July 30, 2012
A huge flight of fattened mallards headed towards our small spot of wetland on their way back from one of the local barley fields where they had been feeding most of the morning. There were hundreds of whistling wings as the long, cigar-shaped flight circled high overhead. The flock spun tight circles over the water before setting their wings and taking the elevator straight down onto our shoreline. We emerged from layout blinds and knocked several plump greenheads from the flock.
Although it was already mid-morning, the action was only starting to heat up. Within minutes a second flight of birds emerged on the western skyline, winging their way towards their favorite day roost. It was as if the same ducks had come back, mimicking the previous flock. The strong winds forced the birds to commit quickly. Our shotguns roared again and the big drakes fell.
I looked back to the west, where thousands of well-fed mallards strung out for several miles, all headed in our direction. Our outfitter, Sykes Mitchell, of Duck Creek Outfitters, giggled with excitement the day before when he told us about the water shoot he spotted. He had watched massive flocks of ducks and geese pour into a 20-acre wetland, feeding all morning in the agricultural fields near the lodge in eastern Saskatchewan. The birds pounded into the slough for hours until it was difficult to find an open patch. There were so many birds using the wetland you could barely see the water.
Day roosts are sweet spots for avid duck hunters. These wetlands are safe, with plenty of open water, and protected shoreline, keeping birds away from predators and the wild fall weather that can often blow up. The birds are usually well dispersed on day roosts if there is lots of open water, but every once in a while a honey hole shows up that seems to draw every bird in the country.
Hunting water isn't as common as field shoots for most western Canadians. Matter of fact, the majority of duck hunters I know don't even own a pair of waders. We are spoiled with the field shooting opportunities that are often easier to set up in and retrieve downed birds.
In some parts of the west, shooting water is often frowned upon by local hunters and landowners, as they think it will drive the birds out of the country and ruin the field hunts they covet so much. Truth be known, there is plenty of habitat throughout the fall staging areas and birds hang around depending on the feed and weather conditions. If the hunting pressure gets high the birds simply start jumping around, making it hard to pin them down to a single field for a guaranteed shoot. And as long as there are scores of open water, there will always be ample opportunities for the birds to roost in other wetlands. The birds that built up in huge numbers on the wetland we were hunting had only done so for a couple days. Before that, they were spread out, making them more difficult to pinpoint in large numbers.
Night roosts are a different story. Most hunters will leave those alone, as you can displace birds by hunting them in their bedrooms. Day roosts can also be night roosts, but as the fall progresses, the majority of birds prefer to spend the night on big lakes and rivers. The large, staging wetlands in eastern Saskatchewan have been long-time favorites for targeting birds and following them as they come out to feed in local agricultural haunts.
There are lots of theories about ducks using smaller wetlands. The main thought is that it is a comfort zone for most of the dabblers that are raised in the pothole country of the west. They do provide better protection from the elements when the wind is blowing and the temperatures are dropping, so ducks are drawn to these places when available.
We were hunting in late October, and with the exceptionally warm weather, the birds were taking advantage of the opportunity to get back on the smaller water they prefer. We'd be working one group of birds while the next three flocks were already setting up to come in and land. Our shots flared hundreds of birds off the water, but there were so many to replace them that it was only a matter of minutes before we'd be working new birds.
The highlight was a flight of about 500 that circled the wetland, chuckling with excitement, much like we were. You could sense their eagerness to get on the water and most of them looked like they were suffering from a bad case of the mumps.
Their crops were so full that they stuck up like baseballs in the birds' throats. They wanted a fresh drink of water as bad as a hoard of rabid football fans looking for a cold beer before the game.
Sykes' trusty black Lab had his work cut out for him on our big roost hunt and we didn't lose a single bird. Most of the shots were at the optimal range for fast, clean kills.
Field shoots may be the most desirable and standard type in the farm country, but a good water shoot is hard to beat. There is something about smelling the marsh and vegetation the birds call home.