There is nothing quite so vivid in my memories from decades of hunting and other outdoor experiences as watching V-shaped flocks of honking Canada geese flying high overhead during their annual migrations. From the lakes and rivers of northern Minnesota, where I first hunted geese, to the Eastern Plains of Colorado, where I was hunting on a recent January morning, there are few experiences that equal the sights and sounds of geese in conjuring up our primal ties to the changing seasons and hunting.
Before sunrise on Jan. 31, six of us were in an eastern Colorado farmer’s field anticipating flocks of geese spotting our decoy spread from above, then circling, turning, setting their wings and beginning to glide. The perfect shot opportunity is when they ultimately commit to landing—feet out in front, leaning back nearly upright, neck and head stretched forward at an angle like a Concorde jet—it’s a sight to behold.
I was hunting with Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) Southern Rockies Coordinator, Tim Brass, Bill Brass (Tim’s dad, who was visiting from Minnesota) and BHA life member Melinda Miller along with avid Colorado waterfowlers Jens Larsen and Taylor O’Donnell. The experience level of our group ranged from hardcore hunters to first-timers (Melinda had never hunted waterfowl).
We met at our field/pit-blind around 6 a.m. Saturday morning and commenced setting up decoys. As explained by Field & Stream contributor Phil Bourjaily, “Setting decoys by truck headlight is tricky: Everything appears farther away than it really is in the dark, and it’s easy to set decoys too close together. When the sun comes up, you have a clump.”
Another important decoy consideration, avid waterfowlers and hunting outfitters will tell you, is movement. This excerpt is taken from HuntTheNorth.com: “Why is movement so vital to your spread? Your traditional spread may work well during the early Canada goose season … but as the geese get hunted they catch on to the Frozen Soldier spread quickly. There are, however, several simple and cheap ways to add movement and realism to your existing goose spread. The most effective method of adding movement is ‘flagging.’ This technique was invented by Randy Bartz in the early ‘90s and can be as effective as calling to attract geese. It is so popular that most every quality layout blind comes equipped with a flagging hole.”
As the first hints of dawn fringed the eastern horizon, we made a few decoy adjustments and waited for the first flocks to appear overhead. As a goose (or any other bird) flaps its wings, it disturbs the air, leaving whirling eddies behind. Some species, such as the Canada goose, have learned to take advantage of the upward disturbed air created off the wings of others by flying in a V-formation. Each bird thus adds the lift lost by the bird ahead to its own. This “drafting” allows the geese to travel at an easier pace through their long flights. Researchers have found that the reduced resistance allows geese flying in Vs to fly as much as about 70 percent farther than they could individually.
The first flocks we encountered used their extra lift to swing high and wide of our decoy spread, some intent on reaching a field across the road where another group of hunters was set up. But it didn’t take long for a bunch of 20 or so to come in low, contemplate a landing, then have second thoughts. Too late. Our volley dropped four. A little later another flock decoyed—and so it went.
Some outfitters say Colorado’s Front Range waterfowl hunting is as good as it gets. “Colorado goose hunting can be some of the best in the nation,” according to Front Range Guide Service. “During peak migration, Colorado’s Front Range corridor can hold upwards of 250,000 birds, consisting of several subspecies of Canadas. The first migrants to arrive are the short grass prairie goose or lessers that announce their presence in large noisy flocks around mid-November. The majority of the wintering flock will consist of the high line Canadas that will average around 8 pounds, these normally arrive in December and will be bolstered by greater Canadas from Montana and Canadian provinces later in the month and into January. Colorado hunters can be fortunate enough to also experience a reverse migration in February, as thousands of geese return from the southern half of the nation, making things brand new.”
Our routine for attracting the attention of passing flocks included flagging and calling, then (when geese were inbound) ducking down, pulling the pit covers three-fourths closed, calling some more, listening for the approaching geese, waiting for the caller to give us a shoot signal, pushing the covers open, popping up and taking aim. For a few short seconds the morning stillness is interrupted by the reverberating “boom” of shotguns spitting rapid-fire volleys of three rounds a piece.
The focus and intensity of such moments is exemplified by one question: “Did you shoot?” Although Melinda was standing between Tim and me in the blind, we both at different times asked her the question, not noticing if she was shooting (or not) in the heat of the moment. Such focus is, however, hard-baked into our predatory instincts. We are, in the recesses of our DNA, hunters still.
By the time Melinda and I left the blind to return home to Colorado Springs around noon, our group had a dozen geese in the bag. Before driving off we stopped and watched another flock approach the decoys. Multiple shotguns poked out of the pit-blind and fired in unison and another goose fell, for a (goose) hunter’s dozen.
And come spring, when many of Colorado’s geese make their annual migrations to more northerly latitudes, I’ll recall the words of one of our nation’s preeminent hunter-conservationists, Aldo Leopold, “One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.”
For additional information on Colorado waterfowl hunting see Colorado Parks & Wildlife’s waterfowl hunting webpage.
David Lien is a former Air Force officer and chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of “Hunting for Experience: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation,” and was recognized by Field & Stream in 2014 as a “Hero of Conservation.”