September 21, 2011
I tiptoed as I carried my camouflage canoe from the back of my pickup to the water's edge. I wasn't worried about making too much racket while other folks lie abed in their homes adjacent to the park. Rather, I was simply trying to avoid the goose droppings that littered the pavement.
A dozen geese, heads tucked underwing, were nestled on the ground 20 yards from the boat landing. One lifted its head for a moment, and then apparently realizing from past shooting encounters that I posed little threat, went back to its late-night slumber. I admit I felt a bit foolish paddling past sleeping geese to get to a spot that might not hold any geese, but when you're hunting in urban areas, you have to play by different rules.
The hunt could have taken place just as easily in a large city, but instead, it occurred on a millpond in a village of fewer than 1,500 residents. Although these small-town folks are quite used to hunting and register no complaints, hunters must still deal with the fact that hunting isn't allowed within the village limits. Therefore, hunters must scout not only the birds, but the books as well. A trip to the village clerk's office quickly showed me the village limit boundary. Then, it was up to me to determine where the line bisects the water so I could hunt legally.
Urban waterfowl hunting, in addition to the standard rules of waterfowling, presents new challenges. Depending on where you hunt, you might need to borrow a tool from big-game hunters: a laser range finder. In some states or municipalities, you are required to hunt a certain distance from dwellings or other structures. A laser range finder will instantly give you a read-out and show you where you can hunt. Plus it's a handy tool to have in case someone questions where you are hunting. You can instantly prove you are allowed to hunt from that position.
Keep in mind that just because you can legally hunt in an area, doesn't guarantee you can safely hunt there. After all, your shot has to go somewhere. You have to find an area where you have a safe shooting window, where you won't be shooting at any buildings, boats or into town. Sometimes you might have to limit your shots to one direction. Always keep safety in mind and remember that you might simply have to pass on shots. If you're not OK with that, hunt a different area.
Your personal comfort is another factor. I've been to places where I had a legal right to hunt, but I don't like it when I'm hunting close to houses and people are watching my every move. I hunt to get away from it all and to enjoy the outdoors. Having people watching me takes away from my enjoyment of the hunt.
Zoning is another consideration. Check with your local municipality to find out what, if any, hunting is permissible. I live in Superior, Wis., a town of about 30,000 situated along Lake Superior and the Minnesota border. Superior was also the birthplace and home of one of duck hunting's most famous scribes, Gordon MacQuarrie. Superior has a strong waterfowling tradition -- hunters find puddle ducks and concentrations of divers along Lake Superior. Once in a while, hunters even bag wayward sea ducks.
The St. Louis River separates Superior from Duluth, Minn. The boundary between these two cities is the main channel of the river, which can be right down the middle, or nearer to either shore, depending on the meanders of the river.
Because of zoning regulations, waterfowl hunting is permitted within the Superior city limits. However, it is not permitted in the Duluth city limits. Therefore, any waterfowler hunting this section of the river must possess a Wisconsin license -- whether resident or nonresident -- and must stick to the Wisconsin side of the river. It is certainly an inconvenience for Minnesota hunters.
But even when hunters are properly licensed, the work is just beginning, for now you must determine the location of the main river channel. One method is to use a fish-finder, note the depth, and plot points on a GPS. This method is certainly effective and very reliable, but it's time-consuming. I cut corners and use a mapping program such as Google Earth. These programs are certainly not the be-all, end-all in legal definitions, but they do a pretty good job of showing state boundaries and river channels. Combined with a little common sense, a hunter should be able to figure out which areas are fair game. Best of all, aerial maps reveal habitat types, allowing hunters to find marshy backwaters along the river that hold puddle ducks and geese. Mapping software has become an important tool in my waterfowling arsenal.
Urban birds, like their rural counterparts, quickly learn where they are safe once the shooting starts. Birds commonly roost at the park and boat launch in town or loaf on the water well within village limits, so hunters must hunt where they can, not necessarily where the birds are. The scenario is really the same as hunting adjacent to a waterfowl refuge. Rule No. 1 in the waterfowl hunter's book of tricks is to "hunt where the birds want to be." When being where the birds want to be isn't possible, calling and decoy spreads become extremely important. Practice calling until you become proficient no matter where you hunt, but in a situation where you are trying to pull birds away from preferred spots, it becomes vital.
Decoy setups are also key. It might take a large spread to convince birds the party is where you are. Don't be afraid to experiment. If the large spread fails, go subtle, with just a few blocks or birds set up in family groups. Spinning-wing decoys might attract attention and entice the birds to give you a look. Feeder and sleeper decoys can help seal the deal, especially if birds use the urban waters to loaf.
TAKE 'EM ON THE PASS
When it comes right down to it, boundary restrictions can really limit your hunting opportunity. I frequently hunt geese in an area adjacent to town where my shooting is often limited to pass shooting at first light. My whole hunt is founded on the chance birds will be roosting in a small back bay, which they usually do, and on the hope they will fly north in the morning, which they only sometimes do. I slip in quietly in the dark with my canoe and set up on a point adjacent to the bay where the birds roost. It's imperative to reach the point without being detected, or the birds will certainly avoid me. Once at the point, I tuck into the cattails and wait. Some mornings I simply watch the sun rise as the geese turn south, honking as they fly over town on their way to nearby farm fields. But when the geese turn north, I am frequently treated to 25-yard shots at birds flying just above the water. Sometimes the birds come out in waves, following the same path, even though I fire at the first flock. Those days are fun, provided I can hit anything.
On pass-shoot hunts, the hunt is often over as soon as the birds leave for the morning. The shooting can be nonexistent, or fast-paced for just a few minutes. Either way, it can be a fair amount of work for just a few chances, but sometimes that's the price you pay to play the urban fowling game.
Some days I take the lazy approach to hunting those geese: I sleep in. Generally the geese return to the water to loaf around 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. -- about the time most hunters are leaving for the day. I'll launch around 9 a.m. and set up on that same cattail point, right at the edge of the city limits, to wait for the birds to return. Calling and decoys become critical, because the birds typically either go back to a bay where they roost, or land right in the middle of the pond well within the city limits. I'm trying to pull the birds to a place they don't usually land. I don't need them to land there, I just need them to give me a good look. When my decoys and calling are good enough (or when the birds are fresh migrants) I can bag a goose or two. Other days, I just watch the birds come back, ever mindful of where they are landing and what they are doing for future reference. Usually the local geese have pretty established loafing and roosting areas, but if you can catch some fresh birds, you can find success.
DEALING WITH BOAT TRAFFIC
One of the inevitable truths of hunting waterfowl in urban or suburban areas is contact with other people while you are hunting. It often hinders your hunting, but sometimes can improve it. While you hunt, you may encounter jet skiers, canoers, pleasure boaters or anglers. Realize these users have as much right to be on the water as you. They might not realize they should give you space to hunt, or even realize that you're there at all.
One morning, a pontoon boat of panfish anglers worked the shoreline near where I was hunting. They kept moving closer, and finally got about 100 yards from me. I was really starting to get perturbed, because surely no birds would fly near the boaters. Just then, a flock of geese passed by me at close range. I'd rather not say how many birds I shot, but the pontoon boat immediately moved after I fired. I think they had no idea I was there before I fired.
Another time, I was duck hunting on a small lake. I was there before dawn and set up in my usual spot on a point. About an hour later, a fisherman showed up. He was ruining any chance I had of shooting a duck. I didn't have long to hunt anyway before work, so I just sat. Once again, the angler got about 100 yards away. I suppose I could have yelled over to him, but I decided it wouldn't help. When I left, I put a note under his windshield wiper explaining that although I knew he had a right to be there, it wasn't very courteous of him. I don't know if I gained any ground with him or if he just blew the note off, but I never saw him out there again while I was hunting.
Sometimes, boaters work to your advantage. They frequently kick up birds, which might fly straight to your decoy spread. It walks a fine line of hazing, but as long as the birds are being put into flight by the natural progress of boaters with whom you have no affiliation, you should be OK.
MAINTAIN A POSITIVE ATTITUDE
Always remember that you represent all hunters. People who observe you will transcend your actions to be a representation of the hunting community. Although you should always hunt responsibly and in a sporting manner, your actions are under the microscope in a public setting.
Some people disagree with hunting and think you are killing the same birds their kids fed popcorn to in the park. It might be tough to sway their pre-set opinions of hunting. If you are confronted, maintain your composure. Explain that hunting is legal, sporting and ethical. You are controlling wildlife populations, and your hunting licenses and taxes you pay on sporting goods support the wildlife populations we all enjoy. Stay positive, and represent hunters in a good way.
Urban waterfowling poses unique challenges. Although you don't have to be a lawyer to hunt birds in urban settings, it pays to know the law where you hunt. With some research and some adaptations to standard hunting techniques, you can cash in on some outstanding hunting close to home.
Free-lance writer Joe Shead hunts ducks and geese in Wisconsin.