January 10, 2018
They appeared suddenly, crossing the bluff up from the Missouri River to a massive field of harvested corn. The sight of them caused great excitement in the layout blinds positioned among dozens of Canada goose decoys and full-bodied mallards. They were big Canada geese, still a long way off but closing the distance quickly.
The hunters gripped their shotguns a little tighter in the growing daylight. These geese had left the safety of the river, driven by near zero temperatures and a need for the high-protein corn left in the harvested field. Pleading hail calls caught the north wind and captured the attention of the growing flights. The birds were spread out but heading in the right direction.
Soon they were approaching the decoys and losing altitude at an amazing rate. Feathered rockets dropped straight down. Soon they were within 50 yards of the blinds and wheeling into the wind. It blew strong from the north with a chilling bite, spilling out of Saskatchewan. One more pass and they would be point-blank targets. Finally, they were there, 30 big Canada geese slipping in on cupped wings.
Geese were slashing and backpedaling in absolute chaos as hunters emerged with shotguns blazing. Some shots hit their targets, others didn't, but the joyous cries from men in layouts and fallen honkers told the tale — our first volley had been a resounding success.
This hunt took place in the wake of the first major weather front pushing out of Canada last November near Hazen, North Dakota. These geese had been loafing to the north just a few days before — a prime example of how scouting becomes critical later in the season. Early in September, local birds are the focus and their patterns are more predictable. Into November and December, areas devoid of geese one day will change dramatically overnight and be overflowing with new birds the next day. Smart hunters are in the truck and glassing fields constantly when the migration is on.
Once the birds are found, it is the experienced late-season hunters that enjoy success. They pay attention to details, like decoy spread formation, number of decoys, and decoy type. Calling comes into play, as well as flagging. The most important detail is concealment, unless effectively hidden no hunter will lure birds into range. Late-season goose hunting tests skill levels and determination. Here are proven tactics from hunters in the upper Midwest when the remaining days are few and conditions get tough.
Get some Rest
Wayne Salem is a southwestern Minnesota native who travels around the country chasing waterfowl. His competitive calling background lead to guiding goose hunts in 1997 and he's still hunting hard today. "The biggest thing I think of in late-season goose hunting is sleeping in," he said. "There is no reason to get up early, the birds typically stay put until the afternoon as they are only feeding once a day. Get set up late morning and then it is a waiting game. Being patient and able to withstand the elements are the two keys to being there when they come."
The weather conditions play a big role and snow is a huge late season asset Salem explained. "Being hidden is crucial and it's easier to do with six to eight inches of snow on the ground. Instead of having to dig down in the soil to get the layout blind lower just sweep the snow away and use a white cover. The blind virtually disappears, especially on a sunny day. Geese look down and they can spot the decoys but the glare makes it difficult for them to see every detail. Just like taking a picture, cloudy day photos capture vivid detail but bright sun dulls the focus. Cut down on the space between decoys as well in snowy conditions. The cold forces geese closer together so be sure the spread is tight." Rake away the snow around the decoys imitating feeders and sentries, he added, and smooth out foot prints and tire tracks. Make the setting look as natural as possible, don't give the geese any reason for alarm.
Changes in calling approach are needed to finish late-season Canadas in close. Sean Lawler is a member of the Toxic Calls pro-staff and resident of Harlan, Iowa, in the southwestern part of the state. His calling methods vary later in the year depending upon the situation. "It all depends on where we hunt and the size of the decoy spread. If 200 decoys are deployed in a big corn field, you need to make some noise. One of our best late-season areas though is a small low pasture area that only needs a couple of dozen decoys at the most. You have to listen to the flock and resist the temptation to call upon spotting them. Often, they are quiet and will only call with clucks when they are closing in on the spread. Talk back to them, mimic what they are saying."
Sometimes the geese will stay silent and will slip past the set up. Lawler lets the geese pass by and hits them with comeback calls, the intensity depending on the size of the spread. He also keeps flagging to a minimum. "Wild flagging too high in the air will alarm flocks more than attract them," he said. "We keep the flags low, the same height as the decoys, simulating a bird stretching its wings. Too many hunters greet geese with loud calling and multiple flags waving. At this point in the season doing something different from everyone else is the difference between doing well and going home empty handed."
Jordan Sargent, a member of the Banded and Avery pro-staff, relies heavily on scouting and experience to enjoy consistent successful late-season goose hunts. He loves scouting just as much as hunting, the challenge of locating birds and obtaining permission to hunt them gets his adrenaline flowing. He hunts the Missouri River Zone of North Dakota, a different part of the state in more ways than one according to Jordan.
"We don't even start to see migrating ducks and geese here until mid-November every year. That makes this a late-season haven. Our best hunting often takes place during the last 30 days of the season. Most people think of the Dakotas as the pothole region to the east, the 'duck factory' as it is known. When they freeze up over there the season is done and here it's just getting started."
Go Right to Bed
Jordan hunts near Hazen, about an hour and a half from Bismarck, in the fields surrounding man-made Lake Sakakawea that covers parts of six counties. At a massive 307,000 surface acres, this is the first major body of water migrating birds see after leaving Canada. The Missouri River also stays open in the brutal temperatures found this far north in winter. That makes this place special. Ducks and geese will stay there while every other body of water is frozen solid. "Those birds see that big water and gather there in huge numbers, hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese will roost and rest on the lake. And the flowing water below the dam never freezes for up to five miles. That keeps birds here later than other parts of the state. Once the farmers started growing corn 20 years ago, it turned this area into one of the best waterfowling destinations in the country."
He often sets all full-bodied decoy spreads of geese but changes his goose mix when snow is present. "When geese come in to a field they immediately tuck their heads and go to sleep for a couple of hours. They have to do that to thaw out the snow to reach feed underneath. That's when the sleeper shells come out. We will run predominately sleepers with a few active and feeder decoys. Another change in tactics is the use of more silhouettes if snow is in the forecast. Constantly brushing snow off the backs of full bodies is a lot of extra work."
Pressured geese are hard to deceive, there is no doubt about it. Paying close attention to the birds, knowing their habits and patterns, and making subtle tactical changes are the differences late-season experts incorporate into their plans leading to success. It's not easy hunting but the rewards are there and waiting for those willing to work hard to make it happen.