The Complete Guide to Hunting Geese
From decoys to calls to blinds, here’s everything you need to know about goose hunting
There’s an open goose season somewhere in North America every month of the year except July. Even if you stay at home, you might be able to hunt geese on and off from September early Canada to the end of the spring snow goose migration in April or May. Canada, snow, and white-fronted goose populations remain high and the good old days of goose hunting are now. Here’s what you need to know about learning how to hunt geese.
The Types of Geese You Can Hunt in North America
In North America, we have three main species of geese: Canadas, snows, and white-fronted geese.
Canada geese (please, not “Canadian,” although it is true that many Canada geese come from Canada) are everywhere. Adaptable birds, they are like white-tailed deer in their ability to live close to people and they inhabit golf courses, office and city park ponds, rivers, as well as marshes out in the countryside. Canadas come in many different races, from very small duck-sized birds up to Giants that may weigh over 12 pounds. They are the widest-spread and most hunted goose in the U.S. by far, and many states hold early September “nuisance seasons” to reduce resident populations as well as regular seasons targeting both resident and migrating geese.
Wild residents of the arctic and sub-arctic, snows make the long flight to their wintering grounds each year, with the more numerous lesser snow geese wintering in the rice fields of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and California, while the greater snows of the eastern seaboard winter largely in the coastal Carolinas and Virginia. For the past twenty-five years, a special spring season has been in place along with the traditional fall season in an effort to trim overpopulated flocks.
Blue geese mix in with snows, for the very good reason that they are snow geese themselves, although they are not all-white. They aren’t a separate species but a color-phase of lesser snow geese. The Ross’ goose is a very small white goose often seen among snow goose flocks, which are further distinguished by caruncles (warty growths) on their bills.
Known to hunters as specklebellies for the black barring on their white breasts and stomachs, white-fronts live west of the Mississippi and up into prairie Canada. Like snows, they often winter in rice fields. Often, specks can be hunted along with snows and/or Canadas over decoys set for those species, although an increasing number of hunters target specks, which have a reputation as the best-eating of all geese. White-fronts have their very own high-pitched two- or three-note yodel and can be very challenging birds to hunt.
Goose Hunting Gear
Goose hunting is gear-intensive. It’s not uncommon to see serious goose hunters tow trailers full of decoys into the field. But you can hunt geese successfully without that much gear. I manage, despite having little storage space at home for my blinds and decoys and only a small pickup to haul them.
You will need decoys to attract geese and blinds to hide you and your friends. You’ll want calls and flags to grab the birds’ attention, and you’ll need a gun that can shoot heavy loads of big shot.
Goose Hunting Decoys
Goose decoys come in several types. All of them work, and all of them can usually be combined. The best decoy advice is to start with a few and add some every year. If you hunt with friends and everyone buys a few decoys when they go on sale at the end of the season, before long you’ll be able to set out a huge spread. Here are the types of decoys you can choose from.
Floaters, as their name suggests, as meant for use on water. You’ll need to add weight and decoy line, of course, and you would probably err on the side of larger weights, say, 6 ounces or so, in place of the 3- or 4-ounce weights you often use on duck decoys. And, if you’ll be using your floaters in moving water (rivers are an excellent place for over-water goose hunts) you might need 8-ounce weights.
Rarely seen, because they are very expensive and have to be babied, stuffers are actual taxidermy goose mounts. Stuffer fans believe they will fool geese when no other type of decoy will. Stuffer spreads are always small because no one can afford large stuffer spreads, and they work. I hunted over them exactly once in Galveston Bay in an ice storm that ruined the decoys, but we had a terrific shoot on some very wary snow geese. Stuffers work but are impractical for most hunters.
A full, 3-D replica of a goose, the fullbody is the most realistic goose decoy short of a stuffer. Most include bases that allow the decoy to move in a breeze, making them even more lifelike in appearance. Some are covered with flocking to add a feather-like sheen and to cut glare. Most hunters prefer fullbodies for their realism and their visibility.
But, fullbodies are expensive, and they take up a lot of space both to store and to transport. One hack is to use Lesser Canada goose fullbodies. They are smaller and easier to manage, and while they don’t show up quite as well as full-size fullbodies, geese don’t recognize the size difference. I have shot plenty of great big geese over small fullbody decoys.
Representing the top half of a goose (think of a boat cut off at the waterline), shells are stackable and therefore easier to store and transport. Shells work especially well on ice and in snowy fields where they stand out and resemble geese that have flopped onto their bellies to rest or warm up, which geese typically do in cold weather. Sleeper shells, that depict geese snoozing with their heads tucked under a wing, make an excellent addition to any late-season decoy spread. Shells also look great on a river bottom sandbar. The downside of shells is that they have a low profile and don’t show up well in tall stubble.
Flat, 2-D images of geese, silhouettes go in and out of fashion. They are in now, and for some good reasons. They are lightweight (new ones are made of coroplast, the same corrugated plastic used in real-estate signs), compact, and they stand tall and show up very well in the field. I can store ten dozen silhouettes in the same space I can keep six full-size fullbody geese. You can set and transport huge decoy spreads easily if you use silos. Learn how to set them up properly—far apart and pointing in different directions—and silhouettes are very effective.
Although there are lots of good silhouettes on the market, you can also make your own and save even more money over the cost of a full-body spread. The downside of silhouettes is that they can be hard to stake into frozen ground without some kind of punch, or even an electric drill.
Windsocks, usually a goose head and a printed Tyvek bag body, are light, compact and they move realistically in the wind. They work for all species of geese, and are especially popular among snow goose hunters who may want to put out as many as 1500 decoys and want as much motion as possible in a spread. Hunters who pursue big flocks of lesser Canadas in the west like socks, too.
Read Next: The Best Snow Goose Decoys
Obviously, wind socks work best when there is wind, although some models have a spine that helps the decoy retain its form on calm days. Windsocks also have the advantage of acting as blinds. You can lie down and hide in the shadows created by windsocks on long stakes on a sunny day. Some hunters believe they aren’t sufficiently lifelike to fool wary Canada geese, although that is debatable.
As the saying goes, if you’re not hiding, you’re not shooting. The same Canada geese that let people walk up to them in a park in town become leery at the sight of humans once they fly out of town to feed. Snow geese travel in huge flocks, containing hundreds of pairs of wary eyes, and are often led by older birds that have seen it all on 15 or 20 trips up and down the flyway. White-fronted geese are thought by many to be the wildest geese of all. The bottom line is, you have to be well-hidden to hunt geese.
The traditional way to hide from geese in an open field was to dig a pit blind which meant if you found geese, you had to get permission to hunt the field and dig a hole in it, which you did the night before. Then, whether you shot geese or not, you had to fill the hole back in or you weren’t welcome to hunt there again. Permanent pits are still in use in places where there is enough goose traffic to make it worth the effort of digging and concealing a blind you can hunt from throughout the season. However, if, like so many hunters, you want to be mobile, you have a few options, and fortunately, none involve much digging.
The blind that changed goose hunting and freed hunters from pits is the low-profile layout blind. A layout holds one hunter. You lie down in it, concealed by blind doors that you can pop open as you sit up to shoot. When a layout is properly hidden with grass or stubble woven into straps on the blind, it’s nearly invisible and looks like a lump in the field. Set some decoys around it, and geese never know it’s there. They are highly portable, too and easy to store as they break down to be completely flat. I have a short stack of layouts in my garage that take up very little space. One of the best features of layout blinds is that everyone can see the birds approach, while in pits and some other blinds you can’t see until the shot is called. Also, you are down out of the wind, and very comfortable. Layouts are good for napping while you wait for the birds to fly.
Some people have a hard time shooting from their backs, and your ability to swing in some directions is limited in a layout. And, while you can see incoming birds very well, it’s hard to see what’s going on behind you in a layout.
Panel and A-Frame Blinds
Made to hide three or four hunters sitting on buckets, the A-Frame and panel blinds are currently in vogue. You can either blend them into a fenceline or field edge. If you put two or three together and cover them with brush you can set them out in the middle of a field, and geese seem to regard them as too big to pose a threat.
It takes time to properly cover an A-frame or panel blind with grass, and you need some grass that’s tall enough to provide overhead cover or birds can look down and see you. It’s most convenient to leave these grassed up, too, which makes them harder to store and transport.
Backrests and ghillie blankets
A variation on the layout blind, a backrest and ghillie blanket makes a lightweight, easy-to-pack blind and it will hide a hunter very effectively. Some hunters use backrests and hide in the shadows made by windsock decoys on long stakes, too.
The downside of a backrest is that it doesn’t provide as much shelter from the wind and weather as a layout blind does and it’s a little harder to move without being seen.
Calls and Flags
One of the traits of geese that makes hunting them so much fun is that geese are vocal birds, in the air and on the ground. That means you can hear them coming, and use a call to communicate with them.
Often as not, a decoy spread in the right place is all the incentive geese need to drop in. When they need extra convincing, calls and flags come into play. If you’re starting out, learn to make the honk or cluck of the Canada goose, the two-note yodel of the specklebelly, or the bark of the snow goose. There are more advanced calls to learn, but a few quiet notes can be enough to reassure birds on their way into the decoys. A spread of silent decoys can be off-putting sometimes. And, sometimes noise is all you need to attract passing flocks. You want to become a good caller, but there are times a beginning caller can make a difference, and the best way to learn what works and what doesn’t is to get out there and try.
Snow and specklebelly calls are generally easy to blow. Canada goose calls vary. The old-style flute calls are great for beginning Canada hunters. The so-called short reed Canada goose call is the most popular style now, though. Some are very easy to blow, others can be quite difficult. Look for a good beginner’s call and get started. There are a ton of good online tutorial videos to help you learn, and you can learn from experienced callers and from listening to real geese as well.
Read Next: The Best Goose Calls
Motion attracts geese, and often they can see a goose flag when they’re still too far away to hear you call. Sometimes called T-flags for their shape, flags look like a pair of spread wings with a long handle. Flapped or jigged at distant flocks, a flag can be enough to make geese turn and head for your spread from a long way away. Some hunters will stand up in the blind or even run around in the spread with a flag when geese are way out there, then tuck in and hide and tone the flagging down. Although you can flag geese all the way in to the ground, and I like trying, I’ve come to think it’s better to set the flag down and use a call once geese get inside 100 or 150 yards so you don’t attract attention to your blind, and that does double for hunters in A-frames and panel blinds. A flag is inexpensive, easy to use, and an important part of your goose-hunting arsenal.
The Best Goose Hunting Guns and Shot Sizes
Geese range in size from lesser Canadas no bigger than a mallard up to giant Canadas over 12 pounds. Snows and specklebellies can weigh anywhere from 4 to 7 pounds. In general, geese are big birds, best hunted with big guns and big pellets. Choose 1 or 2 shot for snows and specks, 2s, 1s, BBs, or BBBs for Canadas. When I am hunting Canadas only, I’ll shoot steel BBs. If it might be a mixed-bag for ducks and geese, I’ll shoot 2s and skip any longer shots at honkers.
While I don’t believe you need 3 ½-inch, 12-gauge shells for geese, many people do want the extra few yards of reach the big shells provide. I shoot 3-inch 12-gauge shells and can kill geese to 35-40 yards with them. Goose hunting is perhaps the only reason for the modern hunter to own a 10-gauge. The big guns shoot good patterns with big shot, and their extra weight (up to 11 pounds or more) soaks up recoil, making them surprisingly pleasant to shoot if you can lift them.
As for chokes, a Light Modified or Modified choke works well for all but the very longest shots. For those long pokes that you typically see when you’re pass shooting or dealing with mature snow geese, you might try an Improved Modified. Full chokes and big steel shot don’t mix well. The patterns often aren’t good, and in extreme cases, you might get a choke tube stuck in your barrel after running lots of big shot through it.
Where to Hunt Geese
The explanation for the goose boom is simple: agricultural fields up and down the flyways set the table for migrating geese, ensuring that geese are well-nourished and arrive back on their breeding grounds in good condition. Those same fields provide lots of hunting opportunity. Geese are waterfowl, yet they are hunted on dry land as well as on the water. Typically, geese will roost on big water, then feed once or twice a day in the morning and/or afternoon. Between meals, they will loaf on ponds, rivers, and marshes.
Successful goose hunting demands scouting. Goose hunters call it “windshield time” and it’s a critical component of goose hunting. Once you learn where geese roost, feed, and loaf and you can put together a plan to hunt them. Geese can hop from field to field, especially when it’s warm. Typically, though, if birds feed in a field for two days, they will be there the third day. They do move around, both due to weather and the availability of food. Early in the season, geese can feed on grass, but as the weather gets cold they will fatten on high-energy grains and become especially vulnerable to decoys and a good hide in a dry field, and they are often more reliable in their movements and easier to pattern. If they find a good field, they will come back to it until they have eaten all the available waste grain.
Armed with this knowledge of the flock’s schedule, you can now hunt them one of three ways: you can set up on the “X” field, where they’re feeding; you can “run traffic” between the roost and the X field; or you can hunt them over water on the loafing areas. Hunting the roost where the birds spend the night is a tactic to save for the last day of the season, because as soon as you shoot the roost, you disrupt the birds and possibly push them out of the area.
Most goose hunts take place on private land. Depending on where you live, that may mean asking permission, or it may mean leasing a field. It’s also possible to hunt geese over water on private and public land alike.
Besides finding places to set up your blinds and decoys, you may find a pass-shooting opportunity. The one non-gear-intensive method of goose hunting, pass shooting is a matter of finding a flightline where geese are low enough to shoot at and hiding in a fenceline, a treeline, or even a road ditch (where legal) and shooting at geese flying overhead. While pass shooting doesn’t require gear, it does require a lot of shooting ability as well as the ability to estimate range and take ethical, killing shots.
The Best Decoy Setups for Goose Hunting
Scouting should give you a clue about how to set up. You want to set decoys where the geese were last seen feeding, or, failing that, on a high point with good visibility. For early-season Canada hunts, keep numbers fairly low and scatter your decoys in family groups of 5 to 7 birds. Later in the season, add numbers. You can space geese a little closer, but the only time you want to pack Canada decoys tight is if you’re setting shells around a hole in the ice on a late-season water hunt. While you will see huge Canada spreads if you watch enough goose-hunting videos, I am here to tell you that if you are where the geese want to be and you don’t have a huge party to hide, a couple of dozen decoys are all you need.
On the other hand, if you’re running traffic, which essentially means trying to peel off a few geese from a flock headed elsewhere, you often need a lot of decoys set up on a high spot on their flightline. It takes plenty of decoys, flagging, and calling to make a traffic hunt work. The advantage of running traffic instead of hunting an X field is that you can hunt it over and over, where if you shoot geese where they are feeding, they will go feed somewhere else.
Snow goose hunting is a numbers game, with spreads numbering in the hundreds and more. Speck hunting is the least decoy-intensive type of goose hunting, and you can often get by with under a dozen fakes. In all cases, remember decoys perform two functions: one is to attract birds, obviously. The second is to get birds close to the guns for a good, clean shot. Geese won’t land on top of other geese, so leave one or more landing holes in your spread, and be aware that you can set decoys to block birds from going where you don’t want them to go.
For over-water hunts, you can shoot geese over a very few floaters set apart from a duck spread or just a few geese. I hunt small ponds that are just slightly off the main flightline from a popular roost to the fields where the birds often feed. I’ll see lots go out early in the morning and occasionally get a chance at one, but when they come back from breakfast they are often looking for a place to sit down, and that’s the best time to be set up and waiting.
One of the most effective decoy setups for geese over water combines field and water decoys on a bare point or river sandbar. The decoys on shore help distract birds from the blinds and add drawing power while the floaters add motion in the wind or the river current. Typically, geese will land with the floaters so you want to set them in easy range of the blind. Incidentally, an all-goose spread works on ducks, too, where an all-duck rig won’t attract geese.
Goose hunting is often a group effort. Pick one person to be the shot caller and wait for their signal to get up and shoot. Your blind boss should be the most experienced hunter, although where I hunt, the proper etiquette is whoever found the hunting spot gets to call the shots. Be safe. When you crowd several people together in blinds it’s imperative that everyone handle guns safely, and that goes double if there are retriever dogs involved that may break and be at risk from a low shot, or step on a loaded gun and set it off. Be careful to shoot the lane from 10:00 to 2:00 in front of you, too, not just so everyone shoots at different birds, but so you don’t shoot over someone’s head, which is rude, dangerous, and can damage their hearing. Wear earplugs just in case.
How to Cook a Goose
The question I get most often from non-goose hunters when I tell them I hunt geese is “How do you eat those things?” My answer is, “As often as possible.” I gave up deer hunting years ago because I think geese are every bit as tasty (well, maybe except for venison loin) and a lot more fun to hunt.
Goose has a reputation as being tough and liver-like in flavor, and it is, if you overcook it and serve it in chunks. Goose breasts, cooked rare—I use a skillet, many prefer a charcoal grill—and sliced thin, taste like roast beef. Seriously. Many people skin breasts. I cook them with the skin on, and I like a whole roast picked Canada or speck, too, although picking a big Canada is an hour-long project. Many hunters make jerky or sausage out of goose breasts as well. Some people corn them or make pastrami, too. It’s all good.
Read Next: A Beginner’s Guide to Hunting the Spring Snow Goose Season
Most hunters rate specks as the best, although I would put a late-season, corn-fattened Canada up against any speck. It’s just as good and twice the size. Snows and September Canadas aren’t quite as tasty, but you can absolutely make them work.
Way too many people don’t keep the legs. While goose breasts have to be rare, goose legs are full of connective tissues and they respond well to slow cooking. Canada goose legs, especially, are huge and worth saving. You can do pulled goose, goose stew, goose chili, goose ragout, and more with the legs. It’s every bit as good as the breast meat and just one more reason to take up goose hunting.