Two spring snow-goose hunters point to an incoming flock of snows while hunting with Prairie's Edge Outfitting. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
I’ve been a bird guide and outfitter for the past 16 years. I’ve hunted light geese a lot but haven’t taken advantage of the spring season, so it was odd donning waterfowl camo, grabbing my shotgun, and heading out to a parched pea field in the middle of March.
My wife, Heather, and I had booked a three-day hunt with Mike McLane, owner/operator of Prairie’s Edge Outfitting in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. Mike has a world-class reputation for putting hunters under thousands of birds, and we knew we were in for a treat. I savored every moment like a kid at Christmas as we approached the ‘X’ and began unloading and positioning scores of white decoys.
As darkness gave way to light and the southeastern breeze wafted over our blinds, the cackles grew in a crescendo and the first cloud of snows approached low off the deck. Only a waterfowl hunter can truly appreciate that special moment; it’s unique to the springtime migration. With the electronic call emitting a constant hum of feeding cackles, the group approached and – at just the right moment – our guide hollered, “take ‘em!” Layouts instantly burst open and barrels blazed. Several unsuspecting birds fell from the sky, and everyone cheered with enthusiasm.
“Cover up and reload. More incoming birds to the west,” our guide exclaimed. This is spring snow-goose hunting.
Two hunters hoist their morning's white-goose harvest. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
“Snow geese” represent the broader light geese category, which includes snow, blue-phase, and Ross’s geese. The spring season offers hunters extended gun-hunting opportunities, liberal shoulder seasons and bag limits, and an ongoing role in conservation.
Excess snow-goose populations across the continent wreak havoc on tundra nesting grounds, so hunting is an effective management tool. This conservation issue came to the forefront in the late 1990s as midcontinent snow geese damaged vital tundra habitat for a variety waterfowl and wildlife. At that time, biologists noted the light goose population increased by as much as five percent annually. In turn, a recommendation was made to both the Canadian Wildlife Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the Light Goose Conservation Order (LGCO) be implemented. Essentially, the LGCO would help lower the light goose population by simplifying hunting regulations and facilitating increased harvests.
Choosing your destination should involve identifying high concentrations of incoming and outgoing birds in the most densely traveled regions of the flyway. Regardless of your choice destination, remember that migrating birds – light geese in particular – can be “flighty.” Weather influences their behavior. They settle in and stay a while in mild, stable conditions, but quickly vacate during cold, blustery spring storms.
The central flyway is loaded with prime hunting destinations from midwinter on. It’s tough to beat the incredible concentrations of wintering snow geese in northwest Missouri and the eastern one-third of Arkansas in February. Wing shooting is downright amazing in several states at this time, but if you’re looking for world-class spring cacklers, you can’t go wrong with Canada’s prairie provinces in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. If I had to choose just one, though, it would be Saskatchewan. Why?
Here are three reasons:
Heather Wilson, the author's wife, reloads for another volley. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
After choosing a destination, it’s time to pick an outfitter. It’s often more economical and your odds of success are far greater booking with a professional operator than going on your own. Beyond searching the internet, when you speak on the phone or, even better, face to face with an outfitter, ask them a few imperative questions.
Remember: The geese have seen every spread type and heard every call imaginable for the last several months as they wintered and flew north. Pay close attention to what the outfitter says about outsmarting these educated birds.
Lastly, get a list of up to 10 references – people who hunted with them in the past. Call the references and then make your decision. If you’re comfortable with their pricing, travel arrangements and accommodation services, it’s time to book the hunt. Submit a deposit and get written confirmation of your reservation along with a signed contract. This protects both you and the outfitter, and treats your transaction in the most professional manner possible.
When is the best time to book a spring snow goose hunt? This can be difficult to accurately answer because everything depends on the migration, which is weather dependent. Your top priority should be making a best guess based on historical weather and migration patterns. Given the typically warm weather, seeding schedules and flyway action, the best gun hunting usually occurs from mid-March to late April. In provinces where seasons allow, some outfitters offer hunts all the way into May and even June.
McLane only runs his hunts during prime times when the odds are best, booking his hunters from mid-March to no later than the last week in April. With many farmers beginning fieldwork by the second week in April, access tightens up after that.
Bottom line: It doesn’t matter how many birds are in the area; if there’s no access, then there’s no hunting. The good news is most producers are happy to grant permission to hunt snow geese until seeding is underway.
It’s important to research season dates, licensing requirements and harvest limits. In most jurisdictions, spring waterfowl seasons only accommodate light-geese harvests, which include various subspecies of snow, blue and Ross’s geese.
In many cases, jurisdictions accommodate higher harvest limits than are presently available for other waterfowl. For example, in Alberta, each hunter is allowed to shoot 50 light geese a day during the spring snow goose season with no possession limit. In Saskatchewan, hunters are allowed to take 20 per day, and in Manitoba 50 a day. A Federal migratory stamp is required in each jurisdiction in order to hunt spring snow geese.
Hunters should always consult the provincial or state hunting regulations to ensure compliance and understand daily bag limits.
Electronic calls are a huge asset for snow-goose hunting. Knowledgeable hunters carefully select calls relative to each situation. Low-volume feeding chatter often outperforms loud cackling. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
Plan for every type of weather imaginable. I’ve seen springtime temperatures fluctuate from as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit (-15 degrees Celsius) to as high as 75 F (24 C). Packing the right clothes will make your hunt comfortable.
In the end, recognize that spring is when the weather is changing – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Plan for it, and you’re sure to enjoy your time in the field.
As far as shotguns go, any field gun you’d use for hunting ducks and dark geese in the fall will suffice. I’m a big fan of Benelli’s Super Black Eagle III or their Super Vinci in 12-gauge. Both can shoot up to 3 ½-inch shells. The key is knowing that snows, blues, and Ross’s can be flighty. Depending on the day and the field setup, they may decide not to finish, so you could potentially end up with farther shot opportunities. While 2 ¾-inch shells can suffice, I recommend going with at least a 3-inch. My go-to round for spring snows is Winchester Blindside in 1 3/8 ounces, No. 2 Hex Steel shot.
The biggest challenge with light geese is their unpredictability. You can almost set your watch based on the reliability of greys, but when you think you have snows figured out, they change their mind and feed elsewhere. Sometimes thousands of cackling birds swarm your spread, making your hunt nothing short of spectacular. Other times they fly right by, ignoring your spread altogether. Go into your hunt with realistic expectations, enjoy the spring migration spectacle, and you’ll have the experience of a lifetime!
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