Want to put more honkers on the strap? Try these tricks and tactics
Being on the X during a bang-up Canada goose hunt is one of waterfowling’s greatest treats. Photo by Forrest Carpenter
Canada geese delight and confound hunters across the country from late summer through mid-winter. In their many subspecies, honkers have expanded their range and numbers in most areas, but filling a strap full of black-and-white geese remains a great waterfowling achievement.
After all, these geese are smart, sharp-eyed and extremely adaptable. If you want to shoot more honkers this year, try these tips.
Let’s start with a basic truth. A decoying goose might seem like one of wing-shooting’s easiest targets, and many hunters get lazy when shooting at those floaters. Don’t. Geese are deceptively fast, and there can be “a lot of air around them” if you’re sloppy. Focus on their heads, and then swing through the target aggressively, slap the trigger and follow through.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
What’s the easiest yet best way to shoot geese in harvested ag fields? Put goose decoys on goose poop. That is, identify the X — the hot feed where birds want to be. Then, set up there, hide, and try not to blow it. Of course, identifying the best spots boils down to scouting. And that means lots of driving, seemingly endless glassing, working hard to gain access, and then identifying the best approach for specific fields. Enjoy that process, because formulating and executing a plan is the backbone of goose hunting.
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There’s a lot of misinformation about the proper way to operate short-reed goose calls. Chad Belding, host of The Fowl Life, said the old advice about grunting into the call is a poor start.
“I don’t want to grunt or use any of my throat at all,” he said. “I want to have really clean air, and let my vocal cords and the back pressure — applied to my call by my hands — get that ideal air flow.”
In fact, Belding said, the term “blowing” a call is a misnomer. Many beginning callers want to push air through a call as if they were blowing out birthday-cake candles. Actually, you want to push air up from your diaphragm as if you were fogging a mirror.
“The air should travel up from your diaphragm, gain power in the lungs, travel up to the larynx, and then into the call,” he said. “That’s going to give you the basis of the entire goose vocabulary.”
Set your most realistic decoys at the downwind edge of the spread. Sharp-eyed geese will see those first and look at them for a relatively long time during approach. Photo by Nick Costas
MOTION IS THE LOTION
Movement can be critical for field goose hunts. Flagging works well for geese, especially when trying to catch the eye of flocks on the horizon. Flag to attract attention, and then tone it down as geese approach, making it seem as though birds are landing. Shell-type decoys on motion stakes move in the wind and can make your spread come alive if there’s a good breeze. Spinning-wing decoys are a must for dry-field duck hunts, but make sure they’re off when geese approach, as honkers want nothing to do with them.
Looking for a good out-of-state honker hunt? Here are the top states in each flyway, ranked by the 2022-23 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service harvest estimates.
Atlantic Flyway: New York tops the list, as hunters there took about 75,234 Canada geese in 2022-23. Perennial favorite Maryland was second with 43,737.
Mississippi Flyway: Perhaps it’s fitting that the birthplace of the Mississippi River takes first. Minnesota hunters shot about 110,747 Canadas this past season. Its eastern neighbor, Wisconsin, was No. 2 with 101,946.
Central Flyway: Geese love corn, so it’s probably no surprise that the Cornhusker State wins this battle. Nebraska hunters shot about 69,815 Canada geese in 2022-23. North Dakota was the runner-up with 64,992.
Pacific Flyway: Known more for big-game hunting, Idaho is a surprise winner in this category. Hunters there shot 50,609 Canadas this past season. Neighboring Montana was second with 46,617.
Everyone knows honkers love to feed in harvested ag fields with waste grain, but geese also chow down on greens, including grass and cut alfalfa. Such spots become especially productive when other food sources are in transition.
In the North and Midwest farmers usually cut oat, rye, and wheat fields just before mid-August or September openers. Birds will hit those fields daily and can consume the grain there in a week or sooner. With the bean harvest weeks away and corn harvest spotty, geese must find other feeding grounds. Enter recently cut hay (alfalfa) fields. These spots also offer another benefit: cover. Even mowed hay fields provide more concealment than other fields.
HUNT THE LOAF
It can be frustrating when you can’t access a hot feed, but the daily routine of early- to mid-season geese provides opportunity. Usually, honkers roost on big water, feed in fields after sunrise, and spend midday loafing on smaller waters, such as marshes, sloughs, stock ponds, and small lakes. These spots are especially productive during dry years, when water is at a premium.
Use a mix of floating decoys and field blocks for loafing areas. Geese like such spots for the water, but many of them will lounge or sleep on shore, especially if the banks are exposed or grassy. Set up early and expect geese to start trickling in about midmorning.
Whether you hunt from an A-frame blind or layout blinds, concealment is critical when trying to decoy Canada geese. Photo by Mike Reed
LIKE A MUSICIAN
When learning to call geese, the cliché of crawling before you walk and then walking before you run applies. Belding likened it to a student learning the first line of a piece of music. Until they slowly, meticulously master the first line, they cannot progress to the next. Many people watch or listen to instructional videos and try to go too fast.
“If you start thinking about air presentation and the way your body is working, you can start to establish a cluck and then a moan,” he said. “Then put them together: moan-cluck, cluck-moan. You have the beginning of a cadence. Each goose on the ground is saying a different word. All of it is connected, but none of it is a wall of sound.”
NOT ON THE X? NO PROBLEM
Pass-shooting gets a bad rap, but done ethically, it can be lethal.
Identify flight lines geese take to and from roosts or feeding areas, and then set up near cover along those paths. Years ago, friends and I would hunker by a ditch bank about 100 yards from a large river where geese always roosted. The honkers usually flew north at first light, and we’d intercept them on the way, taking birds as they passed over at 30 to 40 yards.
Likewise, when we couldn't hunt the X on private fields, buddies and I would secure permission for neighboring areas and then set up along fence lines or ditch banks downwind of the hotspot to pass-shoot birds as they flew in and out. We limited ourselves to sure-kill-close shots and made sure to drop geese on our side of the fence. It can be that simple.
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DON’T QUIT EARLY
Conventional wisdom suggests that hunting a field long into the morning is pointless. After all, when honkers complete their early morning feeding routine, they will flock to loafing areas and lounge until the evening flight. But geese are gregarious birds and can be susceptible to calling, flagging and decoys as they transition from feeding to loafing areas, so staying put until mid- or late morning can sometimes pay dividends. Further, you have little to lose by sticking around. Even if you don't scratch out a few more birds or finish your limit, you might gain critical information about goose flight patterns.
ABOVE ALL, HIDE
The cliche is true: If you aren’t hidden, you ain’t shooting geese. Make certain blinds, shooters, and dogs blend into the landscape. Natural concealment methods work best, whether that involves covering blinds with cut cornstalks, cutting weeds from a ditch to pile atop your hide, or snugging up next to a weedy rock pile. When natural stuff isn’t available, use artificial cover, such as raffia grass or fake snow from a spray can. Before shooting starts, view your setup from several angles to make sure nothing sticks out. Whenever possible, set up with the sun at your back. Avoid creating suspicious-looking blobs when using field blinds. Often, it’s best to set them together as one large blob. In some situations with large groups, A-frame blinds can work wonders. Above all, don’t be lazy. How much cover is enough? Graham Greseth, owner of MaXXed Out Guides, said that when you think you have enough, you're about halfway there.
PRACTICE LIKE A PRO
Obviously, you must practice consistently to become proficient on a goose call. However, Belding said callers should emphasize quality over quantity.
“I don’t want to go into a batting cage and take 200 swings,” he said. “I want to take 40 quality swings. That’s what to do with a goose call. I try to get 20 minutes of quality practice where I’m not wearing out my lips, losing my voice or cracking reeds every time. And I’m recording those sessions, playing them back, and listening to the authenticity of the sounds.”
Hunting small loafing waters during midmorning can be a great way to score geese after their early-morning feeding flights. Photo by Bill Konway
MIND THE BOSS
You must identify the best moment to take geese, whether that means firing at the first decent opportunity or waiting until entire flocks flutter yards away in your kill hole. When you choose incorrectly, the day can go sideways.
Before every hunt, elect a pit boss who will call the shots. The boss should be an experienced goose hunter with great identification skills and anticipation. And that person must communicate to every shooter when to shoot and who should shoot. As a general rule, it’s best to use the first flock or two of the morning to gauge what geese will do that day. If the initial group buys your setup 100 percent, you can probably be selective when calling the shot on subsequent flocks. But if the first couple of flocks seem interested but skeptical, you’d better shoot what you can the instant it’s in range.
TRUCK-BED SPREAD NO. 1
Don’t have a trailer full of decoys? Try these mini-spreads, which you can fit in the bed of your pickup or SUV.
Early season: Set three blobs of six to eight decoys — one upwind of your anticipated kill hole, and the other two 20 to 30 yards downwind to the right and left of the first blob. It’ll look like an upside-down triangle and mimics small family groups of geese. Hide field blinds in or near the farthest upwind blob.
TRUCK-BED SPREAD NO. 2
Small waters: Set a half-dozen floaters in the water, and then place six to eight full-body decoys along the bank. Make sure most of the full-bodies are loafers or lookers (upright heads). This mimics loafing geese. If the first few flocks seem hesitant, you might want to pull some decoys.
“We run fewer decoys on small ponds — six to 18 birds,” said Jeremy Dersham, owner of Ridge and River Running Outfitters in southern Wisconsin. “Normally, a few floaters and full-bodies along the edges produce good success. When birds are in the air, we let them know we’re here, and we’ve had geese lock up from long distances away.”
TRUCK-BED SPREAD NO. 3
Late season: By December, honkers have seen every type of spread devised by hunters. Throw them a change-up by setting a tiny spread of seven or eight decoys, including a few lookers and loafers, and one or two feeders. This will look like a solitary family group, and it’s amazingly attractive to wary geese.
Many new callers wonder about proper hand placement with a short-reed call. Belding said the basics are straightforward.
“You want to make that call as long as you possibly can,” he said. “Take your index finger and your thumb, and put those around the very end of that insert. Now your hand is an extension of that goose call, and that call is an extension of your mouth. That call is your beak.”
Extending the call as much as possible helps you manipulate sound easier. That’s especially important for beginners.
“The shorter the call, the harder it is to master,” Belding said. “And even with a shorter call, you still want to use your hands to manipulate the call.”
BEST GEESE FORWARD
Always set your best-looking decoys at the downwind edge of the spread. Geese will look at these the longest, and you want the utmost realism to convince them. Boost numbers at the upwind edge with shells, socks, and silhouettes. Use oversized shells and silhouettes to help hide field blinds. However you configure your spread, leave a large, defined kill hole where a flock of geese will feel comfortable landing.
Don’t have 100 full-body decoys? No sweat. Miniature spreads can be very effective for fooling wary honkers. Photo by Bill Konway
Avoid the temptation to set your field blinds directly upwind of your kill hole. If nothing else, offset them to the left or right so geese aren’t looking directly at them on approach. Better, consider setting them perpendicular to the spread, so geese approach at a 90-degree angle and are only looking at decoys — not blinds — as they cup in. And during extremely wind days, cheat your blinds a bit toward the downwind edge of the spread. Geese hovering in the wind have ample opportunity to scrutinize decoys, and can flare, catch the wind, and sail out of range in a heartbeat. Being closer to where they’ll likely lift up provides better-quality shots
Calling in tandem with other hunters is an art form — and it’s tougher than you think.
“It’s like two bird dogs,” Belding said. “They have to respect each other. They don’t get on top of each other.”
Belding said he listens to fellow hunters call and honors their sequences.
“If my buddy is moaning, I’m going to cluck,” he said. “If he’s doing a murmur, I’ll do hard clucks. The more I hunt with them, the more our timing gets on key.”
The goal is to sound like an authentic group of geese.
“A lot of people want to call, but do you really sound like a real flock, or are you just calling as loud and fast as you can?” Belding said. “You really want to sound like the honkers in that decoy spread. If you have two-dozen decoys out, you want to sound like two-dozen geese.”
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