By P.J. Reilly
In this ever-changing world, not even goose hunting can escape the inevitable grasp of evolution. Back in my formative years of pursuing Canada honkers, the standard game plan for waterfowlers who didn’t have access to comfy pit blinds called for hunters to find a hedgerow, fenceline, ditch or some other concealing cover adjacent to an open field. You planted your decoys about 30 yards away from the hideout and anticipated shots either at geese landing on the far side of the decoy spread or at low-flying birds as they passed overhead.
Shots under these conditions generally ranged from 40 to 60 yards. This meant you wanted no less than a 12-gauge shotgun with as long a barrel as you could find - some measured 32 inches. In the end of the barrel, you placed a modified or improved-modified choke tube. And the preferred shotshells generally were 3-inch magnums loaded with BB, BBB or T shot.
Long barrels. Tight chokes. Big shot. This setup provided maximum knockdown power while shooting at fairly long distances. And it put many geese in the bag for waterfowlers. But goose hunters who regularly pursued honkers according to this strategy knew that, as the birds became increasingly wary over the course of a season, they learned to avoid concealing cover. Seasoned geese eventually would alight only in the very center of vast fields, far from any natural vegetation that could hide even a single hunter.
Left: Shot pattern of a Model 870 Remington with a 28-inch barrel shooting 3-inch T shot through a modified choke at 12 yards. The pattern measured 8 inches across.
Right: This much larger pattern was created by a 3-inch shell loaded with No. 2 shot fired through a skeet choke at 12 yards. The gun was a Browning Citori with a 26-inch barrel.
Not satisfied to watch geese repeatedly land out of shotgun range, however, waterfowlers adapted. Fast forward to the 21st century. The hottest goose-hunting strategy today calls for hunters to pitch their decoys anywhere in a field they want and to hide prone on the ground right in the middle of the spread. Thumb through any waterfowling supply catalog these days, and you’ll find several pages dedicated to layout blinds. They didn’t exist 10 years ago. A few hard-core hunters would lay out on foam pads and conceal themselves with camouflage netting, but they were considered extremists. (Geniuses are often mistaken for eccentrics).
Nothing is more aggravating on a layout Canada goose hunt than having geese approach your spread from behind and then land there. It’s tough to sit up, turn all the way around and then shoot at geese behind you.
Always set up with the wind at your back. Geese might approach your spread from any direction, but when it comes time for them to land, they’ll do whatever it takes to put the wind in their faces. That means they’ll be gliding right into your lap.
Place your decoys in the shape of a “U’’ or a “J,’’ with the post or posts of the spread extending downwind. The hunters should hide in the decoys that make the curved hook in the spread and face downwind. Approaching geese will likely head for the open area in front of the hunters.
Goose hunters who hide among their decoys out in the middle of a field will find themselves hunkered down right where approaching geese want to land. That means they come in close. Real close. Close enough for hunters to see steam trickling out of a goose’s bill on a chilly morning or to spot the glint of a prized leg band.
Shots on a layout hunt often are measured in feet rather than yards. And if you’re hefting that big shotgun fitted with a tight choke and loaded with T shotshells, count on poking a lot of holes in the air. You have to “gun down’’ for geese under close-quarter conditions.
Short barrels. Open chokes. Small shot. These are the keys to success in the modern goose hunting world. My hunting partners and I were slow to realize this after we switched from hunkering in vegetation to hiding among our decoys. Even with birds landing right in our faces, we still used big guns fitted with tight chokes shooting big shot, because that’s what we thought was required for dropping a big Canada goose. Our success improved exponentially, however, when we finally gunned down.
Previously, my goose gun was a 12-gauge Remington 870 fitted with a 28-inch barrel. A modified choke filled the end of the barrel. And I always loaded up with 3-inch T-shot shotshells - the largest shot size allowed in my state.
Today, I shoot a 12-gauge Browning Citori over-under shotgun with 26-inch barrels. I place a skeet tube in the top barrel, which I always fire first, while the bottom barrel gets an improved-cylinder tube. Both barrels are loaded with 3-inch shotshells carrying No. 2 steel.
Recently, I took both rigs out on the firing range to compare their shot patterns. I fired both at large sheets of paper from 12 yards, which is a typical shot for my buddies and me when we’re hunting Canada geese. Not surprisingly, the 870 firing T shot through a modified tube produced a spread that measured 8 inches across. The Citori, shooting No. 2 steel through a skeet tube, produced a circular pattern 18 inches across.
The primary benefit of the wider pattern is clear. It’s much more difficult for a goose to escape an 18-inch wall of steel shot. A Canada goose facing you with its wings outstretched at 12 yards might seem like an impossible target to miss. But my buddies and I were surprised at how many more birds we started putting in the bag when we lightened up for geese than when we used the big guns, big shot and tight chokes.
I pried open the ends of a 3-inch T-shotshell and a 3-inch No. 2 shotshell to see just how many more pellets the shell with the smaller shot was spitting. A No. 2 steel pellet is roughly half the size of a T pellet. Therefore, it was only logical that I found essentially twice as many pellets in the No. 2 shell - 135 - than I did in the T shell - 67.
One could argue that the doubled mass of the T pellet offers double the knockdown power of the No. 2 pellet. But with both pellets coming out of the muzzle of the gun at around 1,400 feet per second and striking a bird that’s only 36 feet away, knockdown power is irrelevant. The No. 2 pellet has plenty of energy to bring down the goose. So why not fire 135 pellets at that bird rather than 67?
Carrying a short shotgun makes maneuvering on the ground much easier than when you’re lugging a big gun. Again, layout hunting is a close-quarters game. When it finally comes time to shoot, you have to sit up from a prone position and swing your gun to find a target. Usually, the act of sitting upright spooks any geese that are on the ground in front of you or which are just about to land. So not only do you have to sit up and get your gun on a target, but you also get your gun on a target that’s accelerating to escape. In this situation, the maneuverability of a short shotgun is a big advantage.
The next time you head out for a layout goose hunt, think small. Gunning down for Canada geese is the best way I know to gun down a limit of honkers.
Reprinted from the October 2004 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine