By Bill Buckley
I've been blessed to hunt waterfowl in many places. By my own tally I've encountered 29 species of ducks; Atlantic brant; snow, Ross's, and white-fronted geese; most of the Canada goose subspecies; plus tundra swans and sandhill cranes—and that's just in the United States and Canada. Looking at all the different species and places to pursue these birds around the world, I think waterfowling may offer more variety than any other type of hunting.
Being a serious traveling waterfowler is rarely a half-baked pursuit. Many of us spend hours on the internet researching bucket-list hunts for sea ducks or trips to foreign countries. But whether your waterfowling adventures take you far from home or just down the road, you're apt to discover spectacular environments, interesting hunting tactics, fascinating cultures, and new friends.
For me, a waterfowling trip is all about accumulating experiences hunting different birds in their natural habitats, holding them in my hands, and perhaps mounting species I either love to hunt or that intrigue me. If you've ever held a mature common eider, for instance, your first impression is that this species is anything but common.
Once you start paying attention to a species' plumage, you'll find yourself being more selective in what you shoot and taking more time to admire each bird brought to hand. When you finally harvest that perfect canvasback or wigeon, you might forget that shooting a limit used to be your sole litmus test for a great hunt. You might even surprise your greenhead-purist buddies by celebrating a spectacular drake spoonie.
Most traveling waterfowlers become discerning judges of taxidermy. When mounting a bird, expect to pay for quality. Even a green-winged teal requires a lot of prep work, and truly lifelike mounts take considerable time and expertise. Count on over $300 at the low end and up to $600 or more for bigger birds or intricate habitat bases. Good taxidermists can also tell you what to look for in a mature specimen, which is handy when you're traveling to collect unfamiliar species, and can suggest poses that best display each bird's unique features.
Traveling hunters can face some challenges when transporting their birds home. According to world-class taxidermist Shane Smith of Bridgeport, Alabama, hunters need to be vigilant in researching all the legal requirements and formulating a plan well in advance of the trip. For excursions inside the United States, abiding by US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) transportation laws is relatively straightforward but will require you to furnish specific information about birds for shipping or when being transported outside your immediate possession.
Things can get more complicated when hunts take you to foreign countries, though. "Bringing birds back from Canada is easy," Smith says. "The trouble comes with navigating USFWS and USDA regulations relating to importation from other countries. These regulations change often and have become complex. Count on having to use a USDA-certified taxidermist and flying into an official port of entry so you can set up a meeting with the USFWS to inspect the birds. You may be required to have a certificate of origin from the country you visited. Depending on the species, you may also need a CITES permit or certificate. You'll discover that some birds cannot be imported at all, and some countries, such as Argentina, do not allow exportation of any waterfowl.
"The bottom line is use only reputable outfitters, ask lots of questions about importation requirements, research everything yourself, and realize that the laws are constantly changing," Smith says. "One more thing: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act explicitly prohibits the importation of specimens by anyone other than the hunter, so the outfitter cannot legally ship your birds to you."
Renowned waterfowl photographer Gary Kramer, whose images regularly appear in Ducks Unlimited, hunts and takes photographs extensively worldwide and has his own view of the benefits of waterfowling travel. "To me the whole point is being introduced to new waterfowl in their natural environments, listening to their calls, seeing how the locals hunt them, and enjoying different cultures," Kramer explains. "Sure, a mount is a wonderful reminder of a unique hunt, but it's the experience that really matters."