MINNEDOSA, Canada -
It was 10 minutes after shooting hours when Richard Bramley looked over his layout blind and blurted out: “I told you this would be mayhem, eh.”
Welcome to Canada.
Mayhem can be an adequate description of duck hunting in Canada in a very good way, even better while listening to the locals put an “eh” on every statement like an exclamation point.
Bramley’s mayhem had just culminated in a 10-minute stretch that can’t be matched by the Duck Trek in seasons’ past.
It started with a throng (flock just sounds small in the context) of Canada geese that filled the sky and if the sun had been over the horizon been able to block it out as they coasted within shotgun range of Bramley and the Duck Trek crew. It happened so quick that only the natives could react fast enough to knock down a couple of the black and grey birds.
Mayhem ended, at least for that 10-minute stretch, with a similar size throng of snow and blue geese coasting over the decoys and again having a few of their members culled out.
In between was a constant mixture of mallards in flocks and throngs coasting over the wheat stubble, some almost knocking hats off others lighting into the decoys.
When duck hunters from the United States dream of days afield in the North Country, this is what they think about: Laying in the stubble of a dry field and getting bombarded by waterfowl with nary a drip of mud to gum things up, eh.
The Prairie Pothole region of Canada is without a doubt one of the most vital regions for waterfowlers in North America.
The largest portion of the nation’s waterfowl is produced here in the pockmarked land of ponds surrounded by agricultural fields. And just as it has been for the last four decades, these ponds are in peril of being drained and farmed, taking out an integral link in the yearly production of waterfowl.
In one of the simplest ironies of the Duck Trek, our mayhem-filled day was in the rolling hills outside of Minnedosa, Manitoba. We set up a spread of decoys on one hilltop in front and another on a hilltop behind, while we hid in a ditch separating them.
That ditch, interestingly enough was dug to drain a pothole nearby. So in some ways, our ditch was a double hit on the ducks of the area. One, it took precious potholes out of production and two it provided the perfect cover to wack some waterfowl.
Still, the scenes that can be created in this region are a sight to see, Nash Buckingham might describe them as “sights for the red gods.”
“I would definitely encourage people to come up here and see this part of waterfowling,’’ said Jim Fisher, biologist with Delta Waterfowl. “There are so many incredible things to see, both good and bad.
“When you go down south, people think there are simple problems and you should be able to simply fix it and yet we’ve spent 60 years on conservation efforts in Prairie, Canada, and we’ve really not got a lot to show for it.
“The reason it’s more complex than most people realize is that it’s such a vast area. There are millions of acres of this stuff across the prairies, and so you can’t just waltz in and fix a few little ponds here and there and say, ‘yeah our job is done and everything’s good.’ It’s going be a lifelong effort for generations of people to try and ensure that these potholes stay on the ground here.”
Fisher believes once duck hunters see the area and what waterfowl are faced with their understanding will be much greater, enticing them to contribute to Delta Waterfowl programs like Adopt a Pothole or support the organizations efforts with Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS), which is essentially like CRP, WRP, etc., but for Canada.
That’s important because so many farmers in the area see potholes as obstacles to straight plow lines. The see ducks, and especially the geese, as a hardship to their business.
Trailing across the Canadian landscape in the dark, I was reminded what it must have been like 70 years ago in the rice fields of Arkansas.
Wiley Meachum of Brinkley, Ark., is a good friend and he tells stories of childhood when rice was cut and shocked and left in the field to dry. As a teenager his job was to shoot the ducks off those fields or as Meachum put it, “they would tear them down like a bunch of wallowing pigs.”
Canadian farmers have those issues now. Wheat, barley and canola are the crops that surround these potholes. The harvest of those grains coincides with peak duck and goose numbers in the area.
Like the rice harvest in the United States 70 years ago, canola and barley are still cut and raked up in swaths. A cut field looks a lot like the rows of grass in a hay field after it’s been raked and before the baler comes through. Those rows sit there for days while they dry.
Those rows can look like an all-you-can-eat buffet laid out for waterfowl. As a matter of fact, Bramley’s phone often rings from farmers telling him, “Come get these geese off my field.”
One of the most telling moments of day two in Canada came when Brian Bramley and James Overstreet were talking in the middle of the morning’s hunt.
We had traveled about six miles to the stubble fields where we were set up. The morning had already been filled with constant flights of ducks and geese and Bramley made this comment: “This is about as far as we ever have to travel to have a hunt like this.”
Overstreet who lives and hunts mostly in Arkansas was obviously taken aback by the statement, responded quickly, “Us too.”
The area is duck rich. But there are few hunters who actually get to take advantage of it. In all of Canada, there are only about 140,000 duck hunters. That compares to about 125,000 in Arkansas alone.
The rural vastness of the area has a lot to do with that. But hunters from America do travel here. Bramley said that while we were there, that all the hotel rooms (less than 100 in all) were filled with Americans shooting ducks.
The season starts in early September and runs through November, although most of the hunting is over by early November.
Hunters looking for waterfowl travel the roads following flocks and glassing ponds, sloughs and fields for a place where ducks are feeding.
The ducks that are here are coming off the marshes and the potholes, feeding on waste grain and fattening up for the migration. Most are still molting, so determining hens over drakes can be tough.
Where ducks are in the fields, hunters set up a spread of decoys and get hid in layout blinds or if they are in a freshly cut field, simply cover themselves with grain stalks from the meandering swaths in the field.
That type of hunting is the standard. Once it’s over Bramley will spend his mornings walking unfrozen potholes, jump-shooting mallards with his retrievers Bart and Thor.
But if southern hunters get a charge out of the mallard, it’s the Canada geese that get the Bramleys’ blood pumping.
“I like shooting honkers,” Brian Bramley said. “There’s just more adrenaline when they’re coming in. Big birds like that getting in on top of you produces a lot more adrenaline than shooting the ducks, but I really like shooting ducks.
“As long as Richard has been hunting we’ve always had geese here. When I started hunting we didn’t have geese here. We saw them going over in V’s and just drooled down here, I mean they were a mile high and now we’ve always got geese around, more geese than ducks almost for quite a few years.”
“The farmers around here, grain farmers, are always grumbling about geese,’’ Richard Bramley said. “There are getting too darn many of them, they’re getting to be a problem, they don’t want to shoot geese, so they’ll always let us on there to shoot geese.
“They don’t mind us shooting the ducks either but the geese are what are doing the damage with those big web feet.”
“It was obvious this stop of the Duck Trek was going to be vastly different than in the Delta Marsh. But there were similarities.
Bramley along with uncle Brian Bramley lead us through a series of gravel roads and into a dry harvested wheat field, where we unloaded decoys and layout blinds on terra-ferma, instead of the muck of the marsh. All the while, a chorus of mallards, snow geese and Canada geese could be heard surrounding. Most of them roosted in what the Bramley’s called a slough less than 300 yards away, in the south we would call it a pond bordering on becoming a lake.
As the sun started lighting the horizon, the intermittent quacks and honks, roared to a crescendo as the Canada geese lifted off the slough and started milling overhead. There have been times in duck season’s past when sights like that have raced the heart and created indelible memories. This was no different.
The noise of thousands of waterfowl overhead, with big flights (throngs in some cases) coming from every direction is special. But not so special that a series of shotgun blasts weren’t called for. Even then, the flights didn’t stop.
In one minute a big flight of snow geese would filter around and into range. Invariably while that was happening a flock of mallards would pitch into the decoys and land on the dry ground or a brace of Canada geese would do the same.
All of them called easily. There was only a few times when a call didn’t touch the lips and the first quack roll out that a flock of birds didn’t immediately react in a positive manner.
Brand new is an accurate description in terms of these birds. They have yet to be jaded by the sets of decoys and constant calling that takes place from this end of the migration to the other.
By mid morning, the crew of five had bagged two-dozen mallards (the limit is 8 in Canada) and two-dozen geese (Canada and snow geese).
All shot in a process that Bramley called “mayhem, eh.”