Friday, August 26, 2011

Counting Lunacy!

Here I sit just a few short days (thirteen to be precise) away from the start of goose season in my neck of the woods; for some of you in my province, the fun begins again on September 1st, and you have no idea how I envy you.

This is usually the weekend when my goose hunting putterings reach a fever pitch.  This year is likely to be no exception.  I'll clean my shotgun, put in the correct choke, lay out or pack almost all of my gear, and then obsessively go through it every day until it is time to get out there.  If you're like me (and there is a reasonable chance that in some ways you might be) this meandering and pointless busy work serves to soothe twitching nerves that have been stretched thin by the prospect of goose hunting.  Or maybe you are normal, and this isn't you at all.

Fair enough.

For me though, this year brings new anticipation.  On Sunday, my layout blind is being delivered.  Oh glorious day.  Yep, I caved in and bought one.  Now I get to do what is really the most thrilling although in truth, penultimate, act: assembly.  I think I'll do this in my basement, so that it is out of sight of my loving wife and away from the tender ears of my son, since I will invariably get frustrated, lose something, or end up being a general sweary and unpleasant character until it is completely put together.

But then...oh then.  I'll of course shout like a five year old for everyone to come down and look at me as I lay there in it.  Maybe I'll do a jack-in-the-box (or Shawn-in-the-blind, if you will) trick and try to surprise my son until he wets himself, although that is a pretty common occurrence, so it's not really much of an accomplishment, but still.  I'll then have my wife takes some pictures, I'll probably at least put on hunting coat while I lay there in the blind (for research purposes only you see) and I most certainly will hide in it, close the doors, and practice my goose calling.  Hell, I may even try sleeping in it...just...ya know...for research again.

At some point I'll break it down and try to stuff it into my comically undersized commuter car, just to make sure it transports well.  If it doesn't fit, then bungee cords and old blankets will be packed in the same clown-car so as to allow for the new toy to join me on all future hunting trips; I'm sure my co-workers in the Toronto-area will have never seen anything quite like it.

Oh, yeah.  Somewhere in there on Sunday I'll need to run the BBQ for my son's 2nd birthday party.  Maybe I'll assemble the blind first and put it in the backyard so the other toddlers can play with it.  It will be just like an amusement park.  I'll put some decoys around, blow my duck and goose calls, and fun will be had by all.

I may even charge admission.

Then I'll have a couple of burgers, some cake and ice cream, giggle like a pre-teen, tell some jokes, and generally enjoy my son's big day.

Then hours later, after everyone has left and while my house lay in the tattered aftermath of a toddler's birthday party, I may return to the basement, grab a beer, put on some huntin' songs and go through my goose hunting checklist once more.  All while laying in my new blind.

This season better open soon.  I'm in very real danger of losing my mind (or my wife, but I could probably always find another one of those).

Seriously, though, all the anticipation and build-up is just one facet of what makes it great to be a hunter.  I hope everyone is savouring this next couple of weeks as much as I am.  And by the way, to my dearest spouse, you're a great sport...please don't leave me.  I'll be all better in two weeks time and then things will be back to normal.  Promise.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Taboo of the Day: A Limit on “The Limit”?

A subscriber from the mid-Western United States emailed me the other day inquiring about why I had not posted anything recently on “Taboo of the Day”; it was a politely worded letter with good humour, they even remarked (jokingly, I suspect) that they hoped that I hadn’t “gotten soft” on challenging issues.

So with that in mind, I’ll now try to excrete out a few words on what I feel is the most challenging issue: bag limits.

“Bag limit”, in my definition,  is a catch all term referring to the maximum number of game animals of a given species that a hunter can harvest in a given period (day, season, and so on).  There are also possession bag limits referring to how many harvested animals an individual can have in their general possession (i.e. in their freezer or on their general person).  Of course I’m sure this is far from a definitive interpretation and you would all do well to clarify any questions you may have about what defines the periodic and possession bag limits for anything you plan on hunting with a qualified local professional (i.e. a state or provincial game warden or conservation officer).

I’m not going to go into the biological or economic aspects of this debate: reams of paper have been written about this by writers and professionals with far, far more expertise than I.  There are certainly many factors at play when it comes to balancing the economic benefits provided by hunting with the obvious necessities of wildlife conservation and management.  (yes, hunters are customers too, and we spend a whole pile of money on conservation through private donation and through the purchase of hunting licenses and game seals, not to mention capital invested in private enterprise in the form of hunting lodges, equipment manufacturers, restaurants and the like) Like I said, I have an empirical grounding in that field (my dear old Dad was a 30 year employee of Ducks Unlimited Canada and, coincidentally, a passionate hunter and conservationist so by the default process of osmosis I picked up a smattering of basic knowledge when it comes to general wildlife biology/ecology) but my professional training in things like carrying capacity, population density, reproductive responses to increased mortality, and the like is basically non-existent so instead of crunching numbers, I’m going to speak instead about the more nebulous philosophical and historical applications of the concept of “limiting out”.  This I know a fair deal about.  A warning off the hop; get ready.  This is going to be pretty long and chances are you’re going to disagree with at least a few of my thoughts.  The important thing is that we’re having this dialogue.

There were heady days in the past when there was no such thing as a bag limit.  Market hunting was a lucrative and widespread practice and the sheer volume of death that professional gunners rained down on all game species was, to a modern perception, staggering.  To paraphrase a far too often cited colloquialism; it was what it was.  When you made your living and fed your family off the money you made hunting it was a matter of course that you be exceedingly efficient.  Again, numerous grainy black and white photos show old salts of the Eastern Seaboard with daily kill number in the high dozens and into the hundreds. Even the most ardent historical apologist cringes at the thought of what that kind of sustained pressure would do the resource.  Not surprisingly, populations of some species at the time were very near to total collapse.  Of course market hunters were not the only factor in depletion; hunters from all areas of the spectrum (from wealthy club owners to subsistence hunters) and from coast to coast were more or less policing themselves.  I have an anthology of hunting stories where in one article an author of that era (i.e. late 19th or early 20th Century) mentions shooting a hawk (or an owl?  I can’t exactly recall) while out duck hunting; presumably because hawks have been known to kill ducks and it was perfectly acceptable at that time to not only shoot any other natural predators of the game you were pursuing but to write about your proficiency in doing so.  Of course the dwindling of the hunting resources could not all be laid at the feet of market and recreational sportsmen; people who had never set foot in a marsh or forest were (and still are for a large part of it) at the very least equally responsible for wildlife destruction through unabated habitat drainage and deforestation, urban sprawl, and general environmental deterioration in the form of pollution and human expansion into rural or wilderness areas, with the wild places almost always coming out for the worse.

So that’s a brief (and wholly glib) historical primer of what life was like before bag limits.  This contributed to the reduction or outright extirpation of many species in North America.  There’s so much more information on this subject, but that is for another time.  I have to get where I’m going with this. 

Now we have (for almost every hunted species) a bag limit.  That is to say that we have a government-agency-imposed maximum on how exactly what and how many of something we can kill.  And that is good.  Some consider that to be a gross over-involvement of the authorities in the hunter’s own personal freedoms and choices.  Others quibble over the specific criteria of what data should contribute to defining a bag limit.  Others ignore them outright.  These points are what I’m here to talk about.  Those and what we as hunters at large can do with and about bag limits.

The first thing we can do with a bag limit is respect it.  It is there, if for nothing else, to err on the side of caution when it comes to hunting.  Bag limits are designed for conservation, and if anything every hunter in North America (if not globally) should be intensely focused on conservation efforts above all else.   Respecting a bag limit means many things.

It means having a plan.  Some bag limits are difficult to shoot over, unless of course you intend to shoot over it. For example, if you have a tag to shoot one moose in a given season and you go out and shoot two, you’ve done something wrong.  Ditto when it comes to gender-specificity in tags.  If your licence says “one bearded turkey” and you shoot one without a beard, the onus is on you.  I won’t even begin to go into the mind-boggling idiocy that must exist out there that requires the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to require a primer on the physical identification of the differences between a moose, a white-tailed deer, and an elk (the latter being recently restored to Ontario for limited hunting).  But I digress; back to having a plan.  Other limits are a bit tricky.  If you’re party hunting waterfowl, thing can get a bit interesting as you approach a bag limit.  After all, shotguns have been known on occasion to take multiple birds with one shot and sometimes not everyone is clear on how many birds have actually come to hand.  This is where being rational and exercising some judgment can be indispensable.  The best way to avoid over-shooting a limit (especially in a group situation) is to put your weapon away when you have personally hit the individual bag limit.  That is simple enough, but it does not control others from going over, and by default putting your whole party into illegal territory.  Another approach to think about is to stop and do a physical count.  Works every time, but it too requires a plan.  Count how many ducks and/or geese you have shot and see how close to the limit you are.  If you are three or fewer birds from a limit, put a plan in place.  Some hunters I’ve talked to just pack it in there (more on that in a minute) and thus avoid even the slightest risk of over-shooting.  That’s a very effective plan.  Others institute an order and volume in which hunters can shoot; this generally works too.  For example, if a group has three birds left until they limit out they may institute a “singles only” approach where groups of birds that number more than three are not shot at.  They may say only one person at a time can shoot at the waterfowl, and so on.  The act of being aware of the limit is a good defense to staying within it.  Sometimes even planning can be tricky, in the case of party hunting pheasants, rabbits, or even deer.  For this reason some (my deer-hunting group for example) use short wave radios to stay in touch.  For my group, if we only have one antlerless deer tag, we want to let everyone in the party know if one is down.  Short wave radios tuned to a private channel achieves this more or less seamlessly.

But as I mentioned above, why even risk it sometimes?  Think about this for a second.  In fact let’s do a brief thought experiment.

In Ontario, limits on Canada geese are ‘liberal’ to say the least.  In some periods of the season (in certain parts of the province) you can kill ten geese a day per person, up to a one-person possession limit of twenty-four birds.  For snow geese the limit is twenty a day up to a possession of sixty.  I don’t care who you are, either way that’s a stack of goose meat.  Now on any given day I’m usually out goose hunting with at least three other hunters (it is just that labour intensive that going alone is usually too much of a baffling ordeal, what with blinds, decoys, and other paraphernalia).  So let’s just say the four of us go out and we can shoot ten Canada geese each (for the sake of using round numbers).  Max limit is forty for the day.  A couple of hours later we’re sitting with 36 birds.  No one has individually limited out, and things have slowed down.  Then a group of geese appears as a thin line on the horizon, before we know it they are barreling into the setup, well within range.  We haven’t spoken at all about a plan of attack.  If you’re with me, do we shoot them and go for the limit, or do we stand up, spook them off and just pack it in?

I know my answer.  My gun would have been cased long before we reached thirty birds, and that is because I don’t require the validation of “limiting out” to define successful hunting.  I think you’d be hard pressed to find a rational person out there who would consider forty dead geese a more successful hunt than thirty-six( or even twenty for that matter), and I’m both not interested in risking going over the limit and not fulfilled by any chest-slapping machismo associated with shooting the highest legal number of geese available to me.  It does not make me a better or worse hunter, or person in general, and I hold no negative judgment for anyone who needs or wants to shoot the limit.  All I’m questioning is the necessity of that act.  But go over the limit, and I definitely have a problem with that.

Likewise (and again I’m using Ontario examples here) a hunter can, in some areas, purchase additional white-tailed deer tags above the one provided with your licence purchase.  At one time (I don’t hunt in one of these areas, so I’m not certain what it is currently) hunters could shoot six (!) additional white-tailed deer.  That means seven white-tailed deer in total for those of you who (like me) are intermittently math-impaired.  Which again begs the question, is this really necessary?

Now I know that bag limits are effective both in species conservation and in species control, and this glut of tags (like the high bag limits on Canada and snow geese) fall more on the “population control” side of the equation, but when I first heard about the multiple deer tags years ago, and subsequently read some of the reports and comments from hunters who had actually taken multiple deer I was disappointed to say the least.  Some people are just ‘yee-haw’ hunters (as I call them) who really had no interest in doing anything other than killing…one said in a chat room that he didn’t even really care for the taste of venison; this in a caption below a photo of his garage where five gutted deer hung from a cross-beam.  Others, notably a couple I speak to regularly, shot multiple deer and rather sheepishly confessed that they ended up throwing out venison by the summertime because it had become freezer-burnt.  They literally shot more than they could eat.  I wonder despairingly how many bungs of goose sausage or vacuum-sealed bags of moose pepperettes meet the same fate across the nation?  Not to mention game animals that are killed and left simply to rot by wasteful, irresponsible, clumsy, or scared hunters.  And I’m not being an alarmist or a pessimist; I’ve seen it reported and I’ve seen evidence of it in the field.

High bag limits offer limitless good; they provide opportunities afield, they allow more people to access and fall in love with the tradition of hunting, and they are a sign of wildlife abundance that gives credence and validation to the good work and conservation efforts of millions of men and women nationwide.  In almost all cases the ecology is closely monitored to ensure that it can sustain the pressure exerted by hunting, so high bag limits or no bag limits in the case of some super-abundant species (like coyotes in some areas of Ontario, for example) do not pose a threat to the existence of any animal species. 

But what I’ve outlined above is the ugly side of high bag limits, and we have to look at it and discuss it.  A head buried in the sand or immediate, irrational, and violently defensive reactions both seem exponentially counter-productive.  But even more than dialogue about it, in my mind, is that we have to synthesize a remedy for it.

That is because we as hunters, more than any other group of outdoor enthusiasts, are judged by the outcomes of our actions.  There is no ‘catch-and-release’ in hunting, and in my humble opinion, there never should be.  While we walk  many of the same trails as recreational hikers and share the land with bird-watchers and equestrian enthusiasts, we are permanently and perhaps justifiably labeled as some of the only true human ‘consumers’ of the wilderness resources.  For every fellow-hunter who is impressed by the photo of the limit of mallards you and your friends managed to take, there is another person who wishes to abolish hunting outright using your example as an evidence of excess.  It seems that this is just the way of things in this age, and that is fine, but that ultimately means that we have a responsibility to ensure that the outcomes of our actions align with our goals.  If the goal that we are aiming for, and telling the non-hunting world that we stand for, is truly resource conservation, protection, and long-term hunting opportunities for all, whether it is for self-interested reasons or for the goal of population rejuvenation, we have to behave responsibly.  I don’t want lower bag limits; I want common sense (in some cases the rarest of things) to occasionally intervene. 

We had once shot a six man limit of Canada geese, on a day when the limit was only three birds each (two weeks earlier it had been eight birds each and we had not even come close to half a limit).  It was a perfect day.  Day broke sunny and cool (but not too cold) in the east, and we had great flights of geese coming from all directions and almost all were dropping in to our spread as if they had never seen decoys so real or heard calling so sweet.  We reached the limit in 45 minutes and the birds were so keen on our set up that they were cartwheeling out of the sky and trying to land around us while we picked up decoys and took pictures.  I’d never seen anything like it before, and I haven’t seen it since.  It was truly a memorable day and looking around I could tell that a small part of all of us just wanted to keep gunning.  I personally could have eaten more than three geese in short order (i.e. two weeks or less) and my freezer could have held more.  But of course, we packed it in.  It had been a good day, and taking even one bird too many would have been a blemish on the stories, whether we got caught or not.  We laughed, made some remarks about the rarity of days like the one we had just experienced, and then went and had a hot breakfast where we re-lived the whole morning.  We could have gone on shooting and it is likely that no one would have known.  But we’d have known and it would have made it a bad experience.  And that is the sacrifice it takes to not be part of the over-shooting minority whose actions can tarnish the good name of the majority.

No one should be lauded for just doing the right thing; unfortunately when it comes to bag limits sometimes the right thing and doing what the law says you can do are not necessarily congruent.   There are days, like the one above, where you shoot the limit and want to keep going.  There are other days when the limit is an unattainable goal.  And then there are days when you have to take that approach that just because something is allowed, it does not mean you need to do it.  Which sometimes means putting the gun or the bow away and only taking what you can reasonably consume, and sometimes it means taking even less than that.  Go ahead and shoot the limit if you want to, but do so after some consideration.  Thinking only takes a few seconds, and you may conclude that today you just a little meat for the larder, and not a full limit.  Other times you may feel the limit is not enough and you complain that it should be higher.  It happens, and you have to make a decision.  Only you, and sometimes a warden, can determine if you made the right one.

I’m fairly confident that we are not going to wake up tomorrow and find all of our historical rights and privileges wiped out.  No agency, in North America at least, would do to dispense with the literally billions of dollars that hunters pour out of their wallets and into conservation and ancillary businesses; there is strength in our numbers in this respect.  Because of this, for you and I there will be other days to hunt.  But a little self-control when it comes to shooting the limit will only go to ensuring that there may always be ‘other days to hunt’.

Monday, August 22, 2011

When Calling May Not Be My Calling

Saturday, August 20th saw me standing with twelve other hopefuls at the Canadian Open Goose Calling Championship.  We were milling around a boat that was on display next to the contest stage, most (myself included) were holding their goose calls in their hands and chatting perfunctorily with the other contestants.  Already it was kind of apparent who the threats were.  The group of five or six guys with the official call-company t-shirts and camo hats that all apparently knew each other from their goose-call sponsorship deals, guiding jobs, and the contest calling circuit were clearly the unofficial front-runners.  For me and the other seven guys, well, let’s say that it wasn’t hopeless but it was clearly going to be daunting.  In whispers behind the stage we all cracked some jokes, talked about what calls we owned, where we hunted, and other various pieces of hunting-specific small talk.

Surprisingly, wine and classical music never came up once the whole time I was there.

Unlike anything else “competitive” I’ve ever been at though, there was no intimidation, no brash and over-the-top warm-up routines, no clique-ish airs.  Just a bunch of guys who all like calling geese, some more or less amateur, and others clearly what you could liberally describe as pros just standing around shooting the breeze and waiting to get up and do their routines.

I saw some call brands I recognized.  I saw one brand I’d never seen before (more on that below).  One guy (arguably the oldest contestant) had a young-looking black Lab with him; the dog’s lead looped securely through the man’s left hip belt loop.  The dog was placid and immaculately well-behaved, which was nice to see.

We drew numbers from a bucket to determine our order.  In some bizarre cosmic comedy, I always seem to end up drawing to call first at these contests (up until Saturday I’d called first in every duck, goose, or turkey calling contest I’d entered) but this time I drew to call eleventh out of the thirteen guys.  Not too shabby, I thought.

Then some of the guys got up on stage and started making a serious racket.  And, for me at least, that was when the very small sliver of hope I had for winning this thing vanished, and survival instincts kicked in.  Now I’d been practicing, but it was obvious that the sounds I was making and the sounds that these cats were throwing down were very different.  Continuity turned out to be the key.  I made (generally) the same sounds that these other guys made, but they strung their clucks, moans, barks, bawls, murmurs, and the very effective (but also tough to master) train notes together so seamlessly, and with such ease that it really was beautiful…if you appreciate those kinds of things.  Me?  Well I was fast, and kind of all over the place.  In practice I could draw the routine out to a full 80 or 90 seconds (which is right around the max) but in competition I was done inside of 70 seconds.  Not that I was nervous…but I did get a bit excited.

As I’d said…perhaps I was overly-optimistic to think I could win, but making it out of the preliminary heat was my minimum goal.  Once I saw who was calling 10th though (read: right before me) I was pretty certain that I was buggered.  Calling right ahead of me was Josh Brugmans; a nice, down to earth guy who I’ve talked with once or twice, who just happens to be a goose-guide and top level caller with three or four contest wins since 2008 under his belt.  He had just won the Old Man Flute contest half-an-hour before and had given me a thorough beat down (proverbially) the one other time I called in a contest against him (in 2008 at the Southwestern Ontario Calling Classic, an event he coincidentally won that year).  And in the first round on Saturday he basically did what he always does and called really well…at least to my ears.  He would end up finishing third overall, which gives you an idea of the caliber of the other callers there Saturday as well.

So there I was, ascending the stage not as Shawn West but as the anonymous Caller #11, right after a top-class caller had just done his very proficient thing.  In fact, there were no nerves at all.  I felt the pressure was off, and all I could do was get up and let slide.  I elected to take my ten second warm up…no problem, no wonky sounds.  I nodded to the MC and he gave the word that this time it was for the real thing.  And off I went.  I hit every note I wanted to, and I hit them in order.  About the time I was doing my laydown work, I noticed that the red-light that signals the very near end of the 90 seconds had not come on yet.  Only then was I slightly panicked.  It was obvious that in my excitement I’d moved through my routine much too quickly (go ahead, make your inappropriate jokes now) and was in jeopardy of finishing far too early.  But I was also out of ideas, and anything else I called would have been repetitious, so I wrapped things up.

I got some approving nods and “nice calling” remarks when I returned to the group of contestants, and one of the guys eliminated in my round sought me out later and asked about a call I had made and how he could do it too, which was nice.  Still, when the MC went through the list of the six numbered callers that were advancing; number eleven was not among them.  Such is life.

They whittled the thirteen down to six, and then down to four.  In the final four, they actually had a call-off for first place, with two guys (I don’t know either of their names, sorry) having to blow through their routines again before a winner was announced.  I believe the same call maker swept the final four and therefore the podium, which is good for them if true, but then again I didn’t formally interview the four finalists to find out what call they were blowing so I could be wrong on that front.  I was hoping to do my part and put a Tim Grounds call in there, but was unsuccessful…due more to operator deficiencies than any intrinsic problem with the manufacturer; eight world titles for Tim Grounds calls more or less speak for themselves and do much more justice to the standard of this particular product than my ham-fisted and weak-lunged attempts at contest calling could.

One brand of calls I had never even heard of, but that sounded really, really good (again in the hands of competent operators) was a homegrown Ontario product called Schuyler Goose Calls.  Made in Port Dover, Ontario and limited to a run of 200 calls manufactured per year, they sounded very good, as I said, but they also looked really sexy too (and don’t act like flashy looks aren’t important to a goose hunter).  The one guy blowing this call in my division (caller #6, I believe) was also a nice, approachable guy with very good things to say about the call and the call-maker; he advanced into the second round but did not make the final four.   My take away was that this was obviously a well-constructed, locally manufactured and tuned product with good sound and a catchy but functional design; check out the website here if you want to look into the product.

Family commitments drew me away from sticking around to see the outcome of the Senior Duck Calling Contest (with the winner qualifying for the Worlds in Stuttgart, Arkansas) and also of the Two-Man Goose Calling Contest, so if you’re seeking news on the victors in those competitions, might I suggest you slide on over to the Contest Calendar section of one of my preferred websites

As for me, far from wallowing in self-pity and discouragement, I’m galvanized anew.  I picked up some very good sounds that I can use on the real thing in a couple of weeks when the season kicks off down here in Southern Ontario in just under 20 days, I had a good time, I talked to some friends I had not seen in a while, and maybe made one or two new ones.

But that brings us to the final question: will I compete again?  Maybe, but for now I think I’ll stick to this semi-anonymous, self-directed writing gig.  Because like my goose-calling, I’m just proficient enough at this to be entertaining and get the job done, but maybe not quite good enough to take on the world just yet.

Now if only I could master that train-note…

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Few Observations About Winnipeg

So I’m in the ‘Peg for a couple of days, and I thought I’d run down a few things that I’ve noticed and or seen while here.

The Red River
This is literally outside my door.  The hotel that I’m at is less than fifty steps from the Red River, which is all fine and dandy right now, but during flood season…well who knows?  Then again, I’m not here during flood season, as evidenced by the fact that I walked down to the banks (which in reality is just a shallow slope into the waters) and stood for a minute or two next to the quiet, stoic peacefulness of one of the nation’s iconic rivers.  As if through fate (but more likely through their sheer population density around here it seems) a group of ten or twelve Canada Geese paddled by.  It was nice and rather tranquil, so I lingered until they got up and flew a scant twenty feet over my head.

Related to the above point, there is an embarrassment of riches in the area as it pertains to waterfowl.  I’ve seen as many ducks and geese in two days here than I had in the past month in Cambridge.  Not surprising since I’m only about an hour or so away from Oak Hammock Marsh and some other prime wetlands that are (in a good way) basically duck factories.  Really makes me want to get out and get after them in a couple of week’s time.  SO that’s what I’ll do when the season opens.

Pizza Hotline
Apparently, so I've been told, if you dial 222-2222 here in town you get yourself connected to some kind of pizza-ordering hub.  I haven’t tried it but it is certainly tempting…and it sounds ingenious.

Wow…being here makes me feel like some kind of boorish urbanite.  You know what the speed limit is here?  70km/h in most places.  You know what everyone drives?  The speed limit.  It is disconcertingly refreshing.  I have not been cut-off, flipped-off, or tailgated once in two days.  I can’t go twelve-and-a-half minutes in Toronto (or Kitchener, for that matter) without two of those three things happening.  You could learn a lesson Ontario!  The hotel staff were actually apologetic that the spot I parked in wasn’t closer to the entryway.  I got in here at 9pm!  If this were Mississauga, I’d have had a better chance of finding a parking spot on the moon at a hotel that late.  I have an instant love for Winnipeg'ers.

Everyone I’ve talked to here has a “close call with a whitetail” story.  I guess they just kind of hang out around the outskirts of town here and hurl themselves at cars.  They are like the Steve-O’s of Manitoba (wow, what an obscure and dated reference…)

Cheap Gas
This alone is almost enough to make me move out here permanently.  Now ‘cheap’ is a relative term, I know, and yes it is a sad, sad, unbelievably sad state of affairs when I comment that $1.12/litre is a bargain, but that is a full seventeen cents cheaper than it is every day in Cambridge.  And that is the price of gas out here.  I nearly defecated myself with joy when I saw that price.  I can’t even do the conversion for any of my American readers but trust me, when you live where I do…this is cheap gas.  And they even pump it for you with no premium!  Full serve and self-serve cost exactly the same (at least at the station I popped into)…Unheard of!

Of course there is so much more that Winnipeg could offer, but I’m only here for a couple of days.  When I’m back, I’ll post on some further thoughts.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Calls For the Rest of Us

I’ve been practicing like mad these last ten days or so in preparation for embarrassing myself in competition at the Ducks Unlimited 2011 Canadian Duck & Goose Calling Championship and as such, have managed to squeeze some “interesting” sounds out of my goose call (since I’m not competing in the duck contest).  Most have been pseudo-goosey and by next Friday night I hope to have a reasonably sound (no pun intended) routine ready for August 20th.

However all this huffing and puffing into a length of hollow acrylic got me to pondering about the language that we are presenting to geese and ducks.  Sure, the standard calls are pretty, well standard.  For ducks, or mallards at least, everything is based on a ‘quack’ sound.  The hail call is just a loud, long series of clear quacks, the come-on call (as it is popularly known) is just quacks that are sped up and blown with some urgency and excitement.  The feed chatter, often argued to be the toughest of the duck calls to make, is (in my opinion) just a very fast series of very short raspy, guttural quacks.  This video from Echo Calls (not a sponsor, although I wish they were) shows some of the finest contest-style feed chatters I’ve ever heard.  Most hunters I’ve met (and yours truly as well) cannot do this, but it is still pretty awesome.  Goose calling, for Canada Geese specifically, is similar in that most calls, in hunting or in contest calling, start with a cluck.  A honk is a loud, drawn out cluck, approach work or come-on calls are a series of rapid double and even triple clucks, moans and lay down work could be described as variations on the first part of a cluck without the break in the call, and so on.  Not an encyclopedic (or even a marginally correct assessment) of waterfowl language but just what I’ve been mulling over in my mind as I get quizzical looks from my neighbours and lower everyone in the proximity’s property values with my constant noise.  At least I shut it down for two hours on Sunday while my next-door neighbours had an open house with their realtor. No one wants to buy the house next door to the place that sounds like a duck and goose convention for three straight hours every evening.

So given that I generally understand the basics of waterfowl calling, here are some of the calls that I wish were formally recognized by serious callers.  Most are scenario specific, and all are completely made-up.  Enjoy.

The “Please Don’t Call So Loud” Call
This one is ideal for those rare occasions when you may have celebrated the arrival of hunting season a little too hard the night before the hunt (admit it, it happens; just try to be safe out there, okay?) and you are nursing a headache in the blind.  I imagine that through a duck call it would sound like a feeble, squeaky quack, and for a goose hunter just a half-hearted, plaintive moan.  It would signal to the birds that if they just wanted to continue to go along on their way, you wouldn’t really be bothered by that at all.  It would signal other hunters in your party, on the off chance the birds actually committed and tried to decoy, that everyone should just let the birds land without being shot at, since the sound of a shotgun report might actually make your head explode open like an over-cooked bratwurst on a grill.

The “You Didn’t See Anything…Honest” Call
This one actually exists, because I think I’ve both heard and performed this sound.  It is usually an inappropriately loud and totally uncharacteristic series of calls made by an embarrassed hunter that has just inadvertently moved and spooked the flock just as they were about to drop the landing gear.  Usually accompanied by flaring birds and much swearing from others in the blind, sometimes the non-guilty join in and this call is almost always continued in desperation for over a minute, long after the birds have made a beeline for the next county.  It ends when the offending hunter incredulously looks around and says “Who the hell moved?!” while casting accusatory looks at everyone else in the party.

The “Wha’ Happened?” Call
This call is made after a hunter empties their gun at birds that were so close and moving so slowly that they were ‘sure things’ and despite this, misses everything completely.  Accompanied by geese pumping their wings powerfully away or ducks trampolining straight up and out of sight, it is an attempt to convince those birds that you just missed cleanly to come back for a second look.  It differs from any accepted comeback calls because it usually sounds angry, since the poor nimrod doing the calling absolutely cannot believe they just wasted three shells (okay, two if you shoot a side-by-side or an over-under) at birds that should, by all rights, be laying belly up in the decoys.  The birds can sense this anger (and likely saw you rise to shoot) and thus they rarely, if ever, return.  In a tale related to this call, I was once hunting geese with my Dad on a foggy Thanksgiving Monday when the ceiling was twenty feet at best.  I could hear geese but rarely could I see them.  Miraculously I had managed to scratch down a double (another story altogether), but was still one bird shy of the limit.  I put the call on a distant single and the bird came as if on a string.  He (I’m assuming masculinity here, don’t be offended) was gliding in no more than fifteen feet off the ground and I whiffed on him twice inside of twenty yards.  Still for some reason he landed and stood in the decoys so I put the bead on his throat patch and attempted to shoot him turkey-hunter-style.  I failed, whizzing a load of BBs over his head.  As he clumsily ran and got airborne, I started howling a “Wha’ Happened?” call at him while ramming my last three shell into my gun with my other hand.  I never did get my limit that day.  Dad, predictably, did get his three geese that day.

The Belch

This one is usually a specialty of those hunters who like to feast in the blind.  I’m not talking about a granola bar or a Snickers.  I mean guys who bring pop, chips, Red Bull, sandwiches, and little propane cookers with them in a backpack or mini-Coleman cooler when they hit the fields and marshes.  This call usually happens when, after having consumed one pork rind too many, they are startled by a flock that has the gall to interrupt their meal and they then proceed to start blazing away on a call.  This usually gets their diaphragm all messed up and they blow a hiccup or burp right through their instrument, along with food particles of varying sizes that every once in a while render their calls stuck and useless.  It sounds just like you think it does.

So that’s just a small selection of the calls I wish that we waterfowlers recognized.  I’m sure there are lots of others that happen and I’ll post future editions as I come by them.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Less Than One Week to Register for The Ducks Unlimited 2011 Canadian Duck & Goose Calling Championship

Registration for the Ducks Unlimited 2011 Canadian Duck & Goose Calling Championship is closing this Friday, August 12, 2011.  For those of you interested in registering, details can be found in this previous post, or by clicking this link.
Don’t feel you can cut it?  Well I certainly can’t, but I registered (for the Senior Goose) anyhow, so hopefully my foolishness should galvanize some of you to join me in testing your skills on stage.  The worst thing that could happen would be that you learn some new calls that may help you scratch down a few more ducks or geese this fall.
Hope to see some of you there.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Return of the Gearhead-Waterfowl Edition

Aaaaaand we’re back.

After an interminable summer of heat, dry conditions, and no hunting, I am glad to announce that I am once again ready to write about chasing animals.  To those of you who emailed during the period when my blog productivity (or blogtivity, as I call it) was basically non-existent, I thank you again for your dedication.  I’m going to honour a couple of requests right off the hop here by answering those of you who were asking about my choices and recommendations (a concept that still doesn’t fit quite right with me) for duck and goose hunting equipment.

My list of waterfowling paraphernalia is not quite as extensive as my turkey hunting gear, but slightly more detailed than my list of deer hunting equipment.  So as not to offend, please do not use my dedication to buying equipment as an indicator of my dedication to respective branches of hunting.  For example, I don’t own a pair of waders, but please don’t think me a waterfowling neophyte for that reason…trust me I’ve been after ducks and geese for a long time; just in fields instead of swamps.  As with the turkey hunting versions of this institution, I’m not sponsored by any of the brands I buy, and do not take my endorsement of any equipment or gear as a guarantee that it will work for you or that you’ll even like it.

I use the same Remington 870 for waterfowl as I do for turkey hunting.  The only changes are in choke and load.  I remove my turkey choke and go back to the modified choke that it came with.  I also make the switch over to steel shot.  Since the lead shot ban took effect (1999 in Canada, I believe?) I’ve been experimenting with all sorts of loads.  The past couple of years I’ve used Federal Black Cloud 3 inch BB for Canada geese and plain old 3 inch Federal steel #2 for ducks.  For a few years prior to that I used 3 inch Kent Fasteel exclusively in BB and #2 for geese and ducks respectively with no problems at all.  Before that I had a brief flirtation with Hevi-Shot (when it was still a Remington-affiliated product to give you an idea on how long ago that was) and they were the most effective shotgun shells I’ve ever purchased…they were just cripplingly expensive on an unemployed university student’s budget.  Maybe if I had a sponsorship deal I could go back to using them.  Shameless, I know.  I use 3 inch because that’s the biggest shell my gun will hold; I’m not even going to get involved in the debate over shot size, because reams of paper has been written about it; some if it legitimately scientific, some other purely speculative.  All I’ll say is this.  Shoot the biggest shell that you can effectively handle the recoil on and still be reasonably accurate with.  I like BB over BBB or T because I’m a fan of pellet count (the same reason, coincidentally, that I use #6 instead of #4 in my turkey gun).  If you, however, define yourself and your worthiness as a hunter by how big a shell and pellet size you can spray around the marsh…then I guess you’ve probably already scoffed at this and went onto the next section.


Waterfowl hunting in general is a multi-seasonal pursuit.  Some days are pure bluebird, others downright sleety and nasty.  The vast majority of days fall in between those two extremes so for me versatility is key.   I have a three-in-one coat from Remington in Realtree AP camo that I use interchangeably for turkey and waterfowl hunting.  It takes me through the whole run of waterfowl season.  When it is hot during the early September resident goose hunting, I can wear a t-shirt and the light outer shell or put on a camo long sleeve t-shirt and leave the coat at home altogether.  Into October and November, I can choose to layer with the shell and insulating liner of the coat, or I can go with more base layers and wear just the shell again.  It all depends on how cold, rainy, windy, sunny, or snowy things are looking to get.  In December, I go with both the insulating liner and the outer shell and layer appropriately.  It has plenty of pockets for licenses, shells, knives, and the other accoutrements that a waterfowler is known to have on hand (Mars bars and Gatorade anyone?!).

I hunt fields almost exclusively so I don’t own anything that would resemble a wader (hip or chest) and I own exactly zero neoprene.  Sorry, but I can’t give you any insight into that type of gear.  That said, one of my closest hunting buddies got a retriever last year, so hitting the marsh may be in order now that we have a reliable means of recovering anything we may happen to shoot.  This may be just the excuse I need to get some waders.

Since I lack waders, and since I generally prefer to stay as dry as possible (I can hear the masochistic camp of hardcore foul-weather hunters decrying me as a fraud as I write this) I wear camo pants and rubber boots.  I have long-espoused the merits of the Welly and I don’t intend to change.   That said I do need a new pair because my faithful rubber boots of the last four years gave up the ghost late into turkey season this past spring.  I may go with another pair of Bone Dry boots from Redhead, then again I might not.  It all depends on what tickles my fancy on that day.  My advice here (as with all footwear from hunting boots to bedroom slippers) is to get a pair that is light, warm, and fits properly.  Do not (as I have in the past) show up wearing your thin cotton dress socks and start trying on boots thinking they’ll fit you when the season rolls around.  Bring the heaviest socks you would wear hunting to the fitting and get it right.  Blisters from improperly fitted boots ruin a day of hunting faster than almost anything else.

In terms of other clothes, I like to be comfortable and not at all stylish.  A moisture-wicking base layer (usually a retired soccer shirt of mine), a wind-breaking middle layer and a wool, or other natural fiber top layer would be what I have on from mid-October onward.  Early in the season I usually just have a micro-fiber long-sleeved camo shirt on.

I do my fair share of the calling when I’m hunting so for this reason I do wear a mesh camo facemask, but I almost never wear gloves.  I don’t use a lot of back pressure when I call (more on that below) so I’ve found I have more call control with my bare hands.  Unless it is really, really cold, I won’t have gloves on.  I also find that the best way to make sure you’re making the right sounds on a goose or duck call is to be able to watch the birds all the way in, so that’s why I have the mesh facemask.  I can blow through it into the call with no problem, and I can watch for the subtle changes in the bird’s flight that may tip me off on when to change up on a sound or keep pouring it on.  If the shine of the sun on a human face is like a flashing beacon to you at a distance, imagine what it is to a duck.  If you can’t or won’t wear a facemask, please keep your head down so that the birds don’t flare off for the rest of us.

Much like when I’m turkey hunting, I love to do some calling.  Unlike when I’m turkey hunting I do not have a vast number of calls.  I have one goose call, and (now) one duck call.  I used to have two duck calls, but my two year old son claimed one for his own, and I don’t have the heart to take it away from him when I go on a hunting trip.  My duck call is a Buck Gardner Fowl Mouth II, and it is just a nice polycarbonate duck call that does everything I need it to.  It hails nicely, is good and responsive for when I need to get soft and raspy, and does a feed chuckle easily and realistically.  It has been out on some very cold days and has not frozen stuck on me once, and to top it off it was really well-priced.  I’m not a contest caller for ducks, so I don’t need anything other than an effective “meat” call, which is what I have.

My goose call on the other hand (and if you’ve been following this blog, you already know this) is a Tim Grounds hand-turned, custom-tuned acrylic Super Mag and some would define it as an expensive, competition-caliber short reed goose call.  That may be true, but luckily, it is also a dandy, durable, all-purpose hunting call that has led more than one goose to the stew pot or the sausage grinder.  I have and will continue to sporadically compete in goose-calling contests so it is nice to have a good-sounding call to start with, but it does take some practice and commitment to get reasonably proficient with it.

What can I say…it is not a call for everyone, but it should be.  I have a couple of hunting buddies who can run it okay, but it does take a fair amount of air to get it breaking over crisply, and I have it set up a little stiff.  A lot of manufacturers are going with the tag-line of ‘easy-blowing’ goose calls which is fine, but since there’s nothing soft or subtle about anything I do, I like having to huff some wind to get a call singing.  I also use a lot of back pressure when I’m doing moans and murmurs so a stiffer reed suits that too.  I learned the short reed basics on some cheaper mass-produced polycarbonate short reed calls, but in those days (as now) I’m always over-blowing them and squealing them, so the Super Mag just works for my style now.  Other than mechanics it also just sounds darn good.  The top end of the call is almost cackling-goose high, which is good for really reaching out to geese on windy days or when they just don’t want to respond to flagging (more on that in the next section), the reed, with effort and practice, breaks over quickly so you can lay double clucks or even ‘hiccup clucks’ on top of each other rapidly to sound like multiple geese, and the bottom end is just dirty, nasty, and lethal.  I have not blown a call that does moans and murmurs as well as this one does.  Period.  Geese just seem to respond to it, which is good, because I shoot so badly that if they didn’t give me a close look I would never kill a single one of them.  I sent it off for a tune up recently and Tim & Hunter Grounds (both World Goose Calling Champions) were great to deal with, they did a fine job on the tuning, and got it back to me very quickly.  Customer service excellence and just good, down to earth guys to deal with throughout the whole thing; can’t argue with that.

There are other top brands of goose calls out there including calls by Sean Mann, Fred Zink, Buck Gardner, GK Calls, and Foiles just to name a few (there are literally dozens out there).  I’ve tried all of those named above and the Tim Grounds Super Mag suited me best.  As I’ve said before with calling, as with almost everything else I mention in the Gearhead posts, you need to shop around and try them out to get one that you are satisfied with.  Then practice until your wife threatens to leave you (she’ll come back, really.)

My calls hang on a lanyard that I won in an online contest back in 2006.  I don’t think the company exists anymore, but I seem to recall them being called Black Dog or something to that effect.  It is a durable lanyard made from braided parachute cord with five call drops on it.  I used to fill them all out, now not so much.

I have a flag that I started using just last season, and it is pretty good I must admit.  Not the ‘magic bullet’ that some would have you believe, but certainly effective at getting a flock’s attention from distances that a call just won’t reach.  Remember though, all the flagging and calling is wasted if you don’t sit still and stay covered up when the birds are within the last 100 yards. 

To that end, this year may be the first year I hit the fields with a layout blind.  Once again, I’m sure I’m late to this party but then again, my group was killing a stack of geese every year without the aid of layout blinds so why would I spend the money.  This year, some other friends who hunt closer to me basically require them for me to come along (their fields lack ditches and tall grass) so I’m going to break down and drop the cash.  The positives are well documented; low-profile, portable (although I don’t have a truck so fitting one of these into a family sedan or worse, a commuter compact, should be an interesting feat of engineering) and versatile in that they can be ‘grassed-up’ to almost disappear into the background.  Some negatives though do exist, so just consider the following.  If you are a senior with limited mobility, or someone who is not physically able to do a sit up (or like me, selectively lazy) you may not like these.   Also, the interior space may not accommodate you if you are of above average height or, uh, robustness.  Once again, best to try out some models before you drop the cash.

We have a ‘community’ approach to decoys, and I personally do not own any.  We usually pile together some shells and full-body duck and goose decoys into a truck bed, get to the field, un-pile them in some sort of pattern, hunt over them and then pile them back in a truck bed.  It has worked so far.  If you are looking for sophisticated decoy placement strategy (and this could be a whole other post) my advice is this.  Put the decoys out close enough together so that they look realistic, but not so close that they look nervous.  Do not face them all in the same direction (ducks and geese tend to do this naturally when they are alarmed or about to get up and leave), and whenever possible, try to make them look like flocks you’ve naturally observed in the wild before.  All this other stuff about prevailing winds, landing zones, arrowhead patterns, X-patterns, J-hooks, and horseshoes…that is all beyond my ken.  I do not have a MOJO decoy, but I secretly lust after one.

So there you have it, my return to more productive blogging in the form of a Gearhead post that really tells you nothing of value.  Hope you like it, and I promise, the future holds more lunacy, lies, groundless conjecture, and Taboo’s of the Day.