Field Goose Hunting Fundamentals

There is a moment when a flock of Canada geese commit to landing in your spread that is pure and distinct. The geese were on their way someplace else when they saw your spread, took a high pass to look things over, then circled around to approach into the wind. Their formation is perfect, like a squadron of bomber pilots on their way to a target. With wings locked and their eyes on the landing zone, they descend with some excited honks and clucks. It’s this moment that I drop my call, grip my shotgun, get ready to throw open the doors of the blind, and start dropping birds (or missing). There just isn’t another feeling in all of hunting matching that moment right there. This is how to achieve it.

Scout. Hunting birds who have plans to be elsewhere is hard. A lot of the time, there aren’t enough decoys or enough calling in the world that can deter a flock of honkers from doing what they don’t intend to do. If you can’t get access to where they are already feeding then hunting “traffic” birds is your only option, but be mentally prepared for some rejection. Geese like to roost on larger ponds or lakes at night, then fly to feeding areas in the morning around sunrise or a little after. Once they have enough food, 2-4 ounces per bird, they need to fly back to water to get a drink in order to digest. They tend to use a loafing pond during the day to relax and digest, then fly to feeding grounds again in the evening before returning to the large body of water to roost. All that said, they are migrating, so they won’t stick around forever. The good news is that new birds are probably showing up and learning the routine from the ones you already have. Finding the X means knowing where they are going at which time of day and being there ahead of time.

Put in the time and road miles to determine when they leave their roosts and where they are going. I also like to see what size flocks are moving together, what the wind is doing on the X, and how the geese spread themselves out in the field. Getting permission isn’t always easy, but if you don’t ask, you’ll never get it. When you do get permission, be a good guest by leaving gates they way you found them, not driving anywhere you might damage the field, and by picking up all your trash including shells and wads (when you can find them.) Send the landowner a postcard telling them thank you after the hunt.

My first decoys were made of plywood and took John Henry himself to hammer into frozen ground. They were rattle canned black and white. I used a plastic coyote call from Walmart with a reed I made from a bookmarker that I could vaguely make sound like a goose. My blind was a burlap gunny sack and I didn’t own camo. I killed birds then by being on the X. I’d drive around in my 67′ F100 pickup getting 6 miles per gallon on every backroad in the county until I found geese then I’d ask around until I found the landowner and do my best to get permission. With that gear I couldn’t move birds 100 yards from where they wanted to be, but I could get them if I was exactly where they wanted to be and my terrible decoys were good enough to hide my terrible/non-existent camo. I looked for tracks and droppings (geese are notorious for the latter) to determine where in that field they’d been feeding, and setup right there. Another friend of mine used cut-up car tires with white splashes painted on them and he killed birds too. You don’t have to use the best gear in the world, but it sure helps when you can.

A handful of mallard drakes that thought it would be cool to try to land in some goose silhouettes. The mixed bag of species os one of the reasons i shoot 3″ #3 shot for everything.

Today I have a shipping container full of blinds and decoys with flocked heads, perfect feather detail and paint schemes, and use the highest quality acrylic short reed goose calls tuned by professionals like Kyle Nye. I put more geese on the ground than I used to but I don’t have any more fun. Getting after it with what you have is what this game is all about.

My favorite decoys are still silhouettes, and the ones I use are made by Divebomb. Here are the advantages: I can carry 10 dozen decoys at a time compared to 1 dozen full bodies. Setup is fast and breakdown is even faster. They take up a fraction of the storage room that full bodies do (wouldn’t need that shipping container and cargo trailer) and they create the illusion of movement to circling birds as the silo’s are constantly disappearing and reappearing depending on the angle the goose seems them from. A goose has cheeks that prevent them from seeing straight under them in flight, so that isn’t a worry. Silo’s are also much more affordable, as full bodies start at around $25 each. The disadvantage is they can be trouble in the wind and getting them into frozen ground is much slower than putting out full bodies. In my opinion, it takes three silo’s to equal one full body. I also like to use three dozen decoys per blind, this seems to be enough distraction to keep geese from picking out the lumpy blinds from an otherwise flat field. I still have around 7 dozen full body Dakota decoys and Avian X, but I don’t use them until the ground gets really hard.

The shadows can really stick out when the sun is low, so get the lowest profile blind you can and cover every inch of it with stubble or brush from the field you are in.

Layout blinds are the pro move in field hunts. You want something comfortable with a low profile so it casts the smallest possible shadow. The ones I use work like a zero gravity lounge chair and are so comfortable I’ve caught myself napping in them more than once. You will still need to wear face paint or a mask so the birds don’t see you looking up, but you’ll be well concealed otherwise. Wearing a black top is a good idea so you blend in when you are moving around in the decoys recovering birds and helping your dog.

Geese are masters at finding food, so other species get attracted to them. On this morning’s hunt we killed three handfuls of ducks without a single duck decoy. No whitetail deer were harmed.

I don’t bring dogs on field hunts because those are birds I can pick up myself. It’s nice to get out of the blind and move around every once in a while. 12 gauges are great and 10’s are even better. I like 3″ #3 shot for ducks and geese alike, but if I was only shooting geese I’d use 3″ bb’s. The shot column on 3.5″ shells is super long, the velocity is lower, and the recoil sucks, so I don’t see the benefit. A semi-auto, double barrel, pump and single-shot all have their place and I’ve killed geese with all of them. I prefer the semi-auto for its lightweight, speed, and recoil mitigation. Modified chokes are about as tight as you want to go with steel shot. If I could afford heavy shot I’d use it for sure.

Bring a broom on snowy days, and keep your sense of humor.

Setting up decoys doesn’t need to be overly complicated but it’s a fun thing to blame when the birds don’t work correctly. Just make the shape of a crescent moon with the middle pointing into the wind. The middle is also where you will put your blinds with your back to the wind. Put 1/3 of the decoys in front of the blind and 2/3’s behind. You want to create a cove for new geese to land in. Your furthest decoy should not be farther than you’d want to shoot a goose. If you are hunting a place with variable winds, place the decoys in a big X and place your blinds in the middle. That way you can change the direction of your blind as the wind switches. I highly recommend placing your blinds first and your decoys second. The spread will make a lot more sense if you do it this way.

I like chaotic decoy placement, and so do 2 year-olds.

Shoot them in the beak. Geese are big and tough and you can absolutely pillowcase them with a chest shot then watch them fly away. When you swing the gun, swing through the bird. I tell myself butt, belly, beak, bang. That makes me swing in the direction the goose is flying and get in front of them before firing. Make sure you continue the swing. I stay with the same bird until it is dead and falling out of the sky or out of range. If you can see a goose’s eye or sharp color detail on their feathers then they are in range. Don’t look at the bead of your shotgun, better yet, take it off and throw it in the trash. If you look at your bead, your plane of ficus changes and your gun barrel will stop. Focus on the bird and point your gun. If we could fire #3 shot out of our fingertips we’d never miss a goose again.

Calling. I am not an expert caller and never will be. I simply don’t have the ear for music that the top-end callers do. The basic sounds you need to master are the honk, cluck, and moan. YouTube is a good resource for learning these sounds. A goose flute may be easy to make sounds on, but they aren’t very versatile and are much slower because they require a greater volume of air. Learn how to use a short reed. Call at their wingtips, if they are flying straight away from you can get desperate and try, but you are probably wasting your breath, and if they are flying towards you let them come. Some soft clucks and moans will help finish them and keep them from landing short. Champion callers like Kevin Harlander and Eric Strand can sound like an entire flock of geese with a short reed. Get a couple guys like this together and it’s amazing how complex they can set a scene and make geese work them.

One of the deadliest tools out there is the goose flag. Flap it whenever a flock of geese has their wingtips to you and you can pull them in on a string. Geese are active in the field, moving and eating as they go, they rare back and flap their wings often. This is eye-catching lifelike movement with very little skill required. While I was getting the truck to load decoys the other day, my brother-in-law flagged in several flights of birds and shot two. It was his first goose hunt. Flags are awesome, and their cost is very little. If you have an old black t-shirt and two sticks, you can make a goose flag on your own.

I’m glad geese aren’t as big as me. That would be scary. My astronomically themed nephew isn’t scared though.

Lastly, get a kid involved. Goose hunting in layouts blinds in a field is exciting and the whole hunt only lasts a few hours. It’s a great way to get kids interested in the sport. Goose season lasts for 25% of the year where I live and their populations continue to grow. It’s good clean fun and a great challenge. Get after it.

About the author: James Nash is an outfitter, professional hunter and cattle rancher from NE Oregon where he resides as the fifth generation of his family to raise cattle, hunt, and fish on the 6 Ranch. He studied history at Adolf Øien Videregående in Trondheim, Norway where he also competed on the Norwegian National Greco-Roman wrestling team, then studied Literature and Writing at the University of Montana Western in Dillon, Montana. Afterwards, Nash served as an Armor Officer and platoon commander in the M1A1 Abrams main battle tank in the US Marine Corps for five years. Nash was wounded in Afghanistan and received two Purple Heart Medals and after a period of convalescence was subsequently retired. He returned to the 6 Ranch and resumed guiding and outfitting, with a focus on other combat wounded veterans. Nash has guided salt and freshwater fly and gear fishing, all kinds of hunting, and back country wilderness trips since age 14. He hosts the 6 Ranch Podcast, and you can learn more about him on instagram @6ranchoutfitters.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Randy November 8, 2021, 1:16 pm

    Thank you Mr. Nash. That was one of the best articles I’ve read. Your description of your first decoys and home made call was delightful. It took me back to when I had a collection of 5 stackable decoys. 2 sentries and 3 feeders. I think they were Carrylites. I was so dambed proud of those. And my call was an Olt. One very cold morning I got a flock of about 25 birds to decoy. I rode that adrenaline high for 2 days.
    I am an avid goose hunter from the north west and if I am hunting alone I often will try to get the geese to land with the decoys and just observe them. I have shot some banded birds that way. Or, not even pick up my shotgun.
    Geese are special creatures to me. But then again, I’ve learned to pressure cook their legs in a manner that could be passed off as roast beef. Thanks again for your article.

  • Dave Swanson November 2, 2021, 9:02 pm

    Great article James! Just came back from Canada and had a very successful goose hunt. Of all the points that you made, the last one about flags is what we have neglected. Also, we all use goose flutes with limited success. What short reed do you recommend that would be easy to get up to speed. SF, DAVE SWANSON

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