“Life in the Fast Lane” was a song made popular by The Eagles in the 1970’s, a rocking tune on the Hotel California album. If there was a song that could describe the late waterfowl seasons that opened up early this week (Dec. 31, 2016), this one should be at or near the top of the list. The second-half split to the duck and goose seasons are underway and quite often the action is fast and furious. It is, quite often, an intense situation under extreme weather conditions.
“I love the late season,” says Nick Calandrelli of Lewiston, a second generation charter captain who lives the outdoor life to the max. “We usually have the most action this time of year and it involves lots of shooting. Whether it’s targeting diver ducks in the Upper River like canvasbacks, redheads, bluebills and whistlers, or the Lower River and Lake Ontario for sea ducks like long tails (Old Squaw) and white-winged scoters, the experience is exciting, rewarding and fun.”
Making the decision as to whether he’s going to hunt the Upper River (above Niagara Falls) or Lower River depends partially on the weather. The wind is not your friend if you are hunting the lower river and Lake Ontario, although some wind is good. Overcast conditions are best for either location. The best place to be for sea duck hunting is in Lake Ontario around the Niagara Bar area and to the east. This is boat hunting and wing shooting at its finest.
“Using a layout boat made for waterfowl hunting gives you a bit of an advantage but it’s not essential,” says Calandrelli, a Pro Staffer for Quaker Boy Game Calls of Orchard Park. “I just use my 18-foot Lund Pro-V. I dress up in camouflage and my decoy spread is relatively simple. I’ll use around a dozen decoys – pintails that I’ve hand painted to look like long tails and finished off with a couple of white-winged scoters – that I’ve all connected in a string. I start out seeing how the boat is going to drift before I set out the string off the port or starboard side of the stern. The decoys will be 25 to 30 yards behind the boat.”
“Even before I put out the decoys, though, I will pay close attention to how the birds are flying on any given day. They will usually establish some type of a flight pattern and I will try and set myself up to be in the best position possible for success.”
In addition to a reliable boat and warm clothes, his tool of the trade include a Super Black Eagle shotgun with extended range choke. His preferred ammunition is 3-inch Snow Goose Black Cloud with No. 2 steel shot, a combination that can really “reach out a touch farther than other loads.”
Once you are in place and everything is set, sit very still … and keep your eyes open. These birds are fast moving and the experience can be very humbling. The key is to give the birds an adequate lead before pulling the trigger, keeping the gun moving. “If you think you have a long enough lead, double it,” says Calandrelli, who has been duck hunting since he was 12. “A lead of 12 feet or more is not uncommon, especially if there’s wind to take into consideration. Like figuring out the flight patterns, the entire day is based on trial and error.”
If you are out in the lake or in the river, pay attention to your surroundings – you don’t want to venture over into Canadian waters. And if the lake kicks up and it gets too rough (sighting in on ducks flying that fast is complicated further by a bouncing boat), you can always slide into the Niagara River for some drifting. A word of caution: make sure you abide by the rules. A small game license, Federal duck stamp and Harvest Information Program number are all required. You must use non-toxic shot and your gun can’t hold more than three shells. You can’t use your boat to send birds in flight. If you are chasing down a cripple, the motor must be shut off and the boat needs to cease motion. It may be time to revisit changing this regulation because of the current of the Niagara River.
A boat isn’t required for hunting ducks in the Lower River or Lake Ontario. You can hunt from land at Joseph Davis, Fort Niagara, Wilson-Tuscarora and Golden Hill state parks. The last two lottery draws for blinds will take place on Jan. 5 and 12 at the Fort Niagara State Park Maintenance Building at 6:30 p.m. You must have a waterfowl identification class certification. A dog or a boat is needed for bird retrievals.
Upper Niagara River Tips
Calandrelli’s favorite area to hunt late season ducks is around Grand Island in the Upper River from his boat. For this particular hunt, he constructs some kind of a makeshift blind in the boat and ties the boat off to a dock, wall or posts/pilings that he can easily detach to chase downed birds. Sometimes he brings a dog along if he doesn’t want to move the boat around too much. If at all possible, he wants his back to the wind.
Once he finds his spot, it’s a little trickier to lay out a decoy spread. He’ll set out about 10 dozen decoys using a mixture of all the aforementioned diver ducks, as well as some mallards. “Make up an opening for ducks to land into,” says Calandrelli. “Quite often these birds will decoy nicely into our set. It helps to gauge your shooting range by where you set the decoys out.” Calling helps pull the birds in, too, something the 25 year old Calandrelli is proficient at – a chip off the old block. “I learned much of this from my dad (Ernie), as well as from the many others I hunted with over the years.”
Like the Lower River, shoreline blinds are available along Beaver Island State Park, West River Parkway, Strawberry Island and Motor Island. Lottery drawings take place every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in the basement of the Beaver Island Casino at 6:30 p.m. sharp. For more information call 773-3271 during regular business hours. The season closes on Jan. 15.
If you want to see what life is like in the fastlane during a Western New York winter, try waterfowl hunting. It’s not for fair weather sportsmen and women; and it’s not for the faint of heart.