Forest Fringe Delight

Hunting just below Canada's boreal regions can be fantastic.

Five geese cleared the distant treetops and were winging straight at us. The birds were a mile away, but there was no doubt they were headed to our decoys. To be on the safe side, I raised my flag and shook it violently to catch their attention.


As the birds approached, I let out a few clucks and moans with my short-reed goose call.


My sounds sealed the deal. The birds locked their wings and coasted toward the landing zone we had created within our decoys. When the geese were 20 yards out and starting to drop their landing gear, my buddy and I sat up in our layout blinds and each carved a bird from the flock to close out our limit.

As we picked up decoys, I thought about the enjoyment of hunting early-season birds coming out of the boreal forest areas of central and northern Canada, and how lucky I am to have stumbled onto such superb hunting action. It is a dependable pattern year after year.


While my hunt took place in northeastern Saskatchewan, it could have happened almost anywhere from British Columbia to Quebec. Boreal forest spans across Canada. While many people see the forest as just trees, it is much more. In fact, amongst the trees lie a multitude of rivers, wetlands and lakes that provide prime breeding, molting and staging areas for a number of waterfowl species.

North for Moose
For years, I've hunted waterfowl in the central regions of Canada around major staging areas. When doing so, I'd start hunting local birds that nested in the areas and wait for the pushes of migrating birds to move in. At times, I pondered when the birds would come.

I'd also wonder where they were prior to reaching those areas. I always came to the conclusion, "on the tundra."

It never really crossed my mind to head north just below the treeline to look for birds.

Instead, I always thought of heading north to hunt moose and elk. Thankfully, on a big-game hunt, I actually stumbled onto this early-season waterfowling opportunity. If my memory serves me right, it was the fall of 1986. It was early September. I had a special draw moose licence. While I was sneaking around small lakes, marshes and wetlands in search of moose, I was amazed at the number of waterfowl I was seeing scattered within the forest. I quickly realized setting up a hunt within the forest would be difficult because the birds were spread out in small numbers on a vast number of wetlands.

As much as I tried and wanted to, I couldn't really think of a way to hunt the ducks and geese I was seeing in the forest. However, the lights really went on later in the week after I killed a moose. I was on my way back to the forest after dropping off my moose at a local locker plant. As I drove during the final hour of daylight, I saw several small flocks of birds in the skies above the nearby agricultural fields. My buddies would be hunting until dark, so I had time to spare and followed a couple of flights of birds.

To my delight, I found a barley field full of feeding ducks and geese. On my way to the forest, I saw three more fields of birds. I concluded the birds spread out within the trees were flying out to surrounding farmland areas to feed. When they did, they congregated in large enough numbers to hunt.

I had discovered a new hunting area and a dependable early-season hunting pattern that over the years has proven successful in a number of provinces. Since then, I've spent far more time in the north hunting ducks and geese than I have moose and elk.

With numerous rivers, wetlands and lakes, the boreal forest provides prime habitat for waterfowl. Birds of the forest are spread out, so the author hunts farmland on the edge of the forest where ducks and geese congregate to feed.

Critical Boreal Forest
Over the years, I've done a fair amount of research regarding forests and waterfowl. I've learned the boreal forest is second to Canada's Prairie Pothole Region in terms of numbers of breeding waterfowl populations. It's estimated the forest provides breeding habitat for up to 14 million ducks annually, and up to 36 percent of Canada goose reproduction occurs within the forest boundaries. In addition, many non-breeding birds travel to the safety of the forests for their summer molt, and countless migrating birds use the secluded wetlands as temporary staging areas.

I also discovered I was not alone in realizing the potential of the boreal forests. For years, much of the boreal forest remained almost unexplored by wetland and waterfowl scientists. Efforts were placed on prairie pothole regions and wintering grounds.

However, in recent years, much more research has been taking place within the boreal forests. Studies are finding the western boreal forest provides habitat for as much as 75 percent of all continental ducks during migration and molting periods, as well as critical summer habitat for prairie nesting waterfowl during years of drought. Based on the importance of such areas, Ducks Unlimited has undertaken a variety of conservation programs since 1997 to help retain and protect boreal forest areas of Canada.

The prime time to capitalize on these forest roosting birds is early September, before the northern boreal wetlands start to freeze up and the birds start migrating south to traditional staging areas. Because of the vast number of wetlands that spread birds out and the limited access, I've never hunted ducks or geese over water within the forest.

Instead, I concentrate my hunting efforts on the agricultural fields and potholes adjacent to the forest. In most instances, I'm usually hunting within a mile or two of the trees.

However, I've also found I can hunt anywhere within 10 to 15 miles of the forest and still be hunting forest birds, even though I can't see the forest.

When I first started hunting along the forest fringe or the "front line" as it's often referred to, I thought scouting was going to be rather difficult. When hunting in other areas, I'd always find where the birds were roosting. After that, I'd follow them from the roost to feeding fields or pick a vantage point between the roost and likely feeding areas to intercept the birds on their daily flights to and from such areas. No matter which direction the birds headed out to feed, I'd be able to pick them up and watch them so I could dial in on th

e "X."

Based on past experiences, I was concerned about not really knowing the exact area where the birds were roosting within the forest. I feared the birds could easily fly out to feed in any direction from their roosts and leave me high and dry without a chance of seeing them. Thankfully, it didn't take me long to figure out the ducks and geese would fly out of the forest to feed, not farther into it. The habit allowed me to focus my initial scouting on the skies above the treeline and watch for airborne birds heading to agricultural areas. Once I spotted them in the air, I could follow them to where they were feeding.

First Harvest Bonanza
Good food sources in the agricultural land congregate the birds coming from the forest, even when they arrive from multiple roosts. At the beginning of the waterfowl season, the first swathed and combined fields really attract birds -- especially during cool or wet falls when harvest is delayed and potential food sources are at a minimum.

The benefits of finding early-season food sources really struck home several years ago, when I was hunting in Alberta. The weather leading up to hunting season had been cool and damp. As a result, only a handful of potential feeding fields were scattered around the area we were hunting. Although we had to travel a number of miles to find the potential fields, wherever we found food, we found birds. One field was a freshly swathed wheat field. The

wheat was too tough for the farmer to harvest but was a perfect dining location for Canada geese. It was going to be a few days before the grain was ready for harvest, so the farmer gladly let us onto his property and into his swaths. We successfully hunted geese in the same field twice, and probably could have hunted it three days in a row, but elected to give it a break between hunts just to be on the safe side. On our "off" day, we hunted a combined wheat field being visited by numerous ducks and a large number of geese. The action in our combined field was almost as good as the swathed field.

So, now when hunting near the forest fringe, I always look for those first few fields that have been swathed or combined. I also like to stop in and visit with local landowners and get the scoop from them on which fields they have started harvesting and where the neighbors are working.

Scouting Mindset
As the season progresses and more crops are harvested, the birds have multiple options to feed. While it spreads the birds out, good food sources continue to draw birds, and huntable numbers will stack up in fields. During such times, I find it is imperative to spend quality time scouting. I'll generally hunt mornings and spend afternoons scouting.

However, I'll not hesitate to mix things up and hunt afternoons and scout mornings if I need to.

Having spent time in the forests and seeing the small family groups of birds roosting there, I knew while scouting I'd have to pay attention to small flocks of birds and even pairs or singles coming out to feed, as they could potentially lead me to the prime feeding field. Even so, small-scale scouting was an adjustment. I was accustomed to scouting traditional staging areas farther south of the forest line, where I'd overlook family units.

Instead, I'd concentrate on larger flocks of birds, especially if multiple flights were headed in the same direction.

Regardless of where I'm scouting, I don't just look for the place where the birds are feeding. I also watch to see how the birds interact with each other when feeding. In many cases while hunting the forest fringe, my scouting reveals the birds spread out in small family units with definite spacing between the family groups. On other occasions, especially when food sources are limited, I find the birds stacked up tight on the best feeding locations. Either way, I ensure my decoys are set up to match exactly how the birds are feeding in that field.

Tactics to Attract Birds
When hunting geese along the forest fringe, I always hunt in agricultural fields. I'll often use flags to grab the attention of distant birds as soon as I can see them. I'll flap the flag aggressively until I get the birds' attention and keep flapping the flag until I am certain they are going to come my way. At that point, I'll stair step the flag to imitate a landing bird. I'll continue to watch the birds and if they stay on the same flight path, I'll quit flagging. However, if they start to veer off or change directions, I'll pick up the flag and stair step it several times until the birds refocus on my spread again.

When the birds are about 300 yards away, I'll give them a few clucks and moans with my goose call. As I do so, I'll watch how they react to the calling. If the calling seems to attract them, I'll keep up with my calling and throw in double clucks. If the calling seems to turn them off, I'll go quiet.

For ducks, I'll hunt them in agricultural fields and also in potholes outside of the forest.

Boreal Bonus: Migration Days


In mid-September, ducks and geese from the tundra and northern forest start to push into the southern reaches of the forest. Suddenly, all kinds of new birds are in the area. The resulting action can be fast and furious. In addition, there might be days when migrating birds, especially lesser Canada geese, decide to quit flying and will drop into the decoys set up for local birds. While migrators don't always drop into the decoys, it is truly memorable when they do. The sight of a large flock spiraling out of the sky into the decoys is always spectacular.

 

When field hunting for ducks, I use a similar approach to my field goose hunting tactics. I use white flags and spinners to catch their attention. Once they move in closer, they will see my full-body and shell decoys on motion stakes, which further makes them believe live birds are on the ground. I'll use a series of hail calls and then softer single quacks and feeding chuckles as the birds circle the decoys.

The pothole duck hunts aren't on roosting birds, but rather on birds stopping in at small water bodies outside of the forest for a quick drink. Drinking activities can take place as the birds arrive in the agricultur

al lands prior to feeding, in the middle of feeding sessions or just prior to the birds heading back to the forest after feeding. Regardless of why the birds are drinking, I've found that once I've located the drinking spot, all I need in these situations is a half-dozen or so floaters, a little calling and a good hiding spot.

Prime Hunting
I've really come to appreciate the importance of the wetlands within Canada's boreal forest. They provide great roosting and nesting habitat for ducks and geese. At the same time, they help provide prime early-season hunting activities for waterfowlers like me.

Michael Hungle is a long-time Wildfowl contributor from Regina, Saskatchewan.

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