'Snows' in September
It's a long way from Texas to the middle of Saskatchewan, but even so, I had the strange feeling that I had been here before.
Because in many ways, although I had never visited this Canadian province or the sprawling grounds available to Buddy Graham and his legendary Northway Outfitters hunting operation, I had been.
Here at least, in terms of setting out countless early morning decoy spreads in a variety of duck marshes and goose fields scattered across the flyways, all with the pre-dawn hope of calling in a limit of birds as wings whistled overhead.
Such are the musings that go through the mind of a graying 40-something while standing at the back of a horse trailer, helping to unload more than 40 dozen full-body Canada goose decoys, snow goose shells and windsocks and a collection of old-school homemade duck silhouettes.
All as the first blush of the coming day approached the edge of a harvested Saskatchewan pea field where half-dozen hunters were rapidly digging in for epic hunt.
Literally, I might add.
After setting out the spread under the direction of Wally, our good-natured Canadian guide and host that morning, we were all handed shovels and instructed to dig into the northern dirt, eventually ending up with a sort of a pit blind that we could sink down into.
"Dig it a little deeper, eh?" Wally instructed me as I moved the soft earth and gathered mounds of stubble and grass to help complete the ruse. "And hurry up a little bit, eh? This field was loaded up with birds yesterday and we don't want to be late."
(Lynn Burkhead photo)
Wearing white-cloth coats, the hope was that we would be able to hide from the wary eyes of tens of thousands of snow geese – and plenty of Canada geese, white-fronted geese (specklebellies, or specks, as they are also known) and mallards too – noisily occupying an unseen roost to our north.
More than an hour and a half after we arrived in a collection of pick-up trucks and began our preparations with flashlights and headlamps, the fowl notes were building and the sun was quickly approaching the horizon as Wally issued final instructions.
With the approach of legal shooting time, the first geese were growing nervous as they prepared to lift into the mild September air in search of big calories to prepare them for the arduous migration that lay ahead.
Finally, Wally called it all good and it was show time in the heart of the Canadian duck factory.
Looking around and wishing for a cup of early morning coffee, it didn't take long to see that I was surrounded by significant hunting talent as I eagerly anticipated my first venture north of the border to chase waterfowl.
Just to my right was chief guide and pit boss Wally – Uncle Wally as we called him – whose keen eyes would follow the overhead waterfowl traffic and call the shots during the morning hunt.
To his right was Charlie Holder, the talented and likable CEO of Sure-Shot Game Calls, the Groves, Texas-based, company that gave the world the double-reed duck call so many years ago.
(Lynn Burkhead photo)
That call, the Yentzen 501 Classic with its unique shape and wooden sound, was what Texas Gulf Coast residents Jim "Cowboy" Fernandez and George Yentzen designed in an effort to come up with an easy to use call that sounded just like a mallard hen.
So good was the double-reed call that the pair created that Fernandez would use it a generation ago to ride into Stuttgart, Ark., and capture the 1959 world duck calling title in a place where the Arkansas style single-reed call had dominated for years.
But that was then, this was now and the 80-something-year-old Cowboy was a bit under the weather and waiting for us back in the lodge.
Part of his wait involved anticipation to find out how our crew liked the modern version of the call, now redesigned by Holder and dubbed the Yentzen One. A jet-black double-reed with a screw-lock design and a space-age proprietary CNC body, it wouldn't take long that morning to find out that the Yentzen One produces some of the best duck sounds available today.
In addition to being judged by thousands of wary eyes honed-sharp by years of survival instinct, it dawned on me that I was sitting between both calling and shotgunning greatness as I blew a few tentative notes on the Sure-Shot goose calls dangling from my neck and wielded a new Beretta auto-loader.
Nonetheless, within minutes, ducks and geese were lifting skyward and the air was literally full of birds as singles, doubles, small groups and big undulating lines wheeled overhead, giving Uncle Wally's spread the day's first good aerial once-over.
With a mixture of high broken clouds and sunshine, not to mention a slight wind and mild temperature readings in the 70s, the stage seemed hardly set for an epic mid-September snow goose hunt.
Adding to the mild early autumn weather was the fact that very heavy spring and summer rains last year across Saskatchewan had complicated the hunting landscape by delaying the harvest of the province's voluminous grain crops.
As a result, waterfowl movements were unpredictable each day as the swarms of hungry birds chased the rumbling combines as the machines scurried to complete their harvesting tasks before fall and winter arrived.
Despite less than ideal flight conditions – with snow geese, you want a good bit of wind, limited visibility and low ceilings to facilitate the best shoots – there was no need for concern.
Because although I was a long way from my home at the bottom of the Central Flyway, the 2014 waterfowl migration was beginning in earnest and I was in the middle of Saskatchewan, a place where the worst waterfowl hunting days usually exceed the best days elsewhere.
With a building degree of regularity, geese – and a few early season mallards still wearing their drab late summer plumage – would approach the edge of our spread that morning, allowing Wally to bark out the command to "Get 'em boys!"
(Lynn Burkhead photo)
And that we did as our crew gradually worked in the direction of generous limits with piles of Hevi-Shot and Hevi-Metal shotgun shell hulls gathering around our makeshift blinds.
Even yours truly got into the act, shooting well enough to knock down my share of geese and ducks whistling overhead.
During periodic lulls in the action, our group would banter back and forth, telling hunting stories and needling each other in the friendly, good-natured ribbing that is common to hunting camps all across the continent.
One of those gab sessions was cut short as a band of specklebellies made its way towards our spread. As I worked on a small wad that broke to our left, Holder took aim on a pair that broke to our right.
With successive shots, the Texas resident's shooting was true and Holder downed both birds. With more geese on the wing, he hustled out into the spread to retrieve his double before ducking low and quickly returning with the pair of specks in hand.
Only later when the action slowed again did we discover that Holder had knocked down a pair of banded specklebellies, two jewelry wearing white-fronts that he eventually had mounted together for a prominent spot in his Lone Star State office.
(Lynn Burkhead photo)
While there were no bands on the birds lying at the front of my blind, by morning's end, there were enough geese to clean and put into the new Yeti Hopper soft-sided coolers that we were testing out.
And there were plenty of smiles too as the hunt was finally called and we went to work again to pile more than 40-dozen decoys back into Uncle Wally's horse trailer.
As the break-down continued, every once in a while we would hear more goose music on the wind and the work would grind to a halt as we looked skyward to observe more wings wheeling by overhead.
Because with the appearance of more snows in September sky, there was building promise for the next day's hunt.
And for the chase of these same waterfowl later on in the fall and winter migration, much further down the flyways as we all occupied blinds in our own neck of the woods.
Undoubtedly hearing the voice of Uncle Wally crying in our heads as he urged us all to "Get 'em boys!"