The ball of pintails screams over our spread, more easily heard than seen in the soft morning light. Seconds ago we placed the last of our decoys, and I’m happy to be tucked into my layout blind enjoying the show. With little hesitation, the birds gracefully ride the air down into our setup, the way only pintails seem wont or able to do. I don’t consider grabbing my gun. It is still a few minutes before legal light and, anyhow, I have no desire to fire unfairly from the shadows.
One of the hens catches my eye as she feeds on ripened peas and slowly waddles in my direction to within a few yards. The birds are staging for migration outside Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and I ponder the hen’s plight. Has she nested nearby, or come here to molt? Will she find sufficient protein to arrive at the Texas Gulf or some other wintering area in good health? And how many times has she begun this long journey, this tradition seemingly older than time itself?
Such questions regarding the mystery of the migration fascinate duck hunters—not just deer hunters who also hunt ducks, but those who consider themselves duck hunters first and foremost—the guys who find a buddy’s trophy buck neat and all, but truthfully would rather shoot a snow-white canvasback.
If you’re one of them, then Canada beckons. The quantity of birds, diversity of species and liberal bag limits offered by Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are arguably unrivaled anywhere in the United States. When a few friends learned I was flying to Saskatoon to hunt ducks, they told me Canada was overrated. They were wrong.
A group of mallards swings wide of the spread and appears poised to continue.
“Quack, quack,” my friend Nick says. “Call to them, Kyle.”
In my excitement, and perhaps because I haven’t called to live ducks in eight months, the call feels foreign in my hands. As I press it to my lips, I’m certain I’ll botch the comeback call. But the ducks turn, and as their cupped wings cut the air I slowly ease a hand toward the TriStar shotgun nestled alongside me. The excitement is practically unpleasant. Someone calls the shot and we rise from our layouts.
Those to my left and right have their fingers on triggers faster than I, and ducks are already dropping when my stock reaches my cheek. However, through luck alone I find myself with a shouldered gun in that magical instant in which the startled ducks seem to hang in the air. My first shot of the season plucks a fat mallard from the sky. How fortunate I feel to be in this moment after a long, hot summer. Perhaps I could get on a second bird, but I am content to ponder the duck’s head-first descent, too elated to do otherwise. How is it that these birds move so fluidly even in death?
I lean out of my blind and pat Nick on the back. He doubled on nice drake mallards. As a black Lab retrieves the ducks, their bright blue speculum feathers are a stark contrast to their otherwise drab, early-season plumage.
“You can get aggressive on the calling with these ducks,” says guide Don McCrea of Saskatoon Waterfowl Outfitters. “They haven’t seen an ounce of pressure since January, and there are a lot of young birds.”
Indeed the harder we lean on the ducks, the more they seem to come. Need to boost your confidence with a duck call? Hunt Canada.
I’m still admiring one of the mallards when the excited honks of Canada geese erupt along the river. Our guides begin flagging them. Two trailers full of snow goose decoys—full-bodies, silhouettes and windsock-style decoys—are spread out before us. Not only can such a spread be seen from great distance, but perhaps, even more importantly, it is a natural setup for this time of year. Both ducks and geese are gathered in large groups, feeding voraciously as they stock up on carbohydrates and fat for the migration. The birds are hungry and nervous; I’ve rarely seen birds decoy so recklessly.
Duck decoys really aren’t necessary under these conditions. Dry-feeding ducks (principally mallards and pintails) and dark geese recognize that where there’s a large group of snow geese, there’s ample food to share. And given that snow geese are more challenging to lure within range, it further makes sense to employ snow-goose decoys.
The lesser Canadas certainly don’t seem to mind as they dip and pitch into the center of our spread, displaying almost comical acrobatics unlike the flight characteristics of greaters. I consider them among the most challenging targets in all of wingshooting due to the way they flip almost upside down during descent. How is a hunter supposed to focus on the goose’s head, as is the proper technique, when the darn bird goes inverted? And my shooting percentage on lessers and cacklers reflects that. McCrea calls the shot and I come up prepared to shoot. However, just as I pick out a goose, it practically does a barrel roll. My eyes do the same, and the goose lives to embarrass another hunter another day. Others geese aren’t as fortunate.
Nick and another buddy, Aaron, fold two cleanly, while a third bird is shot and coasts into the nearby pond. But there’s no sanctuary from McCrea’s stalky, hard-charging Lab. The dog instinctively goes after the wounded goose first. It’s recovered within seconds.
The dog is barely tucked back inside its blind when the pintails show. McCrea gives them a few quacks to gain their attention and they careen into the blocks. They’re so close when the shot is called that I pick out a drake and wait to shoot until it’s an appropriate distance away. The first pintail I’ve shot in 10 months falls cleanly, as do three others, thanks to my friends’ fine shooting. It’s a shame that certain hunting video “stars” shoot ducks off the ends of their barrels as it’s classless and wastes meat.
Soon three specklebellies pass over and we take a pair of them. I’m amazed by the diversity of birds and their willingness to decoy to a species other than their own. I note this to McCrea.
“This strategy can work in the United States, too,” McCrea tells me. “It’s not like the birds change when they cross the border. Anytime you have ducks that are hungry and nervous they look for geese to find food. And a goose spread can be far more visible than those of the hunters you’re competing with.”
Where Are the Snows?
We’ve yet to spot any within several hundred yards, but they constantly pass overhead. The migration has begun, and I’ve never witnessed such a broad, noisy spectacle. The opportunity to see snows on the move in such awesome numbers—unhealthy numbers, truly—is alone worth the trip to Canada.
McCrea starts the digital snow goose speakers before I spot the light geese swarming overhead. That’s really the only way to describe it. The surrealism of thousands of geese circling 200 yards above you, knowing they’re giving your spread a look, creates a noise and excitement level for which I was unprepared.
Slowly a small group of geese breaks from the larger fold and corkscrews its way to lower altitude, making oval-shaped passes around our decoys, descending farther with each pass until they are within killing range.
“Nobody shoot,” McCrea says. “Let the others come.” This isn’t just an opportunity to shoot a few geese; we might just get a good start on our limit of 20 snows per hunter.