The flock was some distance out. Shimmering white specks above a horizon of golden grass. They’d turned ever so slightly, giving our clumsy snow goose spread a glance from seemingly miles away. I had no illusions they’d make it to us before greener pastures pulled them away. That is, until a heavy Lebanese accent interrupted with, “Most of them will pass us by, but some of them will screw up.”
Though we laughed hysterically, Gus was right. A small group peeled off from the main flock, cupped their wings and sailed to the earth one last time. Unfortunately for them they chose to put down right in front of our gun barrels. Four hunters, each giddy with childlike excitement, raised and fired. Laughter again echoed across the Canadian plains. You’d have thought we were at a comedy club, though it was much better than that. We were waylaying birds in Canada, with a group of guys that fit together like the Turkish-made shotguns we were shouldering. It was perfect. And we relished every second of it.
It was October 2015, and I was making my own maiden voyage to the northern Mecca of Saskatchewan—Saskatoon to be exact. I’d be hunting with Gus Bader, owner of TriStar Arms, putting the latest versions of its flagship semi-auto, the Viper G2, through the ringer. Along with Gus, our group consisted of Aaron Lisech, marketing rep for Chevalier Advertising, and a good friend of mine and fellow outdoor writer, Skip Knowles. I didn’t know it upon arrival, but this would ultimately turn out to be the greatest group of waterfowl hunters ever assembled. No, I’m not stating that we didn’t miss. Besides Gus, who shoots a gun like he owns a shotgun company, there wasn’t a Tom Knapp or Herb Parsons among us. What I’m referring to is camaraderie. I have never hunted with a group of people whose company I enjoyed more. If we hadn’t killed even one bird, it would still have been an epic trip.
Alright, so I may be exaggerating. Getting skunked in Canada would have been miserable. But we were far from stinking up the joint, and the howling laughter that carried us through each day was enough to make my sides hurt each night.
That’s what Canada can provide. And if you’ve never experienced it, well, you’ve got some planning to do.
Apples and oranges: That’s the comparison between my best day duck hunting in Virginia and a mediocre Canadian hunt. And perhaps that’s why (I’ll use my lack of birds in Virginia as an excuse to this day) a great shot at a single mallard drake caused me to get reamed by my counterparts.
Do you know what it’s like to be taunted by a duck? I do. Taunted and teased to the point of unstoppable reaction is what it was. Imagine it: You’ve spent years hunting the divers back home, killed your fair share of blue bills and cans, you’ve even had a decent mallard shoot here and there. But imagine having a flock of 20 greenheads fly in and out of the spread—so close at times that you could reach out and pluck a tail feather—and being told to hold off on sending the little beauties to the ground. It was torture, I tell you—damn sadist ducks. But it was the kind of torment that I could put an end to at any moment with just the squeeze of my finger. So I did.
You see, in Canada, you can kill seemingly as many birds as you’re willing, abiding by legal limits, of course. The point is, the birds are there, there is no reason to rush and one can hunt methodically. Setting up for geese in the morning will almost certainly provide opportunities for Canadas of all sizes, and snow geese, too, depending on the color of your blocks. What a Canadian goose spread also provides is ducks. Ducks key on a goose spread like the decoys themselves are made of grain. Want to shoot a limit of ducks in Canada? Just put out a goose spread. If the geese aren’t over the decoys, the ducks will be. Just make sure the geese aren’t over the decoys when you shoot at the ducks!
I knew all this, and yet I couldn’t abide.
As the small flock of dark geese we were focusing on (Canada geese or specklebellies in Canadian waterfowling terms) began to drift to the right, the flock of mallards mocking me became too much to handle.
“Can I shoot the ducks?” I’d hollered repeatedly, though quietly.
“No,” was the constant reply.
“But … but … please let me shoot this bird.”
Hands trembling, knees weak, my gaze and attention fluttered rapidly between geese and ducks, geese and ducks until I, using all my knowledge of bird aerodynamics, air-speed velocity and wind direction, deduced the geese weren’t going to commit. Of course, the problem with that deduction was that my cohorts didn’t agree. I knew they wouldn’t, so I kept my mouth shut. But I had made my decision. When the fattest of the greenheads swept in front again, buzzing the tower, I seized the moment, raised for a mere instant, fired, watched the bird crumple and was back down like nothing had happened before the wad hit the ground. My goal was to get through the action unnoticed by the group. I thought I may have even gotten away with it when a shout, littered with expletives and doused in fury, rang out across the blinds.
“What are you? New?”
You’d have thought I shot a bald eagle.
The geese, I pleaded, weren’t coming. But despite my best efforts, the group wasn’t buying what I was selling. The geese were in fact coming, they explained in words harsher than cheap whisky, and I had just ruined it. They spared no volume to make sure I knew it. I felt like a scolded child, and rightfully so. I hadn’t received a tongue lashing like that since I changed a girlfriend’s name in the middle of dinner (that didn’t go over well; she’s now my ex). But this was Canada, and by the time they’d run out of breath, another flock was already on the horizon, locked on to our little slice of heaven. The anger dissipated as quickly as our shells. As the day came to an end, laughter once again reigned supreme.
It’s tough for a Virginia boy to pass on birds like that, but I know now. Canada delivers the goods better than Amazon Prime. You just have to be patient, if only for one agonizing moment. Or at least be able to take the ribbing from your buds. But hey, what’s a good hunt without a fair share of back-and-forth with the guys—right?
“So how long have you been guiding?” It was a simple question, but one that was on all of our minds as the youngster with barely a wisp of fur on his face led us into the field in the early-morning hours. It wasn’t just his age as I’ve been impressed beyond belief by the knowledge possessed by young hunters in the past. Perhaps it was more his bewildered look, his hesitation to set the spread and the lack of know-how when it concerned the electronic caller that prompted the question. Either way, we certainly didn’t expect the response we were given.
“This is my first time.”
No, not his first year, as everyone has to start somewhere, but his first time. As in, prior to that morning, this pup had never taken anyone into the field to hunt birds. Needless to say, a follow-up question was in order.
“Well, how long have you been hunting?” The prodding seemed fair enough. But again, the response stunned the group.
“I’ve actually never fired a shotgun.”
The four veteran hunters went quiet and tried to imagine some sort of miscommunication. There’s no way our rookie guide had never fired a shotgun before.
“Did you say, ‘never?’”
We were toast. The hunt was going to be a soup sandwich, sloppy at best.
Pointing, the young lad said with confidence, “But I was told where to go and there should be a reflecting marker somewhere over there.”
You’d think with a start like that we’d have called it quits and headed home. But again, this was Canada, and if you build it, despite its sorry look, they will come. At least that’s the notion we held to with both hands as we placed the final layout blinds behind the tightly compacted blob of a snow goose spread he’d set out for us that morning. And wouldn’t you know it, Canada came through in grand fashion.
Setup and flagging were as much as we let that young “guide” control. (I suppose he’s earned the title after our hunt; heck, he can probably add “highly successful” to the moniker.) Gus quickly took the lead and said he’d call the shots, which passed resolution without argument, and we proceeded to drop family-size flocks all morning.
Folks, that’s what Canada is about. Geese and ducks of all colors, shapes and sizes can be had there. When it’s good, it’s beyond belief, and when it’s bad, well heck, it’s still better than Virginia. So if you’ve the mind for a good time with fellow bird chasers, I implore you to give it a go. It’s not cheap and it can be a long haul, but nothing in life worth doing is easy. Except, I would argue, going through a case of shells in Canada without a single thought of the bruise taking shape on your shoulder. That’ll still be there when you get home, anyway.