Tips for Hunting Spring Snows... by David Rearick
Frustration, long hours, lack of sleep, mountains of decoys, the whine of electronic callers, and ultimately success are all things that go along with hunting snow geese. All but the last one are things that happen day in and day out in the snow goose field and while success is something that you have to earn to achieve, it has to be one of the best feelings in the world when you finally get it all right and the birds decoy for in your face action. While the learning curve for hunting snow geese is just like that of hunting Canadas or Mallards, the journey along the way can make anyone want to give it up and sell off their gear, myself included. Ultimately though, the tried and true waterfowler will press on trying to obtain a small piece of the action for themselves. Sometimes the best way to shorten this curve is to do your homework in the field and during the off-season. Learning from some of the pros is one of the ways to quickly start changing things in the right direction, and after that it is up to you.
Some many things come to mind when we start thinking of snow goose hunting. Electronic callers and their placement along with the appropriate sounds, decoy spreads-layouts-numbers, scouting, and timing are all things that come into play. Even the best spread won’t do you much good if there are no geese in the area, and while e-callers are a definite bonus, blaring the wrongs sounds is one way to see more tails than heads. If you can follow in the footsteps, so to speak of guys that have already jumped over these hurdles, you can easily learn the fundamentals and eliminate as many possible snafu’s as possible before you start.
Tony Vandermore; Habitat Flats Guide Service and Avery® Outdoors Pro-Staff
Tony is located in the state of Missouri and has been on the front of snow goose hunting since he started chasing them. Using different techniques and tactics and always being willing to change it up is what he feels is one of the keys to success. Moving massive decoys spreads through the night with little sleep before the next hunt is something he lives for and he would rather deal with the lack of sleep over missing a good hunt. When he sets up his spread, he has a specific end result in mind from the time the first stake goes in the ground and setting the blinds is crucial to getting good shots on decoying birds. Vandemore says “Snow geese are greedy and try to land at the top end of the spread the majority of the time. With that being said, have your blinds setup in the upwind end of the spread with only a few decoys behind you on most days. If the winds get to blowing over 25 mph, only then will I typically like to move down to about the half way point in the spread.” By setting your blinds strategically in the decoys, the birds will ultimately give you a better show and make for closer range shots. Vandemore likes his birds in tight when the shot is called, to allow plenty of time to get clean shots at birds before they parachute backwards with the wind.
Another type of spread Tony likes to run is on mid-day loafing ponds, even better if they border a grain or corn field. When he finds a suitable location, his key to success is to mimic what the birds like to do. “Snow geese will often loaf on small ponds throughout the day and spill out on the bank surrounding the pond. They generally sit tight together for the most part. Re-creating this with a spread makes for some fun hunts”, says Vandemore. If you set your decoys to duplicate what the birds want to see, no matter what the situation, the birds will react better than if they are set into shapes/patterns that are un-natural. Setting your decoys is one of the most important parts of the day in terms of getting the birds in close, and paying attention to locations of decoys and the blinds is what he feels if top priority in the field.
A Field/Water Spread...Deadly Combo
©Tony Vandemore, Avery® Outdoors, Inc
Kevin Popo; Kevin Popo Guide Service and Sean Mann Outdoors
Kevin is a guide, a 20 year snow goose hunter, and world champion goose caller from the state of Delaware. Hunting snow geese in the Atlantic Flyway is much different than hunting them in the Midwest, and with the lack of a conservation season up until this year, electronic callers were not allowed and the hunting seasons ended before the massive spring migration back to the breeding grounds took place. Kevin’s keys to hunting greater snow geese lies in utilizing motion whenever and wherever possible. When hunting snow geese, Kevin likes to keep things in his favor by running the right decoys for the conditions. If the wind is right, he will add some sock-type decoys to his large rig of fullbodies and shells to add some additional movement to an otherwise stagnant wind. He will also incorporate things such as fliers and a rotary machine to create the movement he is looking for. Playing the wind and using the decoys that fit the conditions are one of his ways to stay successful. While the greater snows are a different bird all together than their counterpart the lesser, utilizing techniques used in the Midwest and potentially modifying them to fit the reaction of the birds on the East Coast is crucial to staying ahead of the birds and enjoying continued success in the field.
One thing Kevin likes to use is a rotary machine to add motion to his decoy spread. “Run a fishing line off the tail of your flyers back to the arm/pole as it will stop the decoy from whipping around in the turns. This makes the decoy look more realistic and not spin around when it is not flying into the wind”, says Popo. Keeping things from looking out of place and unnatural is one of Kevin’s main ingredients to getting tolling snow geese on each hunt, and paying attention to the little things is what he fells makes him successful in the field.
A Successful Greater Snow Goose Hunt
Tyson Keller; Avery Outdoors
Tyson is another snow goose fanatic and is located in South Dakota. Hunting snow geese and Canadas are his main passions when it comes to waterfowl and spending the time to do it right is what he feels is important in the field. While hunting snow geese over the years, he has obtained a large knowledge base of what to do given different situations, weather conditions, and flight activity and feels that being adaptable to change is important to being successful.
One thing Tyson thinks is key is the location in which you set-up to hunt, especially when you are running traffic in a field off a refuge or large holding area. ”Many snow goose hunters will set up close to major roosts where there is abundant bird activity. Often times, being close to a major roost will make the hunt tougher. Competing with large numbers of live birds makes it much more difficult to convince the birds that your decoy spread is real, especially if there are thousands of active birds close by. When hunting snows, it is always good to position yourself at distance between roosts or major flyways if possible. Some of the best decoying luck will derive from being at the farthest destination point away from the roost,” says Keller. While picking your spot for the next day, don’t be afraid that you won’t see as “many” birds as you would in a field right off the refuge. Sometimes less birds in the air and less competition can pay dividends at day’s end, with increased bags and maybe even a little less frustration throughout the day.
Another important thing to consider when hunting snow geese is migrating weather. Warm south winds always offer a good chance of migrating birds, and paying attention to the weather patterns and sticking it out may give you the edge on an otherwise slow day. Keller suggests “Some of the best decoying action takes place on the days in which birds are migrating. Paying close attention to the weather and bird reports will help a hunter distinguish when the largest migration activity will take place. More often than not, the best decoying will take place during the mid-day hours because the birds seem to be the most susceptible to take a quick flight break.”
Keller also encourages another approach during the conservation season. “During the spring, warming trends and southerly winds will often spur migratory activity. Setting up on traditional flight paths such as river valley routes or flight lines between major roost points will often put a hunter in the active areas.” By setting up in areas you can increase the amount of migrating snows you may see each day, giving them potentially the first look at a decoy spread in the area, and a good reason to take a break from their flight and stop for some food or a spot to loaf or get water.
Locating good feeding areas is key to being in the right spot when birds leave the roost. If you can get in their flight path or in the area they are feeding, your odds are increased. Like hunting all types of waterfowl, food is the key to getting these birds to decoy well, so be where they feed and you are at least pointed in the right direction. When hunting snows, Keller pays close attention to feeding areas when he plans out the hunt. “Snow geese will often fly long distances to feed, especially if the birds are pressured or migrating. Snows will often congregate in areas where there is less hunting pressure and more abundant food sources. Look for areas where there are several adjacent fields holding feeding birds. Also pay attention to the types of crops that the birds are using as well as the activity of the flock. Try to find areas where the birds are using similar fields as well as tightly packed flocks that are fairly content. If the birds are not hopping around and moving in and out of the field erratically, there is a good chance that the birds are comfortable and have plenty of food. If the birds are hopping in and out of the field and are spread out and moving rapidly, there is a good chance that the food source is scarce.
Clint Roby; Avery Outdoors Pro-Staff
Clint hunts all type of waterfowl from day one to the last day of the season. One of his favorite times to hunt is the spring snow goose conservation season, and he wouldn’t go anywhere without his black lab Max. When Clint sets up in the field, he pays careful attention to how the dog will be positioned to allow for complete safety and control in the field. Having a well trained retriever that can handle being steady with hundreds of squawking snow geese is a mere feat in itself, but once you get your dog trained to handle the excitement, he can be a life saver when it comes to retrieving birds after the fallout.
Making the Retrieve...
Martin Hesby; Avery Outdoors Pro-Staff
Martin is a South Dakota native who loves everything about hunting waterfowl, including chasing snow geese in the spring. Long days, short nights, and a lot of work make up his days afield, and he couldn’t be happier about it. When the spring migration starts, Martin shifts into auto drive and uses many techniques he has perfected over the course of hunting these birds, from decoy spreads, to scouting, to concealment. “Snow goose hunting is probably the most complex and detailed of all waterfowl hunting challenges, and to consistently put geese feet down in your decoy rig, you have to align and master every detail for the situation at hand”, says Hesby. The small details are the ones that sometimes cost you that wary flock, so making sure everything is in order makes his hunts more successful.
Scouting: “Successful scouting is essential to being ‘in geese’ when chasing snow geese”, remarks Hesby. Being on the X no matter what season is the easiest way to increase your odds against these sometimes intimidating birds. Merely having a flight path some days will be enough, but your best bet is to be on the spot the birds fed the day before and things will drastically change in terms of the numbers you decoy.
“Spring scouting breaks down into mainly four different situations and it is essential to recognize which situation the birds are active in, to determine how you will be hunting. Successful decoy hunters need to be on their toes and 100% up to speed on daily and weekly weather forecasts. Not only your local weather forecasts, but your regional/state forecast, so you can work to predict what might happen next”, notes Hesby.
1) Migrating geese: When the birds are “pushing” hard Northbound and you have good migrating weather, you are basically looking for a strong flyway or narrow corridor in which to intercept the birds. What I shoot for is to intercept flight birds that have been flying for a long way, that are looking to feed and rest. Typically afternoon migrations seem to be more favorable for getting masses of flight birds vortexing/tornadoing down from migrating heights. Watch the migration flights and what areas they typically breakdown to feed. The birds themselves will give away where you want to be. From there, I always look for very large fields, as snow geese need room to work in order to feel comfortable to let it all hang out. During this time it is almost more about the field and what field is better for decoying, than it is about being on any “X”, as all the birds on the “X” today, are 100 miles north the next. Being in the flyway first and securing the best field for decoying in the area second.
2) Stalled geese: When a strong cold front stymies and stalls the migration, the birds relate to more of a Fall pattern, where they are trending from massed roosts to nearby fields. These birds will rest and put on the feed bag, in which you would shift gears from hunting a migrating route, to hunting on the “X”. Look for all of the same things you would look for on a Fall hunt to put this together.
3) Reverse Migration: spring blizzards can start a reverse migration that can put geese on the ground fast. Watch the weather conditions and don’t be afraid to hunt during and after a severe cold front that is pushing geese back south. These birds are displaced and can really work well.
4) Late geese: It is no secret that the tail end of the migration is full of one and two year old juvenile birds that have no reason to push hard North, as they are non-nesters. These “juvies” typically migrate in a very lazy fashion, giving some of the most fast and furious decoy hunting of the year. Once you have located a good roost of “juvies”, revert to being on the “X” as these birds will loaf on good roosts for a long time and can be patterned from roost to field very easily. These geese are not the brightest and will often make several runs at your rig. I have experienced several times where these “juvie” flocks will charge the rig and come right back around after a volley, making another run at you. Sometimes even several times. While scouting, if you recognize what you are dealing with, you can have tremendous hunts targeting these late juvenile geese.
After you have the birds located, setting your decoys is key to having the birds work correctly. Factoring in things like the sun, a potential change in wind, and even the predicted speed of the wind for the day are all crucial in determining how/where you set the decoys and the blinds. First and foremost “Realism is the key to consistently putting snow geese ‘feet down’ in your rig”, says Hesby. Hesby feels that adding the most realistic decoys to his spread is key to his success. “I run all full bodied Avery/GHG snow and blue goose decoys, which I feel are the most realistic and the most durable FB decoy on the market. I have hunted snow geese over decoys for over 20 years and have seen the evolution of snow goose rigs and how the geese react to those rigs. I think I have seen it all and I can tell you that since I made the switch over to an all FB rig, I have seen snow geese do things over decoys that I have never seen before.”
Hesby's Rig About to be Deployed...
When it comes time to Hesby setting up the spread, what he tries to do is duplicate with his decoy spread what a flock of real feeding geese look likes. Duplicating that exactly is fairly impossible at this point in time, however with the use of realistic decoys, motion systems and flyers you can create the image of an army of geese moving through a field searching for available food. “Simply put, realism is the key to not only decoying snow geese in close, but landing them in your rig, and shooting them with their feet hanging, like you are hunting honkers”, exclaims Hesby.
Hesby also thinks motion is one of the number ones factors in his decoy spread “The use of motion and flyer decoys can be very deadly on snow geese because it creates an image of geese hedge hopping over each other to get to the front of the feed line”, stresses Hesby. By using flier decoys when it is windy mounted to poles placed in the ground or the use of a rotary device, motion can be achieved. Also, by using decoys like Avery/GHG FB snow and blues, you get decoys with a built in motion system. This works to get your spread moving with the slightest of wind, and helps to create the image of live birds moving through the field.
The use of electronic callers during the spring season isn’t the switch to turn on the light, just an important feature to keep the working birds interested as they tornado downward. “Electronic callers help to create the image of realism, and when used properly, you create confusion that breaks flocks down, holds the birds’ attention, and works to duplicate a feeding flock. I use homemade e-callers that run on MP3 technology, which I believe creates a very realistic “clean” sound. You can get as carried away with creating your own e-callers as your imagination can take you. The important thing is that your e-callers are portable, durable, can operate all day, and can produce a clean sound” says Hesby. When using e-callers, trial and error is the best way to learn the secrets to running successful e-callers, and Hesby has a couple tips for successful use in the field.
1) E-Callers: I usually run two to three systems with four speakers associated with each system. This creates sounds throughout your spread and all of your sound is not coming from one general “spot".
2) Speaker Placement: What has worked well for me is to run my speakers in the upwind 1/3 of the rig. Behind the blind line, in front of the blind line, and a few in the “kill hole”. Because snow geese typically work vertical while decoying, I generally set my speakers facing straight up, rather than side to side. I do however place a couple at the head of the rig, on the corners, facing upwind to help working birds “corner around” and circle back downwind for another approach.
3) Tracks/Sounds: I have my best success running tracks that sound like single geese popping off, rather than a large flock. With several systems, these tracks are mixed and spread out with several speakers throughout the spread. The working birds seem to react better to these tracks as opposed to using a large roaring track. These popping off sounds work to hold the birds attention and get them focused on working into where these sounds are coming from.
At the end of the day, if you aren’t hidden, and hidden extremely well, 500 sets of eyes can pick you apart and leave you scratching your head after the birds work great and won’t finish. “Being concealed goes without question, as snow geese are the most wary, educated, and simply the toughest of all waterfowl to decoy so this is one of the most important parts of the hunt”, Hesby points out. These birds are diligent in picking up anything that looks abnormal, so to get these birds in tight, you virtually have to have your blind line disappear. The keys to hiding in all fields is being low profile, running a “blind line”, and selecting the correct spot to hide in. Hesby has acquired some techniques for setting up the blinds in the field and has a few things he centers around when it comes time to put the blinds in the spread.
1) Blind Line: I like to run my blinds shoulder to shoulder, touching, side by side. This allows me to run 6 to 10 blinds in a rather small blind line, and seems to cut down on any shadows, as opposed to scattering the blinds with ground between them. I’ve done it both ways and find that running the blind line shoulder to shoulder helps with concealment, as well as keeping everyone within hearing distance for the almighty “take’em” call, over what can be very loud e-callers. I almost always run my blind line at the far upwind edge of the rig, for two reasons. One it allows the birds that are coming down in a vertical fashion, to have time to lose altitude, so they are in the kill hole on their first pass. And two, it works as a concealment factor as it is the last thing in the rig the birds will come across. My theory is very simple, as the birds are decoying they are scanning everything. With the blind line at the rear, it is essentially the last thing they have time to scan, and with a good realistic rig, they have normally dropped in altitude by that time that they are in the “kitchen.” So if they do spot anything, it is generally too late.
2) Blind Placement: I like to look for a “dirty” spot in the field that would be easily to conceal the blind line and/or, a little low spot that will help break the overall profile up. Finding the “X” and the exact spot where you will run the blind line can take a little time; however it is one of the many details that will help make your decoy hunt successful. I often get accused by my hunting party, for making too many “crop circles” in the field with the truck, working to find precisely the right spot. My best advice - don’t be afraid to make as many crop circles as you feel necessary to get it right. It is well worth the time.
Plain and simple, Hesby thinks the details are what makes you successful and “Decoying snow geese is a very ‘detailed’ endeavor.” Mastering the stages of the Spring Migration, as well as, patterning geese in the fall is very challenging business. To get snow geese in close and feet down, you need to pay close attention to all of the details. It is the entire package that will make or break your success in the field. But when you get it right, master the details, and create the most realistic image of a feeding flock of snow geese, the rewards can be well worth the effort.
A Great Lesser Snow Hunt w/ Hesby and Crew...
Hunting snow geese clearly has its ups and downs. For lack of a better phrase - hero one day and zero the next. Always puts your best foot forward, and go into every hunt with the intention to do everything you can do the fullest extent of your ability, and hunt with guys that feel the same way. If you do all of this, I am sure once you get past the breaking point on the learning curve, you will become much more successful in the field.
Putting This All Together Can Produce Successful Hunts Like the Ones Below....
©Tyson Keller, Avery® Outdoors, Inc
©Tyson Keller, Avery® Outdoors, Inc
Copyright © 2008 Game Hogg Hunt ClubTM. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission from the author is prohibited.