One of the worst things about early spring is suffering through the interminable gap between the late winter hunting season and chasing spring turkeys. Most hunters simply grit their teeth and push through it, spending their time cleaning shotguns, practicing calling, and looking longingly at their hunting gear in the garage. But it doesn’t have to be that way! In some places the coming of spring brings with it an opportunity for extraordinary hunting when the skies fill with white clouds and distant honking, letting every hunter know that snow geese are coming.
Snow geese are an incredibly underutilized and undervalued hunting opportunity. Every spring across the Atlantic, Mississippi, and Central Flyways, thousands upon thousands of these geese return from their wintering grounds in the South, traveling in flocks that can block out the sun. Hunters in the know look forward to this migration every spring because the snow goose provides some of the fastest action of the entire waterfowling year. In most states the vast numbers of migrating snow geese, which since the 1970s have become grossly overpopulated, have led to no bag limit or shotgun ammo restrictions when hunting them. For hunters who hit the migration right, it’s not unusual to have 100-bird days in the field.
Although they don’t get the same attention as Canada geese and other waterfowl, the snow goose is an incredible game bird. They come in three varieties: the greater snow goose, which is found almost exclusively in the Atlantic Flyway; the lesser snow goose; and the Ross’s goose, which makes up the flocks of the Mississippi and Central Flyways. The population of all three species numbers around five million birds, which reflects why they have so few hunting restrictions; their huge populations can wreak havoc on the delicate Arctic vegetation in their summer range. Snow geese are often considered “trash birds” by many hunters who don’t consider them good eating. Nothing could be further from the truth. Snow geese live on a diet of rich vegetation such as bullrushes, cattail tubers, and salt grass in their summer and winter ranges, and on agricultural crops such as wheat, rice, and especially corn during their migration. These eating habits make the snow goose an incredibly tasty bird, with a light and milder-flavored meat than many of the more coveted waterfowl species.
Although the high numbers of snows may make hunting them seem easy, the truth is that it is a heck of a lot of work. Snow geese will stage up in flocks of tens of thousands waiting for the proper weather and temperature before migrating, so hunters who pursue basically experience a feast or famine of goose shooting that can vary almost daily. Pre-season scouting for snow geese includes not only finding a good place to hunt from, but finding several large groups of birds that will possibly fly over your chosen hunting location within a 20- or 30-mile radius. The best places to set up are in grain and corn fields along a migration corridor that is thick with staging northbound geese. Look for fields that have adjacent water sources, such as flooded fields, ponds, or even large, slow-moving rivers to help increase the chances of the birds focusing on an area. Once you find a good area, the next task a snow goose hunter has to overcome is finding and setting up enough decoys.
It takes a lot of decoys to bring in migrating snow geese. The birds almost always stay together and travel in massive skeins that can sometimes cross the entire skyline. To even have a chance to impress these massive flocks enough to move into shotgun range, hunters have to set up between 300 to more than 1,000 decoys. This can seem like a completely overwhelming number and frequently turns off a lot of potential snow goose hunters. Some may not want to put in that much pre-dawn work into a setup, but most simply cannot afford that number of decoys. Still, the juice is worth the squeeze. With a variety of inexpensive snow goose decoys out there—as well as some other tricky set ups—any hunter can get enough decoys to bring in the birds. Buying 20-30 of the more high-end realistic decoys, and then another 20 of the less expensive variety (and so on down the line) really helps a hunter start to chip away at the amount. After that, the rest can be made up of much less expensive decoys. If you already have a few Canada goose decoys, or even some larger duck decoys that have seen better days, a can of white spray paint can go a long way to building your numbers.
Lastly, and by far the cheapest and easiest way to make up the numbers, is with white plastic trash bags set up in “goosey” shapes on sticks. Have a good mix of quality to make the setup appear as natural as possible. Also, when starting a decoy setup, it’s important to remember that, despite their namesake, snow geese aren’t all completely white. Some birds have a gray-blue color phase and juvenile birds are completely gray. Mixing and matching colors with the decoys is important for authenticity.
The snow goose migration gives us a chance to break up the monotony of a slow spring. Once you get around the frustration and the work of collecting and setting up the decoys, you’ll find yourself looking forward to the spring like a kid before Christmas. Standing outside at sunset before opening day, you may find yourself gazing at the fading light, listening for the sound of distant honking on the wind and hoping for snow.