Conservator » Editor's Pick » Long-tails and snow squalls

Long-tails and snow squalls

A Prairie waterfowler battles the elements on Lake Ontario in pursuit of an elusive quarry.

Chris Benson (left) plunges into the crashing Lake Ontario waves in search of long-tailed ducks. ©Adrian Skok
Chris Benson (left) plunges into the crashing Lake Ontario waves in search of long-tailed ducks. ©Adrian Skok

Adversity. Waterfowlers thrive on it, relish it, and each season we look forward to it. Ask any serious waterfowler about their most memorable hunts and you’ll hear stories about days spent afield when winds howled and temperatures plummeted. On those days, ducks and geese seem to abandon all wariness and cup into the decoys without hesitation.

When conditions are at their worst, waterfowling can be at its best.

Prairie waterfowlers like me spend most of the season chasing dabbling ducks, various species of geese and occasionally, diving ducks. On the Prairies we battle harsh weather, especially in late fall, just before ice and snow lock up all available open water and waterfowl head for warmer climates.

While the Prairies offer incredible and memorable opportunities to hunt waterfowl, they do lack one thing: sea ducks.

For years I’d enjoyed tales from East Coast waterfowlers about their pursuits of scoters, eiders, and long-tailed ducks. Their adventures struck a chord; I searched for opportunities to pursue these mysterious birds.

And a chance to meet my friend adversity, yet again.

I found those opportunities in Prince Edward County, Ont. For good reason: It’s an area renowned for its diver hunting, specifically the wintering population of long-tailed ducks.

“Populations of long-tailed ducks have increased ten-fold at Lake Ontario,” says Philip Wilson, who studied long-tailed ducks at Lake Ontario towards his MSc from the University of Western Ontario. “This is due to increases in food abundance in the form of quagga and zebra mussels.”

As a long-tailed hunting novice, I relied on the guiding expertise of local Ducks Unlimited Canada volunteers Frank and Tanya Dunlop, owners of County Outfitters.

I got my first chance to hunt Lake Ontario with the Dunlops in January 2015, in a trip marked by bone chilling temperatures and extreme wind chills.

Most of the waters along the Lake Ontario shoreline had frozen; we spent the early morning chopping holes in the ice so we could deploy our rig of decoys. Meanwhile, heavy cloud cover and snow squalls raced across the lake, shrouding distant shores.

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Breaking the ice along the shoreline and deploying decoys. ©Chris Benson

When light finally began to penetrate the murky sky, we could see that Lake Ontario was in a foul mood. Mountainous waves pounded the frozen edge of the ice. Large numbers of divers and long-tails skirted the edge of ice and water, diving between the waves like aerial acrobats, appearing and disappearing like magic. Divers of all sorts flew high over our decoy spread, bucking the wind, and some came low enough to take the first couple birds of the day.

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Retrieving a downed bird on the frozen lake amidst a snow squall. ©Chris Benson

Despite being frozen to the core and my waders coated in a thick layer of ice from immersion in waist deep water. I was hopeful for a mature long-tailed drake. Finally, through the snow squalls, a beautiful drake long-tail appeared, offering a clean shot. We were able to add the drake to our already healthy assortment of divers. By mid-morning the flight had slowed and we ended our hunt.

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Wading waist deep through icy Lake Ontario waters to make the retrieve. ©Chris Benson

That 2015 trip whet my appetite for another chance to hunt Lake Ontario. This past December my good friend Adrian Skok joined me. As we made our way to Prince Edward County, the weather forecast for the next morning’s hunt included winds gusting to 70 kilometres per hour. Frank Dunlop assured us that we could get out the next day if we were strategic in our choice of hunt location.

Overnight, a new strong westerly front had moved in, bringing with it the forecast high winds. We set up two dozen decoys on the lee-side of a long point that stretched into Lake Ontario. This side was calm, but just off the point the wind whipped Lake Ontario into a fury.

The long-tails once again seem to prefer the wild and windy side of the point, twisting and turning, dogging amongst the massive waves. While we were getting the odd opportunity it was clear we had to battle the wind and waves to get where the ducks wanted to be. Without a word, we picked up and moved out of the lee-side of the point.

Adrian hid among some driftwood that had washed up on shore, while Frank and I braved the elements, forging into the abusive surf.

Marching out into the full wrath of Lake Ontario.

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Chris Benson (left) and Frank Dunlop scan for birds while battling the waves. ©Adrian Skok

Positioned with the wind to our backs, our eyes scanned for long-tails that were skirting the edge of the waves. Each wave smashed into our backs, breaking over our heads, soaking us from head to toe and throwing us off balance. Picking out the drake long-tails as they screamed through the troughs and crests of the waves proved to be far more challenging than any Prairie wing shooting experience.

After half an hour of being battered by Lake Ontario a mature drake long-tail came just off the surface of the lake toward us. Frank called the shot and I was able to connect on this gorgeous bird. Frank made the retrieve, cradling the bird close to his body to protect it from the lake’s abuse.

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Frank Dunlop retrieving Chris Benson’s mature drake long-tail. ©Chris Benson

At this point, I put down my gun and picked up my camera to document a thrilling morning that saw Adrian follow up with a hefty drake long-tail.

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Adrian Skok with his gorgeous long-tailed drake. ©Chris Benson

While waterfowlers appreciate and welcome the sunny warm days of the early season, we seem ultimately hardwired to push ourselves to our limit of endurance in pursuit of our quarry. That’s why the days when the wind screams like a banshee and the cold takes your breath away are the ones we’re most likely to recall.

Lake Ontario, thanks for testing my mettle. I look forward for my next visit and adventure!

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Long-tailed duck wings its way above the frigid waters of Lake Ontario. ©Chris Benson

Long-tailed duck facts:

According to Philip Wilson, long-tailed ducks have an ability to dive to great depths to access food: “Commercial fishermen on Lakes Ontario and Michigan routinely incidentally capture birds in gill nets during feeding bouts of up to 200 feet deep! These ducks also ‘fly’ underwater as they use their wings to help propel and thrust themselves forward to combat their buoyant bodies.”

Formerly known as oldsquaw, the long-tailed duck breeds in the Arctic and winters along both coasts of North America. It is distinctive among ducks in plumage, molt sequences, foraging behavior, and vocalizations.

Adult Description
• Medium-sized diving duck.
• Mostly black-and-white plumage, varying throughout year.
• Black wings in all plumages.
• Male has long central tail feathers and often a pink band near tip of black bill.
Credit: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Long-tailed_Duck/id

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Chris Benson

Chris Benson

Chris Benson is Ducks Unlimited Canada’s national waterfowling heritage coordinator. He spends much of his time enjoying Canada’s natural spaces with gun, rod and camera in hand.

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