Theoretically, the spring snow goose conservation order (it’s not a season) should be a reward for duck hunters who have grinded it out for months trying to work stale mallards and pintails into the decoys. There are no daily or possession limits on spring snow geese in the U.S., and in most states, hunters can affix extension magazine tubes to shotguns and up the ammo capacity of their 12 gauges. They are also on the move every day, chasing the snow line north to their breeding grounds on the Canadian tundra, which makes them more vulnerable.
Since the migration occurs in such a short window of time, snow geese should be easy to predict (and thus kill). But they’re not. It’s actually one of the most frustrating hunting pursuits there is because snows are notoriously unpredictable. You can’t depend on them to be in the same field feeding the following morning if you scout them there the night before.
That hasn’t stopped hunters from chasing after big spins of snow geese. Even though there are fewer snow goose hunters today (around 42,000) versus when the conservation order began (around 75,000) in 1999, the number of geese killed has increased from 643,470 that first year to over 2 million birds in the 2017-18 season, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
With harvest numbers like that, it’s easy to see why many hunters—new and experienced—want to try their hand at hunting snow geese. But it’s far more challenging than you think. To have success, you either need to have an edge over the competition or pay an outfitter who does. And if you want to have a better spring chasing snows, there are a few rules to live by and tactics to employ.
In the Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic Flyways, it’s perfectly legal during the spring conservation order to add an extension magazine onto your shotgun and shoot unlimited numbers of snow geese (in the U.S.). There is no conservation order in the Pacific Flyway—though you can goose hunt into March in northern states, like Washington and Oregon.
Canada does not allow extension magazines and does have daily limits, so check the provincial laws before you go. The important thing to remember is that all other migratory bird laws apply during the spring. Two laws that can trip up snow goose hunters are party hunting and transporting birds out of the field.
Snow goose hunts typically involve multiple hunters shooting into large flocks of geese. It’s a somewhat unavoidable circumstance, especially for outfitters trying to turn a profit by running as many clients as they can. Even though there are no daily limits, you still have to claim the birds you shoot and keep them with you at all times while hunting.
After every volley, each hunter needs to take possession of the birds they’ve killed. That’s not always easy to determine if dozens of birds are shot, but do your best to take the snows you have shot. Do not pile everyone’s geese together. Legally, you have to be able to identify which birds belong to you. And you should always want to know which birds are yours. Why? Because if someone in your party is breaking another migratory bird law by shooting lead shot and a game warden shows up and finds a lead pellet in the breast of a goose, you want to be able to prove that’s not your bird. If the birds are in a pile, that can’t be determined, and everyone might get a ticket.
When the hunt is over, most hunters send someone back to the truck to drive it into the field and pick everyone—and the dead birds—up. Snow goose hunting can result in piles of dead geese because there are no limits. Well, if you personally shot 50 geese during the hunt, you have to take those birds with you to your vehicle. It’s illegal to leave dead waterfowl anywhere until you make it back to your primary means of transportation even if you tag the birds. Some outfitters won’t shoot during a hunt or will designate another guide to drive into the field after the hunt and pick up hunters and birds to make this process easier. But even then, you must keep birds with you until making it back to your truck. Once you do, tag them appropriately, so your birds don’t get mixed in with those belonging to other hunters.
A majority of hunters use guides during the conservation order because of the cost of decoys and the time it takes to scout. But spring snow goose hunting lends itself to fly-by-night outfitters. Reason being, this mass migration of millions of birds takes place quickly, so a guide can operate in one area for a week or two, and then move on to the next state without ever putting paying clients on birds.
If an outfitter is in their first year of operation, that's a red flag. It doesn’t mean they aren’t legitimate, but put your guard up. They should be able to provide references of other reputable outfitters they have hunted with or bought decoy spreads from. The snow goose guide community is a small one, and if you’re hunting with an outfit no one has ever heard of, it’s likely you are getting ripped off.
Ask the outfitter what their policy is if the hunt is slow. Some guides will let you return for a second hunt for free or at a reduced rate if you don’t shoot many birds as long as there's space. If the outfitter says no, that’s not a deal breaker, but you should check to make sure because they’re likely not going to offer up that option. Time is money, and guides have a short window to maximize profits.
Adults are the first snow geese to return north to the Canadian tundra. They are smart, old birds (it’s not uncommon for snow geese to live past 20 years old). That means some adult snows have been alive since the inception of the spring conservation order, so they know the game well. With the right weather and tactics, these birds are killable. But as the migration gets underway, you want to focus efforts on juvenile snow geese, which means letting millions of birds fly by before you ever start hunting. You can tell the difference between adults and juvies by their coloring. Adults are all white (there are also color-phase snows and Ross’s geese that have blue bodies and white heads). Juvies are gray, almost dirty looking.
Arkansas, Oklahoma, and southeast Missouri are some of the best states to kick off your season in February because millions of birds spend their winter in these regions. Adults and juveniles are more programmed to fly and feed because they’ve been following the same routine for months. As the weather warms, snow geese chase the snow line. Keep that in mind as you time your hunts. If there is still a foot of white powder on the ground, you’re not going to be successful. But if there have been a few days in a row of sunny skies and above-freezing temperatures, snows are on the way.
Most hunters want to experience hundreds (sometimes thousands) of snow geese tornadoing into a spread of 5,000 decoys. But with so many chasing that storm in areas with large concentrations of snows, there’s more pressure on the birds and competition for fields, many of which get locked up by outfitters who can afford to pay more for access.
If you only own a couple hundred silhouettes and socks—or just want to get away from the crowds—you can still have success. A buddy of mine used to hunt snows this way, typically by himself, carrying all his decoys in plastic tubs in the back of an old Ford Ranger. He focused on flight lines that no one else paid much attention to. Sure, it was hard work setting his own rig, but timed right, he picked off hundreds of birds every spring.
You can also get a group of friends together and pool resources. A few years ago in a place hardly anyone hunts snow geese, a couple buddies set a large permanent spread of 800 socks under a known migration corridor and kept two smaller rigs in separate trailers. If they found a feed or a field near a good flight light, out came the mobile spread. And since it was an area no one else hunted, our group had free reign over thousands of acres. Plus, almost every landowner gave us access, so we could set up just about anywhere.
Deeper into the season, even juvie snow geese are wary of full-body decoys and tornado machines. So, you need to adapt. The best way to trick a smart bird into the spread is to pique their interest. To do that, you need to show them something they’ve never seen before.
In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, my good friend and Ducks Unlimited TV producer John Gordon, was a snow goose guide on the coastal prairie of Texas. Back then, they used giant sock decoys affixed to wooden dowels and staked them in the ground. Those old socks were much bigger than the ones you see from today’s manufacturers. And you can still buy them through Knuston’s Sporting Goods.
If there was at least a 10 mph wind, Gordon deployed kites (like the ones you fly at the park with your son or daughter) to grab the attention of migrating snows. The kites don’t really look like birds, but the key is to get birds interested.
Also, use a mouth call instead of an e-caller, which snows get accustomed to hearing and associate with being shot at. In Gordon’s day, guides shortened the reed of their Canada goose call so it would make a high-pitched “bark.” Now you can buy a snow goose call that is tuned to sound just like a white goose. Get a few good callers in the spread sounding like real birds, and you can have an incredible morning in the socks.