By David Hart
This is your year. After dreaming about a trip to some faraway waterfowl hunting destination, you finally decide to make it happen. Whether you are going to Arkansas, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, or some other place on your waterfowling wish list, you need to be fully prepared before you hit the road. Forget one thing, fail to take care of a minor detail, or skip an important step, and your dream trip could turn into a nightmare. The following expert advice will help you organize a successful waterfowling adventure this season.
Guns and Ammo
Plan to bring not only your favorite duck gun but also a spare if possible, just in case you need a backup. While on the road, it's wise to keep guns safely locked in hard travel cases. Soft cases can be used to transport guns in the field. Also, don't forget to pack a gun-cleaning kit with a rod, oil, rags, and powder solvent for routine gun maintenance during your trip. As for ammunition, it's best to bring a good supply of your favorite duck and goose loads. This will save you the trouble of having to purchase ammunition at your destination, where supplies might be limited.
Hunters who plan to bring shotguns into Canada will need to fill out some extra paperwork and pay a fee to secure a nonresident firearms declaration. There are also special regulations regarding the storage and transportation of firearms and ammunition while you're north of the border. For more information, visit the Canadian Firearms Program website at rcmpgrc.gc.ca/cfp. American hunters will also need a passport or other approved documentation to gain entry into Canada.
If you plan to hunt with a large spread of full-body decoys, the best option is to transport them in a trailer. Those without the luxury of a trailer can still pack plenty of decoys in the back of a pickup or SUV. Shell and silhouette decoys, which are compact and stackable, are a great option for field hunting. For gunning over water, two dozen floating duck or goose decoys are often all you need. Bring along a jerk cord to add lifelike movement to your spread. Also, make sure that any battery-powered motion decoys work before you leave. And don't forget to bring plenty of batteries and the right charging cords.
Waterfowlers can get by without a boat by hunting dry fields and shallow wetlands, but a cartop duck boat, such as a canoe or kayak, will give you access to deeper potholes and small marshes that often hold large numbers of ducks. If you do plan to bring a larger boat and motor, ensure that they are in good working order. Inspect your trailer lights, bearings, wiring, safety chains, hitch, and the spare tire. Make sure your boat's registration is up to date and check the regulations for the state or province where you plan to hunt. Some require special permits for out-of-state boats. Don't forget to bring the required number of life vests, and check that you have all the other necessary safety gear.
Portable blinds are another key piece of hunting gear that can be challenging to pack. To save space, remove all the old brush from layout and panel blinds. Before you leave, set up your blinds in your yard. Tighten screws and replace missing parts as needed. Bring along a hedge trimmer, a pair of hand clippers, a machete, and a rake to gather brush, crop stubble, and other vegetation to conceal blinds in the field.
Finding your way around unfamiliar hunting areas is easier than ever thanks to a variety of navigation apps and online mapping tools. Download maps and drop pins before leaving home so you can find specific locations if you don't have cell phone service at your destination. Paper maps can be helpful as well. A large state or provincial map can provide a big-picture view of the area, which can help you scout more efficiently. Of course, don't forget to bring a good pair of binoculars to look for birds in expanses of cropland, large lakes, and distant potholes.
Many waterfowlers would rather leave their shotgun at home than their dog, but special care should be taken to ensure that your faithful companion has a safe, comfortable journey. Transport your retriever in a sturdy crate that is secured firmly in place. While traveling, give your dog plenty of breaks along the way. Find a safe area to let your dog run if he is well trained. Otherwise, keep him on a leash. Bring along a good supply of your dog's regular food and a jug of water. Other essentials include a canine first-aid kit, proof of vaccinations, and the phone number of a veterinarian in the area in which you will be hunting.
Licenses and Regulations
Waterfowl hunting regulations can vary not only from state to state but also from one management unit or zone to another. Carefully read the current regulations for the area that you plan to hunt and print copies for everyone in your group. Note season dates, bag and possession limits, shooting times, and trespassing laws. If you plan to hunt on wildlife management areas, national wildlife refuges, or other public lands, obtain official maps showing the boundaries of open hunting areas and be aware of any special regulations that may apply. Most states and provinces allow you to buy hunting licenses online. Get yours well in advance so you won't have to try to locate a license vendor in an unfamiliar area.
You can often obtain valuable information about public access, road and field conditions, and even bird numbers by calling the state or provincial wildlife agency office in the area where you'll be hunting. Staffers are often hunters too and are in the field frequently. Most will gladly offer as much advice as they can.
Travel and Lodging Info
A wealth of valuable travel and lodging information can be obtained from state and provincial tourism bureaus, including locations of dog-friendly motels, parks, resorts, and campgrounds that cater to visiting hunters. In some areas, private residences can be rented on a nightly or weekly basis through airbnb.com or vrbo.com, and some outfitters offer lodging for freelance hunters as well.
If all goes according to plan, you will have waterfowl to clean, store, and transport during your trip. A good approach is for each hunter to keep his or her birds stored separately in a cooler. Bring along game shears, resealable plastic bags, and a vacuum sealer (if you have one) for processing birds.
When cleaning waterfowl, be sure to leave the head or a fully feathered wing on each bird for identification purposes. Also, whenever harvested birds are not in your immediate possession, they must be tagged. This would apply if you leave your birds in your room or vehicle, if you give your birds to another person, or if you drop off birds at a processing facility. The tag must be signed by the hunter who harvested the birds and include the hunter's address, the total number of each species taken, and the date the birds were harvested. Some states and provinces also require that additional information such as the phone number, hunting license number, or driver's license number of the person who harvested the waterfowl be included on the tag.
Although possession limits were increased in the United States in recent years, hunters cannot have more than three daily limits in their possession at any time. A simple way to reduce the number of birds in your possession is to add them to your lunch or dinner menus during the trip. Portable grills, camp stoves, and slow cookers all work well for preparing birds while on the road.