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Easy Geese

By Larry D. Hodge

Setting decoys is the classic way to hunt geese. But pass shooting works if you know how.

I love hunting geese over a decoy spread. The sight and sound of flock after flock of clamoring birds hovering over you as they try to decide if those are real geese down there is a spectacle that never fails to delight.

But there’s one thing I don’t like about hunting over decoys. Setting out a decoy spread is work, hard work. Hunting often takes place in a rice paddy that is still flooded or recently was, and walking in thick, black mud wearing waders while setting out several hundred decoys is not fun. Even on a cool morning you work up quite a sweat putting out decoys, and then you get to lie down in cold mud.

It is possible to hunt geese another way, without a decoy spread. Called flight-shooting or pass-shooting, it involves figuring out the route geese will use to get into a field and then putting yourself in position to shoot as they pass over. In some ways it’s like dove hunting. Like doves, geese seem to follow particular routes on their way into a field, and a hunt begins with observing where most of the birds seem to be going, then choosing a hunting location within range.

“I have several groups of regular customers who specifically request to hunt this way,” says outfitter Clifton Tyler of Eagle Lake. “With a group of hunters, I’ll spread them out 100 yards apart all the way across a field.” That way, as in dove shooting, no matter where the birds fly, a hunter will be waiting. And, as in dove hunting, hunters must be careful to maintain a safe zone of fire.

Oddly enough, my favorite way to begin such a goose hunt is by hunting ducks. At the first hint of daylight, ducks leave their roosts and search for feeding areas. Legal shooting begins 30 minutes before sunrise, and most duck hunts are over by the time the sun is above the horizon. That’s about when geese begin to leave the roost, so there’s time to do both.

My morning duck hunt takes place over a pond that was a fallow field a week ago. The rain has been falling, and falling and falling, and the creeks have been rising, and rising and rising. The day before our hunt, the creek we crossed on the way in was impassable; today it’s only a foot deep over the road, though still 30 yards wide.

The temperature is in the 40s, and the sky is so clear the stars seem sharp holes pierced through the blackness. For the Texas Gulf Coast, it’s cold. It’s early November, and despite the cool air, blue-winged teal are still the predominant duck on the prairie. From time to time, a few pintails and shovelers look over our spread, but bunches of teal buzz us, occasionally offering a shot. The first duck that comes in becomes part of my bag. Two more bluewings join it before sunrise, and a little later a shoveler makes the mistake of attempting to land in the spread.

The plan is to hunt ducks early, then look for geese flying into a field where we can get under their flight pattern and pass-shoot them. I get an early preview when five white-fronted geese (specklebellies) pass over us just a bit too low. I’d resisted the temptation to shoot at several other groups, thinking they were too high, but this group seems within range, even though I’m shooting No. 4 steel shot. As the geese pass over I lead the closest bird the length of its body and touch off the load, crumpling it instantly. Astro, Clifton Tyler's yellow Labrador retriever, regards me with respect that was lacking when I missed some easy shots at decoying ducks.

The air is dead calm, and our decoys sit lifelessly on the water. The sun is less than an hour high when Tyler calls an end to the hunt. “Ducks just don’t seem to move around much when there’s no wind,” he explains. “Let’s go look for geese.”

Geese are everywhere, of course, but we’re not looking for just any geese. We’re looking for geese with an itch to get into a particular field to feed. That itch can be so strong it will keep geese coming back throughout the day as they alternately feed and water. The geese will trade back and forth between the same watering and feeding sites, so it’s usually possible to choose a spot beneath a route being used by substantial numbers of birds. That’s the place we want to hunt.

Almost all the prairies around Eagle Lake are leased for hunting by one outfitter or another, so we have to find a field that Tyler has permission to hunt. As we drive the graveled country roads, we see clouds of geese descending in the distance. Soon we find ourselves on a road between two separate feeding flocks. Hundreds of geese descend on each of the fields. Fortunately, Tyler has leased a field just to the north of one of the feeding flocks, and a steady stream of geese passes over it. An irrigation canal with a fence by it bisects the field, and clumps of McCartney rose grow along the fence, offering good places to hide. “We can hunt right here,” he says. However, in case the geese abandon this field on the morrow, we continue our search for an alternate site.

By the time we finish scouting, it’s too late to begin a hunt. It’s an unwritten law around Eagle Lake that goose hunting ends at noon. That gives the geese a chance to feed unmolested all afternoon, making them more likely to stay in the area. Plus, geese generally return in the morning to feed in the same field they left the evening before; leaving them undisturbed makes it more likely they will return the next day.

One of the pleasures of flight shooting is that you don’t have to get up at 4 a.m. to set out decoys. We do rise early the next morning to breakfast with the hunters going out to shoot over decoys, but after they leave we have time for a half-hour nap. This is the decadent goose hunting I’ve dreamed about.

When we arrive at the field, we can hear geese clamoring on a roost half a mile away. Ducks and cormorants occupy the air while the geese discuss — loudly — what to do and when to do it. The sun is almost up when a roar spills across the prairie, the roar from thousands of geese taking off within seconds of each other. Some are headed our way. I hunker beside my clump of McCartney rose and wait.

Soon geese are everywhere above me, but most are out of range. One of the tricks to pass-shooting is learning to judge distance accurately. Unlike objects in a rearview mirror, geese are generally farther away than they appear. I train a laser rangefinder on a goose that seems to be nearly within range. The reading is 117 yards, more than twice as far as effective shotgun range. I continue ranging geese until I’m confident I can tell when they are close enough.

Before long a flight of white-fronted geese gives me my first opportunity. It takes me three shots to get the lead right, but I drop my first goose of the day. For a while I watch as geese pass by low enough but out of range to one side or the other, then I abandon my rose bush and take to the chest-high weeds in the middle of the field. The move pays off as five white-fronted geese come straight over me, and I drop the middle one. As in dove shooting, I shoot at only one goose at a time and watch it all the way to the ground, then never take my eyes off the spot as I go to retrieve it. Not doing so can result in lost birds in thick cover such as this.

My final goose of the morning is a snow that approaches in the midst of a flock of white-fronted geese. I have my two-bird limit of white-fronted geese, so I can only watch and hope as the geese approach. At the last minute the snow decides to angle slightly my way and breaks free of the others, offering me the clear shot I need.

In spread hunting, with more than one person shooting, it’s sometimes difficult to claim a downed bird. As I unload my gun, I mention to Tyler that one of the benefits of hunting geese using this method is that it is always clear who shot a goose. “There’s another benefit, too,” he replies. “After you’re done hunting, you don’t have to pick up a decoy spread.”

Early Season or Late?

Until a few years ago, Mike Whalen, owner of Porter Creek Hunting Club near El Campo, was a purist who would hunt geese only over decoys. But as the snow goose population rose and the percentage of older birds too smart to decoy went up, Whalen began to study goose behavior, and now he uses the knowledge he’s gained to pass-shoot when conditions are right.

“Pass-shooting works best late in the season,” Whalen says. “The birds are trying to conserve energy for the flight back north, and they won’t fly any farther or higher than necessary. In addition, the middles of the fields are all fed out, so the geese will be feeding in the edges of the fields near cover they would normally avoid. If you can get downwind of a feeding area in a direct line between it and the roost, you can do well.

“Everything has to be exactly right for it to work,” Whalen cautions. “You have to be in the flight path geese are going to take between a roost pond and a feeding field. I’ll put a dozen or so shell decoys out in front of the hunters, and three or four dozen a hundred yards or so behind them. The geese will spot the small group of decoys first and head for it, but when they see the larger group farther on, their attention will be focused there.” Just as in magic tricks, a little misdirection goes a long way toward fooling the mark. When the geese head for the more distant group of decoys, hunters hidden between the two spreads have pass-shooting at geese within decoying range.

Early season pass-shooting is possible when all the right conditions come together. “You must adapt to the situation,” Whalen says. “Scout. Observe. Don’t hunt aimlessly.” By way of example, he takes me to one of his favorite pass-shooting spots, an area he calls “the pit blinds.” At first glance it appears to be nothing more than a large open field with a dry irrigation canal heavily bearded with weeds running east to west across its middle.

Whalen explains why pass-shooting works here. “This is a large, open field with no obstructions such as power lines, trees or oil field equipment in it that geese will fly around rather than over. There’s a roost pond to the south of the field. If birds are feeding north of the canal and there’s a strong north wind, geese will fly right over the ditch at low level on their way to feed.” By hiding in the ditch and using the natural cover along its edges, hunters can have good pass-shooting, because there’s nothing to tip the birds off that hunters are there.

As if to validate Whalen’s remarks, a flight of about 10 snow geese bears straight across the field at us, 20 yards high. Not until they near us do they flare.

Outfitters

The following outfitters will either do pass-shooting when birds won’t decoy to a spread or will book parties specifically for pass-shooting.

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