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It can be incredibly difficult to find a harvested game bird during a waterfowl hunt, especially if you are hunting early in the morning or right at dusk. One of my hunting partners has a gun dog, a Labrador retriever and she is an important member of our team.

We take great pride in being able to bring back our harvested game birds, but also about being safe and ethical hunters, every year our families have a wild game dinner.

She is a strong swimmer, and with her great sense of sight as well as smell, she brings back bird after bird and the only price I pay, is a muddy, wet truck with a happy dog sitting in the back seat.

However when I am out on my own either sitting in my ground blind or in my canoe it becomes a little more challenging because you are no longer just taking the shots and letting the gun dog complete the retrieval process. You are now also focusing on what I call the follow through and not just for the shooting aspect.

Being able to retrieve a duck or goose and bring it back home for a meal is a wonderful feeling; I have included a link to the Government of Canada, Justice Law Website and section for the Migratory Birds Regulations concerning retrieving birds.

I also would like to share some of the techniques I use when retrieving my migratory game birds without a gun dog. Once the game bird has fallen into the water or the wetlands vegetation after the shot and I have decided the retrieval process has begun, safety becomes my number one priority.

For me safety is represented in several flavors: Firearm safety, once I have taken the shot and harvested the game bird and made the choice not to down additional birds, I unload my shotgun immediately before starting my retrieval process.

Wearing my life-jacket is another, when I am in my canoe or on foot depending on the depth of the water; it is also about not taking unnecessary risks, understanding the importance of using a boat when the water is too deep or when current is very strong. Life jackets are so important!

Even with chest waders or being a great swimmer it can be very dangerous in the wetlands or along major rivers. The water may look shallow but you can easily sink into the mud getting stuck and even below the surface in a flash. And the water is very often cold. Using a long pole or paddle can help with judging the depth of the water or strength in the mud islands.

Last year I bought myself a pair of ice picks attached to a rubber cord; this is designed to pull yourself out of the water in the event you break through the ice in December.

Being aware of other hunter positions and their awareness, it is possible that you are not the only waterfowl hunter in the area and you want to ensure that they are aware of your presence. I use the same principles as turkey hunting for alerting others, since we are not wearing orange during the waterfowl season; I use my voice, rather than stand and gesture with my hands and arms.

Duck hunting can be a very fast and exciting sport and it takes just one trigger happy hunter to ruin your day.

Once my shot has been taken and the bird has fallen, I do not take my eyes off the bird and I follow it visually until it is on the ground. I then look for a prominent object which is directly in line with the possible position of the game bird, such as a distinct bush, tree, building in the distance. In the fall a tree may have all yellow leaves, and this can be used as a great reference point if the surrounding trees are shorter or if their leaves are red.

In the wetlands sometimes the vegetation and the small water channels create unique looking mini islands or water ways which can aid with placing an imaginary reference point. In some cases, when I am shooting from a ground blind, I will walk towards the shore and then place a stick into the mud to mark off the direction. Once I get into my canoe and start paddling toward the game bird, I use the stick as a reference point while heading in the direction where the bird fell.

Judging the right distance is also very important, during the retrieval process, I know that the majority of my shots will never exceed twenty-five meters, and knowing this aids with the retrieval because it allows you to visually break up the ground between you and the bird into sections in the event you do a type of box search.

Just like tracking  a blood trail for big game like deer, in some cases you can find a large bunch of feathers at the exact point of impact in the water. This can point you in the right direction. Also depending on the depth of the water and the density of the weeds below, look to see if the bird got stuck below the surface in the roots, all my ducks and geese have floated and only once did I have a mallard break through the ice during landing and get stuck underneath. Mallards and black ducks can be very difficult to see in murky water filled with weeds, their feathers make them almost invisible. For geese I look for the large white feathers on their underside. I compare it to the tail of a white tail deer; it is quite visible from far and can assist during the spotting of the bird. For mallards, I look for the blue on their wings and the green heads with white band in the necks for the drakes.

If there are two of you in the canoe, you can have one person stabilize the boat and you can have the second hunter stand and scan the area around the boat for the game birds. Beware of the winds and current.

There are several methods that can be used to develop your skills on how to judge distances. Conduct research on the Internet using key word searches in any major search engine or read books, you can also purchase portable laser range finders if your budget permits. During your annual patterning exercise with your shotgun prior to the waterfowl season at the range, you can use the resources available on site at the shooting club to learn the distances and take mental notes of the sizes of certain objects at certain distances.

Also recreating the shooting scenario from your ground blind or shooting position can assist. A few weeks ago, I shot a Canada goose which was very high above me but towards my far left, I had to really turn to shoot and but it was a successful harvest, the bird fell in very high grass and it was extremely foggy. I thought to myself, I will never be able to find the bird; I unloaded my shotgun, told my partners I was going to retrieve the bird and started walking towards where I thought the bird had landed. I was totally off. So, I walked back to my ground blind and using my arm as the shotgun, I recreated the shot and kept my arm pointing in the direction of my harvest, I walked twenty meters and the goose ended up being one meter to my right hidden behind a fallen tree.

I wish you all a great waterfowl season!

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