Tendrils of fog hugged the open field as we set out full body goose decoys and slipped into ground blinds. There was no wind and the faint smell of cow manure reminded me that dairy animals were nearby. The temperature was slightly chilly and the fog seemed to delay flights of southern Michigan Canada geese. Instead of loud honking we heard crows, blue jays and the loud quack of a lone drake mallard that almost landed on our heads.
When the fog cleared we could hear the distant calls of flying geese. We scanned the horizon for telltale ribbons of flocks. The first came directly at us, cleared the nearby woods, lowered one wing and zig-zagged downward at lightning speed and lowered their huge webbed feet for a landing in our full body Big Foot decoys. They made no effort to circle and locked wings and glided into easy shotgun range like a huge B-52 planes touching down on a runway.
The shooting was fast and furious and several birds dropped from the flock. We charged from the blind to recover downed birds only to be surprised by a second large flock headed directly at our spread. They did not circle, lowered landing gear and dropped into our decoys like they were long lost family members. I thought they would flare at the sight of several hunters lying flat on the ground in the decoys. But they were hell bent on landing in the realistic-looking decoys.
I could hear the loud raspy sound of wing beats as I brought the Winchester SX3 auto to my shoulder. The first shot was at a giant Canada goose less than 15 yards away and the monster 18 pound bird dropped like a rock. The second shot produced similar results and the third shot was a complete whiff, missing the huge target desperately pumping its wings to escape the booming 3½ inch shotgun shells. But my buddy got a bead on him and dusted the easy target. The shooting was exciting, at super close range and in short order we had our limit of huge Canada geese, quickly picked up decoys and gear and got out of the field. Our strategy was to shoot our limit and evacuate quickly to allow other geese to return to the feeding area undisturbed. Our plan worked like magic and just as we drove out of the field several new flocks of geese cleared the woods, cupped wings and landed in our exact hunting location. The next morning we lit’ em up again, as unsuspecting geese returned to the hot feeding area.
But our hunting success was no accident. Actually, our hunt began a few days earlier as we drove country roads following flocks of geese from roosting water to feeding fields. Perhaps the most important variable in field goose hunting is scouting, identifying travel routes and pin pointing feeding locations. Next, get permission to hunt from land owners. The trick to fantastic early goose hunting hinges on how well you scout and locate honey holes having several flocks coming for breakfast. Once you nail down the exact feeding location you slip in before daylight, set out decoys and prepare blinds and ambush birds come dawn.
The secret to outstanding early goose hunting has nothing to do with your decoys or hunting tactics. Instead you follow local flocks using a good pair of binoculars, fast vehicle, keen eyesight, hearing and a bit of luck to identify new hunting locations. Early geese are finicky about where they go for breakfast. Some are headed for recently harvested wheat, oaks, chopped corn or chisel plowed fields. Most prefer larger fields with food sources found far from trees, fence lines or cover that could conceal predators or hunters.
My number one early goose fields are harvested grain and the crop has been removed leaving vast open fields. But geese will show you which fields they prefer and sometimes they are touching down in alfalfa, chopped corn fields or small pockets of water formed by recent thunderstorms. Dairy farmers can create goose hot spots when they chop corn for silage leaving short stubble fields laced with bits of freshly cut corn. Sometimes modern farm equipment will run over standing stalks and leave entire ears of corn that draw geese like a magnet. Geese are also attracted to fields that have been seasoned with freshly spread cow manure. The greatest thing about dairy farmers is they often spread manure year round and provide a goose hunting haven and most have no use for geese and quickly grant hunting permission.
So, how do you find geese? Easy! Go to water sources like lakes, ponds and rivers supporting flocks of geese. Identify roosting locations where birds gather on the safety of the water at night. Follow flocks that leave roosting locations at dawn. The trick is to identify flight patterns and locate feeding locations where to set out decoys and ambush unsuspecting birds.
Some waterfowlers like setting up on water. This can be tricky because pre-dawn commotion can send geese out of sight without getting a shot. Savvy hunters often set up on roosting waterways in the late afternoon and ambush flocks returning from fields. Remember that if you ambush birds retuning to water to roost you will blow them out of the area and they will vacate at lightning speed. Unfortunately, water hunts can be one time adventures and often birds return to roosting sites after legal shooting hours.
I prefer to allow birds to roost in peace. Let ’em rest at night; get relaxed in a daily feeding pattern. Once you hunt fields that attract birds they will return to the roost but change feeding flights and move to new fields to dine. The idea is to hunt the same birds in several different locations throughout the early season. Again, scouting is the way to find new fields that support feeding geese.
Last year we shot the dickens out of them on a harvested wheat field and the geese finally stopped coming. We had over-hunted the hot spot, burned up our great hunting location and scouting revealed they were going to an alfalfa field about 8 miles away. The first hunt in the new spot produced easy limits.
The great thing about field hunts is you are far from the crowded conditions found at State game areas. Private land goose hunting is very enjoyable, relaxing and when those huge birds decoy kissin’ close and you feel the power of those massive swooshing wings you will be hooked for life.
Another advantage of early goose hunting is it is a social hunt. This is a great opportunity to join up with family and friends, especially when the weather is beautiful and birds keep you excited. This is a golden opportunity to introduce youth to hunting, teach them gun safety, hunting tactics, how to set out decoys, call, use camouflage and much more. The skills a youth learns during early goose season will last a lifetime and the memories will keep him coming back to enjoy Michigan’s great outdoors.
It has been a crazy year for weather. Early spring thaw and warm weather brought geese back in March. Most began nesting early and many were successful at producing large broods. Many folks in southern Michigan feel the population is out of control and they are unhappy with the abundant goose droppings on sidewalks, parking lots, docks, yards, golf courses and more. In central Michigan there are birds everywhere and most adults hatched out 6-12 goslings. I expect the goose opener this year to provide fast-paced shooting excitement.
If you find feeding fields you can decoy birds with just about any set up. If you are hunting with a large party you will need a large decoy spread, individual hunters can get by with only a few. Early season birds can be fooled and will decoy to only a couple dozen decoys set up in a J or fish hook pattern. One trick is to eliminate stand up decoys and use relaxed or feeding decoys to bring birds kissin’ close. Rookie hunters set decoys too far apart. Place them in groups of 3-6 with small openings to look like family groups and don’t forget to leave a large opening for incoming birds to land. Place decoys 3-5 feet apart facing into the wind. Try feeders in a semi-circle with a string of stand up or semi-alert facing the circle to look like birds walking into a feeding area. Place alert or stand up decoys to the outside of the spread to look like they are protecting the flock from predators.
There is a variety of decoys that can be used in fields. Make certain to select decoys that look real, have detailed feather design and paint schemes that make them look alive. I learned years ago that a few quality decoys that look like live birds is better for decoying birds than a large spread of old, shiny head alert decoys. I’m sold on my Big Foot full body decoys.
One of the biggest draws to early honker hunting is the warm weather. For the early season you don’t need snow camo, finger-mits or toe warmers. However you will need lightweight camo clothing and mosquito spray to stay cool during warm weather and bug free. Don’t forget to use camo face cream to conceal your face from incoming watchful birds.
Ya gotta love those low flying early birds that seldom circle and dump into the decoys like long lost pals looking for friends. Early flocks are often led by adult birds and because young have only been flying for a few weeks they tend to fly low. The sight of a big flock of giant Canada geese barely clearing the tree tops can get your juices flowing. But when they cup wings, drop to super low altitude the adrenalin rush is profound. If several flocks suddenly appear savvy hunters allow the first to land in the decoys and the entire squadron will commit. Young birds are easy to decoy, nothing like seasoned adults after they have been hunted. Fall and winter flocks tend to circle decoys, eye balling the spread looking for hunters, guns, plastic beverage containers, anything that will give up the presence of hunters.
Early morning and late afternoon are best times to catch flocks off guard. Low light conditions can help hunters decoy wary birds and ideal conditions are highlighted by fog, light rain, overcast weather and low hanging cloud cover. Keep in mind that geese often do not leave watery sanctuaries at daylight or until they can see clearly. Oh sure, some flocks get blown out before dawn on opener and weekends as incoming marsh, lake, pond or water hunters jump them from roosting sites. But geese tend to make morning flights after daylight, following flocks of ducks, Sandhill cranes and early crows. Some don’t show until the sun is fully above the horizon. Other flocks leave roosting water a half hour after sunrise, land in local fields and chow down until the warm sun sends them back to resting ponds for a mid-day nap and cool drink. Many make morning flights and evening treks to local feeding hot spots but when the sun touches the horizon and the cool night air drops the temperature geese leave fields and fly to roosting water. Adult geese know that sleeping in groups on open water offers safety from raccoons, coyote and other predators.
Calling geese is an art. Sometimes all you need is a greeting call to get flocks to land at your feet, other times you need to bawl at them and talk them from the heavens. Gun shy birds or flocks returning to fields that have been hunted require less calling although growling mixed with double clucks can seduce them into range. Undisturbed birds returning to a feeding location can be greeted with loud calls and talked close using a variety of goose calls that sound like content birds having breakfast. Savvy hunters lower volume when birds swing close.
Flagging is a slick trick that gets the attention of distant flocks and turns them for a second look. Some hunters prefer the wing shaped flags and they lift the motion rod high and mimic the flapping wings of landing geese by flopping the flag stairstep fashion with pauses mixed in toward ground. Keep flagging until you notice birds respond and turn your direction. When geese are close most hunters stop flagging and get their gun in the ready position.
Rookie hunters make the common mistake of moving when geese are kissin’ close and adult birds pick up on any movement. Seasoned hunters get guns in a ready position, finger on the safety and remain absolutely still until somebody yells “shoot ’em” and they spring into action.
Early goose outings are an ideal opportunity to enjoy Michigan’s great outdoors with family and friends. A team effort is ideal when setting out decoys, making blinds and this is the kind of activity that is ideal for introducing kids to hunting. The excitement level reaches a fever pitch when monster Canada geese wing kissin’ close and their loud raspy wingbeats are interrupted by rapid gunfire. It is absolutely a riot to empty your shotgun on low flying B-52’s when you are surrounded by fellow hunters blasting like crazy. Sometimes you just keep pulling the trigger in all the excitement and loud booming and you hit nothing. It requires concentration to pick targets and execute accurate, deadly shots when you feel like you are sitting in the middle of exploding dynamite.
Early Canada goose season is one of Michigan’s greatest shooting sports. Season opens statewide September 1 thru September 30 in northern zones and September 25 in southern Michigan. Are you ready for the fun filled excitement? Got your decoys flocked and freshly painted? Got your camouflage ready and plenty of ammo? Now is the time to be scouting, get hunting permission and organize a hunting party.