Geese in Passing

geese flying around

Late-season goose hunting is special. Not only is it the final bird season to close where I live, but I also have a long list of memories tied to winter geese. A good number of them involve pass-shooting.

One day last February, as is habit, I spent some quality time on a frozen lakeshore reliving old memories and making new ones. It was there where I downed my first goose as a teenager—a time when I had no money for fancy decoys or calls. Hunting that spot and doing things “the old way” means a lot to me, so I’d trotted out a special gun: a Parker EH 10-gauge with 2⅞" chambers. Stoked with 1¼-ounce low-pressure handloads of No. 2 bismuth, it lacks the reach of my modern 3½" 10-gauge; but it doesn’t matter. I was there for the experience as much as for a goose.

My scouting had revealed plenty of honkers flying low from open water on a nearby lake to surrounding grainfields. I figured they would do the same this day, although that would surely change once my Parker began to speak.

Knowing that geese tend to leave the roost 30 minutes after ducks do, I started hiking toward the shoreline when the morning mallard exodus began. En route to the lakeshore cattails, I admired the half-mile of golden grass, scattered Russian olive trees and bitterbrush, with Wyoming’s Wind River Range providing a stunning backdrop.

Years marched through my mind as I shuffled along under a welcome winter sun. I reflected on decades spent with geese—sometimes alone, sometimes not. I remembered the immense jubilation I felt when, after so many unfruitful attempts, I watched my first Canada plummet from the heavens. I vividly recalled my uncle shooting his first goose—and his cry of protest that I hadn’t warned him how hard the 3½" 12-gauge would kick. And my nephew dropping his first honker in this spot as well. I thought of friends who learned the satisfaction of a long hike with weighty geese slung over their shoulders and about the time my buddy Jarvis’s goose almost fell on my head. I liked this place.

man pointing gun at flying bird
Geese often fly fairly high—necessitating guns with a bit of ‘reach.’

Before long geese started winging their way toward the grainfields, and after two flocks headed out I picked a spot to hide in the cattails. The early flocks establish an approximate flight line to focus on—“approximate” being the key term, as wild geese fly wherever they please. Still, I knew that if I were patient, willing to relocate as needed and a bit lucky, I could add a pair of big white-cheeked birds to my strap. I’ve found a pair to be just right, as two birds balance the strap nicely and carrying them isn’t the back-breaking affair of transporting a full limit.

There was another reason for limiting my take: I wanted to milk the setup for all it was worth. Shooting educates birds quickly, and I wanted to get in several more hunts from this location. Thankfully, most folks tend to be icefishing or calling coyotes during the late season, so I didn’t have to worry about other goose hunters hammering the spot.

Of course, limiting gunfire requires you to hit the birds you shoot at, and when the first wave came over—three flocks at less than 50 yards, one of which passed directly overhead—I didn’t touch a feather. Ouch! Evidently after having spent months hunting upland birds, adjusting to pass-shooting geese wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped. My shots alerted the remaining birds, and they responded by selecting a new flight line. But the beauty of pass-shooting from tall and ample cover is that one can move about as needed, so I relocated beneath the new travel path—and hoped my shooting would improve.

Pass-shooting always involves uncertainty. Even when flocks appear to be heading right toward you, they often drift and meander, and the best guess as to where they will pass is just that. Many are the “almosts.” Predicting where geese will fly comes down to a sort of intuition earned through years of experience—but it’s never ironclad. This particular time I guessed right, and a short “V” of nine crossed slightly to my right about 45 yards away. And when the grand old Parker announced my presence, a pair of giant Canadas hit the frozen ground. Whump! Whump! Gloriously satisfied, I left the rest of the flight for another day.

That hunt took place in February, but anytime ice sets in in the northern US the stage is set—provided some open water remains. Geese are, after all, “waterfowl” and inexorably tied to water. Whatever keeps the water from freezing matters little. It might be a river current, a natural spring, a man-made aeration system, a warm-water discharge below a dam, or even a hole kept open by the body heat and movement of a tightly concentrated swarm of ducks and geese. As long as birds are allowed to rest undisturbed and food remains available nearby, they will stay.

This is where good judgment comes into play. Hunting closer to water yields closer shots; but shoot too close and birds may abandon the spot altogether. Hiding farther away ups the odds that birds will keep using the water, but shots will be higher and the chances of positioning yourself directly under the flight line decrease. Shooting a quarter- to a half-mile away, depending on the topography, seems to be a good compromise. In some locales the minimum distance is determined by legally established boundaries.

As mentioned, the beauty of pass-shooting is its affordable simplicity, with the other edge of the sword being a lack of reliability. So what can you do to tilt the odds in your favor? Understanding geese and each particular situation play big roles.

Geese are creatures of habit and will continue in a pattern until sufficiently disrupted. Thankfully there are some fairly reliable guidelines. If unbothered at their roost and feeding destination, geese tend to follow the same flight patterns, times and altitudes until they run out of food at the preferred spot.

Natural factors altering the way geese fly are mostly meteorological. Geese usually make two flights each day, returning to water to drink in between. How long they feed depends on how much food is available and how many calories they need to remain healthy—with cold weather increasing caloric demand. As a general rule, the colder the weather, the later geese fly in the morning and the earlier they go out again in the afternoon. I’ve never encountered an explanation for the phenomenon, but it’s pretty reliable. When it’s cold, the afternoon feeding session may last until well after dark. Early in the season geese tend to not fly out for the afternoon feeding until sunset; but come winter they need to feed longer and usually make the second daily flight well before shooting time ends. The latter situation often presents the chance for afternoon hunts, provided they are legal. Some states allow afternoon hunting only on certain days of the week, whereas others allow it any open day of the season. When cold fronts set in, birds often focus activity on the warmer portion of the day and will feed longer to maximize calories. They probably would feed all day, if they didn’t need water.

One thing that affords geese the luxury of feeding longer is snow. Sufficient snow cover will keep the birds’ whistles wet, and they won’t need to fly back to the roost for a drink. Under these conditions, expect only a morning flight, as the birds will stay out most, if not all, of the day.

Wind can help or hurt hunters’ efforts too. Wind is generally desirable—the fiercer the blow, the lower the geese. High winds really bring down the birds, but the geese may meander a great deal fighting it, making it tough to get into intercepting position. Normally pass-shooting is effective only when birds are heading out from the roost, since they tend to come back from distant fields well above gunning range. Really windy days sometimes change this, particularly if the geese are battling strong headwinds.

But high winds can make shooting tricky. A goose bucking a 40-mph blow is really hauling the mail but looks like a tethered balloon. I shot behind a great many before realizing that the birds were maintaining a relative air speed of at least 60 mph while my shot charges were deflecting downwind, necessitating even greater forward allowance.

The toughest shooting of all? Sidewinders. I vividly recall an afternoon with ripping winds when frustration snowballed as I missed shot after easy shot at about 35 yards. My ammo supply was shrinking fast and not one goose had fallen. Finally I stopped long enough to watch birds rather than shoot at them, and that’s when I realized that they were not flying in the direction they were pointing. Severe crosswinds were causing them to sideslip in order to maintain course, and I wasn’t leading them in the direction they were traveling. I switched from swinging through from tail to bill to swinging from one wingtip across the other until the proper lead angle was achieved. A short time later five Canadas were on the ground.

Stormy weather can create great opportunities. Predicting flight times during snow events can be difficult, but major fronts often bring fresh geese as rivers farther north freeze or grain becomes buried under snow. I often observe geese trading back and forth between fields all day when snow is falling in earnest. Often this activity is sporadic, but a patient, observant hunter can sometimes cash in on very-low-flying birds.

As nice as low geese are, the reality is that they often fly fairly high, necessitating guns with a bit of “reach.” The 10-gauge is king when it comes to pass-shooting followed by the ubiquitous 12. Not only do large hulls hold more shot, but also larger bore diameters handle big shot pellets more efficiently. By big pellets I’m talking about steel-shot sizes BB and BBB for large Canadas and No. 1 or BB for smaller geese. With bismuth, sizes No. 2 through BB are the norm. Bismuth loads should be buffered for effective patterns at longer range. Tungsten alternatives vary in density, and shot-size selection is often similar to what we used to use when lead was allowed: No. 2s being a common choice with HEVI-Shot or HW-13. TSS is its own beast, and enough remains unknown about it for me to make recommendations.

No matter what gun-and-ammo combination is selected, tight chokes give dense patterns (to a point), to ensure better long-range performance. Just remember that it is entirely possible to over-choke as shot size increases. For example, BB and BBB seldom pattern well through Full chokes but usually get along splendidly with Improved Modified. Patterning your gun at distances you plan to shoot will reveal what’s best.

One more thing that helps improve pattern density is to slow down in the ammo department. I know, “Speed! Speed! More Speed!” is the battle cry of the day, but research shows that basically the only thing gained with speed is recoil. Patterns typically degrade, and the extra velocity of hyper-fast ammunition is not retained at distances where it can do any good. Pattern is the most important factor in the equation. Reliable patterns kill cleanly.

A few last thoughts concerning guns. Heavy shotguns are somewhat beneficial for a smooth swing and follow-through, and they also reduce felt recoil. Being “quick” is seldom a requirement in pass-shooting.

Give some thought, too, to the clothing you’ll be wearing and how it might affect gunfit. Cold winter days may necessitate thick clothing that can really mess with gun mounting. I like a slightly shorter stock on my waterfowl guns but not so short that I can’t use it comfortably without a coat. Come flight time I usually shed my heavy outer coat and make do with a fleece jacket.

A couple of items that make life more enjoyable are a carry strap for the geese and a quick-detach or slip-on sling for the gun. Both make the haul back to the truck—which needs to be parked far enough away so as not to alarm the geese—much easier.

I have been asked a few times about using a call. I have tried one a fair amount. Calling sporadically before the flight can get geese thinking that other geese are “over that way” in a place that is safe to fly over. I can’t honestly say it works. I’ve had birds fly over after “staging the scene” with a call, but I have no proof that it wasn’t simply coincidence. Geese generally have a flight plan in mind, and seldom have I ever swayed them once they’ve picked their destination and direction.

As for dogs, they can be a blessing or a hindrance. A dog that doesn’t sit perfectly still tends to alert geese. That said, a dog can make quick work of finding a downed bird in cattails and let you get back to hunting. My Border collie, Rusty, has found many birds that I wasn’t able to. My advice is to take a dog only if it isn’t going to scare off approaching geese. If a dog isn’t quite “finished,” it can remain in the truck and be brought in for retrieving duties when the flight is over.

Two weeks after the hunt described at the beginning, I set up decoys on a creek in hopes of cashing in on geese returning from nearby corn and oat fields. The geese were using about a mile of the stream, so it was by no means a sure thing.

The morning started slowly, with most of the geese heading far downstream. I knew that some were using the spot where I was, however, and eventually a small flock committed, resulting in a pair toward my limit of five.

Then things turned sour. Hunting on public land is a great heritage, but anyone can show up at any time—and did that morning. First came a man and woman doing who knows what, but they wouldn’t leave. Then came a small army of kids and a supervising adult with rimfire rifles in pursuit of bunnies. By the time the youngsters arrived I had picked up the decoys and was driving the two track back toward pavement. I enjoyed a pleasant discussion with the rabbit hunters, and then headed for home.

On the way I would pass the lake mentioned at the beginning. Hmmm. I already had a pair of Canadas in the bed of the truck, but with the next day being the season’s closer, I had been hoping to remain out all day.

I knew geese were still flying off the lake twice a day, and recent observations had clued me in as to where. I had wised up some of the birds during the previous two weeks but certainly not all. With nothing to lose, I waited for the day’s second flight.

Many geese ended up flying high that afternoon, but plenty came over in range. An unlucky trio chose a winding course at a very low altitude. Imagine my surprise when the one escapee doubled back to check on the other two. Sometimes an unbalanced strap is just fine too . . . .

Late-season pass-shooting for geese is a fine way to get out and enjoy a few hours in the great outdoors. Take care to pick only shots at reasonable distances, and the fun can last for days. It’s a different kind of satisfaction than hunting over decoys. When it’s time to pick up and head home, just hang the harvested honkers on a strap and revel at the scenery on the hike back. 

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