Category Archives: waterfowl hunting

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

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.

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.