Chasing Canadas in the Empire State
Way up north, beyond the haunts of the Mohicans, and not all that far south of where the Battle of Quebec took place, is an unsung haven for waterfowl. We all know about the wildfowling around the Louisiana Coast, California's Central Valley, Maryland's Easter Shore, Tennessee's Reelfoot Lake, Wisconsin's Horicon Marsh, the Crab Orchard area in southern Illinois, but how many of you have known about the duck and goose sport in, of all places, New York? The area I'm speaking of is a short distance east of the renowned Thousand Islands.
"Can you see me?"
I was surprised, too, when I went up there for a short two-day Canada goose hunt last September. That timing meant it was the tail end of our so-called nuisance goose season, although this area north of the Adirondacks is way up there, so we expected to see some of the big birds migrating in â€“ from Ontario and Quebec. We were not disappointed. What makes this far north New York area so special for ducks and geese?
It's the same word that appeals to waterfowl everywhere â€“ the first part of these birds two-part name â€“ water. Of course, there's a lot of water in some places that don't have all that many ducks and geese, so what's different about the New York area I'm talking about?
One main reason is the giant St. Lawrence River, which is just to the northâ€“our border with Canada. The St. Lawrence is so big that it can act as a refuge because hunters cannot get to the birds. Further, a myriad of clean water streams flow northward out of the Adirondacks and into the area in question. A few of the streams (rivers) that flow north out of the Adirondacks would be the Oswegatchie, the Grasse, the Raquette and the Saint Regis. These waters are fast flowing in and out of the Adirondack Mountains â€“ until they reach the relatively flat lands a few miles south of the St. Lawrence. This is where the flow slows into a lot of marshes, the type of shallow water habitat that ducks and geese love. Coupled with these marshy areas is plentiful surrounding farmland. Corn is king here, with a lot of dairy farms. So the corn is cut up into silage, and the combines leave plenty of corn kernels on the ground for all those birds. Now this might sound like I'm talking about something that is pretty far fetched â€“ since you probably have never heard of this waterfowling spot â€“ but I'm not kidding. An area ideal for ducks and geese is there â€“ and it's a big area.
One local who has a lot of land leased up around the little hamlet of Canton, New York is David Forsythe. These surrounding waters and lands spell marshes galore, cornfields near unending and that massive St. Lawrence only a stone's throw away. I didn't find all this out the day of arrival, but this "North of the Adirondacks" story began to sink in over the days of shooting there.
The first morning guide Nick McNamara showed up where we were staying (one of David Forsythe's three lodges) just after four o'clock. A swig of milk and two chocolate covered donuts later we were loading our gear. The drive was 25 minutes, to a cut corn field that Nick had been scouting for several days. After opening and closing two gates the truck with trailer full of decoys bumped down the ruts for a half mile â€“ to the exact spot Nick said the geese had been feeding.
Federal's new Black Cloud was used by the crew on this hunt.
The problem on that still-deep-black morning was the windâ€“or rather the lack of itâ€“or so we thought. Since we had videographer Norm Wightman with us, McNamara decided to set Norm up to the east of our decoy spread and we five shooters were just west of Norm. So, we shooters were facing west, as was the video man â€“ the decoy spread just in front of us.
Back to the wind problem. We thought there was no wind. But as the morning wore on it became evident that the geese were well aware of some minimal wind. Flock after flock wanted to land behind us rather than in front of us. They recognized the direction of the "almost" no wind. We didn't. About an hour after sunup the wind did come up, though just minimally, and that's when we agreed that we should switch our shooting positions â€“ i.e. turn our layout blinds around.
This "problem" got me to thinking about how I used to judge the wind when deer hunting. I'd tie a very thin piece of thread to the end of the rifle barrel. That thread would always show the slightest touch of wind, which was helpful in selecting a spot to hunt from. In retrospect a piece of thread attached to our semi-auto shotgun barrels would have given us a definite hint to the wind direction that morning, and our initial set up would have been different. This no-wind thing is something to think about because waterfowl can always feel the slightest ripple of breeze.
|GUNS & AMMO|
|We were the first hunters to kill waterfowl with the new Smith & Wesson 1012 (pronounced one thousand twelve) semi-auto shotguns. We had one 1012 and several 1012 Super models, the latter with 3 1/2-inch chambers. The guns handled well, came with five screw chokes. I had a Tru-Lock Skeet screwed in, but the rest of the shooters had a Modified. The guns were covered in Realtree Max-4 HD camo, and we wore the same camo pattern in our Drake clothing. Another special feature of these new gas-operated semis was their re-curve on the pistol grip. Steve told us they designed the grip in this fashion because they felt it would give shooters better control, especially when wearing heavy gloves in cold weather. The ammo we shot was the new Black Cloud stuff from Federal Cartridge. This is steel ammo, with a certain percentage of the shot in a different, cutting shape that is theoretically more effective.|
However, it's wasn't that the setup was all wrong â€“ because we did tally up 14 giant Canadas. This gives you some idea as to how many geese worked our spread that morning since we only got shooting at about five percent of the flocks that gave us a look-see. Had we set up properly for the wind direction at the start of the morning we would probably have doubled our bag. The bottom line was that we certainly saw one heck of a lot of geese. Interestingly, the big giant Canada goose strain is extremely prominent here (Branta Canadensis maxima). I believe every bird we shot during my two-day hunt was one of this sub-species or races. I know that many of you are very interested in adding a few of these extreme birds to your life list.
second morning mimicked the first, with Nick McNamara arriving at the lodge at four o'clock. We lingered a bit since the field Nick had picked for us that day was very close. We even took time for a coffee stop on the way. McNamara has a trailer rigged for carrying several dozen large full-body goose decoys, as well as our layout blinds. I wonder if it would pay to get grammatical here â€“ with a bit of figurative tongue-in-cheek, of course. To lay means to "place" something. To lie means to recline. So are we calling these layout blinds in error? Should the proper term be lieout blinds? Of course, the word layout is in the dictionary, while the word lieout is not. But could we be more correct if we went with lie-out blinds. Just kidding, and since I've digressed it's time to get back to those geese that we encountered the second morning.
Our set up was with the sun to our right, almost no breeze coming over our left shoulders, i.e. out of the southwest. Still, we were perfectly set up wind-wise. Once we were settled into our layout blinds it didn't take long for the first big flock to appear on the horizon. Fingers fidgeted safeties, hearts began racing, brains became hopeful, eyes began picking out specific birds.
It was a gaggle of perhaps 20, and their wings were flapping directly toward our position. Wings cupped up several times as the group drew closer, but wing flapping followed, then a bit of cupping, but more flapping. These birds weren't sure, would not commit. Nick McNamara and Smith & Wesson's Steve Skrubis were both calling and matching one another's tempo. At this late September date I began guessing this flock had to be native birds â€“ and shot at before â€“ and were not new migrants.
For low light conditions, an aftermarket bead will enhance shooting performance.
I almost called the shot as the birds went left of me. I was in the layout blind to the extreme left, so I had the closest shot. But who wants to hog the shooting? If I had called the shot â€“ I was the only shooter who could have fired â€“ and it was a 40 yard shot anyway. Still, it was a shot I felt I could have made. Of course, there's always the hope and question at such a time, "Hopefully, these geese will make a turn around us and come back." They did not.
McNamara was already thinking about making some decoy changes, but before he could even get out of his layout blind Jim McConville gave the call, "Another flock over the high tension wires at two o'clock."
So it was more safety fidgeting, hearts racing, minds hopeful, eyes peering. Another flock set up perfectly, winging well in front of us, and then swinging directly toward our spread â€“ wind in their faces. Same scenario. When just out of range they picked up a bit and swung to my left. A few birds on the flock edge were 40 yards out, but I did not move a muscle. Neither did anyone else, save the callers. This time the birds worked around to their left, almost completely reversing their direction. They were briefly within easy range, but just in back of our layout blinds, and it's impossible to shove the blind's folding doors out of the way, sit up â€“ and then try to shoot directly behind.
|David Forsythe has three lodges â€“ all part of the Basswood Lodge complex. Basswood is a place where you stay. You can bring your own food and do all or part of your cooking at the lodge, but there are plenty of restaurants where you can eat in Canton, NY and surrounding little towns. I talked at length with David about his hunting. As good as we found the goose shooting he claimed their duck hunting can be even better. Shoot your waterfowl limit in the morning and Forsythe offers pheasant shooting in the afternoon. What I saw with my own eyes was a great amount of what looked to be great grouse and woodcock cover. I'm marking a return for ducks and grouse on my calendar â€“ probably late October 2008. The contact is Basswood Lodge, PO Box 739, Ogdensburg, NY 13669. Phone 315-379-1528. There's also a website â€“ www.basswoodhunting.com.|
But not to worry, for this flock worked warily around again in front. They didn't commit to the decoys, but two of those birds got too close for their own comfort, and we pulled down the first pair of the morning. Nick fetched both birds while the rest of us remained in our hides. During the dual fetch McNamara looked over the decoy spread carefully, trying to ascertain if anything looked unusual. He could find nothing, so he propped the dead birds and crawled back into his blind. Moments later, Josh, Nick's helper, blurted out, "Here they come. They are at noon--over that distant house."
Same deal â€“ fingers fidgeting safeties, we experienced slight blood pressure increases, minds hopeful that this flock would fully commit, eyes straining to perceive those white cheek patches. To Josh's flag waving and Nick's very loud calling these distant birds, which had been flying right to left, now turned and headed for our setup. For several hundred yards their direction was unwavering. But 70 yards out their cupped wings changed to flopping wings as the birds gained altitude and again heading west, providing me with a long shot. But I did not flop open my blind doors and sit up. Instead, I waited for the flock to turn and come back, which they didn't do.
The author poses with a few of long-necks taken with Federal's Black Cloud ammo.
No sooner had that flock left us than Nick was out of his blind and moving decoys farther west. He had us all get out of our blinds while he moved the decoys in the direction that the birds evidently wanted to fly, and he had us drag our layout blinds 40 yards left â€“ to the west. No sooner were we set up in this new position when McConville uttered, "New flock, over the wires at one o'clock."
When we had moved the decoys and blinds I had been instructed, "If you have an in-range shot, take it. Don't wait for anyone else to call the shot."
The flock came in beautifully. But again they switched from cupped wings to floppers when about 65 yards out. But several birds came close enough on the left side of our spread â€“ so that Steve Skrubis, in the blind next to me, and I both doubled, so Nick McNamara had four of the huge honkers to pick up. Things were looking even better. The sun was hardly up, and we already had six big honkers. By the way, the limit on Canada geese during this early season (so-called nuisance season by some) is eight birds, which I think is too many, and so does guide Nick McNamara. But such a liberal limit can certainly result in a powerful lot of shooting.
But now a pair of the bi
g birds were on their way â€“ and straight in. This duo did not falter â€“ just kept coming right in â€“ when they were over the decoys â€“ wings cupped and only 10 yards in the air Jim McConville took the one on the right and Steve Skrubis took the one on the left. Nick made the retrieve, got back in his blind, and it wasn't long before we had another distant flock to wave the flag and call to.
The birds turned immediately to Josh's flagging efforts â€“ and came right on in. But, again, the cupped wings switched to flopping wings about 65 yards out, with the whole flock turning and swinging wide on my side of the blind. My auto-loader pulled down two more, and Steve's semi spun a third down. Our cache was growing.
By nine o'clock, when the flying from night resting to daylight feeding came to a close, we had over a dozen birds for the cleaning shed. Coupled with our bag of the previous morning, I considered it one heck of a hunt and shoot. I certainly don't need to bag eight big honkers as the only way to consider a banner day, and I know most of you feel similarly.
I had to leave late that afternoon, but Jim McConville and Steve Skrubis were able to hunt with Nick and Josh the next morning. While our two days had been headlined by no wind and hardly a cloud in the sky, that next day resulted in lots of wind to go with the bluebird weather. I talked to Steve that night and Jim called me the next morning with the results of their spectacular shoot. The four of them had killed 28 big honkers. From the way Jim bubbled over the phone it sounded like he'd enjoyed the goose hunt of a lifetime.
Nick Sisley can be contacted at email@example.com