Getting Goosed

There are strategies wise goose hunters employ to get snows and blues within shotgun range.

A near perfect day for goose hunting was seemingly in store for us as we watched the Johnson grass buck in the stiff northerly wind. We were following the truck of one of Clint Matthew’s guides through the vast fields of long-ago harvested rice fields, almost tailgating so as not to lose him on the unfamiliar highways of the area around Kaplan.

Explicit directions to not lag behind had been given to the hunters meeting at the sporting goods store, and made for an excitedly tense convoy. It would be easy to find out where we were with around 10 minutes of map study, but we might as well have been in the Everglades that morning as we motored through the predawn of the Southwest Louisiana rice country.

Soon, we came upon the rendezvous point, and after introductions and small talk, got into the white jumpsuits provided by Clint Matthew, owner of Goose Guides Inc. (337-643-2645) Insults and flashlight illuminations flew like targets on a skeet range as 20 men of various girths struggled into the suits and white T-shirts to be fashioned into headgear in the inky blackness.

What followed a short walk into a sea of white and grey was four and a half hours of an intermittently spectacular air show that didn’t include airplanes, except for two times that unfortunately scared off working birds. Huge bodies of blue and snow geese would respond to the expert calling of the four guides and work the field and its body of decoys that numbered well into four-figure range.

The birds would excruciatingly hang in the air for several minutes while plodding against the wind, seemingly in slow motion as they bobbed their heads, all the while carrying on a conversation with the crew of expert imitators. They were looking for something, anything out of the ordinary about the impressive-looking field.

On this day, they found it as nary a shot was fired at a snow or blue all morning. Specklebellies made up for the dearth of killing, but everybody agreed that the show put on by the white birds was an awesome spectacle.

“They look so big when they’re coming in,” said Matthew. “You have to really call people off of shooting them way before they’re in range, especially people used to duck hunting.”

What makes a good field for geese, says Matthew, is several things. First and foremost is history. Matthew says that the large body of birds follow the same migration route year after year. This gives him a rough idea of where the geese should be as the season progresses, but it is used only as a guideline.

The details involved in a successful rag hunt begin long before the morning of the event. Matthew has access to three sections (one square mile) and six other fields in every direction from the town of Kaplan except the east, so scouting takes some doing. Knowing the land and its historical migration routes goes a long way in determining where the birds are going to be.

“The preparation for a hunt usually begins two days before,” said Matthew. “Scouting involves not only locating where on the property the birds are, but making a guess as to where they’ll be two days from then.”

Taking into consideration the weather conditions is crucial in determining how to position the gigantic decoy spreads Matthew utilizes on hunts. Depending on the size of the field, Matthew and his crew of three guides — who are present at the hunt to call, organize and run things — will set 1,500 to 3,000 rags, wind socks, shells, silhouettes, flags and kites, the latter also being a large part of the guides’ jobs. Broken down, it comes to 1,000 to 2,000 rags (set the morning of the hunt), 200-250 silhouettes, 300-400 wind socks, 200-250 shells and kites that can number from three to 12 depending on the wind.

“Usually, fields are good for one day before either the birds get wise to the location or just move,” says Matthew, adding that three consecutive days is a great stretch for a decoy spread in one location.

“The longest I’ve ever been in a spread is seven days. We were right in the middle of three bodies of birds, and they would each come right over the spread. But that’s extremely rare.”

Frequently, Matthew and his group of guides have to do a quick turnaround of picking up the spread and moving everything to another location, including a big ice chest full of water and soft drinks provided to the customers.

While the vast majority of the decoy spread is made up of snow and blue goose imitations, specklebellies are a mainstay of the bag taken by Goose Guides’ customers.

Specks, as white-fronted geese are known in the state, are suckers for the large rag spreads deployed by Matthew and his crew.

“They’re not dumb, but they are much easier to decoy than snows and blues,” said Matthew. “Snows travel in large bodies. They’re more social. With specks, sometimes you’ll see a flock of 10 or so in a field, where snows will be in much, much larger groups.

“In the beginning of the season, we kill mostly specks. It evens out a good bit during the middle of the season and then it’s more snows (toward the end),” said Matthew. “We always kill some specks, though.”

Snow geese are amazing creatures not only for their sheer numbers but also their practice of taking care of the members of their flocks. Matthew explained that while a duck will run, a goose will stay and fight.

“It’s just like a yard full of domestic geese. If one bird has a bunch of baby geese, every bird in that yard will work to protect those young ones,” he said. “It only takes one snow to find something it doesn’t like, and it’ll start pulling birds away from the spread. You can watch it happen in front of your eyes. A flock will have its legs out, and they’re all coming. Everything’s fine, and then one of them finds something it doesn’t like, and it’ll fold its landing gear back into its body and start that constant honking.

“One by one, they’ll fold their legs back into their bodies. They’ll slow down and begin hovering and will keep up that constant honking until every single one of them is taken care of. It can take up to three minutes (to pull the whole flock), depending on the speed of the wind.”

All of the fields worked by Goose Guides are feeding fields, about a half and half mixture of rice stubble and rye grass. Some of the best fields this year will be from fields not even planted. Leftover grain that has grown from last year’s crop has to be plowed under by the end of September in order to receive subsidy money for not planting.

Some good fields, especially for pit blinds are those in which sand is placed near the blind. Geese use sand to help digest grain, and will frequently make the trip to the beach to get it.

“These birds have come all the way from Canada. A trip to the coast is like a walk in the park,” said Matthew. “Some blinds will begin with sand piled 5 feet high, and by the end of the season, it’ll all be on the ground.”

Matthew says that the quickest way to run off a population of birds using the area is to shoot them on a roost, so he only allows that at the very end of the season.

“When you shoot them, they’re gone,” said Matthew. “They like to roost on water for the most part.”

Ideally, Matthew wants birds that customers can shoot at their backs instead of trying to penetrate the thick down feathers, muscle and bone protecting the birds vital organs from the front. Aiming for the head is always a good idea in situations where one is eye to eye with a bird, but things don’t quite work out that way when the heat of the moment arrives.

“A lot of what we explain to (hunters) goes right out the window when the geese start circling,” said Matthew. “It’s a whole lot of fun for most people. You’ll see men squirming in their seats, just squeezing their gun like little kids.”

The backside of a goose makes for a much more penetrable target, says Matthew. So much so that he believes hitting them from the backside, provided he has the right firepower — he really likes 10-gauges — and ammunition, can add up to 30 yards of range for a shooter.

“Sometimes guys will shoot at a goose 60 yards out and everybody will be excited. It’s a great shot, but it has a lot to do with where he shot the bird.”

A little patience can go a long way.

“Everybody wants to jump up and get off all three shots real quick. If you can learn to wait for the bird to turn away from you, you can get that kill shot more often. Really, when we get guys who have hunted with us a few times before, that’s when they really kill some geese.”

The best days to hunt, Matthew explains, are those where there is a good combination of wind and fog, while the worst is undoubtedly any day with rain.

“Fog with a wind of around 10 miles per hour is the best. A day with a low ceiling and a good 10 to 20 m.p.h. wind is also good,” said Matthew. “When it rains, the birds just don’t move. They huddle up in a field and wait.

“If you can get out there right when it stops raining, that’s excellent. Those birds are up and moving, and they’re hungry.”

Matthew explained that a hard wind typical of the days following a good cold front are not the best condition for bringing geese into the spread, but it can be good should hunters strategize properly.

“A heavy wind gives the birds a lot of time (flying into the spread) to check it out,” said Matthew. “The wind makes the spread look good, but it also makes a lot of unnatural noise.”

By setting up upwind of the spread, Matthew and his hunters are able to forgo the white jumpsuits and blend in with the ground with traditional camo.

“We want to get a shot at them before they get too close. We’ll leave a few callers in the spread, and the rest of the guys will be up against a levee,” he said.

These days of severe winds usually come along with clear skies. Unlimited ceiling has a reputation for not being good for waterfowl hunting, but Matthew says that bluebird conditions combined with a good wind — 10-15 m.p.h. — can make for excellent hunting.

The only situation in which a windless day is good is when a good fog is present.

“Once they get through the fog, they’re generally low enough to shoot,” he said.

Matthew says the ideal number of hunters for a rag spread is six to eight with a maximum of 20, but that number is simply based on the number of birds each hunter may bring home based on the consistent limit of specks taken on hunts.