December 17, 2022
By David Rearick
If you want to see first-hand what non-hunters will only see on the Discovery Channel, I discovered just how to do that: Take on the North American Waterfowl Grand Slam. When I started waterfowl hunting in 1992, I didn’t know anything about the Slam. Instead, I duck hunted because my dad duck hunted and we would travel to the local marsh on opening days with a group of his friends to shoot common species like mallards, wood ducks, and teal. When I was 16 and able to hunt by myself, I spent every day after school hunting ducks at a local lake. I never shot a duck, but I did see my first drake goldeneye, and that sparked my desire to expand from my local haunts into new territories.
While in college, I made hunting friends across the United States through the Avery Outdoors Pro-Staff that quickly allowed me to hunt new states and add new species to my checklist. By the age of 22 I had heard about the Waterfowl Grand Slam and, while I thought obtaining it was out of reach (I was a poor college student after all), I started keeping track of the species I needed and had a hand-written page in a binder. Each year I would scratch a few species off the list and, as the years passed, I realized that I was quickly getting close to not having many species left on my list. That fueled the fire even further and after trips to St. Paul Island for king eider and then two trips to southern Florida for tree ducks where I held my final “slam duck”, a fulvous tree duck standing in knee-deep water on a balmy 60-degree day in January.
Along the way the ducks were the reason, but the experiences are what I remember more than pulling the trigger. From hunting within sight of the “buzz” tower from the original Top Gun movie to floating around in an inflatable boat in the Bering Sea in 20-foot swells, the journey was legendary. I went to places I never would have otherwise and saw things that, like I said, non-hunters will only ever see on TV. For me, hunting has always been my passion, but the travel and locations are what have made it special. I couldn’t think of many better ways to spend time and money than to travel, shotgun in hand.
How to Obtain the North American Waterfowl Grand Slam
To start, it is a good idea to know what species are one the list. The Ultimate Waterfowler’s Challenge put together materials to help you get started. The list includes 41 total species that are available to all hunters, without the need to draw a tag for species like the Emperor goose, and includes ducks, geese, swans, and cranes. When I started pursuing the Grand Slam, it was a known accomplishment that Tim Bouchard from Alaska Wildfowl Adventures tracked on his website and would send out a certificate once completed. Since then, the Ultimate Waterfowler’s Challenge has stepped in and devoted an entire website to details, info, and tracking those that completed the slam. And, before you look, no, I am not listed on this site. I never officially tracked my slam as I started my journey roughly 20 years before I completed it, which makes it problematic to enter as the only verification I have that I completed are some photos and a drake of every species mounted in a single display case. If I were to do it again, I would probably keep better track. UWC does a great job with recognition and awards, and it is a nice way to showcase your accomplishment.
Once you have the details, the next step is to start planning hunts for the species that you don’t have or can’t easily obtain. For instance, if you live on the East Coast getting a black duck is rather easy, but if you live on the West Coast, it requires a specific trip. Also, how you obtain the Grand Slam depends on your budget. If you have an unlimited expense account for hunting, obtaining it in a few short years, or even a single year, is easy. However, if you need to do it on a budget and get a little more creative, it can be done, albeit over a longer time span. To help illustrate the how/where/when, I put together a list of the most difficult to obtain species and a path to get them both using a luxury and cheapskate approach, where applicable. I utilized a lot of the cheapskate approach so that I could afford the hunts that simply can’t be done any other way, helping to keep the overall cost low without sacrificing on the experience.
Black-Bellied Whistling and Mottled Ducks
In my opinion, killing a fulvous whistling duck is the hardest of all species, with the black-bellied whistler not far behind. It isn’t because they are particularly intelligent or in a difficult-to-reach location, there simply aren’t that many of them and access to hunt them is limited. The best location to obtain both of these whistling ducks and a mottled duck in one trip is hands down in Florida. To further define where to hunt, I would concentrate on trying to draw permits to hunt Florida’s Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs). You can hunt the STAs on your own unguided, but tree ducks are different than conventional puddlers, so having an intimate knowledge of where they like to be will improve your chances at success. I hired Derek Bendell from Hellbender Duck Boats and it still took my two trips to secure both whistling duck species and a Florida mottled duck. Whistling ducks can also be found in Louisiana, Texas, and even Mexico, but Florida offers you an opportunity at three hard to get species in one hunt.
With three teal species on the list, only one stands out as particularly difficult to obtain—the cinnamon teal. For most hunters with a friend network, scratching out a green-winged and blue-winged teal is just a matter of planning hunts accordingly. Those species are abundant and widespread, making them one of the easiest on the list next to greenheads and wood ducks. In the U.S., cinnamon teal hunting is often a matter of taking one by chance in states like California, Arizona, and sometimes in Texas. I have also heard good things about Utah during the late season and reverse migration, but never experienced it myself.
Personally, I killed a cinnamon teal in Southern California by kayaking around small public impoundments and jumping them out of the Tule grass along the edges. I went with an acquaintance that wanted to trade hunts, so I was fortunate, but there are also public opportunities in SoCal if you look in the right places. While paddling the impoundments worked, we also hunted public areas including the Salton Sea. If you have the gumption and the time, you can make it happen. Otherwise, if you don’t have a friend or a desire to give it a try, this is a species that is best obtained in Mexico. The good thing about taking a trip to Mexico, is that you can scratch off many other species in one trip including multiple species of teal, black brant, pintails, redheads, shovelers, black-bellied whistling ducks, scaup, and even Mexican mallards. If you have a lot of species on your list, a trip to Mexico is a good use of resources because the costs to bird ratio is low. I have never personally hunted Mexico, but if I was starting from scratch, I would consider it.
Mix Bag Hunts
While the plumage is generally less than stellar, freelance/unguided hunts in Saskatchewan or North Dakota are a great way to obtain a lot of different species. In North Dakota, you could potentially scratch off five to six puddle ducks, seven to eight divers, possibly both of the Canada goose species, a sandhill crane, a swan, and even snow and Ross’ geese. That is an optimistic approach, and it may take a few trips with some careful planning, but the trips are cheap and enjoyable. Plus, you can bring your buddies that don’t care about the Slam with you and if you are really aggressive, jump shooting ponds can help you scratch off some of the birds you need in a targeted approach. (Yes, I said jump-shooting! If you are trying to complete the slam, I can guarantee you will jump shoot one or more species along the way. If you say you did it without jump shooting, I will either applaud you or comment on the way your nose is growing Pinocchio!)
Slammin’ Sea Ducks
These are the species that will positively require a guide, unless you have a friend with a lot of ocean hunting experience. (I don’t recommend trying this unguided due to safety concerns). You will also need to likely take three trips to scratch all the species, all three of which are outlined below. This is where you should focus your budget, as you don’t want to do these more than once unless you want to!
Trip #1- Coastal Sea Ducks and Divers
While some species obtained on this trip can be obtained on other trips, the key species in this location is Barrow’s goldeneye. Additional species include buffleheads, scaup, mergansers (common and red-breasted), harlequin, common goldeneye, and the three scoter species. You can also add long-tailed ducks in some locations. I personally recommended a trip to Valdez, Alaska with Alaska Wildfowl Adventures as the hunting is second only to the scenery and experience. Other locations include Kodiak and other coastal areas of Alaska, but generally the species variety in Valdez is much more diverse. (You can even scratch off some puddle duck species)
Trip #2- East Coast Common Eider, Sea Ducks, Black Duck, and Brant
Hunting on the East Coast can result in a mixed bag. Hunting guides out of Massachusetts and Rhode Island can often offer hunts for both eider/scoter and black ducks and brant in the same general region. You can also add some mergansers, geese, divers, and misc. puddlers to help get more bang for your duck buck! There are plenty of guides and outfitters to choose from but do your homework as experience on the ocean goes a long way!
Trip #3- King Eiders
This is the pinnacle of the Grand Slam in my opinion. The main U.S. location with good odds of killing a king eider is on the island of St. Paul in the Bearing Sea between Alaska and Russia. Be forewarned that hunts here can go from easy as pie to brutal as hell all in the same day, so kiss your wife and hug your kids before you go. (I am kidding, but seriously, this is likely the most dangerous waterfowl hunt in North America.) In addition to king eider, you may have a chance at longtails and harlequin, but this should be considered your most species-specific waterfowl hunt. You are only there for a single bird, not even a limit, and success should be measured as soon as you kill a bull king. I hunted with Four Flyways Outfitters and I recommend them not just because I killed a king, but because they offer a safe hunt with sound equipment.
Even after obtaining the 41, don’t overlook that the quest never truly ends. There are multiple bonus birds and sub-species. For instance, for Canada and Cackling goose categories there are actually 11 subspecies to hunt! Additionally, subspecies/variants/vagrants like Eurasian widgeon, Pacific eider, Mexican mallard, and Emperor goose can all be found in North America. Once I completed my slam, I continued looking for subspecies like Northern Eider, Eurasian or Aleutian green-winged teal, and was fortunate to draw and Emperor goose tag the first year the season opened. If you are considering going after some “extra species” a trip to Cold Bay, Alaska should be on your list. Species including Emperor goose (with a tag), Pacific eider, Aleutian green-winged teal, black brant, Eurasian widgeon, in addition all three species of scoter and other divers and puddlers are part of a very mixed-bag hunt. I have hunted there twice with Jeff Wasley of Four Flyways Outfitters and each time had a fantastic experience taking a wide variety of species including the largest duck in North America, the Pacific eider.
Along the way, there will always be hurdles to achieving the North American Waterfowl Grand Slam. Sometimes the least likely species will become your white buffalo and will cause more headaches and heartaches than any other, especially if you’re trying to mount a representative of every species. Mine was a red-breasted merganser drake in full-plumage, and my good friend’s was a common lesser scaup. The key getting to the finish line is to remain positive, stay after it, and be opportunistic. Many times, I have forgone another day of really good hunting for a species I already have to lay in a blind for hours waiting for one specific species and passing on other birds. If you are somewhere that has a species you need, do everything you can to obtain it before you leave. Nothing makes the journey more expansive than taking multiple trips, especially when you skip hunting for a bufflehead just to partake in another day of hunting mallards.