September 24, 2010
Large flocks of squealing ducks dot the Ontario sky.
Around my home in southeast Pennsylvania, fall brings plenty of wood ducks to the little creeks and farm ponds that dot the countryside.
During duck season, the colorful woodies come squealing into our decoys in singles, pairs and triples. On occasion, five or six will pitch in, but never have I had a flock of wood ducks, 30 or 40 strong, descend on one of my setups. In my world of waterfowling, it just doesn't happen.
Steve Todtz, co-owner of Grey Bruce Outfitters in Walkerton, Ontario, was tossing wood duck blocks out into the gentle flow of a decent-sized stream shortly before sunrise on a late September morning last year as he spoke to me and three buddies in a hushed voice.
"This creek was loaded with wood ducks yesterday morning," he said. "When they start coming, they're going to come in clouds. The action is going to be fast and furious, so be ready."
At the time, my buddies and I had no idea what Todtz meant by a "cloud" of wood ducks.
But we liked the sound of it and eagerly loaded our semi-automatic shotguns to prepare for the invasion.
Walkerton is situated smack in the middle of some of North America's best wood duck breeding grounds near the eastern shore of Lake Huron in southern Ontario. Farm fields and wooded creeks and swamps dominate the landscape, providing woodies with ample places to nest, swim and feed -- the staples of a duck's life.
Todtz and his partner, Luke Scherders, are Walkerton natives who have hunted the waterfowl here since they were old enough to buy licenses. Fourteen years ago, they turned their obsession into a living by launching the outfitting service.
It was opening day of southern Ontario's duck season when Todtz warned us about the impending storm of woodies. Canada geese also were legal quarry, but our setup was aimed primarily at ducks. We spread out to hide in some tall grass on the inside of a bend in the creek, with 30 decoys bobbing in the water in front of us.
I could barely see the fakes when the first woodie of the day buzzed our spread. Had the bird not emitted its telltale screech as it rocketed down the creek channel, I don't think any of us would have known it was there.
"Shoot that duck!" Todtz yelled at me, since I was guarding the far end of the line.I swung my shotgun to try to catch up to the hastily retreating duck, but my barrel was still 5 feet behind it when I pulled the trigger. Not exactly how I'd hoped to start our three-day hunt.
As the sound of my errant shot echoed up and down the valley, the floodgates opened, and woodies and mallards were soon screaming in from every direction. The clouds were descending. Birds either appeared over the treetops in front or in back of us and dive-bombed our decoys, or they popped into view upstream or down, racing like jets toward us, barely a foot off the water.
We caught on quickly how to track the speedy birds to get on target. Ducks started falling. At the risk of sounding boastful, we were shooting out of our minds. I've hunted with my buddies when six giant Canadas sailed into our decoys -- wing tip to wing tip -- directly in front of our row of layout blinds at 20 yards, and we never touched a feather. That's not unusual for us. How we managed to put the smackdown on these zigzagging missiles, I'll never know.
We had shot 15 wood ducks and three mallards between us by mid-morning when Canada geese started rousing from nearby fields and ponds. Todtz and I worked our calls to entice the birds to our section of the creek, and within short order, we added 10 bonus honkers to the take from our morning duck hunt. We called it quits six ducks and two geese short of a four-man limit.
Rounding Out LimitsAfter a hearty lunch and an afternoon siesta, we headed out with Scherders to a flooded stand of willows created as part of a Ducks Unlimited habitat-improvement project. The black swamp water lapped at the top of my chest waders as we tucked into some boughs to wait for the woodies.
"Right before dark, it'll get crazy in here," Scherders said.
We had yet to see a duck when a couple of honks sounded in the distance. Several of us started hammering away on our calls and a pair of geese sailed toward us on cupped wings, clucking in that fast, staccato rhythm that says, "Here we come, boys."
When their webbed black feet reached out for the water, three of us each fired one shot, almost in unison. Both geese folded and hit the water simultaneously. Kersplash! Our limit of Canadas was filled on a day when we weren't really hunting for geese.
As promised by Scherders, when day was about to become night, clouds of wood ducks started buzzing the swamp. Our shooting wasn't quite on par with our morning performance, but given the sheer number of targets we launched rounds at, it was inevitable we would kill the final six ducks of our daily limit.
Cut 'Em Over CropsLong before sunrise the following morning, eight of us in camp were on the road, heading south from Walkerton to a harvested wheat field that Scherders said had been covered with ducks and geese the previous day. Evidence of the birds' romp there littered the swaths of field illuminated by my headlight, as we scurried about to set decoys and camouflage layout blinds with stubble.
A few woodies, mallards and Canadas showed up, but not in the numbers Scherders had hoped. And the birds that did wing by were not terribly eager to join the party on the ground. We left the field happy to have taken eight ducks and nine geese.
That afternoon, Todtz sent the eight of us out to a Mennonite farm not far from camp, where a huge cornfield was being stripped of its bounty. While the farmer was working another part of his property that morning, a big group of geese had located the harvested expanse of field and pounded the ground for nuggets of gold that didn't make it into the grain wagons. The geese left the field around noon to return to water, but Todtz figured they'd be back before the day was over.
We scattered 66 full-body decoys in the cut section of the cornfield before tucking ourselves into the dense, 8-foot tall stalks of standing corn adjacent. Barely 20 minutes had passed when strings of geese appeared on the horizon, making a beeline for our setup.
A flock of five was the first to reach the field. The birds swung wide of the spread and circled downwind. When they turned to glide into the decoys, they were flying parallel to the edge of the standing corn where we were hiding. At some point, somebody yelled, "Cut 'em!" and we all came up firing. Only one goose escaped.
We had just picked those birds up when the sky overhead became peppered with flocks of noisy Canadas. A large group of geese lined up in formation to slide into the pocket.
Guide Tony Vandemore quit calling just long enough to look my way and speak in a soft voice, "This is gonna be a train wreck."
Seconds later, guns blazed up and down the line, and nine Canadas -- two carrying leg bands -- hit the dirt in a series of thumps, leaving us just two geese short of our daily limit. We collected them on two shots at the next flock.
Swarming Like BeesOn the final day of our hunt, Todtz guided eight of us close to an hour away from the lodge to an area where the limit on geese was five per day, instead of three. Like the previous morning, we set up in a harvested wheat field blanketed with droppings and down, which had us hopping with anticipation.
A thin line of pink was just beginning to rim the eastern horizon, when Todtz hollered in a harsh whisper, "Ducks!"
The screeching of wood ducks sounded above, and when I looked up, I couldn't believe my eyes. About 60 woodies circled the field like a swarm of bees. This, no doubt, was a bona fide cloud of wood ducks.
The flock swung downwind and charged for the opening we left in the decoys directly in front of our blinds. When the birds reached it, Todtz made the call.
I zeroed my sight on a duck straight overhead and squeezed the trigger. It was so early, the muzzle blast totally blocked my view of the bird. When the flash dissipated, however, I saw the woodie tumble, so I swung on a cluster of birds trying to retreat. Some of the other guys must have homed in on the group when I did, because when I squeezed off my last two shots, several birds fell.
Before we could make a move to fetch the ducks scattered around our spread, more ducks zoomed in. This time, mallards assaulted us. I barely reloaded in time to come up firing again. More ducks rained down.
We'd filled half our eight-man limit of ducks in about 30 minutes, and then the geese started flying, too. Just like the ducks, the honkers were all too eager to alight in our spread. Clearly, we were sitting right on the X.
At one point during the fray, mallards, woodies, black ducks and Canada geese converged on us from all directions. My barrel grew hot to the touch from spitting out 3.5-inch loads. It was a glorious shoot.
My proudest moment came when a group of four honkers parachuted down on the far left end of our line of blinds where two buddies and I were stationed. The geese were approaching at such a hard angle, it became clear only the three of us would safely be able to shoot at them.
One of the four geese clucked incessantly as the flock closed the distance between us. Todtz answered the bird note for note. When the geese were 15 yards out and backpedaling, the three of us sat up from our blinds and fired. All four birds tumbled. It was a clean sweep.
"That was awesome!" I said, exchanging high-fives with my friends.
By 9 a.m., the morning flight had ended. We waited around for another hour or so, but the birds were done. That was OK, though. We'd shot 26 geese and a full limit of 48 ducks.
"It gets a little better than that around here," Todtz said with a wide grin on his face. "But not much."
P.J. Reilly is an avid waterfowl hunter from New Holland, Pa. For information on hunting southwestern Ontario, visit greybruceoutfitters.com.