by Gary Koehler
It would not be a stretch to surmise that for many the end of waterfowl season results in a long sigh and a groan. Withdrawal is likely on its way. Symptoms may include irritability, anxiety, and other not-so-pleasant maladies. Be not dismayed. There are antidotes—ways to stay actively connected to the lifestyle you have grown to love. Perhaps you have a routine of your own. Maybe you are looking for additional adjunct pastimes. If your off-season pursuits are not filling the bill and you still have an itch to be involved somehow with ducks and geese, you may want to try one or all of the activities on our list. Some of these suggestions are designed to make your experience in the field more rewarding. Other outlets are simply extensions of common interests. All can help fill the long days between the end of one season and the beginning of another.
There is an old black-and-white photograph hanging on the wall of my office. It depicts my father, pump-action shotgun under one arm, displaying a freshly killed mallard drake taken on an Illinois River backwater lake. The date was 1936. Many people have inquired about the origin of the photo. Because it is one of only two pictures of my father from the “old days,” this image is a family treasure. Maybe this off-season is the time to hone your photography skills in preparation for creating your own special keepsakes next duck season. Do not be intimidated. Today's cameras do just about everything but load their own batteries. Whether you go digital, 35 mm, or video, take time to practice. Get the feel of the camera. Make note of what works and what doesn't in different light conditions. Experiment with lenses. Take a class. The only limitation on what you shoot is your imagination. Remember that the photos you take next season might make for a lifetime of memories.
Develop an Appreciation for the Tools
You need not spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to amass a collection to gain an appreciation for classic decoys and other waterfowling artifacts. You can view displays of these intriguing tools at a number of places. By my count, more than 20 museums across the country currently dedicate space to duck decoys. In addition, those seeking to learn more about vintage decoys, duck calls, shell boxes, and such would be well advised to attend one of the approximately 25 decoy shows held each year. You do not have to buy anything, and you will find that many dealers and collectors are happy to take the time to share information on waterfowling collectibles. Some shows require a small admission fee; others are free. Decoy shows provide an opportunity to see a wide range of old and contemporary carvings in all price ranges.
Improve Your Cooking
Getting stuck in a kitchen rut is easy to do, particularly when it comes to preparing wild game or fish for the table. I may be one of the worst offenders. Nine of 10 ducks I fix are done on the grill. The birds are marinated and then cooked quickly over hot coals. Good eating, yes, but there are unlimited additional opportunities. And that's something I hope to explore this summer. If you too want to expand your culinary horizons, pick up some new recipes. There are many cookbooks on the market dedicated exclusively to wild game. In addition to providing fresh ideas on fowl, game cookbooks may also contain sections on venison, fish, and many other critters. Look through the book, select a recipe that sounds good, and give it a go. What can it hurt? Perhaps you will find something that everyone in the family will enjoy. If you have the time, attend a cooking class or wild-game cooking demonstration. Outdoor shows, community colleges, and local cooking clubs provide diverse opportunities. Swap recipes. Do not be afraid to try something different for a change.
Crack a Book
Those who have not read at least some of the classic waterfowling books are missing much. Over the years, many books have focused on the joys and traditions of waterfowl hunting. The list of authors is far too lengthy to squeeze in here, but the heavy hitters at the very least would include Gordon MacQuarrie, Nash Buckingham, Robert Ruark, and Gene Hill. But do not stop there. In addition to the word pictures styled by these masters, there are other directions one may follow. Interested in learning more about waterfowl biology? Pick up a book.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Fact of the matter is most of us will never earn the opportunity to climb on stage at the World's Duck Calling Championship in Stuttgart, Arkansas, or at any of the top-shelf goose-calling contests. Not everyone is capable of becoming an accomplished competition caller. No matter. Most waterfowlers are capable of improving their field calling, and the first step is committing to put in the time and effort. Finding a suitable place to practice can be difficult. Be creative. Outside is generally better than inside—particularly if you share an abode with a significant other. Most often, the fewer people around, the better. Practice out in the country or at a park. Listen to live ducks. Watch or listen to the videos and tapes made by the pros. Tape your own calling, and then go back and listen to how it sounds. Work on your perceived weaknesses. If your call is not getting it done, borrow a buddy's call and try it out. All calls do not fit all people. Try something different. For example, if you blow only double-reed calls, try mastering a single-reed call over the summer, or vice versa. If you plan to hunt specklebellies or snow geese next season but have no experience with those calls, buy one of each and get after it.
Try Your Hand at making something
Along the way, I have met a small group of people who hunt over decoys that they have made by hand. I'm envious. Being neither Handy Andy nor Mr. Fix-It, the task seems extremely daunting to me. But, then again, I could see the end results of this labor being extremely gratifying. Patterns, instruction books, and tools are available. If making decoys sounds too tough, how about crafting something else for use in the field? A pond box or coffin blind, perhaps. A portable boat blind. A nice leather lanyard for your duck and goose calls. How about learning to tie flies using feathers saved from ducks you have taken? Design your own jerk-cord system. Make a custom decoy bag. You get the idea. People post all types of tips and plans on the Internet. Or talk to friends about a group project.
Freshen up Your Rigs
Decoys, duck boats, trailers, and outboard engines typically take a beating during the course of a hunting season. Now is as good a time as any to freshen up your gear. In regard to decoys, washing or applying touch-up paint may be in order—or both tasks, if necessary. Pay special attention to the white on your decoys. Many hunters enhance the white to ensure their decoys are more visible. On a mallard drake, for example, you could widen the neck collar a little and touch up the white bars bordering the speculum. Because mud can be extremely difficult to wash off—even with a soft scrub brush—some hunters rub plastic decoys with a light coating of petroleum jelly to restore the colors. If you really want to get fancy, purchase one of the flocking kits now on the market. Frayed decoy lines should also be replaced. Those who use boats regularly may want to apply a camo paint job, repair leaks, or install wiring for a lighting system. Something as simple as installing new spark plugs can perk up an outboard. And trailer bearings should be checked and repacked regularly.
Retriever Exercise and Training
Do not expect your retriever to be a fine-tuned duck-chasing machine on opening day if the animal has spent the past six or seven months lounging in your family room. Just like an athlete, a retriever needs exercise. Swimming is a sound choice. In the heat of the summer, water work may be perfect for keeping your dog fit and trim. On the training side, do not forget a refresher course covering the basics. And if there is a specific area where your retriever needs improvement, the dog is not going to get it done unless you put in some work too. Identify your retriever's problem areas and strive to eliminate them. Seek expert help if needed. Joining a retriever club will allow you to get to know other hunters in your area and may provide a forum for how to make your dog more accomplished.
Habitat Management and Enhancement
Some private duck- and goose-hunting clubs have on-site property managers to take care of crops, water control, and general grounds maintenance. Many clubs do not have that luxury. Regardless, if you hunt private property, making the land more attractive to waterfowl should be a no-brainer. But how? No single tip will be applicable to every club, as climate and terrain are primary considerations. But growing waterfowl food makes sense just about everywhere. Be sure, though, that all club members know state and federal regulations regarding hunting over waterfowl food plots. State wildlife agency officials may be able to provide insight into how to improve your property, and representatives of the Natural Resources Conservation Service may also help. Give them a call and see what services are available.
Hunt for New Places
Off-season scouting may not necessarily equate to locating birds during hunting season, but it might lead to finding new places to hunt. If you are a fisherman, keep your eyes open while on the water for out-of-the-way sites that could attract ducks in the fall. Get out and knock on some doors. Talk to farmers and other private landowners. Some may be willing to allow you to hunt on their property. The only way you will find out is to ask. While many hunters are tight-lipped about sharing information on prospective hunting areas, others who have already locked up a place to shoot may be kind enough to give you a lead on a spot. Watch the classifieds in your local newspaper for information on leases or club openings.
Plan a Trip Away From Home
Road trips rock. Why not start planning a special hunt away from home right now? There is something to be said for a change of scenery. You need not travel far to have a good time. Do some research and pick out a place, or a region, you would like to visit. Call the state wildlife agency for information on public-hunting opportunities. Or check on the availability of guides or outfitters in the area you would like to hunt. Trips are available to fit all budgets, but putting together the scenario you are seeking may take some time. If cash is tight, perhaps you could camp or stay at a low-priced motel and haul along your own groceries. If money is no object, many outfitters provide food and lodging packages. Hunting in places other than your home turf will result in fresh experiences, insight on how birds are pursued in other venues, and maybe a crack at a species you do not normally see.
Improve Your Shooting Skills
Nearly every year I vow to spend more time shooting clay targets. And nearly every year I fail to do so. Come fall and the season's start, I am struggling to get into a shooting rhythm. There is no one to blame but myself. Spare yourself that misery and put your shotgun to use this summer. Sporting clays can be much fun. If you have trouble with a certain type of shot, work on solving that problem. Get some tutoring if necessary. Attend a shooting school for a day or two. Join a local shooting club or league. If you purchase a new shotgun, by all means pattern the firearm with a variety of loads. Learn what the gun can do before you go into the field.
Keep Tabs on the Breeding Grounds
Serious duck and goose hunters are always wondering what the fall migration will bring. Many of today's gunners utilize modern technology to get a handle on what is going on across the continent's primary waterfowl breeding grounds. Read the field reports in this magazine by all means, but there are other sources you can tap into on the Internet. Look for updates on the Ducks Unlimited Web site, www.ducks.org, and on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Web site, www.fws.gov. To track precipitation on the Canadian prairies, go to www.agr.gc.ca/pfra/drought/drmaps_e.htm . To monitor drought conditions in the United States, look at www.drought.unl.edu/dm.
Go to a DU Event or Become a Vounteer
Most members have been to a Ducks Unlimited fund-raising banquet, but did you know that a variety of other DU outings are held each year? Take your pick of golf or fishing tournaments, shooting events, Greenwing field days, and more. Even better, show your enthusiasm as a community leader and help make a difference by becoming a DU volunteer. To join a DU committee in your area, call 1-800-45-DUCKS, or visit the DU Web site and click on the “Volunteer” button.
Introduce a friend or neighbor to DU. Let your federal legislators know how you feel about important legislation such as the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and other wetlands conservation issues by writing a letter or sending an e-mail.
Or, support youngsters through involvement in the Greenwing program!