Hunt ducks beginning Sept. 1? Experience a mixed bag of plentiful species? When looking for an early waterfowl fix, you can’t beat waterfowling in western Canada.
A handful of gadwall buzzed over our heads and spun in a tight circle to get back to our decoys. Their feet were splayed and toes dragging in the water when we stood up to open the duck season. Minutes later, seven mallards swung past the decoys, and we quickly turned four of them into floating markers on our wetland. It was a wonderful way to start the season. We shot a wide variety of ducks that morning, and never waited long between volleys.
Most waterfowl seasons in western Canada open September 1st, providing some of the earliest gunning available in North America. It’s always an exciting and important day for hunters who flock to the bigger wetlands where it’s easy to target ducks without any spotting or planning.
Hunting early season ducks is a much different game than later into the fall. The birds have dull plumage and respond in family units instead of in big flocks. Most flights are four to eight birds, with the hen doing the talking, and the rest listening. There isn’t any social chatter yet, so understanding what the birds are doing, and what they respond to, will help you find early success.
Small Decoy Sets Get Noticed. There is no magic in decoy layouts for early season birds. Place decoys in small groups to imitate family units feeding, loafing or resting together. These groups gather in prime locations or are concentrated by weather. A dozen, or two, floating decoys on your favorite wetland will consistently bring birds to the gun. In most cases, the local birds are flying over or headed to an area where they’ve been before. A little scouting before the season opener will quickly tell you where birds are flocked up or concentrated.
Running Hen Decoys Pays. Most all of the early birds are drab in color, and the best way to draw them close is with decoys that look much the same. Avian-X early season mallard decoys are indicative of early season plumage, or you can also use your hen decoys exclusively, as they will look very similar to young drakes and provide a natural look to your flock.
Mixed Bags Are The Rule. The prairie provinces, often referred to as the “bread basket” of Canada, act as a catch net with productive wetlands and feeding opportunities for ducks to fatten up along their migration. Many of the birds are raised locally, but an incredible number also nest and fledge young in the boreal forest region located farther north. Many of North America’s wigeon, green-winged teal, mallards and other dabblers originate in the boreal region.
Finding Beauty In Early Hunts. There are some hunters who don’t want to shoot ducks until they are fully feathered and sporting prime plumage. The problem with waiting for colorful feathers is half the season will be over in the north. Shooting drab birds means you will have a mixed bag of drakes and hens, but the law of averages means you never hit the hens too hard. Consider our goose hunting opportunities—we can’t hold out for just males, but that doesn’t stop us from hunting them, and it hasn’t hindered their populations. That said, I still target greenheads whenever I can spot one.
Teal, gadwall, shoveler, pintail, and mallard broods are all fledged and regularly exercising their wings to build strength and stamina for the migration ahead. Most dabblers are still feeding exclusively on the water and opening-day hunts for local hunters usually consist of a dozen floaters set close to shore. Lots of the ducks will have left the small potholes and drifted to mid-sized wetlands. Go Easy On The Calling. Calling is something that often makes hunters feel good about their skills. However, at this time of year, there is very little chatter amongst the family waterfowl groups; most dialogue is between a hen and her grown brood. Calling typically works as a confidence card when hunting most any duck, so it certainly can play a role in producing more fly-bys, or birds to look at your decoys. However, early season calling should never be aggressive, as the birds are not nearly as responsive as later in the fall when hormones start to dictate social interactions. Keep An Eye On Local Farm Fields. Dabblers that feed on crops make their transition from wetland vegetation to grains as soon as crops are swathed for harvest. Peas are often swathed as early as August, giving ducks a head start on high-protein feeds. When the ducks do get in these first-cut fields, they are usually mixed with local geese, and early migrants out of the Arctic.
During the first two weeks of September, most of the duck flights into a pea or barley field are small flocks. They still consist of a single family, or two, traveling together, but this is the start of a big social change for the birds. They mix on the ground in greater numbers and often take off in large flocks to head back to roost, where they disperse back into family units. By the end of the second week in September, you can see the melding of birds into larger flocks on a regular basis, and family groups are no longer identifiable.
Lean On The HuntStand App. Whether you are shooting over water or in a field, the newest measuring feature on your HuntStand app will help you set up where the ducks are in range. Measuring distance, down to the yard, you can place decoys and blinds to know your shooting distances. Using features in a field you can ensure your decoys are all set within 40 or 50 yards, to know birds are in range once they hit the edge of your spread. I like to place decoys at specific ranges to get a quick reference on incoming birds.
The accurate weather forecasting of the HuntStand app, including wind direction, will help you find the quiet shorelines where birds like to stay out of the wind, and where they will be feeding or loafing on wetlands. Whether on the water or in a field, the app’s helpful Set Zone feature will let you know exactly where to place your decoys to position incoming birds in your face.
Checking your ScoutLook Logs can help you predict when and where birds will be on the water to feed and rest. After accessing your historical info, you can instantly check the current weather forecast to fine-tune your setup locations. Especially helpful is knowing when the birds will want to be out of the wind, or looking for cover. For example, if you find birds using a particular wetland wedge during an unusually strong north wind, chances are the next time there are similar conditions, the birds will be back. Log it and learn!
The Magic Of Transition Day. There is a magical day on or near the 10th of October when you will bag your first drake mallard sporting his full palette of eye-catching colors. The head will glow iridesent green and purple, and the curls in his tail will twist around to touch his back. This transition date seldom changes from year to year, and is the turning point when serious duck hunters start gunning for those valuable limits of green.
Early Challenges. Be forewarned, the days are extremely long this time of year and getting set up for first light often means a nasty 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 be sure to pack your Thermacell unit…or two. Check your HuntStand app for daily mosquito reports so you’re not caught off guard.
Early Rewards. Where else but in Canada can you hunt ducks this early in North America? There are always lots of birds north of the border, and they decoy extremely well, having not yet been hunted. With seasons in the southern states months away, why not head north for an early-season warm up.