose caller and call maker from Trappe, Maryland, knows the difference. He also knows that these smaller, tundra-breeding geese must be called differently than their larger cousins.
"A lot of times, it's better to work bigger Canada geese with minimal calling," Mann explains. "It's like a back-and-forth conversation, similar to the kids' game Marco Polo. They call, you answer. And hopefully they come."
The technique is different with these smaller geese. "You use a higher-pitched call, and call a lot more-almost constantly," Mann says. "You make a lot of noise and call the whole flock instead of just the flock leader. They're more drawn by the rhythm than to any single call within the rhythm."
In 14 years of guiding hunters in eastern Alberta, Mann has lured tens of thousands of these smaller geese into his decoys. When a flock is approaching and "loving it," he "bounces" continuous clucks, double-clucks, and feeder moans their way using a Wing Mann short-reed call from his own Wing Nutz call collection.
"Because lesser Canadas and cacklers typically fly and work in larger flocks, they like to hear a flock on the ground," Mann says. "Just keep giving it to them, and call them all the way to the finish line. Don't back off! If you stop calling, these birds can get real spooky in a hurry."
Mann also advises hunters to experiment with different cadences and sequences to discover which ones the birds respond to best. "They're just like other geese in one respect: on different days, they respond better to different sounds and combinations of sounds. So experiment with different routines and cadences to try to learn what the geese are responding to."
What's Mann's biggest secret for calling geese-or ducks, for that matter? Confidence. "You've got to believe you can call those birds in," he says. "Then you just muster up the determination to do it. True, this is a very indefinable part of calling, but in my opinion it's also the most crucial part. The caller with the most confidence is always the one who gets the most birds to come in."
Jason Campbell of Iowa, Louisiana, is a two-time "specklebelly" calling champion. Campbell is also an avid hunter of specks and a member of the RNT and Avery Outdoors pro staffs.
Whether hunting in local rice fields or competing in contests, he uses an RNT acrylic narrow-bore call with a Mylar reed.
"All my calling is based on the distinctive two-note yodel that specks make," Campbell says. "I don't call at every goose I see. Instead, I focus on birds that I think are callable-birds that are flying out of normal flight patterns, lower birds, and singles."
When he sees workable specklebellies, Campbell issues the two-note call and waits for an answer. If he gets one, he follows up immediately, mimicking the bird's response. "You can tell right away if they're interested," he says. "If they are, then I try to engage them in a dialogue and draw them toward my decoys."
"Less is more" is Campbell's philosophy for calling specklebellies. "The less I call, the less likely they are to pinpoint me," he explains. "If they're working, I don't call much. I want them focused on my decoys instead of on my calling location. My goal is to shoot them, not entertain them."
Campbell will, however, add more persuasion if passing specks ignore him, or if working birds start veering away. "In either case I will call louder, faster, and with a different inflection. If the geese continue to ignore me or start going away, I'll give up on them. But if they respond, I'll repeat whatever vocalization I made that triggered their favorable response."
When specklebellies get close, Campbell calls at "wingtips and tail feathers"-when the geese are banking or going away. "When they're right on top of me, I refrain from calling so I don't draw unwanted attention. I try to keep them guessing so they won't locate my position. Also, when geese are coming straight on, I call very, very sparingly. The closer they get, the more I tone it down. Over that last hundred or so yards, I may call once for every two or three calls they make."
Campbell adds that this passive style of calling specklebellies is necessary in the South because of heavy gunning pressure. "The geese around here are â€˜educated,' and it's easy to overcall them," he says. "But I've hunted in areas farther up the flyway where the geese weren't as hunter-savvy and I could call more aggressively, with good results."
No single calling style fits all hunting scenarios. If what you're doing isn't working, try something different, Campbell advises. "Avoid getting in a calling rut. Keep trying different stuff until you find the routine that the geese are responding to best, then stick with it," he says.
Chris Swift of Tyler, Texas, is one of the best callers of "light geese"-greater and lesser snows and Ross's geese-in North America. A two-time world snow goose calling champion, he has 18 years' experience guiding for these birds in Texas, Alaska, and Saskatchewan. His chosen instrument for calling snow geese is a Sean Mann White-Out polycarbonate call.
"When I'm hunting snow geese, I'll pick one bird and try to have a conversation with him," Swift says. "When he calls, I'll immediately call back. I try to gain his attention and steer him toward my spread. If I can get that one goose committed to coming, others will usually come with him. I try to mimic what that bird does, using exactly the same pitch and volume. I think this is crucial. I believe the biggest mistake most snow goose callers make is they don't hit just the right note."
When the target goose locks onto his decoys, Swift lets the bird come without additional calling. "I don't call him all the way to the ground," he says. "Once he's made up his mind, I let him come. When snow geese start sailing toward a spread, they're usually coming in."
If the geese don't commit, however, Swift shifts to another gear. "In this case I'll start blowing high-lows [two-note calls] and mix in a lot of murmurs. Sometimes you can convince a reluctant snow goose to come in by giving him a little more coaxing."
Another way to add persuasion is to have multiple callers calling simultaneously. "Two callers are better than one, and three are better than two," Swift says.
Weather conditions can also play a big role in how to call snow geese. If it's foggy or the wind is calm, Swift backs off on his calling. "I may call toward the ground or inside my jacket to muffle the sound," he explains. "I'll also add a lot more murmurs in these conditions. But if the wind is howling, I'll point the call straight at the bird and blow loud, strong notes."
A different calling style comes into play when calling Ross's geese. "These birds make a distinctive high note, called a chirp or peep," Swift says. "You can imitate this sound by using a specklebelly call and squeezing the end of the call to restrict air flow. This makes a high note that sounds like a Ross's goose. Just listen to the live birds and imitate the sounds they make, just like you do with snows."
Captain Jeff Coats operates Pitboss Waterfowl guide service near Ocean City, Maryland. A full-time Maryland master guide, his main targets are sea ducks and Atlantic brant, which winter in large numbers in Sinepuxent and Chincoteague bays.
When it comes to calling "sea geese," Coats recommends starting with a good brant call. He prefers a Bill Saunders call. He says this call has a special shaved reed that produces the lifelike purr or chirp that brant make when winging low over coastal waters.
"Brant are very vocal, noisy birds," Coats says. "When you're calling them, you just imitate their sounds. A controlled rolling of your tongue will make a bleat while steadily pushing air through the call. Then, at the end of the note, the tongue should hit the roof of your mouth to sharply cut the roll off. Don't blow too hard or too fast. Most hunters need to slow down and allow the call to â€˜break.' That's how you make the chirping sound made by real brant."
Coats, who has a brant calling instructional DVD in the works for a spring 2013 release, says that hunters new to brant calling should "just listen to the brant and do what the birds are doing." He calls longer and louder when the birds are far away. Then he shortens his calls and decreases the volume as the birds approach. "Two hunters calling together sometimes works better than one calling alone," he adds.
One last word of advice: try flagging brant before calling them. Flagging and calling serve the same purpose-getting the birds to notice the decoys. "They see the flag. They hear the call. They see the decoys. And they come," Coats says.
Mastering the Basics
Given the complexities of goose speak, there is no single formula for calling all geese. But even the most sophisticated goose music begins one note at a time. First, master the basic calls of the species you're targeting. Then learn to adapt different calling styles to different weather conditions. And finally, experiment with different calls, volumes, and cadences to discover what works best on a given day-and then stick with it. Follow this advice when the big birds are on the wing, and you too will lure more geese into close shooting range.