Hidden Treasure Hunt for Empire State Ducks


Mallard duck in flight. (Image Shutterstock)

This article on waterfowl hunting is featured in the October East edition of Game & Fish magazine. Click to subscribe

The beam from our headlights swept through the darkness as we searched for the next trail marker, but the only things that reflected the light were Genny’s eyes. The black lab was invisible except for the spooky orbs that glowed like hot coals in the night 20 yards from the path.

It was a good hour before filming and the vast swamp around us was still as dark as the coat of the retriever. My son Joel and I stood at a junction in the trail, finally spotting the next reflector and continuing our way deeper into the depths of the 10,828 acres Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge and our assigned hunting site.

We had been lucky enough to be chosen third in the draw that morning and were thrilled to head for blind number 9. New York West Zone duck season two days earlier. The word “blind” is used loosely; it’s nothing more than a large marker post in the swamp that hunters have to hunt within 50 feet.

waterfowl magnet

Iroquois NWR is a waterfowl paradise tucked away smack in the middle of Western New York between Buffalo and Rochester, and just 20 minutes north of the New York State Highway at Exit 48A ( Pembroke/Medina). What makes the refuge exceptional is that it is bordered by Oak Orchard Creek State Game Refuge to the east and Tonawanda Wildlife Management Area West. The three areas combine to form a huge waterfowl Mecca – the Alabama Swamp Complex – which is a major stopover for migratory waterfowl heading south on the Atlantic Flyway. Iroquois is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, while Oak Orchard and Tonawanda are managed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Swamp Festival

A lone mallard duck was the first to show in the morning that Joel and I hunted the Iroquois, but he was reluctant to join our meeting. Joel and I responded harshly to the calls, but all the green head did was spin just out of range. Joel finally pressed the button on the remote and turned off our pair of spinner lures. That turned out to be key, as the orange-legged puddler fell to meet the gang and never left, Joel dropped him all at once. I was surprised at how temperamental the ducks had been that morning, as it was only late October and the second hunt of the season in the refuge. In this case, the mallard was visibly suspicious of our robot ducks.

Using spinner lures can be a double edged sword. Their movement attracts birds from afar, but the fact that all waterfowlers use them these days can quickly educate the local duck population. That being said, they work very well on fresh birds. Using spinners is a delicate dance. You have to read the ducks and activate or deactivate them according to their reactions.

Ten minutes later I had a pass shot on another mallard but didn’t loosen a feather. Joel was backing me up though and landed a nice shot on the flaming duck. We then teamed up on a green-winged teal drake that buzzed around without warning. Then the duck gods flipped a switch and the action stopped. We could hear occasional shots from other blinds in the swamp, but we could tell by the frequency that no one was doing much damage.

Easy access to the New York Duck Map
Early season visitors to Iroquois NWR are bound to encounter at least a few fast green-winged teals. (Image Shutterstock)

It was nearly 11 o’clock. The Iroquois allow hunting until noon and all hunters must be back at the permit station no later than 1:00 a.m. Having not pulled the trigger for the last hour, Joel and I were discussing pulling the plug on the hunt when a small group of American Wigeons appeared in the distance. The six ducks circled our spread, showing their white bellies as they turned. I blew my duck whistle as Joel added some mallard hen chatter and the birds became believers, locking their wings and maple leaves into our decoy spinning spinners.

They were evidently fresh ducks, probably arrived by the strong north wind which blew during the night. As close as they came, we were disappointed to only drop two ducks. Genny made the first retrieve with no problem, but had trouble finding the second duck. Finally Joel had to wade in and help him out as we could tell the bird was moving over the dog and the blanket was thick. Joel eventually had to put a knockout on the lively duck as Genny forced him out of dense cattails.

Duck hunter and dog
A good dog makes life easier in Iroquois NWR, as many retrieves occur in heavy cover. (Photo by TR Hendrick)

Rules of Engagement

Depending on the habitat from year to year, the Iroquois will typically have over 30 blind sites, most of which are single level, with three or four requiring a canoe to access. Permit fees are $10 on Saturdays and $5 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Up to three hunters can share each permit. Additionally, there is a $5 online application fee to cover administrative costs.

Iroquois is holding a pre-season draw for the first two Saturdays of the season, and entries must be submitted online between August 15 and September 15. Don’t be discouraged as you read this in October, as most of the best hunting falls later in the season. With the exception of the first two Saturdays reserved for successful first-line applicants, all you need to do is report to Iroquois HQ by 5 p.m. every Tuesday, Thursday, or later Saturday morning of the season and enter your name. hunting drawing of the day.

Individual blind draws are decided on the morning of the hunt by drawing lots. Hunters must bring proof of completion of 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 for more hunters to show that there are no caches available, but this is rare.

East Access NY Duck Map

Improve your CV

If you are a waterfowl fanatic, you must experience Iroquois NWR this season. In these days of a two mallard limit in New York, the sanctuary offers a wide variety of waterfowl that allow for a wide and varied bag. The morning of our hunt we saw no less than 10 different species of waterfowl, even hearing the extremely rare call of sandhill cranes as we entered the swamp in the dark.

This fall, go on an adventure and meet the ducks in this incredible waterfowl paradise hidden in plain sight in Western New York. I’m willing to bet you’ll add the trip to your annual hunting schedule. And once your waterfowl buddies see your photos of the place and your mixed bag bounty, they’ll line up to join you.


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