Category Archives: waterfowl hunting

Being in the Moment

I always want to write these things down while they’re happening, but I’m usually too busy being ‘in the moment’.  Still, as I find myself in moments like the one I’m in now, bouncing along in turbulence somewhere over Lake Ontario, I think back to that good time had in the camp, and the memories replay like a slideshow across my mind replete with all the sepia-toned embellishments inherent in fond recollections.

There’s a mid-afternoon sun and a cool breeze from the northwest when we pull up to gate the day before the opener, and I don a hoodie before cracking a can of the cold stuff. It tightens my throat and I shiver but not from the early fall air, but from the adrenalin and anticipation.

Trucks begin to roll into what pass for parking spots, haphazardly crooked to the untrained eye, but for the baptized there is a sense of spacing and order.

We lean against railings and tailgates, busting each other’s chops, eating cured meat and crackers, punctuating insults and hunting stories with reckless cackles of laughter.  Evening creeps in and still more trucks filter in, until before long twenty grown men are milling around, shaking hands, toasting the gathering, and shouting to be heard.

The next door neighbor, who is also the father-in-law to one of our comrades stops over and we tell him not to expect much in the way of peace and quiet tonight.  He mutters a chuckled, unrepeatable curse word and an hour later meanders back home.

Cousin Luke has brought a couple of deep fryers and before long chicken wings are breaded and hit the oil.  A liter of Louisiana hot sauce meets a half pound of butter and they become one entity of molten beauty before being poured onto drummies and flatties that glisten crispy and golden after a swim at 350 degrees. In an act of mad-scientist impulse, sweet sticky rib sauce coats another batch of wings, while French fries roll in a turbulent froth of scalding oil.

The night carries on and we carry on with it.  30lbs of wings becomes a pile of cleanly-picked bones in a bowed out aluminum pan. Someone passes me a bottle of Jack Daniels Fire and the peer pressure mounts to have a smash of it, and never one to disappoint my friends in such a benign pastime I oblige them before passing the bottle to my right.  The whiskey hits the wings in my belly and I feel happy…in the moment.

Fast forward to sometime after midnight and the remaining men of the camp are all eyeballing the clock, wishing to go to bed but secretly afraid to be the first one to relent, lest his socks get a hole cut in them or he otherwise be deemed ‘soft’.  Everyone eventually tires and as if en masse we all find our bunks, while a few stragglers noisily fight the coming of the dawn.

An alarm blares and bleary-eyed goose hunters rue the moments just so shortly put to bed.  Teeth are brushed, coffee is slogged back, and gear is checked and double checked.  The time has come (too soon for some) to hit the fields and start the day’s work.

We split into two determined groups and make for our spots.  The group I take up with decides we have not been punished enough yet and we choose to hand carry a few dozen decoys, along with guns and blind bags the length of two fields.  We have permission to, and could just as easily driven out to the spot where we eventually plunk down our bags, but what’s the fun in that?  We assemble and place decoys in the dark, and as the first faint rays of sunlight begin to creep in from the east, we find our spots in a deep, grassy ditch to await the morning flight.

I sit pensively with my back against the gentle slope of the embankment, reflecting on the previous night’s decisions and the morning that I hope it will become.  Someone shouts down the line that we’re inside of legal light and the sounds of shotguns being loaded floats from station to station.  It is the modern era after all, and I confirm the time on my cell phone before texting a couple of guys in the other group.  It turns out they have competitors for their field, and are engaged in a debate with other hunters about setup and positioning.

I click the phone off and just listen to the dawn.

In time, and somewhere far off, I eventually hear the whispered calls of Canada geese.  I wave a black flag purposefully but with some degree of blind faith that if I can hear the birds, they can see me flagging to them.  The calls get closer, and someone hollers down the line.

“Geese in the northwest!” and my eyes and ears triangulate on them just as soon as my brain registers the announcement.  There’s a thin string, maybe ten birds in all, stretched out against the horizon and getting unmistakably closer. I put the call to my mouth with my right hand and flag a few more times with my left. The geese wing ever nearer and their chatter is no longer aimless but in response to my calling and the calls of my friends.  As they close to about a hundred yards they lock their wings and begin to drift in. They slide to my right and I break into some more excited chatter, trying to coax them back to centre stage.  They skirt our right flank, but one goose strays too close to our gun on that end and an expert shot folds the bird while the rest wing away braying and moaning.

The flight has started and we rush to make some daylight adjustments to the decoys, with the hopes that future birds will decoy more readily. With the fakes now in a more appealing semblance of order, we charm a few willing participants to play and as the guns bark, more birds tumble down into the grain stubble.

Geese trade about from all directions, some near and some hopelessly far off, and we shoot and we call and we ultimately decide once a dozen birds are in hand that it is time for breakfast.  We have a whole rest of the day to shoot and many of us are both famished and parched.  The masochists we are, we choose to hike all the gear out, and my shoulders really feel the added weight of birds in my hands.

Sometimes I don’t even know why those guys have trucks.

We monopolize four full tables in the local diner, and we eat massive breakfasts of bacon, sausage, ham, eggs, and toast, while pitchers of water and carafes of coffee make their way to our tables. We re-live the moments from less than two hours previous and we get an itinerary in order for the rest of the day.

Cleaning and butchering geese. Tidying up the camp. A long nap for some of us. And then back out again to another field for an afternoon shoot…but that last one is literally another story.

Back in the present, the flight has stopped jostling my hands and of course, all of the grievous spelling mistakes and typos will be cleansed before this gets to your screens, my friends.  Still, I can assure you that things were fairly bumpy here at 26,000 feet.

Not surprisingly, all it took to smooth out the turbulence was some time taken to myself reminiscing on a weekend that literally gets better and better every year.

On Being Silent and Still

A multitude of poor decisions in my university years have blurred my childhood memories a bit, so it may not have been my first waterfowl hunt, but it was the earliest that I can remember with crystal clarity. I might have been eight or ten years old back then but in my mind the old imprints are palpably rooted in the present.

I had heard Dad’s footsteps on the creaky farmhouse floor moments before I felt his hand gently shaking my shoulder. A goose hunt had been on offer the night before, and to be honest I had spent a restless night hoping the weather would be cooperative and I’d get to hit the field with Dad.

“You getting up to hunt?” he said in a half-whispered voice.

I said I was and he left the room, but not before quietly advising me “Dress warm.”

In the beam of small handheld flashlight that he had left me, I scrounged together long underwear, heavy socks, jogging pants, and two sweaters before descending the steep stairs down to the kitchen. The woodstove fire had been going all night and the stovetop closed with a groan as Dad fed it another stick. The light smell of burning wood perfumed the downstairs and I was pleased to find that Dad had prepared a couple of pieces of toast for me.  A stiff breeze hummed low outside and when I checked the thermometer, the mercury was hovering near single digits.

Dad handed me a plaid-red flannel work coat and then an olive grey overcoat that was probably two sizes too big.  We dug in an old covered plastic tub in the back room and found some brown mitts and a dark green toque and while Dad put some shotgun shells in his pocket and zipped an old leather case around his Remington 1100, I slipped into a pair of red-soled rubber boots.  Dad inspected my attire and untucked my pants from my boot tops.  He folded them down over the outside of the boots and muttered something about how that would keep anything from slipping down in through the top them.  We turned off the lights and stepped out into the wind.

Our hunting ground that morning was a farm field belonging to a friend of Dad’s and there had been a smattering of geese in it recently.  This was in the years before Canada geese were an overabundant pestilence to farmers, and to our knowledge at the time no one specialized in goose hunting.  We arrived in the morning dim and walked down to a rock pile that was in the middle of the field; I don’t know how old the stone pile was, but there was long grass growing in a ring around it and some greying cedar rails from some old, disused fence had been thrown up against the rocks.

Dad had carried six Canada goose decoys in an old CO-OP feed bag and before he put them out, he dug in his pocket and passed me a black garbage bag.

“Take this to sit on and find a spot on the rock pile where you’re covered up a bit.”  Doing as I was told I snuck in behind an angled fencepost and in between a couple of rocks that provided, at least initially a bit of support.  Placing the decoys (which are by today’s standards laughably primitive looking, but to my young eye on that dingy, windy morning were uber-realistic) he loaded his shotgun and sat a few feet from me against the rocks, behind some tall fronds of grass. The wind blew consistently, and sometimes gusts would lay the grass in front of us nearly flat, but not wanting to complain I turned up the big collar and lapels on that olive jacket and buried my face deeper down against my chest.  I seem to remember some idle chit-chat about where the geese would come from, and if he thought they would land right in the decoys, and other child-like curiosities.  In the middle of one of my interminable questions, Dad hissed “Okay, there’s geese right there…” and I knew that was my signal to be silent and still. Seeing geese in those days in that part of the province was a much rarer occurrence than it is now and I was hyper-vigilant about not being the reason these birds spooked.  While I sat perfectly still, Dad drew a chocolate brown goose call out of his pocket and blew a few short greeting honks before sliding it back into his coat and crouching down further.

At first, I couldn’t see the birds from under the brim of my hat, but before long I could hear their moans and clucks, and their calls guided my eyes to the three low black silhouettes moving against the close, slate-coloured sky and they were winging our way, hard into the wind.   They were no more than thirty feet off the ground when they reached the decoys, but they had no real intention of committing to land with our fakes when Dad rose to shoot.

That was my signal to raise my eyes as well, and for a split second the geese hung in the air as a perfect slow-motion tableau of thin, black, elegant necks, glowing flashes of white throats, and the whir of wings spinning dust-coloured underbellies away from a danger that they were oblivious to just seconds before.  That almost surreal stillness was broken when the bark of the gun split the air and a goose spun down from the sky.  On the second report nothing fell, before Dad turned at the hip slightly and crumpled another bird with the third volley as it tailed away from him.  The one remaining goose turned hard and wide, before speeding away with the driving winds then at its tail.  My heart hammered in my ears and I was so excited that I had no words; only my Dad might know what my face looked like at that precise moment but I can almost sense that it was probably one of wide-eyed excitement and probably some goofy child-like grin.

I do remember that Dad was smiling at me in the way he does when he’s pleased with himself.

He nodded to the nearest bird laying belly-up in the field and with a smile said “Go get that one”.  Extricating myself from my hiding spot, I strode out into the wind for my first retrieve.

That was another ‘imprint’ moment.  I’d never been so intimately present on the hunt, never picked up a still warm goose, and I clumsily brought it back to the rock pile and laid it next to ‘my spot’. It was as perfect a bird as my mind could have imagined. To this day I don’t remember where Dad hit it, but it was completely clean without a single bloodstained feather.  It was as though Dad had missed it completely and it had simply died of fright. I remember the weight of it in my hand and the warmth of it as it laid on a rock next to my right leg.  I remember that while the body was warm, especially when I put my hand under the breast feathers, the black feet were ice cold and scaly. For another hour or so we sat there and a slight spittle of rain started.  Dad said we were leaving and I was hooked on the experience enough to want to stay but just cold enough to be okay to head to the vehicle.

It was my self-appointed job to mule out the two geese while Dad carried the bag of decoys and his shotgun.  I huffed and puffed valiantly to keep up to him while carrying my awkward load before he finally turned to me and set his gun and decoys down.

“Here,” he said “carry them like this,” and he hoisted the birds over my shoulder.  I’d been dragging their heads on the ground and kicking their necks long enough, he said smiling.  Like the kid I was, I asked him why it mattered to dead geese, and in a matter of fact and slightly abrupt way, he said something about his hunting ethic that has become a permanent part of my own.

“Because it’s disrespectful to the geese to drag their heads along through the mud and dirt and cow shit.” End of sentence.

Dead animals still had dignity: that was the message.  They don’t die so you can mistreat them before you process them: that was the message. Show respect, because you took their life for sport, or for food, or both: that was the message.  Messages I still try to live by today every time I shoot a duck, a goose, a turkey, or in rare instances, a deer.  He said it with what, to my young mind, equated to a heroic conviction and the rest of the way the geese swung behind my back while I carried on with aching triceps, sore hands, and a commitment that not one feather would touch the ground until we got to the car.

We went for a special breakfast that morning at a place that isn’t there anymore and I remember a couple of old-timers and one or two people that Dad knew from his youth asking how we made out and asking me jokingly if I got any birds.

It all made me feel quite grown up and responsible.

We went back to the farm and while Dad plucked and cleaned the geese, I showed off, embellished the story, and generally acted like an excited kid, because I was one then.  Two years ago, I took my (then five year old) son out for his first goose hunt.  Maybe it made as much of an impression on him as this one I just related did on me, and maybe it didn’t, but that’s okay.

Whatever it was for him, for me it was in so many ways indicative of the progression of Ontario’s waterfowling in the last twenty-five years or so.  Big, very realistic decoys numbering in the dozens and dozens.  A cacophony of hunters using equally realistic goose calls made from space-age and synthetic materials.  Head-to-toe camouflage.  Big flocks and big action.  It is now really (and with limited hyperbole) a bit of a new golden age for goose hunting.  So much so that, for some hunters I think, this ample abundance sometimes breeds contempt for Canada goose hunting.

I tried to explain this paradigm shift to my son, but he couldn’t picture just six decoys, just three birds all morning, just a couple of confident notes on an old wooden goose call to birds that wouldn’t decoy and were shot on the pass.  But then I told him about the things that stayed the same, and maybe just maybe he got it.  His restless night before the hunt, a quiet breakfast with his Dad while everyone else in the big old farmhouse slept, bundling up for the weather, being respectful to the geese, and most importantly being silent and still.  Just like always we went for a special breakfast, and just like always while we went to clean the birds he regaled his mother and his brother with his version of the stories from the hunt, because he was just a little, excited kid.

And that’s the other thing that doesn’t change, because sometimes, when it comes to goose hunting, I’m just an excited kid too.

Deferred Gratification, or, A Two-Truck Kind of Morning

The concept of deferred gratification, in a psychological sense, is that if an individual’s mind can be trained to delay a small reward in the short term for greater rewards in the longer term then research seems to indicate that those individuals who can defer rewards to a later period are typically more successful later in life.

Now, I can only trust the research at hand, but last weekend’s hunting in Bruce County seemed to bear out that hypothesis.

Having a real job, instead of my fantasy job of one day being a kept man who just goes hunting all autumn long, I was forced to miss the opening day and, by extension, the opening weekend of the 2015 early goose season due to work commitments in Western Canada.  It isn’t the first time that’s happened and it probably won’t be the last time.

As I sat in the Calgary departures lounge I was ruing a missed opportunity.  Historically, that early opener weekend has been a good few days of hunting with good weather, good friends, and willing birds that had not yet developed a hyper-sensitive wariness to decoys, goose calls, and ground blinds.  Family and several friends had plans to be out in the fields with their shotguns, and the social media world was counting down to the opener with heavy anticipation.

As that opening weekend progressed I puttered around the house aimlessly, not really interested in cutting the grass, or getting groceries, or any of the other mundane things that needed doing.  My mind was in the goose blinds with my friends and I lamented all the action, laughter, and fun they were no doubt having.

My Twitter feed was full of men and women who were out hunting their respective early goose (and in some realms, teal) seasons and I was getting more and more antsy.  Finally, late on Sunday evening I texted one of the guys in our group for an update.

He informed me that they had shot two birds all weekend. I was slightly shocked.

I had plans to hunt the weekend of September 119th and 20th, which is the last weekend in our area before the goose season takes a five-day government-mandated hiatus, and I was worried by his report of slack shooting and limited suitable fields for hunting.  I texted my cousin and he echoed the sentiment, but he did say that several fields were scheduled to be harvested in the week ahead and that when I arrived there would be greater opportunities to get after the geese.

Then the weather took a turn for the worse.

I arrived to the farm the Friday before the hunt, and there was a 100% chance of rain forecast for Saturday morning.  Early in the season, our group has some shockingly fair-weather hunters in our midst.  Nevertheless I set an alarm and woke to the sound of rain hitting the farmhouse rooftop.  I still dressed and geared up, before texting my compatriots to see if they were down for getting a bit soaked in search of good shooting.  One of them never even replied (no doubt fast asleep to the soothing patter of late summer rain at his window) while the other fellow said he was staying in bed.

So much for that, I thought.

I was just about to undress and get back in bed myself when my uncle arrived and we decided to forge out into the damp for a hunt.

We settled on a huge field that was frequently holding birds, but not surprisingly, they skirted our setup and landed a few hundred yards away.  After a time, something got those birds off the ground (I still have no idea what it was that spooked them) and as their honks, clucks, and moans hit a crescendo, we flagged and called them our way.  They slid past me on the furthest distance of my range, but they squared up nicely over my uncle and he scratched down a double.  As he shot I swung at the trailing birds and sent them on their merry way with two shots that tore through the wind and drizzle but failed to connect with feather, flesh or bone.

One of the birds my uncle had shot was banded, and after a half hour of not seeing any more action we decided to dodge any more potential foul weather and headed home.  I registered the band with my cell phone and found that the bird was two years old, was banded near Ypsilanti, Michigan, and was too small to even fly when it was banded in June of 2014.  Bird band data is always interesting and puts the journey of these game birds into distinct perspective.

Two early-morning geese, one of which was sporting some jewellery.
Two early-morning geese, one of which was sporting some jewellery.

The weather steadily improved and after an early afternoon nap, I outfitted my six-year-old son and with renewed hope we headed for a field that my friend Brian had said was flush with birds earlier that day.

This spot did not disappoint.

As we walked in from the road, birds were already trying to land in the cut grain field, and after getting safely situated and inserting my son’s ear plugs I loaded up and the shooting began.  Handfuls of geese traded across the skies steadily for the greater part of three hours and many groups worked our spread and responded to our calling.  Eventually we decided it was time to go, but not before 23 geese were piled in the back of Brian’s pickup truck.  We cleaned geese by the glow of truck headlights and then we sat at the picnic table at the farm under the starlight, sipping some cold beers and reliving the hunt that had ended just a few short hours earlier.

My oldest son, and the geese from Saturday evening's hunt.
My oldest son, and the geese from Saturday evening’s hunt.

We planned a return to the same field the next morning, fully expecting to experience a fraction of what we had just been through.  We were wrong in a very good way.

Geese whispered distantly in the dark as we put out decoys and found familiar hiding spots trampled down from the previous evening’s hunt.  I checked my watch and settled in as legal light came and passed; it was not long before the shooting started in earnest.

A light breeze blew from the east while geese begin to wing their way around the Ferndale flats on the purples and burning oranges of a coming dawn sky.  I flagged and called, trying to sound enticing and entirely non-threatening, and before long birds swung wide out over the cut grain field before dropping their feet into our spread.  We opened up on them over and over again, and in more than one instance I was emptying my gun and immediately jamming more shells into it as line after line of birds seemed to make their way for our field.

Professionals call it “being on the ‘X’”.  I just call it unreal goose hunting.

Geese fell, feathers floated in the sky, and Brian’s dog Levi worked retrieve after retrieve.  All the while the pile of birds we were concealing in the long grass of the deep ditch that formed our blind grew and grew.  Rough counts began to tell the story of the morning.

25…more birds.

29…a few more were fooled.

31…I shot badly that go around, punching holes in the air with my 870.

37…A great group and some excellent shooting; six came in and not a single bird left.

When we reached forty birds in the bag, we had a chat down the ditch.  We decided on one more group and the birds promptly obliged by sending a good-sized flock over.  The guns of seven hunters barked again in a carefully orchestrated cacophony, and five more geese found their way to hand before we set down our arms and traded laughs, smiles and high fives.  We were done and Brian headed for the truck.  My cousin Lukas joined him, because this was going to be a two-truck kind of morning.

Seven hunters. 45 birds. One great morning.
Seven hunters. 45 birds. One great morning.

While we cleaned up, to a man we agreed that it had been one of the most memorable hunts we had been together for, and the weekend had seen a polar opposite of experiences from what had gone down just seven days earlier. In a way, it proved that waiting made things sweeter.

Still it was officially hunting season for me then, and the short week-long interval between that morning spent in the ditch and the morning that would kick off the opening of duck season on September 26th was going to drag by ever so slowly. Still, as I sat at the breakfast table that morning, a pile of decoys in Brian’s truck bed and lot of fresh goose meat waiting to be processed in the back of Lukas’, I was just basking in the afterglow of a fine morning spent afield.

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.