As we rounded a point, about 2000 Northern bluebills lifted as did our spirits!! Our cabin host, Bennett turned to us and said, “those weren’t there an hour ago!” I’m sure my smile could have been spotted from a mile away and all I could think of was “YES!!!”
My heart literally sunk as I hung up the phone with my uncle. One line kept resonating through my mind:” there’s no birds around”. How can that be? It was mid October and the fall migration of diver ducks should have been in full swing in Northwestern Ontario.
A hunt had been planned for months on Lake of the Woods and we were past the point of no return, so we decided to toss in the fishing rods too and take advantage of an amazing fall walleye bite if need be.
I made the drive to Fort Frances, Ontario to pick up my boat and decoys with the plan being to drive to Lake of the Woods early the following morning. As any waterfowler can attest, I was triple checking my gear well into the darkness and had to go back outside at around midnight to look for something. That was when I had the first positive vibe. I could hear the swoosh of the red pines and when I looked up into the darkness, I saw the tops violently swaying back and forth. A Northwest wind had arrived, and the temperature was falling like a rock.
The morning came as quick as it does with any duck hunt and we made our way to Morson, where we launched boats that were jammed to the gunnels with gear and began the trek to Big Island, picking our way through the troughs of whitecaps.
We made a brief stop at Painted Rock Channel where Indigenous ancestors made their mark hundreds of years ago. I couldn’t help but wonder what life was like back then without cell phones and gasoline engines; a bit of nostalgia to say the least.
As we continued towards our home for the next 4 days, a cabin nestled in the pines along the shore of Lake of the Woods, we saw what we were all longing for and were transformed into little kids bursting with jubilee for a few moments. As we rounded a point, about 2000 Northern bluebills lifted as did our spirits!! Our cabin host, Bennett turned to us and said, “those weren’t there an hour ago!” I’m sure my smile could have been spotted from a mile away and all I could think of was “YES!!!”
We made our way to the cabin where gear was stowed, a fire was lit, and stories were shared into the night only to be interrupted periodically by the snap of jackpine smoldering in the wood stove. I relish any opportunity to hear the “back when” stories of waterfowl hunting. The sport has evolved from a simple time to a complex industry full of technology and gear. Waterfowl hunting is rich in tradition and I always have an appreciation for the history lessons.
One old timer told a story of how he and his buddy shot a limit of bluebills from a boat tied off at a tree on an island around the corner from the cabin where we sat…no camo or decoys were placed, just thousands of ducks that wanted to be where they were…interesting concept, huh?!
The following morning, we made our way to the boats in complete darkness. The engines were fired up and the morning air was filled with the odor of 2 stroke exhaust. I followed a black silhouette to our hunting location all the while the anticipation was building.
We decided to set up on a point to the East of the “big water” which creates a natural funnel for birds heading out for their morning breakfast and hopefully big raft of Northern bluebills. There were going to be 6 shooters that morning, so about 6 dozen decoys consisting of blue bills, bufflehead and golden eyes were set around the point with a landing zone on each side. We used 3 motion decoys as well, placed near the landing zones to add a little more flash and gain the attention of passing birds.
The sky began to lighten to the East and took on shades of crimson and gold, bringing the landscape into full view. The shotguns were loaded, and we anxiously sat in anticipation of our quarry. It didn’t take long before the first few flights of birds showed up and several mature buffleheads dropped into the spread. The morning silence was no more as steel was sent skyward and we were rewarded with some beautiful birds.
The morning flight proved to be somewhat slow, so all but 3 of us decided to retreat to the cabin for breakfast and coffee. It had been a while since my uncle and I sat in a blind together, so we figured we’d ride things out and catch up. My uncle’s buddy Bennett opted to join us, and we sat for hours reminiscing of years past. Truth is, my uncle got me started in the waterfowl game about 30 years earlier on a Lake of the Woods not far from where we were sitting.
As we sat sharing stories, something caught our eye to the Northeast, way off in the distance. “Hey, some birds working from the right” my uncle stated, as he peered through squinted eyes. We watched the birds for what seemed to be an eternity before we realized they were coming our way. And come our way they did!!
A beautiful flock of greater bluebills dropped into our spread on a rope. As the wings flared we sat up and I picked out the specimen of a duck, a mature drake bluebill and squeezed the trigger. As my Beretta recoiled, I realized that the shot hit its mark as did my uncle and Bennett’s and several bills dropped into the dekes.
This flight turned out to be the first of several as wave upon wave of bluebills poured in. The commotion garnered the attention of our bunkmates and they promptly returned to the blind for some of the best duck shooting I’ve ever experienced. And it all went down between the hours of 11:30 am and 2:30 pm!
We ended up having spectacular shooting for the remainder of our trip, but the highlight for me came on the final day. I was the sole hunter who opted to abandon the warmth of the cabin that morning and any waterfowler who has hunted solo knows that the experience is one of itself.
I made my way back to the point and set out my decoys only assisted by the lights of about a million stars. The lake was like glass and as I sat waiting for sunrise, it was hard not to reflect as I sat sipping my campfire coffee. I truly felt the richest I ever had in years, not financially but in life.
The morning darkness gave way to a sunrise that was one of the most spectacular and perfect that I’ve ever had the privilege to witness and I really noticed the beauty of the fall colors. I always find myself on sensory overload when hunting alone and those memories are what keeps me grounded and returning year after year.
The morning gave way to several flights of birds that dropped into my spread, only to be shot at with my camera as I soaked up the experience. See the truth is, for me the waterfowl experience is the culmination of a fall ritual, changing of seasons and new beginnings; sure, shooting birds is part of it, but it’s not the sole reason I’m there anymore.
I can have a very memorable hunt and not even take the safety off. As I sat there admiring the birds work, my trance was shattered as I heard the whistling of a golden eye approaching from the West. I franticly slipped 3 rounds of steel into my Beretta and scoured the horizon until I saw him.
A fully mature common golden eye, a bird I’d never shot before. As he screamed by I swung the barrel past and squeezed the trigger. My first attempt was behind, so I sped up the follow through and squeezed again, this time being met with success. And that was the way I chose the hunt and trip to end, on a high note harvesting my very first whistler and he was a magnificent specimen in full plumage.
As I write this article, the 2018 season has just begun, and I can’t help but reflect on last year’s experience. I learned some valuable lessons not only from a technical standpoint, but also a bit about myself and how I’ve transcended as a waterfowler.
First, timing is everything. We were very lucky that the birds showed up when they did and that we stayed in the blind all day. I can’t overstate the importance of scouting; it’s the single most important thing a waterfowl hunter can do to maximize opportunities for a successful harvest.
Secondly, if you can’t put yourself where the birds want to be such as the big water due to safety concerns, then put yourself along their flight path to get there. Lastly, try to embrace the entire waterfowl experience instead of basing success on the number of birds going home.
Sure, we’re all there to hunt ducks, but the memories are what last generations. The sunrise I had the privilege to experience on the final day of last year’s trip will forever be etched in my mind, however I can’t say that I recall each and every time I squeezed the trigger.
I’m wishing you all a safe and memorable 2018 waterfowl season and remember to take someone new out to the sport, so you can and pass on the tradition.