HUNTING: Stay Smarter than the Geese
The air was crisp and still under an indigo sky. Heavy hoar-frost blanketed the stubble corn. It was early March in southwest Nebraska, and winter was slowly releasing its grip on the eastern edge of the Rainwater Basin. In our midst, roughly one thousand snow goose windsock decoys hung lifeless on their stakes. Soon, they would come to life in the stiffening morning breeze.
Shortly after legal shooting time, a single adult snow goose descended from the stratosphere into the decoys. My partner and I rose and fired simultaneously dropping the gorgeous adult snow goose in the decoys only a few feet away.
That lone bird made the adventure worthwhile and kick-started my passion for the sport.
That was over fifteen years ago. It was the first time I witnessed the “smoke” on the horizon, as hundreds of thousands of snow geese approached and eventually streamed past in a raucous northbound parade. I was hooked. I vowed to never miss the spectacle of the spring snow goose hunting season.
Over the next few years, my hunting buddies and I invested in a few hundred snow goose decoys to build our spread. We also begged and borrowed a hodgepodge of well-used windsocks, along with a few shells. We hit the road every spring to hunt for a few days in Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri, Kansas or Arkansas. Running and gunning — largely ill-equipped – we killed birds with varying degrees of success. And as we strived to learn the basics of spring snow goose hunting, the game was undergoing a transformation…
Historically, snow geese would decoy to just about anything that resembled a goose. In those days, the cheap “Texas Rag” was standard equipment for many hunters, some hunters even resorting to newspapers, diapers or paper plates scattered in the grain stubble. When the continental snow goose population began to explode, the birds got smarter, rendering such thrifty options much less effective – if not obsolete. As snow goose numbers proliferated, the oldest birds became virtually impossible to fool. Traditional light goose hunting seasons and methods were failing to control the runaway North American snow goose population.
A new order and a new era
Congress passed the Arctic Tundra Habitat Emergency Conservation Act in 1999. The Act resulted in a gradual build-up of increasingly liberal hunting regulations propagated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) over the following several years, all designed to bring light goose populations under control and abate destruction of the fragile, Arctic tundra breeding grounds – critical habitat used by a multitude of wildlife species, but being dominated and destroyed by light geese.
The Light Goose Conservation Order (LGCO) was a critical all-out assault on burgeoning lesser and greater snow goose, as well as Ross goose populations – all considered “light geese”. Bag limits were eliminated, shotgun capacity restrictions were lifted and hunting hours extended. Electronic calls were also legalized. Season dates continue to vary by state, but as a rule, spring snow goose season begins as early as February 1st and may run well into May. Some states also simplified their license requirements to boost snow goose hunting participation, further sweetening the deal for hunters.
As expected and intended, snow goose hunting pressure increased exponentially. The geese responded, rapidly acquiring PhD’s in hunter evasion. They started flying higher, and grew increasingly suspect of all but the most convincing decoy spreads. Ironically, the liberal regulations enacted through the LGCO to help hunters kill more snow geese have resulted in making them harder to kill than ever.
Savvy hunters adapted. As their tactics became more advanced, so did the tools they’d use. While some hunters continued to deploy spreads of thousands of windsock decoys, many came to the realization that using fewer, more realistic decoys would work better much of the time. Even a couple hundred full-bodies could get the job done on many days. This was a huge shift in strategy for many snow goose hunters who were familiar with hauling around Canada goose spreads of similar size. And while the first generation of modern full-body snow goose decoys were good, they weren’t great. There was definitely room for improvement.
A surprising number of snow goose hunters made the considerable investment in full-body decoys. The demand resulted in improvements in design and function.
One of the companies on the cutting edge of full body snow goose decoy design and manufacturing is Avian-X. Elite waterfowler, well-known call and decoy designer, Fred Zink, and Waterfowl Obsession TV’s Scott Butz developed Avian-X. Not only do these decoys portray snow geese with striking realism, they are extremely durable and will not crack or shed paint. What’s more, Avian-X’s simple and innovative motion stakes can be hammered into hard or frozen ground, so drilling isn’t required, which makes set-up much more efficient.
Scott Butz on snow geese
Butz is a snow goose junkie from North Dakota. Today, he owns Snow Goose Warehouse, which sells the Avian-X full body snow decoy exclusively. This guy has very little interest in ducks or even dark geese. He is dedicated to hunting snows, and his admiration for them cannot be overstated. Butz truly respects light geese and possesses a biologist-like understanding of the birds. I ran into him a few years ago while hunting an adjacent field in Arkansas, and was dumbfounded by his regimented approach to hunting these birds. His trailer was impeccably organized and clean, and his seasoned decoys still looked new out of the box.
I recently discussed snow goose hunting with Butz. In particular, I wanted to know how he sets himself apart from other hunters. Not surprisingly, like many elite snow goose hunters, he is constantly adapting to overcome the increasing challenge of harvesting snow geese over decoys.
There remain two competing philosophies when it comes to snow goose decoys – sheer numbers vs realism. It should be no surprise that Butz preaches the realism strategy, as he regularly deploys three to four hundred full-body Avian-X snows in his lean and mean decoy spread.
“Fred and I worked on them for a couple years before they hit the market, and when we were done, I knew we had a homerun,” Scott explained. “We don’t flood the market with them, so we out run every year… They are definitely the ultimate full-body snow,” he added.
Snow goose hunting has become big business, and while many legitimate outfitters and guides exist, unfortunately, there is an amazing number of less experienced outfits doing business as well. Scott is adamant that these numerous “uneducated guides” have had a negative impact on everyone else’s hunting success.
“There are a lot of hunters and guides out there making all kinds of mistakes,” said Butz. “They park their vehicles too close to their spreads, use too much motion and hunt stubble that is the wrong height so birds can’t land. These poor decisions lead to even more mistakes… like taking stupid shots at smart birds. Guys just need to educate themselves and understand the birds better. That’s half the battle.”
Butz believes a super realistic decoy with just the right amount of motion is key to consistently finishing snow geese inside thirty yards. “Keep those decoys clean,” he advises. “Scrub them down if they get dirty, and repaint or replace them if you have to.” Avian-X snow goose decoys come with Bird Vision UV reflective paint technology, which is another reason they work so effectively. “I don’t care what anybody says, snow geese are not dirty as a rule and their vision is most definitely UV sensitive.”
Realistic calling is also critical in today’s snow goose hunting environment, and electronic calls are important tools – if not mandatory – when trying to reproduce the sounds of a few hundred geese.
“They’ve heard all kinds of crummy e-caller soundtracks,” said Butz, who advocates having a high quality caller that plays undistorted recordings of snow geese. “I’ve spent a lot of money working on this, getting the frequency right, using the best sound recording equipment made and then having it mixed in a professional studio and now we stock a custom made caller with those sounds pre-loaded. It makes a big difference,” he said.
“Any edge you can give yourself is going to set you apart from other spreads in the area.”
Realistic motion is another key to any effective snow goose spread, and there are several good options out there. Of course, Butz is well known for his Reel Wings motion decoys, and believes they are the most realistic and effective motion decoys available. Reel Wings are a foam version of a spinning-wing decoy that behave much like a kite that is flown on a string and portrays the illusion of geese landing in the “kill hole”.
Obviously, some breeze is required so Butz manufactures two versions, including one for lighter breezes as well as the standard version that can handle stronger winds. Butz prefers 15 – 20 mph winds on sunny days, but he doesn’t stay home when the conditions aren’t perfect. Regardless the type of motion decoy employed, it’s important to adapt on any given day, depending on the weather and the attitude of the birds.
Spring snow goose hunting season has kicked off in select states in every flyway across the country. This unprecedented hunting opportunity yields some of the most memorable sights, sounds and shooting experiences. But the game remains challenging. If you are an experienced snow goose hunter, or even a guide, consider upping your game by enhancing the realism of your decoys and electronic calling.
The everyday hunter can certainly enjoy all the excitement and rewards the sport brings, too, and avoid its significant capital costs by hiring a reputable guide or outfitter. Dozens of top-tier snow goose outfitters exist. Just be sure to do your research and ask plenty of questions about their hunting practices and tactics. Guides or outfitters who fail to provide satisfying answers or appear annoyed by your questions probably aren’t the best choice.