Although most of us are currently swamped out in the dog days of summer, Early Canada goose hunting season is right around the corner. With its liberal limits, and comfortable weather conditions, Early Canada goose season is my favorite time of year to chase honkers. The early season honker hunter faces many challenges: from limited amounts of cut fields, to goose numbers being months away from fall migration peaks, to a high level of competition from other hunters trying to get in on the action. Here, I've put together some of my best tips and tricks to help you think out of the box, and maximize your success this early goose season.
1. Don't bet all your chips on opening morning success. I've been there more than a handful of times, its opening morning, you have barely slept, the field was stacked the day before. Countless tanks of gas propelled your weeks-long scouting efforts and strained your budget. But now it's all about to pay off. The decoys are set, trucks parked, early morning twilight is breaking on the horizon, and then... Headlights pull into the field OR you hear geese exploding off the roost as hunters paddle into it in the dark OR none of those things happen but your birds never show up. You end up waiting around until hoody weather turns to sunscreen weather, then you get the truck to pick up. It's a nightmare scenario that plays out thousands of times across North America on early goose opener. This is why I encourage hunters to not put all their eggs into this basket, as it has a high likelihood for mishaps. I severely limit the amount of investment I put into scouting, and only hit the pavement for a night or two prior to opener. If I can't get on an X, or a traffic field, I will plan to hunt a public area at least somewhere near geese that I found and hope the chaos surrounding the day throws some birds into my calling range. Another great choice for opening morning is hiring an outfitter, or planning a cool trip for that weekend. I've had great success hitting North Dakota in the early weeks of September, long after the August season pressure wanes. When it comes to hiring an outfitter, or taking a cool trip (or both) for opening day, consider the savings you will get from not scouting, and the benefit you get from spending your last summer weeks at home, with the family, having bbq dinners instead of beating up gravel and burning pricey fuel.
2. Put your money on molts. Hunting molt migrating Canada geese is your #1 chance for an unforgettable and successful early season. "Molt" or "Molt Migrator" is a term used for non-breeding Canada geese that spend their summers in northern Canada. Honkers do not breed until they are at least 3 years old, and any young geese without chicks to raise will travel north, where they can comfortably and safely molt their feathers and grow new ones for the year. Once they have completed molting their feathers, they begin their journey back south to the United States, and will stage near their birthplace, arriving in early to mid September. Canada geese engaging in a molt migration are extremely vulnerable and easily killable. Most molt migrants are doing their first ever fall migration without their parents guiding them, as well as being extremely hungry from their long journey. Band encounter data from resident Canada geese consistently shows adult birds banded in previous years have a higher mortality rate than juvenile birds banded the same year. This phenomenon in data is solely the result of molt migrators being intercepted and killed by hunters.
3. Hunting molts.
Where: Since molt migrators are returning to their natal birthplace, anywhere that typically has a lot of goose families being raised, is going to have a lot of molts returning to that same area in September. Major cities and suburban sprawl are molt migrant hot spots, as are traditional staging areas, and refuges across a more rural landscape. We position our spreads just north of these cities and refuges. We will set up on water, or grass, or anywhere we think might be under a good flight line. Its important to have spots pre scouted and easily accessible, so when the migration turns on, you have a chance to get out there quickly. A permanent spread is a good idea if possible.
When: Its all about the weather for hunting molts. What I look for is cold temps north of us, and a north wind, ideally 10 mph or less, and cloudy. Low winds are ideal for hunting molts because when giant Canadas are migrating they are dependent on sound to find safety and other geese. High winds severely reduce the effectiveness of their vocal range and reduces their chances of finding each other. In my experience, if the wind gets above 15 mph, the migration completely shuts off. Daytime sunny skies are too hot for migration, and the migration shuts off early in the morning and begins again around sunset on bright days. Cloudy days will keep conditions comfortable for geese to continue migrating throughout the day and extends hunting opportunity.
How: For hunting molts, good goose calling is king. Everything from your decoy spread, to your hide, to your location comes second to effective calling. A big spread can help get the attention of migrators from a further distance, but its not necessary. My best ever molt hunt took place over 30 decoys. Field or water sets can be equally deadly, because molts are seeking safety with other geese, and will decoy enthusiastically to both water or dry land. Most importantly is to be on the north side of a staging area, with a solid goose call on your lanyard, and be there when it happens.
4. E-scouting. Ebird.org is the largest birding website on earth. In it you can find historical data of where geese are, and when. You can narrow search results down to month to month, and focus on reports for a single species. Birders record the location, the quantity, and sometimes even photos and descriptions of the birds they are reporting. Obviously information like this is incredibly valuable for a hunter. Birdcast.info is a migration forecast website that uses doppler radar to count and predict bird migration. Although it cannot distinguish species by radar, it does have a 3 day forecast for migration activity. This can give you a very good idea on what day you should be hunting, and what day you should be at work. OnX maps is another great app for dialing in your early season plans by showing you close to home or easy access public lands you can utilize on migration days. Additionally they have added a new crop data layer that can give you information on what crops are planted where, helping you find wheat, barley, or peas on a long distance early season trip. And most importantly, weather apps, which will be the ultimate decider of when to hunt. My favorite is the Windy App. Being a premium subscriber I can view wind animation with temperature layers on an hour by hour basis for my entire region.
I hope this article gets you fired up for early season and maybe shed some light on some tactics for hunting molt migrators. Planning an early season around hunting the migration, instead of the small local feeds can save you time, money, emotions, and result in a more enjoyable and successful season. For more information check out the FullScale outdoors podcast waterfowl Wednesday #50, which is all about molt migrators. Or reach out to me on snap: njohnson2367 or IG: Nick_A_Johnson.