Millions of lesser snow geese cloud the flyways, but the hunt isn't easy. For guaranteed success, you need to get your decoy spreads just right

Think of it as a big-bird bonanza. Over the past two decades, the number of lesser snow geese in North America has risen astronomically, resulting in a similar increase in hunting opportunities. Saskatchewan and Manitoba, for example, have recently raised their bag and possession limits. They've also introduced spring seasons to combat the burgeoning population, which many believe is doing considerable damage to fragile Arctic ecosystems, as well as to crops along the birds' migration route.

In large part, the population boom can be attributed to modern agricultural and conservation practices, which have created an ideal situation for the snow geese by lining their flyways with grain fields and wetlands. And with fewer hunters targeting them every year, there's been a high survival rate. Paradoxically, this doesn't mean they've become any easier to hunt. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

Having seen countless decoy spreads as they travel from the western shores of Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, the snows have grown wise to common hunting tactics, making them tough to fool. That's pushed their average age to 15 years, even though the flocks are hunted from early September to February, and again in the spring in many jurisdictions. The only dumb geese out there are the juveniles making their first run through the gauntlet, and they wise up quickly.

Clearly, a lot has changed from the days 20 years ago when Canada geese were considered Mensa candidates, and snows were thought to be dim-witted. Back then, snow goose hunters did well using diapers, trash bags and bleach bottles as decoys. Now that the geese are the more difficult bird to dupe, however, those techniques just won't cut it anymore. But by paying close attention to detail and technique when setting up—and watching over—your decoy spreads, success can still be yours.

The snow line

Just how many lesser snow geese are out there? And are they truly overcrowding—and destroying—their Arctic nesting grounds? The last large-scale survey of mid-continent snow geese took place in 1997, and the numbers came in at approximately three million adult birds. New surveys are now underway to get an up-to-date count, and to see if the population has stabilized.

For hunters and others concerned about the welfare of snow geese, the big question is whether the population is growing to the point where it may become its own worst enemy. It's theorized that these birds will eventually overgraze the vulnerable tundra ecosystem to the point where it cannot regenerate. The resulting lack of food, it is feared, could then lead to major die-offs. Not that that will happen anytime soon, though, assures biologist Jim Leafloor of the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS).

“I don't think a crash is imminent, or even likely anytime in the near future,” says Leafloor. While some areas have been extensively damaged by the high numbers of birds, and local die-offs do occur, there's a lot of room for the geese population to expand, he maintains. “[Expansion] is ongoing. It's something that snow geese do. Once they've destroyed a nesting area they tend to spread out and from that you'll often find established colonies developing smaller colonies if there's sufficient habitat.”

That said, the CWS is maintaining its policy of encouraging the harvest of more geese to head off any potential problem. Bag limits and seasons have been stretched to their logical limits and this year some jurisdictions are allowing the use of electronic calls. Check your local hunting regulations for the complete details on snow goose hunting in your area.

The decoys

While most people picture snow geese as white birds, long-time goose guide Darin “Gator” Walker maintains that many of these birds instead sport the dark colouring of their “blue phase.” Depending on where you hunt, a typical flock will contain anywhere from 15 to 80 per cent blues, so a realistic decoy spread needs to accurately reflect this composition. As a general rule, flocks in the eastern part of the bird's range—Manitoba and Saskatchewan—contain a lot more blues than the flocks in the western side in Alberta and B.C.

Along with getting the colour scheme right, it's also crucial that the decoy shells do not reflect sunlight-one of the first things to warn off these increasingly wily birds. Be sure to choose a decoy brand that prevents glare, and on frigid mornings remember to wipe off any glistening frost.

Now, how many decoys do you need? Walker normally sets out an average of 200 decoys to serve a party of three hunters, perhaps more in the early part of the season to impress uneducated birds. Later in the season when the birds begin to associate larger spreads with gunfire, he uses fewer decoys.

The location

Manitoba-based hunting guide Don Smith stresses the importance of setting up your decoys in just the right spot. While a field in which the birds were feeding the day before offers a good location, an even better spot to ensure steady shooting throughout the whole hunt is between a body of water and a high-percentage feeding field. This way, you can intercept the birds as they travel from the water to the field, or vice versa (see above diagram).

Setting decoys between water and the geese can be done in two ways. You can put them out before daylight between water and where you think the geese will be, or you can wait and set up in a spot in-between after you see where they went. The first is the most popular strategy, and if you've scouted the birds earlier in a good field—and no one's hunting it—there's an excellent chance they will return. The second option is good in that you can be certain where they are going to be, although it means either missing out on the morning hunt or moving the spread partway through the day.

As for what type of field to set up in, stubble from cereal crops, such as barley or wheat, are the traditional hot spots. According to Smith, however, there's a new favourite for geese on the Prairies. “Pea fields,” he enthuses, referring to the ever-increasing number of high-protein pulse crops grown on the southern Prairies. “You can't drive them out of there.”

Smith also prefers to set some decoys on top of a hill with the rest of his spread down the hill, away from the direction he expects the birds to come from. He then positions his hunters just below the crest of the hill with him calling from behind them. When the geese come over the crest, they're then in range before they've had a chance to see the hunters.

Pro tip: Keep it real

Over a decade ago, goose hunters became aware of the advantage of having a little motion in their sets to mimic the constant flapping, fluttering and waddling of a flock of feeding birds. Originally, they waved coloured flags to achieve the desired effect. Then they started using windsock decoys to simulate waddling. Some hunters even fly kites made to look like landing geese. Nowadays, we also have decoys with battery-operated revolving wings to resemble a bird that's landing or stretching its wings. According to guide Don Smith from Killarney, Manitoba's Turtle Mountain Outfitters, just one mechanical decoy in the spread is often enough to do the trick. Says Smith: “I've had them land pretty near on top of the thing.”

The Set-up

According to Bert Barwick, one of the most experienced goose guides in Manitoba, your decoys should be arranged in small bunches to simulate the family groups that make up a larger flock. “That's the way they are naturally in the field,” he explains.

Arrange these groups of four to 10 decoys in a loose fish hook-, U- or V-shape to create a natural landing zone in the middle. This draws the birds toward the hidden hunters and discourages any incoming birds from landing at the outer fringes of the spread, beyond shotgun range.

Barwick also advises hunters to place roughly half of their decoys facing the wind. “If the birds are going to move, they'll get up and fly in little bunches, so it looks a little better if 50 per cent of the decoys are facing into the wind.” Having all the decoys facing into the wind, however, has a negative effect because it gives the appearance of a nervous flock that is preparing to leave.

Pro tip: Go with the grain

Harvested fields often end up with strips of sprouting grain, thanks to the chaff left behind by combines during the fall harvest. Veteran guide Bert Barwick, who operates Barwick's Sport Shop in Boissevain, Manitoba, recommends placing the bulk of your decoys on these green rows, which is precisely where the geese will gorge themselves. Just leave a green swath and a handful of decoys in the centre of your spread to create a natural landing zone.

The Blind

When I started hunting snow geese years ago, the favourite way to hide from the birds was to not hide at all, but to don white overalls and sit among your decoys. Today's educated goose doesn't fall for this old trick very often, particularly on clear days with excellent visibility. As a result, white clothing is now best reserved for days with snow on the ground.

Rather, use natural cover whenever possible to construct a blind—a stone pile, a grassy slough, a watercourse or even bales of hay left in the field. If there is no readily available cover, however, use a camouflage netting with a sprinkling of straw to blend in with the stubble. Ideally, you'll want to find a small depression, such as a watercourse or stone hole, to keep your profile less conspicuous.

Another option to consider is a goose chair, which is a reclining seat topped with an oversized decoy that hides the hunter and pivots out of the way to allow for shooting. This is an excellent way to hide, though many hunters find it difficult to shoot from the reclining position. Then there are pit blinds, although they are much more labour intensive and unpopular with farmers, whose fields you'd have to dig up to make one.

Pro tip: Grey Matters

Snow goose expert Darin “Gator” Walker of Plumas, Manitoba's Get a Guide Service, contends that many hunters limit their potential by going afield with decoys that don't adequately imitate the real thing. To give him an extra edge, he custom paints many shells the dusty grey colour of immature birds.

The call

The ability to effectively call geese may be the most difficult step to master, and the key to the effectiveness of your decoy spread. Indeed, if you can accurately imitate the birds, you can increase your odds of success by a huge margin. Try learning from a veteran hunter or by mimicking the geese themselves. Failing that, most call manufacturers offer instructional videos or audio cassettes.

When trying to turn distant geese toward your spread, use a loud single, or two-toned, honk for maximum volume and range. If the flock approaches, honk harder and faster to excite the geese, and blow short barks to imitate dozens of birds. Once the snows seem convinced to give your spread a closer look, most hunters start making the “waauugh, waauugh, waauugh” sound that geese make when they're contentedly feeding. They'll also add in the occasional bark. Do all this, and your pot's sure to be full this fall.

Pro tip: Shoot for success

When it comes to the right firepower for snow geese, think high velocity and hard, round pellets that won't snag feathers on impact. In my opinion, you can't go wrong with a 12-gauge pump or an auto-loader chambered with #2 steel pellets or BBs, though a 16- or 20-gauge shotgun with magnum loads will also work well.