JANUARY WATERFOWLING IS A FIRST (January 13/14)

I was in a blind on a slight rise of ground with the dykes behind me, my decoys spread out in the snow. Wearing white camouflage and partially hidden by a snow drift, I hoped there was enough concealment to fool ducks. It was the third day of the extended season, and as far as I know the first time ever in Kings County for January puddle duck hunting.

Earlier I spotted ducks scattered all over the field I was set up in. By a small patch of standing corn the snow had been covered with ducks. Some were dropping into the corn, but most of the ducks were scattered over the field. Looking the situation over and after checking out the field a couple of times, I decided to set a blind up several hundred meters from the standing corn.

Now, if you’re a waterfowler, you undoubtedly see something wrong with the scenario I’ve described. If most of the ducks were feeding in the corn and the field around it, why was I set up so far away from the hotspot? Why wasn’t I down in the corn where it seemed a sure thing to bag a few ducks?

The answer is the hunting regulation that, in effect, says no one can hunt legally within 182 meters of a building. Nearby was a small outbuilding I estimated probably wasn’t legal shooting distance from the stand of corn. Maybe it was more than 182 meters from the outbuilding to the corn, maybe it wasn’t. I couldn’t tell for sure. Bottom line is that I didn’t want to chance running afoul of game wardens and have them decide I was legal or not. I stayed well away from the corn, setting up my blind where I knew I was okay and where I had permission to hunt. I was hoping of course to attract some of the ducks that were winging into the corn.

This didn’t happen. Not a single duck came my way. I was simply outdecoyed by all the birds feeding around the corn. I sat in that ditch four hours on the coldest days of the winter and watched a couple of hundred black ducks and mallards wing into the corn and ignore my decoys and calling.

That was my first January duck hunting experience but it wouldn’t be my last. Snowshoeing on the dykes in past winters I’d found that even when dykeland fields were covered with snow, ducks still came into them; some were feeding in corn stubbles, some apparently just resting. Like a lot of hunters I took advantage of this during the extended season this year and it was surprisingly good.

Summing up the short January season here, one hunter told me that to get some ducks “all you had to do was throw some decoys out on the snow and hide in a ditch.” Well, almost. I should have told him about the field I found, where there was standing corn hundreds of ducks visited every day. Why should I be the only one frustrated?

THE PHEASANT GAMES (January 6/14)

In one of my favourite upland hunting books by E. C. Janes, the author mentions a wily pheasant outwitting him by dodging around all three side of a big grassy field, dog in pursuit, before safely flushing.

In another of my books on hunting, the author, George Bird Evans, cautions to be quiet as possible pheasant hunting since nothing clears a covert of cock birds as fast as a human voice. Along the same line, we found the bells on our dogs alerted pheasants and they were flushing before we could get close. We did better when we removed the bells.

Now human brains are hundreds of times larger than pheasant brains and unquestionably thousands of times more intelligent. Yet we have experienced hunters apparently being outwitted by pheasants as per E. C. Janes, and pheasants that can put two and two together, apparently equating human voices and dog bells with imminent danger.

How could this be? The average human brain weighs on average 1,300 to 1,400 grams, or for those of us who still think pre-metric, about three pounds. The average brain weight of a ring-necked pheasant? About 4 grams or about 0.49384 parts of an ounce.

Amazing isn’t it. The rooster pheasant’s brain is a speck of dust compared to a human brain. Yet a bird with a brain that tiny occasionally stymies hunters? Now, don’t say this doesn’t happen. Every experienced hunter and more than a few tyros too, have their tales to tell of being bamboozled by ring-necked roosters.

The ring-necked pheasant is legendary for its wizardry in the field, both at skulking and hiding and by simply using manoeuvres that confuse hunters and their dogs. The bird is born cautious and super alert. Think, however, of all the times you’ve bagged pheasants easily, birds that held for the dog, birds that waited until you were close before flushing.

Now, most of the time those easy birds are taken early in the season. It’s a fact that most of the pheasants shot early are first year birds. Once educated, however, once they survive the early season massacre, pheasants became more difficult to pin down and put in the game bag. These pheasants learn quickly. They’re the birds that sometimes fool us and make pheasant hunting challenging.

Pheasants that survive into the second season become even more difficult to hunt. From vantage points I’ve watched roosters circle around my hunting companions and sneak off. Old, seasoned roosters often will run and refuse to flush until out of danger. Sometimes they refuse to fly even when a dog closes in on them. Four times this past fall my dog pointed on roosters that wouldn’t move, birds I actually had to kick out of the cover with my foot. Two of those roosters – undoubtedly old hunter-wise birds that sensed flying wasn’t an option – took off running and probably are still out there somewhere.

One of my friends coined a neat phrase that described what those crafty, long-lived roosters were capable of doing. “They’re playing games with us,” he said. “Pheasant games.”