Category Archives: duck hunting

Piles Makes Smiles…Or Do They?

We shot a lot of geese the other weekend, or as they say in the current vernacular we “made a pile”. In fact, that’s precisely what we did.  In the tradition of almost every successful waterfowler since time immemorial we made a pile of dead geese, and we took a photo of it.  It is without a doubt a common practice to take such a picture, in fact there are pictures of hunters and dead waterfowl going back for as long as there are photographs. I’ve heard people make a connection between ancient cave paintings of hunting and the act of taking photos, arguing that they share a common ancestry; I’ve always considered that to be a bit of a “reach”.

Regardless, in my advancing age, I’ve developed an increasingly tactful approach with my ‘pile pictures’ in the age of social media.  In a pre-social media age, pictures of hunters grinning behind some stacked up mallards or a row of belly-up geese lived in print photo albums, pulled out for the occasional trip down memory lane, and then tucked safely and inoffensively away until the next time.  But with the culture of sharing (and some might argue, over-sharing) prevalent, I’ve opted not to subject my non-hunting friends, coworkers, and acquaintances with big body counts on their Facebook, Twitter, and other news feeds. If they want to see that sort of thing, they’ll follow the website pages, and not my personal page.  Which leads me to the handful of social media hunting forums I frequent, where I felt I was among brethren.  It was there I posted an evening photo showing a tailgate-bending pile of sixty-two geese for their perusal. Just eight birds shy of our 14-man limit, we’d had a truly unforgettable hunt and I was generally, if not a little naively, certain that if there was feedback it would be positive, after all I really enjoy seeing other waterfowlers having success and I’m not shy with my Facebook ‘likes’.

I was more or less right, but one hunter took exception.  He likened the photo to ‘market-hunting days’, labelled it disrespectful and twice called the character of myself and my friends (total strangers to him mind you) into passive-aggressive question.  He said (I’m paraphrasing) that only through those kinds of interactions could waterfowlers “get better”.  Now, it was certainly not metaphorically a mountain nor was it a molehill of chastising on his part, and since I really try not to argue with anyone on the internet I just kindly thanked him for his feedback and apologized in true Canuck fashion for my misreading of his sensibilities. Other hunters had the expected feedback, defending the photo, the hunt, and my responses, which was an unexpectedly pleasant outcome.  In the end though, even that it all ended in a surprisingly respectful fashion, it did give me extensive pause for thought.

Because although I won’t stop shooting piles of geese, nor will I likely stop taking pictures of those piles of geese, objective self-assessment is healthy so here’s what I came up with.

The offending photo.

First off, waterfowlers ceasing their ‘pile pictures’ or ‘grip and grins’ or ‘hero shots’ or whatever you want to call them would only be constitute the situation getting “better” if you take as fact this anonymous commentator’s opinion that we are currently in a state that needs some manner of improvement…and I’m not so sure we are in that situation. After all it would certainly not be a faulty argument to state that ‘pile pictures’ give a nod to conservation.  There was a time not too long ago when seeing 100 geese in a whole season would have been unthinkable, never mind shooting almost 100 in a weekend. To be certain there are several contributing factors to the current plentiful state of goose populations, and the efforts of hunters and other conservationists are surely part of that equation, so why not reap the bounty?  All our geese get processed and eaten, and several recipes have graced this website previously (and more are coming) which would put us on the vanguard of field-to-table culture, and we have introduced many young kids to the tradition, future conservationists and hunters with awe in their eyes while hundreds of geese trade the skies and whirlwind into the decoys.  So, excuse my ‘pile photo’ if it offends you, but sorry I’m not really that sorry.

That said, I’m not so pedantic to think that we as hunters should not temper our pride or prowess with an understanding that a whole lot of people don’t like to look at heaps of dead animals.  I just hadn’t experienced it with and from other hunters. But such is the world we live in now. After all, just what are we exactly celebrating in this photo? We almost shot a limit, so do pile photos illustrate restraint, proof that we stayed under the legal maximum? Were there hints of vanity or an air of dominance of man over flying beast? Objectively, there probably is a sense of “Look at us and what we did!”, and in the submission to my peers I’d be lying if I said there was not validation sought and gained.

Of course, with every piece of technology now a camera, is it time we re-assess what hunting photos even are anymore.  The old saying “photos or it never happened” seems haggard and overused, and more than once I’ve rued the requirement to accumulate images and engagements and that oh-so elusive “content”. There are so many of them, I don’t think I’m out of line to ask if all hunting photos are even celebrations anymore or are they just becoming the perfunctory and ubiquitous by-product of our time?

If I put myself in the mind of this commenter, I have even further questions.  For example, in that individual’s eyes what would be the acceptable number of geese or ducks to show in a photo? Would it be zero?  If it were to be zero, would that in some way sanitize the hunt or show some elevated level of respect for the birds? As much as I respect the non-hunter viewpoint when expressed rationally and respectfully, at the root of things to hunt is to kill. If we take the kill out of the medium and narrative, why take photos of anything? Why tell any stories? Nay, why hunt? Why anything at all?

Okay, so it got absurdly nihilist there for a moment but I’m back.

This all boils down to the theory I’ve had for years, and written about here clumsily, around what I call the Hypocrisy Line; that nebulous and elusive stage where the things you could reasonably participate in cross the line into the things you find offensive when others do them, but are still okay for you to do for no other reason than that you yourself are doing them and can use rational gymnastics to justify the act. It is the hunting embodiment of “Do as I say, not as I (might) do.”

There absolutely are hunting photos I find distasteful. I once saw a harvested wild turkey in close-up with half of its face blown clean off. That wasn’t for me. I found a photo of a legally-hunted rhino draped in an American flag. I had reservations and a few questions. There has always been something a little off to my eye about shooting and then posing with a lion or a giraffe or a leopard, but that’s a bias of my upbringing more than any deep-seated objection to the act.  But in all those scenarios, and the sporadic others I see now and then, I’ve never been so incensed that I took it public with another hunter and their posting.

Because sometimes that’s hunting, warts and all.  Also, I refer you to my earlier remark about not arguing with people on the internet.

Anyhow, I debated a bit about the ‘offending photo’ and whether I’d leave it up in the social media group.  In the end I did, and I’ve put it in this post too, because if you’re reading this far you’re either very generous with your time for my rambling, or you’re in consensus with me.  And if you’re not, that’s fine too; shout at me on the internet if you want.

I’ll probably not engage in the banter though.

Time to Make Some Noise

Since the end of May, it’s been far too quiet around here. Those familiar responsibilities of family, work, and household duties never sleep, and like you, I have been working away through the sweltering dog days of summer all the while pining for cooler weather, soggy boots, and uncomfortable camp cots. My turkey vest, jacket, hat and other sundry items sat piled in the corner of my basement for weeks on end; occasionally I’d pass by them and scratch out a few notes on the box call, or blare out a barred owl greeting, if only to remember those spring mornings while giving the dog a bit of a scare.

But now the molt has passed and geese are flying again.  As I drive the country roads in my area, I’m seeing flocks of juvies eagerly committing to fields without a second thought to any potential danger, and to be honest, I just can’t stand it. I want to be out there in the worst way; schlepping decoys, waving flags at birds as they trade beyond earshot, and racking spent shells out of my shotgun.

I’m fed up with silence.  But now, noise is coming, and I for one could not be happier.

About three weeks ago I transferred my lanyard and calls into my vehicle, and I spend my time at red lights or in gridlock double-clucking and spit-noting my way through the drudgery.  I put YouTube videos of seasoned professional goose callers and call-makers on the car stereo and “sing along”. I used to notice the sideways eyes that other drivers sometimes cast my way, but now I’m envisioning groups of geese swinging wide over cut grain and dropping their feet while our barrels rise to meet them.

Choke tubes have been swapped out of the 870, and the ammo box has been switched from medicine for birds with spurred legs to something for ones with webbed feet.  Ultra-hard-hitting turkey loads that boom on spring mornings were replaced with blistering fast steel that will crackle like popcorn through the frost.  The summer of scrimping and saving is now heading towards that heady time when I drop dollars on the stuff that really matters.

Worries about mosquitoes and ticks are waning for another year, and I’m looking forward to cold, chapped hands, stinging wind, and mud on my waders.  There’s a simple joy to be found in stalking creekbeds and riverbends, waiting for the adrenalin-inducing explosion of whirring wings and the surprise “hissssssssss” of the wind riffling across the back of a silent mallard bombing the spread.

I’ve been out of practice with my insults over the summer too, and I’m rapidly trying to get my banter back up to snuff in advance of the barbs and jokes that will fly over beverages and too-much-food in our opening camp weekend. The parties sometimes reach fever pitch with the escalating voices and laughter of a dozen grown-ass men all cackling and arguing and hooting at once.  In a jarring juxtaposition, I’m also ready to stand silently in the dark with some of my best friends while we wait for those first flights to filter in, the birds giving themselves away in the pre-dawn twilight with braying honks and whistling wings. If you have never heard the unspoken signal of shotguns loading in the dawn, that warning that legal light has arrived, then my friend you have not truly lived some of anticipation’s finest moments.

We’ll laugh, we’ll shout, and we’ll unload guns the loud way.  This will all go until the freezers are full and the time to chase deer arrives.  But from Labour Day until Halloween, things won’t be as quiet as they once were.

Enjoy it waterfowlers. Embrace the coming chaos.

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.