Category Archives: duck hunting

Some Thoughts on Competition

Photo from SignsoftheMountains.com

Competition is generally a good thing.  It builds character, it drives improvement, and it fosters a strong work ethic.

This is, of course, the conventional definition of competition, which is not what I’m going to be talking about here.

Reports are starting to trickle in from friends and family, and overall it is looking like being another solid season of waterfowling for 2017. Things have been slow to ramp up, but that pattern has appeared in previous seasons with the action heating up as more crops are cut and cooler weather brings fresh migrators through.

But this year, unlike previous seasons, the reports from the field indicate that competition for access is going to be high, and I’ll expand on that topic in a few paragraphs.

I think back to my formative years when there was virtually no conflict at all when it came to access.  Provided you had a decent relationship with the local landowner and you left the place better than you found it, there was simply no problem at all in getting into a good spot for a shoot.  Almost every landowner we used to have access with asked little more of a hunter than simply closing a gate or parking in a certain spot on the property, and although some would gladly accept some wild game or labour in exchange for hunting permission, most did not even care for that.

Most were just happy to have someone shooting the geese off of their fields.  But something has  changed.  Goose hunting is business for some now, and a few select outfitters have taken to leasing access from landowners (sometimes at premium rates) directly aimed at the exclusion of local, recreational waterfowlers from fields and areas they have traditionally accessed simply on goodwill.

It is tradition versus business, and tradition looks to be losing.

Five points are problematic here and I’ll briefly summarize them now.  Hopefully these serve as some idea of what myself and other waterfowlers (call us amateur, recreational, local, legacy, or whatever else you want to label us with) are dealing with in relation to professional groups barring access through rental payments to landowners.

  1. Reduced Access

Since many do not have the means (through a prepaid client base) to pay up front for access, or to even pay for access at all, for non-professionals, there will be a direct loss of hunting opportunity. That such a situation is problematic when organizations like Delta Waterfowl and Ducks Unlimited are bemoaning low hunter recruitment and a loss of support for waterfowling is obvious.

  1. A Dangerous Precedent

Related to point one, this could conceivably set a ‘pay to play’ precedent with local landowners, putting a once democratic pastime in the hands of a moneyed few, or in targeted business interests. In many areas of Canada, there is little ‘lease’ type of access in contrast to what is seen south of the border.  Hunting leases have been targeted as one of many reasons for dwindling hunter participation in America, and it also creates competitive crowding on public lands.

  1. Hunter Conflict

It is not difficult to see how the practice of paying for access at the prohibition of local hunters from their traditional fields and marshes could create conflict.  Waterfowlers in particular seem more attached to the places they’ve hunted and the relationships they have cultivated with landowners.  To reduce those traditions and relationships to merely commercial relationships will most certainly lead to a broader divide in the hunting community.  Is an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ between outfitters and their paying clientele on one side, and what I’ll call non-professional hunters on the other really what we need in a time when the tradition is believed to be under attack from outside forces?

  1. Hunter Apathy

This is the scary part.  Generations of waterfowlers, suddenly finding themselves on the ‘outside’ may lead some to give up altogether.  Think I’m being alarmist?  I’ve seen several examples both in the area I hunt and on countless forums, magazines, and in public interaction that lead me to believe many hunters will just say “To hell with it, then” and just stop chasing ducks and geese out of stubborn resentment.  If this happens, and I really do believe it is underway in some places, who will buy the waterfowl stamps necessary for conservation, who will support DU and Delta, who will champion waterfowling to a non-hunting public, and most importantly, who will pass this timeless and incredible tradition to the next generation?  I do not believe this is me using hyperbole.

  1. Hunter/Landowner Relations

For a long time, hunters and landowners worked cooperatively, in a non-commercial sense.  Hunters would offer their labour in exchange for access.  They would offer part of the harvest to any landowners interested in fresh goose meat or a plump mallard. They checked on the fields and popped into the marshes just to make sure things were on the up and up.  In some places I’ve heard stories where hunter access has discouraged trespassing.  In short, there was a sense of community between landowner and hunter.  But with land ownership being centralized and held outside of the local communities, and with guide services exploiting their superior financial position relative to local hunters, how could good relations between landowners and local hunters as stewards of the land continue?  If a guide service has the means to pay, and a landowner wants the money, far be it from me to think I could intervene in a meaningful way.  But an outfitter visits a spot in season a few times, with paying clients from outside the area.  They are there short-term and they are usually gone.  A local that gives a damn about the land drives by it every day.  But I imagine absentee landowners and outfitters care little for these long-term relationships.  To say nothing of the anecdotal stories heard occasionally about guided hunting parties leaving gates open, litter behind, and the like; what kind of landowner relationships spring from that?

Now this could all be construed as just so much ‘bitching’, or a reluctance to ‘adapt’ and perhaps it is those things in a way.  Local hunter in our jurisdiction, and it is possible that in other areas as well, do not have ready means to ‘rent’ access, and we cannot really control the price paid by outfitters and guide services to lock us out.  But with access at a premium, and long-standing tradition of ‘amateur’ hunting in the area, the grievance is legitimate.

It also calls into question, ultimately, what the guide services and outfitters are truly interested in progressing.  Is there a real concern about the long-term viability and participation in the tradition from the grassroots level, or is self-interest in business the lone driver in this push to exclude local participation from waterfowling?  As I see it, paid access is a threat to the viability of the sport long-term, especially in areas where there is not a history of leased access.

I suppose the motivations of those doing the paying and those taking the money are ultimately unknowable answers, but I know where my best guess aligns.

Gear Review: RNT Short Barrel Duck Call

The first duck call I ever ran was a wooden single reed Olt that my Dad gave me when I was eight.  I finished second in a youth calling contest with it in 1990, but then drifted away from duck calling and into other things during my juvenile and adolescent years.  When I dove headlong into waterfowl it was goose hunting that I fell in love with and while most of my disposable income has been funneling its way into goose calls (see the post previous to this for more on that), I’ve long been considering a solid, high quality single reed duck call for my lanyard.

The colours on this call are just gorgeous.
The colours on this call are just gorgeous.

For the last decade or so various average double reed polycarbonate duck calls have worked serviceably on my lanyard and names like Buck Gardner, Knight & Hale, Zink, and Haydel’s have had their chance.  They’ve been passable but not without limitations, and this week it was time to move into high-performance territory.

Now this is not to say the above brands were not good calls, and I’ve been particularly fond of my Red Leg mallard from Haydel’s and will likely keep it on my string, but after testing countless calls, I made the move to RNT, and specifically to a single reed Short Barrel in bocote wood.  The call is, in a word, impressive.  I tried other single reed calls in the RNT line in the lead up to this purchase and two weeks ago I found myself holding an acrylic Daisy Cutter and the bocote Short Barrel in my left and right hands respectively.  I was filling the local BassPro store with racket as I sawed away hail calls, single quacks, and feed calls on each one.  I ultimately settled on the Short Barrel for reasons I will explain below.  As always these are my personal findings and preferences and I’d encourage anyone to do what I did and try out as many calls from as many manufacturers until you find what sounds and works best for your style of calling.

As I said, RNT won the day on this one, and I’ll start by saying that their ‘brand’ definitely had a hand in this decision.  Located in the heart of (and some would the epicenter of) southern USA duck country, RNT operates out of Stuttgart, Arkansas which happens to be where the World Duck Calling Championships are held annually (in case you’ve been living under a rock for a while).  But more than their location, I’ve always respected their no-nonsense, non-gimmicky approach to waterfowling.  These guys just make duck calls and hunt ducks in a straightforward, no BS kind of way and that is appealing to me.

It doesn’t hurt that they churn out some of the purest-sounding duck calls on the market either, and the Short Barrel is no exception.

On first run, it was obvious that this was the call I had to have on my lanyard come this fall.  I have a lot of ‘loud’ duck calls so windy day range or aggressive hail calling was not something I was worried about; instead I wanted something a little more true sounding for close-in work and finesse, and that is something the Short Barrel has in spades.  The compact size and mellow sound of the wood puts a smooth edge on the mid-range and soft quacks, while feed calls roll out of this little call with ease.  It can still get loud, but not in that ringing, nasty-edged way that an acrylic call would be apt to.  The risk here is that when blown too hard, this call does seem to squeak and lock up.  In short it requires a lighter touch than I may be used to, so of course practice has been the key for the last few weeks.

The call is new but even now it is surprisingly responsive, so I’m chomping at the bit to hear how it sounds once I’ve broken bit in somewhat.  As it stands currently, this call descends down a five note scale cleanly, and changes speeds with only the most subtle variations in air pressure.  Speaking of pressure, absolutely no back pressure is required to run this call through all the sounds a hunter would require; the mellow tone of the bocote softens the feed calls and quacks nicely.  I have found that applying back pressure only muffles the resonance that the Short Barrel has naturally built into it.

The bottom-end sounds are mellow from the bocote wood, but the call can be charged up for aggressive calling as well.
The bottom-end sounds are mellow from the bocote wood, but the call can be charged up for aggressive calling as well.

Now of course, the sound is the key here, but it should be noted that the Short Barrel in bocote looks damn sexy as well.  The wood has a dark chocolate grain that runs through a caramel-colored body and the call is completed with a low-gloss band.  I have also always loved the smell of wooden duck calls and this one is no different; something about the smell of wood call takes me back to my childhood of learning to call ducks on Dad’s classic Olt call.

Since it is the off-season right now, the one part missing from this review is field performance, but that just means in a month or so I get to write about this call again, so that’s a plus.  In the meantime, I’ll just be sitting in the basement, practicing and rasping away on this new toy of mine and waiting for the October morning when I get to slide on my waders, find an out of the way spot in the long grass, and wait for the whistling of mallard wings.

When it happens, I think the Short Barrel will be ready for the spotlight.

The Primacy of Waterfowling

As with most things you’ve read here, what follows is a matter of opinion.  If you and I are similarly-minded, then I imagine we are not going to have too much to debate in the below ramblings.  If we are found to not share such ideals, then I defer to the time-proven axiom of “to each their own” and I can still share the field with you if you’d have me.

I haven’t hunted African plains game, and may never get the chance. 
I am a neophyte by most standards in that I possess less than a decade in the turkey woods, although I am a full convert to that particular aspect of our religion. 
My deer hunting experience is of less than a score of years, which is as much an accident of birth and the public policy at the time of my hunting certification as it is a function of my love of stalking the ghosts of the fall woods. 
Small game was once a deep passion, although a shortage of suitable hounds and a personal disinclination as I grow older to spend time in cold winds and deep snow has dulled my desire to chase grouse and rabbits.  Perhaps the acquisition of a sleek beagle may rekindle those fires, but for now they smolder low.
Moose hunting, while available, has always played second fiddle to deer hunting for me.
Predator hunting, while exciting and raw, often lacks the payoff of promised game meat for the eating.
Elk, bears of all fashions, antelope, and the like are all unavailable to me, for reasons of logistics, time, and finances respectively.
What the list above details are two things.  First, there is a literal glut of riches available to the North American sportsman.  Secondly, at least for me, is that all of the above opportunities finish behind the pursuit of waterfowl as the act that most defines my hunting experience.
My dad is a deer hunter.  He loves the ducks dropping in and the geese turning and cycling down into a set up as much as I do, but if you asked him what he’d rather be doing, he would say deer hunting every time.  I’ve had similar conversations with a couple of my cousins and friends and they all fall on the side of deer hunting, although there are a few that are fast becoming converts to the hallowed tradition of chasing wild turkeys.
Perhaps it is my instinctual desire to dissent from the group, perhaps it is my relative lack of success in killing deer and turkeys, or maybe, like the Grinch, my head isn’t screwed on just right.  Whatever the case may be, hunting ducks and geese tops my list of preferred hunting trips, although that’s a lot like trying to rate pizza versus ice cream versus sex.  I suppose you could prioritize them if you wanted to, but you really would never turn any of them down.  Hunting is like that.
Carrying on.
It is true that I love waterfowling above all else, and frankly, what isn’t there to love?  Sure the weather can be awful, but at the end of the day, you don’t have to go out in it if you don’t really want to.  Yet time and time again, a multitude of duck and goose hunters are out in the most tragically terrible weather, getting frost-nipped, wind-whipped, and generally cold, soaked and miserable.  And why is that, you ask?  Two reasons: first the ducks and geese don’t seem to care; in fact it seems that often the hunting gets better the worse the climate is.  But the secret, untold second reason is that waterfowlers need that lousy weather to make them feel like they are truly ‘hunting’.  Just as deer hunters need the fall colours and the cool in the air, and houndsmen need the bay of a dog to set the atmosphere, so it is with the men and women that chase after webbed feet and billed birds.  I’ve had good shoots on bluebird days, but the best ones that I recall had some pretty drizzly, damp and all around unpleasant weather.  It just made it ‘feel’ right.
Another niche that I fit cozily into when it comes to duck and goose hunting is the calling.  Although a strong argument can be made on behalf of a gobbler, few other animals respond to calling and decoys like waterfowl do.  All my life I have been intrigued by the language of animals (and languages in general, but that’s another story), and the way that hunting allows me to more or less ‘talk’ with ducks and geese is a thrill that I simply cannot get enough of.  Listening to the birds as they work, and watching their body language as they respond positively and negatively to the sounds you are feeding them is both education and exhilaration.  My favourite memory from calling waterfowl came on a breezy, cool, sunny day in late September.  Our camp group was working a small flock of about nine geese, and they were making wide circles as they eyed up our spread.  As they made what turned out to be their second-last pass, I made a low moan on my call, and to my astonishment, one of the geese mimicked it exactly.  Not similarly, not comparably, but precisely the same note, tone, and duration.  Naturally, I made the same call again (which may shock those of my friends who accuse me of never making the same sound twice) and the goose answered back again with the same sound.  So back and forth for five or six more sequences this goose and I made the same sounds.  It would call then I would call the same note back, and as their broad circle tightened and then straightened into a final approach I had a ripple of adrenaline course through me.  I was talking this bird, and the group that was with it, right into where we needed them to be.  And that was the point.  We took home five or six out of the group, and while I scratched down one of them, I can’t say for sure if the bird I got was the one that was communicating with me, or whether that bird was even in the bag at all.  But it didn’t matter of course, because aside from the feeling of accomplishment that comes from tricking a supremely evolved specimen of wildlife into a trap, I knew that for even a few short minutes I was intentionally communicating with a wild animal using their language, which was beyond anything I had done or experienced before.
I consider waterfowl to be some of the most delicious wild game meat I’ve ever eaten.  And I’m going to go so far as to be on record say something that some may find controversial.  Geese are delicious too.  Now I’ve heard from reputable sources that speckled-belly goose meat is the height of epicurean delights, and I’ve had some of the best roasted ducks out there (although the orgasmically tasty canvasback has long eluded me) but foremost I think Canada geese get a bad reputation when it comes to the plate.  Now before I continue I will say this; I have eaten some absolutely atrocious Canada goose meat, but that particular platter was filled with birds that were primarily “suburban geese”, and I don’t mean geese with mortgages and family sedans.  I was hunting with a friend on a farm that was just barely beyond the city limits of Guelph.  I believe we were legally hunting by about 50 yards.  We were helping out a farmer that my friend knew, and he had often complained of the geese, so we took a trip out to thin the numbers a bit.  Upon scouting we found that the birds were spending most of their day at a local public park about three kilometers away.  We shot three or four and upon consuming them the next day, I can safely say I have never eaten any wild game as unpleasant as those few birds.  Although I think they were eating some grain on this farm, I attribute most of their flavour to them eating chemically fertilized grass and what I can only assume was their own feces for most of their days.  Really “wild” geese, the kind that truly migrate and spend limited time in urban/suburban areas have never troubled me with their flavour.  In fact, a good late season goose with a layer of corn and grain fed fat on them is so darn good roasted and stuffed with apples, lemons, and rosemary that I could never think of skinning them for their breast and leg meat.  Early season geese aren’t as succulent in terms of that, and they usually are still a bit “pinny” as we say, so more often than not that meat goes into the grinder, which isn’t a bad way to enjoy the fruits of a goose hunt either.  Last year we took a pin-feathered mallard drake that was not even two hours expired (talk about fresh organic!) and made a great little appetizer by butterflying the breasts and then pan frying them with the whole, skinned legs.  We rarely go hungry during duck and goose season.
The atmosphere of the goose hunt itself also endears it further to me.  I do enjoy the silent solitude of deer and turkey hunting, but silence is mandated by the nature of the prey.  Deer, and to an even greater extent, wild turkeys have incredibly acute hearing.  I’m not disputing the hearing of a duck or a goose, but I find the waterfowl hunting experience just slightly more gregarious for those doing the hunting.  First off, we almost always do this a pretty large group.  Five or more at a minimum.  It is just too labour intensive with decoys, blinds, guns, ammunition and the assorted paraphernalia to not have many hands to make the work light.  In fact some of us take it much lighter than others.  Secondly this group mentality makes it easy to have a good time.  We often just stand in a ditch or along a well-concealed fencerow and half-shout jokes and barbs at each other.  We tell amusing stories about our spouses, friends of friends, or the hunting companions that have gone before us, some of whom have sadly departed.  We laugh and giggle until we weep, we try out each other’s calls, and we generally have a raucous time, all the while eyeing the horizon and the heavens for birds.  When we miss, we taunt and deride each other’s failures as human-beings, and when we succeed everyone claims the credit simultaneously, particularly if one of the many birds that hit the ground is wearing jewelry.
Since some of us purchased layout blinds, the experience has changed only slightly.  We still do all of the above, we just do it from a reclined position.
I could wax poetic about the time-honoured history of waterfowling in North America, about how it built economies and industries, of how it nearly died as a tradition in the early 1900’s, and how it has staged a comeback.  I could tell the indigenous inhabitants of North America’s legends related to ducks and geese that I have learned.  I could write about the powers of survival possessed by ducks and geese (powers that I have read about, heard about, and witnessed personally).  I could go on at length about the conservation successes originated by Delta Waterfowl and Ducks Unlimited, and I could lecture on our need to be even better conservationists to preserve our privilege to keep hunting ducks and geese.  There is just so much to tell of and to write about.  I’ve had more hunts than I can literally remember, and I’m not even 35 yet.  Think of the stories I have and that everyone else has that go untold; those that hunker in saw grass blinds, corn rows, flooded rice, and sinkboxes.
I haven’t even talked about retrievers yet.
In the end though what I say is likely just things that have been said before and known of for ages.  For my part I don’t need convincing.  As someone who loves and studied history, there is just far too much tradition, both personal and in the preceding years for me to ignore.
For those that do need convincing though, think about those histories while you are making your own.  And going forward, when you watch them lock up and drop in, as you thumb off the safety, rise and shout “Take ‘em!” or “Now!” or “Cut ‘em!” or whatever it is that you’ve made your war-cry, make sure that you commit those ones to your memory too.
Because when the hunt is over, that’s all we get to hang on to.  Until the next day out duck hunting that is.

Doing Unhealthy Things With Ducks

So in the world of blogs, Instagrams, and tweets, I’ve found a disturbing trend afoot…people are actually exercising in preparation for hunting, and they are actually adjusting their diet accordingly to be lean and trim for hunting season.  I hear it called “Hunt Fit” and it is appearing in hashtag after hashtag.  Now this is all well and good if you are going to go chasing elk or sheep or Rocky Mountain goats at high altitude, but otherwise, to me it smacks of a little too much preparation.  Now the hardcore fitness fanatics may instead refer to it as dedication, or motivation, or some other “-ation” and that is fine….I’m not here to disabuse anyone of their right to do whatever it is that they want to do.

But what I want to do is shoot my own dinner and then make it as decadent and over-the-top enjoyable as I can.  Because I #HuntFat.

So in that spirit, here is what I did with some ducks that I had on hand two nights ago.  I can’t describe how good it was, so I’ll just tell you how I did it and then if you want to try it, you can.  This is how I made what I call pan seared duck with mushroom-tarragon cream sauce with a side of mushroom-cumin risotto.  I’m not much for weights and measures, so you may want to read this whole thing first and come up with a plan of attack to make sure it all comes together at the same time.

The Risotto:
Take a standard package of sliced mushrooms and simmer them in a pot with some salt, pepper, and four cups of water.  Why standard store-bought mushrooms?  Because foraging the ones in my suburban backyard seemed like a bad idea.  Don’t boil them, just let them sort of become a hot broth.  This is the stock for the risotto.  I’ll tell you what to do with it later.

Put an 1/8 of an inch coat of olive oil in a pan over medium-low to medium heat and add one diced onion and three minced cloves of garlic.  Do not brown these, just keep them moving until they are soft.  Once soft add the arborio rice.  It absolutely must be arborio rice…why?  Because that is what risotto is made of.  If it isn’t arborio, it is just a rice dish.  But I digress.  Add about a large handful of rice for each person you are cooking for.  The above measurements for mushrooms, onion, and garlic are based on about three large handfuls of rice.  Stir the rice with the onion and garlic until the rice is coated with oil and everything is getting along nicely.  Again, don’t brown any of this stuff.  At this point I also added some ground cumin because it is kind of rustic and smokey, and I like that.

Take a splash of white wine and throw it in the pan with the rice, onion, and garlic.  Not too much, maybe half a glass.  Throw some more wine into yourself if you feel it is necessary.

Once the rice is reduced a bit, turn your attention back to the simmering, hot mushroom broth.  Ladle a few splashes of it into the pan with the rice and then just simmer it until the rice absorbs it.  Once the amount of liquid in the pan starts to get low, throw some more in.  If some of the mushrooms you made the stock with happen to fall in, so be it.  They’re going to go in there eventually anyhow.

Keep doing this until you either run out of stock (you could top up with equally hot water, but why would you?) or until the dish is creamy, but not mushy.  Risotto is funny that way…just keep in mind that you aren’t trying to make rice porridge.

Put in the mushrooms you used for the stock and then add some kind of dairy.  I’ve used cream cheese, heavy cream, and all varieties of cheese.  Friday night I shredded half a block of six-year-old sharp white cheddar and stirred it through the dish.  Parmesan is the standard though.

Once the cheese is melted, I added a bit of chopped basil and then I was very happy with myself.

The Duck:
First things first.  Shoot a duck; a couple of them if you can.  Do this in advance of starting the recipe.

Take said ducks and pluck them.  Skin on is critical to this (in my opinion) so later season ducks with few to no pin-feathers is ideal.  Now butcher the ducks, this recipe is just for the breasts so take the breasts of the ducks and get them as dry as possible.  Braise, slow-cook, or otherwise love the legs; but that’s for another post.

Pre-heat your oven to 450 degrees.  Score the duck breasts (that is cut a checkerboard or cross-hatch pattern in the skin), then put them, skin side down, in a hot pan over medium-high heat.  I put just a little bit of oil in the pan to help the browning along.  Sear the skin side until it is a deep gold-brown colour, then flip them over.  By now, your oven should be heated.  Take the pan (did I mention it should be oven safe?  Okay now I have.) and put it in the oven for about fifteen minutes.  After fifteen minutes take the meat out of the pan and cover it in foil for five to ten minutes.

Slice against the grain into pieces about a 1/4 inch think.  Pour the sauce over it.

Wait, you haven’t made the sauce because I haven’t old you how?  Right.

The Sauce:
Take the pan drippings from the duck and add a splash of whatever liquid you like.  I used white wine (since I had some open) but you could easily use red wine, whiskey, cognac, or any kind of stock (if you have any mushroom stock left, as I did, you could add that too, which I added as well as the wine.)  Just add enough to get the brown bits on the pan to dissolve.  That’s duck flavour and you do not want to waste it.

Once I had all the brown bits off the bottom of the pan, I added some heavy cream to thicken it and a bit of chopped tarragon.  Basil or parsley or oregano would work here too.  Or no herbs.  Whatever.

Reduce this until coats the back of a spoon (or really reduce it into a near syrup) and add just a bit of butter to make it rich.

Drizzle this over the duck meat, or do what I did and float the duck meat in it.  Don’t judge me.

Vegetables:
There are none.  Don’t be ridiculous.

Libations:
I served this with a double dram of Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve rye whiskey in a nice glass.  You’ll drink what you like with it, just make sure it is alcoholic so you can really feel like a debauched, well-fed epicurean.

So there you have it.  It might sound a bit too over the top when compared with the simple pleasures of a roast mallard or a smokey stick of Canada Goose jerky, and while those are good too, sometimes it is just nice to really spoil yourself, eat 1000 calories in a single sitting, and not really give a damn about how many sit-ups you’ll have to do in repentance for enjoying the bounty of the hunt.

Because if you are hunting and not eating it, then you are missing out on the best part, friend.