Several goose hunters waited in a winter wheat field, scanning themorning skies above a huge spread of goose decoys. All was quiet for manyminutes, then in the distance, they heard the first melodic strains of flyinggeese.
It was hard to pinpoint them at first, but soon they could makeout the first long skeins of birds, little snowflakes floating in an orangesunrise. They were coming their way.
Minutes passed like hours. The calls of the snow geese grew involume. Their forms grew in size. The goose hunters could tell now there were athousand or more—a hundred here, a hundred there, in long lines and V-shapedwedges. Some flocks flew north, away from their goose decoy spread. But oneheld a steady course that would soon take it over their heads.
Two goose hunters began goose calling. One waved a white flagfixed atop a long pole. Would it be enough to attract their attention? Onegoose hunter gripped his shotgun tightly and wondered.
The last five minutes seemed like an hour. Most of the flock brokeoff, turning toward a large flock of geese feeding in another field. Only twodozen remained, but these were convinced their goose decoy spread was real. At100 yards out, they cupped their wings and began swinging back and forth in theair as they flexed their rudders and dropped their landing gear.
Too late the birds realized their ruse. As one goose hunter shot,then another, the geese tried to turn and gain altitude. One goose hunter swungon a white bird and fired, then swung again and shot a blue. They hit theground with hard thumps as he tried unsuccessfully to get another bird in hissights.
When it was over, this goose hunter was shaking. Excitement doesthat to some hunters. And snow goose hunting is exciting!
Snow Goose Facts
The snow goose, Chen caerulescens, is one of the world’s mostabundant waterfowl species. Each year, snow geese nest on the Arctic tundra andthen travel to southern wintering grounds in very large, high-flying, noisyflocks. The swirling white of a descending flock suggests snowfall, but amongthe white birds are darker individuals. Until recently, these “blue geese,” asthe dark birds are called, were considered a separate species. They are nowrecognized as merely a dark “morph,” or form, of the snow goose.
Adult snows are medium-sized (weighing 5 to 8 pounds) and have apinkish bill with a black “grinning patch.” White morphs are white all overexcept for the black primaries on each wing. Blue morphs have a mostly whitehead and neck, a dark gray-brown body and black primary and secondary featherson the wings.
Juvenile white morphs are gray above, white below and darker onthe head and neck. The legs, feet and bill are gray, turning pink as the youngbirds age. Juvenile blues are mostly dark gray-brown with a lighter-coloredbelly and white under the tail. The wing linings are pale gray, contrastingwith the dark body and black primaries in flight.
Biologists recognize three separate snow goose populations. Thewestern population breeds in Alaska and Canada’s Yukon, Northwest and Nunavutterritories and winters from Oregon south to Mexico, with concentrations in thecentral valleys of California. The midcontinent population breeds from NunavutTerritory east to Hudson Bay and winters in the U.S. Midwest south to Louisianaand Texas. The eastern population breeds on islands in the High Arctic,including Ellesmere and Baffin, then winters along the Atlantic Coast fromMassachusetts to South Carolina, with concentrations in southeastern Pennsylvania,New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
In winter, snow geese are highly gregarious and often feed inflocks numbering thousands of individuals. Migrants follow all four major NorthAmerican flyways. Migration north from wintering areas takes place fromFebruary to May. Snow geese depart from the northern breeding areas inSeptember and arrive in wintering habitats in November and December.
Around 1900, the snow goose population had ebbed to only 2,000 to3,000 birds. But during the 20th century and into the 21st, the populationburgeoned as snow geese took advantage of increased food supplies along migrationroutes and in wintering areas. In some areas, populations have increased asmuch as nine percent annually. Biologists estimate there are now 5 million to 6million snow geese in North America, a population that may be too large to beenvironmentally sustainable.
Since 1998, goose hunters have harvested 1 to 1.5 million snowgeese annually. Recent conservation hunts implemented in the U.S. and Canadahave been successful in doubling harvest rates and reducing the population.When snow goose numbers are too large, the birds’ feeding can destroy their ownhabitat, which is also used by other species. Hunting provides the best meansfor keeping goose numbers in check.
Guns And Loads
Although they are big birds, snow geese have a relatively smallkill zone. The total area in which pellets will kill a goose is just one-tenththe bird’s total size. To ensure your shots hit the vital zone with enoughpower, you need to pattern your guns and determine the correct loads.
Most goose hunters opt to use a 10-gauge or magnum 12-gauge withsize BB, BBB or T shot. Nontoxic shot is mandatory everywhere. Because steelshot has a tighter pattern than lead does, the best chokes when using steel aremodified and improved modified. However, each choke is unique, which is why goosehunters should pattern their guns before the season
Snow Goose Decoys
Snow goose decoys come in several styles: full-body, shell,floating, rags, silhouettes, magnums and specialty items such as goose flagsand motion decoys. Ideally, the goose hunter should use some variety in thegoose decoy spread and use goose decoys most suitable for the area beinghunted. When goose hunting a big farm field, for example, you’ll probably wantlots of inexpensive rag decoys with some full-bodied dekes mixed in and a flagto draw the birds’ attention. When goose hunting a river where geese go to restat night, floating decoys will be wanted, along with a few standing decoys toplace along the banks.
The number of goose decoys used depends largely on the goosehunter’s budget and the type area being hunted. But when goose hunting snows,one must never forget that bigger goose decoy spreads almost always are better.If possible, set out a few hundred at least, or better yet, a thousand or more
Remember these things regardless of the type or number of goosedecoys used:
· Keep goose decoys well away from fence lines, overgrown ditchesand other cover where geese may perceive a predator, or hunter, to be hiding.
· Set the goose decoys to take advantage of the goose’s tendency toland with the wind in their faces. Walking and swimming geese also prefer to befacing into the wind, so decoys should be positioned in this manner forrealism.
· Don’t place goose decoys so close together it is difficult forgeese to land among them. Leave an opening in the spread that invites birds toland there, and have that opening within range of your gun.
· Have all your goose decoys in place before sunrise so you’ll beready when the birds arrive.
Except during late conservation seasons when electronic goosecallers often are allowed, if you want to become a good goose hunter, you mustbecome a good caller. This isn’t something you can learn the weekend prior togoose season. Start early and practice.
Snow Goose Calling
Dozens of good goose calls are available, all of which areeffective in the hands of a good caller. It’s helpful to listen to wild birdsand try to imitate them with your calls. There are no better teachers. Butunless you have a friend who is a skilled caller who can teach you, you alsoshould purchase an instructional CD, DVD or audiotape that will allow you tohear the actual sounds of geese and good calling by practiced goose hunters.Study this and try to duplicate the sounds used for various situations. Aftersome practice, record yourself on a tape recorder and decide for yourself ifyou’re good enough to start calling in the field. Listen for weaknesses in yourrepertoire, then practice to improve them.
Snow Goose Hunting Tips
There’s no such thing as a casual snow goose hunt, one reason manywaterfowlers don’t participate. This sport requires large goose decoy spreadsand constant scouting.
First, you must study movement patterns of geese where you want togoose hunt, then securepermission to hunt where concentrations are located. (Most hunting is onprivate hunting lands.) When geese start using a field, they stay until thefood supply is exhausted. Being there after they’ve started using the field andbefore they’ve eaten it out is the trick.
Elaborate ground blinds are nice but not necessary because a goosefield usually produces only one or two good shoots before geese move elsewhere.Many goose hunters simply lie on their backs in the goose decoys and wear whiteor camouflage-pattern clothing. Pit ground blinds, portable ground blinds andmakeshift ground blinds made from natural materials on-site also can be used,depending on where you hunt.
When it comes to snow goose decoy spreads, bigger usually isbetter. The decoys should be in place before sunrise to take advantage of thesnow goose’s propensity for flying early.
The most important thing goose hunters should remember is toremain well hidden and motionless until birds are well within shooting range.Snow geese are wary, and if they see or hear anything out of place, they’llavoid it. If approaching birds seem reluctant to land, flare off at the lastminute or land consistently outside the decoys, chances are they are spottingthe blind, hunter movement or something else that makes them nervous. Adjust asnecessary.
Avoid the temptation to shoot when the first geese start droppinginto your set-up. Veteran waterfowlers hold off until the lead geese are touchingdown and geese in the rear of the flock are well within gun range before makingtheir move.
Remember this rule of thumb as well: If, when aiming, the end ofyour gun barrel covers more than half the bird, the goose is beyond 45 yardsand is too far away for a clean kill.
If you’re not up to the tasks just outlined, consider hiring ahunting guide. These guys can show you the ins and outs of snow goose hunting,and after you’ve experienced a hunt first-hand, you’ll know whether you reallywant to make the required investment in time and hunting equipment to hunt onyour own. Best of all, hunting guides do all the work. The hunter need notspend hours scouting, gaining hunting permission, and setting and retrievinggoose decoys. For a reasonable fee, reputable hunting guides do all this andclean and pack your birds, too.
Snow Goose HuntingConclusion
Snow goose hunting is challenging, for sure. Nevertheless, it’s asport many of us find irresistibly attractive. Goose hunting allows us toperfect our skills with a shotgun and to go afield with men we enjoy andadmire. Most of all, it gives us another excuse to be outdoors. Until you havesat in a goose spread and watched a fall or winter day unfold, develop anddecline, you have missed one of life’s greatest pleasures.