Waterfowling for Ducks and Geese in Canada

It's not just that waterfowl swarm the Canadian prairies in flocks of biblical proportions, or that limits run as high as eight ducks, eight dark geese, and 20 light geese a day. And it's not that the "duck factory" of lower Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta covers more than 20,000 square miles of prime breeding terrain and produces almost half of North America's duck population--although that's a major factor. The real reason American waterfowlers return year after year to this vast patchwork of sprawling grainfields pocked with watery low spots and edged with golden-leafed aspens is to experience hunting as it must have been in the States in the 1950s: wide open spaces, cheap room and board at mom-and-pop motels, and friendly farmers who grant permission to hunt for the price of a handshake.

"I was nervous about asking people at first, but I never had any trouble getting permission," says Jason Thompson, a Tennesseean from Memphis who is more accustomed to hunting the heavily posted, leased ricefields and woods of Arkansas. In the fall of 2001, Thompson and his father flew from Memphis to Winnipeg, rented a car for the week, checked into a motel in tiny Minnedosa, Manitoba, and hunted the numerous Ducks Unlimited projects in that area. (This is a good strategy for many hunters, since DU Canada owns 290,000 acres of wetlands, all of which are open to the public. The remainder of DU's 6 million acres of projects are in private hands, but some 85 percent are open to hunting with the owner's permission.)

The Thompsons kept their hunts simple, focusing on puddle ducks in the small potholes and the occasional passing sandhill crane. They carried a dozen mallard floaters (shipped ahead of time) and rarely even bothered to set out all 12 blocks. For blinds, the hunters stood in the cattails.

"We've never had to spend more than half an hour hunting in the morning to shoot our ducks," says Thompson. "The rest of the time Dad and I drove around, took walks, scouted for the next day's hunt, and enjoyed being together in Canada."

If you're going after geese, there are larger logistical problems to solve, but they're well worth the trouble. Tommy Akin, another Tennesseean (from Greenfield), began traveling to Saskatchewan in the early 1990s to hunt snow geese, and he has assembled a regular crew that has a field-tested strategy for their annual September hunt. Akin and his friends put out a huge spread consisting of 1,000 homemade windsocks for snows, four dozen full-body Canadas, and three dozen Canada shells. Each year one or two hunters in the group volunteer to drive up to Canada with the decoys, and the rest fly in and rent vehicles.

Akin's group scouts in the afternoons, following the snows as the birds leave the lakes--where they roost--in waves. They look for big numbers of geese--10,000 or more--feeding over the dry pea and barley fields. Because the fields are huge and featureless, the hunters use their truck odometers to get a precise fix on the location where the birds are feeding. The next morning, they're in the field before dawn, deploying their huge spread on the exact spot where the birds fed the night before.

"I won't tell you it's not work, but we have done this long enough that eight of us can put out 1,000 rags in 45 minutes," says Akin. Once the decoys are set, the hunters don white jackets and facemasks. Rather than hunt on their backs in layout blinds, Akin and company swear by low-profile hunting chairs.

"In a chair, you're already up in a good shooting position, and you're right there eyeball-to-eyeball with the geese." Akin's crew routinely shoots limits of snows, Canadas, and ducks, often in less time than it takes to set out and pick up the decoys.

In order to keep hunting without exceeding their possession limits, the Tennesseeans give lots of geese to the locals. "As long as you dress the birds, people are happy to take them," says Akin. Of course, the Akin crew keeps birds to cook and to bring home; others they take to the Chinese restaurants in town. "Last year they cooked us snow goose chop suey and sweet-and-sour snow goose. We had snows seven different ways and it was all good," says Akin.

TRIP PLANNER

PICKING YOUR SPOT: The prairie pothole region of Canada covers southwestern Manitoba, the southern third of Saskatchewan, and southeastern Alberta. There's good hunting anywhere in this duck factory, but you need to keep tabs on local water conditions as you plan your trip (DU is a good source of information). I've enjoyed fine pothole duck hunting near Boissevain, Manitoba, which is 60 miles south of Minnedosa. I've had great dark goose hunts due east of Edmonton along both sides of the Alberta-Saskatchewan line. Tommy Akin's crew hunts the Quill Lakes region of Saskatchewan, a major staging area for snow geese. Southwest Saskatchewan has some of the best white-fronted goose hunting in North America. Manitoba's Lake Winnipegosis and Lake Manitoba are virtually untapped by diver hunters (you need to trailer a boat), although almost any large lake in the region will teem with divers. Canadian provincial parks, by the way, are open to hunting. Call well in advance to reserve accommodations: American hunters quickly fill the small-town motels in September and October.

LOGISTICS: Canada requires visiting hunters to declare firearms at the border for a fee of $50 Canadian (about $35 U.S.). If, like Tommy Akin, you plan to go every year, you can take a written test and obtain a P.A.L. (possession and acquisition license) card valid for five years (it costs $60 Canadian). Akin and his friends who fly take the 200 rounds of ammo that the airlines allow. Whoever drives up brings a few cases and pays the duty, which works out to about 10 cents on the dollar. The small duty fee is money well spent, says Akin: "In Canada, 200 rounds doesn't always last you very long." License fees and season dates vary by province. Plan on spending about $100 U.S. on the required hunting licenses, stamps, and certificates. Seasons open in mid-September and run into December, although hard freezes usually send birds packing to the States long before the seasons close. Mid-September through October is generally the best time to go. --P.B.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

• Ducks Unlimited Canada, 800-665-3825; www.ducks.ca

• Canadian Firearms Centre, 800-731-4000; www.cfc-ccaf.gc.ca

• Travel Alberta, 800-252-3782; www.travelalberta.com

• Travel Manitoba, 800-665-0040; www.travelmanitoba.com

• Tourism Saskatchewan, 306-787-9600 or 877-237-2273; www.sasktourism.com