By Leon Archer
Just as most outdoorsmen are getting their ice fishing gear in order and enjoying the new snowmobiling season, a cadre of diehard water fowlers are preparing for the late duck and goose season.
In the western zone of the state, ducks and geese become legal game again from Dec. 28 until Jan.12.
Lake Ontario and the largest Finger Lakes provide hot hunting on very cold days. Open streams can be great producers of puddle ducks, but the lakes will host considerable numbers of diving ducks. Those hunters who love to hunt divers are willing to put up with rotten weather, bitter cold and iced up decoys, just to bring home a few bluebills, canvasbacks, and redheads.
The Niagara River is another diving duck magnet, and so has an equally strong attraction for the cold weather hunters who pursue those hardy birds. The Niagara gets a big influx of canvasbacks, and there are hunters who wait all year for this short opportunity to match wits and skills with the reputed king of waterfowl. All the other divers are represented there, but it really is the cans that lure the hunters.
Other hunters will still be looking for Canada geese and snow geese, and a stubble field with a light dusting of snow is attractive to both hunters and geese. Mallards may also swing into a big corn field to feed. Hunters drag their layout blinds and decoys far away from roads to set up early before the birds have started to fly.
Geese usually keep a safe distance between themselves and roads. The goose hunters can get up a little later than their open water brethren, because very few geese get into the air before the sun is well up. Flights of geese may move only for a few hours in the morning, but many days they will trade from field to field most of the day.
I have hunted hunkered down in snow covered fields, and I have hunted from ice covered blinds overlooking the dark gunmetal waters of big lakes. There is a thrill and a challenge to such activity that is hard to describe or understand. I have asked myself on more than one occasion, “What the heck am I doing here?”
But when a big flock of geese swing into the wind with their feet down, talking to the decoys below, and loom huge with their wide wingspread, it all seems to become worthwhile.
At that moment, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world. The cold that had been creeping into my body disappears as I sit up and swing the barrel of my shotgun out in front of a goose clawing for altitude.
I have set decoys from a boat being rocked by waves on water that could bring on hypothermia in short order. Wearing a life jacket was a necessity on water like that, but it also helped to be just a little crazy. It also helps to be putting out decoys while it is still dark out; you don’t get a full picture of just how foolish you are being.
On the other side of the equation, late season water gunning can be some of the fastest, most challenging shooting there is. Passing shots are the rule rather than decoying birds, and unless the duck drops dead at the shot, a wounded bird can give a hunter a merry chase, out on those waves where he would rather not be.
Fortunate is the man who has a retriever he can depend on to do the job for him. But for all the discomfort and potential danger, such days will probably remain fresh and fond in a hunter’s memory as long as he lives – mine have.
For those guys who just can’t get enough, snow goose season is open until April 15. I have never shot a snow goose, and spending much of my winter in Florida does not make it likely that I ever will, but I’d sure like to have the chance at least once. You diehards will have to take a few for me.
Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.