Spread ’em Out

Geese are swarming Louisiana’s rice belt, but you’ve got to know how to get them in your spread. Here are some tips from two experts.

Andy Crawford
The group of hunters trudged across the field in the pre-dawn darkness, heading for a mass of white rags barely visible in the distance. The mood was expectant. The geese were supposed to be thick in Kaplan, according to Houma’s Bryce Michel.

“There were 12,000 geese in the field today,” Michel had announced the previous afternoon after talking with guide Clint Matthew.

Even taking into account Michel’s renowned proclivity for exaggeration, we all figured there would be plenty of action.

We reached the spread of rags and windsocks just in time for shooting hours, and Matthew and Goose Guides partner Jimmy Pigron quickly placed each hunter in position.

Then, nothing. Nada. Zip.

Not a goose broke the horizon. Flocks of grosbeaks were the only birds to fly over the field.

“They’re flying late today, Matthew said.

It was clear that most of the hunters in the spread were thinking the same thing: “He’s trying to make excuses already. We drove all this way for nothing.”
As the sun peeked over the horizon, we quietly murmured to each other.

“Twelve thousand geese,” Lutcher’s Eric Williamson smirked.

A few minutes later, however, a dark smudge appeared on the southern horizon. Another fluctuating V came from the southwest.

“There they are,” Matthew announced softly.

It was unbelievable. Thousands of geese had risen en masse and were making their way north, heading toward our spread.

The guides took up their calls and let out the high-toned yelping designed to sucker the birds within shooting distance.

As the V of slow-moving birds coming from the southwest eased by the field, a trio of specklebellies broke off and flew directly toward us. We lay perfectly still, watching the big geese lumber our way and waiting for the guides to call for the shots.

They looked close enough, but still Matthew and Pigron called. They knew that the birds weren’t close enough; the illusion was simply due to the birds’ size.

Finally, with the geese almost directly over Williamson’s position, Matthew yelled, “Goose! Shoot!”

New Iberia’s Pat Bonin and I inadvertently took aim on the same goose, blasting the bird on the left from the sky. I quickly swung and popped the middle bird, and Williamson drew a bead on the right speck.

The three birds hit the ground like sacks of concrete, with Williamson’s bird almost landing in his lap.

Williamson looked over at us with a grin on his face, a dollop of warm goose blood oozing down his glasses and nose.

By this time, the sky was filled with geese. There were thousands upon thousands of them. The early flights were mostly specklebellies, but soon multitudes of snows and blues joined their cousins in flight.

Within 30 minutes, there were more birds on the ground, but it was quickly becoming apparent that the day wouldn’t be easy. The wind, which was supposed to be blowing fairly stiffly following a front that had moved through the previous night, was all but absent. The rags barely twitched, and the socks were limp.

Geese would break off readily, passing over the spread of about 1,000 rags and 400 socks. They craned their necks, looking for the source of the calling, but most would sense that something wasn’t right and rejoin the myriad geese falling into the field behind us.

No hunter complained, however. The sight was awesome, and when a few birds would pass close enough for a shot, it was considered lagniappe.

Finally, about 9:30, the hunt was called. The majority of the birds had finally stopped flying, and the few that were still in the air wouldn’t go for the motionless spread in which we lay.

“If we had had some wind, those birds would have come in 10 feet off the ground with their feet out,” Pigron said. “It’s just tough without any wind.”

The needed wind – 10 to 15 mph – had been forecast, but the front apparently pooted out before getting as far south as Kaplan.

As we walked away from the spread, the rags still barely moved.

The reason the wind is so vital is the same as when duck hunting.

“You want those rags to move because when they move, (the geese) won’t pick up your movement,” Matthew said.

The wind produces a fluttering of the rags’ corners, mimicking the motion of feeding geese, while the wind socks fill and gently pulsate back and forth.

“It looks like they’re walking,” he explained.

This movement is vital, and not just because it mimics geese in action. Instead of being in a blind, hunters are scattered about in the decoys, reclining in homemade plywood seats that position them perfectly for shooting descending geese.

“You just have to pick up your gun (which is lying on the side of the seat) and shoot,” Matthew said.

Hunters’ movement is further camouflaged by the white, paper coveralls they wear. Heads are covered with T-shirts tied so that each hunter is peering out through the neck hole.

Without any wind, it is critical that hunters remain perfectly still while the callers pull the birds in close enough to be shot. There aren’t any blinds, so every move is clearly visible from the air.

Hunter position in relation to decoys isn’t the only way goose hunting differs from duck hunting.

Whereas the cardinal rule in duck hunting is to never call at a duck when it’s facing the hunters, Matthew and Pigron continued to talk with the geese until shots were fired or it became evident the birds weren’t going to work.

“When I say ‘Shoot,’ we’re staying on the calls because we’re holding the birds,” Matthew said. “That way, they don’t flare when the guns come up.”

Sure enough, the geese would keep coming when we would lift our guns.

There’s a simple explanation, and it’s one that helps mask hunter movement.

“We’re controlling them with the calling. We’re guiding them in,” Matthew said. “Can you see them craning their necks when they come over the spread? They’re looking for the goose that’s calling.

“When you hold them with the call, they don’t see the (hunter movement).”

Matthew, who has 33 years of goose hunting under his belt, and Pigron, who has been goose hunting for 15 years, complement each other while calling. But Matthew takes the lead.

“If he’s having to call and call, and they’re just not coming in, I might call to help,” Pigron said.

Also, geese can be called from a lot farther distances than ducks.

“A duck won’t respond like a goose, probably because geese are more communal,” Matthew said.

Just how far can the birds hear the calling? Pigron found out one day.

“I was in one spread, and Clint was a mile away (in another spread), and I heard him call,” Pigron said. “I didn’t even call because I could tell that he had them.

“Ten minutes later I heard boom, boom, boom.”

But that doesn’t mean every hunter should be working a call. It’s a hindrance to have too many callers because the geese are going to try and land in the vicinity of the source of the call. If there are calls being sounded from all over the spread, birds won’t necessarily come in where the hunters can get shots.

The easiest geese to lure in are specks because of their natural willingness to break away from their winged brethren.

“The specks are a lot more individual,” Matthew said. “They wander around more.”

Snows and blues, on the other hand, stick tightly together.

“They’re survivors. That’s why there are so many of them,” he said.

And if a snow evades the shots of hunters, it will head for the nearest flock of incoming geese and warn the birds off.

“They talk,” Pigron said. “One will leave a flock and start calling and walk the others around the spread.”

As with any waterfowl hunting, however, the setup of the decoys is paramount; no bird is gong to come into a set unless it looks natural.

Matthew and Pigron said they normally use a teardrop- or funnel-shaped spread of rags, socks and shells. The narrowest part of the spread should be facing downwind so birds are approaching the spread from that direction.

“That spread’s successful most of the time,” Matthew said.

Because geese, even specks, are by nature very social creatures, numbers of decoys are important

“You want to use as many as you can afford,” Matthew said.

There are limits, however. The guides agreed that packing a field with rags is not very wise.

“You don’t want to fill it up and make it look like a lot of trash,” Pigron said.

The key is to make it look natural, but also to use the different kinds of decoys wisely.

“You want to put your best stuff up front,” Matthew said.

The front of the spread is the narrowest part of the teardrop or funnel, and the best types of decoys are the socks and hard shells.

“The rags are cheap filler to make it look like there are more birds,” Matthew said.

He and Pigron like to scatter the socks and shells out in the first 3/4 of the spread. They place them about 15 feet apart, and then three or four rags are placed around each sock.

“You want to make little families,” Pigron said. “That looks more natural.”

Speck shells and socks shouldn’t be placed in with the snow decoys, however.

“You put the specks right on the border (of the main spread) because they break off by themselves. They land together, but eventually they separate,” Matthew said.

Once all the socks and shells are placed, the rest of the rags should be scattered in the rear of the spread, but Matthew recommended setting them up in the same family groups as the shells and socks up front.

The hunters should be placed in a half-moon across the spread just inside the front decoys, Matthew said.

The callers will be just behind the hunters.

“That way, when the birds come in they fly right over the hunters,” he explained.

The biggest problem with having to put out so many decoys is that a wind shift can ruin everything.

“You’ve got to move everything. You’ve got to move your hunters and spread around,” Pigron said.

If there’s not a lot of wind, and the birds are coming into a spread from an unexpected direction, Matthew said the decoys can be left alone while hunters are adjusted to cover the approach of the geese.

“Sometimes you have to move the hunters, but don’t move the caller,” he said. “If you move the caller, that changes everything because that’s where the birds are going to be trying to land.”

On days with no wind or variable winds, Matthew said a donut-shaped spread works better.

“They’re going to land in the hole,” he said.

Even in this situation, family groups of decoys should be maintained, and speck shells and rags should be placed on the fringes of the main spread.

There are two ways to choose a field – both relating to fields which geese are already using heavily.

The first and preferred tactic is to set up downwind of the hot field.

“They’ll come over you to check out your spread when they’re heading to that field,” Matthew said.

The wind direction will also dampen the sounds of the guns, and thus prevent spooking the group of geese behind the spread, he said.

It’s critical, however, that the spread is set no earlier than the night before the hunt.

“If you’re going to get downwind of a flock, you need to set up and hunt,” Matthew explained.

That’s because geese flying over a pre-set spread learn not to land there.

“The next morning you’ll go out to hunt and they’ll be flying around the spread,” Matthew said.

The best fields for this setup are those without levees, trees or powerlines.

“They’re confident when they get over (such a field),” Matthew said.

Even a small spread is preferable to allowing birds to learn to stay away, he said.

The second tactic is to kick the geese out of the field when you’re ready to hunt.

“You walk in and make them leave. Then give them a chance to leave and set up,” Matthew said.

Because the birds are in the field for a reason, the odds are very good they’ll return later.

Of course, having access to a lot of property is important.

“You have to be able to follow the birds,” Matthew said. “You have to have property scattered all over.”

That’s because geese are voracious, and they’ll quickly clean out one field and head to another.

Matthew and Pigron have access to 50- to 100-acre fields scattered all around the Kaplan area, so they can generally set up between the geese’s bedding and feeding areas.

This late in the season, however, the guides don’t rely on natural food to attract geese.

“Pretty much by December they’ve eaten the crawfish ponds out and they start hitting those dry pastures,” Pigron said.

The fields most favored by geese are those that have green vegetation, so Matthew and Pigron take steps to ensure their fields get looked at by flocks.

“That’s why we plant wheat and rye grass,” Matthew said.

Because geese are root-eaters and not grain-eaters, the pair have switched from planting grain wheat to a variety of grazing wheat, he said.

By the time the crawfish ponds have died out, Matthew likes to have grass standing 1 to 2 feet tall.

“You want it good and lush,” he said.

Clint Matthew and Jimmy Pigron of Goose Guides can be contacted by calling (337) 643-2645.