It's no secret, waterfowl populations are flourishing across North America, particularly along the Pacific and Central flyways. Canada and snow geese are so prolific, for example, that wildlife management authorities recognize the need to cull these populations.
Contrary to restrictive legislation, common in the late 1970's and '80's when waterfowl numbers were at the low ebb of their cycle, today hunters across Canada and the United States enjoy liberal limits and extended seasons. We are now experiencing what may someday be referred to as the "good 'ol days" of goose hunting!
The first ripples that turn into waves of migrating waterfowl begin when frost forms on fields and the edges of waterways, and birds start gathering for their annual ritual.
It was the end of last September, arguably the best time to intercept migrating geese in eastern Alberta. With a landscape blanketed by golden fields, the birds had ample spots to choose from . . . but we had done our homework. With painstaking caution we drove into the stubble, careful to pinpoint the exact plot where hundreds of birds were spotted the evening before. After an hour of carefully laying out 70 decoys and crafting our low-profile blind, the barely audible cackle of geese could be heard in the distance.
"Right on time," I said to my partner. "Let's get covered up. The early risers should arrive any minute now."
With the first hint of daylight, and legal shooting time about to commence, this promised to be a spectacular shoot! We had just settled in when the first wave of white-fronts cruised toward our spread. They didn't hesitate, and neither did we. Landing gear down, wings cupped and emitting their odd confidence call, the birds committed to the dekes. As shots rang out, birds toppled the short distance to the ground. This was goose hunting at its finest! Over the next few hours, wave after wave -ranging from 2 to 30 birds- each committed to land in our spread. With only a few high flyers, most were duped hook, line and sinker. We ended up with a limit of specks, a handful of Canadas and a variety of ducks that morning. Unfortunately, the snows never did return to that field. With 24 birds between the two of us, we couldn't complain.
Taking full advantage of wide-open spaces, miles upon miles of golden agricultural lands, friendly farmers and spectacular goose hunting opportunity, I invest the bulk of my waterfowl hunting in the northern provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Split between the Pacific and Central flyways, it is not uncommon to enjoy a virtual potpourri of waterfowl on any given trip.
While the bulk of the goose population nest and raise their brood in the far north, the fall migration begins in late August and early September. That said, literally thousands of Canada geese nest locally in all regions. Affectionately referred to as Arctic geese, specklebellies, snows and their close cousins the Ross and Blue geese spend their summer months on the northern tundra. Both lesser and greater Canadas are widely distributed throughout the far northern and southern reaches of the flyways.
Waterfowl hunting is good from the northern reaches of Canada down to the southern climes, but the giant flights of migrating birds begin small, and it takes a while for the big waves to build.
North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas and points southward all get their turn in sequence. If you want to know what the hunting will be like, watch the weather up north, or better yet, make friends with hunters at varying distances north of your hunting area. Contacts at 500-mile intervals can be very informative. Talk forums, like those on Cabela's web site, are a great place to develop these relationships before the season starts. You don't want to be scrambling to find current information, the night before you are scheduled to hunt.
State game agencies also have valuable information that can help you determine what to expect on any given day. If you haven't visited your own state's web site, now would be a good time. Visit Cabela's State and Regional Outdoor Information section, and become familiar with the many features that are conveniently organized for ease of navigation.
By early September, when the weather is still relatively warm, hunting opportunities north of the border are excellent. A summer of solace has erased their memories of guns and decoys, and waterfowl readily commit to a well-designed ruse. Generally speaking, lesser Canadas and specklebellies are the first to begin making their way south. Throughout the first three weeks of September, field shooters have their pick. Across the agricultural belt of eastern Alberta and Saskatchewan, nutrient-rich cereal crops such as barley and peas attract hungry geese like magnets.
During this early phase of the goose season, it's easy to look like an expert with a decoy layout. Traditional spreads using a "J", "U" or boomerang shape, with family groups of birds facing into the prevailing wind will suffice. Regardless of what time of year you're hunting, wind direction will always dictate where and how the decoys are positioned. Remember that birds require lift to get off the ground. Always on the lookout for predators, their instinct is to land among their peers and feed into the wind.
Geese sense comfort in numbers. Your results will be proportionate to the number of decoys you put out. With decoys, it's the up and down that wears you out, so experiment by varying numbers and patterns to develop an optimal spread that doesn't work you to death. The key is to provide a large opening or gap in the spread, where the birds can land within gun range. I tend to favor a J-shaped spread with a gap of at least 10 yards across and about 30 yards long.
Regardless of design, it's important to make everything look as realistic as possible. Utilize mostly feeders, some sentinels and a few magnum decoys to add variety. Lifelike decoys such as Bigfoot can add the touch of realism necessary to close the deal. Another trick, proven effective for attracting distant birds, is flagging. Hunter's View Goose Flags is an economical way to flesh out a spread and add animation as well.
As all waterfowl species run the gauntlet from north to south, they tend to become increasingly shy of blinds and decoys as the migration progresses. Even in the northern provinces, despite reasonably low hunting pressure, birds become educated in short order. Savvy goose hunters quickly learn that, come the second week of October, the geese have suddenly become less cooperative. My good friend, and respected outfitter, Claudio Ongaro has learned from many years of guiding clients, that once October 10th arrives, different strategies must be employed to fool the honkers.
By this time, most -if not all- of the snows and specks have vacated our region, and the big northerns are migrating in droves. Local birds have left, and new ones move through on a daily basis. These birds are smart. They recognize what inanimate decoys look like, and will often approach low, then at the last moment they flare or skirt the spread just out of range. To counter this problem, experienced goose hunters will offset their blind by as much as 60 yards to ensure the geese are within gun range.
Regardless of what phase of the migration I'm hunting, crafting a blind or utilizing low profile, commercial covers requires attention to detail. One of the best purchases I've made to date, is the Goose Chair - a reclining chair with a magnum, spring-loaded decoy to cover the hunter. Not only does the "chair" eliminate the necessity to dig pits or build blinds, they're portable and light-weight to boot! Another great deceiver, the Goose Buster is very low profile and virtually blends into the surroundings.
Regardless of where you catch your waterfowl "wave", or what time of the season you hunt, the bottom line with field shooting geese is to keep things real. The more natural your set-up looks, the more likely the geese are to commit to landing. Spot on the spot locating is key, and placing the decoys in precisely the same location the birds were last seen feeding is critical to success. Calling, as long as it is done properly, has its time and place, but you've got to get their attention first.
Don't forget your ear protection. If you set your decoys up properly, you're going to be hearing a lot of noise.