PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE, Manitoba — Snow fell here as early as September last year. But it didn’t feel like duck season when Jim Fisher met us at the Winnipeg International Airport.
It seemed more like duck season if you said the temperature in Celsius – 21 degrees, otherwise known as 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
The 2011 Duck Trek would begin in balmy weather, but at least there was an abundance of water. Duck reproduction goes down when the Prairie Pothole region dries up. Just like the precipitation totals here in the past 12 months, in its annual May survey of the breeding grounds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated a population of almost 46 million ducks, the highest since the survey began in 1955.
It appears to be the best time in modern history to be a duck hunter. But we’ve all experienced seasons when the weather in the lower 48 states didn’t allow us to take advantage of a great waterfowling forecast.
The solution? Go where the ducks are. And this early in the season, that would be Canada.
Fisher had planned a simple, old-fashioned duck hunt: scout for ducks the evening prior to the hunt, take a couple dozen decoys and a dog into the marsh before daylight the next day, then wait for the birds to fly.
Fisher, 43, grew up in Portage La Prairie, pop. 12,728, located 43 miles west of Winnipeg. The town’s name is as descriptive as one gets. “Portage” is a French word that means to carry a canoe between waterways. In this case, it’s the Assiniboine River and Lake Manitoba, located on the Canada prairie.
Delta Marsh lies on the south end of Lake Manitoba, separated by a wooded ridge. A few thousand years ago, it was a delta formed by the Assiniboine River flowing into Lake Manitoba. The river has since changed course, but the marsh remains.
Delta Marsh typically encompasses about 45,000 acres of interconnected shallow bays lined with cattails and filled with various other types of aquatic vegetation. It may have grown to twice that size this summer, due to runoff from heavy snowmelt and rainfall. It was beginning to recede to its normal level when we arrived.
You can’t overstate the importance of Delta Marsh in the modern history of duck hunting. This is where Minneapolis industrialist James Ford Bell, founder of General Mills, came for good duck hunting after his favorite areas in Minnesota began declining. And he started buying land in the marsh.
The Delta Waterfowl Foundation dates its inception to 1911. But it was here, in 1938, when the organization began to fly. Working with the American Wildlife Institute, Bell hired Aldo Leopold to address declining waterfowl populations. Leopold, considered the father of North American conservation, summoned the services of one of his University of Wisconsin graduate students, Al Hochbaum, to spend the months of June through November conducting waterfowl research at facilities Bell provided.
“This is the place I have always dreamed of,” Hochbaum reportedly said upon his arrival in Delta Marsh. Hochbaum would become a legendary waterfowl authority before his retirement in 1970.
Delta Marsh also attracted Jimmy Robinson, who would later be proclaimed the “Sportsman of the Century” after his 45-year outdoor writing career, mostly at Sports Afield magazine. Robinson hunted the marsh as a boy. The guests at Robinson’s Sports Afield Duck Club Lodge near the marsh included Babe Ruth and Ernest Hemingway. Robinson died in 1986, but his lodge continues to host hunters.
Delta Marsh was also home to Duncan Ducharme, whose hand-carved duck decoys are now treasured by collectors. Ducharme took over for his father as the decoy-maker for James Ford Bell.
So, yes, there’s a lot of history here. It was created by the fact that Delta Marsh is one of the world’s greatest gathering places for waterfowl. This is their staging area before winter’s migration south.
Fisher has some history here too. His great-grandfather once built a “shooting camp” so far back in the marsh that a boat ride was required to get there. Since 1993 Fisher has worked as a biologist for Delta Waterfowl. It’s an understatement to say Fisher knows his way around this area.
Fisher prefers to look you in the eyes when he talks to you. That can be a bit unsettling when he’s driving and you’re sitting in backseat of his twin cab pickup truck. But the gravel roads along this agricultural land are wide and straight. We never veered near a ditch as Fisher guided photographer James Overstreet and me on our scouting trip.
As the sun slid toward the horizon, Fisher found our spot. A group of hunters fired their last shots of the day on the south side of a dirt road where we had stopped. We watched small groups of ducks flitting in and out of the marsh on the north side of the road. It looked like the place to be at sunrise the next day.
Earlier, on our drive into the marsh, we passed through the tiny community of Marquette, which is big enough to have a curling club. Fisher enjoys sliding a stone down a sheet of ice as much as any Canuck. The sport many Americans see only every four years during the Winter Olympics is more popular here than duck hunting. That’s good if you’re worried about someone beating you to your duck hole the next morning. It’s bad if you’re concerned about the long-term health of the sport.
“We used to have over half-a-million duck hunters in Canada,” Fisher said. “We’re down to about 150,000. There are more Americans duck hunting in Saskatchewan than Canadians now.”
In other words, if you’re counting on a public outcry when the breeding grounds are under attack, you’ll have to strain to hear it.
Fisher has been instrumental in promoting Delta Waterfowl’s Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) program. At this time, when agricultural land is increasingly valuable, it provides an incentive for Canadian farmers to preserve the wetlands that are the essential part of waterfowl breeding habitat. It’s somewhat like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in the U.S. – in reverse – where the landowners play a key role in how their land is managed.
Between the continual loss of wetlands and the decreasing number of duck hunters, this appears to be a critical point in the sport’s history.
What’s a duck hunter to do? Well, at the very least, keep hunting.
We left Portage La Prairie at 5:30 the next morning. No other vehicles were in sight when we stopped at the same spot on the dirt road where we’d watched ducks working over the marsh the previous evening.
It was still too dark to see, but the duck sounds were encouraging. We arrived in plenty of time to walk a couple hundred yards, where the cattails grew thick around an opening in the marsh, and set our decoys before shooting time arrived. Fisher’s English Springer Spaniel, Diamond, led the way.
We plunged off the road, through the cattails and into the opening that, thankfully, was devoid of the soft, boot-sucking mud that can turn decoy placement into a comedy routine.
As shooting time approached, a southwest breeze put some movement in the decoys, and eliminated the need for even a light jacket.
Fisher came prepared for an all-species hunt. On lanyards hanging from his neck were a goose flute, a pintail whistle and calls for teal, gadwalls and mallards.
Over the next three hours, Fisher and I would kill 11 ducks. There was hardly a moment when there weren’t ducks and/or geese in the air on this unseasonably warm, cloudless day in the Delta Marsh. The daily bag limit here is eight, which would have easily been filled if I had picked up a shotgun a few times between then and the last duck season.
The ducks that came within shooting range appeared as singles or in small groups. Cattails, which stood about eight-feet high, provided cover for several low-flyers that buzzed us before we could shoulder a gun. They always leave you thinking you’ll be ready for the next one. But you never are.
Our bag was somewhat typical for this wetland that attracts such a wide variety of waterfowl: three green-winged teal, two blue-winged teal, two redheads, two pintails, a widgeon, and a shoveler, plus a “bonus” snipe.
There wasn’t a mallard in the bunch. We did see several groups, but none worked our decoys. Fisher spent an interesting five minutes exchanging four-quack sequences with a mallard hen hidden in the cattails behind us. She sounded like she was practicing her call for later in the season, when she might need it, possibly to hail fellow travelers to an Arkansas flooded timber hole.
We probably could have stayed and filled our limit. But Fisher had something special to show us, and we were eager to see it.