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March goose season no time to just wing it

At one-half hour before sunrise on March 4, the real March madness will begin for avid (and not so avid) waterfowl hunters looking to target Canada geese in the South Area of the state. The South Area extends from Niagara County south into the Southern Tier all the way to the Pennsylvania border, then continues east all the way into the Catskills. The special season  extends only through March 10.

“We are extremely lucky to have a resident population of Canada geese as strong as we do,” says Ryan O’Neill of Orchard Park. He is addicted to waterfowl hunting and these birds are at the top of his list. “New York is one of the only states in the country that offers a March Canada goose season. And this year, with the mild weather, we might even see some of the flight birds starting to migrate north from the south – making it even more exciting.”

Like a good business person, the top three things you need to prepare for is: 1) Location, 2) Location, 3) Location.

“You need to be where the birds are going to be,” says O’Neill, a pro staffer for Lynch Mob Game Calls and Dead Ringer sights. “Probably 90 percent of the March hunt is location so you need to do your homework if you want to be successful.”

Ryan O'Neill shows off some goose madness during a March hunt. On the left is Jack Piatkowski, followed by his father, Jason and Tony Quick.

Birds will be roosting on green water like the Niagara River. Once you find them, the next task will be to follow them to the fields. When the fields have been pinpointed, the next step is to ask permission from the landowners. The birds will know what fields they have a preference for. However, if the landowner says no, don’t give up hope.

“March is generally a better time to hunt because of lessened pressure and getting permission from landowners is not as difficult as you might think,” insists O’Neill, who was just blessed with a little baby boy on Monday. “If you are denied from accessing the go-to property, though, ask the landowners on either side of the prime real estate. It might be time to try and ‘run traffic.’”

“Running traffic” is when you get into the travel corridor of the geese and cut them off from making it to their final destination. It will take an effective combination of flagging, calling and decoy set-up to make that happen, but with many of the birds already pairing up for breeding and with smaller groups coming into your decoys, the end result can mean greater rewards.

With your fields selected, make sure you understand what the rules of engagement will be. Know where you can drive in or around the field (so that you don’t get stuck) and if there are any off-limit areas. March is traditionally a time when there’s snow on the ground and that’s O’Neill’s preference.

“The geese normally don’t take flight until later in the morning,” says O’Neill. “They will only feed once a day to conserve energy. What will happen is that they hit a field and go to sleep. This will allow for their body heat to melt the snow underneath them, gaining access to the grain (like corn) beneath their bodies. This helps us with our decoy set-up.”

O’Neill will set out roughly 75 percent of his decoys in an upright or feeding position. The remainder of the birds will mimic sleepers.

Using a blind can sometimes be effective in snow. This was a hunt with guide Scott Miller, the late Doug Stein, John DeLorenzo and Roy Larson.

Setting up your decoys is another puzzle you need to solve. O’Neill likes to position the sun at his back if at all possible. Birds will always land into the wind, too. Leave an opening for the birds to land. If you have permission for the field that the birds are targeting every day, you won’t need to set up as many decoys because the birds are already comfortable. It’s when you are attempting to “run traffic” that you will need to set up 8 to 10 dozen full body decoys with some sleeper shells like mentioned earlier.

Your concealment tactics are also extremely important. Since he is mainly hunting in snow, he’ll use white camouflage clothes with coffin-style snow covers so that he can blend in with the ground. They will even go so far as to dig a trench in the ground to lay in so that they are not sticking up as far. We’re not talking Tyvek suits – they are much too shiny and will flare the birds.

“I like to use the natural cover whenever possible, like a hedge row in the middle of a field," O'Neill says. "We might incorporate a snow fence and cut some brush to build our own blind. Stay away from tree lines as geese will stay away from them.”

As far as his gun of choice, he’s happy with his Winchester Super X3 semi-auto shotgun. For his ammunition, he doesn’t shoot anything fancy – especially since he’ll shoot nearly four cases in an entire waterfowl season. O’Neill goes with steel, using either Fiocchi or Kent brands primarily. He’ll normally shoot BB pellets, but he will go bigger in size. He also sticks with 3-inch shells.

“It’s more important to know how a particular shell and load shoots out of your gun,” O’Neill sats. “For me it is a combination of performance and economics. I’m using a Pattern Master 2 choke and I know how it shoots. Anyone just starting out should head out to the range and set up for 25 to 30 yards. Change your choke tubes out and see what is working best for your gun with different types of ammo. And when it comes to the hunt, remember that these birds are moving faster than you realize.”

A stickler for detail, O’Neill keeps records of all his hunts.

“Pay attention where the South Area boundaries are located. Always have a back-up plan in case your first plan doesn’t work out. This is also a team effort all the way around. I work with four or five guys pretty closely to make all of this happen – from the September season to the special March hunt.”

March Madness is almost here, and like the college basketball craze, there’s a lot of work that needs to happen before it’s game-on. Check out the Department of Environmental Conservation website for more information.

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