October 11, 2022
This destinations article on waterfowl hunting is featured in the East edition of October's Game & Fish Magazine. Click to subscribe
The beam of our headlamps scanned the darkness as we searched for the next trail marker, but the only things reflecting light were Genny's eyes. The black Lab was invisible save for the spooky orbs glowing like hot coals in the night 20 yards down the path.
It was a good hour before shooting time and the vast marsh surrounding us was still as dark as the retriever’s coat. My son Joel and I stood at an intersection in the trail, finally spotting the next reflector and continuing our trudge deeper into the depths of the 10,828-acre Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge and our assigned hunting site.
We had been lucky to be picked third in that morning's draw, and were excited to be heading to blind Number 9. The tally board in the barn at Iroquois HQ showed us that hunters had harvested a nice mixed bag of puddlers there on the opener of New York's Western Zone duck season two days earlier. The word "blind" is used loosely; it's nothing more than a large marker post in the marsh that hunters have to hunt within 50 feet of.
Iroquois NWR is a waterfowl paradise hiding smack in the middle of Western New York between Buffalo and Rochester, and only 20 minutes north of the New York State Thruway at exit 48A (Pembroke/Medina). What makes the refuge exceptional is it's bordered by Oak Orchard Creek State Game Refuge to the east and Tonawanda Wildlife Management Area to the west. The three areas combine to make up a huge waterfowl mecca—the Alabama Swamp Complex—that is a major stopping ground for migrating waterfowl heading south in the Atlantic Flyway. Iroquois is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, while Oak Orchard and Tonawanda are managed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
A lone mallard drake was the first to show the morning Joel and I hunted Iroquois, but he was reluctant to join our get together. Joel and I got on the calls hard, but all the greenhead would do was circle just out of range. Joel finally hit the button on the remote and turned off our pair of spinner decoys. That turned out to be the key, as the orange-legged puddler dropped in to meet the gang and never left, Joel dropping him with one shot. It surprised me how skittish the ducks had been so far that morning, as it was only late October and the second hunt of the season in the refuge. In this case, the mallard was obviously wary of our robo ducks.
Use of spinner decoys can be a double-edge sword. Their movement attracts birds from a distance, but the fact that every waterfowler everywhere is using them these days can educate the local duck population in a hurry. That being said, they work great on fresh birds. The use of spinners is a delicate dance. You have to read the ducks and turn them on or off based on their reactions.
Ten minutes later I had a pass shot at another mallard but didn't loosen a feather. Joel had my back, though, and made a nice shot at the flaring duck. We next teamed up on a drake green-winged teal that buzzed in without warning. Then the duck gods flipped a switch and the action died. We could hear occasional shooting from other blinds in the marsh, but could tell by the frequency that nobody was doing much damage.
It was soon pushing 11 o'clock. Iroquois allows hunting until noon, and all hunters must be back at the permit station no later than 1 o'clock. Having not pulled a trigger for the last hour, Joel and I were discussing yanking the plug on the hunt when a small flock of wigeon appeared in the distance. The six ducks circled our spread, showing off their stark white underbellies on the turn. I blew my wigeon whistle while Joel added some mallard hen talk and the birds became believers, locking their wings and maple leafing in to our decoys, spinners in full rotation.
These were obviously fresh ducks, probably arriving on the strong north wind that blew overnight. As close as they came, we were disappointed to only drop two ducks. Genny made the first retrieve with no problem, but was having trouble finding the second duck. Finally, Joel had to wade out and help her, as we could tell the bird was moving on the dog and the cover was thick. Joel eventually had to put a finishing shot on the lively wigeon as Genny forced it out of the dense cattails.
Rules of Engagement
Depending on the habitat from one year to the next, Iroquois will typically have more than 30 blind sites, most of which are walk-in, with three or four requiring a canoe to access them. Permit fees are $10 on Saturdays and $5 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Up to three hunters can share each permit. In addition, there is a $5 online application fee to cover administrative costs.
Iroquois holds a pre-season drawing for the first two Saturdays of the season, and applications need to be submitted online between August 15 and September 15. Don't let this deter you as you read this in October, since most of the best hunting falls later in the season. Other than the first two Saturdays that are for successful early online applicants only, all you need to do is show up at the Iroquois HQ by 5 o'clock on any Tuesday, Thursday or later Saturday morning during the season and enter your name in that day's hunt drawing.
Individual blind draws are decided on the morning of the hunt through a random drawing. Hunters must bring proof that they have completed their waterfowl identification course, a valid New York hunting license, Harvest Information Program number and, of course, a signed federal duck stamp. It is possible that more hunters could show than there are blinds available, but this is rare.
Improve Your Resume
If you are a hardcore waterfowler, you need to experience Iroquois NWR this season. In these days of a two-mallard limit in New York, the refuge offers a wide variety of waterfowl that allow for a large and varied bag. On the morning of our hunt, we saw no fewer than 10 different species of waterfowl, even hearing the extremely rare call of sandhill cranes as we entered the marsh in the dark.
This fall, take on a new adventure and go tangle with the ducks at this amazing waterfowl paradise hiding in plain sight in Western New York. I’m willing to bet you will add the trip to your yearly hunt schedule. And once your waterfowl buddies see your photos of the place and your mixed-bag bounty, they will be lining up to join you.