Late-season geese are challenging, as any experienced waterfowl enthusiast can attest. These birds have already been hunted for months, and have no doubt seen a variety of decoy spreads and heard the roar of many a shotgun. But it’s that very challenge that draws me to the frozen fields—outsmarting cagey geese makes the success of any cold-weather hunt all the more rewarding. On top of that, these birds are big and plump, making the late season the best time to collect your Christmas goose.
The key to finding late-season birds is observation. Think of where they could be feeding and roosting, then head out on a fact-finding mission. Start by looking in fields that have preferred feed, such as field peas, barley or other high-protein forage. The later it gets in the fall, the fewer suitable feeding fields there’ll be, which means the birds should become easier to find. Also watch for late-planted crops or fields damaged by hail or windstorms, as they can offer tremendous feeding opportunities for geese.
Of course, if you can’t find a field where the birds are feeding, you can always follow them out from the open water, where they roost at night. Rivers, power plant cooling ponds, aerated lakes and naturally flowing springs, for example, are all potential goose-holding areas, both at night and during the day. As long as there is open freshwater, birds will stick around. And when most of the water starts to freeze up, there aren’t many options left, making it easier to key in on hot spots.
Finding open water is useful because once you locate a source, it’s usually reliable year after year. Knowing where the birds roost is also important for monitoring whether they’re still around—if you get a real cold snap, the geese can simply head south overnight.
While finding birds is crucial, it’s only the first part of the equation; you also need to watch them for several days, if possible, before attempting a set-up. Remember, these birds have endured months of hunting pressure and can therefore be skittish. Watch for comfortable geese that are quick to commit to the field-these are the birds you want to develop and hunt. And the only way to do that is to give them time to settle into a feeding routine.
Again, since gun-shy late-season birds have been hunted hard, your strategies for decoy layout—and blind placement—become critical. I take my cue for setting up by watching what the birds do naturally. They always target the open areas of a field, and often gather in big groups. There’s a lot to be said for safety in numbers, after all.
As hungry birds are possessive about the area around them, your decoys should be well spaced. I like to place mine five or six paces apart to make the spread look realistic. When you’re watching the field prior to setting up, pay attention to any aggressive behaviour—wing displays, hissing, honking and territorial disputes. These birds are looking for space, and your decoys should be laid out as such.
Since late-season birds tend to travel in larger flocks, I always set up at least six to eight dozen decoys. The main flock will be spread out over a sizable area, with the blinds concealed on the downwind edge of the decoys. The J-hook decoy spread is best for birds that aren’t as wary and feeding in a big group.
However, there are sometimes small splinter groups of geese that land short, downwind of the big flock. Setting up small groupings of four to eight decoys is critical to create confidence in these birds that it’s a safe place to land, while providing a second option for blind placement.
Once on a late-December hunt in southern Alberta, for example, I was having great success with early birds decoying to the big spread of decoys. As the morning progressed, however, the birds became shy and started to land short. Quickly moving the layout blinds into the small groupings of decoys, about 60 metres downwind of the main spread, allowed us to continue to have birds finish tight to our blinds. The small groups also act as guides to the main group, and incoming birds are usually tight to the ground, yet focused on the main spread.
Of course, you want to be well hidden when the geese do turn your way-if you aren’t completely concealed, chances are you won’t get a bird within range. The best blinds are layout, or coffin, blinds because they’re low profile and blend well into featureless fields. They can even be placed in shallow pits to completely eliminate any profile that may extend above the decoys. Natural cover from the field, such as pea vines or straw, can be added for even more realism and concealment.
To match the snow on the ground, white camouflage covers can be laid over the blinds, or they can be touched up with paper towel randomly tucked into the straps that hold the camo cover material in place. Just be sure to bring along a recycling bag for cleaning up after the hunt. I’ve also used spray-on artificial snow used for Christmas trees to help blend blinds into snowy fields. A quick trip to the self car wash after the hunt will ensure the material is cleaned off.
Good calling can also make the difference between success and flaring birds. Late-season honkers aren’t very vocal, so you only need a couple of callers enticing birds to the decoys to make the entire set-up seem realistic. Keep calling until the first geese touch down.
Hunt all day. Late-season birds must feed a lot to ensure they take in enough calories for winter reserves, and to fend off the cold. As a result, it’s not uncommon for them to bounce back and forth between open water and their feeding fields over the course of an entire day. Gunning can be just as productive in the early afternoon as it is at first light, so hang in there and be patient.
Big honkers in November and December are heavily feathered, and it takes a hefty load of steel to bring them down. A 12-gauge shotgun with three-inch loads of BB, BBB or larger pellets will do the trick on birds that are cooperating and coming into your spread. (A 10-gauge can deliver more payload, but it’s a lot more punishing to shoot for an entire day.) I also always bring along some three-and-a-half-inch Winchester Xpert Hi-Velocity steel shotshells in case birds are hovering within range but not committing.
Your last hunting excursions of the year should be your best. By doing your homework and setting up accordingly, you’ll undoubtedly produce some incredible memories—and more than a few geese for the freezer-to hold you through until the next season.
Fight the freeze
Proper apparel is essential for a successful late-season goose hunt. A good, warm parka, set of bibs, toque, gloves and winter boots are particularly crucial equipment. I prefer loose-fitting outerwear, which lets me shoulder my shotgun without having it bind up with my clothing underneath.
Bring along a few hand-warmer pouches, too. Place one in each glove to keep your shooting fingers nimble. You can even put one in a shirt pocket to help keep your torso warm.
Finally, always remember to take a broom with you. When the snow is falling or the frost settles in, it’s difficult to keep the decoys cleaned off without melting the delicate white flakes, which will make your decoys shine and birds wary. A few swipes with a broom prevents this—and gets you quickly back in the game.