Increase your odds for success on unpredictable spring snow goose hunting by avoiding these six-common mistakes.
With our decoys strategically placed, our speakers wired, and the eastern horizon beginning to illuminate, we moved our trucks to the far end of the field behind a stand of trees. As legal light arrived, distant cackling could be heard. The roost was over a mile away and birds were beginning to cackle. Minutes later, a pair of snow geese could be seen beelining for our spread. Without hesitation, both locked their wings. Webbed feet down and ready, the “Take ‘em!” command could be heard, and, with two shots, both fell in the hole. Textbook!
As so many spring snow goose huntings go, anticipation ran high as we thought this might be one of those rare magical hunts where every bird wants in without a second thought. Unfortunately, as soon as the bright sun broke, it became clear that we’d have to work for our shots.
Throughout the morning, we scratched out over 30 geese. In hindsight, we made several mistakes. The first was setting up about 200 yards from where most of them appeared to want to land. The second was not taking shots when we had them, in turn allowing birds to cluster up and pull other incoming birds away from our spread. Seasoned spring snow goose hunters know that for every slam dunk shoot, where scores of birds hit the ground, there are several mediocre hunts and maybe even one or two that go sideways. That’s the name of game with spring snows – especially if you’re hunting them in northern Canadian provinces at the tail end of their migration.
Over the years I’ve learned a thing or two about snow geese, how they act, and how to set up for them. Here are six mistakes that many snow goose hunters commonly make. Avoid these to smooth out your learning curve and put more birds in your freezer.
Mistake #1: Poor Spotting
Poor spotting is a guaranteed recipe for frustration and a failed hunt. The truth is, even the best-researched snow goose shoots go sideways now and then, but doing your homework is key to tipping the odds in your favor. Whenever your spot feeding fields to shoot, or even day roost waters, consider three things. The first is the number of geese, the second is how long the birds have been feeding (or roosting) there, and the third is proximity to their roost.
I often watch guys hunting spots where they’ve seen snow geese, but I know there are only maybe a thousand birds there. From north to south during the spring migration, if you’re under the flyways, you’ll see snow geese in fields and marshes from March through May (and even in early June in the northernmost regions.) Bright white bodies stand out boldly against the drab fields at this time of year. Even a few hundred white geese can be eye-catching, but to make a great hunt, it’s important to look for higher densities.
With liberal harvest limits, most snow goose hunters hope to maximize shot opportunities and put lots of birds on the ground. So, focus on finding at least 5,000 birds; 10,000 is better, and anything over that is a bonus. Depending on weather and other conditions, a good percentage will either not return, or simply fly past during your hunt. It’s a numbers game. Volume is necessary to have enough snow geese dropping in for shot opportunities.
Equally important is the number of feedings or days, (i.e., mornings, evenings/days) that you’ve seen the birds in a given field. Further, evaluate what the crop is and how the birds are feeding. Geese are scavenging the field for waste grains. Peas and barley are favorites but know that thousands of birds typically clean up the ground quickly. If you watch birds feed, high volumes are often covering ground quickly. In fact, you can often watch them moving as they eat. Before you decide to go in for a shoot, make sure the geese are comfortable in that spot for consecutive days. My own rule is at least three feedings. Carefully evaluate where they were feeding the last time before you decide to pinpoint that location as precisely as possible for a hunt set-up.
Be sure to choose feeding fields that are at least a mile from a roost. In windy conditions, you could get lucky with a roost half that distance, but you’re definitely taking a chance. In my experience, when birds have to fly a mile or more to feed, you’re much less likely to spook birds on the roost. A couple of miles is even better. Conversely, birds that have to fly many miles to feed are covering other feeding field options that can often distract and pull them in.
Mistake #2: Limiting Your Decoy Spread
The second most common mistake made by new spring snow goose hunters relates to their decoy spread. Snow geese (in fact all geese) correlate numbers with safety and security. If you use too few decoys and place them incorrectly, you’ll set yourself up for failure.
In other words, use a lot of decoys. When I say plenty, I mean more than you think. The higher the number, the better. The more you put out, the more welcoming your spread will be. When my buddies and I hunt spring snows, we place at least 1,500 snow goose decoys, including a mix of full bodies, shells, silhouettes and mobile rigs, with the bulk being sillosocks and windsocks. Why socks? They’re lightweight, easy to transport, and they compress in storage bags or boxes. They’re also quick to put up and take down. Add to that the motion they make in the wind, and socks are an undeniable favorite among snow goose hunters.
Mistake #3: Placing Shooters Incorrectly
Know that snows are flighty. For lack of a better explanation, they have a mob mentality. Unless the lead geese in each wave are convinced that your spread is safe and inviting, they’ll more often than not turn and continue on their way. Snows get pounded hard all the way up the flyway. They’ve seen every spread imaginable, from box blinds in rice fields to wide-open flat pea fields and more. Whether you shoot from a blind, use available natural cover, or simply lay in among your decoys without a blind, consider your shooter position carefully. Sometimes thinking outside the box and doing something different is the key to fooling well-educated snow geese.
Different decoy spread patterns can produce well in variable situations, but the one I consider to be most consistent looks like a massive, imperfectly shaped ball of birds at the upwind end of the spread.
This is where the shooters will commonly lay in among the decoys. We’ll often run it as much as 80 yards in width with a hole spanning up to 40 yards from left to right, out to 40 yards deep, depending on the number of guns. We’ll 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, moving out to 70 yards 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 number of confidence birds in the middle for realism.
I usually see the most success when hiding hunters who are wearing white suits among the highest density of decoys at the upwind end of the spread. On occasion, switching it up and placing hunters in well-camouflaged blinds, with grass or dirt patterns and habitat (even 75 yards downwind or off to the side of the spread) can create consistent shot opportunities.
If there is available natural cover like tall grass nearby, that can be a real lifesaver. Remember, incoming birds are focused mostly on the white decoys. If you hunt spring snow geese a lot, you know they’ll often approach, dropping lower and lower until they get to the downwind end of your spread and then lift higher. Educated, or decoy-shy birds will even flare away. They either circle multiple times or bug out entirely. Having shooters in the right position for in-range birds is key. Learning to adapt can make the difference between a success hunt and a dud.
Mistake #4: Calling Too Much, Too Loudly, or Wrong Vocalizations
Listening to thousands of snows circling a feeding field or water can be deafening, but listening to them contently feeding, and that’s a very different sound. With today’s electronic calls, we have plenty of options. I know hunters who put a call right beside them in the spread, select a snow goose hunting flock call and crank the volume. This can capture their attention, but it may not be the best option for instilling confidence in geese that you want to finish in your landing zone.
The call itself matters, but so does sound projection and volume. Tying in multiple speakers and placing them strategically throughout the spread helps create realism. In my experience, relaxed feeding cackles at a moderate volume help instill confidence. Even still, don’t be afraid to switch things up if particular sounds aren’t working.
Some days are different than others. Mouth calls can be an asset, but nothing beats using one or more e-calls for white geese. Call manufacturers like FOXPRO offer a range of recorded white goose vocalizations. From soft feeding sounds to excited chatter, small flocks and large flocks, you can pick and choose the ones you feel are most suitable to the situation you are hunting. I’ve enjoyed the most consistent success with soft-feeding cackles. In general, I prefer using big, flock-feeding cackles at a moderate volume. Observe any natural flock approaching a field and they are usually loud and excited until they land and begin feeding.
Mistake #5: Passing Shot Opportunities, Letting Flocks Build Overhead
Early visitors to your spread normally arrive as singles, doubles, or even smaller flocks. These early birds often commit and finish best. Every waterfowl hunter loves this, and those birds typically end up in hand.
Once the flights start coming, it’s always a challenge, especially with morning shoots on sunny days. If geese don’t lock wings and drop in on their initial approach, every hunter is tempted to let them circle in hopes of having them finish. After several passes, a few drops down lower, teasing you just enough to convince you that they’re going to finish. But as every snow goose hunter knows, this belief is risky.
Seasoned spring snow goose hunters know that if birds are in range–even just a few–it is usually best to take the shot and clear the other birds out of the area. Nothing is worse than having a few hundred schizophrenic snow geese overhead that will eventually draw every incoming bird with them to another field. There’s also the persistent problem of those birds landing on adjacent quarters, or even on the same ground that you’re hunting but several hundred yards away. Live birds will always trump faux birds, and this can be the kiss of death for any snow goose hunt. Bottom line – take every viable shot opportunity you get, collect the dead birds and don’t let flocks bank up. Snow goose hunting is all about capitalizing on opportunities and managing the birds to maximize your count.
Mistake #6: Using a Load That’s Too Light
Ammunition choice is more important than most hunters think. Because snow geese can be jumpy and, in turn, reluctant to finish, our shots can often be long or higher than we like. Using the right shotshell is important, and it helps minimize the number of wounded and lost birds.
Many non-toxic goose loads from #2 shot to BB will suffice, but in reality, specialty loads like Winchester’s Snow Goose XPERT are engineered specifically for light geese. When I made the switch to this snow goose hunting-specific load, I saw a marked difference in birds that fell in the spread. I continually enjoy great success with their 1¼ oz. #1 and #2 shot in a 3-inch 12-gauge shells. With a muzzle velocity of 1475 fps, these are designed for skilled shooters to make longer-range shots out to 40-plus yards.
In the end, spring snow goose hunting is about recognizing conditions, knowing that mature birds are usually smarter and tougher to decoy than juveniles, and then making wise and often creative decisions to ultimately put yourself under the birds.
If you can avoid these six common mistakes, you’re well on your way to a successful spring hunt.