Photos: Hunting The Atlantic Flyway With a Snow Goose Addict

You'd probably never cut it as a snow goose hunter in the East. You don't have the money for decoys, you don't have the right land access connections, you don't have enough time and you don't have enough friends willing to wake up at 2 a.m. But, if by some chance you were determined enough to overcome these improbabilities, your wingshooting life would open to one of the most remarkable opportunities in North American waterfowling. Imagine 100-bird days, with flocks of 30 geese dropping 600 feet straight down out of the sky into your decoy spread like Blackhawk helicopters. You're ears are ringing. You're barrel's smoking hot. You can't reload fast enough. This is Avery Outdoors pro-staffer Kevin Addy's life for four months out of the year. He's given it all up to figure out how to hunt Atlantic Flyway snow geese as they leapfrog from their wintering grounds in the Chesapeake Bay to their breeding grounds in Greenland. "Snow goose hunting is like a drug," Addy says. "Once you get a little bit, you just want more." Earlier this month I got to spend 24 hours chasing snows like an addict with Addy. By the end of the day, I would know exactly what he meant. Photos By: Alex Robinson and Lori Receski
The Making of a Goose Crew
Like respectable junkies, Addy (pictured) and I rendezvoused at 3 a.m. in a deserted parking lot. I threw my gear into his pickup and we took off for the field a good three and a half hours before sunrise. But we had no time to waste. The first thing Addy had to do was get seven hunters to a cut cornfield in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania. We were hunting early March and with the unseasonably warm winter, the birds were headed north by the thousands. By scouting and contacting hunting buddies along the flyway, Addy knew there were geese in the area, but in a matter of days, or even hours, they could take off for New York and then take the express flight to Canada. A sudden snow storm, a turn in the wind or a shift in hunting pressure could not only dictate what field we'd hunt in, but what state we'd hunt in. If you want to run in Addy's crew, you have to be mobile at the buzz of a text message. "There's a whole lot of phone calls to be made the night before. A lot of times we're not sure what we're doing until 10 at night, just coming up with the best option."
By 3:20 a.m. we had our first hangup. Addy's buddies driving up from Maryland (they also happened to have all of Addy's decoys because we were originally planning to hunt Maryland) couldn't find the field. Text messages and cell phone calls ensued. We decided to head to the field while another hunter ran out to pick up the lost hunters. "No matter how early you think you started, you always feel like you're running behind," Addy said. "There's always something." But soon enough, the decoy truck pulled in. The crew was made up of some of Addy's close friends who were seasoned snow goose hunters as well as a few first-timers.
To really lay into snows, you need a group of 6 to 10 hunters. Its good to have the firepower when a big flock drops in, but more importantly, you need the manpower to set a massive decoy rig (more on this later). But you don't want to just pick up any bum with a shotgun. On a serious goose crew, just like a military fireteam, each person has a specific responsibility. There needs to be a team leader who runs the call, works the flag, calls out the shot and makes the final decision on where to hunt. There have to be intel guys who are willing to scout, make phone calls, glad-hand landowners and use their connections to get access to private fields. Then there's the grunt guys. Their responsibilities are as follow: 1) help set up decoys 2) sit still 3) shoot 4) chase down cripples 5) help take down decoys.
Decoys Off the Record
Kevin Addy is one of the nicest guys I've ever hunted with and one of the most willing subjects I've ever interviewed, but he protects the details of his decoy spread like they're old family secrets. Addy has spent years tweaking his spread and experimenting with different layouts (this sounds simple, but imagine convincing six of your friends to dedicate two hours at 3 a.m. to put out thousands of decoys just to see if it would work, only to find out that it didn't and then get them to take another two hours at 6 p.m. to pick all the decoys back up again). The key to Addy's success is that he's able to set rigs that are different than what other hunters are using. "If other guys start copying what I'm doing, it won't be different anymore and it won't work as well," he said.
So, in good conscience, I can't tell you how many decoys we actually put out, but I can say it was more than 1,000, quite a bit more. With the help of a construction spotlight powered by a generator, we started setting plastic Avery Outdoors GHG decoys, racing the rising sun. The trick to building a mega decoy rig is to get it right the first time. It took two hours just to get the dekes out, put on our white suits and set up our layout mats. There would be no time to reset everything if Addy decided the wind was actually blowing out of the southeast instead of the southwest. With the sun creeping up over the Pennsylvania hills, Addy and his crew drove the pickups out of the field and trotted back to the decoy spread.
Not Your Average Gander
But why such insane detail? Covered in white, wearing a facemask, looking out over 1,000-plus decoys, with the electronic caller honking away, I couldn't help but wonder … isn't this all a little overkill? But then the birds started to get up, thousands of them. Hungry from their night lounging at a nearby refuge, they pulled up over the hills looking for somewhere to eat. They cruised by the hundreds over the top of us. Some flocks flew by casually giving us a curious look, others rocketed up into the stratosphere hellbent for Greenland. Eventually a small flock of half a dozen decided to give us a close look. They dropped straight down out of the sky and then started circling just out of shooting range. They locked up, held steady in the wind and hovered at a position where you could lie flat on your back and look them in the eyes. They critiqued every inch of our spread like six noisy, judgmental mother in-laws.
Finally, the lead goose cupped it's wings and dropped the final 40 yards into the pit of our decoy rig. Addy called "Kill'em right there!" The shotguns roared and four geese tumbled to Earth. Of the 2,000 or so birds we had seen so far that morning, we had managed to coax six into shooting range and kill four. Now I was beginning to understand all of the fastidiousness -- and the attraction. "The thing with snow geese is you don't really have them until you're shooting. They come in from 400 yards in the air and a lot of times they'll come all the way down to 70 yards just locked up, everything's looking great, they're making circles, the tornado's started, and then they'll decide they don't like something and they'll pull out … snow geese are just a totally different breed."
Addy says snow geese are the smartest waterfowl in North America, but when he says "smart," he really means difficult. Snows are overpopulating their arctic breeding grounds and essentially eating themselves out of existence, so most states set generous bag limits or have no limits at all. Also, snow goose hunting is generally less regulated than other waterfowl hunting, and in many states electronic calls are legal and duck plugs are not required. In some ways, this free-for-all situation has bred a more aggressive mentality among some hunters. As the birds make their way from their wintering grounds to their breeding grounds, they get shelled at every stop along the way. Guys belly crawl on feeding birds and try to jump shoot them. Others post up on hillsides and try to pass shoot them as they cruise overhead. Farmers, for the most part, hate snows and sometimes snipe them (illegally) with .22s when they land in a crop field. Because of the snows' general suspicion of decoy spreads, many overanxious hunters will try to sky bust them well out of range, which only pushes the birds higher. "People get so frustrated trying to decoy snows because they're so smart that they'll do anything to try to shoot them … just to get even." This trigger-happy environment added on top of the snows' long lifespan (up to 15 years) and their tendency to fly in huge flocks has created a pretty educated snow goose population along the Atlantic flyway. And the more the birds get shot at, the spookier they become.
True snow goose hunting lends itself to obsessive compulsive behavior. "Sometimes I wish they would just leave, because as long as they're here, I have to think about them … I have to hunt them," says Addy, who starts his snow goose season in Maryland each December and hunts almost non-stop until March, following the birds up into New York. Balancing a family and a full-time job with hunting snow geese is no easy task, and a lot of hunters aren't willing or able to put up the effort. According to the Pennsylvania Game and Fish Commission's harvest report, 3,107 hunters acquired permits to hunt in the 2010 Snow Goose Conservation Season (for comparison, the state has more than 1 million deer hunters). And the guys who did chase snows, didn't exactly clean house either. The reported goose per day-spent-hunting was a measly 1.5 on average. "When you look at some of the pictures, it makes it look easy and it doesn't really show how much effort is involved. It's gratifying when it all works out, but it is definitely a lot of work," Addy says.
As the morning rolled on, we duped a few more flocks into our decoys, and many more gave us the go-by. By lunch time, we had almost a dozen snows on the ground, or about 1 goose for every hour we'd been awake. Addy wanted more birds. Later, he tried to explain why a 10 bird-day isn't enough. Addy doesn't personally care about killing geese (God only knows how many honkers his shotgun has claimed) but he cares about hunting geese well. He wants to decoy as many birds as possible and get his crew as much shooting as their shoulders can handle. He justifies the early mornings, long days, and longer drives by knowing that he's hunting as hard as he can, and he banks on that hard work paying off. "I don't want to be better than other hunters, I want to be the best that I can," he says. "Some guys can shoot two or three geese in a day, or a season, and be happy and that's great for them … but there's so much still to be figured out with [snow goose hunting] and decoy rigs. That's what I'm trying to do, figure out something new."
So after a short lunch break, we got back into the decoy rig and waited for the empty blue skies to fill with birds. And eventually, they did. The wind, a snow goose hunter's best friend, picked up and sent our decoys bobbing and turning. The birds that passed us over before were now coming in for a closer look. A flock of 15 would tumble in, five minutes later a group of 20 would circle. This late in the season, it was foolish to wait for the birds to fully commit. They would circle four or five times before even lowering into shooting range. There would be no one-foot-down shot opportunities.
Soon we had 20 geese even, and the sun was hanging low on the horizon. Everybody had hunted hard and by all accounts it was a good day in the field. In most hunting crews it would be time to go home, eat dinner, and sleep. But it was just the opposite with this group. There was even a greater sense of urgency to squeeze in that last little bit of hunting. Every opportunity became just a fraction more critical. At one point a good flock of snows circled and cupped their wings, but then at the last minute they slammed the breaks and busted for the moon. One of Addy's hunting buddies turned and hissed "Yo, where's dude's facemask!?" He was talking about me, and he was right. I sheepishly pulled up my mask, which had been hanging lazily below my chin.
The birds kept working and we hunted right up to sunset. I was reminded of that kid who refused to leave basketball practice until he made 100 free throws in a row. "When birds are still flying it's hard to quit," Addy says. "You just never know if this is going to be your last hunt of the season." When the electronic calls finally stopped and the gun smoke settled, Addy and his buddies had taken 30 geese. This late in the season, with the majority of the birds already pushing north, it was a heroic effort.
We started packing up the decoys and didn't finish until well after dark. With a three-hour drive home, I'd be awake for about 24 hours straight, but somehow I didn't feel tired. Addy didn't seem tired either. His waterfowl season, which started in September, was coming abruptly to a close, but before parting ways we talked about the finer qualities of snow geese and why any sane adult would spend all day lying in a frozen cornfield. We also talked about future hunts. Addy was planning one more trip over the next weekend, hoping to squeeze a final shoot out of New York. "The wheels are always turning, we're always trying to make another hunt."

Online Content Editor Alex Robinson tags along with Kevin Addy and his snow goose crew. Addy has dedicated his life to figuring out the puzzle of hunting snows along the Atlantic Flyway.