September 30, 2016
Six mallards swung past the decoys as the sun broke the horizon and two of us put four of them on the ground. It was a great way to start the season. We shot well for the first volley and it wasn't long until our guns were barking again.
Most waterfowl seasons in western Canada open Sept. 1, providing some of the earliest gunning available for a wide assortment of ducks.
It's always an exciting and important day for resident hunters who might flock to the bigger wetlands where it's normally pretty easy to target ducks. Young birds are naÃ¯ve and local birds are always plentiful until hunting pressure builds.
Some hunters don't like the early season, as it is virtually impossible to tell the difference between hens and drakes. Sept. 1 is better known as "brown duck" season. The only way to positively identify drakes is to look for yellow bills. But even the young drakes will have olive-green beaks. All the hens will have orange bills with varying degrees of black speckling. The question that seems to be asked is "should we shoot ducks if we can't tell males from females?"
To me it's an easy answer, "yes." We can't tell the difference between male and female geese and that doesn't stop us from targeting them throughout the season. Early duck season is a good excuse to get outdoors when the weather is warm and the birds are plentiful. It is a unique time and an extreme contrast to the late season, cold-weather birds that will have good plumage.
Follow the Leader
Early duck season means shooting local birds, even in Canada. There might not be big staging flocks of mallards and pintails, but there are still plenty around.
They act differently than most duck hunters will relate to. They are still in family groups and flocks of six to eight birds are pretty standard. The hen is the leader and her offspring are still paying attention to everything she does and follow suit. It is a short-lived trend, as incoming migrants start mixing with locals to form bigger flocks in late September. The ducks will be start to feed in fields where the only limiting factor is how far along the harvest is.
Some years, when growing conditions are ideal, many farmers start harvesting grain and peas in late August. However, there are years when the weather keeps them out of the fields, making water hunts the primary option (not a bad one to have). Instead of an early teal season, there are a multitude of dabblers available for hunters. Mixed bags are common, so if you like variety this is a great time to be on a wetland.
Be warned, the days are extremely long this time of year and getting set up for first light often means a 3 a.m. wake up call. It is also a time of year when the biting insects can be atrocious. Mosquitoes can make it next to impossible to sit still, so make sure to pack repellent or a head net.
The weather is completely unpredictable, so it is advised you pack both long underwear and sunscreen. If you're not freezing you'll likely be roasting and looking for camouflage shorts to wear in the blind. The first frost of the year normally occurs around the third week in September, but that can vary as well. Frost usually means an end to insects, and kick-starts the new plumage for most duck species.
Does It Get Any Better?
Where else can you hunt ducks this early? There are always lots of birds this time of year and they decoy extremely well, having not been hunted yet. Large flocks of drakes hang out together after their summer molt, meaning you won't just be targeting family groups.
If you are hunting swathed or harvested fields, it never takes long until the mallards and pintails start hitting them hard. When day crops begin getting swathed or combined, that is usually the day the ducks start feeding in the protein-rich chow line. Field hunts are often synonymous with hunting Canada and the good news is you can count on ducks always eating grain and peas, if available.
For the water hunter there isn't a better time of year. Every pothole and wetland has birds on it. Most water will hold a variety and it isn't uncommon to find all species of teal, wigeon, gadwall, along with pintail and mallard. There are usually big flocks of spoonbills and they seem to show up on any water hunt early in the season.
Many outfitters book solid for early hunts, because the shooting is so outstanding, and many stateside seasons are far off. If you really want to shoot late-season plumed out birds, there's good news — you can always make more than one trip north. But, it will be colder, the ducks more wary, and the days much shorter.
September always provides lots of hide, as straw hasn't been baled from the fields and the trees are still full of leaves. Whether you want to hunt layout or stand-up blinds, there are plenty of options to blend in. The later it gets in the season, the more fields are worked and the harder it is to find cover. Hunting the water's edge is as simple as bringing a marsh stool and a dozen floating decoys. Even calling is optional, as most early-season ducks are only communicating with the hen.
Many U.S. hunters love to start the year off with doves and teal, but come try drab ducks in Canada at least once. It will spoil you on North American bird hunting forever, I promise.