Jump Shooting Ducks

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A look at an innovative way to hunt ducks, without the need for an abundance of gear or decoys 

Vanessa and I were in south-eastern Alberta and had just finished up an antelope hunt in record time. We had booked the week off and I really had no interest in heading back to the office early. With this inevitability in mind, I’d thrown a couple of shotguns in the truck.

South-eastern Alberta is loaded with small potholes and a myriad of irrigation canals that wind their way through the arid landscape and provide refuge for a wide variety of waterfowl. I’ve enjoyed hunting irrigation canals and small potholes for ducks and geese since I was a youngster in Manitoba. Many was the weekend, when along with a couple buddies, I’d head up to the Interlake region and spend the day stealthily sneaking up on ducks and geese along the high-banked canals. It was a rare occasion that we didn’t come home with a pile of birds for the freezer.

I’d never hunted over decoys until I was in my 20s, but had killed hundreds of ducks and geese by that point, all with a technique called jumping.

For the duck hunting purist, the term jump shooting ducks is about as blasphemous as using the Lord’s name in vain, but for many of us, it’s one of those enjoyable pastimes that harkens back to our younger days. Don’t get me wrong, my waterfowl experience has expanded greatly and I enjoy a good field or pond shoot over decoys as much as the next guy. But jumping ducks is one of those methods that transports me back to simpler times, when all you needed was a set of sharp eyes and a pocket full of shotgun shells. While the majority of my jump shooting adventures these days are more a matter of opportunity than planning, they are no less enjoyable. And, in truth, it’s the spontaneity of these shoots that really adds to their excitement.

I think one of the reasons that jump shooters illicit distain from the decoy shooters is that shooting waterfowl on their roosts can undoubtedly chase them out of an area or, at least, change their patterns and mess up some well-thought-out field shoots. I’ve always avoided the major roosting areas and really key in on small, out-of-the-way wetlands and irrigation canals. I won’t shoot a big body of water, especially one that is loaded with birds. I like to find those sloughs and ponds or canals that only have a few birds, this way I don’t mess things up for the field shooters and, honestly, it’s far easier to sneak on wetland with only a few birds in it. As tempting as it is to sneak in on a water body loaded with geese and ducks, I avoid them and search out water bodies better suited to jump shooting.

Early-season jump shooting typically means teal, shovellers, scaup and buffleheads and all provide some pretty fast action and, on our spontaneous antelope/duck hunt, we started our adventure at a small canal about a kilometre off the road, which I knew from past experience usually held a variety of ducks and was quite easy to sneak up on due to its very high banks.

Vanessa was eager and after a short hike we spotted a number of scaup a few hundred yards up the canal. We noted a couple of landmarks and made our way quickly toward the ducks, using the bank for cover. I think Vanessa was shocked when she peeked over the edge of the canal and the birds were right there.

It didn’t take them long to get their wings in motion and they were rapidly moving down the canal in record time. I looked to Vanessa, who was locked onto them with the 12 gauge, and the barrel swung in perfect time with the ducks. As her finger tightened on the trigger, a ring of shot pierced the water in a circle around the rapidly fleeing scaup. His wings folded and he rolled across the surface of the water. Vanessa kept swinging and touched off the second barrel. The result was the same as her first shot and she had her first two ducks of the day.

We headed a little further south to another remote canal that I knew of and found it loaded with green wing teal. They were scattered along its several kilometre length, in groups of two to six, and made for some ideal jump shooting.

Teal, in my opinion, are the ultimate duck for jump shooting. They explode from the water at a rate that will put a Hungarian partridge to shame and are a challenge for even the most experienced gunner.

After shooting behind the first few birds, Vanessa got her groove on and dropped a brace of teal with her next two shots. Upon retrieving them, she was amazed at how small and delicate they appeared and realized what a small target they truly were and how deceivingly fast they flew.

For those without a canine retriever, a little ingenuity is all it takes to quickly and efficiently retrieve your birds from these small water bodies. I simply use a fishing rod with a foot-long piece of doweling with three big treble hooks screwed onto it. Retrieving birds is as simple as casting the dowel out, hooking the bird and reeling it in. If you have a dog it will greatly add to the experience, but if opportunity strikes and you come across a great jump shoot without your canine buddy at your side, the fishing rod will easily get the job done.

If there is a duck that routinely haunts the small water bodies of the Canadian prairies and is prettier than the bufflehead, I’ve yet to meet it. Certainly the regal wood duck and colourful Harlequin win the battle of the colours, but finding them on the prairies is a rarity indeed. The diminutive bufflehead, however, is not only abundant, but also a great candidate for these early-season jump shooting forays. So, it came as no surprise when Vanessa and I spotted a small raft of them several hundred yards up the canal. Immediately, Vanessa was struck by the beauty of the drakes and vowed to add one to our growing collection.

After a lengthy stalk, we slipped over the canal right on top of the buffleheads. I took a bead on a large drake at the front of the flock and was delighted when he folded at the report of my shotgun. I worked the action and was lining up on a second drake when I heard Vanessa’s shotgun erupt and the drake folded up and cascaded to the water below. I looked back to Vanessa, who was sporting a smile that would have lit up a city block on a dark night.

After a little fancy work with the fishing rod, we laid the two beautiful drakes on the ground and admired their complex plumage. While looking like little more than a combination of black and white at a distance, their feathers contain a palate of iridescent colours and in the afternoon sun they glistened intensely. Vanessa gently caressed the bird’s feathers, rightly proud of her accomplishment.

We rounded out the day with a couple more stalks on wary teal and ended up with some fine fare for the table. Many of these smaller ducks are overlooked by the field hunters, but in my opinion, they are some of the tastiest birds there are and they are definitely the most fun to jump shoot. They fly fast, are small targets and can really challenge a wing shooter’s ability. Plus, there always seems to be lots of them available.

As the season progresses, species like mallards and pintails begin to move in and you can enjoy some great shoots right until freeze up.

One of my favourite times for big greenheads is about a week after the irrigation districts shut the flow of water off in the canals, especially in canals that have vegetation growing in them. The ducks really concentrate on these canals as they become a source of very abundant feed. Not only do the ducks key in on the freshly exposed vegetation, but also the shallow pools left behind after the flow is shut off typically become a smorgasbord of insects and snails. I’ve had days where you couldn’t keep the big mallards out of these small pools no matter how many times you shot at them. The temptation of the abundant feed is just too much for them.

Vanessa and I did a shoot in mid-October a couple years ago and hit conditions absolutely perfectly. The canals were basically dry, other than the odd depression here and there that still held a small pool of water. Every one of these small pools was chock-a-block with big greenheads and in a little over two hours we managed to bag a limit of fat greenheads, including two banded birds.

We’d actually had no intention of even hunting ducks that day, but when faced with this incredible opportunity, it wasn’t hard to talk either of us into taking a couple hours away from chasing upland birds. That’s what I love so much about jumping ducks – there is no planning required and if you know what you are looking for, you can take advantage of opportunities like this when they come up.

If you’ve never tried jump shooting ducks, show a bit of respect for your fellow hunters and leave those large roosting areas alone. But rest assured that there are plenty of smaller water bodies, perfectly suited to this running and gunning style of hunting. The great thing about it is that it requires virtually no planning or gear and can be done on the spur of the moment or in conjunction with another hunt. Really, all you need to have with you is a shotgun, some shells and a fishing rod.

While likely not a technique that many serious waterfowl hunters will ever partake in, it is a great way for those without decoys to get out and enjoy some of the fine table fare that our abundant waterfowl provides.

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