Downsizing For Canadas

America's obsession with the idea that bigger is better pervades every facet of our lives. Even Canada goose hunters have been sucked into the "super size" vortex. They've been programmed to believe that huge decoy setups are the ultimate goose attractors. In many cases, however, they'd be better off thinking smaller when it comes to fooling geese.

A high school buddy was responsible for my decoy-downsizing philosophy. Lacking the money to fill his decoy bags, he begged and borrowed enough dekes from friends and relatives to get us through our late-season hunts. We couldn't attract Canadas with gargantuan field spreads, so we made the best of what we had by positioning decoys in realistic small groups and adding motion to the mix.

Small setups have been getting a closer look from traditionalists lately as the median age of the Canada goose flock has increased. America's resident goose population hovers near 4 million birds, with an average annual growth rate of 10 percent. Canada numbers are increasing rapidly, and more geese are surviving hunting season each year.

Older geese are warier geese. The bigger a decoy spread, the more static and unnatural it might appear to some wise, mature birds. As my school friend and I learned many years ago, fewer decoys can be very effective, providing they're used correctly.

LOCATING HONKERS

As always, scouting comes first. A hunter needs to set up where flocks of traveling geese are going, and the only way to determine their destination is through scouting. Driving the back roads on winter evenings and using binoculars to track geese flying to supper is the most reliable way to find "hot" fields. Presuming you have the landowner's permission to hunt, it's best to scout a day or two first to pattern the flocks thoroughly.

Late in the season, geese seek high-energy foods such as corn, but don't overlook winter wheat, wheat stubble, barley, soybeans, milo and millet. Proximity to roosting areas is not necessary. Canada geese have no qualms about flying 10 miles or more for a meal, particularly when they want to bypass areas closer to their roosting sites where they've been pressured.

Securing two or more hunting locales is recommended because the geese might change their feeding habits, depending on the weather. It's also smart to have a backup spot, because it's not a good idea to hunt the same field two mornings in a row. Faced with the choice between unremitting hunting pressure or moving on, geese will leave the neighborhood.

SETUP STRATEGIES

You'll need three or four dozen decoys to grab the attention of most flocks. More than that and you'll begin to lose control of the setup; any less and passing geese might not feel secure enough to land. Mixing Canada decoys is recommended. Shells, full-bodied decoys and silhouettes all add realism to a spread. The majority of the decoys should be in the resting or feeding mode, with a few scattered sentries among them. Put them in a landing location that geese might choose: a high spot in the field or wherever they can see far in all directions.

The beauty of the small setup is the ease of mobility and adjustment. If the weather changes, or the geese alter their flight plans, you can pick up and leave or change your spread quickly. To control their descent, geese always land into the wind. They also tend to move into the wind once grounded. It's not uncommon for the wind to switch, especially after the sun rises and the earth's heating causes thermal shifts. In such instances, repositioning 300 or more decoys is a daunting task, especially when geese are on the horizon. With the help of a partner, moving 40 to 50 decoys takes only a few minutes.

Controlling the landing zone of the geese for an in-your-face experience is another benefit of a small setup. A half-moon or hook-shaped layout creates the perfect landing strip in a decoy setup. Such an opening allows sociable geese to land in the middle as they descend into the wind. You can hide in the arch of the decoy setup and ambush geese as they land or as they pass for one last look before landing.

By downsizing to three or four dozen decoys, you can compress the landing zone into an "x-marks-the-spot" location. On the other hand, a spread that consists of 14 dozen decoys expands landing opportunities for incoming geese and could increase the range for the shooter. Veteran goose hunter Paul Stanley of Bozeman, Mont., creates landing pockets in his spread, but instead of setting out a continuous line of decoys, he positions his spread in small bunches.

"Even if I'm hunting large fields and using thirty or forty decoys, I like to scatter them in three to four family groups. It looks more natural. Besides, I'm not trying to decoy large flocks," notes Stanley. "I'm more interested in decoying smaller groups of a dozen birds or less. Small groups are easier to decoy and less wary. There are fewer geese to become paranoid."

Whether migrants or residents, Canada geese get wise to hunters' tricks over the course of a hunting season, especially by the time they've reached their winter homes and have been shot at a few times. Fooling the eyes of the older geese in a flock with several dozen decoys is more problematic in late season. It's less difficult when there are only 36 decoys to manage.

ADDING MOTION TO THE MIX

Motion can magnify the impact of a small setup on Canadas and make it more believable to wary geese. Although kite-style decoys are available, hand-manipulated flagging decoys are the choice of veteran waterfowlers. Decoy flags are cloth silhouettes of geese attached to a stick that can be waved up and down beside the flagger's blind to simulate a landing goose's flapping wings. This tactic can pull sightseeing geese in to a spread from great distances.

"Flying" goose shells, combined with flagging, add to the realism and have a welcoming effect on any geese interested in a decoy. A windsock decoy or two also helps. Cabela's sells a wind-operated "Goose Walker Swivel" for $9.99. Strap a decoy to this gadget and the decoy stays facing into the wind while bobbing back and forth to imitate a feeding goose.

You might want to invest in some electronically driven, wing-flapping decoys such as RoboGoose (about $130) and Mojo Canada Goose (about $220). This style of decoy is relatively expensive, but you don't have to depend on the wind to give them motion--just strong batteries.

As for calling, too much goose talk by callers can convey the wrong message to incomers. The new arrivals might be inclined to believe that all the nonstop chatter indicates the geese on the ground are preparing to depart.

"The fewer calls you make, the less chance you have of making a mistake," declares Stanley. "I call until I get the attention of the geese, then I chuckle to them as they get closer. Once they're on final approach and heading toward me, I shut up and watch. If they begin to stray a bit I'll cackle just to line them up, but for the most part, I let them do the talking."

Stanley's calling philosophy fits perfectly with small decoy setups for Canadas: Less is best.

Decoy Options

1. Position decoys in a semicircle that funnels incoming geese into the open ground in front of the blinds. Geese will land into the wind and expect to see Canadas on the ground feeding into the wind.

2. Some hunters like to break the setup into family groups of decoys that offer incomers more landing spaces. Such spreads are more likely to decoy smaller groups of Canadas.

Ground Blind Concealment

Carry a layout blind into the field, position it near your decoys, climb in with your gun and you're ready to hunt. The new generation of weather-resistant blinds feature reclining seats, which are perfect for getting into shooting position quickly. Here are a few choices:

--Avery's best-seller is the Finisher Blind. It's made of camouflaged polyester stretched over a lightweight aluminum frame. The blind weighs 18 pounds and folds into a compact package. (About $250; 800-333-5119; www.averyoutdoors.com)

--The Eliminator Pro-Guide Blind from Final Approach weighs just 16 pounds. The blind includes a reclined seat and padded head and gun rests. Spring-loaded lids allow you to get into shooting position quickly. (About $300; 877-956-5746; www.kolpin.com)

--Wildlife Outfitter's Recliner is a layout lounge chair topped by a giant goose decoy. A hunter stretches out on the lounge and then swings the decoy top down to cover his upper torso. The decoy flips up quickly when it's shooting time. A swiveling base provides 360-degree rotation. (About $160; 800-237-4444; www.cabelas.com)

--Ameristep offers the Hayhouse, which, from a goose's-eye view, appears to be a giant round bale of hay. Constructed of spring steel covered with a Durashell fabric, the blind can seat two hunters comfortably. (About $100; 810-686-4035; www.ameristep.com)