By John Pollmann
Even with a growing reputation as some of the most difficult birds to hunt, light geese – snows, blues and Ross' – are pursued by more and more hunters every year. Armed with the latest in blinds, decoys and e-callers, some might think that hunters have the cards stacked in their favor. Those that chase the giant flocks know their jobs are cut out for them every time they hit the field. The following tips will help you gain the edge this year when you launch into another spring edition of the wild goose chase.
A Fine Line
South Dakota waterfowl hunter and Avery Pro-staffer Ben Fujan has seen many changes since hunters were first enrolled in an effort to reduce the pressure that light geese put on their fragile summer nesting grounds in the tundra. However, there is one aspect to the hunting that hasn't changed much: when it comes time to find snow geese in the spring, it all comes down to food and water. "In the spring, snow geese are constantly trying to push their way north," Fujan says. "But when they reach the ice-line or snow-line, their northward momentum is stopped. Find that line and you'll find the geese." Fujan adds that while snow geese will spend time on the ice, they seldom venture into an area where the food sources are still covered with any snow. "That snow-line really is a great place to start when searching for snow geese. Use weather reports to stay on top of the changes in temperature that are necessary to melt ice and clear snow."
Location, Location, Location
Much like the fall, window-time is a reality for the spring snow goose hunter, but Fujan stresses that hunters can save time if they focus on an area that historically holds large snow goose numbers. "You have won half the battle if you position yourself in an area that sees good goose traffic," Fujan says. "Unless the snow-line has completely pushed birds off-track, they will typically return through the same areas year after year." By concentrating on high-traffic areas, you place the odds in your favor that you are going to be hunting fresh birds. "Your best bet in the spring is to hunt birds that are new to an area and are looking for places to rest and eat," Fujan says. "If you are in the right location, you will likely shoot birds in the morning that are coming to the field to feed, and as the day progresses you will pick up birds that are migrating overhead. New birds are much more likely to respond to your decoys and calling."
If your scouting time is limited or you are not able to secure permission on a field that is holding birds, Fujan suggests that you try setting up on the south side of a large body of water or refuge. Birds are naturally drawn to those areas, and by setting up on the south side, you are, in essence, short-stopping the birds before they reach their usual destination. Fujan warns, however, that you should not set up too close to a large concentration of real birds.
"You'd be amazed at how a large group of snows on the ground within two or three miles of your set-up can affect your hunt. Try and set up in a highly visible field several miles south of a large staging area. I don't care what decoys you use or how many e-callers you have running; you simply cannot compete with thousands of real birds."
An area that is often over-looked by spring snow goose hunters but can be highly effective is a large, snow-free pasture. "Pastures can provide lights-out hunting," Fujan says. "The short grass offers the geese a perfect place to feed and loaf, which is exactly what many birds are looking for on their way back north." Often, pasture hunts are not an early morning ordeal; instead, hunters should target birds that have already fed or are moving and looking to settle in to a day-roost set-up.
It's All in the Timing
It isn't long after the first warm winds sweep across the plains that hunters begin to see the long lines of snow geese winging their way north toward the summer breeding grounds around the Hudson and James Bays. While a hunter might jump at the first sight of light geese in the area, Fujan suggests that the best thing to do might be to wait. "The front end of the migration consists mainly of adult birds," Fujan says, "and anyone that has chased these birds knows that the adults are extremely difficult to hunt." Most hunters know that the snow geese that are 5-8 years old have seen it all; from decoy spreads to e-callers, the older birds possess years of experience that make them seemingly impossible to hunt. "If I have the choice, I try to hunt the middle- or back-end of the migration," Fujan adds. "Younger birds are more susceptible to calling and decoys. That is not to say that you cannot have success with older birds, but a snow goose that has traveled up and down the flyway several times is a tough bird to fool."
The Wind of Change
While Fujan's spring hunts take him from Missouri to South Dakota, his decoy set-up rarely changes. "We've tried just about every spread that you can imagine," Fujan says, "but the one that has consistently produced results is really nothing more than a big oval with a large landing area on the up-wind side of the spread." Landing snow geese are naturally drawn to the active side of a feeding flock, where birds are hopping in front of one another as they feed into the wind. "We try and keep most of our spread out in front of us," Fujan says. "Many hunters will set up on the extreme down-wind side of their spread, and we have found that just the opposite works. If you are too far down-wind, most birds will end up behind you, providing extremely difficult shots." He also adds that snow geese tend to work more vertically than Canada geese or even ducks. "You might have snow geese that are 60-yards up and 30-yards out, and all of a sudden, that same flock will be feet-down 15-yards on top of you. Don't expect those birds to take an approach to your spread like a honker. More often than not, they are down the elevator shaft and on you before you know it."
As a member of the Avery Pro-staff, Ben Fujan hunts exclusively over Avery GHG full-body snow goose decoys, but he adds that rags and wind-socks are still effective on snows. "Being mobile is one of the best tools a hunter can have, and rags and wind-socks afford you the luxury of being able to pick up and move with a minimal amount of hassle." If a hunter is using both full-body and wind-sock decoys in the same spread, Fujan suggests separating the two, keeping the more realistic full-bodies closer to the blinds for use around the landing area. "You really want the last decoys that the birds are flying over to be the most realistic decoys that you have," Fujan says. "Full-bodies are also great at hiding e-callers and blinds, especially the blinds of the hunters using flags."
Sounds of Spring
Of all the aspects of spring snow goose hunting that can go wrong, the use of an e-caller is where Fujan sees the most mistakes. "I really think that hunters try and do too much with the e-caller. The big roar of sound that is commonly pumped through e-calling systems is really not natural, unless you have a flock of several thousand birds all launching up from the field at the same time." For Fujan, it is not about pumping out large amounts of birds sounds; rather, a hunter should strive to present a clean, realistic soundtrack that features plenty of individual goose sounds. "The next time that you are out scouting and come across a field of feeding snow geese, stop and listen for a while," Fujan says. "If you are hunting with 200 full-bodies, put together an e-calling system that replicates 200 live birds." Fujan also stresses that the speakers should really circle the blinds, so that the birds are always hearing an equal amount of sound from the decoy spread.
For many waterfowl hunters, the highlight of a day's hunt is often found in the work of a four-legged hunting companion, and there are very few days when Ben Fujan isn't accompanied by his two-year old lab named Titan. Fujan has found that spring snow goose hunting provides great opportunities for dogs, both young and old, to build confidence in several areas. "When things are going well in the field, a dog will have the chance to make more retrieves in a day than some see in a whole season," Fujan says. "Spring snow goose hunting is a great time to work on handling skills, and the white birds provide great visibility for long marks." However, Fujan adds that a hunter should execute a little caution if a pup is extremely young or has not experienced much hunting. "Quite often you'll be hunting with several guns and there will be lots of birds raining down in the decoy spread. All of this can prove to be too much for some pups, and ultimately it can set the stage for many difficulties down the road." Fujan suggests that if you are going to hunt with a young or inexperienced dog, do so under very controlled circumstances so that the pup will leave the day with an even stronger desire to get out the next time.
No Place Like Home
While there are many places a hunter can chase snows in the spring, Ben Fujan likes to stick close to home. "Come mid-March, there is no other place I'd rather be than in a dry corn-field in South Dakota," Fujan says. "Give me a 45-degree day with sunny skies, a southerly breeze and a day with my dog and my friends – that's about as good as it gets."