Top Five Tips for Hunting Waterfowl

Editor’s note: This article is a freelance submission from Ryan O’Neil, an avid hunter from Western, N.Y. 

You want an in-your-face, front-and-center, feet-down-beat-down, goose hunt? Follow me. I will break it down from start to finish!

1. Scouting: Location! Location! Location!

Scouting is the quintessential piece to the puzzle. I spend about three times more scouting in my truck than I do hunting. No joke. I log hundreds of hours and miles hitting the roads looking for birds. Generally, l will have a good idea where the birds are going to roost and feed based on previous hunts, and I like to take detailed notes for future hunts. Learning birds’ roosting locations and flight patterns makes things a lot easier. The other guys I hunt with do the same thing. We work as a team. As they say, many hands make for light work. So, we split up to cover more ground and stay in contact with cell phones giving each other play-by-play updates.

My morning usually starts like this: 4:00 a.m. wake up. I like to be in my general area about a half hour before daylight. Ninety percent of the time I will have a specific town or location in mind. The other 10 percent of the time (FILL IN WHAT YOU DO)… I should mention that it’s important to remember to fill up on gas the night before the hunt. The last thing you want to do when watching and chasing birds is to run out of fuel.

Next, I like having a good vantage point. So I will position myself overlooking from a high road or on open vast farmlands where I can see the birds flying for long distances. Also, Don’t sell yourself short with optics. A good pair of 10×42 or 10×50 binoculars is a must. Some guys even like using a spotting scope.

If your hunting early season, i.e. September, resident geese, like we have here in New York, most often you will be hunting cut salad and grain fields like hay, alfalfa, oats or wheat. Sometimes even a cow pasture, where geese like to pick grains from the patties. Most of the time the corn is still standing and not ready for harvest until the season matures. So, pinpointing these locations will surely help you locate feed. If you see birds landing and can’t find them, try and locate the food source or field they are in by using Google earth or other hunting apps on your smartphone. I have this method down to a science. Lots of fields are either hidden from a road view because of tree lines or other obstructions. If you can’t find them that way, wait until they are done feeding and lifting off the field by backtracking them to get a better idea of where they are coming from. I have found tons of geese on my way home from early morning scouting by seeing them lifting off fields and heading back to the roost. This method should be reversed for the evening scouting as well, geese will generally repeat the same exact patterns before sundown.

Once you locate the feed, dissect the field to exactly where the geese are congregated and how they are spread out. Like small pods and family groups or large pods in big clusters. Look for a high spot, a low spot, maybe an area where there was feed spillage from the farmer or maybe a little section that is flooded. This is what we call the “X” or the “Spot.” Location is very important to having a successful hunt. Being set up where the geese want to be will increase your odds and bag limits almost every single time. Once you have gained access and permission to hunt don’t be afraid to walk the field looking for feathers, footprints and droppings from the geese because that is where you want to hunt. Start figuring out your set up. Plan your hunt. Look for cover and check wind directions, start envisioning where the geese are coming from and how they will approach your kill zone. Be patient, it may take you several days to locate the birds and the “X”.

Quick note: You should take a pic of your log book, just a random page within. It would bolster your point about note taking.

2. Concealment: The Hide

I can’t begin to stress enough how important it is to stay hidden. Camo and concealment is the 2nd most important factor to killing geese. They are not your typical popcorn-fed dumb geese at the local town park. These birds get hunted and shot at up and down the flyways during the migration and from coast to coast starting in September to damn near March in some states. They have seen and heard it all. Don’t get me wrong we all have those days where there is no stopping them from coming into the kill zone espicially early season when geese are not hunted yet and there are lots of juvenile geese, however its not always that easy. It also varies from season to season, from early season greens to late season snow. You have to adapt accordingly.

With that being said getting to the field early and putting in the extra time building blinds or brushing in your layouts to the surrounding cover is a MUST. No questions asked. Just when you think its enough, give it some more. In the early season standing corn is the cats meow. Its the ultimate natural concealment. Nothing beats siting on a stool, chair or my favorite, a 6-gallon bucket, smashing geese in standing corn. Yes I said a 6 gallon bucket. They are hard to come by, but far better then the standard 5 gallon. Geese are very easy to decoy along the edge of standing corn. Actually it is some of the only tall cover they are comfortable landing near.

Early season I like hunting brushy fence rows and low level hedge and rock lines that split fields in half. Once the foliage starts to drop in mid-October, the geese avoid these natural areas and become educated. That’s when they prefer to start landing out in the center of a field and then walk to where they are going to feed. Never ever hunt a wooded tree line. The number one mistake novice hunters make. If you want to decoy geese, up close and in your face, then you are going to need to learn how to conceal your blind. Geese are very smart and if they see something out of place during an approach or something they don’t like, they are very likely to avoid the area and will slide out side your shooting range or completely leave and head to another location after circling several times.

The second best scenario is a picked corn field, a field with knocked down stalks and no corn husks. Concealing the blind is fairly easy in this setting as you can dig out an area and cover the blind with the knocked down stalks. Freshly plowed fields or planted fields are a complete headache. A silage cut field presents a harder challenge to hide as well. This is when farmers cut the corn as close to the ground as their machine allows them to taking all the feed they can get, leaving what we call short stubble leaving no cover. A waterfolwer’s biggest problem. When this occurs you are going to have to match the blind to various patterns of the terrain by stuffing the layout blind and its straps with stubble and mudding the outside of the blind to match the ground.

Muddling blinds is essential and also a must regardless of the cover. When you first buy a brand-spanking new blind it look so nice and pretty, howwever it shines badly which calls for a coat of mud. Take a small bucket and fill it with water, then add dirt while mixing it up good until it becomes thick and pasty. Then take a small broom and smear it all over the blind until it’s completely covered. After it drys, just use your hand and knock off all the existing remains. This will make it blend naturally in the field and eliminate the shine until the blind has a season or so to age.

Lastly, we have late season and snow. A snow covered field is often a fairly easy situation to hide in and conceal your blinds. Most companies sell white snow covers that fit over your blind. Sometimes they do not always blend in when seen from a distance. If the snow is deep enough or the ground is not completely frozen dig them in a bit and scoop snow all around the blind.

When a snow cover won’t work, invest in a case of snow flocking spray. It matches the color and texture of snow and it is actually very easy to clean off the blind when you are done. It comes in a can like spray paint and adheres to a blind nicely. I have also had a lot of success wearing white coveralls and laying down in the snow especially if it’s deep. Remember, always keep your head down and face covered. Keep blind bags, gear and gun cases to a minimum and hidden. I always bring some shell decoys to hide gear under especially in the snow.

When all said and done you must adapt according to your hunts. The conditions will change from season-to-season and day-to-day. You must use your imagination and use what is available at the giving hunting location and the time of year to maximize your success. If you don’t have cover in a field where the geese are and on the X, don’t be afraid to find it. Move to where the cover is in the field or find brush and cover nearby to brush your blinds in and then bring them to your hunting location. Location is number one, however, if you cant hide, you wont kill geese. Period.

3. The Wind: Keep It At Your Back

The third leg of having a successful hunt is the wind. This is goose hunting 101 folks. I know most hunters know this, however I must say it. The wind is very important and must be at your back or at least quartering from behind you. It can be difficult sometimes especially when your trying to keep that early morning sun out of your eyes. Always try and keep the sun behind you as well. Especially if its going to be a bright clear morning. Blind the geese with the sun. Not you and your buddies. Geese will almost always land directly into the wind, especially if the wind is stiff, 10-15 mph or more. This is how they cut their altitude from their flight patterns and begin to descend on their destination, they will also lift off the ground or water into the wind as well. The more wind the longer it takes them to drop altitude. This may force the geese to circle 3-5 times before they commit as they dip and dive on the corners to cut altitude. Just watch them, be patient and keep their attention with some soft calling and flipping of your flag.

Winds are a critical point when positioning your blinds and decoy spread. If you get it wrong you will find out quickly as the geese approach your setup. If your setup is wrong the birds will generally favor a specific side of your setup landing outside your spread or they may try and land behind your setup. Either way you need to adjust accordingly. Read the geese and watch how they react. They will tell you what they want and where they want to be. Wind is simultaneously your best and worst enemy, making us goose hunters go nuts. For example, when positioned properly with the wind and sun at you back the geese will just about finish perfectly flock after flock giving that decoys are placed appropriately with blinds and hunters concealed. However when the wind switches with out detection, it will result in failure. A telltale sign is when geese circle and circle and circle. No matter how much or little you call and flag they just wont commit and finish like we want or they stop short resulting in long shots and lots of cripples. When this happens you need to act fast. We all hate doing it, but this is crucial, you have to reposition the blinds and decoys NOW. Time is not on your side. This is a group effort, everyone must help because the next flock is coming.

Some people tend to think I’m crazy because I watch the wind like a kid watches cartoons, literally all day. I’m glued to my phone checking every weather outlet I can find. We can’t control the wind and weather but I will do my best and check wind forecasts every chance I get. From the days leading up to the hunt, the night before and maybe 5 times before is start deploying decoys and blinds the morning of the hunt. Die hard goose and duck hunters I’m sure can relate to this madness.

When it comes to weather and wind forecasts, I have a whole arsenal of smart phone apps like the Weather channel, Scout Look and the Primos Windicator, just to name a few. I personally like the Primos app the best because it gives you real time wind speeds and directions using a compass or an aerial color image pinned at your exact location, however, its only real time. so It won’t give you any advance forecasts.

Wind currents can also be different down on ground level then above the tree tops, especially if there are tall tree lines or hillsides near your location that can make it swirl and whirl. That’s why I always carry a bottle of talc powder in my pocket to puff in the air, just like deer hunters use or I may even use bottle of baby powder in a pinch. I will do this frequently as im setting decoys and even after the sun comes up and the birds start moving especially if the weather men are predicting a change in wind direction at some point in the day. For example if we have a Westerly wind at sunrise and at ten am its going to switch to the south, I will start watching the decoy movement, begin checking my phone and periodically shooting a few puffs of powder in the air detecting the slightest changes. When I do detect a change, I will begin moving decoys immediately and reposition the blind accordingly. I always want to be one step ahead. Paying attention to detail can 100% improve your success.

In the end, don’t let high winds discourage you, the geese need to eat, so get out and hunt. I’ve had more success killing birds on windy days then calm blue bird days, especially if it’s raining. Nothing beats a wet, sloppy flooded field. Geese are in literally in their glory when these conditions occur and will even tend to spend a lot more time than usual in the fields. Wet or flooded fields makes the ground softer and food easily accessible. The will gorge them selves on food while cleaning and preening them selves at the same time.

4. Decoys and Placement. Are More Decoys Better?

This can be a very touchy subject because it stirs up many heated arguments in the fields during early morning set-ups and on social media sites. The die hard goose hunters are all set in their own ways, they don’t like change and have very strong opinions on who’s decoys are going to be used, what brand or type, how many they like to run, and how they want them to be set up. Trust me you will always have those guys that like to put in their two cents especially, when the geese are not cooperating and the shooting is minimal. I can say this, be opened minded, stay calm, and listen to what other hunters have to say. It may be the difference in killing a big pile of geese or losing friendships. Some of you may be laughing but its true. It happens. I have seen and heard it all. From early morning screaming matches and name calling to wrestling matches. Some even resulting in a punch or two getting thrown. lol. All while in the goose field over where and how the decoys should be placed. This is never a good experience usually resulting in friendships lost and spoiled hunts for others. So stay calm and lets be adults here and I will address this topic with caution telling you what I like and works for me based on my own personal experience.

Typically more decoys are better especially if your hunting late season birds or “Running Traffic”. Running traffic is a term and strategy used when hunters setup in the flight path between where the birds are roosting and feeding. I have also deployed this tactic if your trying to hunt an adjacent field to where the birds are frequenting. Hunters generally use this system when they cant get permission to hunt the field the geese are feeding in or if other hunters are already set up there. The object here is to intercept the geese and trying to decoy them into your set up before they get to their original destination. This system can be very effective if done right. Consisting of huge decoy spreads (10 dozen or so) very loud and aggressive calling from everyone in the group and lots of flagging. This is usually a last result if all else fails.

With that being said, when I find the birds, the “X”, and gain permission if I don’t have it already, I tend to try and mimic exactly how the birds are feeding and set up in the field. It a widely known fact that no spread will work the same way every single time. Its all trial and error, tweaking things as you go along.

I like keeping my hunts limited to about 4-6 gunners. Its just plain hard to conceal big groups of 8-10 hunters. I’m a huge stickler for detail and realism over shear numbers especially during the early-mid season. As far as i’m concerned a high quality full body decoy is a must. Thankfully so is my go to hunting partner and best friend Tony Quick. Tony and I make sure we are on the same page at all times when it comes to setting up our rig, scouting and what we are trying to accomplish. I couldn’t do it with out him. Its always a team effort. Between the two of us alone we have nearly 50 years of experience killing geese and when it comes to decoys, we run a complete spread of solid full body decoys. No silhouettes or rags. Do they work ? Yes. But again, this is just our personal flavor. The reasons we have for our tactics and spreads we choose to deploy are simple. THEY WORK !! Some times we do change our rig here or there but generally its pretty consistent on how we like to set up. Believe me, it varies from early season to late season and day to day and we adjust according to what the geese are telling us.

EARLY SEASON (SEPTEMBER): FAMILY GROUPS

Here in NY, like most state we have an early Resident / Nuisance goose season which begins on September 1st and typically ends on the 25th and is very fun time to hunt geese. NY allows hunters to hunt a half hour before and after sunrise, no plugs, extended magazines and electronic callers, with a daily bag limit of 15 birds per man. This time of year is usually a very quick hunt, normally we are done and eating breakfast by ten am because the weather gets very warm early and geese tend to fly early, feed for a few hours and then return to their water holes to cool off and rehydrate. Resident geese are usually very easy to find because there isn’t many crop fields cut yet and the ones that are cut tend to draw most of the geese in that general are. In September geese tend to target greens and grains as their primary food source like grass, alfalfa, beans oats, milo and wheat. Most fields we are hunting will have around 100-150 birds frequenting daily. However it is not rare to see a flock of say 250 or more birds.

At this time of the year I like to run 3-5 dozen full body decoys placed in small family groups (4-6 decoys) about 4 feet apart from each other in a horse shoe or “U” shaped pattern down wind of my blinds. I will usually create 1 landing zone about 20′ apart giving ample space for the birds to drop their feet in if I only have 3-5 hunters. If I have more, say like 6-8 hunters, I will create 2 gaps or landing zones about 15′-20′ apart making a pair of “CRAB CLAWS” or a “W” style pattern. I like to run about 75% feeder decoys and 25% upright or sentry decoys. Since we are hunting resident birds, there are tons of juvenile bird, so I tend to run lots of the lesser (smaller) decoys mixed with my full sized honker decoy. I want to make things look really relaxed, calm and content. I’ll have most of them facing the blinds into the wind and some facing different directions. I will even have some facing one another to look like are eating together. Just before im finish setting my spread I will begin mixing in the uprights / lookers / and stubby neck decoys here and there for added realism.

Remember early season resident geese like to stop short (landing short of our kill zone and effective shooting rang), a constant struggle with us goose hunters this time of the season. Again this is because the birds are generally in family groups and have a large food source not liking to co-mingle with other family groups. As a result I like to keep the decoys tight to my blinds, even throwing a few decoys behind our blinds up wind forcing the incoming geese to suck in nice and close. Usually I will set my furthest decoy no more then 25 yards away on outer edge of my spread. Like I said over and over again, let the geese tell you what they want and adjust your rig accordingly. Don’t educate the birds and deploy every decoy you own every time you hunt. I wont throw your best cards down just yet. I save them for the migration, you will need every ace in the deck when those birds start showing.

MID SEASON (OCTOBER-NOVEMBER): MIGRATORS

After the September season comes to an end we typically have about a 3-week break before the regular season opens up. Which is around the middle portion of October. By then, the geese are in their early migration stages from up North. Some portions of NY will even start having some migratory flocks show up as the September season draws to an end. It just depends on the area and what kind of weather we are getting.

Now when the regular migration season opener arrives in mid-October, the migration will be well under way. Almost at its peak in some areas. This is when the migrator geese will start joining the resident geese that are still here creating much larger flocks, somewhere in the area of 150-250 birds in fields all over. With the occasional field or 2 having 400 plus birds depending on food sources available. This is when I start beefing up my decoy spread and start running around 5-7 dozen full bodies, this can change with the amount of birds we are hunting.

As I said before I’m a stickler for detail and having a good full body decoy with tall motion stakes or bases that will give you adequate movement in the wind is my go-to choice here. Especially in tall corn stubble. It just gives your look a very realistic appearance to those incoming birds as your decoys bob up and down and wiggle back and forth, being very noticeable.

Geese will start focusing on corn once the weather turns and food sources go from plentiful to a premium. When this happens the birds begin feeding very aggressively. Its a free for all and every man for him self. During scouting trips and glassing fields you will literally see geese running around the fields fighting and chasing each other while competing for food. They will form big lines and leap frog each other trying to get to the feed before the other birds. This is the way I will set my spread. Long strings and lines of decoys that appear to be leading into the center portion of the spread. These mimics geese that have just landed, and are working into an area of heavy feeding activity. Especially when the weather is getting nasty, they will be trying to beef up and fill their stomachs with corn giving them lots of carbohydrates which helps build fat on their bodies while waiting for the cold fronts and North winds to arrive so they can continue their migration.

When placing decoys this time of year I will space my decoys out more (5-7′) and make multiple kill zones for geese to land. Also making my kill holes larger (30-40′). Depending on how many hunters I have. I try and put the birds in front of everyone. Not just half the group. I create more space for 3 main reasons: 1.) Because the flocks will be bigger then those small family groups in September 2.) By spreading things out and creating bigger kill zones it will make my spread look bigger using less decoys and 3.) It also allows those bigger groups to have more space to land making them more comfortable to finish. If they don’t like it because the decoys are to tight together and kill holes are to small, they will circle several times eventually landing away from you spread and out of gun range or they will relocate to another field. Again let the birds tell you what they want.

LATE SEASON (DECEMBER-JANUARY): BRING YOUR “A” GAME

This is when the boys are separated from the men. This is when the “players play”. You better be ready because its going to be cold, its going to be frozen and the wind will be ripping. Oh and the snow will be deep. As the season grows old, so do the hunters. By now most of the guys have cleaned their guns, put the decoys back in the barn and unplugged those damn alarm clocks. Not us, we are still in going strong. Ya’ I will admit it. By now im tired of the early mornings and late nights and my drive is slipping a bit. But that’s when I reach down and pull it into 4 wheel drive. Bare down. Dress warm and grind it out. The thought of geese pilling into a field with out me and the boys waiting upon their arrival makes me sick. I just wont let it happen.

December and January are by far the hardest times to hunt because of the elements and the weather. Also getting into the field with trucks and trailers is difficult with snow cover. This is when the ATVs , Snowmobiles and large decoy sleds get put to use.

With the migration winding down and the season coming to the end. The birds are down right hungry and plentiful. Here in Upstate NY, we are known for some of the harshest winters and snow accumulations in the country. But that won’t stop the geese from hitting the fields. Upstate NY is surrounded by huge bodies of water which hold thousands of late season geese that will winter here. To the west, you have the Lake Erie and The Mighty Niagara River. To the North you we have Lake Ontario and the famous St. Lawrence River. To the East Lake Champlain and he Hudson River and of course the center of NY has the world renown Finger Lakes. Millions of gallons of water right smack dab in the center of the Atlantic fly way. Ya’ We got geese !!

These lake season honkers are big, fat and happy. The Canada goose and all its subspecies alike are some of the hardiest and most adaptable creatures on the planet. You better bring your “A” game folks because these birds have seen and heard it all. They have literally been shot and hunted for well over 3 months all the way down the flyway.

This time of year can be prime time. In your face, fast action “feet down beat down” type of hunting. But this calls for us die hard water fowlers to play those Aces that he have been saving. Never run a spread the same. Change it up especially if your going to hunt the same field or the same flock of birds several days in a row. We must show them everything we have in our arsenal but present these set ups differently. Bust out the snow covers for our blinds and the white coveralls if you haven’t done so already. Its go time. When late season arrives the hunting style needs to adapt according to the time of year. This is when more is better.

Run your junk yard spread. Given em everything you got. Including the kitchen sink. Its going to be basically like “running traffic”. The more you have the better its going to be. Generally but not always. If you have snow on the ground the decoys will be seen for miles away and the geese passing by will surely give you a look. When im setting a spread late season I like to keep my decoys tight together around the blinds to help blend them in. Then string them out to the left and right on the down wind sides of the blinds. Make pods all over the place (7-10 decoys). Some smaller. Some larger. Mixing in all types of body postures. Use as many sleeper shells you can get your hands on. These decoys are great for 3 reasons: 1.) When geese hit a field late season even if the snow is not deep but the ground is frozen they will go to sleep for a few hours and use there body heat to melt the snow and ground. This helps them get easier access to the food source and helps them digest the food they are consuming because it wont be frozen. 2.) Its adds realism to your spread. Geese are not always running around feeding. Late season cold temperatures cause them to fatigue and they will use a lot of energy flying from water to feed locations. So sleeping in the fields is common because it acts as a time to rest from the flight and time for their body heat to melt the snow 3.) Shell decoys act as a great way to cover gun cases, extra ammo, clothing and blind bags.Even bloody geese. Toss those geese underneath the decoys as you shoot them so the blood isn’t visible on the snow to the incoming geese. When hunting late season don’t run your typical decoy patterns. Avoid the “J Hook” , the “V”, the “U” or the “W”. In the end try and be more creative and different they earlier in the season.

5. Shooting: Pick Out Your Own Birds

When the moment of truth arrives and the geese have committed, wings cupped, landing gears down, right in your face, shot execution needs to be perfected. I’ve seen it time and time again and I’m sure other hunters across the country have as well. The flock of birds lock in, set their feet and glide right into your kill zone. The shot is called “KILL EM” and the banging begins. After the guns are empty and the dust settles there is only a few geese dead birds on the ground. One guy yells “out man we suck”. Well no, that probably not the case. Maybe for some, but not all instances. 90% of the time us gunners get what is referred to as “Tunnel Vision”. This is when geese are about to land and most hunters zero in on the closest, easiest shot, and two or more hunters wind up shooting at the same birds. Some times we run into another problem, mainly with novice hunters and that’s what we call “Flock Shooting”. This is when the birds come into the decoys and gunners just point at the flock and pull the trigger. You must pick out one goose, concentrate strictly on that bird only and stay with it until it dies. Don’t let the moment and excitement mess up your focus. These are hard habits to break and we are all guilty of it at some point in time.

When the birds are working and the getting ready to land I will always remind the boys to pick a bird and finish it. Shoot the birds in front of you and not to your left or right. I will repeat this flock after flock. I’m constantly talking and communicating with everyone. I will even designate birds to certain guys. Especially the shooters on opposite ends of the blind set. For example, if four birds are coming in I will yell “Tony kill the two on the top” “Scott kill the two on the bottom” when I yell “KILL EM”. I will then tell the remaining shooters to “back them up if birds get missed” or tell them to “finish off the cripples” if need be.

I have learned that this is the most effective way to maximize kill opportunities making sure we are all clear and on the same page on who is going to be shooting and at what birds and who is backing up on smaller bunches. This prevents tunnel vision and flock shooting. I have seen entire flocks smashed using these methods, like 10-12 birds come in and they all got killed. No survivors. With only 4 or 5 shooters. It works very well and also keeps a safe environment especially with young kids and novice hunter and especially when we are running dogs.

Another good tip that is very hard to instill in shooters is let a few birds land in the decoys as confidence and the others will pile in behind them before we call the shot. When this opportunity comes, generally on bigger flocks, you again always want to shoot the birds in front of you and in your shooting lane. Take the first bird first or highest bird in an incoming flock. Working your way from the back to front, or shoot the birds from the top down to the bottom. Because after the fist shots go off the birds on the ground will then jump up or the birds on the bottom will now be up on top where you started. Putting your shotgun and sight line in the right spot already making follow up shots and shooting the flaring geese more effective. The result? More dead birds.

About the author: Ryan O’Neil is a proud graduate of Paul Smith’s College where he earned his degree in Forest Management. When he is not hunting and fishing, he works full time as a Deputy Sheriff in Erie county, NY. Additionally, O’Neil is on the Pro-Staff for Dead Ringer Hunting, Lynch Mob Calls and Scent Crusher.

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