Take the field for close range Canada goose action

Contributing Editor

Jerry Solsrud lifted the giant goose decoy just enough to peek
out from under its tail, then dropped it back onto his chest and
picked up his flute call.

When he started calling, I chimed in to make our spread sound as
inviting as we hoped it looked. A dozen Canada geese cleared the
treetops a quarter-mile distant and set their wings.

“Here they come,” Jerry said.

The geese rocked sideways, dumping air and dropping closer to
the ground, as they made their final approach to what they thought
was a breakfast party. Wings cupped, feet splayed and necks bent
toward the stubble, they hung on the wind for what seemed
forever.

“OK, take ’em!” Jerry said.

We flipped back our shell decoys, sat up, and fired in unison.
Two geese dropped like stones, as the rest of the flock
backpedaled, honking madly, and peeled off downwind. I swung on
another bird just for fun, but did not shoot. Those two birds had
filled out our limits for the day.

At the shots, Jerry’s yellow Lab, Red, raced to the first bird,
grabbed it and trotted back. She dropped it at his feet, then ran
to the second goose and gathered it up. Red marks downed birds
well, as she retrieves hundreds of geese each season for Jerry and
his companions on hunts in Wisconsin and Canada.

“That’s the way they’re supposed to come in,” Jerry said.

Our earlier opportunities came when two smaller flocks swung
past the decoys close enough for a shot, but those birds were
warier than the last flock, which appeared committed to land the
moment they saw our decoys.

“These are probably migrants new to the area,” Jerry said. “See
how much smaller they are than the others?”

Wisconsin’s resident giant Canadas are the largest subspecies of
Canada geese. Adults may weigh 20 pounds or more. Migrant geese,
most of them greater Canadas of the Mississippi Valley Population
(MVP), are smaller. MVP geese start showing up in Wisconsin in
mid-September. They usually fly and roost separately, but mix with
resident birds in feeding fields. Migrant geese often decoy readily
when they first arrive, while those that have been shot at a few
times get just as wary as the resident birds that have been hunted
since Sept. 1.

Wisconsin’s resident Canada geese are more abundant every year,
despite the early season’s five-bird daily bag limit. Migrant
numbers vary from year to year, depending on their nesting success
in northern Ontario. This year, recruitment was poor, so
Wisconsin’s MVP quota is 49,200, down from 85,500 last year.

Solsrud, who founded the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association
(www.wisducks.org) two decades ago, hunts geese nearly every day of
the season. Except for a couple weeks in Canada, he hunts mainly in
Wisconsin. I doubt any Wisconsin hunter kills more geese each
year.

Solsrud generally puts out 18 oversized shell decoys, which
match the decoy attached to his low-slung chair blind. When he
needs to conceal another hunter or two, he may put out a dozen or
more smaller shell decoys upwind of the main spread. The difference
in size between the two groups of decoys should not matter to geese
arriving from downwind.

“Your spread should look realistic,” he said. “Don’t put them
too close together, too far apart, or all facing one way.”

A mix of feeder and alert heads can be positioned in several
directions to add to the spread’s realism. Solsrud, who often hunts
alone, prefers shell decoys because they’re light in weight and
they stack to save space. His vehicle can carry 18 oversized and
three-dozen life-size shell decoys, plus two chair blinds and Red’s
kennel crate, with room to spare.

Decoys won’t do you much good if no geese are using the field
you’re hunting. Solsrud scouts for days before the season opens and
after every morning hunt to locate fields frequented by geese.
Geese will use the same field for days, then switch to another
field when they have picked it clean or if hunters push them off
it. Early in the season, geese prefer wheat stubble, where they
pick up grain left by the combines. Geese also feed in corn and
soybean fields as soon as they’re harvested. When these are all
picked clean, they’ll feed in alfalfa fields as long as they remain
green.

As he scouts, Solsrud seeks permission from farmers. Most
farmers will welcome you to hunt geese, as they cause a fair amount
of crop damage in some areas. With permission on several farms, you
can enjoy good shooting as geese move from field to field. The best
field to hunt tomorrow is one where geese are feeding today.

Geese don’t fly as early as ducks, so you can usually set up at
first light and be ready when they arrive. They leave their roosts
on open water in lakes, rivers, and marshes early in the morning,
fly out to feed, then loaf in fields or return to water, depending
on hunting pressure and the weather. Most shooting will come in the
first hour or so.

Solsrud is the first to admit he’s not a champion goose caller.
He calls only enough to catch a flock’s attention, then gives a few
low clucks to make them think all is well.

I joined Solsrud on several Exterior Zone field hunts last
November, and each time we had opportunities to shoot two birds
apiece. Debby Wolniak and I joined him on an early season hunt this
year just before Labor Day. Jerry and I hunted from decoy chairs,
which we put among the shell decoys on each side of our spread. We
put Debby in an opening between us in a layout blind, which worked
like a charm. We had shooting at five or six flocks of resident
birds. Debby even tripled on her first goose hunt, which made the
veteran Solsrud sit up and take notice.

On a field hunt, most shots are at close range as geese circle
the spread or try to land, so magnum loads of steel or bismuth BBs
work fine. Solsrud shoots a 10-gauge because he likes to anchor his
birds, but Debby and I had no trouble killing geese with 3-inch
12-gauge bismuth loads. Take some duck loads along on late-season
hunts, as you’ll often see mallards as well as geese.

Good scouting, combined with a realistic decoy spread and
effective camouflage can yield exciting field-shooting for geese
all season long.

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