A particular article I read when I was my mid-teens in one of the old hunting magazines my father collected resonates with me to this day. The article in question was penned by a retired US Army officer who lived in Maine. He enjoyed duck hunting on the Penobscot River, gunning for black ducks and goldeneyes in the late season. He hunted with a friend, a man named Dave Bell , a serving officer in the US Army, and noted carver of working duck decoys in Maine. I so enjoyed reading his article as it really piqued my interest in gunning for the common goldeneye. I really wish I could find a copy of the magazine with the article and believe me, I have tried over the years to find one with no luck. I remember learning the colloquial term for the goldeneye in reading this article. Goldeneyes are commonly called whistlers, due to the distinctive whistling sound they make when beating their wings in flight. The author likened the sound of goldeneyes in flight to that of the sound of artillery shells as they approach the target. I spent many years learning the finer points of gunning for the goldeneye and it is something I look forward to every hunting season.
The common goldeneye is a medium-sized species of diving duck found across North America. It nests in cavities in trees, its main breeding grounds being found in northern Canada. I see goldeneyes courting on the Rideau River over the winter months and into spring. The courtship display the drakes put on consists of throwing their head back and making a buzzing sound. I spend most of my time in the field viewing and photographing wildlife, including the common goldeneye. The goldeneye is not especially gregarious as a species. Goldeneyes like to keep to themselves. It is quite common to see a flock of goldeneyes resting on the water alongside a flock of puddle ducks, such as black ducks and mallards, but they keep their distance. While goldeneyes will decoy to a spread of bluebill decoys on occasion, you can expect to have better luck if you use goldeneye decoys.
In my zeal to gun for goldeneyes, I bought a set of one dozen finely crafted goldeneye decoys from a craftsman in Colorado in 1989. The decoys had cork bodies and wooden heads. They cost a pretty penny, but I was determined to be successful as a hunter of goldeneyes. As it happened, the decoys worked very well. Ducks were attracted to them like iron to a magnet, just it was not goldeneyes right away. I found that when I was gunning for ringbills on marshes on the Ottawa River, ringbills, teal, mallards and black ducks decoyed very readily to my goldeneye decoys. Goldeneyes remained few and far between in those days. I heard them occasionally flying high over head. I got my first goldeneye in 1991, a hen who landed in the decoys. I shot her as she attempted a hasty departure. I had a most memorable goldeneye hunt on St. Joseph Island in the late 1990s with my father. We built a rock blind on the shore of Lake Huron and set out my goldeneye decoys with some black and mallard decoys.
As you can see in the photos, gunning for goldeneyes is something one does late in the hunting season. Goldeneyes are among the last of the migrating waterfowl to pass through, typically just ahead of when the rivers and ponds freeze over. When I am out pursuing goldeneyes, I dress warmly wearing long underwear and layers of clothing. You can always take off a layer if you get too warm, but when you are cold, you just stay cold. I also bring a thermos bottle filled with piping hot black coffee from Tim Hortons and pop-tarts, which I find hit the spot if I get peckish.
As the years passed and my fortunes improved, I was able to afford my own boat and outboard motor. The first combination was a 14 foot aluminum vessel and an antiquated Johnson 9.9 horsepower outboard motor. I used this combo for a couple of seasons, but alas, during a goldeneye hunt with a hunting buddy on the Rideau River in 2003, the temperature plummeted and the river started freezing around us. The ancient outboard motor chose that moment to give up the ghost and we were forced to abandon my beautiful cork goldeneye decoys as we struggled to break through the ice that was forming and get back to shore. I have one of these decoys left, a monument to the set that was lost. I replaced the aluminum boat and the defunct outboard motor, purchasing a 14 foot fibreglass boat from my former hunting buddy who retired from hunting and an 8 horsepower Johnson outboard motor. The fibreglass boat was fashioned into a floating blind with mats of woven palm leaves attached to a frame that can be raised and lowered as needed.
Together with a new (new to me) boat and outboard motor (which was subsequently replaced in 2013 with a superior 9.9 horsepower model), I acquired a new set of goldeneye decoys. They were hand carved from cedar and painted by a local craftsman named Barry Cowan. They are shown in the photograph above and are so lifelike it is hard to tell them apart from live birds. Sadly, Barry passed away last year, so I am taking special care of these decoys and will take great care not to lose them while out hunting!
When I am gunning for goldeneyes, I first and foremost, look for a spot the birds are using. One thing I learned over the years in waterfowl hunting is you have to go where the birds are as they are not going to come to you. Here in the Ottawa Valley I get good goldeneye hunting on stretches of the Rideau and Tay Rivers. I set up my boat blind in the desired spot after placing the goldeneye decoys in a loose pattern no more than 25-30 yards in front of the blind. I place a few mallard and black duck decoys closer to the blind, making certain there are several yards between the two sets of decoys. Goldeneyes are full-feathered birds and can be tough to kill. I wait until the birds decoy and are well within range before shooting. The fact that they are diving ducks makes chasing down crippled birds all the more difficult as they dive and swim very rapidly when not killed cleanly. If you down a goldeneye and it is not dead on the water, keep your gun ready and the moment it surfaces, shoot. Be sure to point at the waterline, rather than the bird, as you will shoot over the bird if you point at it.
As I found new hunting buddies over the years, some of whom are new Canadians, I enjoy introducing them to the pleasures of pursuing the common goldeneye. Omer and Doug, pictured below are friends and hunting buddies of mine who came to Canada from Pakistan and Jamaica. I learned from them about the rich hunting cultures they enjoyed in their homelands and together we avail ourselves of the hunting culture and opportunities one finds in Canada. I look forward to getting out with them in the late season this coming fall in hopes of bagging some goldeneyes.
Posted by Geoffrey