When it comes to natural resources, abundance is a good thing. For those who covet the Canada goose, abundance hasn’t always been the case. Michigan enjoys two distinctively different populations of Canada geese, including migrants who nest in Canada’s James Bay region and migrate through Michigan in the fall and early spring. These birds are classified as “greater” Canada geese, and their numbers have declined over the years but are currently stable.
A second population of Canada geese known as “giants” are a completely different subspecies that were thought to be extinct as recently as 1962. A group of Minnesota DNR waterfowl biologists discovered a small wintering population of giant Canada geese near Rochester, Minnesota. After decades of extensive research and rehabilitation efforts, the giant Canada goose subspecies has recovered to the point the birds now enjoy a population greater than their historic highs!
Many consider this milestone to be one of the greatest accomplishments in conservation history. Others consider the giant Canada goose a “trouble maker” because of the bird’s habit of turning parks, golf courses, and lakefront property into their private refuges! Unlike any other subspecies of Canada geese found in North America, the giant Canada goose has carved out a successful niche literally in man’s backyard.
One of the reasons giant Canada geese thrive in close proximity to man is these birds can and do quickly adapt to very small pieces of habitat. Water treatment plants, golf course ponds, and the ponds dug along major highways to generate fill dirt are likely places for Canada geese to nest. Even the small ponds built adjacent to major parking lots designed to handle runoff are another form of wetland that these birds call home.
In short, just about any permanent water source is likely to attract nesting giant Canada geese. It’s also true that these impressive birds are very protective of their young. In the spring, the female Canada goose will lay as many as 10 eggs, usually about one day apart. During the incubation period, the mother will not leave the nest. After the eggs hatch into goslings, both the mother and father take turns caring for the young.
The result is that young Canada geese have a significantly higher survival rate than other waterfowl such as ducks. Most of the young geese hatched in any given year will grow to achieve adulthood. The only significant predators the giant Canada goose must face are coyotes and man himself.
Generous Bag Limits
Most states now offer special early and late season hunting opportunities to control the rapidly expanding population of giants. Generally, the bag limits during these “conservation” seasons are generous. Here in Michigan, hunters can harvest up to five Canada geese during the early and late hunting seasons.
For years the early September season was only open for the first two weeks of September. Currently, this early season hunting opportunity extends throughout September.
Despite these increased hunting opportunities, the population of giant Canada geese continues to expand. There simply are too many places these birds can find sanctuary where hunting is not allowed.
Historically the most productive place to target Canada geese has been on harvested grain fields where the birds seek waste grain. That poses a problem because, in Michigan, only a limited amount of small grain crops such as wheat and oats are harvested in late summer. Some field corn is cut for silage in September, creating more hunting opportunities, especially later in September.
In many areas of the state, the early goose season finds hunters targeting these birds on cut alfalfa and pasture lands. While waste grain is very attractive to Canada geese, these birds are grazers by nature and will not pass up an opportunity to feed in pasture lands and hayfields.
Avoid The Edges
One of the most common mistakes “would be” goose hunters make is setting up along the edges of fields where fence lines or tree edges provide cover. Cover is an important element of field hunting, but Canada geese are very uncomfortable landing into forest edges and other places where danger could easily lurk. Instead, these birds tend to land in the middle of fields and feed their way towards the edges.
Often the highest point of land in a field will attract newly arriving birds. As these birds settle in, they start expanding throughout the field to take advantage of available forage.
While geese typically favor the wide-open spaces when working into fields, these very places can be the most challenging to find cover. Things to look for are low spots that may have been too wet to seed in the spring. Typically these spots grow up to weeds that can provide just enough cover to hide a few layout blinds. Ditches that split fields can also be excellent places to hide because a line of tall grass or weeds is often associated with the edges of the ditch.
It’s also common for farmers to leave a few rows of crop standing in the field. In the case of corn, these standing rows are known as “insurance rows” left so the insurance adjusters can judge the quality of the harvest. Hunting in or along the edges of the insurance rows is deadly effective, but unfortunately, these rows are typically cut as soon as the insurance settlement is finalized.
Another trick is to set up on the sloping side of a hill with the wind at your back. Approaching birds will have a harder time picking out blinds as they tend to blend into the topography of the ground.
Grouping decoys heavily around the blinds is another way of hiding in plain sight. Rag-style decoys are especially useful for this task as the movement of the rags not only attracts incoming birds, but natural movement does an excellent job of breaking up the outline of blinds.
Where cover is especially scant, such as fields that have been tilled, taking a little time to dig shallow trenches that lower the profile of the layout blinds can also help. Even lowering a blind’s profile a couple of inches can make a huge difference in how well hunters can blend into the surroundings.
A trick many hunters resist is applying face paint. In a layout blind, the only part of the hunter that is exposed is their face. Taking a few seconds to make sure everyone has a darkened face can make a huge difference in closing birds.
Last and certainly not least, consider hunting in smaller groups that are easier to hide. Goose hunting is a popular sport, and it’s common for big groups of hunters to team up to pool decoys and resources. Big groups can work flawlessly in places where the cover is adequate to hide all those blinds, but in places where the cover is minimal, it’s usually best to limit hunting efforts to smaller groups.
Geese Over Water
Consistently decoying geese on dry ground is challenging. Canada geese are especially wary when it comes to touching down on dry ground. Ironically, these same birds are often extra eager when it comes to landing in water.
Geese that have fed in dry fields during the morning are at some point going to head back to water. When their crop is chuck full of waste grain or broadleaf weeds they have grazed, these birds are thirsty and especially vulnerable.
While it’s common for field hunters to employ dozens if not hundreds of decoys, water hunting Canada geese can be done successfully with just a handful of floating decoys and maybe a few full-body decoys if the water is shallow, has mud flats, or sandbars.
The big challenge when hunting over water is bringing the birds to the edges where the cover is located. The bigger the body of water, the more likely geese will land in the middle far from danger and then swim into more protected areas.
Small ponds are almost always an advantage when targeting geese on water. In the same token, calling and flagging are especially important when hunting over water. As long as the birds are in the air and getting closer, use calling sparingly to keep the birds on line and unsuspicious.
The second, those birds start to sit down short, flag, and call aggressively to pull short, stopping birds the remaining distance. If a group of birds lands short, the next flock will join them, setting up a disastrous situation.
Swimmer decoys, jerk strings, tip-up decoys, and other methods of moving water are all critically important when hunting geese over water. To avoid that “fake” look in the decoy spread, it’s imperative that the surface of the water must be disturbed.
Depending on the available cover, four distinctively different kinds of blinds function well for water hunts. On bodies of water large enough that a boat is necessary, a boat blind that can be hidden in the available cover is tough to beat. On smaller bodies of water, layout blinds get the nod when cover is skinny. For places that feature dense cattail or other shoreline cover, A-Frame style blinds work well. Chair blinds can also be especially useful when hunting shoreline cover that features shallow water.
An avid goose hunter will likely own all or most of these blind options as no single-blind works in every situation. Staying open-minded and using the best blind for the situation goes a long way towards closing wary geese into shotgun range.
Good calling is almost magical in how it can lead Canada geese into decoy setups. Bad calling or calling at the wrong times is just about a guarantee that birds will approach to around 80 yards, then start flanking the setup as they get nervous and eventually leave.
When geese are not closing the gap, most hunters will hit the birds with even more calling and louder calling. Chances are, this approach will only convince the birds to keep their distance.
A big part of what makes bad calling bad is the volume level of the sound created. Sound carries surprisingly well, and most goose calls can create sounds much louder than required for the task at hand.
A good rule of thumb is to start out calling softly. If the birds don’t respond, likely, they can’t hear the call. It’s an easy step to increase the calling volume a little to see if you can get a response from the birds.
Assuming the birds respond and start coming closer, the reverse will be necessary. Call softer and more sparingly as the birds get closer. The exception to this rule is when geese try to land short. In this case, it will take loud and aggressive calling to keep the birds in the air and closing the distance. The last thing any goose hunter wants are birds landing short.
However, if you successfully prevent those birds from landing short, immediately lower the volume of the calling to keep those birds on a string.
Making “goose-like” sounds on a call is good, but the volume of the calling, knowing when to call and when to keep silent are just as important considerations. If you watch the birds closely, they will typically tell you if they are content or nervous through body language. Content birds only need the bare minimum of calling to keep them on line. Nervous birds should be called to sparingly and as softly as possible to help settle their nerves.
Summing It Up
In Michigan, the number of giant Canada geese is estimated to be north of 300,000 birds! That’s a lot of opportunities when it comes to waterfowl hunting in the Great Lakes State.