We started the trucks early to burn the industrial-strength frost off the windshields. Giant snowflakes drifted randomly through the headlights as we drove down the long driveway. The weather on the prairies can be fickle, but during April, it is better described as manic. The slightly inclement weather did not dampen our spirits to set up for a spring snow goose hunt, though. The snow had been melting the week before, and we feared snow geese would be headed north. Fresh snow falling left us wondering what type of snowstorm lies ahead.
Snow geese often frustrate hunters, and it can be a lot of work to spot and have the proper gear to set up for success. A group of my hunting buddies decided we should plan a memorable trip, letting the local experts do the spotting and running specialized gear. We would still hunt around home but this would be a treat to enjoy the experience without all of the legwork. We were hunting with Prairie Sky Outfitters in western Saskatchewan on one of the significant spring flyways for birds returning to their historic nesting grounds in the arctic.
Arriving at the field, everyone pitched in to set up decoys and gather straw to stuff and conceal blinds. Decoys were spread 500 yards across the field and a row of blinds looked natural on the edge of a hilltop. We uncased shotguns, lined boxes of shotshells along our sides and sipped on a cup of hot coffee in preparation for the big event. The loud, sharp honks of white geese could be heard on distant wetlands. It was a continual reminder to keep moving to prepare for the first flight of geese.
Right at Light
The birds must have been watching the clock because they showed up simultaneously with shooting light. Strings of white geese lined the eastern sky. The dark clouds made the birds hard to see, but their excited chuckle was like a beacon that gave away their location. The first line of geese swung over the far decoys and followed them to the chow line and our blinds. Spencer, our guide, asked everyone to keep their heads down and be ready. A small flock of snows lined up and dropped elevation fast. Spencer gave us the order to shoot when the birds were drifting into the blinds. Geese crashed to the ground, and we scrambled to reload with more birds coming across the field.
The sheer number of snow geese was impressive. There wasn’t a minute where there were no geese in the air. The decoys were set to block geese from landing short or in other portions of the field. It was like a long runway to direct birds to the front of the feeding line.
The groups contained a high percentage of blue, color-phased snow geese. I could not resist targeting the uniquely colored birds with white heads and blueish-gray bodies. Each blue goose is as unique as a fingerprint with its feather patterns and colors. Some can be almost black, while others are a soft dapple gray. Most of the snow geese on early spring hunts are adults, anxious to get north and initiate nests. Having hundreds of adult birds that are hunted for eight months along migration routes south and north can make for challenging hunts. However, attention to detail in hiding blinds and spreading decoys to mimic what the birds do while feeding usually leads to success.
The First Field
We were one of the first fields the geese flew to in the morning. The wind was steady and brisk and helped finish birds quickly and without circling. Most snow geese bounce between fields during the day. It could be a strategy to avoid predators. It’s also possibly a result of a lack of prime feeding in fields they used fall and spring. The birds might also fly more as training for the big flight north when conditions are right. Being in the first field meant early shooting and the opportunity to target birds later in the morning on their way back to roost. While our shooting proved a little rusty after taking the winter off, we still managed to take birds out of every flock that decoyed.
Most of the geese came in small flocks, making them easier to decoy. Fewer eyeballs mean fewer chances of being busted or creating doubt in a single bird that could draw the others away. We enjoyed steady shooting and quickly stacked up birds. Late in the morning, a massive accumulation of snows built at the far end of the field. Against dark gray skies, they lifted and danced across the sky as though choreographed in flight. We packed up and headed back to camp.
Second Day Set Up
The second morning out was clear with crisp temperatures. We were hunting two fields with a unique set of decoys running across the end of one field, over a fence line, and into another. The grass and cover on the fence were ideal for hiding, and the strategy would make it impossible for the geese to see hunters.
The geese were traveling a long distance to feed, and it was shooting light when the first group showed up. The geese flew over our blinds, and Spencer told everyone to hold tight. More geese joined the cyclone. On the third spin, the geese were in our faces and on the deck. When Spencer called the shot, geese rained into the decoys. It was an exhilarating moment when everything worked perfectly.
In the Thousands
There were some big flocks, and at one point, we had thousands of birds working the decoys at the same time. The sound of excited geese was almost deafening. Birds were swirling in every direction, and I was sure there would be a mid-air collision. Spencer enjoyed the show as much as the hunters and let the flock grow and work into a churning mass of white wings.
We were told to shoot when birds were six feet off the ground, and a solid mass was flying directly at us. It was mayhem. I picked out some beautiful, blue-phased birds that stuck out like neon signs. When the shooting stopped, there were whoops and hollers of excitement. It was a moment every avid waterfowler dreams of experiencing. The day turned out to be the perfect storm for snow geese. We were about 20 birds short of a limit after the morning hunt. We opted to leave everything set up in the field to hunt in the evening.
The afternoon show was incredible. More geese joined the mob and lined the sky to the horizon. Sandhill cranes winged overhead. Tundra swans flew by like the Goodyear blimp floating on the breeze. Ducks buzzed in and out, and dark geese flew by like they did not have a care in the world. It was a show of epic proportion.
Our third and last morning was in a big barley field, and we set blinds to look like a bale of straw had been broken and spread in the field. It was frosty and clear. We finished our trip with decoying birds and plenty of action. We had coolers full of fresh goose to take home and were already planning for the following spring.
Our success was not an accident or an occasional victory. Hunting the top of the flyway on the last stretch of agricultural fields is where snow geese stage for long periods. It is the last high-protein feed before the birds fly to the tundra. The weeks and months before, the geese were anxious to get north and bounced whenever possible. It is a long way across the boreal forest, taiga region, and the tundra to the nesting grounds. Hunting in this region strategically targets birds that stage and feed as much as possible.
Some hunters follow snow geese along their migration route to enjoy weeks of gunning. In western Canada, the first spring snow geese often appear north of the 49th parallel in mid-March. April is always a good month, with consistent numbers of birds. May can also be great, but birds have often moved north. Juvenile snow geese are often the last migrants and can offer tremendous hunting opportunities. The old timers in the north say the last snow geese will wing north on the first full moon in May. Personal observations make me believe the elders’ wisdom.
Please Show Respect
Many hunters talk about snow geese, or white geese, with condescension. Offensive names they are sometimes called (like sky carp, white devil, and tundra muncher) show no respect and reflect poorly on hunters. With the incredible opportunities the birds provide, their monikers should be more flattering. White geese provide more hunting opportunities than ever before and hunters should rejoice and celebrate the bounty.
Snow geese have not always enjoyed a stable population, and spring seasons did not exist in the past. Not 50 years ago, the snow goose was a species of concern with depressed populations. When populations exploded, the birds harmed their northern habitats. Spring conservation or spring snow goose hunts were instituted to reduce populations.
Technically, it is a spring white goose season, which does not accurately describe the blue-phase snow and Ross’ geese that are also legal to harvest. The hunt started because there are so many snow geese and Ross’s geese that it is harmful to their future. In addition, the habitat in the Arctic is being overgrazed and permanently impacted. Biologists have been saying that the population had grown to twice as many as what is sustainable, and see hunting as the best and most economical way to control numbers. Snow goose data shows a 1,200% increase in the goose population since the 1970s.
The exciting thing about spring goose hunts is that no two years are the same. Spring can arrive exceptionally late, with cold temperatures and still lots of snow in early April. Drought can mean there is no snow and an early migration.
Circle of Life
Spring snow geese are on a steady trek to the Arctic, driven by the desire to breed, raise a brood and get out of the north ahead of severe weather. It is a race against time, and every day counts when they are heading north to initiate nests. The geese have an uncanny knack for knowing when they can make the big jump and not get caught by bad weather.
Some of the snow geese harvested fly to the western edges of the arctic in Alaska. A Ross’s goose harvested east of Edmonton was banded just out of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. The location where the bird was shot is just shy of 1,120 miles from where it was banded. Add the miles traveled south, and it is easy to see that white, arctic-nesting birds are worldly travelers. Several years ago, we harvested a bird with band information indicating that the goose was 19 years or older. That is a lot of trips south and back north.
Just Do It
Hunting for spring snow geese is a great excuse to get outdoors after a long winter. Keeping your shotgun barrel hot and running low on ammunition makes the annual event addictive.
Target the northern agricultural areas in western Canada to find birds staging for more extended periods; these areas provide some hunting stability. Take the snow goose challenge and get out this spring. The birds might sometimes frustrate you, but they can also provide exciting memories to last a lifetime.