An October Tradition...In the Marsh
Having been born and raised in Northwestern Ontario, hunting and fishing were natural fits for me considering the endless opportunities for both. I currently have a serious obsession with smallmouth bass, however, that has not always been the case. As a youngster, fall was the time of year I coveted most. The changing of colors and cool North breezes of October meant only one thing; the annual waterfowl migration was about to hit its peak and I’d be waiting in the marsh when it did.
When I was about 10 years old, I went to Lake of the Woods with my family and it was there that I experienced my first October duck hunt with my dad and Uncle Gregg. I’m not sure if it was the early morning boat rides into the marsh, the sounds of cupped wings on cool air, the sight of wave upon wave of ducks on the horizon, the smell of burnt gunpowder lingering on the cold fall air or the excitement of a productive hunt, I’d found my passion.
For the next several years I made the trip to Lake of the Woods each October with my Uncle. The first few years I was not old enough to hold a license and can only surmise how many questions my Uncle must have fielded from a young, enthusiastic apprentice through the course of a day. At that time, Uncle Gregg had nearly 20 years of waterfowl hunting experience under his belt and I was anxious to soak up as much as possible. Those early years provided me with the foundation of knowledge and an appreciation for the tradition of waterfowl hunting which has not waivered to this day; it had nothing to with shooting because well, I couldn’t shoot.
Needless to say, I was waiting in line when I was old enough to get my hunting license and spent the next 10 years or so as a hard-core waterfowl hunter. Each fall, as soon as the waterfowl season would open, my fishing rod was replaced with a shotgun and I spent every minute possible in the marsh until Mother Nature brought ice and closed the season. Cold, wind, rain, sleet, snow...bring it! Nasty weather equals prime duck hunting.
What I enjoyed most, was taking someone with me who had never experienced waterfowl before. I have yet to meet anyone who was not overwhelmed with agility and speed of a flock of bluebills, especially downwind. I recall sitting in the blind before daybreak with a good friend when he asked “what’s that noise?” I smiled and replied “you’ll see”. Once you hear the sound of a flock of bluebills making a flyby, it’s etched in your mind forever and is a sound I cherish on the marsh.
When I graduated from college, I moved away from home and gradually replaced duck hunting with other interests mainly due to lack of access to the swamp. Fast forward about 15 years to last weekend...my Uncle and I had recently been in contact and decided to try to get together and sit in the blind. Plans were quickly put in motion; we would meet at my parent’s place on Friday and spend Saturday and Sunday mornings in pursuit of the quarry that got me completely addicted to the outdoors...I was giddy to say the least!
We woke up Saturday morning to overcast skies, a North wind at 15mph and temps in the mid 30’s. To a fisherman, this would be a good day to sleep in, however, the conditions were perfect for a duck hunt. At daybreak, the gear was loaded, boat was splashed and we headed about 5 miles into the marsh. As soon as we started picking our way through the wild rice and cattails, I felt an uncontrollable smile take over. It was good to be back.
We found an area that was holding several hundred bufflehead and the decoys were put out. I found myself on sensory overload as we sat in the blind anticipating the arrival of the first flock. The sight of ducks working in the distance, the feel of my Beretta in my hand, the sound of a hen mallard in the swamp...it gave me goosebumps. It wasn’t long before I heard the “swoosh” I was so longing for. A flock of bufflehead passed overhead, dropped to the deck and made an abrupt turn towards our spread. The birds decoyed on a rope...we had it right. Over the next 2 hours we saw several flocks of bufflehead and one flock of ringnecks come to the dekes and we ended up with a mixed bag for our efforts.
Sunday brought bluebird skies and a West breeze at 5mph, not ideal conditions for a duck hunt. A couple of small flocks found our spread, but there was nowhere near the activity of the previous day. The lack of birds provided more time to reminisce about years past and was equally rewarding.
Although it had been a long time since I’d hunted ducks on the water, the basic principles haven’t changed. The most important thing when it comes to hunting waterfowl is to be where the birds are. If you’ve properly scouted, not only will you be around birds, but you’ll also put yourself where the birds want to be; this spot is what we refer to as “the X”. All waterfowl like to land and take off into the wind and that must be kept in mind when it comes to setting up the decoy spread.
In my experience with diver ducks, they also demand room to take off in order to facilitate escape. This is why a set up on a point or small island can be so effective. There are many patterns to set your decoys, but regardless of how you place your blocks, remember to leave a spot where the birds can land. Let me be clear that the intent is to shoot at the birds as they are approaching to land, not to wait for them to land.
Lastly, ducks are very wary of movement and have exceptional eyesight. If birds are decoying well and seem to flare at the last minute, they’re seeing something that is spooking them. It could be the glare of a gun barrel or more commonly, the glare of a human face taking a peek. It is difficult but also very important not to look up at passing birds and not to move until it’s time to shoot.
I couldn’t have scripted a more perfect way to break a 15 year silence from duck hunting than to come full circle and share the blind with my Uncle who got me started in the sport so many years ago. I have come to realize in short order, that for me, waterfowl hunting was never something I did, rather its part of who I am...a tradition. People used to ask me 20 years ago what I love so much about duck hunting and my answer remains the same today...”everything”. As we boated out of the marsh on Sunday, I thought to myself “see ya next weekend”. Oh yes, I’m back.
Play safe and see ya on the water