By Ken Perrotte
Maryland’s Eastern Shore has been a hotbed for Canada goose hunting for years. Attracted by abundant estuaries and ponds that provide water and sanctuary, the big honkers pile into the area in late autumn and hang around, dining on leftover grain crops and planted green fields.
There aren’t many places in this forested and agricultural landscape where geese aren’t targeted. Eastern Shore waterfowlers typically have a lengthy pedigree. Many guides, outfitters, and local hunters have been handed down goose calling and decoy tactics tested over generations. Still, everyone is looking for an edge, and even guides who might now be considered “old-timers” continue to adapt.
We talked with three Eastern Shore guides and outfitters to get their best time-tested tips for pursuing Canada geese. Danny B. Harrison runs Harrison’s Outfitter Service and operates out of St. Michaels, Andrew Farrow manages hunting operations for Schrader’s Outdoors in Henderson, and Tommy Marvel operates Chesapeake Guide Service in Chestertown. These three seasoned pros learned to hunt from mentors in their own families, and today are continually tweaking the game to meet modern goose-gunning challenges. Following are seven hunting tactics that have served them well.
Flag ’Em In
The Eastern Shore is an agricultural wonder, a sprawling patchwork of farm fields interspersed with blocks of woods. Pit blinds offer excellent concealment and reduce the burden of trying to find some sort of elevated concealment that will look natural to wary birds.
Digging a pit blind is just the start, however. You’ll need something to draw big geese to your field rather than one of a dozen others nearby. To accomplish that, Farrow says that movement is key. “Flagging is everything,” he explains. “I have killed more geese then I can count by not blowing my call and instead flagging them all the way to the ground.”
Silence is Golden
You may be the greatest competition goose caller ever, blowing sounds on that new acrylic like Dizzy-Gillespie-meets-Al-Hirt, but there comes a time to put that call in your pocket and let the birds work. Harrison and Marvel, who have 80 years of goose hunting between them, applaud the virtuosity of many young callers, but warn against always trying to be the lead singer in your duck-blind band. “Knowing when to call is as important as knowing how to call,” Marvel cautions. “There are many situations where you need to call just enough to get their attention and then let the decoys do what they’re supposed to do.”
For his part, Harrison follows a “tips and tails” credo: “If they’re coming, I let ’em come. If they veer off and I can see their wingtips, I’ll hit them with a call. If they’re going away and I see their tails, I’ll hit the call.” Weather conditions dictate how much volume he applies.
Both Farrow and Harrison emphasize the importance of learning what call to blow based on the reactions of key geese in a flock. “You don’t have to blow a competitive routine to kill geese; you just need to read them and figure out what sound they like and keep doing it,” Farrow says. “I also switch between calls as they’re approaching to see what calling tone that particular bunch of geese likes to hear.”
Harrison advises that goose hunters keep their eye on the lead bird. “You’ll sometimes see young birds peel off and want to oak-leaf out of the sky, but they don’t last too long. The old, wise birds will follow the lead goose. I look at how that leader is reacting to the call, to figure out what he wants to hear.”
When geese are on the approach, Harrison limits his calling to simple clucks, to reassure the birds that the decoys they see below are real geese. He might add a laydown call after they’re locked in.
Concealment: Keeping It Real
No matter what type of blind you’re hunting from or where it’s located, a primary concern should be gathering and using camouflage materials that fit in with your surroundings. “It seems obvious, but don’t hide yourself with bushes when you’re hunting in the middle of a wheat field,” Harrison says. “Concealment, to me, is more important than decoy placement or calling. Once you’re well-concealed, keep motion and voices to a minimum, especially when hunting over or near water, where sounds can carry a long way.”
Harrison also reminds hunters that 20 birds working above you have 40 eyes that are sure to spot anything out of place. He prefers that all the hunters he guides use facemasks or camouflage paint, pointing out that bare human faces can shine like a lighthouse, warning birds to steer clear.
Silhouettes Have a Place
With the advent of ultrarealistic full-body decoys, many silhouettes get left in the barn. But according to Marvel, silhouettes have come back into favor with Eastern Shore gunners in recent years.
Marvel makes his own silhouettes out of Masonite, using flat paint to dress them up. But he doesn’t mix them with full-bodies because he believes that mature geese have gotten used to seeing decoy spreads of 100 full-body replicas. “After they’ve been shot at for six or seven weeks, they get very decoy-shy and often won’t finish to anything that looks plastic,” Marvel says.
The one exception is early morning on bluebird days, when the sun might reflect off the silhouettes. Marvel says that silhouettes work well all day long on overcast days and better later in the morning or afternoon on sunny days. While Harrison may toss a few silhouettes into a rig of full-bodies, he isn’t a fan of widely diverse looks in a decoy spread. Instead, he reserves his silhouettes for chilly days when the geese stay hunkered down until the sun comes up and begins softening the ground for feeding. Silhouette decoys don’t hold as much frost as full-bodies, providing a more realistic look on these frigid mornings.
Downsize for Realism
For maximum realism, especially late in the season when it’s increasingly cold and the geese have seen every decoy configuration imaginable, Marvel and Harrison like to employ “stuffers.” These full-body geese mounted in varying poses over standard decoys provide a much-needed boost for any late-season spread.
Harrison said stuffers are excellent on cold, sunny days. “They’re just so much more realistic. They’re not shiny, like plastic decoys often are with or without frost,” he explains. “Geese see your decoys from a long way out on chilly bluebird days.”
Both Harrison and Marvel caution overdoing it with decoys in the late season, however. They recommend limiting spreads to no more than a dozen of these realistic stuffers.
And if you don’t have access to full-body stuffers at all, Harrison recommends saving wings from harvested geese to build your own. He adds them to standard decoys to boost realism and beat the frost. “If you only have a few sets of wings, use them on the decoys you put at the edge of the landing zone. That’s where the birds will be looking the most,” Harrison advises.
He also cautions hunters to use care when placing DIY stuffers: “These aren’t decoys you want to leave out in the field overnight, because the scent from the natural wings will attract foxes, coyotes, and other predators.”
For Farrow, fake is fine for the late season. He chooses to focus on creating smaller spreads of the most realistic decoys he can find. “These days, there are a lot of great decoy manufacturers out there producing very high-quality decoys,” Farrow says. “On the toughest, high-pressure, sunny days, I often set out just one or two dozen fully-flocked Avian-X decoys.”
Pass on the Pass Shooting
Everyone likes to shoot, and it can be frustrating when the birds seem to be in range but you never hear anyone yell “Take ’em!” With a limit of three geese per hunter, picking your shots is essential.
“We shoot only decoying birds,” Harrison says. “Trying to call the shot on passing birds is a challenge, and someone always second-guesses the timing. Plus, with birds at marginal range, the chance is too great that you’ll simply wound birds. I want the birds cupped and in my face when I throw open that door to shoot.”
“We shoot the same birds at Thanksgiving as we shoot in January,” Harrison continues. “You have to be willing to pass up shots on big flocks when only a few birds have worked in and the rest are veering off. You may end up killing a couple, but you may also wound a couple and educate another 50 or more.
Harrison also advises against shooting at big flocks when you’re nearing your limit. “It’s not worth shooting a big flock to try to get two or three birds,” he says.
5 Bonus Tips
Harrison: Place three full-body decoys in a single line 50-60 yards out from the blind to make them look like geese walking into your spread.
Harrison: On rainy days, hunt green fields. These fields are easier for geese to feed in, as grasses are more digestible than grains, which swell in their crop.
Farrow: On warm, sunny, high-pressure days when the geese just don’t seem to be moving, I try to find a pond on a flight path and set up the pond and the field behind me with a resting or loafing decoy spread.
Farrow: In areas where there is a lot of nearby hunter competition, big decoy rigs of 400 to 500 birds can pay off big. Do your best to clearly define the landing zone to ensure that your shots are in range.
Marvel: Try to hunt on the water a few days before and after a full moon, especially in the morning. After feeding at night under the moon’s bright light, the birds typically won’t come to fields to feed in the morning.