Goose Hunting Primer

Travis By Philip Bourjaily Canada geese used to be scarce enough that if you saw some, you told people. Now these big fowl are everywhere, and they didn’t get there by being gullible. The same bird that waddles placidly in front of you at the office park flares from the mere glimpse of an uncovered face or hand in a cornfield decoy spread. Goose hunting was once a matter of traveling to a famous mi­gratory stop—the Chesapeake Bay, for instance, or Rochester, Minn.—where you paid to sit in a pit near a refuge line. Today there are geese and mini-refuges everywhere: Golf-course ponds, housing developments, quarries, and downtown rivers all hold resident birds that attract migrants in fall. The skies over suburbia can look like the Saskatchewan prairies at dawn and dusk. Beyond the condos and the minimarts is prime hunting territory. Waiting in the stubble, you often hear geese before you see them. Unlike ducks, they’re vocal in the air, and the clamor of an incoming flock will give you, well, goose bumps. Another distinctive sound of goose hunting is the thump of 10 pounds of protein hitting the ground. It’s audible proof that these are wingshooting’s big game, with plenty of good meat to take home after a successful hunt. Because modern goose hunting is largely a matter of shooting in dry fields, you can get your feet wet in the sport without actually getting your feet wet. Here’s a plan for getting started with a minimum investment. GOOSE HUNTING GEAR: THE FIVE BASICS Hunting with a friend or two makes a great plan for beginners—you can share the expense of a basic decoy spread, and you’ll have a buddy to talk with when nothing’s flying. Go cheap if you must when you buy your first decoys. You’ll kill some birds over your starter spread, then add better models to it as you find them marked down after the season. In a few years, you’ll have a shed full of decoys and maybe a trailer to haul them in, but in the meantime you’ll be out in the field, learning.A Decoys: You’ll need shell and silhouette dekes, which are easier to store and transport than full-body models and cost much less. Five dozen make a rudimentary rig. Buy three dozen Carry-Lite Economy shells (479-782-8971; ­carrylitedecoys.com) and two dozen Big Flock silhouettes (800-343-8133; ­bigflockusa.com). Start saving for a half dozen Greenhead Gear Hunter Series Full-Bodies (800-333-5119; ­greenheadgear.com). You’ll need a couple of A decoy bags and a silhouette satchel to hold them all. Call: Even in the hands of a novice, the easy-blowing old-fashioned flute call will fool some of the birds some of the time. You can learn to make passable honks, clucks, and moans in about five minutes on a $25 flute such as the Black Magic from Mick Lacy Game Calls (309-385-1070; ­micklacygamecalls.com). Later, try a short reed type, which demands and rewards greater skill. Blind: Scrimp on those fake geese, but buy a good blind. It will keep you cozily hidden, and you’ll have it forever. “Laydown blinds” revolutionized goose hunting by allowing hunters to disappear anywhere without digging holes. The Avery Power Hunter (800-333-5119; ­High-velocityaveryoutdoors.com) is a bare-bones blind, not as cushy as some but a great value. If you skip the designer camo and go for plain khaki, you can find it for around $125. Shotgun & Ammo: You probably already own the gun. Any 3-inch 12-gauge with a Modified choke that’s approved for steel shot will do. If you want a new one, the Remington Model 11-87 SPS Waterfowl Camo ($1,048) is an excellent choice. High-velocity steel BBs are the go-to loads for every Canada subspecies. Flag: Flags attract geese from afar, and you can’t blow a bad note on one. A number of manufacturers sell these for $15 to $25. HOW TO TALK TO A GOOSE ABasically, geese have a four-word vocabulary. Here’s how to mimic it: Honk: Blow to-whit—accent on the whit—into a call. Cluck: A shortened honk, more of a twit than a to-whit. The double cluck of an excited goose goes twit-it. Moan: The comeback call or moan is a long, mournful honk. Draw out the second note (to-whiiiit). Growl: Geese make a kind of growling noise—guh-guh-guh—that’s the equivalent of a mallard’s feed call. Learning the words is the easy part. Knowing when to say what takes experience. Give distant geese a greeting call of honks. As they close in, switch to excited clucks and growls. Everyone in the group can call, but you should designate one person to take the lead while others fill in with background clucks and growls. Goose calling isn’t a monologue. It’s a conversation. Some days geese are talkative; other times, they’re quiet. Listen to the birds in the air and try to match their level of excitement. If a flock turns to leave, pour on the seductive talk. When geese are coming right at you, there’s no need to call. Just get your gun ready. DECOY TYPES 1. Full Body What It Is: A statue of the entire goose, feet and all. Advantages: Ultrarealism and visibility. Drawbacks: They’re expensive, and their bulk complicates storage and ­transportation. 2. Shell What It Is: The top half of a goose (a goose on the half shell, sort of). Advantages: Quick and easy to set out and pick up, shells are also stackable, conserving space. Drawbacks: In ­stubble, they may only show up if set on tall stakes. 3. Silhouette What It Is: A 2-D goose on a stick. Advantages: These easy-store impostors come in several poses and stand tall for good visibility. Drawbacks: At the wrong angle, bright sun turns silhouettes into reflectors. Jamming their stakes into frozen ground is difficult. Some hunters use a hammer and spike to punch holes in hard ground; others use cordless drills. THE SUCCESSFUL SECRETS TO A GOOSE HUNT Scouting Scouting kills geese. How well you know where the birds are feeding and what flight lines they choose determines your success more than any other factor. Geese usually feed morning and afternoon, eating in a field until they’ve devoured all the grain or have been shot out of it. Between meals they may loaf in a pond or pasture, or return to their roost lake. You’re usually looking for a feed field. When you find birds on the ground, pay attention to the exact spot where they’re eating; that’s where you’ll put your decoys in the morning. Study the flock. Are they bunched or spread out? Tomorrow’s decoy spread should duplicate what you observe. Mark the spot on a GPS, draw a map, count utility poles—whatever it takes to help you find your setup point the next morning in the dark. Ideally, you’ll see birds in the same field on consecutive days. Geese sometimes bounce from field to field, but if they’ve been eating in one place two days running, they’ll probably be back on day three. Let them use a plot too long, though, and they’ll scarf up all the food and go somewhere else. WaitMost hunters scout in the afternoon for the next morning’s hunt, but late-day shoots can also be good, especially in cloudy conditions or on moonless evenings when there’s less risk the birds will fly after shooting time. If you can work a feed field and get out quickly, you might be able to squeeze a second hunt out of it the next day. When you can’t hunt right at the food source, find a “traffic field” on the flight path that leads to it from the roost. An optimum traffic field is high and easily visible to passing birds. You’ll have to work your call and flags to pull in fowl, but this has its advantages. For one thing, you can hunt such a spot day after day without burning it out by simply changing up your decoy spread and blind placement. Hiding Sometimes the best blind is no blind at all. If you can sit in a brushy fenceline or stand in unpicked corn, do it. When the birds move into the middle of the fields, however, it’s time to break out the laydown blind. Practice setting up your model at home, in daylight. A dark cornfield is no place to learn how it works. Before you hunt with a new blind, take the shine off the fabric by mixing up a bucket of watery mud and slopping it onto the outside. When it’s dry, sweep off the excess. In the field, site blinds in an orderly row 5 to 10 feet apart. That creates a clear firing line for safety’s sake, and puts you close enough to your companions to chat between flights. Camouflage the hides with surrounding vegetation. Resist the temptation to overstubble them—which actually leaves them more prominent. Use only enough vegetation to break up the outline. Shooting Choose one person to be in charge of giving the command to shoot. He should aim for that moment when the geese are 15 yards in front of the blinds, a few feet off the ground, with their landing gear down and their tray tables in the full upright position. Try to deliver the “Get ’em” command when the birds are directly in front of the blinds. That way everyone gets to shoot. If a single comes in, the captain can call out one hunter’s name. Knowing when to call the shot gets tricky when birds circle at the edge of range. Will they come closer? If they start to gain altitude and they’re still in range, it’s time to shoot. As long as the flock continues to circle lower, wait for them to commit to the decoys—but if they swing directly over the blinds at 15 or 20 yards up, call the shot. Don’t be in a rush to shoot as soon as you hear those words. Pick a bird, pop open the doors, sit up, then mount your gun and fire. You have more time than you think; the birds can be so fixed on the decoys that they won’t flare the instant the blind doors open. COOKING YOUR GOOSE **** width=240 It’s easy to make goose taste terrible, and even easier to make it delicious. Overcooking any waterfowl brings out the strong liver flavor. Keep it rare and it tastes like lean roast beef. These two methods are my favorites: Grilling: Fillet out the breasts, then cut out the silverskin and shot-up parts of the meat. Give each breast a few whacks with a mallet to flatten it. Marinate in Italian salad dressing or equal parts A-1 sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and oil. Grill over hot coals until it’s rare but warm in the middle, which will take just a few minutes on each side. Slice it as thin as London broil. Roasting: Plucking a goose takes me two hours, but it’s time well spent if I’ve got a fat, late-season bird. Roast it in the oven at 350 degrees for about eight minutes a pound. Check it with an instant-read meat thermometer. When the breast shows 135 to 140 degrees, the meat is perfect. If you’re worried about avian flu, wear latex gloves when you dress birds and cook them to a minimum of 158 degrees.