Hunting the Wind

By Harold Kerns and John Thomas | October 2, 1997
From Missouri Conservationist: Oct 1997

The sun was barely visible on the horizon when what we thought were distant wisps of smoke turned into flock after flock of snow geese. The birds were fighting a 30-mile-an-hour head wind, and their exaggerated motion looked like waves on the water.

We had positioned ourselves in a large cornfield where, the day before, more than 25,000 geese had been feeding. That evening we asked the landowner for permission to hunt. In the darkness before sunrise, we put out our spread of 600 white windsock and rag decoys and chose the spots where we would wait for the geese.

We could hear the clamor of the hundreds of snow geese over the sound of our decoys snapping in the wind. The first wave of geese was a mere 10 yards high, 50 yards out front and closing fast. At this range it was easy to pick out the adult snows, pure white with black wingtips, and the contrasting colors of adult blues (the dark color phase of the snow goose) with their white heads and blue-gray bodies and wings.

Most of the first flock was made up of immature geese, the sooty gray snows and the dark gray blues. I strained to hear the closest hunter say "take 'em," but all I could hear was the din of hundreds of calling geese, a sound that has been likened to the yipping of a thousand fox terriers. Several of the lead birds settled to the ground, immediately disappearing into the white decoys. The other birds continued into the wind and were less than 20 yards away when the report of our shotguns made them flare away.

There was no time to gloat over our success, since the next wave of geese was on its final approach. This scene continued for the next two hours until we filled our 10-birds-per-hunter limits. As we picked up decoys, we shooed the snow geese still landing in our white spread.

Was this ultimate snow goose hunt in Texas or North Dakota or Canada? No, this hunt took place right here in Missouri. Snow goose hunting in Missouri can be fantastic, at times rivaling the best known areas of North America.

Many waterfowl hunters believe snow geese are difficult, if not impossible, to hunt with consistent results. Yet there exists a small fraternity that takes advantage of the thousands of snow geese that winter in Missouri or stop en route to Gulf Coast wintering grounds. Easy? Not in the least, but what part of waterfowl hunting is?

A key consideration is locating the major concentrations of snow geese that build up in Missouri. Northwest Missouri, near Mound City, historically has the largest concentration of snow geese in the state. Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge and, to a lesser extent, the nearby Bob Brown Conservation Area hold large concentrations of snow geese.

When temperatures plummet into the sub-zero range, and the shallow marshes freeze, the Iatan Power Generating Station in Platte County and Smithville Reservoir often attract large concentrations of snow geese. In west central Missouri, Schell-Osage, Montrose and Four Rivers conservation areas are likely snow goose locations.

Recently, large numbers of snow geese have appeared in southeast Missouri in the vicinity of Otter Slough and Ten Mile Pond conservation areas. This is a part of Missouri where snow geese were once rarely seen, but now a half million or more snow geese winter in the area. Snow geese use numerous other private, county or municipal lakes throughout the state. All of these areas provide important undisturbed open-water refuge areas for roosting and resting. Most of these areas have only limited snow goose hunting opportunity or do not allow hunting.

The best snow goose hunting occurs on private land in grain fields that surround snow goose concentrations. There are times when the geese may not leave the refuge areas regularly, thereby limiting hunting opportunities. Typically, goose behavior involves two feeding flights each day, usually each morning and afternoon. This is the time when the geese become most vulnerable to hunting.

The next order of business is locating feeding areas. Arm yourself with a full tank of gas, binoculars and county road maps. Feeder flocks may make flights as short as one-half mile to perhaps as far as 20 or more miles in search of food.

When you locate a field being used by the geese, carefully watch until they leave. Geese disturbed or frightened off a field will not likely return. Flocks also leave a field because the food source has been eliminated. When a field is "fed-out" it won't be used again.

Choose the field the birds last fed in when possible. Opt for large, open, isolated fields. The next option would be the nearest field with a similar food source. Since most snow goose feeding occurs on private land, it's imperative to locate the landowner and secure permission before the hunt. A plat or ownership map is invaluable at this point.

Now comes the part that eliminates most potential snow goose hunters - hard work! Setting decoys, more decoys and even more decoys is the plan. There are times when one or two hundred decoys will bring in snow geese, but it doesn't work consistently. The gregarious nature and large flock sizes of snow geese dictates that more is better.

Five hundred decoys is considered a bare minimum. Eight hundred to a thousand decoys consistently produce results. The lightweight and portable Texas rag and windsock styles make this chore practical and possible to achieve in a couple of hours.

Arrangement is not particularly important, keeping in mind the farther these counterfeits are spaced and spread out the larger your flock appears and the more visible the decoy spread becomes to distant flocks. A large oval pattern and the traditional fish hook pattern can provide good results. Dispersing individual shooter positions throughout the spread increases shot opportunities and helps ensure safety.

As much as possible make use of natural cover for concealment. Ditches, weedy field edges and waterways within the decoy pattern are ideal. The age-old waterfowlers adage to never set the farthest decoy beyond good shooting range doesn't apply here. Leave options open for hunters to move their location if the birds don't work over them.

Camouflage clothing is the rule and nothing is more important than covering the face. A face mask, scarf or camouflage makeup is a must. Pure white clothing can work well, but brown or dark brown/gray or cattail (in picked cornfields) camouflage patterns work best. Cover yourself with whatever crop residue is available and avoid any movement when geese are near.

The type and size of shotguns and ammunition used varies with hunter preference. In this style of hunting, decoying birds are frequently inside of 20 yards. No need for a 10 gauge shotgun here. Twelve and 20 gauge shotguns with a modified or improved cylinder choke are adequate. Large shot sizes like Ts or Fs are not needed and prove to be a liability, due to low pellet counts. The smaller shot sizes are adequate, with No. 2 and No. 1 shot sizes preferred.

For the most part, calling is unnecessary. Mimicking the sounds produced by several hundred geese is nearly impossible even with several callers. The clamor of an approaching flock will tend to overwhelm your efforts anyway. But don't leave the call at home, it can be useful on singles or small flocks. With just a little practice most people can imitate the snow goose without a call.

When the plan comes together and your decoy set works, don't gloat on your success. That's because it's probably over. Rarely will you score a good second day's shoot in the same location. That's not to say the same tactics won't work in another location. They will, time and time again. Just plan on moving. You may find yourself back to the same field later in the season.

Ask a snow goose hunter the key to success and you will receive one single bit of advice that outweighs and precludes everything else. Hunt the wind. The higher the wind velocity the better. Regardless of all the weather factors waterfowl hunters dream of, including low skies, approaching fronts and freezing temperatures, a strong wind is foremost. A 60 degree cloudless sky day with a 30 mph wind can be an unbelievable snow goose day.

Snow goose hunting is a game of extremes. Extreme number of decoys, extreme amount of scouting, extreme amount of work and extreme wind speeds.

The lesser snow goose has prospered in recent times, probably due to relatively undisturbed breeding grounds and the shift in wintering birds' diet from natural foods to various agricultural crops. Biologists worry the snow goose population explosion will ultimately result in a snow goose population crash. For example, researchers have recently documented severe damage to the arctic breeding grounds.

Federal regulations have liberalized season length and daily bag limits in response, but the snow goose population continues to rise. Recently in Missouri, regulators extended the season length for snow geese to 107 days and the daily limit for snow geese has gone from 5 to 7 to 10. Other states in the lesser snow goose range have implemented similar bag limit increases.

During this same time period the mid-continent population of lesser snow geese went from about 1 million to 2.7 million, and total United States harvest of lesser snow geese dropped from 700,000 to 400,000. Lesser snow geese are a nearly untapped resource that can withstand higher harvest.

Hunting snow geese over decoys can provide an incomparable wing shooting experience. A bonus to the snow goose hunter is the prospect of having good shooting opportunities for other goose species, including Canadas, white-fronts or even Ross' geese. Frequently, ducks visit a white spread, usually mallards or pintails. You don't have to travel to Texas rice country or the Canadian prairies to enjoy this bonanza. It's right here in Missouri.

Just a reminder before you head afield: waterfowl hunters are required to have a Missouri small game hunting permit, Missouri migratory bird permit and a Federal migratory bird hunting conservation stamp. Waterfowl hunters are also restricted to the use and possession of shotshells loaded with non-toxic shot. The next time you see a swarm of snow geese funneling downward into a distant field, picture yourself under that "white tornado." It could happen if you scout, ask permission, set many decoys and hunt the wind.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer