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With all the focus this month on deer hunting it’s easy to forget that there are many other species that are “legal game in season” as well. The list is surprisingly long and varied, giving hunters plenty of options if they tag a buck early or prefer to pursue other critters in their spare time. Aside from bear and deer, hunters are allowed to take grouse and quail, pheasants and woodcock; ducks, geese and sea ducks, squirrels, hares, foxes, raccoons, coyotes and other varmints including red squirrels and porcupines.
Because we’re in Maine and it’s mid-November, the start of the Atlantic Flyway migration period, it only makes sense to focus on waterfowl for the next week or two. Until inland waters begin to ice over any small pond, stream, flowage or lake will be teeming with migrating ducks and geese. Birds on the move don’t require much in the way of loafing sites during their trip south, and even the smallest farm pond will host its share of wood ducks, mallards, black ducks or mergansers on any given day.
Waterfowl do most of their migrating after sunset, moving gradually southward ahead of the approaching winter cold, and any bit of open water may be used as a resting spot during the day. Of course, our portion of Maine is replete with wet holes large and safe enough to harbor a few ducks or geese, so the options are unlimited.
The easiest way to bag a limit of ducks is to find a point or cove along one of our many river flowages and be on hand at sunrise to catch birds coming in for the day or just before sunset as they head out for their southern destinations.
It’s often surprising to see just how many ducks were hiding in the swampy brush during the day. For example, one of my favorite November-evening duck-hunting spots requires about 30 minutes of brisk paddling to reach, and all along the way I see (and hear) no ducks. I may sit there in my canoe for an hour or more and not hear the first quack; no whistling wings, no splashing take-offs . . . nothing! But, just minutes before sunset (when no shooting is allowed) I’ll hear ducks flushing far and wide across the flowage, and with just minutes to spare I’ll have downed my limit. All manner of ducks will fly by, from speedy teal to lumbering mergansers, and every so often a flock of geese will sweeten the pot. I’ve found some goldeneyes, buffleheads and even a few pintails in my secret spot, and every so often I’ll see a small flock of redheads. The variety and abundance of ducks that have been lingering silently in the flooded brush would be surprising except that it’s been that way, at least in my haunts, for decades. They’re out there – you just to be there when they fly by.
Because there are so many ducks and geese in central Maine I don’t spend a lot of time hunting from blinds or with decoys, but don’t let that stop you. When the migration is on the birds will be most active early and late in the day, and a good set-up will attract them from miles around. This is a good way to get in a quick hunt before work in the morning, because the hottest action is in the 30 minutes just before and after sunrise. Set out a dozen decoys, hunker down in the blind and enjoy a cup of coffee; by 9 a.m. the morning flight will have ended and you should have a few birds to pluck for dinner!
When it comes to duck hunting the worse the weather the better. “Good weather for ducks” is usually bad weather by human standards, but some old sayings are as accurate as ever, and this is one of them. Get out there in the cold wind, rain and sleet and you’ll find ducks galore. If the weather is bad all day the birds will fly pretty much incessantly, so it’s worthwhile to be on hand. November’s worst weather can be miserable to endure, but that’s when the best duck hunting occurs.
To participate in Maine’s waterfowl hunting seasons a small game hunting license is required along with a state duck stamp ($5) and a federal duck stamp ($15). “Waterfowl” are appropriately named, which means plan on getting your feet wet (and most of the rest of you) if you want to be a successful duck or goose hunter. Chest-high waders are not necessary in all instances but thigh-high waders are a definite must. There will be water, mud and sudden sink holes wherever ducks are found, and most of the time standard calf-high waterproof boots won’t quite cut it. Expect to get wet and plan for it, even on sunny, bright days when it’s not raining or snowing.
Wet means cold, so go prepared with warm, rainproof outer clothing that’s designed to keep your body heat in while warding off the worst November weather, including wind, rain, snow, sleet and all the other elements that make for great duck hunting.
Waterfowl of all species are very difficult to bring down, and because non-toxic shot is required for all duck and goose hunting, it’s best to forget the finesse approach and go with the largest gauge shotgun you can handle. Twelve-gauge guns equipped with Modified or Full chokes are a good start, and if you want to go larger (10-gauge is the next step) and can take the excessive recoil of a 3.5-inch magnum load, be my guest. Truth be told, I use 20-gauge shotguns (for ducks) with Modified chokes and magnum No. 2 shot loads, but I have been doing this for half a century and only shoot at birds I know I can kill cleanly. I let a lot of them go because they are too high, too far out or at such an angle that I can’t reasonably expect to make a solid hit.
Use a retrieving dog if you have access to one – finding a downed duck in a swamp can be quite a challenge, especially while it’s raining, snowing or sleeting in low light.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it!
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