Fourth Quarter Honkers
By Ryan Eder
Whether we are talking sports or hunting, there is something about that buzzer beater shot or fourth quarter comeback that makes things exciting. Late season goose hunting has the same appeal, as it is typically the latest season open for waterfowl hunting and it is our last weeks of enjoying time in the blind for the year. What is different about late season goose hunting? We have examined tactics all season long and guess what, the same tactics will apply in the “fourth quarter” (aka the late portion of the season).
No matter what stage of the season we are in, all success is largely dependent on how well you scout your area. The later portion of the season can make scouting tougher or easier, depending on how well you know the surrounding area of your hunts. Most everywhere in the Midwest endures frozen water, so you should have an idea of where water is open in December and January. We need to look for rivers that stay open or larger bodies of water that portions do not freeze. Chances are, you’ll find roosts and staging areas. From there, you’ll want to see where birds are going to feed. These feeds are where you’ll want to knock on landowner’s doors and secure permission.
Depending on what your scouting is telling you, more decoys is not always the answer. In my experience, we have found that bigger spreads work nicely in the later portion of the season for a few reasons. The first is that as migration picks up, bird numbers are higher. For that reason, a spread mimicking true bird numbers in the area is most effective. The second reason we like to increase the number of decoys we put out is to better hide our blinds. Being later in the year, birds see more and more spreads, blinds, etc. In a sense, they get “educated” so it is a good idea to start using decoys around your blinds to hide them. You can also use decoys as a distraction. Depending on your hunting location, you may want to keep your blinds out of the decoy spread. This can work nicely, but later in the year when birds are looking for familiar threats, we have seen more decoys serve as a distraction that takes focus away from our blinds. Keep in mind, old school theories of “larger spreads are necessary in the later portion of the season” maintain that more decoys is the answer. While I agree with that statement, the difference is that more birds doesn’t mean one large flock. Usually, if we pay close enough attention, you’ll notice that bigger numbers of birds in the field are actually more small flocks gathering in the same area, rather than one large flock. Try to simulate this in your spread. The groups can have some segmentation, but you’ll want it to look like several groups (10-20) landed in the same field.
As mentioned above, the later in the year means that the birds you encounter have survived through most of the hunting season. They have likely seen decoy spreads, blinds of all kinds, been shot at and are extremely skeptical each time they look to land. Pay attention during your bird encounters if you are using motion in your spread. Motion can be remote decoys of any kind, or flags used to capture birds attention with real movement. The flag has accounted for great success when we hunt in the fields, and we do use it throughout the entire season. This does not mean it is applicable in all settings, so when using motion try to treat each bird group individually.
Hunting out of a blind presents advantages and risks no matter what part of the season you are hunting. A pit blind is ideal, however most landowners are not enthused by the idea of people digging large holes in their property. If a pit blind is not possible, look for permission to dig a small trench for your layout blinds (six to eight inches) to create a lower profile for your layouts. This can make a tremendous difference in concealment. Pay attention to the spacing of your blinds as well. Too much space between blinds can look very unnatural in the field, with awkward “bumps” in the field. Later in the year, with the highest education among the birds, you might be best suited to keep blinds close together and conceal them as best as possible. One large “bump” in the field that is well hidden and concealed is likely easier to hide than several bumps. It is important to understand where the sun is, and where it will be as the hunt progresses. Shadows can be your worst enemy in the field from the birds eye view!
Late season means cold and ice, accompanied by their best friend wind. Be prepared by wearing appropriate gear from proper footwear (socks, boots) all the way up to adequate headwear. Furthermore, our k-9 companions will need special consideration as well. Have a dry towel or two in the blind to wipe them down when they are wet, have a vest to protect them from wind and water. Make sure that after your dog gets wet, remove the vest to wipe them down, then put the vest back on them (this reduces the chance of trapping cold water against your dog’s body). If possible, give your retriever a place to hide from wind when possible (dog blinds work well for this).
At the end of the day, late goose season does not call for any special tactics that are not applicable in other stages of the season. That being said, the birds have been pressured enough to be privy to some of the basic “tricks” commonly used by hunters. Be creative by using decoy placement, blind arrangement and of course effective scouting. When all else fails, good old fashioned effort might be the difference between success and failure. Just like deer hunters do, do not be afraid to use a vacation day or two to dedicate to goose hunting. Put the time in, get out early to beat other hunters to the field (in many cases, several groups have permission on the same farms or fields). Best of luck the rest of the way!