Goose Hunting: Small Steps to Big Success

Posted by  Wednesday, August 28 2013 6:00 am
expert

There are goose hunters and then there are goose-hunting experts. The latter are die-hards who live, breath and sleep the sport. They're the ones who always know where the big flocks are, where they go, and how and when to hunt them. Their gear is top notch; they've got great decoy spreads; they have the skills and experience to consistently put goose breasts on the grill.

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Well camouflaged layout blinds and a good decoy spread fool them every time.

Blair Whyte of northern Ontario is one such hunter. He scouts almost every day of the season and hunts for geese and mallards approximately 40 days each year.  His knowledge of flight patterns, feeding areas and new flocks in his area is uncanny.

Over the last ten years, Whyte has devoted himself to being a field-hunting specialist — one of the best I've ever had the privilege of hunting with.

I spent three days hunting with him near New Liskeard, Ontario, and we shot a lot of mallards and geese. Along the way, I was reminded that success in goose, or any other type of hunting, is born of solid fundamentals.

The Value of Scouting

The most important things that sets the expert apart from the average goose hunter is the effort put into scouting and procuring huntable property in the on- and off-season. "It's a no-brainer," he says, "the more options you have, the better."

During the season, he spends countless afternoons driving back roads and glassing fields for flocks of feeding geese. That's because he knows that geese will often return to those very spots in the morning.

When glassing, Whyte evaluates flock size, where new arrivals are coming from, and where they go to roost. This helps him decide which field to hunt come morning.

He also considers the urgency of the situation. "If the flock is big and the field is small, we try to hunt it quickly, before they eat everything in that field and move on."

Spot Within the Spot

Once you've decided which field you are going to hunt in the morning, you need to pinpoint the spot within the spot. We're talking about the exact location that the flock is using. The reason is simple: generally, when birds return, they'll continue feeding near where they left off.

Whyte relies on good binoculars to observe feeding flocks and notes their exact locations within the field relative to field edges, trees, crop boundaries etc. If a flock was situated approximately one hundred yards out and thirty yards west of the big tree in the background, for instance, he'll use that as his starting point when setting up in the morning. When he gets to that approximate location, he and everyone in the group will use headlamps to find feathers, goose droppings, prints and other sign that indicate where the flock last fed. He then sets his decoy spread upwind of that location.

The Right Rig

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Quality optics are critical when glassing fields. Here, guide Blair Whyte checks out a big flock.

When it comes to goose decoys, experts like Whyte rarely settle for second best. Their decoys are in excellent repair, properly painted, and absolutely without shine. Whyte prefers decoys with flocked heads and bodies; he's convinced that they work better than anything else he's seen thus far. When you look at his decoy spread, even from a few feet away, it's hard to believe that they're not real.

Whyte is meticulous in their care. Each decoy is bagged separately and kept in a separate compartment of a proper decoy bag when not in use. And, at the end of each hunt, he cleans blood off of decoys that might have caught splatter.

When it comes to numbers, his philosophy is "the more the merrier." He adds more decoys to his spread every year.

"We use mostly full bodies but we also use silhouettes to fill in the holes in the spread. Generally, we set up family groups with most feeding into the wind. Overall, our spread is crescent shaped into the wind with landing holes in front of each of the layout blinds."

A Little Motion

Whyte makes his decoy spread even more convincing by providing the illusion of movement. He and his hunting partner routinely flag distant geese and also use a couple of motion decoys for mallards as well.

"These are great tools but you have to use them with care. It's all about reading the flock as they approach. You take your lead from their actions. When it comes to flagging and motion decoys, they either love it or hate it. It's easy to overdo it, so you have to be careful."

No Shine, Good Camo

Good goose hunters try to remove all shine from their set up. Whyte won't abide it on decoys, in blinds or on the ground. He's meticulous about picking up spent shells after each pass.

Camouflage is something he's serious about. He makes sure his layout blinds don't appear out of place. He adds foliage to the loops of every layout blind; the same kind that's in the immediate area. And he makes sure hunters cover glare from skin and eyeglasses with camo caps and facemasks.

And, after everyone is hunkered down, he'll take a quick walk down the line to ensure nothing is out of place.

"There's no point getting the right place and set up if the hunters stand out like sore thumbs."

Calling

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Having a good spread of realistic decoys is one way to up the odds in your favor.

It's no revelation that calling is a critical component to goose hunting success. Having said that, Whyte is constantly amazed by hunters who don't put in the time and effort to get proficient at it.

"It takes lots of practice before you can be good with a goose call. One of the best things a hunter can do is listen to geese year round. Then get yourself a quality call and practice mimicking those sounds." Instructional DVDs also help

Once you are competent, you need to apply those skills in field conditions. "A good part of calling is reading the birds and knowing when to be quiet. Call hard if they're leaving; go easy if they are coming in. Watch how they react to your calls and keep giving them what works."

Adjust

It happens more frequently than we plan on: the wind shifts slightly or the birds are not keen about the landing zone you had set up for their use. That's when it pays to adjust your decoy spread.

"You might move a small group of decoys further out, fill in the spaces where you don't want them to land with more decoys, or move decoys to open up the landing zones even more," says Whyte. "Sometimes you have to change facings because of a wind shift too. These little things make all the difference."

As a case in point, on our second hunt with Whyte, because of a slight wind shift, the first two flocks of birds landed slightly wide of the spread. We got shooting, and dumped a couple, but they weren't coming exactly where he wanted them. So he moved a few decoys to block that spot, opened up the zone in the center more, and the next flock came in to exactly where he wanted, like puppets on a string.

Calling Your Shots

Of course, the object of all this is getting birds into gun range. Even, in this matter, pros like Whyte have definite objectives.

"I want to bring birds within point blank range, about 15 yards, right in front of the gunners," he says.

Because of this, Whyte recommends more open chokes than the ones most goose hunters are used to. On our hunts, I used an improved cylinder choke and steel BBs to very good effect. But Whyte says #2s will also do the trick at these ranges.

Interestingly, he prefers not to let flocks circle too much. "I'd rather have a flock come straight in. The more they circle, the greater the chance of them realizing that they're being duped. If they're not committing and in range, it's best to shoot on the next good pass."

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Pick up your birds as soon as they are down. A good dog is something no serious waterfowler should be without.

Another useful, albeit time-honored, piece of advice is to pick one bird and concentrate on dropping it.

"A lot of inexperienced hunters get flustered by a whole flock of birds in their sights — so they don't pick a specific target. But, if you pick one and follow it, you'll do better. Once that one is dropped, pick another and do the same."

Needless to say, Whyte's also keen on time at the gun club. "Hunters who shoot year-round tend to do a lot better, especially when they are called upon to shoot from the awkward positions you find yourself in during a goose hunt."

A Final Word

The message here is that the pros are fussy about how they hunt. They have learned through hard experiences that little things count. They know that it pays to fine tune. Judging from the hunts I had with Whyte, I'd have to say they're onto something.

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Steve Galea
expert

Steve Galea makes his living as an assistant editor for Ontario Out of Doors magazine, where he is best known for My Outdoors, his back page humor column that has run continuously since 1996. He also writes columns for five weekly newspapers across Ontario and has contributed to several books on the outdoors. When not writing, Steve spends time fly fishing and tying. He also enjoys using bow, rifle or shotgun, depending on the hunting season. His English springer spaniel Callie is an eager grouse and woodcock dog and he values time afield with her.

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