July 12, 2022
For those of us who join the flock of waterfowl hunters without an experienced mentor, it’s a long, bumpy road full of absent-minded mistakes and embarrassing mishaps. I’ve made my share of them and I hope that others can avoid getting into the same sticky situations. Now I am not here to willfully endorse going into any hunt without a plan to retrieve killed and wounded birds, but I wholly understand that situations do arise at times, especially for the greenhead greenhorn and first-time ‘fowler who just doesn’t know any better.
Your best bet will always be to have a plan to retrieve birds over open water. You need to bring a dog or a feather-fetching vessel, even if it’s your sister’s hot pink sit-on-top kayak or your kid’s prized pool floatie. It’s our responsibility to make every effort to recover all downed birds. So now that I’ve outgrown my own dunce cap days, I hope to share some hard lessons with three of the worst best bird-saving techniques I’ve come across, should you ever find yourself in a similar situation when every other effort fails.
Wade For It
When I first got into duck hunting, I loaded up on used, budget-friendly gear which included a set of secondhand waders, used and abused decoys, and a hulky, hand-me-down 12-gauge Wingmaster. It was far from perfect, but what this bare minimum, low-cost lot offered me was the freedom and opportunity to start my wingshooting wanderings.
My first hunt was full of wonder all right and it also filled my waders with water. I stood in the cattails as the morning brought the first flight and with it, a single greedy green wing drake that came close enough for me to drop him with a Hail Mary third shell as he sailed to the other side of the marsh. As I made my way over to retrieve the bird, I learned a lot about beaver lodge construction. I went from walking knee deep to the next step that sunk me up to my armpits and tried to waterlog my waders. Turns out beavers like to clear out subterranean tunnels to make their underwater entries and exists a little easier.
Since this first foolheaded episode, I’ve seen many others who have gotten in over their heads when attempting to recover dead birds with only their waders. Before hunting any new spot without a dog or boat, wade around and scout it out to become familiar with the various depths and any challenging places where you might get wet and compromise your bird-retrieving efforts. Getting soaked sucks, but remember, we need to recover our birds. This is even more important on larger ponds and lakes that could drop off just a few feet from shore. When you knock one down, walk out in your waders as far as you can. Otherwise, you better be ready to back out, strip down, and swim out to duck dog it yourself—just don’t be too hard-mouthed when your buddy sneaks a snapshot for the memory bank.
I would later migrate from the small marshes to the bigger open waters of Lake Champlain after learning about the abundance and opportunity for late season divers. There’s a steady stream of bluebill, ringnecks, buffleheads, and “whistlers”—or goldeneye as known in these parts. I learned to build and hunt from rock blinds and hide in the outcroppings along the rugged shoreline of “the big lake.”
After testing the waters and finding relatively shallow shoreline depths, I was confident that I could drop these birds in range and snatch them up easily, with a little added help from the wave action that would wash them back to me, should they fall a little beyond the wading level.
By now I was a little more prepared for retrieving birds with a backup plan to stay high and dry—I brought a telescoping fishing pole and a few large crank baits. If I couldn’t catch them by hand, I’d cast out and retrieve them with rod and reel. It worked, but just because something works, doesn’t mean it should be relied upon. If you absolutely need a Plan B, bring a pole, and keep a few extra hook-heavy baits in your blind bag so you don’t have to start fishing for fowl with nothing but a long stick and a prayer.
Commandeer a Craft
I always head to Champlain for the late season diver action, but also because the lake sees fewer visitors and inhabitants. The busy summer cottages and “camps” are abandoned and left vacant for prime shoreline hunting. Most waterfowl hunters around here are hung up on mallards anyway, making it easy for me to get into the overlooked and underrated divers.
After growing a bit tired and frustrated with the aforementioned alternative retrieval techniques, I knew there had to be a better and more effective way. I spent one morning with luck on my side and the first two birds falling straight into the spread of fakes, but then the wind picked up and the waves rolled in a little faster. The next bird fell and bobbed slightly out of reach and without wanting it to drift away, my mind floated back to the sun-bleached, stashed-aside canoe I noted on the walk in. Sure, I had secured permission from the property owner to access the lake, but I was also sure the out-of-sight owners would never learn of my haphazard hijack to pick up my bird. After this successful but shortsighted strategy, I packed up my gear, counted my blessings, and called it a day.
There’s never been a worse feeling for me, than not being certain I would be able to recover my birds. Many states also have wanton waste laws—and I’m not going into legal advice or a regulation discussion—but it’s our duty as duck hunters to make an ethical attempt to recover all shot and wounded birds.
Now I can assure you that these three makeshift recovery methods do indeed work, but I wouldn’t ever rely on them for retrieving your birds, that’s not the intent of this instruction. They’ll work in a bind, but don’t make them commonplace. I’ve since upgraded to dragging a kayak around to setup my spread and collect downed birds with a next step to bring home a four-legged fetcher to pass on the hard work to. I hope in time you will expand your limits of possibility too.