By John Pollmann
The sound of migrating snow geese as they push north is a quintessential sign of spring. It’s also the sound of one of the hardest game birds to hunt in North America.
Smart and wary, snow geese are renowned for humbling hunters during the special spring Light Goose Conservation Order, but the sight of layers of snows and blues dropping into a decoy spread outweighs every moment of frustration.
Here are five tips to improve your chances of fooling more snow geese this spring.
1. Location, Location, Location
The migration of snow geese in the spring is dictated largely by the availability of food and water. Snow geese are constantly trying to push their way north, but when the birds reach the line of ice and snow, their northward movement is stopped. Find this line, and you’ll find the geese.
Snow geese will continue to build behind this snow-line or ice-line barrier, traditionally following historical flight paths. Setting up decoys in these high-traffic areas increases the odds in your favor of decoying birds in the morning after they leave a roost to feed, as well as later in the day when new geese migrate into the area. And new birds are much more likely to respond to both decoys and calling.
Locating a field to set up decoys within a migration corridor can be as simple as setting up on the south side of a large body of water or refuge area, as geese are naturally drawn to those areas. Setting up in a highly visible field several miles south of the water body helps you essentially short-stop the birds before they reach their targeted destination.
I would add one word of caution, though, because if you set up too close to a lake or refuge holding a large number of real birds, you will likely watch flock after flock ignore your spread, as it’s nearly impossible to compete with the sight and sound of thousands of real birds.
Pastures free of snow can also provide tremendous hunting opportunities and should not go overlooked. Short pasture grass offers snow geese a perfect place to feed and loaf. Hunting a pasture may also give you the chance to sleep in a little bit longer, too, as the birds often look to rest in these areas during late morning and early afternoon.
2. Patience Pays
As exciting as it can be to hunt the leading edge of the snow goose migration along the snow line, some of the best hunting is found in the latter stages of the spring migration as juvenile birds make their way north. The first waves of the snow-goose migration primarily consist of adult birds, pushing hard to return to their Arctic breeding grounds. Adult snow geese are extremely difficult to hunt, having seen every trick in the book after migrating up and down the flyway for 10 years or more.
Juvenile snow geese, on the other hand, are easier to decoy, and they often remain in an area for a longer period of time. This allows them to establish predictable patterns of feeding and loafing that are much easier to hunt.
3. Decoy Dos and Don’ts
There are a number of decoy spreads that a hunter can use to target spring snow geese, but the most effective spreads are used to take advantage of the birds’ voracious feeding habits.
Landing snow geese are naturally drawn to the active side of a feeding flock, where birds are jockeying for position to grab waste grain. For this reason, many hunters create the landing zone on the extreme upwind side of the decoy spread.
If you leave the opening too far downwind, many birds will end up working behind you, creating difficult shooting conditions.
Full-bodied snow goose decoys are a top choice for many hunters, but windsocks are also an effective decoy. Another advantage they have over full-bodies is they require less room for storage and are much easier to move to accommodate changing wind directions.
If you combine full-bodied and windsock decoys, it works best to keep the two styles separated, setting up the more realistic full-bodied decoys closer to the blinds where they can be used to hide not only the blinds, but also e-callers and other gear.
4. Guide vs. Freelance
Hunting spring snow geese can be an intimidating and expensive endeavor is a gross understatement. For this reason, going with a guide can be a logical choice, especially for someone who doesn’t want to tie up large amounts of money in equipment that may only be used a few days each year.
In addition, hiring a guide is a great way to explore a part of the flyway that is new to you. Your guide should have his finger on the pulse of how the migration is progressing and likely will have access to good ground. When hiring a guide, be sure to do your research, ask a lot of questions and talk to the references provided by the outfitter.
For some hunters, freelancing is the only way to go for spring snows, and the job of putting together a successful hunt on your own becomes much more manageable if a group of friends are involved.
Aside from being able to pool the resources needed to build a decoy spread and the other gear involved, another major benefit of hunting with a group is the ability to divide up scouting responsibilities and, more importantly, making contacts and building relationships with landowners, which is perhaps the most important part of the spring snow goose puzzle.
After a string of 16-hour days filled with muddy gear and frustrating birds, it can be easy to forget why hunting snow geese is so much fun, but the sights and sounds of thousands of geese migrating north is enough of a reminder why this bird has become such a favorite target during the spring.
5. Gear Recommendations
While they might not be a gear items by definition, well-trained retrievers should always be part of your game plan. Watching retrievers do the dirty work is not only fun, but it also helps make the hunt more efficient.
Most groups of snow goose hunters have one if not two retrievers in the field. A good toll of snow geese can put dozens of geese on the ground at one time, so having a retriever pick up the birds is often faster and less noticeable to geese passing overhead than a hunter running around a muddy field and tip-toeing through tightly packed decoys.
An ATV with a lightweight trailer or a large sled can also come in handy. ATVs might be one of the more expensive pieces of equipment for a spring snow goose hunter, but they help make life much easier. They greatly reduce the time and labor of setting up and taking down a spread, not to mention getting hunters, birds, decoys, blinds and other gear in and out of the field.
A cooler with snacks and drinks can be worth its weight in gold, because a typical snow goose hunt has you in the field from well before sunrise until after sunset. Both you and the dogs are going to get hungry and need something to eat and drink throughout the day.
Last, make sure to keep some spare batteries on hand for anything that might need one such as e-callers, motorized decoys and headlamps. These tools are all important parts of the day and run off of batteries.
It’s also good to have a tool kit, electrical or duct tape, and some miscellaneous electrical connectors. The nearest Radio Shack probably isn’t around the corner from the field you’re hunting, so pack these small items right in your blind bag next to your shells. You may never need them, but in the event you do, you’ll be glad you planned ahead.
About the Author: John Pollmann is a freelance writer from Dell Rapids, S.D. Follow him on Twitter @JohnPollmann.