The sunrise was beautiful. That was the first thing we noticed as we laid in a ditch awaiting the first flight of birds to take to the air. It was the waterfowl opener for ducks and geese and we were prepared for the latter. However, with plenty of ducks around in area waters, we didn’t rule out the bonus option of a mallard, pintail or whatever. It had happened before.
We had arrived just after 5:30 a.m. to a Niagara County field that had been holding large numbers of Canada geese. Our crew of bird chasers included John Van Hoff and Randy Tyrrell of North Tonawanda, Bob Lods of Cheektowaga and Paul Sawicki of Angola and there were over 2,000 honkers in the field the previous morning. “It should be a quick hunt,” said Van Hoff as we placed over 100 goose decoys in the field around where we would be positioned in our layout blinds. “The conditions are perfect.” I was thinking he just jinxed us.
With legal sunrise scheduled for 7:45 a.m., legal shooting time would be 7:15 a.m. We were ready by 7 a.m., exchanging hunting stories and friendly jabs at one another while we waited. The excitement was starting to build as we scanned the skies for flying birds and listened for their unmistakable call. Many times we hear them before we see them.
As the sun slowly peaked through the clouds in the east, we noticed a rainbow to the west and another to the north. There was a light breeze out of the east, too, giving us the advantage of both the sun and wind at our backs as we faced west. Things were shaping up exactly the way we had planned. Someone forgot to tell the birds.
The first flock of birds came from the north, a bit of an unusual direction for us. We were ready. However, they didn’t come within range. Instead, they landed in the field just outside of our decoy spread. We needed to scare them up and get them out of there before more geese did the same thing. Van Hoff stood up and waved his arms. As soon as he did, the birds took flight and headed back from the way they came … except for one. That bird swung around and tried to land in our designated hunting opening between the decoys. One bird down, 24 to go based on a five-bird per-person limit. We were in the South Area for geese. If were were further to the east in the West-Central area, the limit would have been three birds per person. That was one of the reasons we selected this field.
After the initial birds came right to us, we were encouraged and expected that it would continue. As the morning slowly passed, we watched a small buck move across an open field. It didn’t know it was being watched by five waterfowl hunters just 200 yards away. Then again, with the rut coming into its own, the buck probably had other things on its mind. It was another example of morning entertainment that many people would never witness. You need to be outside enjoying our natural resources to see these little gifts of nature. It’s a common bond shared by hunters and fishermen all across this continent.
Waterfowl populations going into this season were still very encouraging. Overall populations of ducks were estimated at 47.3 million birds for 2017. While this is down a million birds from last year, it is still 34 percent higher than the long-term average (1955-2016) based on a population status conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It will help them to determine hunting seasons in 2018-19. For a full copy of the 84-page report, go to https://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/pdf/surveys-and-data/Population-status/Waterfowl/WaterfowlPopulationStatusReport17.pdf.
One of the most significant changes is with the American black duck limit. After more than 30 years of a one-bird daily limit, New York waterfowlers will now be able to harvest two per day due to improved biological data and declining hunter numbers. This is part of your daily limit of six birds. That limit can have in combination no more than four mallards (two of which may be hens), three wood ducks, one pintail, two scaup, two redheads, two canvasbacks, two scoters, two eiders, two long-tailed ducks, two hooded mergansers or the two black ducks mentioned earlier.
With Canada goose numbers, the state estimates our resident population to be roughly 240,000 birds. This does not reflect on migratory populations of these birds that pass through each fall heading south. Hunting availability should be about the same for those flight birds. We continued to be hopeful as we saw birds start to take flight to the northeast. We were ready.
As we waited patiently, we talked about the possibility of taking a banded bird. Harvesting a bird sporting some leg jewelry is a bit of a prize. Due to budget cuts and reduced numbers of tags being reported, everything is now online at https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/BBL/bblretrv/ to report a banded duck or goose. The toll-free number has been discontinued.
We sat in the field watching flight after flight of geese take to the air and land in a field across the road. Once the first couple of flocks landed and settled in – a brand new cut corn field more recent than the one we were sitting/laying in – it was a beacon for the others to follow suit. Flocks of 50 to 100 birds waffled their way into that field for over an hour. It didn’t matter if we called or flagged to get their attention, it looked like the morning was over. With rain scheduled to come in by 11 a.m., we decided to pick up our decoys in an attempt to avoid getting wet.
Just like the mantra for a new business is “location, location, location,” it also applies for waterfowl hunting. You need to be where the birds want to be. And just when you think you have everything figured out, the birds throw you a curve ball that you just can’t hit. I was more of a fastball hitter.
We are blessed to have some outstanding waterfowl hunting in Western New York. Give it a try some time. Do your homework and figure out where the birds want to be on any given day. Just remember it’s not an absolute. There are no “sure things” in nature. All in all, though, it was still a great morning. Hopefully we will do better next time.