By Gary Koehler
Having witnessed world-champion-caliber callers shake their heads and mumble after delivering 10 minutes of the goosiest talk known to man, only to watch a flock of honkers disappear into the wild blue yonder, it has become succinctly clear to me that no one pulls in every bunch of geese they see. No one.
That's because not all Canada geese are inclined to "finish" the way hunters would like: faithfully lining up over the decoys, feet down, wings cupped, hovering at point-blank range. This perfect scenario just doesn't happen every time out, no matter what level of calling prowess the hunter may possess.
There is no question that a goose call in the hands of a savvy caller is a valuable tool. To some seasoned veterans, accomplished calling ranks second in importance only to setting up where the geese want to be. But there are several other considerations that factor into the equation.
Over time, a goose hunter learns to take care of the little things. So we contacted four pros, all well schooled in the ways of the Canada goose, and asked them to share their expertise. Between them they've got more than 80 years of field experience. While they may not have seen it all, they've seen a lot—and learned enough to know how to consistently close the deal with Canadas and to help you do the same.
1. Consider the View from Above
Research has shown that Canada geese have tremendous vision. While approaching a possible landing site, they are always on the lookout for something amiss or unnatural movement.
"In this world, you have predators and prey. Geese are prey," says Tony Vandemore of Habitat Flats guide service in Sumner, Missouri. "As prey, you don't live very long by being careless. Geese are constantly checking out their surroundings to try to stay alive.
"Knowing this, camouflage is of utmost importance. When hunting out of ground blinds, I like to put the blinds frame to frame, and then gather crop stubble to fill in between the blinds all the way up to the doors. This takes away any shadows and silhouette profiling of the blinds."
Vandemore sometimes takes an extra step to eliminate open spots. He makes extra-long decoy stakes to slip in between the blinds. The decoys placed on these extended stakes are positioned at the same height as the blind doors.
As a guide and flyway manager for Avery Outdoors, Vandemore hunts more than 150 days a year, beginning with Canada geese in early fall and continuing through the spring snow goose season. He sees more than his share of stubborn geese and has even classified these uncooperative birds into specific categories. "There are basically two kinds of geese that aren't finishing—flaring birds and sliding birds," he says. "Flaring geese are birds that look like they just saw a ghost when approaching the decoys and are getting out of there as fast as they can. Sliding geese are birds that are interested and might make a pass or two but just don't finish."
"In this world, you have predators and prey. Geese are prey. As prey, you don't live very long by being careless." —Tony Vandemore
Recognizing this difference will help you make the proper adjustments needed to bring in more geese. "In my opinion, flaring geese are birds that are seeing the blind or blinds. In this situation, rather than move the blinds right away, I would first check to ensure that all the blinds are camouflaged to the max and watch how the next flock reacts. Sliding geese are typically geese that tell me there is a problem with the decoys. These are interested geese that make a few passes but don't finish in the landing zone, and they might even land out of range. In this situation, I'll start by making adjustments to the decoy spread. Perhaps the landing zone is too tight, maybe the wind has shifted and the birds are cut off from getting to the hole... try whatever you can until the birds are finishing right where you want them to," he says.
2. Adapt to Weather Conditions
No one can change the weather, but goose hunters should be willing and able to adapt to the conditions at hand. Calling strategies may vary, depending on the temperature, amount of sunshine, and precipitation. Your ability to adjust is vital to success.
"Weather is the key in hunting geese. Why? Because on snowy, cold days the geese will be very cooperative to the call," says professional guide Kevin Popo of Wilmington, Delaware. "But on a bright, sunny, warm day it may seem like you are not even blowing the call, the geese are so uncooperative."
According to Popo, your calling should always be in tune with the weather. "On windy days you will have to blow louder than normal," he says, "and on windy and rainy days you will have to be more aggressive still. Let the weather set the tone for your calling."
"On windy days you will have to blow louder than normal, and on windy and rainy days you will have to be more aggressive still. Let the weather set the tone for your calling." —Kevin Popo
Popo typically starts out by keeping his calling as simple as the geese will allow. "My approach is to start with a single honk. If the birds keep coming toward me, I'll continue with this simple approach—a single honk. If that's all it takes for them to come to the decoys, then that might be all it takes that day to get it done," he says.
By not playing all of his cards at once, Popo leaves himself room to maneuver. "You might say I save a few things, but that's not really what I'm doing. I start with the basics, a honk and a cluck, and see if that is enough to get the birds to finish," he explains. "If they don't, then I'm going to increase my tempo and put some urgency into these basic notes."
3. Adjust Your Decoys as Needed
Many Canada goose hunters believe that the more decoys you use the better. But success does not always depend so much on the number of decoys as how they are positioned. If deployed in the wrong manner, a huge decoy spread can be more of a liability than an asset. Learn to make the necessary adjustments to suit the situation at hand.
"Always watch how the first birds react to your decoy spread," says Dave Dorrell, a game call maker from Klamath Falls, Oregon. "Don't just set up the spread and ride it out. If the birds are favoring one side or another, get up right away and move some of the spread from the weak side to the favored side to try to block them off and center them up.
"And never be afraid to move your blind out of the decoys. If birds want to circle or land upwind, move your blind 20 yards upwind, if cover permits. In other cases, you may have to move your spread downwind 20 yards. This is especially true when birds that seem totally committed to landing in your rig suddenly flare for no reason. They have shifted their attention from your decoys to your blind, and you have lost."
"Always watch how the first birds react to your decoy spread. Don't just set up the spread and ride it out." —Dave Dorrell
Pursuing Canada geese over water, however, often requires a different approach. Here, less can mean more. "Over water, at least in our area, decoy spreads don't have to be huge.
Anywhere from two decoys to five dozen decoys can work well, depending on the time of year," Dorrell says. "If birds are roosting on the water in big numbers, use more decoys. If you're hunting small groups of geese during the late season, use a pair to a half-dozen."
Knowing what your neighbor is doing can also give you an edge. "If all the guys in the area are running big spreads, run a small one," Dorrell says. "And sometimes small means really small. We have consistently landed paired-up, late-season Canadas over water with only two or three decoys. The geese are starting to get territorial in January, and seeing other paired geese on the water gets them all fired up."
4. Give Geese What They Want to Hear
Defending world goose calling champion Mitch Hughes pursues Canadas on Maryland's tradition-rich Eastern Shore and in Canada. Through trial and error and by listening and watching, he has learned that geese cannot be counted on to behave the same way day in and day out.
"On sunny days, with not a breath of wind, I use very little calling—just enough to keep the birds interested in me," Hughes says. "On very windy days, I use a much higher-pitched call and do a lot more calling.
"Most of the time on high-wind days, you have to aggressively call geese until their feet hit the ground. But every day is different, and you have to see how the birds are reacting. Then adjust your calling and decoy spread accordingly."
"On sunny days, with not a breath of wind, I use very little calling—just enough to keep the birds interested in me." —Mitch Hughes
Hughes recommends that hunters learn how to read geese. That is, watch how the birds react to the sounds you are creating. "You can tell what they want to hear by watching them," Hughes says. "The geese will tell you what's working. I'll read the birds, and if they're not liking aggressive calling that day, I'll keep it simple and do just a little bit of calling.
"You often have to adjust," he continues. "I'll try a bunch of different things—different notes—with every group that comes over if that's what it takes. I change it up a lot."
No matter your calling prowess, too much calling can be detrimental to your success. "I see, or hear, a lot of people out there going a hundred miles an hour on a goose call," Hughes says. "Sometimes everybody in the blind is blowing their calls like crazy. That can work. But too much calling can also flare a lot of birds, and it can make geese call shy."
Flagging Dos and Don'ts
Guide Tony Vandemore has experimented with goose flags for years. During that time, he's seen both the upside and downside of flagging for Canadas.
"A flag is either your best friend or your worst enemy. Still, it's very much a necessity every day in my spread. When geese are at long distances, it's hard to go wrong flagging—the more the merrier. I just try to give the geese a glimpse of motion, something to get them curious enough to head in our direction," he says.
"As geese get closer, maybe 400 to 700 yards out, I adjust my flagging to mimic a landing goose. I start with the flag high in the air and then pump it and bring it down to the ground. I do this repeatedly until the geese are about 400 yards away.
"Inside 400 yards is where a flag can be your best friend (if it's in the hands of somebody who knows how to use it), or your worst enemy (if it's in the wrong hands)," Vandemore continues. "At this range, only one or two people—the most experienced hunters—should have a flag in their hands. When geese are approaching the decoys, I try to mimic a bird that is already on the ground and stretching its wings. I'll make just a few short fast pumps with the flag close to the ground. If geese are coming and start to slide to the side, skirt the decoys, or even start landing wide, two or three short fast pumps of the flag will give them enough motion to key on. Then they will come right to it."