Schooled By Snows
Least reliable of any waterfowl, snow geese can humble even the most seasoned hunter. Here’s how to improve your success on your next spring snow goose hunt.
We’d been up for hours already. Carefully crafting our decoy spread of over 1,500 decoys, it was almost legal shooting time. Final checks were made. Spread look good, landing holes were obvious but imperfect, the electronic call worked. We could finally settle in among the decoys to rest and wait.
A short while later, with the illuminating sky, distant cackling could be heard. Becoming louder as the birds approached, we all watched. Our e-call appeared to be pulling them in. Yes, several thousand snows and Ross’s had been feeding in the field for days, but one thing you learn about snows is that they can be unpredictable. On approach, all looked great. The first volley dropped in, as they often do, locked wings presented our group with a perfect opportunity. Shotguns blazing, our count was five birds on the ground. All were collected and we settled in again. As more volleys came and the sky became brighter, more birds would bump up, circle several times and, as more birds collected overhead, eventually most would become distracted and fly off to another field a couple miles away. If I remember correctly, I think our total was just under 30 birds on that hunt. As so often happens with snow geese, a good percentage of them never showed. Whether they vacated and headed north overnight, stayed on the roost, or just went somewhere else to feed, the numbers that came out to play were considerably lower than what we’d seen feeding in the field the evening before.
If you have any experience hunting Snow geese, you know it requires investment in three things – time, fuel and equipment. And you also know that there are never any guarantees with snow geese. Every once-in-a-while you tie into a barnburner, one that allows you to keep shooting and shooting until limits are filled. On most occasions however, it’s a numbers game. If they don’t show, or don’t want to finish in the spread, sky high birds circling or simply flying you’re your spread can be very common. Over the years I’ve learned a lot about snows, how they act and how to set up for them. Here are a few tips that should help flatten your own learning curve and put more birds in your freezer.
It’s a Numbers Game
When you’re acquiring decoys, get a lot of them. When I say plenty, I mean more than you think. The more, the better. I’ve hunted snows using a couple hundred decoys, but the more you put out, the more welcoming your spread will be. With my hunting party, we generally put out between 1,000 and 1,500 snow decoys including a combination of full bodies, shells, silhouettes and mobile rigs, with the bulk being sillosocks and windsocks.
Socks are lightweight, easy to compress in storage bags or boxes and they are quick to put up and take down. Ad to that, their motion in the wind, and they are a proven favourite. Different spread designs can produce well in variable situations, but the one I’ve learned to be most consistent is best described as a massive imperfectly shaped ball of birds at the upwind end of the spread. This is where the shooters will lay in among the decoys. It may run as much as 80 yards in width with a hole spanning up to 40 yards from left to right, out to 40 yards deep (variable depending on the number of shooters) and have variable masses of loosely positioned decoys flanking the far sides and more sparsely positioned birds encircling the landing hole at the downwind end of the spread approximately 70 yards distant from the shooters’ location. The key is making the landing hole welcoming and obvious to the birds. Be sure to make it imperfect in shape and place a few confidence birds in the middle to add realism.
Electronic Calls are a Must
Mouth calls can be an asset, but nothing beats using one or more electronic calls for white geese. Legal for snow goose hunting only, several companies offer a range of recorded white goose vocalizations. From soft feeding sounds to excited chatter, small flocks and massive flocks, you can pick and choose the ones you feel are most suitable to the situation you are hunting. I’ve enjoyed decent success with soft feeding cackles but in general, I prefer using large flock feeding cackles. Observe any natural flock approaching a field and they are usually loud and excited.
Most white goose hunters lay out in the open among the decoys. Any camo that blends with the ground can work, but with high numbers of decoys, it generally works best to wear white. Geese generally don’t perceive size, so by wearing white, you merely blend into the mass of white bodies all around you.
Follow the Migration & Spot Efficiently
For the best success in locating congregations of snows, research online migration reports to find out when volumes are coming through Alberta. To access migration status updates through the U.S. and Canada, log on to a variety of websites like snowgoosemigrationreport.com, the ACA’s ab-conservation.com/wildlife-cameras/goosegps/ site, and DeltaWaterfowl.org. Generally speaking, April and early May tend to produce the best hunting opportunities.
It’s not uncommon, even in exceptional areas, to cover 200 to 400 kilometres daily looking for a decent congregation of Snows on a good food source. Begin by watching larger roost waters and follow the birds out to feed.
Like in the fall, these spring migrators are targeting waste grains mostly in pea and barley fields. If you see good bunches feeding in the same place three times, secure permission to hunt and its game time. But know that high concentrations can feed out a field quickly and move on. Much depends on whether their roost is nearby and if weather is stable. If a front is moving in, and winds are high, it can blow birds out, but it can also bring a new batch in.
Focus on Volumes of Birds
From north to south, if you’re under the flyway, you’ll see snow geese and a variety of other waterfowl in Alberta’s fields and marshes from late March through May, and sometimes even early June. Bright white bodies stand out well against the drab fields at this time of year.
Even a thousand birds can look impressive, but to make a truly exceptional hunt, look for higher numbers. With high harvest limits, most snow goose hunters look to maximize shot opportunities and put numbers on the ground. As a rule, I look for at least 5,000 birds. Ten thousand is better and anything over that is a bonus. Why? Because a good percentage will either not return or simply fly past during your hunt. Volume is necessary to have a percentage drop in for shot opportunities.
Learn When To Shoot
Every shoot is different, but juveniles typically decoy better than mature birds. Days when visiting birds all lock and finish in the hole are rare. Most have already seen countless spreads as they’ve migrated from the southern U.S. to our province. In turn, they are notorious for eagerly approaching and dropping low just outside the spread, then lifting, passing out of shotgun range and circling. Some never return and some will circle repeatedly. After several passes, a few drop lower, teasing you just enough to make you think they’re going to finish. It’s tempting to start sky blasting, but don’t.
Two things happen when we jump the gun. First, these distant shots are often misses and second, birds can get wounded and soar off into the distance. You can see the shot pepper them, but it’s often not enough to bring them down, at least not right away. So, patience is the name of the game. Beyond that, it’s about understanding your shooting limits while clearing out birds so that incoming flights don’t stack up. Fresh birds with no distractions are sometimes more likely to land.
Any non-toxic goose load from #2 shot to BB will suffice, but in reality, specialty loads like Winchester’s Snow Goose XPERT is engineered for light geese. I continually enjoy great success with their 1 oz. #1 and #2 shot in a 3” 12-gauge shell. With a muzzle velocity of 1475 fps, it is designed for skilled shooters to make longer range shots out to 40 + yards.
Know the Rules
From season dates, to licensing requirements, harvest limits, shotgun regulations, species identification and game care, it’s up to you to know the rules. Each province is different, so be sure to check the rules. For instance, in Alberta, the snow goose season opens March 15 and closes June 15. Under current regulations, hunters are allowed to harvest snow geese (including Ross’s and Blue geese) in both the spring and fall. The daily harvest limit is 50 per licensed hunter and there is no possession limit.
A little-known, but long-time regulation is the requirement for all bird carcasses being transported by a guide or hunting partner in a separate vehicle, or those being gifted to someone – to be tagged. Tags must clearly denote the hunter’s name, address, signature, permit number and the date the birds were taken. For all other rules, be sure to consult each province’s Guide to Hunting Regulations.
By Kevin Wilson