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A Comprehensive Look at Spring Snow Goose Hunting

By Jerry Carlson

Hunting snow geese during the spring migration is quite a memorable event and one that I highly recommend. It is especially thrilling for those hunters that love watching birds and enjoy wing shooting. However, if a person is new to the sport, there are often questions concerning what a spring snow goose hunt is all about.

First of all, the spring snow goose hunt is the result of a 1999 Conservation Order designed to reduce the number of snow geese in North America. These birds nest on the tundra areas of Canada and are literally eating their food supply faster that it can replenish itself. Without some human intervention, the snow goose population is headed for a significant collapse.

In an effort to give hunters as many advantages as possible to harvest significant numbers of birds, the Conservation Order was very liberal in their restrictions. During the spring migration, unplugged shotguns are allowed as are electronic calls and motion decoys. The states I am familiar with have very generous daily limits or no limits at all. Licenses must be obtained from the state being hunted but are often free or available at a nominal cost.

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Even with all of the normal hunting restrictions thrown out the window, the program has been only marginally successful. This is due to the fact that snow geese are quite intelligent, live to be over 20 years old and are hunted eight months of the year. Put these factors together and you have the makings for wary birds that do not decoy very well.



Decoys and Spreads

When selecting an outfitter to work with, it is important to understand the fact snow geese are very cautious. Outfitters need to be working from a spread of 1000 to 1500 decoys in order to get the attention of the big flocks that are migrating north. For snow geese, there is also safety in numbers.

I have hunted with different guides and have found that having a mixture of full body decoys and windsocks is important. When the wind blows, the windsocks create the movement that geese love. When the wind doesn’t blow, the full bodies save the day with realism.

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Guides that have rotaries in their spread can create movement artificially. The long arms and flapping decoys on a rotary also help aid in centering the birds above the shooters. On a calm day, full bodies and rotaries make a huge difference. Ask your outfitter about their spread.

Guides will move and reset fields according to hunting success. As long as new birds are heading north and a field is producing, there is no need to hunt a new field every day. Besides, it takes two guides a minimum of four hours to tear down and set a new field.

 

Guns and Ammo

First time snow goose hunters are always curious about guns and ammo. Snow geese are not that hard to bring down. However, targets are often at the outer edge of shotgun range (40 to 50 yards) so shoot something accordingly. A 12 gauge is perfect. Removing the plug is recommended but not necessary. Three or 3.5 inch shells in steel BB or BBB will do the trick. Non toxic shot in size B or 2 is even better. (Note: A 12 gauge does not shoot farther than a 20 gauge as the pellets lose their energy the same distance from the barrel. However, a 12 or 10 gauge does offer more pellets on target at the desired range.)

Pay close attention to the shell velocity. The faster the shot comes out of the barrel, the more downrange energy the shot will retain. (Energy equals mass times velocity squared.) Speed is more important than a heavy payload. For example, Black Cloud Snow Goose loads will give shooters extra yards and more geese on the ground.

As for the quantity of shells, I would recommend two boxes of shells for each day of hunting. Shells are often the cheapest part of the trip. Buy the best shells you can afford.

Clean your gun before you arrive and bring a gun cleaning kit. I can’t tell you the number of times I have seen a $1200 semi auto turn into a single shot because it hadn’t been properly cleaned. 

Bird Harvest

Hunters that are booking their first trip are always curious about the number of birds they can expect to harvest in a day of hunting. This is a fair question to ask an outfitter before booking. Realistically, 15 to 25 birds is pretty average. Fifty bird days are not uncommon. However, there are a lot of variables that go into the harvest count. Remember, you are not just hunting for kill count. The experience is part of the package.

It is critical to understand you are hunting wild birds in an unpredictable situation. Guides cannot control the weather or migration fluctuations. They are doing everything they can to give you a good hunt. The long term success of a guide is directly related to the satisfaction of their customers.
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Hunting juvenile birds is definitely easier than hunting adults. These birds are not as smart and will decoy easier. However, they also migrate later than the adults because they are not mature enough to nest.  The juvenile push follows the big migration. You may see fewer birds when targeting juveniles, but you will harvest more.

Guides Lead the Team

There are many reasons hunters book their trips with an outfitter. The knowledge guides have gained over many years of hunting is invaluable. They know how to set the spread, how to adjust the decoys so the birds center and present the best targets, how to read the birds and when to call the shots.

All of this takes practice and experience, especially reading the birds and calling the shot. This may seem simple, but reading the birds and calling the shot is probably the most difficult part of goose hunting.
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Unlike other waterfowl, snow geese approach the decoys from above you. You will get to watch as they circle, glide and scrutinize your spread. If they like what they see, they will gradually drop closer. Expect your shots to be at a 45 degree angle to straight up.

The guides will take care of bird retrieval. Most of the birds will be retrieved by a dog. Cripples that sail for some distance will be chased down with the four-wheeler and dog.Don’t be afraid to help. Guiding goose hunts is very labor intensive. The guides may refuse your offer for help or they may accept. It will depend on the job and situation. Offering to carry equipment is something they will usually appreciate.

The guides will have a four-wheeler and tub for carrying gear to and from the blinds. You are responsible for loading and removing gear from the tub. Keep your gun in its case until you arrive at the blinds. Hunters will be asked to walk to the blinds. Rides on the wheeler are not permitted.

When you get to the set, you will find the blinds arranged close together in a row for safety reasons. Expect a discussion on safety. The guides need to do this and should make shot calling and gun handling expectations crystal clear. If they do not have a safety discussion, ask for one so your group knows what is expected. Don’t even think about bringing alcohol.

Clothing and Accessories

Packing for a snow goose hunt is not easy. Due to such variable weather conditions, it is hard to know exactly what to bring. Let’s start with one concept; expect it to be cool and wet.

Spring is a period of melting snow, standing water and unstable weather. Rain or snow is probably going to happen sometime during your trip so bring quality rainwear. It is always a good idea to dress warmer than what you think would be necessary. You can always remove layers. I try to bring an extra of everything because it is hard to dry clothing on the road.
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Camo clothing is helpful but not essential. Because most guides use layout blinds, you will be quite covered up. A facemask should be worn if you do not plan on using the face screen on the blind. Geese have incredible eyesight and will spot movement and uncovered faces.

Good boots are critical. If you have waders, bring them and hope you won’t need to use them. If it is raining or melting, blinds will get wet and muddy. Waders will keep you dry. Warm, knee-high rubber boots are great. If your toes have a tendency to get cold, purchase some disposable toe warmers for your boots. Don’t forget the boot dryer.

I would also recommend an extra butt pad of some sort. This pad will not only add comfort, it will also keep you out of the water and mud that may collect in your blind.

Bring gloves that are warm enough to keep your fingers toasty but also designed for shooting. A stocking cap and neck gator are a must. Binoculars are not necessary but can be fun. Ear protection is recommended.

A shell bag is essential. Not only will it keep your ammo dry, it will hold snacks, water, a small thermos, camera and extra gloves.

If you are sharing a lodge with other hunters, label all of your gear. Bring along a magic marker as a precaution.

Booking, Payment and Tips

When booking a trip, try to set aside at least three days for hunting. Four is better. It is easy to be weathered out for half or even a full day of hunting. Like any wild game, the birds are more active on some days than others.  A multiple day hunt gives you a better chance for success.

Ask your outfitter to describe a day’s hunt. I have hunted with some outfitters that consider a full day to end at noon. When we expressed interest in hunting the afternoon, they asked for more money.

If your hunt includes morning and afternoon, expect to take a midday break. Generally, there is little activity midday, besides, the guides and everyone else can benefit from a reprieve and some food. Evening hunts are usually less productive than morning hunts but worth the effort.

Most outfitters will ask for a deposit equal to half of the cost. Do not assume they are set-up for credit cards. They may not take checks, either. Cash is usually preferred. Final payment will be asked for shortly after your arrival.

As a general rule, guides are tipped $15 to $20 per guide per day per hunter.

Birds: Cleaning and Storage

Assume that your hunting party is responsible for cleaning your own birds. If you want the guides to do it, expect to pay them per bird plus tip.

Rubber gloves (latex or nitrile), packaging bags and coolers should be brought unless otherwise noted. Ask your guides what the routine is and they will tell you. A bird hitch helps and they may have one you can borrow. Some outfitters will freeze your birds after you have cleaned them. Label your packages. Most states require one fully feathered wing for transportation. Check state regs for specifics.

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The guides are very open to photo opportunities either in the field or back at camp. If you plan on saving a bird or two for mounting, bring along a special bag to put them in. Let the guides know you would like birds for mounting when you begin the hunt.

It is unethical and illegal to shoot birds and not use them. It is called wanton waste. Killing 100 birds in a day sounds impressive but may not be exactly what you want to deal with.

Hunting Party Etiquette


Unless you have a group of six or seven hunters, it is probable you will be hunting with people you do not know from another party. Don’t assume that everyone enjoys gross jokes and foul language. In fact, having women and young hunters in a group is quite common.

Everyone likes to get a crack at geese as they come in. If you have a hunter that is not as fast at getting a gun on the birds, ask the guides to help them get the first shot a couple of times. Consider putting older or hearing impaired hunters close to the guides.

Stay in the blind! Geese have a way of showing up out of nowhere. If someone from your party is up walking around, they can ruin an opportunity for everyone. Bodily functions need to be addressed, but pick your time carefully.

While the birds are working your spread, keep your talking to a minimum. Geese hear very well and will quickly pick up on loud talking. Do not start shouting to the guides about incoming birds. They will see them.

Summary

There are some hunters that love to do it on their own. There is nothing wrong with that. However, it may still be smart to book a guide a few times to gain experience.

For most hunters, working with an outfitter is the way to go. The financial investment to purchase all of the equipment and lease land is substantial, not to mention the effort involved in putting up a spread all on your own for a few days of hunting.

When booking a guide, make sure you ask questions so your expectations are clear. Don’t be afraid to ask about their hunting experience and qualifications. Requesting references is reasonable as is asking about the outfitter’s rebooking rate of hunters.

Go into your hunt with reasonable expectations. It is possible to shoot fifty plus birds in a day but not probable. In reality, do you really want to process a couple hundred birds when you get home?

Ask about lodging and meals. If you are staying in a hunting lodge, meals may be part of the package. This is a great way to go. If you are staying in a motel, the outfitter may have suggestions that will help. Also, get your license ahead of time. Your outfitter will have contact information for you.  

Remember, it is your hunt. The guides will accommodate your requests whenever possible. Be prompt. Follow the timelines and suggestions the guides will give. They want you to have a great time. They will do their part, you need to do yours.

Spring snow goose hunting is a thrilling adventure. If you love to hunt and have not experienced the spring migration, you need to put it on your wish list.

For more goose hunting articles and photos, go to jerrycarlsonoutdoors.com.

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