By Gary Koehler
Back in the early 1970s, on a cloudy and cold November day, my good friend Harry Debo and I chose to take a pass on our afternoon classes and found ourselves in a partially picked cornfield just south of Cedar Point, Illinois.
We were there to hunt ducks, migrating mallards, to be specific, that we had seen working local fields for three straight days. Two dozen of my father's mallard decoys were set out about 10 rows from our hiding place in the standing corn.
Kneeling on burlap sacks, we waited anxiously for the ducks to come to dinner. No such luck. But the honking of Canada geese quickly changed our mood. The birds came from the south, from behind us, over our backs.
Excitement prevailed over good sense, and we shot too quickly. The geese had not seen us and were cupped to land. But being young and stupid, we emptied our pump guns in short order. One goose fell. And, no kidding, it was banded—a first for both of us.
Shooting a Canada goose back in those days was a huge deal because we seldom encountered many of them, at least not when compared to today's numbers. Our first goose decoys, acquired a few years later, were made of papier-mâché—the simplest of the simple.
And although those same decoys may still work occasionally these days, the odds would be long in areas hosting large goose populations. Goose hunting gear is much more refined now, and the ranks of goose hunters have risen. Increased competition is now accompanied by sophistication.
So, how does one get an edge over the hunters in the next field? Many goose hunters now rely on motion to make decoy spreads stand out. Added realism is the goal.
"Motion is critical if you want to be successful," says Minnesotan Joe Salato, a Ducks Unlimited area chairman who has been hunting Canada geese for more than 30 years. "We have more goose hunters in Minnesota than any other state. Everybody is looking for something that sets their spread apart from other hunters around them."
Technology has allowed decoy companies to take gigantic leaps in improving their products. Having accomplished decoy carvers design their prototypes has taken realism to another level. Goose decoys today, with numerous body postures, flocked heads, and upscale paint schemes, are better than ever. And most can be fitted with specially designed motion stakes that allow them to move in the wind.
"The hardest thing to do when you are hunting in a field is to duplicate the movement of actual geese," says Field Hudnall, an Avery pro-staffer who won the 2006 International Open and 2004 World goose calling titles. "Canada geese are almost always moving in the field. They're walking, feeding, and flapping their wings. When you compare a static decoy spread with live geese in a field, they look nothing alike."
The goal of the serious goose hunter, then, is to replicate that motion. "Decoys on motion stakes are far more effective than stationary decoys," Hudnall says. "It used to be everybody wanted more and more decoys. They would set out a spread of 10 or 15 dozen decoys, but the truth is, 10 dozen decoys that are not moving are worse than five dozen not moving. If you don't have motion stakes, you're better off with fewer decoys, in my opinion."
Hudnall, who has hunted waterfowl throughout the United States and Canada, has committed to studying Canada geese and their habits. "When approaching a decoy spread or a flock of geese on the ground, geese are visually trying to figure out where to land," he says. "They are looking for the most aggressive goose on the ground. He is challenging them because he is where the food is. Geese in the air are looking for feeders that are eating. When geese on the ground are not moving, that's telling geese in the air there's no feed.
"When you are setting out your spread, it's important to show where the food is," Hudnall advises. "We concentrate about 90 percent of our feeder goose decoys in one spot, and by adding motion, we're showing geese where the food is. You're telling them that if they want to eat, they have to come within five yards of this spot. One of the biggest mistakes some people make is spreading out their feeder and looker decoys all over the field. Then you're telling the geese that food is everywhere. You don't want the geese landing 40 yards away. You want them coming to where you are set up."
Some goose hunters feel that decoys deployed with motion stakes are one piece of a larger puzzle. "There are two types of motion," Salato says. "Subtle motion is created by decoys that swivel in the wind, heads bobbing, and necks turning. And then there's highly visible motion, which comes from flapping decoys and flagging."
While motion-base goose decoys—including some that are battery-powered—certainly add to a spread's appeal, Salato is doubtful that they provide the ultimate answer. "Hunters who use over 200 or 300 goose decoys may not be able to afford to put motion stakes on all of them," he says. "They may have motion stakes on a couple of dozen decoys, which is fine, but the rest of the decoys are going to remain static. The spread is not going to be as effective as if all of the decoys were moving."
That point is reinforced by another Minnesotan, Randy "Flagman" Bartz, who, like Salato and Hudnall, has studied Canada geese and experimented with hunting product development for more than a decade.
"The new decoys are great," Bartz says. "But I think too many guys are caught up with simply putting big numbers of decoys in the field. I think it might be wiser to improve the decoys they have by adding motion stakes, for example, rather than just buying more decoys. They could be better off with fewer decoys but with all of them capable of moving. What you are trying to do when you use motion in your decoy spread is create an illusion, make it appear that the spread is something that it isn't, and that's real geese moving around on the ground."
Consider this, however: When you are driving out in the country and come across what appears to be geese in a field, you will likely slow down to see if they are real birds or decoys. You look for the objects in the field to walk around or flap their wings. Real geese on the wing may be flying 40 or 50 miles an hour. So how can they tell whether the objects below them on the ground are real or decoys?
"In a strong wind, flying geese aren't going to be able to pick up birds moving on the ground unless they are landing or flapping their wings," Salato says. "Highly visible motion is critical when you are trying to decoy geese from a distance. Subtle motion can help you finish birds when they are close."
Spinning-wing decoys—one addition to the decoy market designed to create motion—have not proved as popular with goose hunters as they have been with duck hunters. Bartz thinks he knows why.
"Geese have kind of a lumbering flight when they come in to land," Bartz says. "Rotary wings are unlike what a goose does when he's landing. The whirling wings, to me, are more of a negative than a positive because it's not a natural motion for geese."
Flagging for geese has gained prominence and taken on a number of forms. To be sure, flag design and construction have changed dramatically, with some models now featuring black on one side and a camouflage pattern on the other, simulated painted wings, feather patterns, and more. Other variations include flags attached to poles and those equipped with a jerk cord and mounted on goose decoys that can be placed in the middle of one's spread and manipulated from the blind.
Timing and method, however, remain extremely important. "If you do it correctly, with a motion that is realistic, flagging can really help," Bartz says. "If someone is waving a flag around in a figure eight or something, that's not going to do the job. What I recommend is a rapid jigging motion, an up-and-down motion, like when you are jigging while you are fishing. And when it is working, I don't see any sense in stopping until the birds are within shooting range."
Hudnall believes that flags are most effective on sunny days. "We seldom use a flag on cloudy days, unless the birds are really far off, because geese can see better on cloudy days," he says. "They can pick up every little thing on the ground. The sun creates blind spots, and the contrast with the shadows is much harsher. On sunny days, it's harder for geese to focus on individual objects."
Salato prefers to stop flagging as the birds draw close. "If they are committed and coming, I'll stop flagging," he says. "But I will hit them quickly three or four times when they are banking or start to veer off. You are creating an illusion that the bird on the ground is stretching."
Salato's Wing Waver system, which consists of a decoy equipped with wings and a jerk cord to make them move, allows hunters to place the movement wherever they want. "You can set the Wing Waver away from your layout blind and draw attention away from where you are hidden," Salato says.
There are other ways to create the look of movement in a goose spread, including the use of traditional windsock decoys, the newer hybrid sillosock decoys, kites, and even an old standby, silhouettes.
"If used properly, they can simulate movement," Bartz says. "The new ones don't have a shiny surface, and they come in different poses. People who have flown around spreads of silhouettes in airplanes say that as they circle, it looks like the silhouette decoys are moving from one place to another because of the different angles. Again, it's an illusion."
There are times when decoy motion is not a primary consideration. "When the wind is really blowing, the motion spread is less effective," Salato says. "Birds are working so hard flying in that heavy wind that your odds of bringing them into typical decoys are good. It is less critical to use motion decoys on windy days. Actually, sleeper shells are really good on windy days."
But when it's relatively quiet and the going gets tough, motion in your goose spread can pay big dividends.