The faint honking in the disTANCE announced the arrival of the geese even before we could see them. My guide, Chuck Tiranno, and I craned our necks to find the approaching flock while at the same time trying to stay hidden in our blinds. We found the birds far to the west, and they were headed only slightly in our direction when I started to call. When Tiranno joined in, the birds turned and we both sank lower into the blinds.
"Flag 'em a little bit," he said. "But quit before they get too close."
As we called and I flagged, the birds turned into the wind and looked intent on landing. I stopped flagging and tossed out a few more clucks on my call. Almost immediately the entire flock moved to the left and appeared to be looking away from our decoys.
"Stop clucking," Tiranno said. "Stop clucking! They're turning; I'll just growl a little now."
When a five-time New York state goose-calling champion tells you to stop making noise in the goose blind, there's no argument. I dropped my call and sat in silence as Tiranno growled, lightly at first, then louder. In one smooth banking arc, every bird in the flock turned back toward the decoys, circled once and set their wings over the landing zone. Everything had worked so well that actually shooting the geese was almost an afterthought. The "3 C's" had worked again: calling, confidence and concealment. If you want to kill birds that have been hunted hard all along the flyway, take some tips from this New Yorker: Even wary geese that have seen plenty of decoys and survived plenty of shooting will respond to good calling, a decoy spread that inspires confidence and effective concealment.
The Honk, Cluck And Growl
Tiranno, perhaps because of his skill, seems to use calling as his primary tool in this three-pronged attack. When he's not running his hunting operation near Buffalo, New York, he keeps his calling skills sharp as a member of the Knight & Hale Game Calls pro staff, and guides goose hunters every chance he gets.
"How am I supposed to know when to change up or stop calling altogether?" I asked him.
"You've got to see how the birds respond and tailor your calling to their actions," Tiranno explained. "When you saw those birds move away as soon as you clucked, that should have been your cue to stop immediately. If you know you have a good blind and decoy spread, proper calling will be what brings the birds down those last few yards. If they move away from your call, stop making that sound."
Tiranno suggests goose hunters start by learning three or four basic calls: the honk, cluck, double-cluck and the growl. Using a good call and an effective training tape, CD or video will give any hunter the basics, but there's no substitute for time spent in the field, especially if you can get out with someone who knows how to call geese. If you can head into the marsh and listen to birds during the off-season, all the better.
The growl is a sound geese make when they're relaxed and feeding. Geese cluck when they're excited and honk when they're trying to get another goose's attention. Knowing these sounds helps provide the sequence for bringing birds to the decoys.
"But of course every flock, and even every goose, is different," Tiranno said. "Read the flock. Don't just blow the same calling sequence every time. Knowing the birds only comes with experience."
Instilling Confidence With Decoys
Experience also helps when it comes to instilling confidence in an approaching flock. With goose hunting seasons getting longer each year, you can bet geese finally arriving at the bottom of the flyway have seen decoys before. Some of the birds are well-educated by the time the reach the Gulf Coast.
"There are basic decoy rules that most everyone knows," Tiranno said. "People know to leave a landing zone, set the decoys so they appear to be quartering into the wind and mix in a few sentinels with the feeding decoys. But there are some nuances that can't be overlooked."
One is the family group. Every flock, no matter how large, is made up of these groups of geese. The size of these groups might vary from four to eight birds. Hunters setting up decoys should try to recreate this by thinking about decoy placement in terms of groups of decoys rather than individual birds. The most effective decoy spread is one made up of several distinct family groups of geese with several duck decoys interspersed in the "gaps."
"Another important element is to make sure the decoys aren't too close together," Tiranno said. "Geese and ducks tend to bunch up when they get nervous. You can see it as you slowly approach a flock. Just before they take off, they all move into a tighter group. A bird seeing a tight group of decoys might look down and sense danger."
Birds also seem more confident when coming toward decoys if the spread appears to have some depth or dimension to it. While it would be great to set out 100 full-body decoys, few hunters have enough room to haul and store that many birds. By creating family groups with a pair of full-bodied birds and several silhouettes, the birds passing overhead see different images as they circle. That might even impart a feeling of movement to an otherwise static spread of decoys.
"Movement is very important," Tiranno said. "But it has to be done correctly. Flagging works well when geese are far out, but as they get closer, you don't need to flag as much and should stop when they're about 100 yards away."
Tiranno says he's also seen that while ducks like rotary-wing decoys, geese seem to shy away from them.
"We use a spring-loaded, spinning-wing decoy for ducks," he said. "You just pull the string and it works great. But you have to leave it alone when geese are overhead. They seem to just turn away from that thing."
The last element to successful goose hunting is proper concealment. After you've gotten the birds' attention through great calling, pulled them in with a confidence-building decoy spread, you've got to remain out of sight until they're well within shotgun range.
"The longer you can stay hidden and the closer you let the birds come, the better off you'll be," Tiranno said. "The shots will be easier, you'll have fewer cripples and you'll have chances at more birds."
When hunting in stubble fields, Tiranno uses Avery Finisher blinds. There are several similar models on the market and all allow hunters to disappear until it's time for the shot. When the birds are within range, just push open the double doors on the top of the blind and fire away. There's plenty of room to swing the shotgun, even on hard-crossing birds.
"With any blind, you have to add additional cover by using some of the local vegetation," Tiranno said. "With Avery blinds I can tuck corn stalks right into the sewn-on straps on the outside. You just have to remember to not put anything in the way of your shotgun. After you get everything in place, take a few practice runs to make sure you can get a good shot."
Even with a good blind, Tiranno suggests hunters wear a facemask and a good camouflage hat.
"It doesn't do any good to have a great blind if your face is shining like a beacon," he said.
Despite other shots in the distance and the fact that the geese were local birds that had been hunted hard during an early goose season, our hunt ended with everyone in the group filling a two-bird limit. Tiranno's "3 C's" had worked again.