by Gary Koehler
While growing up, and continuing to this day, there was always something reassuring about the clarion cries of migrating Canada geese. They seldom arrived by calendar, but most often appeared when the air first became crisp and the trees began flashing the rich golds and reds of autumn. No matter the project at hand, there was always time to stop and listen.
Geese are the chatterboxes of the waterfowl world. Researchers have determined that Canada goose language includes more than 20 distinct sounds. Perhaps no one can be sure of the exact topic of each conversation, but goose hunters who harbor hopes of outstretched wings over their decoys would do well to master at least a small portion of this colorful dialect.
Talking goose takes practice, which takes time, which takes discipline. The dividends of this labor, however, can make the difference between an endless string of frustrating birdless days and success in the goose fields on a regular basis.
Mechanical calls used to lure geese have changed during the past five years. Flutes, first introduced during the mid-1950s, dominated the market for decades. These days, however, short-reed goose calls are most often the chosen tools.
"The key to short-reeds," says professional guide Shawn Eldredge of Des Moines, Iowa, " is their versatility. I can do 23 different calls in goose language on a short reed, opposed to 12 calls on a flute. I don't use all those different calling sounds, but sometimes I have to pull one of the odd ones out to make things work."
Eldredge, who has been tagged with the nickname of "Goose Guru," for the past 12 years has concentrated his efforts in the Midwest, regularly hunting in Iowa, Minnesota, and Missouri. He is typically in the field up to 128 days a year, beginning with the resident goose seasons and wrapping up during the spring snow goose season.
"With early-season geese, the hutta-cluck works very well over water and grasses, like alfalfa or in a pasture. Simply say 'hutta-hutta-hutta' into your call. Emphasize on the 'T.' That's with either a short-reed or a flute," Eldredge says.
"It's important to start with a reference note. That is, like you are humming into the call. I say 'grrrr' or 'grrrrit.' That reference note will get the reed vibrating. From there, you can go into the hutta call."
Weather conditions, time of year, locale, and bird behavior all play a role in determining what Eldredge pulls out of his bag of tricks.
"Reading birds is part of it," Eldredge says. "Sometimes, they may not want to hear much, so you give them some low-end growls and a couple of clucks. If they turn, you go light with the hutta-cluck, and hutta-cluck them all the way down.
"If they don't respond," Eldredge continues, "change up, stop, slow down, speed up, and figure out what they want to hear. Don't be afraid to try different things. In general, early in the season, once you get geese on a string, they usually come in because there are a lot of juveniles."
Eldredge seldom employs a hail call for geese. Instead, he relies on flagging, a well-designed decoy spread, and staying well hidden, to get the birds' attention and draw them near.
"If the birds get close after doing the hutta-cluck, but maybe start to peel off a little bit, slow your calling down, and do a cluck and a murmur. That translates into confidence--that the birds [decoys]are sitting there, eating. That's what you want to do when you are calling geese—imitate a feeding flock," Eldredge says.
Across the Mississippi River, Richie McKnight honed his goose-calling prowess in agricultural fields throughout Illinois. Though not yet 30, McKnight has distinguished himself in the competitive calling ranks by winning nearly every major contest in the nation. Last fall he captured first place in the prestigious Winchester World Open.
"When I was learning how to call geese the first thing that I tried to get down was the cluck," McKnight says. "I kept working to get that one perfect note. A lot of guys will pick up a call and don't have a good snap or pop to their calling. That's because they don't practice.
"Even today, after winning some contests, I still practice those clucks. Real sharp clucks. Then I practice the moan. Those two calls, I think, will kill more geese than anything. I would advise people to perfect those two calls before they did anything else with a goose call."
McKnight says his calling style is slightly different from many callers with whom he is familiar. While some guides use the words "hut," or "hoot," or "hutta" while blowing into their calls, McKnight goes with a "to-wit" while calling geese. He is not alone there, but the point is, finding a word or words that work best for you might take some experimentation. Where you are set up also figures to be a factor.
"I call more aggressively when I'm hunting migrating birds," McKnight says. "They want to hear a lot of noise. They are usually flying high and, to get them down, you have to give them a lot of racket. Another time to be more aggressive is when the geese are about to light outside your decoys. You really get after it then, and sometimes you can lift them right up and pull them right to you.
"The way that I call aggressively is by double-clucking," McKnight says. "I am saying the words 'hit it,' 'hit it,' 'hit it.' You have to have a lot of back pressure and that makes the tongue go a little faster. You go as fast as you can."
There are, however, times when less is definitely much more.
"I do not call loudly in the fog because the sound carries so well. I want to be kind of quiet on a foggy day because geese are nervous when it's foggy. And on days when there is no wind, I hardly call at them at all," McKnight says.
"You can definitely overcall geese. You have to learn to watch and listen. If I hear geese in the air talking a lot back and forth, I will call at them because their calling is telling me that they are excited. But if they are flying on a calm day and not making much noise, you have to be careful because if you blow too loud or too hard you will blow them right out of the field."
After a lengthy hiatus due to a precipitous drop in the Atlantic Flyway goose population, Canada goose hunting returned to the East Coast last fall. Tom Marvel, who has guided in the Chestertown, Maryland, area for 22 seasons, was ready and waiting. But his game plan has been altered.
"We specialize in snow geese now," Marvel says. "That corresponded with the shutdown on Canadas in 1996, but we had started fooling with them four or five years before.
"The thing about snows," Marvel adds, "is that they are much smarter than Canadas. It is harder to use a call for snow geese. The best call for snow geese, as far as I am concerned, is good decoys."
Marvel often employs mounted snow geese, or "stuffers," as decoys. There is a reason for his setting out and picking up a rig of 200 stuffers on a daily basis.
"The snow geese here get more pressure than any other snow geese in the country," Marvel says. "The days of the Texas rags are over. They won't come to them any more in Maryland. You have to use the best decoys you can afford, and have some motion in your decoys.
"In the spring, when things are really tough, we have to use stuffers. We'll use 200 opposed to 700 or 800 shells. That time of year, the birds won't come to plastic anymore. But they will come to feathers."
Snow geese often move in huge flocks. Because of the incredible amount of noise that these birds make as a group, calling can be a futile exercise.
"The way they fly around here, particularly when there are smaller bunches, or trading birds, I think the best thing to do is call to the goose that is calling to you. You have to try and talk to that one goose, mimic its same sounds. Later on, when the snows are in flocks of 500 to 3,000, they are not going to hear your call anyway," Marvel says.
"I have noticed that snow geese are much more susceptible to being killed over water," Marvel continues. "They are more apt to decoy to water decoys than field decoys. I guess they just feel safer.
"The most important thing, though, is scouting. We scout every day, as soon as the hunting party is done. We want to know where the geese are going when they leave. When we find them, we set up the next day right where they left."
Though somewhat restrictive, the revival of the Maryland Canada goose season is a return to the region's waterfowling roots. Local guides, including Marvel, have dusted off their Canada calls in anticipation of the honkers.
"People who hunt Canada geese, the most important thing for them is to find a goose call that they are comfortable with. There are so many different ones now . . . flutes and short reeds. They are blown by totally different techniques. To me, a short reed sounds more like a goose than any other type of call. And it's more like blowing a duck call."
Marvel starts calling to passing geese as soon as he thinks they can hear him.
"As they get closer, start clucking and double-clucking," Marvel says. "For a single cluck, use the word 'hut.' For a double cluck, say 'hut, hut,' into the call. If the geese start to leave, use the comeback call. That's like a cry, a longer, drawn-out 'hut,' but you keep the end note sustained."
Along the West Coast, Dave Smith is fresh off winning the Oregon state goose calling championship. Last fall, he became the first caller from the Northwest (Washington and Oregon) ever to make the cut in a national goose calling contest at the World Championship in Maryland. Smith can generally be found in Oregon's goose-rich Willamette Valley.
"There are five huntable species of geese here," Smith says. "Around 300,000 or so geese go through the valley each year. Twenty years ago, though, the dusky Canada goose (not fair game) was the only one. We've had to learn to hunt geese here. It is not like some areas where people have been doing it their whole lives."
Smith, however, has watched and learned.
"The most important thing a guy can do is to learn to make a super-goosey, super-natural cluck, in varying tones, in both high- and low-pitch versions," Smith says. "What I see a lot of guys doing is picking up a call and trying to make a whole bunch of sounds. You should first try to make a goosey cluck. If that's all you can do, you can still kill geese by only doing that.
"I personally like to have at least two calls with me. One is loud, with a high pitch, to get their attention and get them coming," Smith says, "and the other is lower and quieter, to finish the birds with."
Smith favors the short-reed style call, even though it is still relatively new to his region. Flute calls, he says, have maintained their popularity in Oregon.
"If you can do a good cluck, everything else will come to you," Smith says. "There are a couple of different styles of cluck. The goosiest is saying the word 'ook.' You can drag it out a little longer or shorten it up. If you close your hands down tight, that makes a low cluck. If you open up your hands, it makes a high cluck. It is extremely important to vary those tones. In the animal word, or with geese, if you make the same note over and over again, that's a distress sound.
"The cluck is the most basic sound of the goose. Another sound is the moan, which is much more seductive. If geese are not buying your calling, a moan can be used to draw them in and finish. The basic mechanics of it are that a cluck is high and low notes close together. A moan is a low note only, like 'ooooo.' You drag it out. There's a little more to it than just that, but that's the basics.
"There are quite a few versions to the comeback call, and that would be the next thing you would want to learn. The sound is what's called a bawl. You make it with two tones, a high and a low, on the short-reed call."
So how does Smith, who may have five different subspecies of Canada geese circling his field at any time, handle the diversity in birds?
"There are lots of variables because of the number of subspecies of geese. Generally, the smaller the subspecies, the more I call, and I think that applies anywhere. So, with cacklers and Taverners, I am usually pouring it on like crazy, but with Canadas I am much more subtle, making more of a growling sound," Smith says.
Learn the basics. Keep it simple in the beginning. And remember, no professional guide or contest caller ever mastered all of the nuances of blowing a goose call in a single sitting.
Decoy deployment also an important consideration
Opinions on goose spread designs may vary from field to field, or club to club, or state to state. If there is a consensus of opinion, it is the almost-universal belief that more decoys are much more effective than fewer decoys. There are exceptions.
"Too many people, because they think they need large numbers of decoys, go out and buy the cheapest ones they can find," champion goose caller Richie McKnight says. "I don't believe in that. If you are going to buy decoys, save your money and buy good ones. I would rather have fewer really good decoys than a pile of bad ones. People should buy the best decoys that they can afford."
Decoy placement often is another point of contention.
"I am adamant about not doing a standard spread," says professional guide Dave Smith. "When I watch geese, they are never in a specific pattern like an 'X' or an 'I,' like some people use. I put my decoys out randomly and make sure there's a clear hole for the birds to land in. As part of the randomness, I put some decoys shoulder to shoulder, and spread others apart. I don't think all decoys should be the same distance apart."
Goose Guru Shawn Eldredge hunts from pits, haybale blinds, and layout blinds.
"In the spring, when we are hunting snow geese, I put my clients in haybale blinds along fencelines, because I don't think snows are used to that," Eldredge says. "In a lot of these fields, the hilltops are fed out. The green is on the sides of the fields. That's where the food is, and the geese know that.
"I'm one of the few people I know about who uses Bigfoot snow goose decoys. If set up along a fenceline, hunting spring snows in particular, I'll set my decoys in what I call a 'sleeping P.'
"If the wind is to the right, I will start 15 yards away from the fenceline and run to the left (downwind) a thin line of Bigfoots. They'll go past the haybale blind and the 'P' will go straight out in front of you. Family groups are set up to the right of the 'P,' and magnet flyers are put at the top of the 'P,' like they are trying to jump ahead of the whole flock. The geese will always try to come along the thin stem into the 'P,' which is right in front of the clients."