We waited in the middle of a plowed corn field, scanning the early morning skies above a small spread of decoys. All was quiet for many minutes, and then in the distance, we heard the first melodic strains of flying geese.
The results of hours of scouting, good calling and a proper decoy spread: Canada geese for the table.
It was hard to pinpoint them at first, but after a minute or two, I could make out the birds floating in the tangerine sunrise. Adrenaline stirred my senses. They were coming our way.
Minutes passed like hours. The calls of the Canada geese grew in volume. Their forms grew in size. We could tell now there were twenty or more coming toward us in a V-shaped wedge. The flock broke up. Some began swinging north, away from our spread. But some held a steady course that soon would take them over our heads.
Two hunters began calling. Would it be enough to attract their attention? I gripped my shotgun tightly and wondered.
The last five minutes seemed like an hour. More of the flock broke off, turning back toward another field. Fewer than a dozen geese remained, but these were convinced our spread was real. At one hundred yards out, they cupped their wings and began swinging back and forth in the air as they flexed their rudders and dropped their landing gear.
Too late the birds realized our ruse. As one hunter shot, then another, they tried to turn and gain altitude. I swung on one giant bird and fired. It hit the ground with a hard thump as I tried unsuccessfully to get another bird in my sights.
When it was over I realized I was shaking. Excitement does that to me. And this type of hunting, my friends, is exciting.
Canada goose hunting means shooting geese, of course, but it is infinitely more. It is pleasure in perfecting your skills with a shotgun; it is a glorious sunrise or a vivid sunset; it is listening to nature's most beautiful music; it is a special kind of companionship with men you enjoy and admire.
More, it is the thrilling aerial antics of a flock of wild Canada geese, their haunting calls on a misty morning, the wonder they create as they wing in toward your spread of decoys. Most of all, it is being outdoors in winter, when all of nature unfolds before you. Until you have sat in a decoy spread and watched a winter day begin, develop and then decline, you have missed one of life's greatest pleasures.
If you want to share the joys of this memorable pastime, and are just learning the ropes of Canada goose hunting, here's some basic information that should help you get started.
Guns And Loads
Although they are big birds, Canada geese have a relatively small kill zone. The total area in which pellets will kill a goose is just one-tenth the bird's total size. To ensure your shots hit the vital zone with enough power, you need to pattern your guns and determine the correct loads.
Most experts say the best loads for geese are sizes 1, BB, BBB or T steel shot. For most hunting situations, BB or BBB shot are the most effective sizes. Both have plenty of pellets, but still enough energy to bring down a goose. Guns are usually 10- or 12-gauge. Because steel shot has a tighter pattern than lead does, the best chokes for geese are modified and improved modified. However, each shotgun choke is unique, which is why hunters should pattern their particular guns.
Elaborate blinds are nice but not necessary. Camouflage clothing that blends well with the surroundings and makeshift blinds made from natural materials will suffice.
To test loads, place a 40- by 40-inch-square sheet of paper at the same distance as flying geese that will be shot at. (For most hunters and situations, that's about 30 yards). Fire at an aiming point you mark on the paper. Do this on five sheets. Then, on each sheet, draw a 30-inch diameter circle around the densest pattern area on each sheet and count the pellets that hit inside the circle. This is the "pattern density." Try different loads and chokes until one is found that puts enough pellets (from 35 for heavier loads up to 55 for lighter loads) into the circle, which ensures that enough will hit the goose's vital zone for a clean kill.
A common mistake of beginning hunters is shooting at geese flying out of range. This can cripple birds, flare off approaching geese and may cause approaching flocks to fly even higher. Some exceptional shooters have the skill to occasionally drop a bird "from the stratosphere," but for most hunters, a kill over 50 yards is just dumb luck and poor sportsmanship. A good rule of thumb recommended by goose guides is this: If the end of your gun barrel covers more than half the bird, the goose is beyond 45 yards and is too far away for a clean kill.
It also takes practice to find the correct lead for geese. The big birds have slow wing beats that make them appear to be lumbering along. But actually, geese move as fast as mallards. Lead accordingly.
If you want to become a good goose hunter, you must become a good caller. And this isn't something you can learn the weekend prior to goose season. Start early and practice.
Dozens of good goose calls are available, all of which are effective in the hands of a good caller, but be sure you buy one made specifically for calling Canada geese. A snow goose or whitefront call probably won't properly imitate the distinctive calls of Canada geese.
It's helpful to listen to wild birds and try to imitate them with your calls. There are no better teachers. But unless you have a friend who is a skilled caller who can teach you, you also should purchase an instructional CD, DVD or audiotape that will allow you to hear the actual sounds of geese and good calling by practiced goose hunters. Study this and try to duplicate the sounds used for various situations: the greeting or hail call used to get the attention of distant geese; the cluck or feeding call used when geese are approaching the decoys; the comeback call, meant to entice geese to take another look at your decoys; and others. After some practice, record yourself on a tape recorder and decide for yourself if you're good enough to start calling in the field. Listen for weaknesses in your repertoire, then practice to improve them.
Here's one more piece of advice about goose calling: if you can't call, don't. Despite their best efforts, some hunters never become good callers. And bad calling only serves to chase geese away.
There's no more thrilling sight in waterfowling than a flock of Canada geese about to pitch into the decoys.
Canada goose decoys are available in several styles: full-body decoys, shell decoys, floating decoys, rag decoys, silhouettes, magnums and specialty items such as goose flags and motion decoys. Ideally, the hunter should use some variety in the decoy spread and use decoys most suitable for the area being hunted. When hunting a river, for example, some floating decoys will be wanted, along with some standing decoys to place along the banks. Hunting a big farm field may work best with lots of rag decoys and/or silhouettes, with some full-bodied dekes mixed in and a flag to draw the birds' attention.
The number of decoys used depends largely on the hunter's budget, the type of area being hunted and the time of the season when hunting takes place. Early in the season, for example, small spreads of 6 to 24 decoys may work well. Wary late-season geese may respond best to larger spreads.
A spread with four or five family groups of five to seven birds apiece works very well in most situations, but adapt your spread as necessary, remembering these things regardless of the type or number of decoys used:
- Keep decoys well away from fence lines, overgrown ditches and other cover where Canadas may perceive a predator, or hunter, to be hiding.
- Set the decoys to take advantage of the goose's tendency to land with the wind in their faces. Walking and swimming geese also prefer to be facing and/or moving into the wind, so decoys should be positioned in this manner for realism.
- Don't place decoys so close together it is difficult for live birds to land among them. Leave an opening in the spread that invites birds to land there, and have that opening within range of your gun.
- Have all your decoys in place before sun-up so you'll be ready when the birds arrive.
Where to Hunt
Canada geese use a wide variety of habitats, everything from small ponds, big rivers and reservoirs to open agricultural fields and city parks. If you own property where geese come to feed or rest, you can study the birds' habits, determine what areas they are using when, and be hunting in just days. Otherwise, you'll need to check with your state wildlife agency for information on public grounds that offer good shooting, or visit with landowners to ask for hunting permission on private lands where you find geese during preseason scouting. If possible, have several alternative hunting sites you can visit in case birds move or wise up.
Elaborate blinds are nice but not necessary because the typical goose field probably will produce only one or two good shoots before the birds move elsewhere. Many hunters simply lie on their backs in the decoys and wear camouflage clothing that blends well with their surroundings. Pit blinds, portable blinds and makeshift blinds made from natural materials on-site also can be used, depending on where you hunt.
The most important thing hunters should remember is to remain well hidden and absolutely motionless until birds are well within shooting range. Canada geese are extremely wary, and if they see or hear anything out of place, they'll avoid it. If approaching birds seem reluctant to land, flare off at the last minute or land consistently outside the decoys, chances are the birds are spotting the blind, hunter movement or something else that makes them nervous. Don't hesitate to move a blind or decoys if necessary to lure birds well within shotgun range.
Canada goose populations are growing in many parts of the country, making these big gamebirds increasingly popular targets for growing numbers of hunters. Photo by Keith Sutton
When everything comes together just right and the moment of truth is at hand, avoid the temptation to shoot when the first birds start dropping into your set-up. Veteran waterfowlers hold off until the lead geese are touching down and geese in the rear of the flock are well within gun range before making their move.
Of course, all these things require knowledge, time and hard work. You need to scout, set up realistic decoy spreads in key locations, be well camouflaged, know how to call and be creative. If you're not up to these tasks, consider hiring a guide. These guys can show you the ins and outs of goose hunting, and after you've experienced a hunt first-hand, you'll know whether you really want to make the required investment in time and equipment to hunt on your own. Best of all, guides do all the work. The hunter need not spend hours scouting, gaining hunting permission and setting and retrieving decoys. For a reasonable fee, reputable guides do all this and clean and pack your birds, too.
No matter how you pursue them -- with a guide or without, on a river or in a field, on public land or private -- Canada geese provide unexpected thrills at every turn. Hunting them is a great way to enjoy the outdoors this winter. So start preparing now for the season ahead. Hunting these incredible birds will leave your heart pounding and provide memories long treasured.