By John Pollmann
The Light Goose Conservation Order (LGCO) is an excellent opportunity to extend the waterfowl season, but pinpointing this fast-paced migration can be a daunting task. Ice, snow, and food supplies dictate when and where millions of light geese will migrate north in the spring, and knowing where these conditions are available will lead you to the birds. Whether freelancing or planning a guided trip, the following destinations should be at the top of any LGCO hunter's list.
Early Birds in Arkansas
Arkansas may be better known for flooded timber and mallards, but the Natural State is also home to some of the nation's best hunting for spring snow geese.
The action can be fast and furious as soon as the LGCO opens in February, says Eaglehead Outdoors guide and co-owner Nick Posusta, as the eastern third of the state serves as a wintering ground for massive concentrations of light geese.
"Arkansas has an abundance of quality habitat that spreads the geese out over a larger area compared to the concentrations of birds you might see in Missouri or the Dakotas," Posusta says. "This can actually be a good thing, as the geese tend to feed closer to the roost in smaller groups, which allows us to deploy a smaller decoy spread than what is typically used for spring snows."
Scouting remains key for successful hunts, Posusta says, and hunters must be prepared to move with the birds.
"The birds have a tendency to move quickly as the weather shifts, and a lot of birds can move out with the right combination of wind and temperature," Posusta says. "You have to stay on top of things, and that takes a lot of time in the truck scouting."
Large flooded rice fields are a good place to concentrate scouting efforts, Posusta says, as the crop provides wintering snow geese with the calories needed to boost energy stores before heading north.
Snow geese will also utilize winter wheat fields throughout the region, but concealing hunters in this type of cover can be a challenge.
"In fields with very little cover, I almost always use a field edge or a ditch to help hide the blinds," Posusta says. "And in a lot of cases, hunting a field edge will only work when the wind is out of a certain direction, so I wait to hunt those particular fields until the weather conditions allow. If you can, work with the weather to make the most of the available cover."
Staging Snows in Northwest Missouri
The spectacle of the spring migration is on full display when more than1 million birds concentrate near a historical hotspot like Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge just outside Mound City.
"You watch the refuge counts, and all of a sudden there are a million birds in one place, and you think, 'I need to get up there right now'," says veteran Missouri snow goose guide Tony Vandemore. "Huge concentrations of birds provide great hunting opportunities, and when things go right the tornado of birds spiraling down on your decoy spread can leave you speechless. But truthfully, the hunting is just getting started when the big numbers arrive. Some of our best days of hunting take place in the weeks after those big concentrations of adult birds have left the area."
Motivated to return to the breeding grounds as quickly as possible in order to maximize a short nesting season, adult snow geese are the first to push north in the spring, but with many birds over 10 years old in the flocks, they can be extremely difficult to hunt.
"Juvenile geese are on a much more relaxed migration schedule, and they establish a pattern of roosting and feeding that is much closer to what you'd see in the fall with Canada geese or ducks," Vandemore says. "There are still frustrating days, but by and large those juvenile birds are much easier to decoy. They are worth the wait."
Vandemore reminds huntersthat it pays to be patient throughout the course of a day's hunt as well.
"You always need a guy or two out scouting in the afternoon, but don't be afraid to keep hunting after lunch," Vandemore says. "Birds that left southeast Missouri in the morning are just getting up here by the afternoon, and they're tired and hungry. On those migration days, afternoon hunts can be lights-out good."
Follow the Migration in South Dakota's James River Valley
Come mid-March, when the spring migration is typically at its peak, South Dakota's James River Valley is often home to the hottest snow goose hunting in the Central Flyway. The valley's ample food supply and tendency to thaw early make it a historical migration corridor for light geese.
That also makes this area a great place to utilize a large spread of decoys,which can be left in the field for several days, says South Dakota snow goose hunter Ben Fujan.
"The key is finding that stopping point, that body of water where you know the birds will be staging as they wait for the line of snow and ice to recede before pushing farther north," he explains. "There are some large wetlands and lakes that seem to hold staging birds every year, which are good places to start, but the migration can shift each year. Scout to find that main flight path, and find a field with good visibility and ample cover for hunter concealment. Then you've got a starting point for at least a few days of hunting."
Fujan says that hunters may shoot some birds that are coming off roosts to feed in the morning, but the majority of the action will come when migrating flocks begin arriving from the south.
"A realistic spread is so important when you're trying to decoy these migrating birds," Fujan says. "When the migration is in full swing, there are a lot of geese around, so a big decoy spread with motion decoys and e-callers placed around the blinds are all necessary to create the look and sounds you need to pull down flocks migrating overhead. They're hungry and want to eat, but they are still smart birds that have seen it all. Realism is key."
Greater Snow Geese in the Atlantic Flyway
With a population hovering near 1 million birds, burgeoning greater snow goose numbers also pose a threat to their fragile Arctic breeding habitats. As a result, these birds are the LGCO quarry of choice in the Atlantic Flyway. As their name suggests, greater snow geese are slightly larger than lesser snows, but equally intelligent and elusive, says veteran New York goose hunter Mike Bard.
"You can use similar decoy spreads and tactics for greater snows to what you use for other light geese," Bard says. "Motion decoys and electronic callers are especially effective, but there are very few blue-phase birds in the Atlantic Flyway, so our spreads consist mainly of white decoys."
Scouting also plays a key role in his success, says Bard, who hunts greater snows from Maryland's Eastern Shore up through eastern Pennsylvania and New York, targeting birds in fields of harvested corn and budding winter wheat.
"The main difference between the two simply comes down to the volume of birds," Bard explains. "There aren't as many greater snow geese as there are lesser snow geese, so you aren't going to see those big tornados of birds swirling down on a decoy spread. We tend to work smaller groups of birds into the decoys and have learned the hard way that we need to make the most of our opportunities."
Bard's advice to anyone who plans to make a trip to the Atlantic Flyway to hunt greater snow geese is to consider hiring a guide.
"Freelancing has grown increasingly more difficult as the popularity of the spring snow goose season has grown," he says. "A guide has access to land, the time to scout, and the equipment needed to hunt these challenging birds, so it's often worth the money to hire a guide if you're traveling or only plan to hunt a few days a year."
Last-Chance Light Geese in Saskatchewan
Spring snow goose hunting opportunities abound in Prairie Canada, including the province of Saskatchewan, where hunters have one final chance at the birds before they return to their northern breeding grounds.
Spring snow goose hunting in Canada can be a little different from what waterfowlers experience in the United States, says Trevor Manteufel of Duck Creek Outfitters.
"We don't run traffic on migrating birds as much. The birds get here, and they get settled and start feeding hard," says Manteufel, who hunts light geese from mid-April through mid-May. "You're scouting every day, looking for wheat, barley, oats, or pea fields that are holding birds. It can be a lot of work, but staying on top of the birds and their movements is what you have to do."
By the time snow geese have reached Canada, the birds have seen nearly every trick in the book. Thinking outside the box becomes necessary, Manteufel says, in order to stay successful.
"We try small decoy spreads, no motion decoys, extra motion decoys, little calling-anything we can do to set our spread apart from what they've seen and heard for the past eight or nine months," he says.
Manteufel prefers to hunt geese on grain fields in the Boreal Forest transition zone on the northern edge of the prairie-parkland region. As the weather warms, flocks of snow geese will leave this area and push north, only to return south in another day or two.
"My guess is that they are leaving to see what the conditions are like up north, and if there is still too much snow and ice they come back," Manteufel says. "But when it does come time for the birds to leave, they leave. It is amazing. The energy of so many birds in the area builds and builds and then there is a dramatic change almost overnight.
"You pack your things up and wait until next year. Then we do it all over again."