Category Archives: waterfowl hunting

Workin’ the Cricks

So I’m sitting here enjoying a thin shaving of pungent, densely-grained venison summer sausage with an equally thin slice of crumbling, smoky old cheddar cheese balanced oh-so-delicately on a plain old Triscuit and feeling a little sad.  Now a reasonable person would likely wonder just how on earth I could possibly feel down while enjoying such an epicurean morsel, and they would have just cause to ask that.

Oh, I’m also listening to “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” but that hasn’t got me down…quite the opposite frankly.
The conundrum is that I feel down because I am able to enjoy this.  You see the meat from the recently passed deer season has come in from the butcher and my Dad dropped it off on a visit this past weekend, a visit that was orchestrated so that he and Mom could look after my son while I went out and got shamefully soused at a New Year’s Eve party.  The meat coming in is a surer sign that the year has closed out than any champagne and whiskey soaked televised countdown could be.  It also means that until turkey season, at least, my hunting for sustenance is pretty much done.  The landowners in the area have been reluctant to give permission in some spots where I’ve seen ruffed grouse and rabbits (and those seasons are closing soon anyhow around here) and I’m not quite hungry enough to eat a coyote so really the next few months are going to be passed with the stir-crazy putterings of a housebound hunter (also another working title for this blog before I went with its current name).  This coming Sunday will mark the close of the waterfowl season in the few spots around here that are still open as well, so to make me feel better about the sun setting on the past year’s hunting I’ve decided to reminisce through writing, and by extension share with you, some of my fondest memories of duck hunting on the cricks of the North Bruce Peninsula.
Now a ‘crick’ is really just another word for a creek, or a trickle, or a stream, or a stagnant concession road ditch, or I’ve even heard it used for some local irrigation ponds and culverts, but in the hunter patois of the area it is a spot where there may be some mallards (or the occasional black duck) loafing around.  So we get ready, get safe, and then stalk the banks in the hopes of putting up a quacker or two.  But you don’t just have to jumpshoot these spots.  Getting in early and kicking some ducks out of bed then waiting for them to return in small bunches has also proven to be fruitful hunting.  Here are some of my favourite hunts.
In 2002 I arrived at the farm house in a gale of a Friday night snowstorm.  Deer season was starting three days from then but I had my shotgun as well as my rifle, because Dad was of a mind to get ‘down to the crick’ and see if we could scrape down some mallards for deer camp dinner on the coming Sunday night.  It was hideously windy when I heard Dad’s alarm go off and I secretly wished to stay huddled in my warm nooks and crannies of the down comforter.  Dad’s gruff “You gettin’ up?” put an end to that because I really did want to go hunting that morning too.  It just felt ducky outside, and besides, even a jaded twenty-something with a penchant for slothfully sleeping in doesn’t want to disappoint his Dad.  The dawn was brighter, thanks to two inches of snow on the ground, but it was just grey, squally, and bitterly cold, with the gales conspiring to leather up your cheeks and make your eyes water.  As we snuck up on the spot through some thin trees, I could hear the “raaaaaaak-raaak-raak-rak-rak” of a hen mallard on the narrow trickle of water and the nasally squeaks and gabblings of what sounded like dozens of other ducks.  Dad gestured to me to hug up against a tree trunk, and I noticed he was constructing a snowball with his bare hands.  He tossed the snowball into the stream and with much chatter and whistling of wings a hundred or so mallards got up and flew off with the wind at their tails.  Then we snuck down to the water’s edge, got into the tall grass and waited for the ducks to come back.  The mallards obliged.  Dad had three or four in hand for about the same number of shells before I even pulled the trigger but eventually I was able to connect on a drake and hen that were dropping in against the stiff winds; a breeze so strong that the birds were basically just floating with their wings spinning against the backdrop of a low sky about thirty feet above the lip of the ditch.  To call it a double isn’t really accurate either in my eyes because even though I hit the drake stone dead with the first shot, it took the other two shells in my much-loved 870 to scratch down that hen.  The wind giveth and the wind taketh away as well, which was evident when we spied a pair of geese riding the breeze at low altitude.  It was obvious that they were going to pass right over us, but with a 60km/h tailwind…well, let’s just say they were motoring.  I couldn’t even swing fast enough to catch up to them and Dad got one hopeful pop at them from his Model 1100.  He wasn’t even close and the geese never even reacted at the shot.  That made me feel a bit better about him utterly embarrassing me on the mallard shooting.
On the same stretch of creek, on the same weekend a couple of years later, my cousin Luke, my friend Greg, and I tried to mimic the results my Dad and I had experienced.  Dad declined to get up this time around (even though it was no colder or snowier than that hunt a few years before), but we hit the same spot anyways only to find no ducks.  We hunted for a couple of duck-free hours before Luke came moseying my way.  We spoke in that weird, culturally vague way that hunters do.  You know the way I mean…the one where you stand shoulder to shoulder and speak to a person but don’t actually look at them; you’re too busy having your shotgun slung over your shoulder and scanning the skies for those far-off specks that may or may not be approaching waterfowl.  After some small-talk and in an expressionless deadpan Luke said something like “I’m missing a wool sock” or “I’ve got a bare foot in my right boot” or something like that.  I asked if had gotten a soaker and had discarded the drenched garment or if he had been drinking the night before and had forgotten to put two socks on.  He informed me, rather matter-of-factly, that he had forgotten to pack in some toilet paper and that he’d had an emergency.  He also remarked at how effective “the grain” of the sock had been.  I chuckled, but I also could not argue with the utilitarian logic of it all.  That sock is still out there somewhere.  Good old Luke.
During the double opener (our affectionate term for the simultaneous opening of duck and goose season in late September) we while away our afternoons jumping ponds and streams.  This past year we kicked up a dozen or so mallards off a slow-moving, man-made swale and had a pretty good time of it.  I saw the birds first and admittedly (and kind of shamefully) emptied my gun into the heart of the flock. 
So much for wing-shooting…terrible, I know.
I pulled down a couple of them (thankfully belly up) and a companion swatted one down that was ailing badly even though it was making an airborne escape.  But even though my shooting was not the way I like to be (or even recommend) doing it, the real treat was watching my friend Tack’s dog Levi work his first water retrieves.  We got almost every duck in that bunch, and Levi was working hard getting the ones that hadn’t fallen on the banks as he slogged through the oozy bottom and up the steep banks.  Initially reluctant to bring the mallards to hand, after a couple of retrieves and stern words from Tack he was more forthcoming.  None of the birds were mouthed badly, and we all enjoyed watching the spectacle.  I think all of us, especially Tack, knew that we were watching a first that was special -a nexus between Levi as a dog in training and Levi as a hunter.  Was it perfect?  No, but the world is not a perfect place.  It was still pretty awesome for me, and I’m sure a couple of the guys thought so too.  There were lots of pats on the side and praise for Levi, and some of those mallards were seared in a pan mere hours later and gobbled up by the camp.  Talk about fresh meat; it doesn’t get any more organic than that!
When I was about 10 years old I woke up early, dressed warm, and went out to a field that was under a few inches of water with my Dad and Uncle Kim and those two shot a two-man limit of ducks.  I was layered up in wool sweaters and over-sized flannel-lined work pants, and had a mesh-backed camo Ducks Unlimited hat pulled low over my face. Then we sat the edge of a steep-sided ditch and waited for the ducks.  No calls.  No decoys.  Just the knowledge that it was a good spot with some cover that had been holding ducks for a few days.  Did it ever hold ducks; the bluebird day broke, but there was a stiff wind and the mallards came in threes and fours every fifteen minutes or so for about 3 hours, wheeling around trying to land in the ditch and in the water on the field.  The shooting display put on by my uncle and father (I wasn’t old enough to man a gun) was, as I recall now over two decades later, very efficient.  This is not me heaping adulation on my elders either, they literally did not miss very often as those birds circled and cupped and winnowed their way in.  The last two birds to fall came down with one shot…I can’t recall if it was Dad or Kim that made the one-shot double but it was an incredible thing for me to see for my first duck hunt.  Even though I’d been on a hunt or two before for geese and rabbits and grouse, this one was the first time I felt like an ‘experienced hunter’ because my mentors made me feel a part of the group.  I carried ducks out and when they became too heavy I traded one of the men my burden of feathers and duck meat for an opportunity to bear their shotguns, shotguns almost as long as I was tall.  In the pictures I was just a wide-eyed kid who was hooked on hunting and couldn’t wait to get his license to hunt with “the men”.  It is a truly special memory and I hope to pass a similar one on to my son one day.
Now there are a lot of other times I’ve been out working the creekbanks and ditches of the Bruce when we’ve crested the edge only to see birds making a fleeting escape well out of range, or where we’ve all missed terribly and all we can do is make excuses and blame each other for being such abject failures as hunters and by extension, men.  We’ve also sat for long periods of time watching nothing swim around but chub and minnows and muskrats.  We’ve gone over our boot or wader tops and swore out loud and been miserable excuses for human beings afterwards.  But that is okay, because in some ways working the cricks is not all about killing ducks.  It is about watching wildlife go about its business, just as it does when you aren’t there.  It is about watching a new dog, or an old dog, work for a retrieve and bring a bird to hand.  It is about spent powder hanging in the crisp morning air.  It is about the sun cresting the eastern horizon, or having the wind and driving sleet make you bury your face in your collar and question your own sanity.
There’s a deep spiritual meaning in there somewhere, and I have not fully found or been able to explain it as of yet, but I’ve been close.  So I guess I’m just going to have to keep on going out and trying to make sense of it all; maybe I’ll fold up a nicely cupped greenhead in the process, maybe I won’t.

All Goose Hunters are Liars

I’m writing this in response to the aggregate of some not-so-flattering feedback I received from some individuals who are obviously a more sophisticated and accomplished group of waterfowlers than I am.  The one, most articulate, of them sent me an email deriding me as a ‘fraudulent, amateurish, lying hack”.  Yes, that is a direct quote.  Fair enough…I’ve always said that if you write enough you’re bound to piss someone off eventually.  With a provocative title like the one above, I’m already anticipating even more backlash from the waterfowl powers-that-be.  But here goes anyways.
Yes, it is the truth: all goose hunters are liars.  I’m well-positioned to make this statement because I am an experienced goose hunter and an even more experienced and adept liar.  One does not inevitably breed the other (i.e. while all goose hunters are liars, not all are adept liars…likewise not all adept liars are goose hunters, although by virtue of their skill they already meet more than half the criteria to be labeled a goose hunter) but generally if you meet a person one day at the gas station and they have mud on their waders, corn stubble stuck through their belt loops, and they have a lanyard of short reed goose calls and aluminum leg bands around their neck, odds are good that he (or she, I don’t discriminate when it comes to fibbers) has been goose hunting.  Odds are even better that they are about to lie to you about something as they fill their pick-up truck (a truck that will no doubt be towing the ubiquitous trailer of morbidly expensive gear, of course).
Most of the lies that spew from the mouth of a goose hunter are benign, loving lies designed to either make the listener feel better about themselves or to make the liar in question seem like less of a lunatic/outcast/failure/success/etc.  But this much is for sure, if a goose hunter tells you something, don’t trust it any further than you could throw said goose hunter.  A goose hunter will lie about any number of hunting-related topics, the first category of which is the type of harmless lies told by someone who is either exceedingly proud or exceedingly ashamed of their pursuit.  While the material of the lies may differ, the fact that they are deceptions is constant.  A goose hunter will lie about the cost of their goose call; a proud one will inflate the price, an ashamed one will decrease the price.  A goose hunter will lie about the store where they buy their equipment, lest you begin to frequent the establishment and deplete the stock.  A goose hunter will lie about the size and velocity of the shotgun shells they shoot, and they will most assuredly lie about the shell’s pattern density and efficacy downrange, for various, poorly understood reasons.  A goose hunter will also lie rampantly about their own shooting ability; if a goose hunter states that they are a crack shot, they are likely terrible.  If a goose hunter tells you they miss a lot of geese and that they need to hit the sporting clays range, rest-assured that they will shoot most of the birds that day, thus affording the lying scoundrel all of your undivided adulation.
The second category of lies that a goose hunter will tell you are what I like to call ‘tactical lies’.  This type of fabrication is specifically employed to ensure that a goose hunter denies you vital information while simultaneously attempting to extract facts from you.  **Note: this is not a type of lie exclusively practiced by goose hunters.  In fact, I have met many turkey hunters, duck hunters, deer hunters, and even anglers that employ their own subtle variations of the ‘tactical lie’.  In my experience though, no one does it quite as well as the goose hunting segment of the population.  Ask a goose hunter what time the first flight is at, and then automatically subtract 90 minutes from it.  This lie is designed to misinform other hunters of when the liar will actually be afield, in the hopes that the hunter in question can get first crack those early morning geese.  Ask a goose hunter what the best part of a field or marsh to be set up in is and they will tell you a location that may be good, but one that is more likely just a spot that is far enough away from their intended blind so as to assure that there will be no worry over competition for birds.  Ask them what call works best for them, and I can guarantee you they will demonstrate for you a sound that will most definitely not help you kill more geese; it may even drive geese away from you and inevitably towards the liar’s own mellow, magical brand of goose-music.  Tactical lies stem from a selfish, ill-spirited streak that innately exists in all goose hunters.  This streak precludes a goose hunter from ever actually forming a truly trustworthy relationship; befriend a goose hunter at your own risk, and woe unto the poor deluded individual who actually gets married to a goose hunter, for they will be subjected to the most heinous of goose-hunting’s lies: the lies of convenience.
Lies of convenience are reserved exclusively for spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, various and sundry conjugal partners (because let’s face it, there is no person alive that is sexier than a goose hunter), and live-in roommates.  Lies of convenience are also sometimes used (sparingly) on teachers, parents, non-hunting friends, and employers.  These are the most basic, but also the most effective of the goose hunter’s entire arsenal of lies.  If the hunting is bad, a goose hunter will tell you it was great; this will ensure that no one ever says that goose hunting is boring and pointless and therefore not worthy of continued pursuit.   If the hunting was great, they will understate the brilliance of the day in order to ensure that they can say that they will be ‘making up for a bad day’ when they go on their next goose hunting trip.  If they shot poorly, they will say they shot well, so as to save their ego from the ridicule of being considered unskilled.  If they shot brilliantly they’ll use false modesty as their guide so that they can have more time in the marsh for ‘practicing’.  And so forth.
It is a truly confusing world in which the goose hunter dwells; a world in which black is white, up is down, success if failure, and the only constant is that the geese will fly whenever they feel like it.  But these are the facts, I promise you.
Which ultimately brings us to the following, cyclically logical conclusion.  I, Shawn West, am a goose hunter.  Therefore, I am by definition a liar.  I am asserting to you that everything I have written above is the truth, but then again, as a goose hunter, I’m inclined (and some would say compelled) to lie to you.  So what do you make of all this?  How do you reconcile the above paragraphs and their seemingly authoritative statement of the facts?  Maybe I’m using a tactical lie to dissuade others from joining in on my little slice of waterfowling paradise and crowding me.  Perhaps I truly am a fraudulent hack with no business writing about the subject matter.  Or is it possible that I’m just using this forum to have some fun with a topic (i.e. hunting) that was always meant to be fun in the first place, before some self-appointed authorities started determining what information about goose hunting was worthy of discussion in the public forum?
Who knows?  After all, would I lie?

Calls For the Rest of Us

I’ve been practicing like mad these last ten days or so in preparation for embarrassing myself in competition at the Ducks Unlimited 2011 Canadian Duck & Goose Calling Championship and as such, have managed to squeeze some “interesting” sounds out of my goose call (since I’m not competing in the duck contest).  Most have been pseudo-goosey and by next Friday night I hope to have a reasonably sound (no pun intended) routine ready for August 20th.

However all this huffing and puffing into a length of hollow acrylic got me to pondering about the language that we are presenting to geese and ducks.  Sure, the standard calls are pretty, well standard.  For ducks, or mallards at least, everything is based on a ‘quack’ sound.  The hail call is just a loud, long series of clear quacks, the come-on call (as it is popularly known) is just quacks that are sped up and blown with some urgency and excitement.  The feed chatter, often argued to be the toughest of the duck calls to make, is (in my opinion) just a very fast series of very short raspy, guttural quacks.  This video from Echo Calls (not a sponsor, although I wish they were) shows some of the finest contest-style feed chatters I’ve ever heard.  Most hunters I’ve met (and yours truly as well) cannot do this, but it is still pretty awesome.  Goose calling, for Canada Geese specifically, is similar in that most calls, in hunting or in contest calling, start with a cluck.  A honk is a loud, drawn out cluck, approach work or come-on calls are a series of rapid double and even triple clucks, moans and lay down work could be described as variations on the first part of a cluck without the break in the call, and so on.  Not an encyclopedic (or even a marginally correct assessment) of waterfowl language but just what I’ve been mulling over in my mind as I get quizzical looks from my neighbours and lower everyone in the proximity’s property values with my constant noise.  At least I shut it down for two hours on Sunday while my next-door neighbours had an open house with their realtor. No one wants to buy the house next door to the place that sounds like a duck and goose convention for three straight hours every evening.

So given that I generally understand the basics of waterfowl calling, here are some of the calls that I wish were formally recognized by serious callers.  Most are scenario specific, and all are completely made-up.  Enjoy.

The “Please Don’t Call So Loud” Call

This one is ideal for those rare occasions when you may have celebrated the arrival of hunting season a little too hard the night before the hunt (admit it, it happens; just try to be safe out there, okay?) and you are nursing a headache in the blind.  I imagine that through a duck call it would sound like a feeble, squeaky quack, and for a goose hunter just a half-hearted, plaintive moan.  It would signal to the birds that if they just wanted to continue to go along on their way, you wouldn’t really be bothered by that at all.  It would signal other hunters in your party, on the off chance the birds actually committed and tried to decoy, that everyone should just let the birds land without being shot at, since the sound of a shotgun report might actually make your head explode open like an over-cooked bratwurst on a grill.

The “You Didn’t See Anything…Honest” Call

This one actually exists, because I think I’ve both heard and performed this sound.  It is usually an inappropriately loud and totally uncharacteristic series of calls made by an embarrassed hunter that has just inadvertently moved and spooked the flock just as they were about to drop the landing gear.  Usually accompanied by flaring birds and much swearing from others in the blind, sometimes the non-guilty join in and this call is almost always continued in desperation for over a minute, long after the birds have made a beeline for the next county.  It ends when the offending hunter incredulously looks around and says “Who the hell moved?!” while casting accusatory looks at everyone else in the party.

The “Wha’ Happened?” Call
This call is made after a hunter empties their gun at birds that were so close and moving so slowly that they were ‘sure things’ and despite this, misses everything completely.  Accompanied by geese pumping their wings powerfully away or ducks trampolining straight up and out of sight, it is an attempt to convince those birds that you just missed cleanly to come back for a second look.  It differs from any accepted comeback calls because it usually sounds angry, since the poor nimrod doing the calling absolutely cannot believe they just wasted three shells (okay, two if you shoot a side-by-side or an over-under) at birds that should, by all rights, be laying belly up in the decoys.  The birds can sense this anger (and likely saw you rise to shoot) and thus they rarely, if ever, return.  In a tale related to this call, I was once hunting geese with my Dad on a foggy Thanksgiving Monday when the ceiling was twenty feet at best.  I could hear geese but rarely could I see them.  Miraculously I had managed to scratch down a double (another story altogether), but was still one bird shy of the limit.  I put the call on a distant single and the bird came as if on a string.  He (I’m assuming masculinity here, don’t be offended) was gliding in no more than fifteen feet off the ground and I whiffed on him twice inside of twenty yards.  Still for some reason he landed and stood in the decoys so I put the bead on his throat patch and attempted to shoot him turkey-hunter-style.  I failed, whizzing a load of BBs over his head.  As he clumsily ran and got airborne, I started howling a “Wha’ Happened?” call at him while ramming my last three shell into my gun with my other hand.  I never did get my limit that day.  Dad, predictably, did get his three geese that day.

The Belch

This one is usually a specialty of those hunters who like to feast in the blind.  I’m not talking about a granola bar or a Snickers.  I mean guys who bring pop, chips, Red Bull, sandwiches, and little propane cookers with them in a backpack or mini-Coleman cooler when they hit the fields and marshes.  This call usually happens when, after having consumed one pork rind too many, they are startled by a flock that has the gall to interrupt their meal and they then proceed to start blazing away on a call.  This usually gets their diaphragm all messed up and they blow a hiccup or burp right through their instrument, along with food particles of varying sizes that every once in a while render their calls stuck and useless.  It sounds just like you think it does.

So that’s just a small selection of the calls I wish that we waterfowlers recognized.  I’m sure there are lots of others that happen and I’ll post future editions as I come by them.