First and Last

Posted by Will Bilozir on 2021 Jan 17th


It was 8 degrees C when the sun came up on opening day for waterfowl in Southern Alberta (September 8). There was a breeze out of the West that was just strong enough to get the birds to come into my blind facing the rising sun. I was sitting beside a small slough in a large barley field in sight of the Rockies, but well into the prairie landscape.

I tried to be up at darkO’30, but with sunrise at about 7:00 AM, getting up early enough to be there before dawn just didn’t happen. Birds flew by unscathed while I put out the decoys. Finally set up, I sat beside my dog and waited for some action.

Action was not long in coming. A group of mallards came by and without any preliminary reluctance started to land in the decoys. My 28ga Ugartechea popped twice and three mallards fell. What a great start to the season!

Before you presume that this was long ago in the long past age of lead shot for waterfowl, think again. I hand load for my 28ga, and one of the best things I make is a 7/8oz #6 bismuth load that comes out at about 1300fps. Hand loading for shotgun has increased in popularity as access to ammunition for any gauge but 12 has diminished. If you shoot a 410, 28, 16 or 10, you know how difficult it is to find ammunition, and when you do how expensive it can be.

If you shoot a 12ga, all can be well, provided you only need common lead target and upland loads. Steel 12ga can be very expensive and not necessarily perform as well as much cheaper hand-rolled ammo. The 20ga is the outlier here, in some places 20ga ammunition is plentiful, and you can get nearly anything you want, and in other areas it is almost non-existent. But I digress…

A pair of Gadwall came by after I showed my new dog (18 month old pup) how to retrieve mallards in shallow, very mucky water. She almost looked like she was laughing, since when told to fetch, she ran out, nosed one of the mallards, looked at me, and came back, sans mallard. The gadwalls dutifully fell with a pair of shots. How come no one is ever around when I’m shooting so well?

Dog went out again, and at my urging picked up one of the gadwalls, carries it a few yards and then dropped it in disgust. I demonstrated retrieving again. Back in the blind I worked on getting the new dog to get into some good old habits. She finally decided that having a duck in her mouth was not so disgusting. In the middle of the training session a bunch of teal flew overhead, so low that I could have batted them out of the sky with my gun barrels, so much for being ready. The teal turned and came back, and I managed to get one on my second shot. Since it fell in the reeds in front of me, retrieving it was simple, but the dog kept looking up to see if any more were coming.

Finally a moment of peace. I took in the grey mountains in the rising sun, the green trees, the swaths of barley, and the birds of all descriptions flying around the slough. This is the best part of opening day, it is almost always warm, sunny and the unwary ducks are easy to get. I waited for about 10 minutes and lone Shoveler came in and circled the decoys, when he started to leave a couple of shots dropped him. Would the dog retrieve now? Nope. She came out with me and played with the duck when I threw it to her, but no retrieve.

One more bird and it will be time to go home. I used to have good friends that would join me on opening day, but one passed away, another’s legs are gone, and one has moved to Quebec. My sons are far away, and my wife, who likes to hunt, but hates “swamp hunts” wished me luck from a warm bed. The last duck took its time and when it did come, another gadwall, I fired two shots and it continued, apparently unscathed, then dropped into the middle of the slough. The dog looked at me quizzically when I told her to retrieve, and realized the duck was far from anything she had been trained to retrieve before. I pondered the prospect of wading through more than 100 yards of muck and water, and considered that the middle of the slough might be too deep for my waders.

While I watched, I realized that the duck was moving further away, even though quite dead. The breeze was moving it to the far shore of the slough. I relaxed and went to work picking up the decoys. I marked where the dead duck was likely to land, using an ancient, crooked cedar fencepost as a landmark, collected my gear and birds and went to the truck.

The dog has liked sitting on the passenger seat in my farm/hunting truck since she first rode in the truck with me the previous summer. This day was no different, but her muddy paws were, but she would only sit on the floor for a few minutes before resuming her favourite place looking out the windshield. I drove around to the far side of the slough, found the fence post and went down into the reeds to get my duck. The dog came along to see what I was doing.

I could not find the duck. It had to be within a 10 yard span of the shoreline, but the reeds made spotting it difficult to impossible. While standing in the water looking back at the shoreline, the dog took off to my right and about 20 yards away, started nosing the duck. So much for dead reckoning, and fence post landmarks. I picked up the duck, praised the dog and got out of the waders before driving home.

Bacon wrapped, cream cheese filled, barbequed duck breasts were on the menu that night. A hunt starts when planning, then scouting, then hunting and doesn’t end until the game is consumed.


It was 8 degrees C when the sun came up on the final day for waterfowl hunting in Southern Alberta (December 21). There was a breeze out of the West that was just strong enough to get the birds to come into my blind facing the half-frozen river. I was sitting beside a river that freezes late, often not until January, and in some years not at all.

It was easy to be setup at dawn since sunrise was not until 8:30, and preparations were well-rehearsed. River hunting can be dangerous at any time of year, doubly so when the river has shore ice and is fractions of a degree above freezing. I had picked a spot where the river turned away from a large gravel bar, so any birds that fell in front of me, to my left, or behind me would land on frozen ground or a finger of still water. I would simply have to refrain from shooting anything to my right because it would fall in the fast flowing water and be gone with no hope of retrieval by dog or man.

I left the pup at home even though she had become a good retriever, bringing ducks and geese to hand, not to mention pointing and retrieving upland birds. In years past I had almost lost a dog to the river in similar circumstances. I would not put my new dog at risk to retrieve a duck. Ducks are easily replaceable, not so for dogs.

Hurry up and wait is the name of the game when hunting waterfowl at this time of year. We waited for awhile before any birds appeared. Since my wife worries about being a widow, she insisted that I have company on the last hunt of the year. So I brought along Jim, a much younger and enthusiastic waterfowl hunter.

We talked softly and wondered when we would get some shooting. As the rising sun lit the treetops and nearby cliffs, we marvelled at what going out to hunt had given us on the shortest day of the year. There were bald eagles, and golden eagles on patrol. Curious Mule deer peering across the river. The calls from a pair of ravens echoing down the valley. The honking of a large flock of geese snapped us out of our of our reverie.

The geese flew over us, far out of range. For the rest of the day hundreds of geese would tease us with their presence, but never come closer that 100 yards. While we were watching the geese overhead, a group of mallards landed in the decoys. Frantic flipping camouflage, curses, and motion flushed the ducks. A couple remained on the gravel bar after the shots had echoed down the valley.

We became vigilant watching up and down the valley for any potential targets. We took turns whispering “incoming”, but most birds were too high or over the river. One of the hardest things to do when hunting a river is to pass up easy shots in range because the birds will fall when they cannot be retrieved.

Finally some mallards came in from the left, and started to land in the decoys. I fired a couple of shots and dropped one. Its’ momentum carried it to the edge of the still water where it twirled in an eddy. Jim hadn’t fired because he was watching a pair of goldeneye approaching from the right and thought I was referring to them when I had said “incoming”, and was waiting for them to get to the point where he could shoot. They flared as soon as I fired. He shouted “I’ll get it!” and grabbed the long handled salmon landing net that I had brought along for such situations and shuffled along the shore ice to a point where he could get into the water to net it. His speed and determination netted the duck just before the current could take it downstream. It was a fine drake that we took a few minutes to admire.

The birds started flying up and down the river, mostly mallards and goldeneye, and we did our best to drop them. Jim was shooting 12ga 3” Remington factory steel #2, and I was shooting a variety of old 12ga 2 ¾” #2 factory steel and old factory #4 bismuth. I had this ammo in my ammo locker for many years and decided to use it up. This turned out to be a mistake. Jim dropped three goldeneye, while I kept missing. Finally a large flock of mallards came into the decoys, at least 300 birds. In the frantic shooting that followed, Jim dropped a couple while I watched feathers fly off two birds that I had targeted, expecting both to fall, but only one did, and it managed to land 100 yards up stream. I easily netted it as it drifted by the decoys.

I told Jim, “I’m out of ammo.” He looked surprized. I realized I needed to clarify what I meant, that the dozen factory shells I had were gone and I was going to shoot my 12ga 2¾” #4 bismuth handloads. I told him that this was a pet load developed many years ago when I was among the first to start using bismuth shot in Canada. I call it the “quacker whacker” which consists of 1 1/4oz of #4 bismuth coming out at 1400fps.

We didn’t need to wait long for more goldeneye to come up the river, and this time we were ready and I dropped two and Jim got one. Then a lone drake goldeneye came down the river and I fired a single shot that sent him cartwheeling onto the gravel bar. We waited a while and the birds seemed to have stopped flying. We were talking about packing up when Jim noticed a group of “floaters” coming down the river. As we watched several groups of goldeneye and mallards drifted towards us with the current. We became motionless and wondered if they would come in to visit our decoys. A couple of mallards swam in amongst the decoys quacking, noticed their error, and lifted off. We dropped them back in with the decoys with a couple of shots each.

We waited a while for more birds to fly by, but nothing seemed to be flying, and no more floaters appeared. We had started packing up the gear and retrieving the decoys, when a fly fisherman appeared from upstream. We were polite and merely nodded to each other, but the mystery of the sudden end to the action was solved.

We packed up the truck and Jim noted that he had a great recipe for goldeneye sausage, so we swapped recipes for goldeneye sausage and bacon wrapped cream cheese mallard duck breasts. We planned to share some duck dinners in the New Year.