Flooded with honkers, French Canada can serve up one heck of a wood duck shoot, too.
Luke Scherders spoke the words every duck hunter wants to hear: "This is the kind of flock I like." Almost on cue the lead greenhead curved its wingtips toward the picked cornfield. Less than a second later, the 24 other mallards did the same and the men below in layouts all remembered just why it is we chase these awesome birds.
It was a T-shirt warm October day. No wind. And the Ontario field we were in was harvested but the stalks were so high Luke had to drive his truck and trailer around in circles just to make a hole for the decoys. The locals call these cut kernel fields, but it just looked like half-assed harvested corn to me. Regardless, it was fantastic for killing birds in and offered superb concealment.
Our mallards made a sweet banking turn left, dropped altitude and we were all thinking the same thing: "This is going to be a train wreck." It absolutely was. The ducks made one or two passes behind us and lined up straight out front. They folded like dish rags; dead greenheads were everywhere.
That's what new birds will do. The night before there hadn't been 100 ducks in the field, and now there were 1,000 to 1,500 in the air. Luke, who owns Wingfeather Outfitters and pro-staffs for D.T. Systems, chirped "I'll be honest with ya boys, I wasn't expecting this."
The number of mallards baffled him.
Before we arrived that afternoon, all of us were jazzed about the possibly of shooting a black duck. Even though the species is more iconic in the Atlantic Flyway, it still holds plenty of clout in southern Ontario. One did make an appearance, hovering over the decoys like a New Year's Day blimp while dozens of mallards spun around the spread. Of course our hosts Brian Lasley and Kevin Howard, who were showing off D.T.'s R.A.P.T. e-collar (a slick little unit that slides on your hand so you can call and shoot all while working the dog), were far too gracious to shoot the loner black duck with all those greenheads in the air. And as always seems to happen, the ducks never came in right and we missed our chance to shoot the one bird all of us were desperate to kill.
"Someone shoulda shot," Lasley yipped in his North Carolina twang. Had any of us been in the same field with old friends, that bird absolutely died (at least it would have in the ornery group I hunt with). But most of us were newfound buddies, hunting together for only the second time, so the drake escaped.
Ontario is much different than Canada's western provinces. Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan are sparsely populated, full of endless fields of barley and peas and canola with countless potholes interspersed. Ontario is more like the Midwest. It's all corn, beans and winter wheat. And here's the best part: there are small waterways and swamps next to endless ag tracts. Which means hammering wood ducks at shooting time in dry fields.
The first morning was as epic a summer duck shoot as I've ever been on, and you can kill six here. Set up in the beans, we all stood in an A-frame blind with a runoff stream at our backs, a small sheetwater puddle about the size of a plastic kiddie swimming pool in front of us. Twenty minutes before the opening bell, the woodies showed. They were landing all over, splashing down on either side of us. And the second it was time to kill, our guide "Megabyte" Mike Coppola — because he's an I.T. nerd when not fooling ducks and geese into the decoys — told me to "kill those two woodies," and I doubled with the first shots of the trip, always a great, albeit lucky, feeling.
For the next few minutes our field was Grand Central Station for wood ducks. They were like fireflies, and it was all we could do to keep our Winchester SX4s loaded with Blind Side. Mike's young Lab Kacee was in constant motion, doing well for a green retriever. And we were all pumped to field hunt a bird that loves to land in tough-to-get-to backwaters.
We hit the 8 a.m. lull, still high on what had just transpired, when the geese began to fly, some off smaller waters, others from Lake Huron. It has been my experience in Canada that if you can flag and make a short-reed squeal, honkers will often sail right in. Well, if you come to Ontario, bring a weapon. Not your gun, but a guy that speaks honker. Luckily we had two in Mike, who has been on the stage at both the world goose and in Stuttgart for ducks, and Drew Palmer, a former college baseball jock turned outfitter. He shoots videos and photos across North America too, and can rip the guts out of a Canada goose flute and turn it into a speck call in seconds — more on that later.
One of the first honkers of the morning was wing-tipped and had to be dispatched with a final blow behind the blind, smacking into a little stream. Some guys are greenhead timber freaks, others pintails in the rice, but I've always loved to shoot geese on skinny water. That honker splashdown reminded me of home and how much fun it was going to be to watch giants bomb our little spring hole off the Illinois River in January. They get so close, you can see the panic in their eyes at shooting time.
In Ontario, the birds began skirting the edges. It was tougher than chip shots in Sask, for sure. Mike and Drew had to call until they were breathless and move decoys to get each of us our limit.
The next day brought a low-hanging fog over another kernel field, and we had hopes the geese would appear thru the mist, right at the feet of our layouts. But the honkers didn't fly until after the morning burn-off. Luke pulled geese from long distance on a windless day. Birds that looked like they were on a line for another field peeled as he made that GK short-reed sing.
Kevin had called myself and another outdoor scribe out the day before on a pair of geese that came in hot. I only needed to shoot once, but the other nervous hunter required a Hail Mary third to cripple his bird after it had shown us its belly at 10 yards. But goose karma comes in heavy doses, and I found myself getting singled out again on an easy shot. With over-confidence, I completely whiffed on a 10-pound monster, then needed a second shot from my back with the gun off my shoulder to somehow get the kill. Kevin was impressed; I was relieved (and sweaty), having almost bumbled on a bird Luke called and flagged his ass off to get in range.
On a dreary final hunt, the clouds hung low and rain spat on us as we emptied the trailer of every last one of Schereder's Canada full-bodies and old wooden silhouettes. Thousands of honkers were roosting a mile over our right shoulders, and the mob had been decimating the farmer's winter wheat.
Mike told us there was one white bird mixed in the endless stretch of feeding honkers from the scout the night before. Rare in Ontario, he had never shot a snow, and we all decided that if it showed, he would kill it. After rolling a few wood ducks, the goose flight was on, but we had a few surprise visitors — specklebellies, another rarity in these parts.
The distinct cackles echoed through the gloom, and Drew grabbed for his speck call. But it wasn't there. "Ah, I didn't bring it!" Quickly he demanded Mike hand over his flute and Drew ripped the guts out of it, slammed them in his own acrylic and started in on them. The birds circled us endlessly as stubborn specks do and landed far out in front of us.
There was momentary frustration because we had a passing shot at 40 yards, but guides like to put the birds in your face, and I am of the same opinion. If I wanted to pass shoot I'd go to the skeet range. Quickly, our attention turned to the first flock of honkers, and mixed in was Mike's Ross's goose. With no wind, the group circled us same as the specks until Drew couldn't stand it and called the shot. The white bird sailed, but landed and our two guides were out of their layouts before the Ross's webbed feet touched the ground. But as the chase ensued, that bird flapped its wings and took off for parts unknown. What an injustice for a guy who had been working so hard for us all week.
The rest of the morning sped by pretty quickly. Some flocks would land outside the spread, and a few suicidal birds came from straight behind us. Soon enough we were back in the truck and on the highway, heading for home. At the border a line of honkers waddled across the road, bringing traffic to a halt. They didn't want us to leave! Neither did I. There are few places in this world you can crack a limit of woodies and Canadas on the same hunt. And rest assured, the next black duck in my decoys is dead to rights ... no matter who I'm sharing the blind with.